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- 1915 - Artois - Coal Basin - gas - Loos - Vimy

The Battle of Loos (25 September to 19 October 1915)

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After the battles of 1915 (Vimy, Lorette, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Ypres), the front under British control in Artois and Flanders enjoyed a relatively quiet summer with no major attacks being attempted; although both sides continued to lose hundreds of men to sporadic shelling and sniper fire... The belligerents used the time to strengthen their defences and lay that most underhand of weapons: the land mine. In compliance with a request from the French, the British Army extended its cover of the front from the north of Ypres to the south of Lens and, in August 1915, stationed its newly formed 3rd Army in the region of Somme at Hébuterne. Between May and September 1915 up to fifteen divisions of Kitchener's New Army landed in France and Belgium.

The only notable British engagement on the French front took place at Givenchy-lès-La Bassée on 15-16 June 1915 in support of General Foch's second offensive in Artois and, by taking various heights, in preparation for a much larger operation further south at Loos. The brief preliminary bombardment was insufficient against the heavily fortified German line and condemned the infantry to the enemy's guns. The slaughter was such that, for example, of the five officers and 170 men of the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, only forty avoided death or injury. The operation soon turned into a disaster for the British and Canadians soldiers taking part, most of whom had already been severely tested in the Second Battle of Ypres.

The Battle of Loos in September and October 1915 was the British Army's contribution to the major Allied offensive launched simultaneously with the main French offensive in Champagne. The French commander-in-chief General Joffre considered that the numerical superiority of his army, however temporary, would be sufficient to bring about the decisive breakthrough.

While the French were once again focusing their efforts on the heights of Vimy Ridge, the British were expected to advance into the coal basin below, in the sector of Loos-Hulluch on Gohelle Plain. Seemingly without consideration for the mass slaughter of his men, General Haig fielded six divisions despite the fact that his troops were exhausted by the fighting in the spring and that his artillery continued to suffer from an insufficient supply of shells. On the other hand, he was sure to enjoy a considerable numerical superiority of seven to one over the Germans in the limited section of the front chosen for the attack. It was the "Big Push".

A continuous preliminary bombardment, which showered 250,000 shells on to the German defences over four days, had little real effect. Before sending in the infantry on the morning of 25 September 1915, the British released 140 tons of chlorine gas from 5,000 cylinders placed on the front line to make up for the ineffective artillery barrage. This was the first time the Allies had used the weapon, coming after the Germans employed gas to terrible effect at Ypres in April earlier in the year, and it was hoped it would annihilate the Germans at Loos who were equipped with only rudimentary gas masks. However a change in the direction of the wind at several points along the front blew the gas back into the British trenches, causing seven deaths and injuring 2,600 soldiers who had to be withdrawn from the front line. Initially the gas attack created panic among the Germans and close to 600 men were gassed. Despite the setbacks caused by the wind 75,000 British infantrymen still flowed out from the trenches when the order came.

The southern end of the attack was a spectacular success on the first day. The British soldiers, under cover of smokescreens, took the village of Loos, Hill 70 and advanced towards Lens; however their progress was halted through a lack of munitions and the late arrival of reinforcements, and this delay allowed the Germans to retake Hill 70. Further to the north the British advance was slowed by the formidable defences of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a vast complex of trenches, underground shelters and machine gun nests, but they nevertheless managed to take part of the German front line in front of the redoubt. The German machine guns were particularly deadly for the British, killing 8,500 men in a single day, the greatest single loss of life recorded since the beginning of the war. The next day, on 26 September, German reinforcements arrived in great numbers to fill the breaches.

The British then launched another attack without a preliminary bombardment and this resulted in the slaughter of thousands of infantrymen, mown down by German machine guns. Subsequently the British Army began to the abandon the positions it had taken the previous day. The fighting continued sporadically for several days, especially around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, until the British general staff, coming to terms with the seriousness of the reverse, gave the order to retreat. Another offensive on 13 October, opened once again with a gas attack, came to a similarly disastrous end: in ten minutes the 46th Division lost 180 officers and 3,583 men in an attempt to take the Hohenzollern Redoubt !

British losses at Loos were exceptionally high with 50,000 casualties (including at least 20,000 deaths). Among those lost in action was the only son of Rudyard Kipling, the famous British writer and fervent supporter of Britain's participation in the Great War. Inconsolable, Kipling spent many years after the end of the war searching the Gohelle Plain for his son's body, without success. Finally identified in 1991, the remains of John Kipling are today buried in Saint-Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery in Haisnes.

Many new units, fighting in the Great War for the first time, were completely dislocated and losses were particularly high among Scottish troops and officers. The German's suffered approximately half the losses of the Allies. At the same time the French offensives in Artois and Champagne were coming to a close amid great disappointment.

The failure at Loos led to the removal of General French from his position as commander-in-chief of the British Army and he was replaced by General Haig on 19 December 1915. Despite the severe setbacks, volunteers continued to swell the ranks of Kitchener's New Army which was fortunate because by March 1916 the British sector of the front extended from Ypres to the Somme, the French having abandoned Artois to fight in the infernal cauldron of Verdun.

Astonishingly, the grave errors committed by the British High Command at the Battle of Loos were not learnt from and were to be repeated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme which ended on 1 July 1916 in the greatest disaster in the history of the British Army.

The fierceness of the fighting during the Battle of Loos was such that only 2,000 of the 8,500 soldiers killed on the first day of the attack, on 25 September 1915, have a known grave.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France

Archive pictures

British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos (25 September 1915)

[No. HU 63277B] Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.07 MB)

British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos (25 September 1915)

Ligne de front à l'issue des offensives francaise et britannique de septembre 1915

Guide Michelin des champs de bataille : Artois-Arras-Lens-Douai (jpg - 0.07 MB)

Ligne de front à l'issue des offensives francaise et britannique de septembre 1915