The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 182nd installment in the series.
May 9-15, 1915: Second Battle of Artois, Aubers Ridge and Festubert
The Second Battle of Artois, which took place from May 9-June 18, 1915, marked a new extremity of savage and ultimately futile violence on the Western Front. Undaunted by a series of costly failures, including major French attacks rebuffed in Champagne and St. Mihiel and the British Pyrrhic gains at Neuve Chapelle, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre ordered the biggest Allied offensive yet, in yet another attempt to cut off enemy forces in the huge salient bulging into northern France. Despite huge commitments of manpower and ammunition, however, the multi-phased and multi-pronged attack failed under the weight of its own complexity – and once again ordinary soldiers on both sides paid a terrible price.
Amidst the continuing German onslaught at the Second Battle of Ypres, Joffre hoped that an Allied attack on the German Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht in Artois would allow the Allies to sever enemy supply lines and maybe even threaten German armies to the south with encirclement, forcing them to retreat. The French Tenth Army had already launched an attack in this area as part of the first Champagne offensive in December 1914, but made virtually no gains at a very steep cost. Nonetheless Joffre, encouraged by the transfer of eight German divisions to the Eastern Front, believed a breakthrough was still possible provided there was sufficient preparation in the form of massive artillery bombardments.
The new plan consisted of two phases, with an initial attack in mid-May targeting the strategic position at Vimy Ridge, setting the stage for a broader offensive to follow in June. This ambitious strategy depended on British support: according to the plan agreed by British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French, the British First Army under Douglas Haig would mount attacks further north at Aubers Ridge around May 7 and Festubert around a week later, tying down German forces so the French Tenth Army under Victor d’Urbal could carry out the first phase of the offensive, also beginning May 9, to clear the German mini-salient north of Arras and seize Vimy Ridge.
Although the British tried to paint it as a success, by any objective measure the attack on Aubers Ridge was a complete debacle, failing to achieve its goal of tying down German forces at the cost of huge losses, with over 11,000 British casualties on May 9 alone, versus approximately 1,000 for the Germans.
Located a few miles northeast of Neuve Chapelle, the village of Aubers is located on the western slope of a low ridge that rises gradually from a marshy, low-lying plain dotted with small forests and crisscrossed by drainage canals (below). Although the ridge is no more than 70 feet tall, this was enough to give the Germans an important advantage in observing British movements and directing artillery fire to counter them; conversely, British possession the ridge would open German positions to the same threat.
The frontline here straddled a deep manmade canal, Layes Brook, running diagonally southwest-northeast just west of the village; the British attack would basically consist of two thrusts starting from near the canal – a southern thrust heading east, by the 1st Division and Indian Meerut Division, and a northern thrust heading south, by the 8th Division and West Ridding Divisions with the 7th Division in reserve. Together, it was hoped, the two attacks would form a pincer to capture the ridge.
The British opened the attack with two huge explosive mines tunneled under the German trenches (no easy feat in the waterlogged soil; above, German soldiers pose in one of the craters), along with a brief artillery bombardment, shortened due to continuing shell shortages. Unfortunately they failed to reckon with reinforced enemy defenses: following the fleeting British breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle in March the Germans had added new barbed wire entanglements, beefed up the earthworks in front of trenches, built concrete shelters, and created a whole new secondary line of fortified machine gun posts around half a mile behind the frontline.
The result was disastrous. After the artillery bombardment began at 5am, to the south troops from the 1st Division and Meerut Division tried to advance into no-man’s-land, but many failed were hit before they even left their trenches, as German machine guns swept the parapets. The men who did make it out found that in most places the brief artillery barrage had failed to cut the German barbed wire entanglements, forcing them to dig in or shelter in shell craters. Renewed bombardments in the morning again failed to clear the German defenses, especially since the gunners were now constrained by the presence hundreds of British soldiers trapped in no-man’s-land.
That afternoon the British began yet another bombardment at 3:20pm and just before 4pm fresh British units entered the fray behind the barrage, some making it as far as the German frontlines. But once again German machine guns and massed rifle fire crushed the British assault, leaving survivors desperately looking for shelter in craters. Lionel Sotheby, an officer with the Scottish Black Watch regiment, described the experience in a letter to his mother:
The Germans… were sniping from loop holes near the base of the parapet. They sniped at anything that moved, wounded and all. Thus we few that were left dug ourselves as low as possible. I was wedged in between two dead men… never shall I forget that awful experience. For four hours (4 p.m. to 8 p.m.) I lay there cramped up and never moved once.
To the north infantry in the second pincer ran into the same wall of fire, and the initial advance was completely bogged down by 6:10 am. Despite this, some troops managed to press ahead in short runs by leaping from crater to crater, and even reached the German lines in places. Amid the confusion, a small number of German prisoners being sent to the British trenches were mistaken for a German counterattack, leaving them – like the British facing the other direction – helpless in no-man’s-land until night fell, when they returned to their own lines. One of the prisoners, Engelbert Niederhofer, a German solider serving in the List Regiment with Adolf Hitler, recalled this harrowing ordeal:
Now the three of us lay still on our stomachs in the hole. After approximately half an hour, my mate to the right of me moved. Immediately a fatal shot hit him in the head, another hit me in my left buttock. When after approximately two hours my other mate lifted his head slightly, he was shot too and instantly killed: all shots came from injured Englishmen who lay about 5 metres away… I remained lying on the ground as if dead for the entire day. At night, around midnight I removed my coat and crawled through the [position] past the injured and the dead… around 1 a.m. I reached the German position.
Faced with the failure of both wings of the attack, and with artillery shells running short (not to mention disturbing reports that many field artillery shells were defective), that evening Haig wisely threw in the towel and called off the offensive. This allowed the Germans to transfer two divisions further south to meet the main French attack unfolding north of Arras.
The French push to capture Vimy Ridge began an hour after the British attack on Aubers Ridge, at 6am, and included attacks on German positions near a number of villages including Notre Dame de Lorette, La Targette, Carency, and Neuville St .Vaast. Unlike the British the French had stockpiled plenty of artillery shells for their preparatory bombardment and laid down a ferocious barrage on the German trenches, followed by an infantry advance beginning around 10am. The effect of the shelling was dramatic, to say the least. Russell Kelly, an American volunteer with the French Foreign Legion, recalled occupying the German trenches a few days later:
Our bombardment before the attack on May 9th had played havoc with the German trenches; a great number of the roofs on the huts had fallen during the cannonading burying alive all the occupants. Around these places the stench was horrible… at intervals, arms and legs projected from the walls and floor of the trenches, and all in all it was a pretty gruesome journey.
However the artillery bombardment failed to clear all the defensive positions and the advancing infantry found itself up against sweeping machine gun fire near Notre Dame de Lorette in the northern sector of the battlefield; nonetheless they succeeded in capturing several stretches of German trench. One officer, Christian Mallet, described the advance near Loos:
Now, with our heads down, we entered the zone of Hell. There is no word, sound, or colour that can give an idea of it… We went through sheaves of fire, from which burst forth percussion and time shells at such short intervals that the soil opened every moment under our feet. I saw, as in a dream, tiny silhouettes, drunk with battle, charging through the smoke… Shells had made ravages in the ranks. I saw groups of five or six crushed and mown down.
In the face of an unrelenting fusillade from the German trenches Mallet’s men finally reached their objective, just as Mallet himself was felled by a bullet:
My section and I kept pressing on, and we were now within a few metres of the last of the German lines. At every step grey uniforms now surged. I discharged my revolver to right and left. Cries and moans rose and fell in the infernal din of that struggle… I put my foot on the parapet and cried, “Forward, lads, here we are!” then I felt as though someone had suddenly given me a brutal blow in the back with the butt-end of a rifle… I was hit!
In the center the advance on Carency went somewhat better, as the artillery cut the barbed wire entanglements and highly mobile Moroccan shock troops managed to take the Germans by surprise and overrun their trenches in several spots. By mid-day the French lead units had advanced over two miles and begun digging in near Vimy Ridge, the objective of the battle, but the German artillery barrage made it very difficult to bring up reinforcements as planned. Progress in the southern sector was also limited, with a few footholds gained in the face of intense German resistance centered on a complex of trenches and tunnels called “the Labyrinth.”
Overall, by the end of May 9 the French had made substantial advances in several places across the front, but came up short of their objectives. The following day Joffre committed reinforcements in the form of cavalry divisions (fighting on foot), but the French artillery was hampered by uncertainty over the location of French troops in the battlefield, while German counterattacks recovered some of the captured trenches east of Carency. By May 11 the Moroccan Division, still holding advanced positions without reinforcements, had lost almost half its strength, with over 5,000 casualties.
Over the next few days the D’Urbal ordered continuing attacks that once again gradually forced the Germans out of their frontline positions in some places, but progress was slow. Meanwhile the Germans were able to bring up reinforcements of their own, thanks in part to the failure of the British attack at Aubers Ridge. A new push on May 15 also failed, and at the end of the week Vimy Ridge remained in German hands.
The cost was enormous: over the length of the battle, which continued into mid-June, the French suffered 102,500 casualties, including killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner, and expended 2.2 million shells. By this point in the war death had become commonplace. Louis Barthas, a reservist from southern France, visited the rapidly expanding village cemetery at Noeux and witnessed a burial on May 16, 1915:
It was vast, big enough to bury two or three generations of inhabitants. But it was going to have to be enlarged very soon, because it was filling up every day with poor little soldiers dying at the first-aid station before they could be evacuated. In this season of offensives, five or six came to the cemetery each day. I attended the burial of this day’s batch. It was quickly done, like a boring chore. Territorials whom the war had turned into grave diggers excavated a long ditch and put the coffins in, right next to each other for best use of space, shoveled dirt on top, a little cross with a name and a number, and that was it.
The Battle of Festubert, from May 15-25, was the second main British contribution to the Allied offensive during the Second Battle of Artois. Once again, the British attack against German positions near the village of Festubert (top, Festubert after the battle) was intended to tie down enemy troops so they couldn’t be used to defend against the renewed French attack on May 15 – and once again it came rather short of expectations.
This time the British were more liberal with their artillery, firing 100,000 shells over a two-day period from May 13-15, but unfortunately this failed to have much of an effect on the recently strengthened German defenses. Unusually, the main battle opened with a night attack led by Indian troops, as advance platoons from the Indian Meerut Division, 2nd Division, and 7th Division left the trenches and began crossing no-man’s-land at 11:30 pm. At first the attack made rapid progress as the Indians succeeded in seizing the German frontline trenches, but they suffered heavy losses from German machine gun fire, as well as friendly fire as artillery shells fell short.
The British continued attacking through the night and through May 16, making progress across a broad front, but the Germans defensive line reformed closer to Festubert, requiring renewed bombardments and more costly infantry attacks. By May 18 the supply of artillery shells was perilously low, and the following day the battered 2nd and 7th Divisions had to be withdrawn. The Canadian 1st Division, resting in reserve since its brutal mauling at the Second Battle of Ypres, resumed the attack on May 18 along with the 51st Division (also called the Highland Division), and the village of Festubert was captured on May 24 – but once again the British had failed to tie down substantial German forces, contributing to the failure of the main French attack.
At Festubert the British suffered 16,648 casualties including killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner, in exchange for an advance of just under two miles along a three-mile front. The Germans recorded a mere 5,000 casualties, once again reflecting the enormous advantage enjoyed by defenders in trench warfare.
Second Ypres: Battle of Frezenberg Ridge
Further north, the Second Battle of Ypres continued with the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge, yet another all-out German attack against the shortened British lines outside Ypres, from May 8-13, 1915. After a furious artillery bombardment the Germans sent three waves of infantry against the British trenches, finally breaking through on the morning of May 8. However Canadian troops saved the day again, as Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry mounted desperate counter-attacks to fill the 2-mile-wide gap.
This valiant defense took place amid scenes of shocking devastation. John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer who wrote the iconic poem of the Great War, “In Flanders Fields,” described the Second Battle of Ypres on May 10:
The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds… At one time we were down to seven guns, but these guns were smoking at every joint, the gunners using cloth to handle the breech levers because of the heat… Our casualties were half the number of men in the firing line.
Edward Roe, a British private, described nauseating conditions near Ypres on May 9:
Our new line trenches stench abominably. One encounters or feels a springy feeling underneath the feet when walking along the trench floor. Of course, we are walking on the bodies of men who have been buried there at an earlier date. Patches of field grey (German), khaki (British) and horizon blue (French) cloth show, or appear behind a thin film of clay, on the trench parapet and parados. The ground in front and rear of our trenches is seared with shell craters of huge dimensions… Broken rifles, bayonets, and equipment strew the ground everywhere.
On May 10, Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse working in Flanders, wrote in her diary: “Strong healthy men lie inert in these hospitals. Many of them have face and head wounds. I saw one splendid young fellow, with a beautiful face, and straight clear eyes of a sort of forget-me-not blue. He won't be able to speak again, as his jaw is shot away. The man next him was being fed through the nose.” In this context it’s hardly surprising some soldiers did everything they could to get out of the trenches, including self-inflicted wounds, while others warned their loved ones to stay out of it as long as possible. On May 20, 1915, a British Indian soldier, Havildar Abdul Rahman, wrote to a Punjabi friend (below, a wounded Punjabi soldier):
For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe… I am in a state of great anxiety; and tell my brother Muhammad Yakub Khan for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist…. Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan [July-August, monsoon season]. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot.
Meanwhile the forlorn town of Ypres was still in flames, having burned for three weeks straight. William Boyd, an American volunteering with the British field ambulance service at Ypres, climbed a hill with some fellow ambulance drivers to see the spectacle on May 12, 1915. Their eyes met a surreal and haunting vision:
The scene that met our eyes was so solemn, so awe-inspiring that all conversation between us ceased. For at our feet lay Ypres, burning furiously. The great cloud that hung above it was now glowing as if some vast furnace were burning in its midst, but the cloud itself appeared to be absolutely motionless. Now and then great tongues of flame would leap up from the doomed town… We felt that we were looking at some painted scene, or watching a vast stage where some lurid Mephistophelian drama was being enacted. Here and there along the line a star-shell would go up, and, bursting, light the landscape with a garish flare. Overhead were the quiet stars. Nothing broke the great silence, save now and then the deep, rich, solemn b-o-o-m of a big gun far away up north, with, perhaps, an occasional crackle of rifles near at hand. But, as we sat, the stillness of the night was broken by the song of a bird, faint and hesitating at first, but gradually gathering volume, till the whole air was throbbing with the melody. It was a nightingale singing in the wood below. We sat on, and on, and on. The whole town was glowing like the mouth of hell. Now and again some roof would apparently fall in, and the great hungry tongues of fire would lick the sky, but at our distance no sound broke the awesome stillness – only the song of the nightingale and the booming of guns.