Or, rather, Neuve Chapelle was the operational objective. The strategic objective was to break through the German trench lines, allow the cavalry to ride through the gap into the open country beyond, and drive on the important industrial city of Lille.
And then there was grand strategy, i.e. strategy considered in light of politics: the objective in that sense was to demonstrate the willingness and ability of the non-professional units of the British army to take to the offensive, plumping national pride and satisfying the doubts of their French allies.
It would soon be clear that the attack failed in all of these objectives, save perhaps the last. Although many of the units were still led by survivors of the fall fighting, the participation of Territorial units in the battle (along with the increasing presence of New Army units in other parts of the line) was some proof that Britain would follow tough talk with action.
But for the first three hours or so, the battle appeared to be a tactical and operational success, perhaps the best few attacking hours that the British would have until 1917. Then the early success turned to stalemate and disaster, and the pattern for so many such operations over the next several years was set: attacking troops can usually take the initial enemy positions, but then they become bogged down, exhausted and confused, difficult to reinforce or relieve, and vulnerable to counter-attack.
The tale can be briefly told, and then on to our writers. Artillery preparation was considerable–as many shells fired were fired between 7:30 and 8:05 as in the entire Boer War. (But far fewer, of course, then would accompany the attacks of 1917 and 1918.) Strategic surprise was achieved too, and the first units that advanced were able to overwhelm the outnumbered Germans, taking hundreds of dazed prisoners and several lines of trenches.
The attack was led by two British and two Indian Divisions–this was the last time that units of the Indian Army took such a prominent part in a major assault on the Western Front–and their greatest success was in the center. As the map above shows, the location for the attack was chosen by the staff because it represented a slight bulge, or salient, in the German lines. (Like compulsive dermatologists, map-bound strategists enjoy smoothing out the integuments of the army, fearing a sort of chafing of armies.)
The attack quickly even out the line, or most of it. But the salient was so small that any undestroyed enemy position could enfilade (i.e. fire across a line of troops from the side) the attackers as they went by, and this is exactly what happened. Some of the newly arrived units of artillery lacked crucial pieces of stabilizing equipment, and they were firing on ground still soft from the months-long soaking. As he watched his guns slide back into the mud, necessitating a complete re-sighting after each round, one regular artillery officer lamented the elephants, left behind in India only a few months before, which were so useful for hauling out mud-mired guns.
With some guns firing so slowly, a handful of German machine gun emplacements were left intact, and they killed hundreds of advancing British troops in only a few minutes. Even outside of the swath cuts by these guns, the advance slowed, then stopped.
There were difficult technical problems here–unavoidable structural issues. This is almost the end of that long run of human history in which we somehow made do without wireless communications, and so coordination quickly fell apart once the infantry moved out of the immediate line of sight of their starting positions. These inevitable difficulties were, however, made much worse by the foolish British decision to allow a divided command with a fully articulated pyramidal chain of communications.
Messages were sent back, carried by runners picking their way over broken ground, under fire, moving much more slowly than Wellington’s dispatch riders had galloped over nearby ground a century before. And once they reached the start positions they still had to pass back through battalion headquarters, then up to brigade, to division, and through two different corps commanders before reaching General Douglas Haig, at this time the commander of the British First Army, still subordinate to Sir John French but in operational command today. Then the messages would start down the same chain, branching out to the artillery, often providing information about the relative positions of British and German troops now several hours out of date.
Almost all of the British gains had come by 10:00 in the morning, and, even though the German forces behind were thin, little was accomplished throughout the rest of the day. Behind the German lines, reinforcements were toward the front, and preparations began for a counter-attack.
There will be two more days of eventful fighting, but as for today, none of our familiar writers were in the leading units. Most of those now in France and Belgium were with the cavalry reserve or stationed on quiet parts of the line. Only Edward Hulse‘s 2/Scots Guards were moved up into the battle zone in direct support of the attacking units. But Hulse did not write today–instead, I’ll quote from a comrade-as-yet-unmentioned, Wilfrid Ewart. We will look into Ewart’s novel when the time comes, but today (and tomorrow) we’ll read from a vivid letter home about the attack.
Stephen Graham–of whom we caught a brief glimpse at the outset of the war, in remotest Central Asia–will eventually join the Scots Guards and befriend Ewart. Much later he recorded, at second hand, some context for Ewart’s recollections:
Bullets sang and spluttered in all directions. There was a series of rushes and rests wherein one saw men in the midst of life cut off, stricken down, shaken away. Ewart saw them dying, and I remember when talking of the battle with him, the lingering surprise which was his at the enchantment of death, one moment full of lusty life, the next chalky white and still as a hewn tree.
But these rushes brought the Scots Guards nowhere near the new front lines. Ewart’s letter, written shortly after the battle, begins the story of what will be a harrowing night and day:
Towards evening the guns died away, and after dark we changed our quarters and lit a fire in the trenches. We stood to arms most of the night expecting to attack or be attacked at any moment. But no order came.
While several thousand British soldiers were dead or dying, shot by the untouched machine guns on the flanks or the recovering Germans in several reserve trench lines, Rupert Brooke was contemplating his own death and literary posterity from his berth on the Grantully Castle, now approaching Lemnos. Today it is Ka Cox, an older flame than Lady Wellesley or Violet Asquith, who gets the farewell letter.
I suppose you’re about the best I can do in the way of a widow. I’m telling the Ranee that after she’s dead, you’re to have my papers. They may want to write a biography! How am I to know if I shan’t be eminent? And take any MSS you want. Say what you like to the Ranee. But you’d probably better not tell her much. Let her be. Let her think we might have married. Perhaps it’s true.
My dear, my dear, you did me wrong: but I have done you very great wrong. Every day I see it greater.
You were the best thing I found in life. If I have memory, I shall remember. You know what I want for you. I hope you will be happy, and marry and have children.
It’s a good thing I die.
This is a strange, strange letter, even by Brooke’s standards. He had been in love with Ka Cox, and pursued her. In 1912, when they at last slept together, it was his first time with a woman. It seems to have terrified him, not least because of a subsequent pregnancy scare (although not only because of the pregnancy scare: his prudish/misogynistic reaction to female sexuality seems to have been immediate). This was the year of Brooke’s mental breakdown, and the two fled to Germany, where they could be together without scandal. He half-heartedly proposed marriage, but after the pregnancy ended (apparently with an early miscarriage), and she had nursed him back to health, Brooke fled, dumping Cox unceremoniously, and sharing his opinion that she was “defiled” and impossible. He, however, moved on into an affair with Phyllis Gardner, an overlapping obsession with Noel Oliver (which ended with similar wild recriminations and nasty letters accusing her of lewdness and depravity) and then took his sexually recuperative trip to Tahiti.
Now, convinced that he is headed to his death, the cruelty and sexual neurosis are whittled down to one line of generously dramatic fault-acknowledging. Which is better, one is forced to confess, then not revisiting one’s worse moments on one’s imagined deathbed. (He is, again, currently healthy, sailing about the Aegean, and unburdened by actual orders specifying an attack.)
And then the ghost of the abjured romance and near shotgun wedding returns: Ka, can pretend to be my widow!
Brooke is very enamored of the idea of his own tragic death. And isn’t it noble of him to apologize to a woman he’s treated so badly… and to invite her to become a sort of pseudo-Havisham, wildly mourning (one assumes) the husband who never was.