The Battle of Loos took place from 25 September – 8 October 1915 in France on the Western Front, during the First World War. It was the biggest British attack of 1915, the first time that the British used poison gas and the first mass engagement of New Army units. The French and British tried to break through the German defences in Artois and Champagne and restore a war of movement. Despite improved methods, more ammunition and better equipment, the Franco-British attacks were largely contained by the Germans, except for local losses of ground. The British gas attack failed to neutralize the defenders and the artillery bombardment was too short to destroy the barbed wire or machine gun nests. German tactical defensive proficiency was still dramatically superior to the British offensive planning and doctrine, resulting in a British defeat.
The battle was the British part of the Third Battle of Artois, an Anglo-French offensive (known to the Germans as the Herbstschlacht (Autumn Battle). Field Marshal Sir John French and Douglas Haig (GOC First Army), regarded the ground south of La Bassée Canal, which was overlooked by German-held slag heaps and colliery towers, as unsuitable for an attack, particularly given the discovery in July that the Germans were building a second defensive position behind the front position. At the Frévent Conference on 27 July, Field Marshal French failed to persuade Ferdinand Foch that an attack further north offered greater prospects for success. The debate continued into August, with Joffre siding with Foch and the British commanders being over-ruled by Herbert Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, on 21 August. On 3 May, the British decided to use poison gas in military operations in France. At a conference on 6 September, Haig announced to his subordinates that extensive use of chlorine gas might facilitate an advance on a line towards Douai and Valenciennes, despite the terrain, as long as the French and British were able to keep the attack secret.
The battle was the third time that specialist Royal Engineer tunnelling companies were used to dig under no-man's-land, to plant mines under the parapets of the German front line trenches, ready to be detonated at zero hour.
French decided to keep a reserve consisting of the Cavalry Corps, the Indian Cavalry Corps and XI Corps (Lieutenant-General Richard Haking), which consisted of the Guards Division and the New Army 21st Division and 24th Division, recently arrived in France and a corps staff (some of whom had never worked together or served on a staff before). Archibald Murray, the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff (DCIGS) advised French that as troops fresh from training, they were suited for the long marches of an exploitation rather than for trench warfare. French was doubtful that a breakthrough would be achieved. Haig and Foch, commander of the groupe des armées du nord (Northern Army Group), wanted the reserves closer, to exploit a breakthrough on the first day; French agreed to move them nearer to the front but still thought they should not be committed until the second day.
Haig was hampered by the shortage of artillery ammunition, which meant the preliminary bombardment, essential for success in trench warfare, was insufficient. With only 533 guns and a shortage of shells to cover 11,200 yd (6.4 mi; 10.2 km) front with two German trench lines to bombard, the British would probably be attacking positions that had not been disrupted enough to cause a breakthrough and reliant on the success of the gas attack. The British commanders at this time did not grasp that German defensive tactics included placing the second line of machine gun nests on the reverse slopes of hills; destroying them would need howitzers and shells with high explosives. Prior to the British attack, about 140 long tons (142 t) of chlorine gas was released with mixed results; in places the gas was blown back onto British trenches, while in others it caused the Germans considerable difficulty. Due to the inefficiency of contemporary gas masks, many soldiers removed them as they could not see through the fogged-up eyepieces or could barely breathe with them on, which led to some being affected by their own gas. Wanting to be closer to the battle, French had moved to a forward command post at Lilliers, less than 20 mi (32 km) behind the First Army front. He left most of his staff behind at GHQ and had no direct telephone to the army HQ, which attacked at 6:30 a.m. on 25 September, sending an officer by car to request the release of the reserves at 7:00 a.m.
In many places British artillery had failed to cut the German wire before the attack. The engineers manning the poison gas cylinders warned not to use them, citing the weakness and unpredictability of the wind. When overruled by General Sir Hubert Gough the gas drifted back into the British lines and caused more British than German casualties. Advancing over open fields, within range of German machine guns and artillery, the British suffered many casualties. The British were able to break through the weaker German defences and capture the village of Loos-en-Gohelle, mainly due to numerical superiority. Supply and communications problems, combined with the late arrival of reserves, meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. Haig did not hear until 10:00 a.m. that the divisions were moving up to the front. French visited Haig from 11:00 to 11:30 a.m. and agreed that Haig could have the reserve but rather than using the telephone he drove to Haking's headquarters and gave the order at 12:10 p.m. Haig then heard from Haking at 1:20 p.m. that the reserves were moving forward. French had not understood the poorness of the roads these reserves would be using and had not constructed new ones. Much of the reserves divisions had to march most of the day and night single file up the only accessible roads.
When the battle resumed the following day, the Germans had recovered and improved their defensive positions. Much of the barbed wire, in some places 30 ft (9.1 m) deep, remained uncut and the British had used their stock of chlorine gas. British attempts to continue the advance with the reserves were repulsed. Twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours. The British preparatory bombardment, which amounted to desultory fire for about twenty minutes apparently inflicted no casualties. German machine gunners reported being "nauseated" from the sight of so many corpses and ceased firing so that the British could retreat with their wounded. French told Foch on 28 September, that a gap could be "rushed" just north of Hill 70, although Foch felt that this would be difficult to co-ordinate and Haig told him that the First Army was in no position for further attacks. A lull fell on 28 September, with the British back on their starting positions, having suffered more than 20,000 casualties, including three major-generals.[a]
The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) came under the command of Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd wings under Colonels E. B. Ashmore, John Salmond and Sefton Brancker participated. As the British were short of artillery ammunition, the RFC flew target identification sorties prior to the battle, to ensure that shells were not wasted. During the first few days of the attack, target-marking squadrons equipped with better wireless transmitters, helped to direct British artillery onto German targets. Later in the battle, pilots carried out a tactical bombing operation for the first time in history. Aircraft of the 2nd and 3rd wings dropped many 100 lb (45 kg) bombs on German troops, trains, rail lines and marshalling yards. As the land offensive stalled, British pilots and observers flew low over German positions, providing target information to the artillery.
Rawlinson wrote to the King's adviser Arthur Bigge (28 September)
From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy's trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.— Rawlinson
Major-General Richard Hilton, at that time a Forward Observation Officer, said of the battle:
A great deal of nonsense has been written about Loos. The real tragedy of that battle was its nearness to complete success. Most of us who reached the crest of Hill 70, and survived, were firmly convinced that we had broken through on that Sunday, 26th September 1915. There seemed to be nothing ahead of us, but an unoccupied and incomplete trench system. The only two things that prevented our advancing into the suburbs of Lens were, firstly, the exhaustion of the "Jocks" themselves (for they had undergone a bellyfull of marching and fighting that day) and, secondly, the flanking fire of numerous German machine-guns, which swept that bare hill from some factory buildings in Cite St. Auguste to the south of us. All that we needed was more artillery ammunition to blast those clearly-located machine-guns, plus some fresh infantry to take over from the weary and depleted "Jocks." But, alas, neither ammunition nor reinforcements were immediately available, and the great opportunity passed.— Richard Hilton
The twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours. French had already been criticised before the battle and lost his remaining support in the government and army due to the British failure and a belief that he handled poorly the reserve divisions. French was replaced by Haig as Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Expionary Force (BEF) in December 1915. Though Haig and Gough deserve blame for committing too many of their forces on the first day, they largely escaped blame for the debacle. French's combination of poor tactical planning, lack of knowledge of the conditions on the ground, and poor execution in sending in the reserves is largely to blame for the battle's outcome.
British casualties in the main attack were 48,367 and they suffered 10,880 more in the subsidiary attack, a total of 59,247 losses from the 285,107 British casualties on the Western Front in 1915. James Edmonds, the British official historian, gave German losses in the period 21 September – 10 October as c. 26,000 of c. 141,000 casualties on the Western Front during the autumn offensives in Artois and Champagne. In Der Weltkrieg, the German official account, 6th Army casualties are given as 29,657 to 21 September; by the end of October losses had risen to 51,100 and total German casualties for the autumn battle (Herbstschlacht) in Artois and Champagne, were given as 150,000 men. Obout 26,000 of the German casualties were attributable to the Battle of Loos.
The Germans made several attempts to recapture the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which they accomplished on 3 October. On 8 October, the Germans attempted to recapture much of the remaining lost ground by attacking with five regiments around Loos and against part of the 7th Division on the left flank. Foggy weather inhibited observation, the artillery preparation was inadequate and the British and French defenders were well prepared behind intact wire. The German attack was repulsed with 3,000 casualties but managed to disrupt British attack preparations, causing a delay until the night of 12/13 October. The British made a final attack on 13 October, which failed due to a lack of hand grenades. Haig thought it might be possible to launch another attack on 7 November but the combination of heavy rain and accurate German shelling during the second half of October persuaded him to abandon the attempt.
The Loos Memorial commemorates over 20,000 soldiers of Britain and the Commonwealth who fell in the battle and have no known grave. The community of Loos in British Columbia, changed its name from Crescent Island to commemorate the battle and several participants wrote of their experiences, Robert Graves described the battle and succeeding days in his war memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), Patrick MacGill, who served as a stretcher-bearer in the London Irish and was wounded at Loos in October 1915, described the battle in his autobiographical novel The Great Push (1916) and J. N. Hall related his experiences in the British Army at Loos in Kitchener's Mob (1916).
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