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First World War: The Battle of Loos – 25th September 1915

The Battle of Loos was known at the time as ‘The Big Push’. It was the largest battle the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had fought since the start of the war. This battle would see the first use of poison gas by British forces and the first time Kitchener’s New Armies of volunteers would take part in a major attack.

The French Commander in Chief General Joffre was planning a large offensive in the Champagne and Artois regions of France. Joffre wanted to achieve a major breakthrough of the German lines and capture the rail network which was a vital part of the German supply lines in the area. The BEF had already taken over part of the French line to release troops for this offensive. Sir John French also agreed to Joffre’s request that the BEF take part in the attack.

The BEF was understrength and lacking supplies of ammunition and guns and not really in a position to launch a large scale offensive. Men and equipment had been diverted to the Gallipoli campaign although reinforcements from Kitchener’s New Armies were starting to arrive. The BEF had to take part in the offensive as they had committed themselves to help their French allies. Lord Kitchener was also concerned about the situation on the Eastern Front. The German’s had inflicted severe loses on their Russian allies and a large offensive on the Western Front might relieve the pressure on them.

The British were to attack along a line south of La Bassee, an area which presented many difficulties for an attack. The terrain was open and flat with little cover for advancing infantry. The main industry was coal mining and there were many slag heaps and mine workings. These elevated positions could be easily defended and used to hide machine gun posts. Loos was a mining town dominated by a large slag heap, the Loos Crassier, and a tall iron structure above its pit head, called ‘Tower Bridge’ by the British.
Air reconnaissance showed that the German’s had considerably strengthened their defences in this area. The German first line trenches were deeper and heavily reinforced and were protected by a wide barrier of barbed wire. Redoubts, strongly fortified positions, had been constructed and housed many machine guns. The German second line was equally well defended and also protected with wide belts of barbed wire.

The Plan of Attack

The French and British would launch a joint attack against the German Sixth Army along a front stretching some twenty miles between La Bassee and Arras. The British First Army under the command of General Douglas Haig would attack to the left of the French Tenth Army, from Grenay to La Bassee.

Starting on the 21 September there would be a four day preliminary artillery bombardment of the German front line. The BEF had insufficient heavy guns and shells to effectively bombard such a wide front. To compensate for this the British would release a cloud of chlorine gas on the day of the attack to force the Germans out of their first line trenches.
Six divisions, totalling 75,000 men, would advance eastward early in the morning of the 25 September.  Smoke would be released to try and provide cover for the infantry on the open terrain and hide them from the German machine guns. Reserve divisions, including the 21st and 24th Divisions which were newly arrived in France, were to be made available to exploit any gains made.

Subsidiary attacks would also take place north of the La Bassee Canal at Givenchy and near Ypres. No attempts were made to hide the preparations for these as they were diversionary attacks intended to convince the Germans that the main focus of the British offensive was further to the north. Their aim was to also pin down the German troops in those areas and prevent them from sending reinforcements further to the south.

What happened on the 25th September

Despite the wind strength and direction not being particularly favourable, General Haig ordered the canisters of chlorine gas to be opened as planned at 5.50am. Two mines were detonated just south of the La Bassee canal. At 6.30am the infantry assault began.

To the south the gas and smoke had proved effective and the first line German positions were quickly taken. The 47th (London) Division successfully occupied the southern outskirts of Loos and captured the nearby Chalk Pit and the Double Crassier, which was a double slag heap opposite the village of Grenay. The 15th (Scottish) Division also made great advances. Loos had been occupied by 9am. The Division then pushed on further to the east, capturing Hill 70. German counter attacks forced the British to fall back from the heights of Hill 70.
Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the 7th Battalion The Kings Own Scottish Borderers was awarded the Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous bravery”. As his battalion was preparing to assault the German trenches near Loos “… Piper Laidlaw seeing that his company was somewhat shaken from the effects of gas…mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played his company out of the trench…Laidlaw continued playing his pipes till he was wounded”.

In the centre of the line the 1st and 7th Divisions encountered strong German resistance and there were heavy casualties. The bombardment had not been particularly effective and in places the barbed wire defences were still intact. Men were cut down in No Man’s Land by machine gun fire and shelling by German artillery. Some of the men were also suffering from the effects of chlorine gas as the gas cloud had been blown back over the British front line. The 1st Division captured the western outskirts of the village of Hulluch and the 7th Division the nearby Quarries.

Private Arthur Vickers of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for cutting the wire in front of the German first line trenches. Private Vickers stood up in broad daylight “under very heavy shell, rifle and machine gun fire and cut the wires which were holding up a great part of the battalion…His gallant action contributed largely to the success of the assault”.

Further to the north, the wind had blown the cloud of chlorine gas back onto the British lines. The advancing infantry came up against fierce German resistance and machine gun fire inflicted many casualties. The 9th (Scottish) Division attempted to capture the mighty Hohenzollern Redoubt and Fosse 8, which was a coal mine with a strongly defended slag heap. The advance by 2nd Division along the banks of the La Bassee canal was a disaster and they were eventually ordered to withdraw after sustaining severe casualties.

Soon after the infantry had begun their advance, General Haig had sent a request to Sir John French to order the reserve divisions of XI Corps to move up to the front line. Communication was slow and the reserves, which Haig felt had been held too far back, arrived too late to exploit the gains which had been made earlier in the day. The 21st and 24th divisions were part of Kitchener’s New Army and had only recently arrived in France. They had already been marching for several days and were exhausted by the time they reached the front line.

The Battle Continues

General Haig issued orders for the offensive to resume on the 26 September.  During the night of the 25 September the Germans brought in reinforcements to strengthen their second line and launch counter attacks to regain their lost ground.

The British attack was severely hampered by communication problems. Orders were delayed or confusing and Headquarters often didn’t have a clear picture of where their units were. The Battle of Loos saw many officers become casualties. Three divisional commanders were killed. Bad weather hindered air reconnaissance by the Royal Flying Corps. Several units got lost trying to find their intended objectives.

There were also chaotic scenes behind the lines, and supplies of ammunition and food were slow to arrive at the front. Many of the men were exhausted and had not received any additional rations. Artillery support was limited, forcing the infantry to advance without covering fire and often finding the barbed wire defences still intact.

Machine gun fire and German shelling prevented the 15th (Scottish) Division and units of the 21st Division from recapturing Hill 70. Further attempts to retake Hill 70 in the following days also failed. There was fierce fighting around Fosse 8 and the Hohenzollern Redoubt, both of which eventually fell to the Germans. After the initial successes of the 25 September the British made little headway against the strongly reinforced German lines in the days following.

The British renewed the offensive on the 13 October. An artillery bombardment and the release of chlorine gas and smoke preceded the infantry advance. The casualties were high and very few gains were made. Hundreds of men were cut down in No Man’s Land by machine gun fire before reaching their first objectives. The fighting diminished after the 14 October and the Loos offensive effectively came to an end, although the operation was only officially abandoned on the 4 November.

The Aftermath

During the Battle of Loos there were over 50,000 casualties between the 25 September and the 16 October. The casualties were especially high among the Scottish infantry. Approximately 10,000 men were listed as killed, missing or wounded in the subsidiary attacks at Givenchy and Ypres.

General Haig wrote to Lord Kitchener complaining that the reserve divisions had not been placed under his command. Their late arrival to the battlefield had lost them the opportunity to exploit the early gains and breakthrough the German lines. In December Sir John French resigned as the Commander in Chief of the BEF. He was replaced by General Douglas Haig