Battle of Loos

Battle of Loos

The Battle of Loos was a battle that 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 contained by the German armies, except for local losses of ground. British casualties at Loos were about twice as high as German losses.

 

Strategic developments

The battle was the British part of the Third Battle of Artois, an Anglo-French offensive, Field Marshal Sir John French and 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 commanders being over-ruled by Herbert Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, on 21 August. On 3 May, the British decided upon use of 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 success despite the terrain, if the French and British were able to keep the attack secret and advance on a line towards Douai and Valenciennes.

 

British offensive preparations

The battle was the third time that specialist Royal Engineer tunnelling companies, were used to tunnel under no-man’s-land, to plant mines under the parapets of the German front line trenches, to be detonated at zero hour.

 

British plan of attack

 
Battle of Loos, 1915

 

French decided to keep a strong 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, which had 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. Prior to the British attack, about 140 long tons (140,000 kg) of chlorine gas was released with mixed success; in places the gas was blown back onto British trenches. 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 soldiers being affected by the British gas as it blew back. Wanting to be closer to the battle, French had moved to a forward command post at Lilliers, less than 20 miles (32 km) behind the First Army front. He left most of his staff behind at GHQ and had no direct telephone to the First Army, 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.

 

Battle

25 September

 
Map, Hohenzollern Redoubt, October 1915

 

In many places British artillery had failed to cut the German wire in advance of the attack. Advancing over open fields, within range of German machine guns and artillery, British losses were devastating. The British were able to break through the weaker German defences and capture the town 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.

 

26–28 September

When the battle resumed the following day, the Germans had recovered and improved their defensive positions. 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. 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 having retreated to their starting positions, having lost over 20,000 casualties, including three major-generals.

Air operations

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-pound (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.

 

Aftermath

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, because of the British failure and that he was responsible for poor handling of the reserve divisions. French was replaced by Haig as Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in December 1915.

Casualties

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 of the 285,107 British casualties on the Western Front in 1915. J. E. 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, losses of the German 6th Army are given as 29,657 to 21 September; by the end of October losses had risen to 51,100 men and total German casualties for the autumn battle (Herbstschlacht) in Artois and Champagne, were given as 150,000 men.

 

Commemoration

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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