The Battle of Neuve Chapelle and Kitchener Wood
Today, I begin a new series on the show where I go through the battles Canadians fought in during the First World War. We are now 100 years removed from those battles, so it is important we take the time to go back and look at them, the people who fought in them and the impact they had on Canada. Some of my descriptions of battles will be a broader overview, but that is because I want to look at the men who were in that battle and the stories they would tell.
In this first episode, I look at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Battle of Kitchener Wood.
At the beginning of March of 1915, an attack was planned by the British with the goal of rupturing through the German lines towards the village of Neuve Chapelle. This battle is important because it was the first deliberately planned British offensive, and it would set the form of war to be fought throughout the rest of the First World War. The Royal Flying Corps played a vital role in this attack, providing aerial photography of the area, allowing the attack front to be mapped to a depth of 1,400 metres. A total of 1,500 copies at 1:5,000 scale were distributed to the troops.
The attack went well at first, despite the fact that weather was poor on that day. The Royal Flying Corps did well in the air, bombarding the German reserves and railway lines.
The First Canadian Battalion were selected to take part in the battle. They had been reviewed by King George V and Lord Kitchener on Feb. 4, and arrived near Neuve Chapelle on March 7, ready to assist in the upcoming battle.
On March 10, at 7:30 a.m., the British began to bombard the German barbed wire, destroying it within 10 minutes. This firing was done by 90 18-pounder field gun. The remaining 15 18-pounder guns, as well as six six-inch howitzers and six 4.5-inch howitzers, began to fire into the front-line trenches of the Germans. Despite being three feet deep with four foot high breastworks, the trenches were quickly destroyed. The First Canadian Division, located to the northeast, provided artillery support and machine-gun fire.
At 8:05 a.m., an infantry assault began. The Indian Corps attacked with all four battalions along a 550 metre front. On the right side of this front, things collapsed quickly with companies losing direction and veering to the right. This caused that portion of the Indian Corps to meet up with German troops who had not been destroyed by the bombardment. Nonetheless, the Indian troops forced their way through the German wire and took 180 metres of the trench, but it came at a high casualty cost. The other Indian battalions had more success, quickly overrunning the German defences and taking 200 prisoners, along with five machine guns.
By 10 a.m. the Village of Neuve Chapelle was captured and Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief Field Marshall ordered the Fifth Calvary Brigade to exploit the breakthrough into the village but the Germans were able to delay any advance for six hours.
On March 12, the Germans counter-attacked but failed but in the process caused the British to use most of their artillery ammunition, which would postpone any British advancement from the village to the next day. This advancement was then abandoned by March 15.
The battle was an important one since it was one of the first of the war. It showed that trench defences could be breached with a prepared attack that had an element of surprise to it. The British also discovered that their telephone lines were vulnerable to German fire, which caused severe problems with communication between battalions and troops.
The battle, in the end, would have no strategic effect but did boost the morale of the British troops. A total of two kilometres of land was captured.
There were 40,000 Allied troops in the battle, with 7,000 British casualties and 4,200 Indian casualties. For Canada’s first major battle of the war, we got off relatively easy.
In the attack, the Canadians suffered 100 casualties and 300 wounded. A major reason for this was the fact that Canadian troops were mostly involved in a technical sense in the battle, rather than as troops progressing across the battlefield.
The Casualty Clearing Station, run by Canadian troops, involved in the battle showed prompt action and capacity, earning it a special commendation from Major General Sir W.G. MacPherson, the director of Medical Services for the First Army.
One of the most amazing stories from that battle, in terms of Canadian involvement, comes from a Private McIsaac. According to his friend, Alwyn Bradley-Moore in a letter home on Nov. 18, 2015, McIsaac was digging into a piece of land with a friend named Daley. While digging, McIsaac thought that he had been hit, but he quickly found that the bullet had actually gone straight through his cap without hitting him at all. McIsaac believed that the bullet must have hit a piece of something and flew up towards him, missing him by mere millimetres. McIsaac would eventually be wounded in June of 1916 and discharged, returning home from the war.
Not everyone was so lucky. In the History of Perth County it is stated that Private W. Edwards lost his life on March 13, 1915. According to the Stratford Beacon, he was the first fatal casualty from that area of the First World War.
George Huntly of Indian Head was another unfortunate casualty of the battle. He had been married in England and come out to Saskatchewan. He and his wife and two children went back to England just as war was declared. He enlisted quickly and trained in England. He was reported missing and presumed killed at the age of 33.
In honour of this battle, a school district was formed west of Kyle, Saskatchewan, called Neuve Chapelle No. 3563.
If the Battle of Neuve Chapelle only featured Canadian troops in a technical sense, the next battle, that of Kitchener’s Wood, would feature the Canadians in a much more active role.
On April 22, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, a cloud of vapour began to move across the landscape towards French troops during the night. This would change the war forever. It was the first poison gas attack of the war. The French troops, unable to cope with the chlorine gas, broke apart, leaving a gap four miles wide.
The First Canadian Division, which had been part of Neuve Chappelle, were pulled out of reserve and ordered in to seal that gap. They would focus on a point called Kitcheners’ Wood and two Canadian Battalions were selected for the job. This would be the first major offensive operation for Canadians during the war.
At 11 p.m., the Canadian troops of the 10th Battalion arrived to counter-attack in the gap with the 16th Battalion serving in support of the advance. The two battalions had 800 men in total, and the order to advance was initiated at 11:46 p.m.
According to the war diary of the 10th Battalion, the only sound was the quiet tramp of feet and the knock of bayonet sheaths against thighs.
The Canadians had believed that the French would be joining them on the attack but the French did not materialize, and it was up to the Canadians to enter into the battle, unsupported and alone as they entered into their first major battle.
Due to the quick attack and response, there had been no time for reconnaissance and the 10th Battalion arrived halfway across the gap between the armies and met a hedge laced with wire. The men were forced to break through with their rifle butts while taking fire from the Germans who were only 200 yards away. The battalions continued across the field, breaking through the German defences and pushing the Germans out.
Private W.J. McKenna would write about the battle.
“We were told that our efforts were regarded as practically hopeless and that our work was to be in the nature of a sacrifice charge. At midnight, without bombs, machine guns or artillery support, we started to advance…Presently a bullet whistled past, then another and, before ya could close an eye, enemy machine guns opened about as hot a fire as you could imagine. Men fell in hundreds, but some of us got there and, when they were facing our bayonets, the Germans were soon beaten and those that weren’t killed escaped as fast as they could.”
According to the war diary of the 16th battalion, it was said about confronting the Germans.
“Many were bayoneted, others surrendered…men were cautioned about dealing harshly with prisoners.”
The attack came at an incredibly high cost, with over 75 per cent of the men being killed or injured
In all, 259 men were killed, 406 were wounded and 129 missing.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who was the supreme allied commander, would state after the war that the greatest act of the war had been the assault on Kitcheners’ Wood by those two battalions. It is important to note that the commander of the battalions was a man by the name of Arthur Currie, a name that will come up many times during this series on Canadian battles.
That night was not the end of the fighting though. Several German attacks would occur over the subsequent days, and the First Canadian Division would lose 60 per cent of its men, while the two battalions were reduced to just 20 per cent of their original strength.
Lt. Col. Russell Lambert Boyle, who was the commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, was a notable casualty of the battle. He was a veteran of the Boer War and worked as a rancher near Crossfield, Alberta. Described as rough and tough, he reportedly yelled to his men as they initiated their attack, “We have been aching for a fight and now we are going to get it”. As he advanced with his men over the course of 400 yards, he would take five bullets to his left groin, and die several days later.
While Boyle was applauded for his bravery, Major General Garnet Hughes, would be criticized heavily for his poor leadership in the ill-planned attack, which led to many more casualties than should have actually occurred.
Hughes had ordered that the troops organize themselves into four lines of men, shoulder to shoulder, in a pattern that had last been used during the War of 1812. This essentially made the men a shooting gallery for the Germans.
Many tragic stories came from the battle. In the diary of Sgt. Charles Herbert Peck, he would share one such story.
“The hardest thing that I have saw is a young fellow from Annapolis Valley. I took a liking to him in Valcartier and keep him with me up to the last. We was attacking in a Woods when the poor fellow was shot through the neck. He could not speak but put out a hand for me to shake it, certainly did get my nerves unstrung for a bit.”
It is not known who the young fellow as as Peck never states.
Peck would also speak about the Germans he faced. He would say, “they either run or get down on their knees and beg for mercy and believe me, they get a lot of mercy. The first fellow I stabbed know was in the night and I shut my eyes but I caught him in the neck.”
Peck would survive the war, dying in 1945 at the age of 63.
While the Canadians were able to take the woods, holding them proved to be a different story.
Sgt. H. Hall would say, “An hour after we had dug in there was a terrible concentration of shells sweeping the wood, it was just like a tropical storm sweeps a forest. It was impossible for us to hold the position but instead of retiring, we tried our tactics of advancing and attacking the Germans again. They were digging themselves in two hundred yards in front. We got in a forward position and stayed there until the early hours of the morning. Our colonel was killed and we only had two officers left, we were still losing men from the German artillery fire and our ranks were now so thin that we couldn’t stay out in the exposed position.”
The troops retreated back to the trench line, and prepared for an attack to come through the woods from the Germans.
Private McKenna would add, “Our roll call while we ere in our trench was about 360, which means out battalion alone lost about 740 men, all in ten minutes, and we suffered more casualties before we got away.”
It was not for nothing though, at least in the eyes of Hall.
“Our objective had been achieved and the Germans were demoralized. Our first Brigade appeared on the scene and the line was strengthened.”
Only ten officers remained to bring the 400 survivors away from the battle line after reinforcements arrived.
It was a terrible battle, that while successful for the Canadians, came at a huge cost.
Looking ahead, it was a minor battle in the scope of the war and the worst was still yet to come.
Information for this article comes from Wikipedia, The Path of Duty, the History of Perth County, People Places, History of Indian Head and District, The Story Of The Royal Regina Rifles, Legion Magazine, Military and Family History Blog, 1915: The Death of Innocence