The BEF at Loos and its ‘hangover of epic proportions’ by Nicholas Lloyd
Writing for the University of Birmingham’s Centre for First World War Studies in 2004, Nick Lloyd, and then a PhD student produced for his thesis a comprehensive 80,000-word study of the Battle of Loos. His title was the more sober ‘The BEF at Loos’ though he soon gives it this more memorable description.
A decade on he is Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College London based at the Joint Services Command & Staff College in Shrivenham, Wiltshire. He specialises in British military and imperial history in the era of the Great War.
His original thesis is freely available through the British Library e-thesis reading service.
All you need to do is register and download.
This is a free unless you want the thesis as a CD-Rom or printed and bound.
In 2008, he published ‘Loos 1915: Battles & Campaigns’ which I would believe, without being disingenuous or knowing any differently, is likely to include much the same text with the addition of copious illustrations and maps.
It is timely, as a hundred years ago Loos comes to a close, to assess the nature and scale of that battle, and the consequences of what took place. It never sank quite into the psyche of the British as did the Somme in 1916, though Loos provided Alan Clark inspired some his most outrageous ideas regards ‘Lions led by donkeys’. One has to wonder if the reputation of the British Army and the High Command has yet recovered from the drumming it received in the 1960s.
It is a surprise to learn that Divisional losses at Loos were slightly greater than those on the Somme in 1916. Until the last decade at least, Loss has been something of a ‘lost’ battle.
As Lloyd writes, it is a forgotten battle, 'lost in the mists of rumour, hearsay and myth'.
His thesis goes on to address this.
Using the stats from the CD-Rom ‘Soldiers who died in the Great War’ Nick Lloyd points out that on 25 September 1915 at Loos 1,058 soldiers per division died compared to 1,017 per Division on the Somme on 1 July 1916.
However, this isn’t a thesis dependent on statistics. Throughout we follow General Sir Douglas Haig and from this can draw some convincing conclusions about his character and behaviour as a forerunner for the rest of the war once he became Commander-in-Chief.
Lloyd asks rhetorically where French or Haig should take the blame for failure at Loos. He puts it succinctly:
'The plan of attack which was devised and executed by General Sir Douglas Haig (General Officer Commanding GOC First Army) was over–optimistic, ambitious and far–reaching'.
Loos as the biggest land battle Britain had ever fought. It ran from 25 September – 13 October 1915. It was the were several New Army divisions cut and lost their teeth - the first and only British offensive which began with the use of gas and smoke.
We are invited to think of the change to the BEF between Nov 1915–18.
While Lloyd mentions Jonathan Bailey’s idea of 'a revolution in military affairs', he is more inclined to talk of the ‘progress’ or the ‘evolution’ the British Army and Government had to make in order to make the victories of 1918 probable.
The incremental advances were things like steel helmets, issued for the first time on 31 October 1915 – one addition of many, that Lloyd lists as including ‘Lewis guns, gas, smoke, tanks, ground attack aircraft and predicted artillery fire’. This evolution has come to be known as the 'learning curve'.
The BEF suffered in 1915 'a hangover of epic proportions' with expansion, shell shortages, lack of trained officers and men, and lack of suitable equipment.
Don’t blame the British, blame the French. The British High Command were ‘obliged’ to take part, despite being ill–prepared. Joffre all but demanded British action.
‘Casualties were heavy and ripped through the officers’ Lloyd writes.
These was a period, still, Lloyd felt that ‘among the officer corps, warfare was widely seen more in human terms as a test of will, character or morale, than if any technological skill or firepower’.
This, of course, would change, though not soon enough for the likes of Major–General Hon. E.J. Montagu–Stuart–Wortley's 46th (North Midland) Division. With Haig’s last vain effort to retake the Hohenzollern Redoubt on 13 October Montagu–Stuart–Wortley had wanted to conduct a step–by–step advance using artillery, but he was overruled in favour of a more wide–ranging operation.
The weather conditions failed to move the gas and smoke, the 5/North and 5/South Staffordshire were destroyed by machine–gun and rifle fire that they never reached their first objective, the German Trench line known as ‘Big Willie’. The fight turned into a fierce bombing contest and died out.
Although not officially to end until 4 November, failure on 13 October brought Loos to a final, deathly close.
Sir John French, we learn, brought his demise upon himself with the flimflam of his nebulous and inaccurate despatch published in the Times on 2 November 1915. This, according to Lloyd, gave Haig an opportunity to oust his boss by demanding a fresh publication which revealed how much obfuscation French had used.
Lloyd though still blames Haig and his chronic optimism. It had been Haig who insisted on the attack, despite the lack of artillery and had spread the men too thinly. It was Haig who grossly overestimated the value of gas and it was Haig who refused to accept or respond to reports that suggested that German resistance would be anything but weak.
Lloyd sums up Loos in a line, it ‘was simply too big and ambitious a battle for the BEF at this time’.
It had not been altogether futile, though, as Lloyd suggests that Loos taught many lessons, including the importance of limited objectives, the movement of reserves and the handling of artillery.
Further Reading recommended by Nick Lloyd
Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graphs 'Firepower’,
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson 'Command on the Western Front’
Paddy Griffith 'Battle Tactics of the Western Front.
Written by Jonathan Vernon