Battle of Loos 1915
Updated: Mar 25
Battle of Loos, 1915
‘A great deal of nonsense has been written about Loos. 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 that we had broken through on that Sunday, 26th September 1915. There seemed to be nothing ahead of us, but an unoccupied and incomplete trench system. The only two things that prevented our advancing into the suburbs of Lens were, firstly, the exhaustion of the "Jocks" themselves (for they had undergone a bellyful of marching and fighting that day) and, secondly, the flanking fire of numerous German machine-guns, which swept that bare hill from some factory buildings in Cite St. Auguste to the south of us. All that we needed was more artillery ammunition to blast those clearly located machine-guns, plus 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.’
Major-General Richard Hilton, at that time a Forward Observation Officer
What follows is my understanding of events in simple terms. Apologies to any historians who are expecting a more detailed account.
How it all began in 1914.
On the 28th of June Archduke Franz Ferdinand went to inspect Austrian troops in Bosnia. He was assassinated by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip. This act of terrorism was described as
‘the spark that would set light to a continent that was riddled by tensions.’
Reports in the Times newspaper said that the assassination ‘produced horror and consternation throughout Europe’.
On the 5th of July, Germany promised total support for Austria-Hungary.
On the 28th of July, Austria-Hungary enrages Russia by declaring war on Serbia.
On The 30th of July Russia mobilises her army which alarms Germany.
On the 3rd of August Germany implemented the Schlieffen plan by invading France through neutral Belgium. Germany planned to attack and defeat France first by traveling through Belgium, capturing Paris, and finally going on to attack Russia.
On the 4th of August Britain declared war on Germany because of the 1839 Treaty of London which bound Britain to guard the neutrality of Belgium.
Compared with the small-scale British attacks in spring 1915, the Battle of Loos was a mighty offensive, referred to as ‘The Big Push’. The Germans were deeply entrenched in France.
Allies had begun a new joint attack on the Western Front. The British were to launch an attack on Loos, and the French were ready to attack in Artois and Champagne. Champagne was to be a wholly French offensive, Artois, a joint French and British attack, with the British providing a diversionary attack on Loos from the La Bassee Canal to the north of the village, while the French would attack from south of Lieven to Arras.
Lord Kitchener went to the Western Front on the 16th of August and saw for himself that the ground over which the British were expected to traverse was incompatible with success. He is quoted as saying ‘we must act with all energy and do our utmost to help France in their offensive, even though by doing so we may suffer heavy losses’.
The British did not want to fight the Battle of Loos. General Douglas Haig felt that it was too soon, that Britain was not ready. He thought that July 1916 would be better which of course is when the Battle of The Somme took place.
General Douglas Haig was overseeing the attack on Loos, under Field Marshall Sir John French, commander of British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, but Haig had serious reservations and fears. He knew that the advancing British infantry would have almost no cover or protection as they traversed the flat terrain. They would be in full view of the German army. British stocks of artillery and ammunition were insufficient.
At that time Germany was producing 250,000 shells a week, France was producing 100,000, Britain was only producing 22,000 per week.
Loos, situated in French Flanders, was an industrial area consisting of coal mines and mining villages. But by 1915, the village had been attacked and was being held by German troops. Miners’ cottages provided shelter for the German troops since most had basements.
The muddy, treeless terrain was flat but had a gentle incline towards the German front line. It was dotted with slag heaps and colliery towers. In short, the British troops were at the bottom of the incline with no cover whatsoever. German soldiers had positioned themselves in the prime locations on top of the slag heaps. They had machine guns as well as heavy artillery, in short, the British army with no cover, would be in full view of the enemy as they advanced towards Loos. No man’s land stretched ominously out towards enemy lines varying from 100 yards to 600 yards away, heavily peppered with a maze of crisscrossed wire, mainly barbed wire, about 100 feet in depth and 2- 4 feet in height. The British had tried to cut through with artillery but the volunteer soldiers in charge of the guns lacked experience and precision, wiring parties did what they could under cover of darkness to cut through but it had been observed from ariel photographs that much of it remained in situ.
One landmark for the British, which they had tried and failed to destroy, was a tower which housed lifting gear next to the main pit in Loos. The structure was about 150 feet tall and was referred to as Tower Bridge by British soldiers. Crucially, from Tower Bridge, the German army could see at least two miles beyond the British forward positions. The tower could be seen clearly in the distance by the British as they waited for zero hour and orders to advance. Some British soldiers were to depend on this landmark for direction as they advanced through the bloodbath of confusion, smoke, and gas.
‘Field of Corpses’
“Never had the machine-gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so unceasingly. The men stood on the fire step, some even on the parapets, and fired exultantly into the mass of men advancing across the open grassland. As the entire field of fire was covered with the enemy's infantry the effect was devastating and they could be seen falling in hundreds”
German Regimental Diarist, after the Battle of Loos
The Battle of Loos was the first battle of WW1 in which the British would use demoralising and deadly gas as a weapon.
Four months before the battle of Loos took place, Germany had used gas as a weapon causing the Allies to complain bitterly, declaring that it was banned. The Hague convention of 1907 did ban using artillery shells to dispense gas, but it did not mention or ban the use of gas cylinders.
Sir John French, called the use of gas ‘a cynical and barbarous disregard of the well -known usages of civilised war’.
The British went on to develop more effective and horrid gases and ways to deliver them going on to launch almost twice as many gas attacks as Germany.
When chlorine contacts moisture in the nose, eyes, and lungs it turns into an acid which burns, blinds and blisters. It destroys the lungs and victims drown in their own body fluids. Those who did not die would go on to suffer lifelong lung problems.
In the early days before gas masks, soldiers had to make do with socks or rags soaked in their own urine to protect themselves against the effects of the gas. A Canadian artillery officer was horrified to see men ‘literally coughing their lungs out’ later to ‘roll about like mad dogs in their death agonies’. A Canadian medical officer suggested using fabric soaked with water, baking soda and urine. The ammonia in the urine reacted with chlorine to reduce the effects. By the 6th of June, British and Canadian soldiers were issued with the first gas mask designed by Captain Cluny Macpherson of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. His next mask which had eyepieces and an exhalation valve, was nick named ‘the goggle-eyed bugger with the tit’by Captains Robert Graves and JC Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
‘If a whiff of gas you smell, Bang your gong like bloody hell, On with your googly, up with your gun— Ready to meet the bloody Hun’.
The British smoke helmet, also known as the hypo helmet, became available in July 1915. It was not popular. It covered the head and neck and was tucked into the collar of the soldier’s tunic. The material was impregnated with hyposulphite which removed chlorine from the air in the helmet. It was effective, but because it was hot and made it difficult to see and hear.
It was determined by the British that 9,000 cylinders would be required, but there were only 4,000 available, and so it was decided that smoke and gas would be released intermittently.
Cannisters of chlorine gas, provided by special units of the Royal Engineers, were stacked up at the ready in the British trenches. The plan was for the gas and smoke to be released at Zero Hour, before the men were sent’ over the top’ in two columns leaving reserves to follow on later. The time of Zero hour would depend on the wind direction. A gas attack could only be successful if there was a wind blowing in the direction of the German trenches.
Sir Douglas Haig felt that if the wind were against them and gas could not be used, that the attack should be postponed. However, the French were determined to go ahead come what may on the 25th of September, and general Haig did not receive support from Sir John French, although Sir John agreed to an abridged plan if it was not possible to use gas.
At 5am on the 25th, General Haig checked the wind direction himself and gave the go ahead to continue with the original plan.
Many soldiers were carrying pickaxes, shovels, and sandbags as well as guns so that they could alter the direction of enemy trenches once they had captured them. The men were told that once the order to advance was given, anyone retreating or caught being a shirker would be shot.
The battalions consisted of regular soldiers, the territorial army, and an army of volunteers and reservists which became known as Kitchener’s army, named after the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who planned to use the mostly untrained and unprepared men in a major battle for the first time during the war.
Throughout the country, men had volunteered in large numbers, patriotism was running high, and Kitchener’s face stared out of posters declaring the ‘You Country needs You ‘Almost every town and village in Scotland was affected by the battle of Loos. Seventy-two battalions, half of which belonged to Scottish regiments, were involved. Scottish divisions made the main attacks, with battalions from every Scottish regiment fighting in the battle. Dundee’s 4th Black Watch, also known as ‘Dundee’s Own’, suffered one of the highest casualty rates in the country, but the heavy losses affected families and loved ones not only in Dundee but also Aberdeenshire, Lanarkshire, Perthshire, Fife, Stirlingshire, and Ayrshire.
Sir John French resigned ‘under pressure’ late 1915 and was succeeded by general Douglas Haig who went on to become Field Marshall.
Out of almost 10,000 British soldiers, 8,246 were killed or wounded in three hours during the Battle of Loos.
The Battle of Loos has been described as ‘The Forgotten Battle ‘by Patrick Macgill, and ‘The Unwanted Battle.
(Loos 1915, The Unwanted Battle, Gordon Corrigan 2018, Sharpe Books)
“The disproportionate number of Scots who went over the top at 6.30am on September 25, 1915 ensured Loos would be remembered as a Scottish battle.”
Dr Derek Patrick, University of St Andrews.
“I saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat.”
Voices of World War One, BBC Documentaries, Dan Snow.
The Long Long Trail.co.uk, Chris Baker
Loos 1915 Podcast, Dr Nick Lloyd
Loos 1915, The Unwanted Battle, Gordon Corrigan
The Trench Warfare Department, 1914-15, The Western Front Association
Battle of Loos, Landscape and Gas, Professor Peter Doyle
15th Scottish Division at The Battle of Loos 1915, Stuart Roxburgh (You Tube)
Stand To Crosshouse-Loos, 1915 (You Tube)
Over There, by Sadie Stein, June 19,2014