The French during the early part of 1915 had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties during assaults in Artois (Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge) and in Champagne (on the slopes to the east of Rheims) for little gain. The BEF had fought battles in Picardy (Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, etc) again for little reward for the tens of thousands of casualties. Once again the French wished to attack the Vimy Ridge but sought a simultaneous attack by the BEF. Psychological pressure was brought to bear by General Joffre expecting the British High Command to demonstrate that the BEF was ‘pulling its weight’.
In the spring, the Germans had attacked at Hill 70 to the east of Ypres and Langemark to the west using poison gas in defiance of the Hague Convention which Germany had signed. This factor was to be taken into account in planning the battle of Loos.
Selection of the Assault Units
The remnants of the Regular and Territorial battalions after the battles of 1914 and early to mid 1915 were insufficient to launch and sustain a major attack. Nevertheless six divisions of the BEF’s First Army were to be used as the main assault units but with two New Army Divisions, the 21st and 24th, in reserve to pursue the Germans when they retired in disorder. On the second morning these reserve divisions were used but prematurely because the German trenches facing them had not been cleared of the enemy.
Significantly more ammunition per cannon was available since David Lloyd George had as the newly-appointed Minister of Munitions taken charge in the summer of increasing the manufacture of shells. But increasing manfacturing production takes time, so the availability was much less than that on the Somme the next June. Nevertheless four days of artillery bombardment were possible. Unfortunately during the battle itself, little ammunition was left to continue shelling the Germans as they restrengthened their defences.
The Methods of Assault Adopted
At Loos, there was an attempt to exploit this new technology of poison gas. But controlling its effective use proved impossible and much of the gas was blown backwards towards and over the British jumping-off trenches by the wind which had changed direction, a clear example of changes in the external environment hindering the implementation of a plan.
Except for the gas and the preliminary artillery bombardment, the style of assault was very similar to that used on the Aisne and in the other battles of 1915.
The Rival’s Reaction
Later in the battle the Germans used gas shells for the first time which could be placed where they would have maximum impact, their development of gas technology allowing them to focus the gas rather than by dispersing it widely by discharging it from gas cylinders. Once again the Germans took advantage of their leadership in both military and industrial chemical technology.
The Lessons of Loos
Curbing the enthusiasm of the units attacking at the run proved to be a death-trap for the unit commanders who tried by physical means (such as running after the charging soldiers) to lead the troops in the right directions. The commanders’ deaths, including those of three Divisional commanders, meant that battlefield control of their units was lost, and hence the units suffered severe casualties because they were left not knowning what to do once their charges had been halted. After the earlier battles, training to tell soldiers what actions to follow when halted by barbed wire barriers and by machine-gun and rifle fire should have been provided to reduce the level of casualties caused by ignorance of what to do.
The use of untried divisions was unfortunately dictated by the necessity to utilise reserves once the assault units needed replacing. But recognising that previous battles had required the speedy use of whatever reserves were available, should the untried New Army divisions have been given this role at Loos? The decision to launch these half-trained inexperienced divisions into action can also be criticised in that the divisions were told that they would only be used to pursue the enemy once they were retiring in disorder. With this belief, the divisions could not have expected to be sent against enemy still manning their machine-guns. Furthermore Brigadier-General Williamson Oswald raised another issue in his 1928 account of his gunnery experiences during 1915. He said that he was aware the staff officers ‘think in distances of the horse’. So when the 21st and 24th Divisions were ordered to march to the front just before the attack began, the distance required was satisfactory for cavalry units moving forward, but impossible for infantry – which should have moved just ten to twelve miles. The troops arrived exhausted. It should be noted that both Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig were distinguished cavalrymen! The 24th troops were also very hungry, probably not having been given the traditional “unconsumed” ration which experienced troops would expect to receive and then nibble on the march to save having to carry it. This issue of where to hold the reserves so that they can be used speedily and flexibly was again of great importance the next year on the Bazentin Ridge when the cavalry took over eleven hours to advance in exploitation to High Wood.
From the analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale, the deviation was found to be adverse by 10.8%. The spread of answers shows the battle to be one of contrasts, many favourable and even more that were adverse but few that were neutral. These findings show why Lyn Macdonald was able to subtitle her book on the events of 1915 ‘The Death of Innocence’. Some learning appeared to be gained although the events in 1916 suggest that it was the wrong learning – that explosives would utterly destroy machine-gunners and riflemen.
The site of the notorious Hohenzollern Redoubt from the le Rutoire crossroads, showing the flatness of the countryside around Loos. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.
Quarry Cemetery near Auchy-les-Mines contains the graves of many soldiers killed attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.
The Dump and quarries between the Redoubt and Hulluch from where the German troops resisted the British attacks throughout the battle. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.
Hill 70 showing its ‘steepness’, yet enough of a ridge to withstand numerous Allied attacks towards Lens during the early years of the War until it was captured in 1917. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.
The fields across which the 21st and 24th Divisions marched from Loos and Vermelles to their doom between Hulluch village and Bois Hugo on the north side of Hill 70. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.
The grave thought to be of Rudyard Kipling’s only child, John, at St Mary’s Clearing Station Cemetery between Vermelles and Hulluch; John is also commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner Cemetery. 35mm photograph taken July 1995.