The past three episodes we have primarily looked at what was happening in Canada over the course of the first few months of the First World War, but today we are diving into the first major battle to feature the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
Since this is a Canadian history podcast, my focus is not going to be on the British, nor the Indian troops, who took part in the battle. Although it is important to note their sacrifice, with the British suffering 7,000 casualties and the Indian Corps suffering 4,200.
My focus will always be on the Canadian aspects of battles, even if it is a minor one, because that is the point of the podcast, but it is important to remember the Canadians were just one part of a much larger battle.
So, let us begin.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was not a large battle, but it was an important one from the perspective of Canada because it was the first time that the Canadian Expeditionary Force was fully involved in action against the Germans. This was not the first time that Canadians had seen combat though. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had conducted a raid on Feb. 28 as part of a British Brigade. It was also not the first time Canadians dealt with a German attack. On Feb. 26, 1915, the Ottawa Journal reported that several Canadians had been shelled in the trenches by the Germans. A private with the Canadian force would state, quote:
“About noon the first shell came our way. It fell behind us but showed what damage could be done. All morning we had been improving the trenches. Now we set to work enlarging the funk holes. Big Jack Johnsons began coming thick and fast. Just behind the trenches ground was excavated in all directions. The men were spattered from head to foot with flying dirt. Many received small scratches.”
Most of these incidents had been minor skirmishes that resulted in injuries and a few deaths among the Canadians, but a large-scale battle had not occurred yet. That was about to change. During this time, the Canadians were involved in night patrols, with the objective of lowering the morale of the Germans, gaining intelligence, and keeping the Germans on the defensive.
The Village of Neuve-Chapelle in 1915 was only a few houses located less than a kilometre away from the front lines. Nearby were the trenches, which were built shallow because the region had high water levels, and most of the trenches were not how we picture them today. These trenches were little more than clumps of grass and sandbags built up around an area where a shallow amount of dirt had been removed.
Across a field were rows of willow trees that provided the Germans with not only strategic advantage but cover for sharpshooters. The German lines were also lightly defended, presenting an opportunity for the British to advance forward and take the position. The objective would be to break the German position, take Neuve-Chapelle and suppress enemy trenches.
For the Canadians, their role was not to attack the Germans, but to cause a diversion as part of the battle. Located on the British First Army’s left, the First Canadian Division would open fire and prevent the Germans from reinforcing the main combat zone, so that the British could advance. Once the British broke through the German lines, then the Canadians would be ready to advance.
The plan was to assault the German line with artillery bombardment, followed by machine gun fire to sustain the diversion. Once the Germans began to defend the sector the Canadians were attacking, the British Army had to simultaneously advance forward. This meant that communication lines were essential to ensuring the advancement and prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements towards the British attack.
Everything kicked off at 7:30 a.m. on March 10 when the Canadian artillery began shelling German positions. At 8:05 a.m., the Canadian gunners started to open fire, continuing intermittent fire every 15 minutes throughout the day.
A private would write, quote:
Another soldier with the 90th Winnipeg Battalion would send a letter home, which was printed in the Calgary Herald. He would state quote:
“At 5:30 in the morning of the eventful March 10 our officer told us to hurry over our breakfast. We had just started to line up in the road outside when wop came a shell and burst on the road a few yards head. Double for the trenches was the order and away we went.”
The Germans were caught by surprise by this attack, and by 9 a.m. a 1.5-kilometre breach was created in the German line as they began to shift troops over to counter the Canadians. Soon after, the British troops were able to sweep Neuve-Chappelle with little resistance. The attack was successful to this point, but it would soon fall apart.
The British had been told to halt and wait for General Headquarters to give them the go-ahead to continue the attack. Unfortunately, the communication lines had been shelled and destroyed by the Germans and the result was the slow movement of communication along the line that preventing the commanders from knowing they had the opportunity to advance on the Germans with little resistance.
Finally, at 5 p.m., all troops were ready to resume the advance but by this point the sun was setting and operations stopped.
During that entire time, Canadians stood ready, bayonets fixed, to continue the advance across 300 yards of muddy ground towards the Germans. Each soldier carried 250 rounds of ammunition, a full water bottle and an emergency iron ration.
The private would write, quote:
“The roar of the big guns died down, and soon the men were resting quietly in the trenches.”
The Ottawa Journal, in its glowing rendition of the battle, would quote an unnamed private in the battle, who stated when he killed a German, quote:
“I got one, I got one!”
The Ottawa Journal would go on to quote an unnamed British officer who stated of the Canadians, quote:
“They behaved splendidly and with marvelous control. Only the best troops are able to retire when victory is just ahead.”
In the morning of March 11, the Canadians again resumed their role providing a diversion, but the excellent results of the previous day were not repeated on March 11. At this point, the Germans were able to muster up fresh new troops and the British attempted to resume their offensive but failed twice in their attempt and the advance was halted for the day.
On March 12, the Germans took the offensive and began to shell the positions of the British and Canadians, and then countered with 20 battalions but the British were able to push them back successfully. The British did not attack initially, as their previous orders were to prepare an advance for 10:30 a.m., which prevented the exploitation of the gain of pushing back the Germans. The British would finally attack but by this point the Germans had regrouped and the British suffered terrible losses.
On the Canadian line, there were rumours that the British had achieved several gains along the line, so the Canadians remained in their trenches for the entire day waiting to advance. By 8:40 p.m., the decision was made to establish a new line of defence in the newly conquered territory and stop the advance.
Through those three days, the Canadian troops would suffer 300 casualties, with nearly 100 deaths in total. This battle was just the beginning for many of the troops, who would soon discover the horrors of the meat grinder that was the First World War.
The Montreal Gazette would quote an unnamed officer who wrote to his brother in the Second Canadian Contingent at Shorncliffe, quote:
“I was within 25 yards of the Germans fortified houses one night…We were under orders in the big fight, but the occasion didn’t arrive for us to leave our trenches. Our men have been getting their share of Germans all right. By this time, they must have a wholesome regard for our shooting.”
Even though little ground was made, and really it was barely a victory considering the huge casualty count, the newspapers in Canada painted it as an immense victory of the British and Canadians.
The Province in Vancouver would write, quote:
The Ottawa Journal would announce in bold letters, quote:
“At Neuve Chapelle the Canadians acted as if all were soldiers born.”
The Montreal Gazette announced in its headlines, quote:
“How heart of German lines was pierced. What followed thirty minutes of most terrific cannonade in history of world. Germans swept off feet.”
The Nanaimo Daily News would relate the following from a person described as only an eyewitness, who said quote:
“The shrieking of shells in the air, their explosion and their continuous thunder of the batteries were all merged into one great volume of sound. The discharges of the guns were so rapid that they sounded like the fire of a gigantic machine gun. During the 35 minutes it continued our men could show themselves freely and walk about in perfect safety. Then the signal for the attack was given and in less than half an hour almost the whole of the elaborate series of German trenches in and about Neuve Chapelle was in our hands.”
The efforts of the Canadian press to paint Neuve Chappelle as a grand victory was something that a few soldiers in the trenches were not happy about. Private Jack Davey would write home quote:
“Some of the hot air is really too strong judging by the cutting you sent me this Division was the whole cheese at Chapelle. I haven’t seen a German yet but have been on night duty most of the time in the trenches.”
The Casualty Clearing Station, which was run by Canadian troops, would earn a special commendation from Major General Sir W.G. MacPhearson, the director of Medical Services for the First Army for its prompt action and capacity.
For the next two weeks, until March 27, the Canadians would remain in the trenches, with little going on beyond the occasional raid. On that day, they were relieved by the British Eighth Division and went into army reserve.
Throughout this podcast, whenever I look at a battle, I want to devote time to talk about the soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield. While only 100 would die from Canada in this battle, many of those soldiers had only just arrived in the trenches, and their death would be a drop in the bucket of the tens of thousands of deaths to come but to the families back home, they were loved and would be missed.
Private W. Edwards would lose his life on the last day of the battle, and he became the first casualty from Perth County in the war. He had only turned 18 in October and soon after enlisted at Stratford.
Chauncy Kealey of Ottawa would be killed in the battle. A month later, a requiem high mass at St. Bridget’s church was held for him. Only 19-years-old, he had only been in Europe for a short time.
Private John Baxter had come from England nine years before the outbreak of the First World War and was one of the first individuals to enlist in London, Ontario when war was declared. During the battle, he was killed and would receive Military Honors when his body was returned to London, complete with a Union Jack over his casket. Major Balfour, his commanding officer would say, quote:
“Private Baxter was one of our most reliable men.”
Private John Marriot was a native of England but had come to Canada in 1912 and at the age of 23, with no military experience, enlisted as soon as war was declared. Employed as a ledger keeper with the Canadian General Electric Company, he had only married the previous May.
William Melville was a popular constable with the Winnipeg Police Force when he enlisted in August of 1917 and was soon out of the city and on his way to Valcartier Camp. One of the first to join from Winnipeg, he was also a reservist with the King’s Company, Royal Life Guards at the time.
Private Duncan Patterson was 42 and a Boer War veteran with two medals when he found himself in the trenches of France. When he enlisted, he had a wife, six children and his aged mother living with him. While his wife had not wanted him to go, he persuaded her by telling her he would return home safely. Unfortunately, that was not the case as he would lose his life at Neuve Chapelle. The family discovered he had died when his daughter came in and said that someone with her father’s initials was reported as dead in the newspaper.
I will finish off this recollection of the soldiers who lost their lives at Neuve Chappelle, with the story of Private Aime Smith, who wrote to his mother just prior to his death. He would write, quote:
Of course, there were interesting aspects to the battle and the soldiers who were there.
During the battle, Alwyn Bradley-Moore would write a letter home, describing his friend Private McIssac, who was digging into a piece of land with another soldier named Daley. While digging, McIsaac thought he had been hit but he found that the bullet had gone through his cap, without hitting him at all. McIsaac believed that the bullet had hit something, then ricocheted up and missed him by millimeters. That luck would last for McIsaac, somewhat, and after being wounded in June of 1916, he would return home from the war.
One interesting aspect of this battle is that over in the German trenches was a man who would go on to have a massive impact on world history later in the 20th century, Adolf Hitler.
Lt. Col. George Brenton Laurie
With each episode of the podcast, I want to look at the men who served in the First World War. I will look at the regular soldiers, those who won medals like the Victoria Cross, and more.
With this being our first battle episode, I decided to look at Lt. Colonel George Brenton Laurie, who would find himself at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
Born in Halifax on Oct. 13, 1867 to Lt. General John Wimburn Laurie and his wife, and raised in Oakville, Laurie had a desire to lead a military life and would receive his first commission with the Royal Irish Rifles in September of 1885 when he was only 18. Later, Laurie would write of his time with the rifles, quote:
“Delightful station and all were sorry to leave it.”
In November of 1886, he was sent to Gibraltar, and then on to Egypt in 1888. By this point, he was a Lieutenant, and by 1893 he had reached the rank of Captain.
In 1901, he would be posted to South Africa and he would fight in the Second Boer War until 1902, where he commanded the 28th Battalion Mounted Infantry. On Feb. 14, 1902, he would be promoted to major. During his time in the war, he was mentioned in dispatches and received the Queen’s Medal with five clasps.
As a member of the Irish Rifle, he would find himself in France in November of 1914, long before the Canadians arrived. While there, he would write on Nov. 21, 1914, quote:
On Dec. 18, 1914, he would write, quote:
“This morning one of my men was shot through the lungs, not far from our room and he died at once. This just shows you what a time we go through here, always having to keep our eyes open.”
While in the trenches, he would be part of the historic Christmas truce that occurred on Christmas Day 1914.
On Dec. 27, 1914, he would write quote:
“I am still in my hole in the earth. Very horrid. Have not washed nor shaved for two days and am covered with mud from head to foot in thick layers. If I raise my head to stand up straight a bullet skips about my ears. As I sit here, I can hear the shells booming near us and very heavy fighting on the left, whilst a solitary sniper keeps pouring bullets over my head.”
On March 10, 1915, Laurie would participate in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and would reach the village, often cited as the first man to charge into it.
On March 12, a new assault was ordered, and Laurie rallied his men by yelling, quote:
“Follow me, I will lead you!”
He went over the top with his revolver and was shot in the head, dying instantly.
Information comes from Library and Archives Canada, Royal Montreal Regiment, Wikipedia, Nanaimo Daily News, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Journal, Calgary Herald, Veterans Affairs, The Path of Duty, the Toronto Star, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War