The Battle of Neuve Chapelle & the Indian Corps

Andrew Sharpe examines the contribution of Indian troops to one of the first major battles on the Western Front. 

The year 2015 marks the centenary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, fought over the 'most dismal, swampy and disgusting region of the British Front' between March 10th and 12th, 1915. The historian John Terraine wrote that Neuve Chapelle marked 'Britain's debut as a major land power', but that statement is only partially accurate. Half of the infantry that assaulted the German lines on the first day were from the Indian Corps and three quarters of those men were recruited from the subcontinent itself. They fought exceptionally well and gained all of their objectives, winning two Victoria Crosses along the way. Yet, to a large degree, both they and their heroic exploits have been airbrushed from popular history, for, as Terraine implied, if this was the end of the beginning for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, it also marked the demise of the Indian Corps.

At the beginning of March 1915 the BEF comprised just 11 infantry divisions. Two of those were the Indian Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir James Willcocks. The Corps began to arrive at the front during October 1914 and was immediately committed to the intense fighting at the First Battle of Ypres. As with the rest of the BEF, they had suffered a severe battering and were under strength. However, when on March 4th General Sir Douglas Haig, then commanding the 1st Corps, inquired whether the Indians would be ready to attack at Neuve Chapelle in six days' time, Willcocks replied that the prospect of a 'sharp fight, cheered all ranks and lifted their spirits'. That was no doubt true; the severe winter that the BEF had endured was, according to Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, 'trying and possibly enervating'. But Willcocks' enthusiasm was apparently contradicted only four days later at a conference of his senior officers. He later wrote that it was 'unanimously agreed that I should represent to the C-in-C that it would be wise to relieve the Indian battalions then in France as soon as this could conveniently be done'.

The reason for this apparent contradiction was that making good the losses sustained by the battalions of the Indian Corps was difficult, not because of the distance from training depots but because of the recruitment practices of the Indian army.

Second Rifle Brigade and Second Battalion (39th Garhwal Rifles) at Neuve Chapelle.. De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

Recruitment to the Indian army was dictated by a pernicious racial theory, which held that men from the northern part of the subcontinent, principally the Punjab and Nepal – the so-called 'Martial Races' – were better suited to soldiering than men from Bengal or the south, in spite of plentiful and persuasive evidence to the contrary. The theory developed as a consequence of the Indian Mutiny of 1857; soldiers from the 'Martial Races' had generally remained loyal to the British. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the theory, in practice it caused considerable difficulties when the army was sustaining significant casualties. Indian battalions were either all recruited from one 'class', such as Sikhs or Gurkhas, or were constructed along 'class-company' lines: for example, the 57th (Wilde's) Rifles comprised a company each of Sikhs, Dogras, Pathans and Punjabi Muslims. This made coherent reinforcement and replacement of losses absurdly complex. The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that British officers were expected to speak the language of their men in addition to Urdu, the lingua franca of the army, as well as understanding their cultural and religious practices. Partly because British officers were much easier to discern in Indian than in British units, the casualty rate among junior officers on the Western Front was close to 100 per cent, compared with 20-25 per cent in equivalent British battalions. The narrowness of the recruiting base thus led to a critical shortage of men and British officers capable of leading them. As Willcocks and his generals acknowledged on March 8th, 1915, the logistical effort required to maintain the Indian Corps in France was in danger of overwhelming their army.

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The plan of attack for Neuve Chapelle set a template for many of the battles that were to follow on the Western Front. For the first time, aircraft conducted a thorough aerial survey of the battle area. Artillery was prepared and ammunition stockpiled for the preliminary bombardment, which, among other tasks, was designed to cut the German wire and destroy the frontline trenches. The Garhwal Brigade was designated to attack from the south towards Neuve Chapelle and then wheel to its right after securing the village. The British 23rd and 25th Brigades were to attack west to east directly facing the village. The 2nd Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles were to link with the right-hand British unit, the 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade. The reserves were then to push through and on to the battle's tactical objective, the Aubers Ridge, and if possible beyond. The concentrated bombardment that began at 7.30am on March 10th, 1915 was of unprecedented violence. At 8.05am the infantry advanced.

The Illustrated War News, March 24th, 1915.

In the centre of the attacking line, the first phase of the assault was successful, although some of the British battalions suffered casualties from their own 'short' artillery fire. The German wire had been cut and their trenches largely destroyed. The Garhwals and Rifle Brigade linked up as planned at 8.50am and Neuve Chapelle was entirely in British hands 40 minutes later. Along the way, Rifleman Gobar Sing Negi of the Garhwals had fought a trench-clearing action with his bayonet and was to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The lead battalions pushed on to their objectives and began to entrench. Although the village had been taken with relative ease, there were difficulties on both flanks. On the left the 2nd Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, the Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians) had encountered uncut wire and been held up. This exposed the flank of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles to their right and although the Irish Rifles' commanding officer recognised that there was an opportunity to encircle and cut off the German defenders, his request to do so was denied. The Germans rapidly reinforced their strongpoints facing these units, in particular with machine guns on a bridge over the relatively narrow River des Layes towards the northern end of the battlefield. Those guns were able to dominate the battlefield and would ultimately help prevent any further British progress.

The Indians had fought with great credit, in some cases pioneering innovative tactics for the nascent art of trench warfare

On the extreme right, the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles had also come unstuck. Their trenches were not perpendicular to the line of advance. As a result they attacked to the right of their intended target and assaulted German trenches that had not been touched by British artillery. This fighting involved both the Garhwals and the 2nd Battalion, the Leicestershire Regiment, among whose number Private William Buckingham won a Victoria Cross. This action had far less impact on the rest of the battle than the British problems to the left but still took the best part of the day to resolve. However, the Germans were kept occupied and did not significantly threaten the flank of the Indian attack.

Despite these local difficulties, the supporting Dehra Dun Brigade did eventually receive orders to push on and make for their objective, a wood called the Bois du Biez en route to the Aubers Ridge. The 2nd Battalion, 2nd Gurkha Rifles reached the wood at dusk but in so doing had no support and exposed flanks. They were also receiving intelligence from German prisoners that the wood had been reinforced. As night fell on March 10th the brigade therefore withdrew to a position 200 yards to their rear and entrenched. They were still 400 yards to the front of the Rifle Brigade and on their left. This manoeuvre was to attract unjustified criticism from Haig after the battle, but it is difficult to see what other course of action was open to them.

Damage at Neuve Chapelle following its capture, 1915. (Imperial War Museum)

Further British and Indian attacks and a sizeable German counter- attack were mounted on March 11th and 12th, with considerable losses and gallantry on both sides, but no further progress was made. Haig issued orders ceasing operations at 10.05pm on March 12th.

British forces at Neuve Chapelle sustained 12,811 casualties. The Indian Corps suffered 4,233 of which 133 British and 60 Indian officers were killed, wounded or missing. The Indian Corps was partially decapitated and, due to its recruitment practices, much less capable of making good its losses than the British.

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The regimental history of the Garhwal Rifles posited a theory as to why the 1st Battalion attacked the wrong German trenches on the right flank of the main attack. The battalion's left-hand company was actually comprised of men from a different regiment, the 38th Dogras, who had joined as reinforcements in January 1915.

[I]t can only be conjectured that the Dogras, being the younger in the war, and relying greatly on the more experienced Garhwalis alongside, kept touch with … them, instead of, as ordered, keeping their left flank on the line assigned.

Their company commanders, Captains Owen and Clarke, were killed leading their men.

The Indians had fought with great credit since their arrival in France, in some cases pioneering innovative tactics for the nascent art of trench warfare, but their arrival and deployment was not without controversy. The historian David Olusoga has persuasively argued that the Germans were affronted by the allies' use of troops from their colonies on the Western Front. In some cases those feelings were mirrored in their own armies. The British were apt to find fault, or to only damn with faint praise, the actions of the Indians. As Willcocks wrote at the time, the Indian Corps 'did not always receive the credit in its own Army' that it was due.

Graves of Indian soldiers from the Garhwal Rifle Brigade at Neuve Chapelle. (Andrew Sharpe)

The most enduringly controversial aspect of the Indian deployment concerned the issue of self-inflicted wounds. There is no doubt that the shock of arriving at an intense industrial war, for which the Indian army was not recruited, designed, trained nor equipped, led to a brief outbreak of self-wounding among Indian troops. This was dealt with promptly by the high command and had ceased by mid-November 1914. What has not ceased is the reporting of implausible statistics throughout the historiography with no attempt to place this brief phenomenon in any kind of context with the other combatant armies: there is considerable evidence that the self-inflicting of wounds was common to all Allied units.

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Objectively the Indians achieved more than any other participants on March 10th, 1915. That was not necessarily the fault of their British counterparts. The battle became bogged down for many of the reasons that would reappear in allied set-piece efforts over the next few years. Battlefield command was difficult in the fog of war, particularly when the makeshift telephone cables had been destroyed by artillery fire, and at this point in the war the British were suffering from a severe shortage of artillery shells, which meant that exploiting infantry successes on the battlefield was difficult, if not impossible. The shell shortage was a scandal that would eventually contribute to the toppling of the government.

Nevertheless the Indian Corps deserved better than Haig's heavily qualified and rather churlish praise:

India Office wired for names of Indian units which had done well in the fighting … In sending this information I added that, to prevent misconception [in India] and false conclusions it should be stated that though Indians had done very well the task accomplished by them was not so difficult as that of the British.

This was a nonsense that was subsequently amplified in the official history as the Indian Corps' senior officers' lack of connections became evident. Careers spent skirmishing on the fringes of Empire carried a social and political cost and Brigadier-General Edmonds, the official historian, was closer to some generals than others.

The Times editorial of April 19th argued that at Neuve Chapelle 'for the first time the British Army has broken the German line' and that the battle proved that the German Army was 'not invincible', therefore providing a much needed fillip to British morale. What has tended to be underestimated was the Indian contribution to that battle.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was a limited success, Britain's first in offensive operations. The opportunity for a breakthrough fleetingly existed during the morning of March 10th. A dangerous salient was blunted and over a mile of ground was captured. Tactics were pioneered that could, and would, work again, if managed with precision. It prompted a critical reappraisal of British offensive capabilities by friend and foe alike. However, a significant portion of the credit for all of that deserves to go to the Indian Corps. This battle was not quite their swansong on the Western Front, but the casualties they sustained hastened their departure. They struggled on until December 1915, when what was left of the Corps sailed for the ill-fated campaign in Mesopotamia.

Major-General Keary, commander of the Lahore Division, noted that the Corps was like a 'squeezed orange sucked dry and chucked away … without a word of thanks or recognition'. He had good grounds for bitterness. His division would go on to lose 50 per cent of its strength a month later at the Second Battle of Ypres. The more diplomatic Willcocks agreed. He lamented that the Indians' 'raconteurs are few and far between'. That is a situation that deserves to be addressed 100 years on.

Andrew Sharpe works in finance and is an occasional military historian specialising in the Indian Army.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle & the Indian Corps

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