Loos, 25th September to 8th October 1915 Part 1


The Prelude

During early and middle 1915, British, Indian and Canadian troops fought short but intense battles at Langemarck (the Second Battle of Ypres), Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Givenchy. Although on some occasions, most notably at Neuve Chapelle, the British troops were able to over-run the German front-line trenches, they were not able to achieve break-outs into the open country behind. German
machine-gun and artillery fire shattered the advancing battalions as they crossed No Man’s Land and attempted to pass through the barbed wire enclosures placed in front of the trenches. Despite the expenditure of many thousands of lives, the trench systems moved little during these months.

To the south, the French Armies launched large offensives in Champagne and in the Souchez Valley. The ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette and the villages of Ablain St. Nazaire and Carency were recaptured but Vimy Ridge remained in German hands. In Champagne, to the east of Rheims, the French advanced slowly over the ridges but at a terrible cost, the
destroyed villages of Perthes-les-Hurlus, les Mesnil-les-Hurlus and Hurlus remaining to this day abandoned sites within the’camp militaire’.

After the shells scandal of the summer months when attacks failed with high casualties because of a lack of explosive shells to be fired in support of the attacking troops, David Lloyd George took charge of shell production in the new post of Minister of Munitions. By the autumn the British artillery had sufficient rounds for Sir John French to be receptive to the request of the French Commander General Joffre. Joffre wished to mount another attack in Artois to finally capture the Vimy Ridge. British assistance by an attack on the mining village of Loos-en-Gohelle would deflect German attention and assist the French assault on what was known to be a heavily fortified ridge. Capturing the ridge would deny the Germans their observation posts which gave
commanding views over the strategically important town of Arras and instead give the French superb observation over the Douai plain behind the ridge. The British Commander was also aware of the French political belief that despite the various assaults north of Arras, the British were yet ‘to pull their weight’.

The site chosen for the attack was unsuitable, being very flat, lacking cover yet constantly under surveillance from German observation posts dug into the slag-heaps of waste from the many coal-mines. However it was politically convenient as being just a few miles north of the Souchez Valley and so close to the boundary between the French and British Armies. Despite misgivings, a full attack was prepared using a new weapon. At Hill 60 and Langemarck in April, the Germans had released chlorine gas even though Germany had signed the Hague Convention not to use poison gas in warfare. In response to this outrage, the British military planners felt justified in also using chlorine gas to clear German trenches.


The Battle of Loos

After a few days of artillery bombardment, on the morning of Saturday, 25th September, the gas was released but proved to be of dubious value as the wind changed direction. Much of the gas was blown back over the British jumping-off trenches containing the assault troops so many of the regiments had to begin their attacks from within the clouds of chlorine gas. Despite this setback, the British troops were able to take the Hohenzollern Redoubt (although the Germans recaptured it later). The regiments to their right stormed through Loos village and the Hill 70 Redoubt. However the 15th (Scottish) Division deviated from the planned path of attack because of a communications breakdown over the objectives of the 47th (London) Division. The commanders who tried to bring to a halt the charging troops by the physical means of running after them were soon shot down. The Highlanders were stopped by the barbed wire and machine-gun fire in front of Lens. The Germans soon recovered from the successes of the BEF breaking through their front-lines in a number of places by rapidly bring up their reserve units not needed further south on the Vimy Ridge.

Next day the partially-trained but untried New Army 21st and 24th Divisions of ‘Derby’volunteers were sent against the German second line. An abysmal lack of artillery support meant that they had no protection from the German machine-gunners who were able to massacre many thousands. When the survivors reached the barriers of barbed wire, they found themselves facing wire made up of 4 to 5 strands and of some 12 millemetres in diameter. Heroically pulling at it by hand to clear it away under German fire was a form of suicide.

The loss of these two divisions of volunteers later became the catalyst for the replacement of Sir John French by Sir Douglas Haig. The Guards Division tried to recapture the Hill 70 Redoubt recaptured on the first day by the Germans. Despite great fortitude and huge casualties, the Guards were unable to hold on to their small gains. Among the Irish Guards missing in action was an eighteen-year-old lieutenant, John Kipling, the only son of Rudyard Kipling. After the first day of initial successes followed by severe failure on the second, the attacks continued for another fortnight without real gains being made.


The Aftermath

Although the battle is now officially recorded as ending on the 8th of October, further assaults continued until early November under the control of Sir Douglas Haig. But fortunately for him, during much of October the War Office was focusing on the hostile public responses to the blunders in Gallipoli. Thus the War Cabinet had no time to examine critically the effectiveness of the later assaults being launched around Loos.

The events of October at Loos were to be replayed in the later weeks of the Somme battle when assaults continued long after their value had become minimal.

Loos showed that it was possible to break through a heavily defended front line. But it revealed that unless the lines further back could also be speedily overwhelmed the Germans had sufficient time to reinforce and turn these other lines into formidable obstacles. Gas during the battle proved to be an unmanageable weapon although the more technologically advanced Germans had developed gas shells which they first used during the battle. Yet later the British became experts in using gas, launching 110 major gas attacks during the Somme battle – compared to the German’s 15 attacks during the whole war. Shellfire could disrupt barbed wire barricades but clearly the expenditure of vaste numbers of shells would be needed to provide sufficient gaps for assault battalions to pass through rapidly before German machine-gunners could cut them down. Finally, the control system proved totally inadequate to prevent the 15th (Scottish) Division from
accidentally changing direction when the 47th Division stopped, as planned, on capturing the German third line on the western edge of Loos village.


Questions

1. What strategic reasons lead to the battle of Loos?

2. Were sufficient munitions available to give covering fire?

3. Should restrictions have been put on using the untried 21st and 24th Divisions?

4. At what stage should further assaults have been stopped?

5. Can the demands of coalition partners compromise strategical and tactical decision making?


Exploring the Battlefield

Loos-en-Gohelle lies close to the autoroute around the north of Lens. The village itself is typical of the mining villages of Northern France, adaquately built but lacking interesting buildings. Driving north along the N45, the imposing Dud Corner cemetery with its panoramic view over the battlefield is reached on the right side of the road. This cemetery’s walls list those men with no known grave including John Kipling. There is also a real Blackadder recorded! Taking the road to Vermelles from Mazingarbe and turning right towards Hulluch, across the flat fields can be seen under the electricity pylons the site of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, now leaving little trace. Soon St. Mary’s Clearing Station cemetery is reached where a grave records the believed presence of the body of Lieutenant Kipling. Opposite are the open fields over which the gas was supposed to drift.

Turning right at the roundabout on to the D947, soon the gentle slope between the villages of Loos and Hulluch is reached. This was where the 24th and 21st Divisions marched smartly to destruction. And on the skyline to the south is the ridge known as Hill 70. The coal heaps which once dominated the battlefield have been largely removed but those of the Double Crassier still ‘overhang’ the village of Loos.