The Battle of Loos (1915)
Before we start, Loos is pronounced “loose”; you’re welcome! In this article, I’m going to take a look at this battle, during which one of the my ancestors died. I’ll be taking a look at the reasons for the battle, what actually happened and the consequences of the action.
The Battle of Loos, situated in northern France, took place against a backdrop where Germany was losing strength in the West as it moved divisions to the East to face Russia. Germany had moved to a defensive posture in the West and had repulsed French offensives during the spring of 1915. The German posture had changed from the beginning of the war, where they tried to knock France out first, to trying to defeat Russia before switching their attentions back to the allies in the West.
The French commander in chief Joffre was struggling politically and needed a success to resolve these difficulties. Noting German successes in Galicia, which were achieved with huge quantities of men and material, Joffre decided that, if properly resourced, a breakthrough could be possible in the West.
Following the first inter-allied conference held on the 7th of July at Chantilly and attended by French, British, Belgian, Italian, Russian and Serbian army representatives, it was decided that the allies would attempt to pressurise the Germans on all fronts by launching coordinated attacks. The British would have preferred the offensive to be scheduled later, giving them more time to build up men and munitions, but Joffre needed an early success, not only politically, but also to liberate northern France where much of French heavy industry was located. However, despite British reticence, Joffre was able to get the support of Sir John French, the British Commander in Chief who also wanted a major success on the Western Front.
The French plan was to break into the great western German salient at Vimy Ridge and Champagne. Prior to the battle of the British army had taken over lengths of the front from the French, in order to free up troops, and now they were to support the Vimy effort, advancing across the heavy industrial landscape around Loos. However, the ground around Loos was not ideal for an attack being flat and exposed with lots of covering industrial workings. The British pushed back on the location of the attack citing the lack of munitions, but Joffre held firm. To counter the risks caused by lack of munitions and the unfavourable ground Haig decided it was time for the British to use poison gas for the first time; the British would need every bit of help they could get.
The German defensive system comprised of two lines, 3 miles wide with well-sighted machine gun posts and lots and lots of defensive wire. Sir John French was cautious about the chances for success but Haig grew increasingly confident as the attack drew nearer even writing to his wife to say that he was pretty confident of some success and, as always with Haig, harbouring some hope that he would be able to get his operational reserve to advance into the open country behind the trenches. But Haig was to be proven wrong.
The ground was flat, dominated by slag heaps that would create defensive positions, mining villages, collieries and industrial buildings that could be fortified presented even more challenges for attackers. The Germans had strengthened their frontline, deploying wide barbed wire belts many yards thick and creating machine gun redoubts all along. Behind the first line, a second line of defence had been strengthened. Crucially, the second line was out of reach for British artillery so after any successful attack that penetrated the first line, the guns would have to be brought up if they were to play a part in further attacks. Finally, the second line was situated on a reverse slope so the British couldn’t observe it from their start lines.
On the 21st of September 1915, the British bombardment of the German frontlines began. The bombardment was scheduled to continue right up until the assault. With the extensive artillery preparations and the participation of six divisions this was a very large offensive for the British at the time and was widely referred to as “the big push.” Certainly, it was the biggest British attack so far and the Germans, although they didn’t necessarily know the exact date and time, knew it was coming.
At 5am on the 25th of September 1915, Sir Douglas Haig was testing the wind direction. The air was almost dead calm, so his aide de camp Lieutenant Colonel Alan Fletcher lit a cigarette. The smoke drifted off slowly to the North East in roughly the right direction for the release of gas. But Haig was concerned that the breeze wouldn’t be enough, worried that the gas would simply rest over the British trenches and over no man’s land through which his men had to attack. At 5:15am he telephoned Sir Hubert Gough who was the commander of the First Corps, who were attacking that day. Haig asked whether it would be possible to reduce the frontage of the attack given the unfavourable breeze. But when Gough said it was too late to change the plans, Haig gave the order to carry on.
By 5.40am the breeze had increased slightly, Haig noted that the leaves on the poplar trees were beginning to rustle and that this would be satisfactory. At 5:50am the Chlorine gas was released from the canisters sited along the British frontline; a huge cloud of white and yellow gas rose up from the trenches to a height of 200–300 ft and floated towards the German lines. At 6:30am the whistles blew, and six British divisions climbed out of their trenches and made their way across “no man’s land”. For five of those divisions the gas worked, and the men were able to capture much of the German frontline and in places parts of the second line. However, for the 2nd Division’s attack on the left of the line, the gas hung around in no man’s land and in places blew back onto their own positions. Second Lieutenant George Grossmith described the gas, “the gas hung in a thick pall over everything and it was impossible to see more than 10 yards. In vain I looked for my landmarks in the German line to guide me to the right spot, but I could not see through the gas.”
Where gas did its job to the South of Haig’s attack, 4th Corps made significant progress in that first day, capturing Loos and moving on towards Lens. Whilst it was clean that the enemy lines had been pierced, there was uncertainty about the next layer of German defences and few Royal Flying Corps reports were coming in due to adverse flying conditions. Loos had been captured, but the 47th and 15th Divisions who managed this feat had been halted and were threatened by counterattack. Hearteningly, there were clear signs of the Germans withdrawing in this area and of panic in Lens.
However, due to supply problems and the need for reserves to be brought up, the advance halted toward the end of the first day. Haig had requested that Nine Corps be available for use on the first day, always with his eye on exploiting a gap, but Sir John French had argued that they wouldn’t be needed until the following morning. However, as it appeared that a breakthrough had occurred, Nine Corps were released during afternoon, but travelling delays meant they only arrived in position during the night. Meanwhile, to the North, 1st Corps made less progress as the British gas attack had been less effective, however they were able to take some ground around the formidable Hohenzollern redoubt.
So, during that first day the British had successfully broken into the enemy’s trench systems, however they were meeting determined resistance along the second line and were unable to get reserves forward in order to exploit the opportunities they created. Whilst the Germans were under pressure from the heavy French attack to the South and did not stop them bringing in more reserves into the Loos area. The weather was closing in and it was raining heavily. Haig at 1st Army headquarters had an unclear view of the whole situation and was unaware that the Germans had reinforced. The lack of reserves in position on the British side, and the new German troops arriving, meant that the British were vulnerable to counterattack.
By day two of the battle, the Germans was secure in the second line of their defences and the British no longer had the advantage of artillery bombardments. As the British attempted to attack the reinforced positions they were raked by German machine gunfire. In some places the German machine guns had killed so many British soldiers that they ceased fire to allow the troops to withdraw.
The battle descended into days of attack and counter attack one participant was to comment “What a show, few instructions, little ammunition or bombs, next to no support for the artillery, no system for looking after the wounded and practically no food. No wonder we lost the ground we’d won and lost so many casualties.”
Running alongside the British attack at Loos, the French attacks at Champagne and Artois had also failed and Joffre called a temporary halt. The Battle at Loos rumbled on with local actions before being formally renewed on the 13th and 14th of October, however, this well-prepared attack also failed, foundering on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which the Germans had completely recaptured.
The battle had achieved little. The British had lost about 16,000 dead and around 25,000 wounded. German total losses were about 25,000. The British had also lost three major generals, proof that they weren’t always hiding behind the lines.
Rudyard Kipling, the famous writer and advocate for Britain and Empire, lost his son during this battle and it turned his thoughts against the war. He was to write, in this poem “The Children”,
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven —
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires —
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes — to be cindered by fires —
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For that we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children?
The body of his son, John Kipling, was never found.
As a postscript one tangible result of the Battle of Loos was that Douglas Haig replaced Sir John French as the British Commander in Chief on the Western Front. After the battle, Haig had written to Kitchener, the overall head of British armed forces, expressing his disappointment that the reserves had not been released in order for him to exploit the favourable position in which he found himself. During October, high level discussions in government and in the British armed forces discussed whether Sir John French was up to the job.
During these discussions, Haig was asked his opinion and he was clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he would be able to do a better job. By the 3rd of December, Kitchener told Haig that he was going to talk to the Prime Minister about him succeeding Sie John and on the 10th of December Haig received a telegram telling him that Sir John French had resigned and that he was now Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary force pending the Kings approval. Thus, the outcome of the Battle of Loos was to shape the outcome of the rest of the war.
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