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Forces War Records Blog

THE BATTLE OF LOOS 1915 - WW1 BATTLE OF LOOS WAR RECORDS

‘World War One: a Chronicle Narrative’, by Philip Warner, includes a quote from Major General Richard Hilton, at the time a Forward Observation officer, that sums up a common view of the Battle of Loos nicely: “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 we had broken though… all we needed was more artillery ammunition to blast those clearly located machine-guns, and 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.”

Loos landmark 'Tower Bridge' still standing admist the wrecked village

This may be a somewhat simplistic view of what happened at Loos. Many things went wrong and many bad decisions were made, each of which could have thrown the battle off-course. Taken all together, they ensured the ultimate failure of the offensive. For a start, there was the preliminary artillery barrage. This tactic was to prove ineffective in many a battle at the start of WWI. A major barrage put the enemy on his guard, and, if not combined with a creeping barrage in front of the advancing troops, as was the case in many of the later battles, did not slow the opposing forces down for long. The Germans had the option of simply sheltering while it went on, then emerging, ready to combat the approaching threat, when the explosions ceased.

Part of the aim of such a barrage was to destroy the barbed wire in front of the enemy trenches, clearing a path for the infantry. In this battle, as in many others, the barrage did not do the job as well as intended, and troops were forced to hack at the wire with cutters held in shaking hands, while enemy fire flew all around them. Later in the war, parties of men would be sent by night to cut wire before an offensive began, ensuring that they were less vulnerable to enemy fire.

Smoke and gas were intended to help cover the men’s exit from the trenches at Loos on 25th September 1915. The precaution was necessary, since the ground between the Allied front line and Hill 70 was very flat. Hill 70 was not high, but in comparison to its surroundings it was an important tactical position. If the men approached without some form of concealment, even if the wire was cut, they would be sitting ducks. As ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin explains, while the conditions were favourable for the release of gas and smoke at the southern end of the Front Line, and two Divisions (the 47th {London} Division and the 15th {Scottish} Division) of IV Corps made good progress, the latter entering Loos by 8.00am and pushing on to Hill 70 by day’s end, things were not so rosy at the northern end.

2nd Division was furthest north, and the officer responsible for releasing the gas actually declined to do so until ordered to. The wind pushed the chlorine gas, so laboriously transported to the front line by 8,000 porters in its heavy canisters, right back over the troops. Such gas not only burned skin and lungs, it rusted rifles and artillery breech blocks. All was chaos, and the Division was forced to halt. Meanwhile the 7th and 9th Divisions, along with IV Corps’ 1st Division, made satisfactory, if not earth-shaking, progress through the thick and unyielding wire barriers.

Now was the time for the big push, while the enemy was on its back-foot. This was where the problems mentioned by Major General Hilton cropped up. The British army was always, at this stage in the war, short of ammunition. As ‘World War One: a Chronicle Narrative’ explains, 22,000 shells a day were being produced in Britain compared to 100,000 in France and 250,000 in Germany. The French, meanwhile, has 117 guns/mile to Britain’s 60. If they had been too low on ammunition to bombard the Germans as effectively as they would have liked before the fighting commenced, the troops were definitely short of ammunition now. Additionally, 15th Division, the best placed to mount an offensive, was also the most tired out from their valiant battle, not to mention the effort of carrying all the gas. They badly needed reinforcements to help them make any sort of meaningful attack on the enemy.

Reinforcements had, in theory, been organised. Once again, though, there were problems. The reserve Corps was XI Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General R.C.B. Haking. The Corps had only been in the country for two weeks, and the men were not experienced. For this reason, Sir John French, the Commander in Chief, hesitated to send them to the rescue, reasoning that it would be unwise to dispatch such a body of men until the results of the day’s fighting were known. In fact, the day’s gains had been good, but at the cost of 25,000 casualties. General Haig, in command of the First Army, argued that they should be dispatched immediately, but was overruled. The hesitation allowed the Germans to plug any gaps in their front line and ready themselves for the coming attack.

XI Corps was depleted before the fight began, as the inexperienced Haking, in his eagerness to enter the fight, had ordered the troops of the 21st and 24th Divisions to leave cookers behind in order to make better time, and has allowed no time to sleep, or even drink much, on the way to the Front. The men had bread, cheese and cold soup, but no way to combat the chill of the rain or supplement their meagre provisions. They were unable to dig very deep trenches in the hard chalk, and were facing a much more experienced, rested and fortified enemy when the order was finally given to attack on the 26th. With fire in their bellies, the eager troops rushed out over the flat terrain to face the Germans. ‘The Western Front Companion’ records the observations of one of the opposing Germans: “Ten columns in extended line in perfect alignment could clearly be distinguished, each one at more than a thousand men and offering such a target as had never been seen before or even thought possible. Never had the machine-gunners such straightforward work to do, not done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro along the enemy’s ranks unceasingly.” The two divisions lost over 8,000 men.

In all, almost 60,000 British casualties by the time the Battle of Loos ended on 8th October. It did not help that, after just five days of fighting, Marshal Joffre, the Commander in Chief of the French army on the Western Front, abandoned his attack on the Vimy Ridge in Champaign. This offensive was meant to run alongside the Battle of Loos, helping to take the pressure off the British troops, and Joffre had strongly backed the whole operation. When he withdrew, he did not even warn the British High Command. Freed from the fighting in Champaign, many Germans hastened to reinforce those fighting at Loos, and it took the British some time to realise just how hopeless their position had become. So many factors contributed to this loss, but although Sir John French blamed Kitchener and Haig for his fall from grace after the Battle of Loos, he might have been closer to the truth if he had directed his reproach towards Joffre.

 

 

 

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