Smith-Dorrien (and, for that matter, Pulteney) had never wanted to embark on L‘offensive outrance -not, at least, without proper preparation and a clear picture of the prospect before him. Lille was an inviting prize, and tantalizingly close. But might it not be possible that the same idea had also occurred to Falkenhayn? Not so, said GHQThus Smith-Dorrien, no stranger to retreat, decided to pull back; but this time there was no question of the ‘stopping-blow’ of Le Cateau. It was to be a matter of a fighting withdrawal and a series of desperate defensive actions, too numerous to record. Once more the BEF succeeded in slipping away, for in the words of the official History, ‘the retirement of 11 Corps on the night of 22/23 October to the new line was carried out without the slightest interference, though next day at least one German regiment stormed the villages that had been abandoned.On 24 October, 11 Corps lay thus, right to left: Givenchy, thence east of Festubert , Richebourg 1’ Avoue, east of Neuve Chapelle , Fauquissart, Rouges Bancs. This line was to be held until the end of the battle of La Bassée, with one exception. On 26 October the Germans launched a major assault on Neuve Chapelle, which lay roughly at the junction between 5th Division and 3 rd Division
The battle lasted for four days. Why the Germans should have expended so much costly effort (six infantry regiments and two Jager battalions, with twice the normal artillery support) to gain an objective of little tactical importance is difficult to understand; and more difficult still when, after an unsuccessful counter-attack on the 28th, a British patrol entered the ruined village at 3 a. m the following morning, only to find that it had been evacuated by the enemy.
The German military mind is not always easy to understand. The fighting had cost them well over 5,000 casualties. The official records do not even mention Neuve Chapelle, neither its capture nor its evacuation, which suggests that the Germans considered the action to have been a failure. A more probable answer is that on 29 October the battle of Gheluvelt — the battle to end all battles — began. We know, for example, that all the heavy artillery of Sixth Army was withdrawn from the front of II and III Corps on the 29th to support Fabeck’s Army Group; and on 30 October 26th Division, which had taken a major part in the battle for Neuve Chapelle, was north of the Lys and about to join in the attack on the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. Not even the Germans could sustain a major offensive along the entire front.
On the British side, the order of battle at Neuve Chapelle reads very much like that on the canal at Mons: 7th, 8th and 9th Infantry Brigades of 3rd Division, and 14th Infantry Brigade of 5th Division, to which were added such additional units as Smith-Dorrien could beg or borrow from Allenby and from the Lahore Division. Distinctions are invidious, but in the forfront of the fighting were our old friends from Obourg and Nimy, 1/Lincolns; 1/Wiltshires; and above all, 1/Royal West Kents , which by the 29th had been reduced to 328 men commanded by two newly joined subalterns and two sergeant-majors. ‘Once more’, says the official History, ‘The British troops had shown a superiority over the enemy in fortitude and endurance and once more fire discipline had, in his eyes, multiplied the force opposing him into immense superiority of numbers.’
While Smith-Dorrien was thus engaged Pulteney was fighting the battle of Armentières. As II Corps fell back on the hinge of Givenchy, so 19th Infantry Brigade and 6th Division were obliged to conform. By the 22nd it had been necessary to evacuate what had suddenly become a dangerous salient formed by the line of the previous advance: Fromelles—Radinghem—Ennetières—Prerriesques. On the 23rd, III Corps was holding a front of twelve miles from Rouges Bancs to Epinette and thence to Houplines, le Gheer and St Yves, where 4th 1Division was in touch with Allenby’s Cavalry Corps, itself under increasing pressure between Messines and Hollebeke. Facing Pultency were the greater part of XIIICorps, 48th Reserve Division,
THE MONS STAR . David Ascoli