This Day In History: May 9

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On May 9, 1915, Anglo-French forces fighting in World War I launch their first combined attempt to break through the heavily fortified German trench lines on the Western Front in France.

At Vimy Ridge, a strategically important crest of land on the Aisne River, in northwestern France, French troops launched an attack on German positions after firing shrapnel shells for five hours on the morning of May 9, 1915. On the heels of the artillery barrage, the French soldiers left their trenches to advance across No Man’s Land, only to find that the bombardment had failed to break the first German wire. As they struggled to cut the wire themselves, German machine gunners opened fire. Eventually, the French were able to reach their objective, as the Germans withdrew to better lines, but they suffered heavy casualties: one regiment of the French Foreign Legion lost nearly 2,000 of its 3,000 soldiers, including its commanding officer, who was shot in the chest by a sniper, and all three battalion commanders.

That same day, British troops under the orders of Sir Douglas Haig, commander in chief of the 1st Army Corps, attacked German lines further north in the Artois region in an attempt to capture Aubers Ridge, where they had failed during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle two months earlier. The British artillery here also proved ineffective, with many of the shells fired proving defective and many others too light to cause serious damage. As a result, when the soldiers attacked, they were completely unable to break through the German defenses. An entry in the German regimental diary about that ill-fated advance recorded that There could never before in war have been a more perfect target than this solid wall of khaki men, British and Indian side by side. There was only one possible order to give — Fire until the barrels burst.’

After the first British assault failed to break the German line, many of the soldiers who had crossed into No Man’s Land and been injured by enemy fire were killed by a follow-up British artillery barrage lasting 40 minutes. British troops running back to their own lines came under German fire as they ran; as they had a number of German prisoners with them, soldiers in the British trenches mistakenly believed they were facing a counter-attack, and also fired on their retreating comrades.

Despite the initial failure, Haig ordered a second attack, disregarding reports from air reconnaissance of a steady forward movement of German reinforcements. Two of his three subordinate commanders protested, including General James Willcocks, commander of the Indian Corps, and General Hubert Gough, commander of the 7th division, who reported to Haig his certainty of any further attempt to attack by daylight being a failure. Only one commander, General Richard Haking of the 1st Division, felt confident of the success of a further assault, and Haig accepted his judgment.

Thus, the British forces, led by a regiment of kilted bagpipers from the 1st Black Watch, attacked again later on May 9, and were slaughtered by German machine gunners. At dusk, Haig ordered the attackers to push forward with bayonets; faced with overwhelming resistance from his three commanders, he withdrew this order but mandated that battle be resumed the next day. On the morning of May 10 however, Willcocks, Gough and Haking all told Haig they lacked sufficient ammunition to start a second day’s offensive, and the attack was canceled. The first and only day of the Battle of Aubers Ridge had resulted in the loss of 458 officers and 11,161 men. As Haig’s close associate, General Richard Charteris, wrote in his diary on May 11: "Our attack has failed, and failed badly, and with heavy casualties. That is the bald and most unpleasant fact."

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