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In 1914 the rapid German retreat should have handed victory to the Allies

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Tuesday, 29 October 2013

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

WW1 trench warfare, picture, image, illustration

War was soon bogged down in the trenches by Frank Bellamy

It was September, 1914, and with the battle smoke of the Marne still hanging in the warm summer air, the German armies were in general retreat. Their position was perilous to the extreme. At one point, there was a 30-mile gap in their flanks, protected only by a scratch force of cavalry and bicycle sharpshooters.

Coming up behind them was the British Expeditionary Force, with its hard-riding cavalry: seasoned veterans of the North-West Frontier and the African veld, eager to get among the fleeing enemy with sword and lance.

For a few days, there was a genuine opportunity of making a swift ending to the war – by means of massed cavalry, used with dash and determination. The British generals were all cavalrymen, obsessed by horses, and convinced of their supremacy on the battlefield. In the four nightmare years that lay ahead, millions of men were to be sacrificed in vain attempts to reproduce the very conditions that obtained during the first two weeks of September, 1914.

And yet – the opportunity was thrown away.

Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief, must have known where his course lay. Standard cavalry tactics called for the ruthless pursuit of retreating troops, regardless of normal risks.

Instead of driving his men forward, he faltered – anxious of losing contact with the French army on his flank. The pursuit was carried out with unbelievable caution. Men who, in the years to follow, would be sent to certain death from mass machine gun fire, were allowed to halt and take cover from small pockets of the enemy rearguard.

There were exceptions. On the morning of 7th September, a troop and a half of the 9th Lancers took the village of Moncel at the gallop, only to be driven out by two squadrons of the German 1st Garde Dragoner. Later, the Lancers’ commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel David Campbell, led his men in a headlong charge against the greatly superior enemy force. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell – who had ridden in the Grand National of 1912 – was wounded by a lance thrust, perhaps the last man in the British Army to be wounded by this weapon. The charge was successful.

But the sands were running out. The impetus of the German retreat slackened, and the first trenches began to take shape on the line of the River Aisne. Barbed wire – surely the prime, hideous symbol of World War I – was staked out before the trenches.

The war of movement bogged down – and all hope was lost for a whole generation of Europe’s finest manhood.

There became a new area on Earth, and it was called No-Man’s Land.

It was a waste land between the trenches, speckled with shell craters that were instantly filled with water, because the clay subsoil of Flanders is only two feet below the surface: dig for two feet, and you hit water – if the weather is wet. Between 25th October, 1914, and 10th March of the following year there were only 18 dry days.

The first trenches were no more than ditches scraped in the ground, where a man might stand, knee-deep, in temperatures below freezing point; with nothing but a parapet of sandbags between himself and the enemy – who might be as little as 25 yards away across No-Man’s-Land. Rain turned earth to mud, and mud to a slime where a wounded man might drown and disappear – till another chance shell unburied his corpse.

This was the life – and death – of the young warriors of Europe in the bitter winter of 1914-15. On Christmas Day, some of them climbed out of their frozen trenches and chatted with their enemies, exchanging gifts. The story has been told often. The incident was not approved of by the generals – and it was never repeated.

Trench warfare was not new; it had played its part in siege and counter siege since time immemorial. But two lines of opposing trenches stretched right across the face of Europe – that was new.

The generals were in a quandary. This was a situation that was not covered by anything in the manuals of warfare.

During the miserable winter days and nights, they came up with a solution.

Sooner or later – and preferably when spring came, and the Flanders slime dried out – someone had to get the men out of the trenches and start the war moving again.

General Sir Douglas Haig came from a wealthy whisky-making family. A cavalryman, like his superior Sir John French, he was ambitious and well-connected. Some years before the war, he had helped French out of financial difficulties by lending him £2,000. He had the ear of King George V. Clearly – short of becoming a victim of war’s misfortunes – Haig was destined for great things.

With the coming of spring, Sir John felt the need for a British offensive, in order to justify the vast new reinforcements which were due to him in 1915, and to prove to his French allies the fighting qualities of the Empire. Haig, who was of the opinion that “we could walk through the German lines at several places,” proposed to his chief a plan for an all-out attack on the enemy position at Neuve Chapelle.

It was a good plan – on paper.

The German line at Neuve Chapelle jutted westwards in a salient, and was defended by only 1,400 men and 12 machine guns. Against them, Haig proposed to launch 40,000 men and a massive weight of artillery.

Against such a narrow front, so poorly defended, the attack promised an almost certain break-through – and another chance to unleash the cavalry in pursuit of a fleeing enemy.

Sir John French agreed to Haig’s plan.

The bombardment began at 7.30 a.m. on the morning of 10th March. The greatest concentration of artillery ever before assembled in the history of warfare – and one that was not to be surpassed till the Battle of Passchendale in 1917 – opened up out of the mist, and pounded the German positions for half an hour. Then the British Tommies climbed out of their trenches and went in at the bayonet point.

They found the German front line a shambles, with shell-shocked men too stunned to fight back. They passed the support line, and the 2nd Rifle Brigade and the 1st Royal Irish Rifles moved on through Neuve Chapelle village. Ahead lay open fields. The break-through was complete.

Not for nearly three years was the German line to be pierced again in such a decisive manner.

But yet another opportunity was thrown away. Less than three hours after the commencement of the offensive, the leading troops were given the order to “dig in,” as Headquarters thought that no further advance was practicable! Why? Why? Why?

It was a tale of muddle and indecision, of deathless gallantry marred by incompetence. In the first place, the mass attack had been planned on too narrow a front. At every check, the following troops were jammed head to tail in the congested battle areas. And there were checks – the attack did not succeed everywhere.

In the north of the salient, the 2nd Middlesex stormed the German front line at a point where it had not received the bombardment. They advanced in three waves, in the face of heavy cross-fire. Not one man out of nearly a thousand reached the enemy trenches – and none returned!

There were other hold-ups. The result of this news on Haig’s Corps Headquarters was caution – and indecision. Instead of exploiting the success at Neuve Chapelle village, and ordering the troops to press on, Haig and his staff played safe. All enemy resistance in the salient was to be overcome before a general advance took place.

It never happened. Night fell, with no improvement in the situation. And all through the dark hours, the Germans threw up new defensive positions, new machine gun nests.

Haig ordered another attack at dawn, preceded by yet another bombardment. But bad visibility hindered the artillerymen – when the infantry assaulted, they found the enemy positions unscathed, and crammed with fresh reinforcements.

The assault dragged on, but by 12th March, it was clear that it had run out of steam, and that the Germans had plugged the gap in their front.

So the firing slackened. The smoke died away. And the weary soldiers dug themselves new trenches – and counted their massed dead.

There was one other casualty at Neuve Chapelle: the war of movement – it was an idea that perished in front of the enemy barbed wire, where the machine gun bullets sang like wasps.

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