The 1st Canadian Division at Neuve-Chapelle
On the eve of war in 1914, King George V asked ‘my people of the Overseas Dominions’ stand alongside Britain and the crown in the face of war. Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn and General Governor of Canada, answered the call. He informed the King that ‘Canada stands united from the Pacific to the Atlantic in her determination to uphold the honour and tradition of our Empire’. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain and its overseas Empire went to war.
The 1st Canadian Division would aid the allied objective on the Western Front, to push and break through German lines across the occupied territory of northern France. Neuve-Chapelle was important to the allies as the Germans had captured the town in October 1914 and were still holding the line there, despite being briefly taken by the Indian Corps. The Germans had created a salient and strengthened their positions along the line. There was an effective stalemate on this area of the line and Sir John French hoped that allied forces could attack Neuve-Chapelle, take Aubers Ridge and eventually reach Lille. The CEF, which came under the command of the British 1st Army on 8th March, would hold a 6400-meter sector of the line, that stretched from Neuve Chapelle to Armentieres, from south of the town of Fleurbaix and southwest of Bois Grenier, to the left of the British 1st Army Corps.
The CEF role would be to prevent the Germans from getting reinforcements to the town of Aubers and once the British had broken through the line, Canadian troops would be ready to move forward and attack enemy positions. British Command had high hopes for a quick victory at Neuve-Chapelle, despite previously failing, due to outnumbering the Germans considerably. Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the BEF stated ‘At no time in this war has there been a more favourable moment for us, and I feel confident of success. The extent of that success must depend on the rapidity and determination with which we advance.’
Battle of Neuve Chapelle – 10th – 13th March
The Canadian Division had entered the sector on 26th February 1915. The Canadians aim at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was to support the 1st Army and Indian Corps main attack by keeping the German forces at bay and prevent reinforcements, at Bois Grenier, enabling British Forces to advance to Aubers Ridge. The 15th Battalion war diary, reports that on the 9th March orders were ‘received to take on RUE DE BOIS at 6 am in support of attack at Neuve-Chapelle. SECRET ORDERS given for attack.’
At 7.30 am, on the cold morning of 10th March 1915, the 1st Canadian Division would meet their first major enemy encounter, at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. The battle began with ‘tremendous bombardment of enemy lines by British’ according to one diarist of the 14th Canadian Battalion, and CEF shelling of German positions. The Canadian ‘assault went in thirty-five minutes later, riflemen and machine-gunners opened bursts of rapid fire which continued at fifteen-minute intervals,’ through the rest of the day.
This proved to be a successful tactic and the German advance was caught completely off guard. By 9am the British had captured the town of Neuve-Chapelle and the battle so far was looking like the success those in command had hoped for. However, the rest of the day would be dogged by broken communication lines, which had been damaged by German shelling.
The result being that orders from HQ in Fleurbaix did not reach the front in time for the remaining BEF and CEF troops to advance and exploit the territory that had been gained. The Official Histories confirm these problems by noting ‘It was 2:50 p.m. before orders were issued for both corps to resume the advance at 3:30. Yet the time taken to relay these successfully through division, brigade, and battalion headquarters meant that the companies in the front line did not begin moving until after half-past five’. These five hours gave the Germans plenty of time to gather reinforcement, find well-placed machine-gun positions and strengthen their defences. The British were therefore unprepared, once they were able to continue their advance around 6pm, to face an attack almost twice the strength they had faced several hours before. Despite finally being able to advance, the early spring dusk and heavy German machine gun bombardment, meant that the battle needed to be halted until the next morning.
Once again, the Germans used the break in the fighting to their advantage. Under the cover of darkness, ‘German infantry reinforcements constructed and wired a new line across the breach’ and brought forward new machine gun batteries.
Once battle resumed on 11th March, the British artillery were unaware and unprepared for the new German position. At 7am, both the British and Indian Infantry faced heavy shelling as well as heavy machine gun and rifle fire. For the men of the Canadian Division, their role on the 11th was a repeat of the previous day.
On the 12th March, just before dawn, the Germans attacked allied positions with twenty battalions, however the British now had the advantage of being aware of German positions, and they were soon facing heavy losses due to British machine gun and rifle fire. Sir Douglas Haig had previously given orders for an allied advance at 10.30am, which prevented the BEF from exploiting the Germans situation and a further two-hour postponement due to misty weather set-back the British even further. At the start of the day, orders were given by General Alderson, to continue the advance earlier than Haig had suggested, but the order did not reach many of the units until much later, meaning attacks were not made until 10.30 onwards. Attacks were made by the 7th and 8th divisions at 10.30 and 12.30 and soon after the Indian Corps made an attack on the woodland of Bois de Biez. During the afternoon there had been reports of gains by the British and of German surrendering. The Canadian Division were ordered to be prepared for an offensive movement. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade were issued orders for an attack, while the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion were ordered to make an attack with the support of the 15th and 16th Battalions. The 13th Canadian Infantry Battalion were to be used to take advantage of the allied success. This plan however did not materialise. After the Indian troops advanced on Bois de Biez, Haig asked Sir John French if the 1st and 2nd Canadian Infantry brigades could be relived, in order for them to take up position behind the 3rd Brigade, in preparation for an allied breakthrough. It was soon discovered that the reported allied success was false and the Canadian Division remained in their positions. At 10.30pm, Haig effectively ended the day’s fighting by ordering the creation a new defensive line. The Canadian Official Histories reports that the Germans had ‘hardly been disturbed in the Canadian sector.’ It also reported that ‘the bombardment by the fifty-two guns of the divisional artillery was less than twenty-five rounds per gun per day’.
On the 13th March, Sir John French informed Lord Kitchener, ‘Cessation of the forward movement is necessitated today by the fatigue of the troops and above all, by the want of ammunition’. Canadian troops remained in the Fleurbaix sector of the line until the 27th March, when they were relieved by the British 8th Division.
Lessons and Losses of Neuve-Chapelle
The battle had no strategic impact but there were lessons to be learnt from the attack at Neuve-Chapelle. There needed to be heavier artillery bombardment on enemy trenches and more shells and ammunition increased numbers of reserves to take advantage of the advances and successes and better artillery observation points. Most importantly, that attack had shown that communication systems were extremely vulnerable and better, stronger communication systems were needed so that forces would be able advance rapidly. This would be a problem that continued throughout the war.
On April 5th, Sir John French reported that the 1st Canadian Division had ‘so far splendidly upheld the traditions of the Empire, and will, I feel sure prove to be a great source of additional strength to the force of this country.’
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, according to the Canadian Official Histories, cost 12,892 casualties within the First Army and during their period in the sector from 26th February, Canadian casualties totalled 278.
The Germans were reported to have lost 12,000 men, including those who had been taken prisoner. The men of the 1st Canadian division who took part in the battle of Neuve-Chapelle are all too often overlooked, with much focus on the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge. These men however proved that they were a strong, necessary and valuable force to the BEF.
OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE CANADIAN FORCES IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919 GENERAL SERIES VOL. I FROM THE OUTBREAK OF WAR TO THE FORMATION OF THE CANADIAN CORPS AUGUST 1914–SEPTEMBER 1915 BY COLONEL A. FORTESCUE DUGUID, p.18
 Ibid., p. 18
War Diary, 15th Battalion, e001091608.jpg (1100×692) (collectionscanada.ca)
War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, March 10, 1915. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089701.jpgnk
 OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE CANADIAN ARMY IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE 1914-1919 By COLONEL G. W. L. NICHOLSON, C.D. Army Historical Section, p. 51
 Ibid., p.52.
 OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE CANADIAN FORCES IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919 GENERAL SERIES VOL. I FROM THE OUTBREAK OF WAR TO THE FORMATION OF THE CANADIAN CORPS AUGUST 1914–SEPTEMBER 1915 BY COLONEL A. FORTESCUE DUGUID, p.182
 Ibid., p.184
 Ibid., p.184
 Ibid., p.184