This battle, which began on 25 September 1915, was the largest conflict for the BEF in the war to that time: six divisions, that is 75,000 men, would take part. It was the debut of the divisions of the ‘New Army' and the decision had been taken to use chlorine gas and smoke as there was a shortage of shells for the artillery. The battle was also a key moment in the rise of General Sir Douglas Haig, who replaced Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in Chief of the BEF after the battle had ended.
It was also an important stage in the development of the BEF as it was fought before the artillery reduced the landscape to churned up mud. The troops went into battle in flat caps holding their rifles with attached bayonets and advanced over woodland, over coal slag heaps and also fought in built-up areas.
The BEF may have been Britain's most well-organised, equipped and trained army ever to set foot on foreign shores, but by 1915 it was a pale shadow of its former glory. Too many hardened veterans had gone and their replacements were a mixture of territorials, reservists, 'dugouts', the Indian Corps and individual volunteers, hurriedly trained and rushed to the front.
Earlier in 1915, the BEF had fought three battles in Northern France in an attempt to break through the German lines: Neuve Chapelle (10-12 March), where an initial break-in was skilfully stopped by German reserves; Aubers Ridge (9 May) which had been a disaster; and Festubert (15-27 May) which had had limited success. The BEF's commander-in-chief, now aged 62, had been given the ambiguous instructions of supporting the French army but also of protecting the interests of the BEF. Furthermore, Field-Marshall Earl Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had told French that, because the size of the BEF was strictly limited, he was to look gravely upon risking his troops in forward movements, especially when large French forces were not involved.
The origins of the battle lay in the support the BEF had committed to help the French Army during their attack in Artois. Initially Sir John French had gone along with Foch's proposal of the BEF taking over 22 miles of front south of Arras and attacking alongside the French Tenth Army. Sir John now wrote to Sir Douglas Haig (who commanded the BEF First Army) for a detailed report to be drafted on the feasibility of the proposed operation. Haig submitted his report on 23 June. Later events would show it to be mostly correct in its appreciation of the difficulties of the proposed ground. The terrain was not ideal for the BEF - mines and slag heaps littered the prospective battlefield, and whereas the capture of the first German line was possible, further advance would not be so easy as the artillery would not be able to support the troops. Field Marshal French had hoped to settle for an artillery battle, which would have saved his men but would have neutralised the German guns. This was not acceptable to Joffre who complained to Kitchener. Kitchener was summoned to France where he told French that he had no alternative, the Allied attack would involve the BEF putting men onto the battlefield and that a plan had to be set out immediately. There was also the need to help - indirectly - their Russian allies who had suffered severe losses on the Eastern Front.
The Eastern Front actions, where German successes in 1914 had been followed up by heavy fighting in the spring of 1915, had led to a Russian retreat. The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevitch, had written to Kitchener in July 1915. This letter revealed how serious the situation had become and requested action on the Western Front:
'In view of these circumstances each action of the Allied armies which prevents the possibilities of new transports of German troops to the Eastern Front is of prime importance.'
Kitchener was well aware of the 'knock on' effects of a Russian collapse with subsequent movement of German troops to the Western Front. Field Marshal French had to put men in the field and the First Army was to be the spearhead of the attack.
General Haig, commanding First Army, received his orders in August 1915. In these lay the seeds of future problems. French required Haig to attack with ‘the full extent of your powers'. After this instruction, French left Haig to organize the battle and took himself off to his sick bed for the best part of the next month.
General Sir Douglas Haig was the rising star of the BEF but he had many flaws - he was a traditionalist and an incurable optimist. On 6 September, Haig held his pre-battle meeting. He expressed his thoughts on the coming attack to the senior First Army officers and repeated why the British and the French must launch a new offensive to take some pressure off Russia. As the battle was no longer to be a limited artillery action, Haig was now confident of not only securing the line Loos-Hulluch, but also of taking Hill 70 and then pushing onto the Haute Deule canal, over five miles from the British front line.
The battle would - it was hoped - reach the German rear lines and hence cut the German communications and, maybe, cause a retreat. The major problem that was overlooked in this strategy was that the BEF was short of men and shells, Haig's plan was high risk enough - it involved a wide front (25 miles) - but he hoped to wear down the Germans and, by bringing up reserves at the crucial moment, punch a hole in the German line. Haig was very much an optimist with this plan, since all previous experience of the First Army during 1915 had produced limited, sometimes non-existent, gains with corresponding heavy casualties. What he was planning here was a high risk breakthrough aimed at securing a strategic victory over the German Sixth Army. During August Haig moved his headquarters up to Hinges, two miles north of Bethune.
Haig saw cylinder-released chlorine gas as a solver of problems and not a ‘boomerang weapon'. It would be carried to the front line in three foot long cylinders (usually eight to twelve inches in diameter) and placed in sand-bagged clusters at 25 yard intervals. The discharge pipes (about ten feet in length) would be thrown over the parapet into no man's land and the valves opened, given the correct weather conditions. The aim was to drive the Germans from their front line trenches at minimal loss to the BEF.
It was the job of two of Haig's Corps commanders to produce plans for their troops which corresponded to Haig's ideas. I Corps was to capture the massive German earthwork known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and IV Corps to take the village of Loos and possibly advance towards Hill 70. In Haig's plan, the Germans would vacate their trenches before his men had crossed no man's land. Lieutenant-General Gough (GOC, I Corps) and Lieutenant-General Rawlinson ( GOC, IV Corps) produced quite different plans. Gough, the younger man was definitely a 'thruster'. His plan was relatively simple - a division would rush the German position at dawn, following a preliminary bombardment and a gas discharge. Rawlinson's was much more cautious. He was sceptical about the use of gas and offered a three-step operation, using heavy bombardments while slowly sapping forwards: a task which could take a week. Haig's response was mixed, he was impressed with Gough's plan but felt that Rawlinson's 'bite and hold' was too cautious. Haig wanted all six divisions in the two Corps in action, this meant 75,000 men would attack simultaneously, from 2nd Division astride the La Bassée canal to 47th (London) Division around the mining village of Maroc. This gave the British a considerable numerical superiority over the Germans; intelligence had suggested only 15,000 enemy troops within five miles of the battlefield.
One of First Army's Corps commanders (Lt General W Pulteney, GOC III Corps) was concerned about the wind direction: if it was in the correct direction for one part of the battlefield, it would not be correct in another. Specifically, if the wind was correct for his attack, it would not be blowing in the correct direction for the attack further south. Haig appears to have ignored Pulteney's comments. This reliance on gas and not on artillery would produce problems if there was a gas shortage (for the frontage of attack), and not enough thought had been given to the fact that the German troops had gas masks and if their machine gunners may have had access to oxygen. As a result, any gas discharge would have to last for at least forty minutes so that the German precautions (gas masks and oxygen) would be exhausted. Haig had been promised 5,000 cylinders which would have been adequate for a forty minute discharge for a frontage of 6,300 yards. Unfortunately Sir John instructed Haig to extend the frontage first to 10,400 yards and then to 14,500 yards (6 September). Now there was not going to be sufficient gas, certainly not the 'lavish' discharge which Haig had promised his senior officers. When the battle commenced, there was only sufficient gas for a 24 minute discharge. Haig consulted Captain Ernest Gould, First Army's meteorological officer, about the weather conditions required for the gas to be effective. The advice was to wait until the wind blew from north-west to south-west with a speed of at least four miles per hour. When Haig asked for flexibility in when to make his strike, the request was denied. No further delay in the battle was allowed: Joffre and Foch made it clear that all attacks must go in on 25 September, regardless of weather conditions.
Haig met Gough and Rawlinson on 16 September and asked them to finish proposals as soon as possible. Gough's alternative plan offered no radical revision. Without the use of gas, Gough wanted a heavier artillery barrage and a shorter frontage. Rawlinson wanted to use his artillery twice, to support two staggered attacks: 15th Division to attack Loos on the first day and then to switch to support 1st Division's attack on Hulloch, either under cover of night or the following day. French over-ruled Haig, insisting on a six-division attack on 25 September. Furthermore, the line was not reduced: the divisions were to attack the German lines between the La Bassée canal and Lens after a forty minute discharge of chlorine gas and smoke and a preliminary bombardment that was to last for over four days. In other words, the plan had mutated from a short advance in the wake of French successes south of Lens into the biggest and most ambitious British offensive of the war to date.
When the artillery bombardment started, it became obvious that the guns were spread out too much for the width of front and that there were areas where the German front line wire was not being cut and trenches destroyed. The expected effects of the gas did not materialise: the men who advanced behind the gas and smoke mixture found little evidence that gas had seriously affected the Germans (although its use did boost the morale of the attacking troops). Unfavourable wind direction and the effects of slopes meant that some troops in 1st Division were gassed by chlorine released by their neighbours in 15th Division. 2nd Division had problems with gas: Lieutenant AB White attached to 6 Brigade decided the wind conditions were not favourable, but he was overruled and chlorine was released (from leaking cylinders with rusting stopcocks) ten minutes before the infantry attack. When the wind changed direction and began blowing back towards the British line, White turned the gas off, but this did not prevent 'large quantities' of chlorine swamping the front trenches and causing considerable confusion. A similar situation occurred further north with 5 Brigade. These were not the only problems in Haig's plans: he did not have sufficient reserves. French had decided to leave the reserves (XI Corps under Lieutenant-General RCB Haking) under his own command and not under Haig's.
In retrospect, French expected Haig's battle to take the best part of a week (French appeared to have wanted a more limited attack, with the reserves being employed once success had been achieved) so where the reserves were located on 25 September (the start of the battle) was not important to him. Unfortunately, Haig's aim was to win the battle in one day and, once a hole was cut in the German line, the reserves were to be ready for an immediate attack. This problem regarding the positioning of XI Corps (initially 20,000 yards behind the front line, but moved closer once Haig had demanded their re-positioning) and Haig's ability to request it were prime examples of how French lacked an effective grip on his subordinates.
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Once the battle started (0630), fighting was heavy and continuous all morning with I Corps (2nd, 7th and 9th Divisions) attacking to the north of IV Corps (1st, 15th and 47th Divisions). Stubborn German resistance slowed and even stopped the advance in places. The striking successes were achieved on the southern sector of the battlefield, where both smoke and gas had helped the attack. 47th (London) Division took all its objectives with relatively light casualties. 15th (Scottish) Division stormed two German defensive lines, captured the village of Loos and took Hill 70. On the northern sector of the battlefield, however, a different battle was unfolding. 2nd Division's attacks were repulsed (this was the result of a number of adverse features: the poor ground conditions; the lack of thorough artillery preparation; and the troubled discharge of the gas. The 9th (Scottish) division managed to take the Hohenzollern redoubt, but it could not get much further, becoming bogged down around Fosse 8. In the central section of the British line, 7th and 1st Divisions had managed, after initial setbacks and heavy resistance, to capture their first objectives, but were unable to reach the second German position.
Any attack on the German second line would require artillery support. In this there lay a major problem, since dust and bad light had made observation 'practically impossible' and the BEF artillery had not neutralised the German guns, heavy enemy shelling of the lines made communication very difficult. Further advance required a rapid movement of extra troops. When Haig called for the reserves, XI Corps were too far back for an immediate attack. When the bulk of the reserves in the shape of 21st and 24th Divisions arrived on the battlefield, they were tired, bewildered and very ignorant of the situation. Without accurate maps and proper briefing, they were unaware of their correct position and what exactly was expected from them. The advantage of breaking through the gap in the line had passed. During the night of 25/26 September, the Germans counter-attacked around Fosse 8 and the Quarries, an area taken by 7th Division. For two hours chaos reigned in this sector and, when a British artillery bombardment opened up on the supposed German lines of attack, the surviving brigades of 7th Division withdrew.
Once the battle was resumed on the second day, poor communication and little artillery support resulted in 21st and 24th Divisions' attack on the German second line being cut to pieces in no man's land and retiring in the face of the German attacks.
Both 21st and 24th Divisions were 'New Army' divisions, and their failure in the face of the enemy can be attributed to many causes. Haig placed the blame of their failure on their inexperience (together with their late arrival on the battlefield) and not on being given an impossible task. Major-General GT Forestier-Walker (GOC, 21st Division) cited seven reasons for their retirement. These include the effect of artillery fire on new troops, the exhausted state of the men, the loss of senior officers at critical times, the assault on Hill 70 taking place two hours before the main attack, the poor state of British artillery and heavy casualties. A report by Major-General JE Capper (appointed GOC, 24th Division on 3 October 1915) concurred with Forestier-Walker's opinion. The commanding officer of 24th Division at the outset of the battle, Major-General Sir JG Ramsey, was an experienced 59 year-old Indian Army officer who had been 'dug out' of retirement in 1914 and sent to command the division. He was clearly unsuited to the pace of modern warfare on the Western Front. He tended his resignation to his corps commander on the morning of 27 September.
All attempts to retake the Quarries, as well as Hulloch and Hill 70, on 26 September, were a failure. The attacks went in piecemeal against a hardening defence and were conducted with poor artillery support and with inadequate preparation. In fact, when Haig put the Guards into battle (as part of XI Corps) on 27 September, they had trouble pushing the Germans out their line (again an attack undermined by poor artillery support). Gough was then given 28th Division in another attempt to recapture Fosse 8, but its efforts were unsuccessful. After a further two days of sporadic fighting, life south of the La Bassée canal gradually settled down into a routine of trench reliefs and working-parties. As Hill 70 and the Dump remained in German hands, the German artillery had excellent observation of the BEF lines and accurate artillery bombardment lead to heavy casualties.
12th (Eastern) Division moved up into the line and unfortunately its GOC, Major-General EDV Wing, was killed, a victim of heavy shelling while close to the front line. His replacement, Major-General AB Scott, would command the division when the battle resumed. (Wing was not the only divisional commander to be killed during the Battle of Loos - Major-General Sir T Capper (GOC, 7th Division) was mortally wounded by shell fire on 26 September and died on 27 September, and Major-General GH Thesinger (GOC, 9th (Scottish) Division) was killed in action on 27 September). One Brigade commander was killed during the battle: Brigadier-General NT Nichalls (GOC, 63 Brigade, 21st Division), killed in action on 26 September.
Attacks were resumed on 13 October in what was to be the last stages of the Battle of Loos. XI Corps was now comprised of 12th (Eastern) Division, 46th (North Midland) Division and the Guards Division. 12th Division attacked on a 2,000 yard front with 46th Division on its left attacking a similar frontage. On first examination of the battlefield, Major-General Hon EJ Montagu-Stuart-Wortley (GOC, 46th Division) had expressed his wish for a 'bite and hold' attack, taking the trenches one at a time using bombers, but he was overruled by XI Corps HQ.
The artillery barrage opened at 1200 (mid-day), gas and smoke released at 1300 and the men advanced at 1400, by which time the German artillery had opened up on the lines containing 46th Division.
The main attack was conducted by 46th Division. 138 Brigade attacked on the left, achieving some initial success, but at heavy cost. They broke into the Hohenzollern Redoubt but as they tried to push further forward, they came under accurate German machine gun fire from Mad Point and the mining buildings around Fosse 8. The advance came to a standstill about 100 yards short of Fosse Trench. On their right, 137 Brigade experienced one of the most miserable episodes of the day. Their attack collapsed under a devastating weight of fire. Most of the men falling before they could reach the front line. To the right of 46th Division, lay the 12th (Eastern) Division. Their objectives were Gun Trench and the Quarries. The artillery bombardment on their objectives was no more successful than that on the Fosse Trench in front of 46th Division. 35 Brigade broke into the Quarries. On their right, 37 Brigade broke into Gun Trench despite suffering high casualties from machine gun fire.
One of the most notable aspects of the later stages of the Battle of Loos was the deteriorating level of staff work and planning. Once again the attacking divisions went in without accurate maps (just as 21st and 24th Divisions had the month before).
There was little further fighting after the 14 October although military operations did not officially cease until 4 November 1915.
With hindsight, in the poor weather experienced by the BEF, the RFC could offer little support. The British attacks were undoubtedly pressed with courage and determination but too many attacks were carried out against well-entrenched machine guns which the poor British artillery bombardment had not affected. The other major problem was the enemy shelling which was persistent, demoralising and devastating. Orders which came up the line were often late or incorrect. The men had inadequate supplies of food and water, let alone grenades which were far less efficient than the German variety. As already mentioned, officers and men went into action without maps and the casualty rate among officers (from Lieutenant-Colonel down) left too many units leaderless.
Over 61,000 men were casualties during the battle, and just over 6,300 died on the first day (25 September), with the highest death rate in the 7th Division with 1,565 killed and 15th (Scottish) Division with 1,595 killed.
The most direct result of the Battle of Loos was the sacking of Field Marshall French. He had not kept control over Haig's plans so they were not reasonable. He had not communicated his plans for the reserve Corps clearly enough. This is in direct contrast to the most definite way he dealt with Joffre and the Allied plans for the attack before the battle.
History notes that Haig went on to plan the Battle of the Somme in the same over-optimistic way: overriding the caution of his subordinate commanders, only this time there was no superior to advise him.
Article and images contributed by: Peter J Palmer
This article is based on a talk given by Nick Lloyd to the Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association.
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