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Webmatters : Battle of Aubers Ridge May 1915
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Aubers Ridge

9th May 1915

What went wrong

In the aftermath of the failed morning and afternoon assaults on Aubers Ridge General Haig had considered trying again at dusk – 2000 hours – but it had become clear to him hours earlier that the necessary troops could not be ready in time and that the German artillery was preventing any movement out in the open.

The renewed attack was called off and Haig left for Lestrem and a meeting with his Corps commanders at the Indian Corps HQ.

Two possibilities for furthering the offensive were considered :

  • a night attack with fresh troops who did not know the ground;
  • an assault in daylight preceded by yet another mini bombardment

The latter was accepted and the generals left to see to their orders.

Little had been gained and by nightfall in the northern Fromelles sector, just twenty six of the Northamptons managed to clamber out of the German line and make it back safely to their own trench.

During the night it proved impossible to ease the pressure on the Riflemen of 25th Brigade and the Londoners on the left flank. Despite strenuous efforts by troops and engineers (who dug a communication trench out towards the Riflemen) it was not possible to do anything other than call the men back.

By 0300 hours the Germans were in full occupation of their front line.

As the casualty reports started to filter through, the cost of the day’s failure began to become clear to Haig. More than 10,000 men had become casualties from the three participating divisions.

At a commanders conference Haig was now also informed that his artillery had insufficient shells to maintain an offensive on such a wide front over two days. Furthermore the ammunition for the 4.7 inch batteries in the IV Corps sector was so useless that it wasn’t worth firing.

Haig cancelled his orders for the offensive to be re-opened at 1600 hours and informed his superior, Field Marshal Sir John French that under the circumstances it was not practicable to continue with the present plan.

He would return to the original proposition of an attack to the south of Neuve Chapelle and this would be carried out by Major General Gough’s 7th Division alongside the 2nd Division as soon as possible. The 7th Division was given its marching orders and proceeded to Festubert where it came under the orders of I Corps.

A great disappointment

The Battle of Aubers Ridge was a great disappointment to both Haig and French. The Germans had managed to contain three times their number without having to call on reserves. Their sturdy work in ameliorating their defences had more than paid off.

Most of all though it was the failure of the British artillery to live up to expectations that had lost the day. The British simply did not have sufficient shells to fight a modern battle and many of its canon were obsolete, worn out, or both.

Fuses on many of the shells (those for the 15 inch howitzers in particular) were deficient and failed to detonate. The worn barrels of the guns resulted in far too many drop-shorts and although the barrage created a ‘curtain of dust and smoke’ it did little damage.

Within days the Shell Scandal had broken back in London with The Times publishing a leading article on the 14th May 1915 and other newspapers took up the story in rapid succession.

We had not sufficient high explosive to level his [the Germans] parapets to the ground after the French practice, and when our infantry gallantly stormed the trenches…they found a garrison undismayed, many entanglements still intact, and Maxims on all sides ready to pour in streams of bullets…The want of an unlimited supply of high explosive was a fatal bar to our success.

Daily Mail 15 May 1915.

Perhaps the greatest insult to the British Army’s assault on Aubers Ridge comes in the German Histories – they hardly mention it all.