On September 25th, 1915, the Battle of Loos began. Last year I contributed a short account of the battle as a programme note for Doctor Scroggy’s War at Shakespeare’s Globe, in London. Here it is:
The Battle of Loos
‘Loos was no picnic.’ – Richard Hannay, in John Buchan’s Greenmantle, 1916.
On Saturday 25th September, 1915, Douglas Haig, commander of the British First Army, wrote in his diary:
An anxious night – wondering what the wind would be in the morning. The greatest battle in the world’s history begins today – some 800,000 French and British troops will actually attack today.
The wind was crucial to the effectiveness of what Haig hoped would be a battle-winning weapon. At first he had been unenthusiastic when the French asked the British to attack near the mining town of Loos, among pitheads and slag-heaps. In August, though, a demonstration of chlorine gas had convinced him that this could be a war-winning weapon. Traditionally, armies had relied on their cavalry to smash through opposing infantry and create havoc in the enemy’s rear, but in the face of the Western Front’s machine guns and barbed wire cavalry’s effectiveness was limited. The Germans had caused great disarray among Allied troops by using gas at the Second battle of Ypres, but had failed to exploit it fully. Just possibly, gas could disrupt the German lines sufficiently to bring about a swift and decisive victory.
Over 150 tons of gas was brought to the front line, in 5000 huge unwieldy cylinders. Such elaborate preparation did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Some of them placed a large board in front of one of the Loos slag-heaps, with a question in big black letters:
‘WHEN IS THE BIG PUSH COMING OFF? WE ARE WAITING.’
Sir John French, Haig’s Commander-in-Chief, was less optimistic than his subordinate about the forthcoming battle, and operations suffered because of their differing views, especially on the subject of reserve troops. Haig wanted these ready to immediately step into action as soon as the attack revealed weaknesses in the German defences, while French preferred to hold them back until success was certain; he kept them under his own command, not Haig’s.
For four days the artillery prepared the battleground for the infantry, harassing enemy trenches and trying to break the barbed wire laid to hinder attacking troops. 250,000 shells were aimed at the German defences, but with patchy effect over the six and a half mile wide front. Many shells were duds, and not all the batteries were expert in accurate long-distance shelling. Much wire remained unbroken.
A crucial danger in Haig’s plan was that the date of the battle had been firmly set to coordinate with French operations in Artois, yet gas, the weapon considered crucial to success, was highly dependent on local weather conditions. The wind had to blow in the right direction. In the event, the gas worked well on southern parts of the front, but in the north some was blown back at the British troops.
On a 1915 battlefield, especially one with so broad a front, it was very difficult for a commander to know all that was happening. Success in some parts of the line was balanced by disaster in others. 6,300 British troops died on the first day, including a disproportionate number of officers. Despite this, many positive reports reached headquarters, and Haig finished his diary for the day by writing:
The day has been a very satisfactory one on the whole. We have captured 8000 yards of German front, and advanced in places 2 miles from our old front line. This is the largest advance made on the western front since this kind of warfare started.
Haig eventually got command of the reserve troops from French, but these had been kept very far back and their progress to the front was impeded. They arrived on the battlefield late, tired, unfed and disoriented. Facing heavy opposition, they retired in panicky disorder.
In Britain, the battle could initially be presented as a success. The Times of 27th September headlined its report ‘Two Victories in the West’, and printed a communique from Sir John French listing the first day’s successes. On 29th they printed a report from John Buchan in France, repeating news of the advances and describing having seen some 1400 captured German prisoners, but adding the cautious reminder:
You may pierce the enemy’s line on a front of several miles [….] but the front closes up before you and hardens up like asphalt, and what began as a breach ends as an ordinary salient…A gap is no use unless you have room to manoeuvre in it, and so widen it.
The first day’s attack had taken the British troops through the German front line in several places, but they had not broached the enemy’s deeper defences, which were quickly reinforced. The shock effect of the first day’s gas could not be repeated, and the battle soon became a matter of fruitless attack and counter-attack. It dragged on till November.
The casualty lists soon showed newspaper readers at home the human cost of the operation, and the battle’s horror and madness were made dramatically clear in newspaper sketches written by stretcher-bearer Patrick MacGill, later collected in his book The Big Push:
Men and pieces of men were lying all over the place. A leg, and arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed. A dummy leg in a tailor’s window could not be more graceful. It might be X; he was an artist in dress, a Beau Brummell in khaki. Fifty yards further along I found the rest of X [….] A man, mother-naked, raced round in a circle, laughing boisterously. The rags that would class him as friend or foe were gone, and I could not tell whether he was an Englishman or a German. As I watched him an impartial bullet went through his forehead, and he fell headlong to the earth.
The failure of Loos lost Sir John French his job as Commander in Chief. Afterwards, the British Army learned to improve its organisation and performance, and more lessons were learned on the Somme in 1916. But it was a long haul to victory.
Nick Lloyd, Loos 1915 (History Press, 2008)
Douglas Haig, War Diaries and Letters 1914-18 (edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne) (Phoenix, 2005)
Patrick MacGill The Big Push (Herbert Jenkins, 1916)
Philip Gibbs, Realities of War (Heinemann 1920)