The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 203rd installment in the series.
September 25-28, 1915: Disaster at Loos
The bloodiest defeat suffered by the British so far in the First World War, Loos was a monument to the incredible bravery of British soldiers and the confusion or outright incompetence of their commanders. The attack proceeded despite a general acknowledgement that British artillery faced a dire shortage of artillery shells, using thousands of new, totally untested troops, and involving the first (also untested) British use of poison gas in the war. In short it was a recipe for disaster, and that is what they got.
The assault would be carried out by the British First Army under General Douglas Haig, as part of French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s ambitious plan calling for simultaneous attacks by the French Tenth Army in Artois and the French Third and Fourth Armies in Champagne. Together, Joffre hoped these coordinated offensives would form the arms of a giant pincer, cutting off the German armies in northern France.
The British First Army was composed of the I Corps and IV Corps, which would carry out the initial attack, and XI Corps, held in reserve to exploit the hoped-for strategic breakthrough. The I Corps, under Hubert Gough, consisted of the 2nd Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division; the IV Corps, under Henry Rawlinson, the 1st Division, 15th (Scottish) Division, and 47th (London) Division; and the XI Corps, under Richard Haking, the 12th (Eastern) Division, 21st Division, 24th Division, 46th (North Midland) Division, and the Guards Division, as well as the Cavalry Corps – although only the 21st and 24th Divisions were available when the battle began.
The six divisions in the I and IV Corps who would lead the attack were given a daunting task. Although they enjoyed a two-to-one advantage over the Germans to begin with, the terrain was extremely unfavorable for an attack on the well-entrenched defenders: across the battlefield the German trenches were at least two hundred yards away from the British trenches, and in some places as much as 4,000 yards – all over a flat, featureless plain gently sloping upwards to elevated German positions, giving the latter an ideal vantage point for artillery spotting.
After a final bombardment which mostly failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches (above), at dawn on September 25, 1915, the British opened 5,500 cylinders containing over 150 tons of chlorine gas, relying on prevailing winds to carry the gas over the German lines – but the weather failed to cooperate, and on the British left the gas swept back over the British lines, causing 2,200 casualties before the attack even began.
Following this distinctly unpromising start, the British attack fell prey to further confusion, as some troops couldn’t hear the orders to attack over the incredible din of the artillery: the 15th (Scottish) Division, assigned to cross 1,500 yards to capture Loos itself, only realized it was time to attack when the division’s bagpiper marched along the parapet of the trench, piping them to battle – an incredible act of bravery for which he later received the Victoria Cross.
The troops who went over the top found themselves in a surreal and supremely dangerous scene, advancing across flat, open fields behind the gas cloud, mingling with smoke from artillery shells and lit by flares and “star shells,” while German machine guns and rifles crackled (top). One soldier in the London Irish of the 47th Division, Patrick MacGill, recalled:
The air was vicious with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view.
Even more bizarre, to show their disdain for danger the London Irish of the 47th Division dribbled a football across no man’s land as they advanced (below).
Another soldier, John Jackson of the Scottish 6th Camerons, remembered the advance on Loos, where he states they killed Germans trying to surrender:
In short rushes we kept on, grim and determined, through a tangled growth of long grass, till we came to the enemy front line… In spite of growing losses in our own ranks we kept on driving the Germans before us and soon had them on the run for the village, and here they set up a desperate defence. Their machine guns took a terrible toll from our thinning ranks, but still we hung on till we were again in hand-to-hand conflict with them. From house to house, and cellar to cellar, we hunted them. Machine-gunners slaying us from their hidden posts, threw up their hands crying “Kamerad”, when we got within striking distance, but they deserved and received no quarter. Cold steel and bombs did their duty then, and the village was strewn with dead and running with blood.
The attackers suffered breathtaking casualties, as thousands were gunned down in the barbed wire entanglements, with the 47th Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division suffering especially heavy losses; the 9th Division was tasked with capturing a fortress-like complex called the Hohenzollern Redoubt, while the 7th Division had to capture another strongpoint called “The Quarries.” But despite the appalling losses, through sheer willpower they succeeded in capturing the German trenches along a stretch 4.5 miles long and up to two miles deep.
The battle had reached a critical moment, and decisions now would later stir enormous controversy: Haig and Gough both claimed that if they had been able to employ the 21st Division and 24th Division, held in reserve, to follow up the gains of the 9th Division on the afternoon of September 25, they would have completed the strategic breakthrough and shatter the German front. However British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French refused to allow them to use the reserves at first, fearing a sudden German counterattack and arguing that the first wave troops should be able to carry the offensive through to the end.
As a result, the reserves didn’t arrive at the front until the evening of September 25 and didn’t go into action until the following day – a crucial delay which gave the Germans a chance to rush reinforcements to plug the gap in their lines. Overnight seven new German divisions arrived and dug in along new defensive positions, including a long, low hill east of Loos called “Hill 70.” Much of the fighting over the following days would be a futile contest for control of the hill.
One of the British reinforcements, W. Walker, recalled moving up the frontline positions in heavy autumn rain, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and seeing the ruins of Loos on the night of September 25 (above):
It began to grow dark. Vivid wicked flashes could be seen and bright dazzling balls of red, green, and yellow light illuminated the flattish land in front… After stumbling on for another half-hour, sometimes up to the knees in liquid mud, I could observe by the light of the sky signals the ruined outline of a village. It was Loos. The moon now shone revealing the roofless walls of the houses, the open spaces where houses had once stood, marked by heaps of rubble. The village was slowly vanishing under the pounding of the guns. A German trench ran along the side of the street.
Another one of the reinforcements, James N. Hall, recalled the chaotic scene as they waited to move forward through the unfamiliar trenches:
We halted to wait for our trench guides at the village of Vermelles, about three miles back of our lines. The men lay down thankfully in the mud and many were soon asleep despite the terrific noise. Our batteries, concealed in the ruins of houses, were keeping up a steady fire and the German guns were replying almost as hotly. The weird flashes lit up the shattered walls with a fascinating, bizarre effect. By their light, I saw men lying with their heads thrown back over their pack-sacks, their rifles leaning across their bodies; others standing in attitudes of suspended animation. The noise was deafening.
Unbeknownst to them, the men of the 21st Division and 24th Division were in for an even more brutal reception than the first wave of attackers (most of them so depleted they could contribute little to the second push). The assault on Hill 70 began at 11 am on September 26, and by nightfall the 21st Division and 24th Division were basically destroyed, while the 1st Division, assigned to capture the nearby village of Hulluch, was in tatters. Walker recalled the attack on German positions on Hill 70:
The shell-fire was deafening enough, but the clatter that commenced with our further advance was abominable. It was as if the enemy were attacking with a fleet of motorcycles – it was the hellish machine guns. I saw no foe. Where he was I couldn’t gamble: somewhere in front, how distant or how near no one seemed to know. The firing was indescribably fierce; an invisible hail of lead winged past my ears unceasingly; one flicked my sleeve. How pitiful it is to recall. Our chaps fell like grass under the mower, mostly shot in the guts… Groans and shouting were added to the clamour.
At some point in the afternoon Walker became a casualty as well:
A bullet hit me; I feel its sharp sting yet; it felled me to the ground… it had pierced a hole in my right elbow. There was nothing for it but to walk, and, although the fire was growing intense, I managed to dodge the rest… It took me a long time to get to the casualty clearing station. There appeared to be hundreds of wounded all making for the same place… On arrival at the dressing station, came inoculation against tetanus; two delirious days spent in a ruined byre awaiting the ambulance.
The experience of lying out in the open for days, either waiting for stretcher bearers or an ambulance, was a common one for wounded men at Loos, as at other battles. Harold Peat, a Canadian private, remembered lying wounded in the ruins of a farmhouse for two days before he was rescued: “I never lost consciousness. Darkness came and dawn. Another day went by and the shelling went on as before. Another night, another dawn and then two Highland stretcher-bearers came in.” Meanwhile troops occupying the captured German trenches confronted gruesome tasks, as described by Hall: “Many of the men had been literally blown to pieces, and it was necessary to gather the fragments in blankets. For weeks afterward we had to eat and sleep and work and think among such awful sights. We became hardened to them finally.”
The last available reserve, the Guards Division, arrived to reinforce the beleaguered British troops on Hill 70 on September 27, but it was far too late to restore the momentum of the offensive. On September 28 the British positions had stabilized in a new defensive line, although the Germans succeeded in recapturing the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 3rd. By October 8th, when a German counterattack failed, the Battle of Loos was effectively over.
To the east the French offensive in Champagne was also grinding to a halt amid similar scenes of carnage and suffering. At first the French, who had a much larger supply of artillery shells than the British, succeeded in destroying the German frontline trenches – but the attack was frustrated by barbed wire in front of the German reserve trenches which lay behind. Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small French village, transcribed a letter from a French soldier describing the French attack:
At daybreak the bombardment recommenced--a terrible storm of shells of every calibre--bombs, torpedoes [mortar shells]--flew overhead to salute the Boches, and to complete the destruction which had been going on for three days… All along our front, in both directions, all we could see was a thick cloud of dust and smoke… Once there I seem to remember nothing in detail. It was as if, by enchantment, that I found myself in the midst of the struggle, in heaps of dead and dying. When I fell, and found myself useless in the fight, I dragged myself, on my stomach, towards our trenches. I met stretcher-bearers who were willing to carry me, but I was able to crawl, and so many of my comrades were worse off, that I refused. I crept two kilometres like that until I found a dressing-station. I was suffering terribly with the bullet in my ankle. They extracted it there and dressed the ankle, but I remained, stretched on the ground, two days before I was removed, and I had nothing to eat until I reached here yesterday--four days after I fell. But that could not be helped. There were so many to attend to.
Edmond Genet, an American volunteering with the French Foreign Legion, described the effects of the French artillery bombardment in Champagne:
The bombardment of the German trenches before the charge was terrific. The German line looked like a wall of fire and hellish flames from the bursting shells… We followed up the Colonials and passed part of the late morning in the captured German trenches. They were battered beyond description and filled with dead – mostly Germans… The sight of the dead lying about was awful. Most of them had been literally torn to pieces by the exploding shells. The sight of one will never pass from my memory. A Colonial was in a sitting posture against a small embankment. There was an expression of agonizing terror on his features, and no wonder, for below his waist he had been blown to shreds. One of his feet, the only thing recognizable of his lower anatomy, was lying several yards in front of him. I think we all shuddered as we passed.
Like the British, the French offensive also suffered from a failure to bring up reinforcements in time, according to the soldier Louis Barthas, who described the unnerving experience of trying to navigate through unfamiliar trenches filled with wounded men:
We passed through the ruined village of La Targette; then we got caught up in an entanglement of trenches, crossing and recrossing the same places without finding the right path. We came upon men, isolated or in small groups, heading to the rear. Most gave no response to our questions. Others exclaimed, “The poor guys, the poor guys…” or “It’s horrible, frightful.” They seemed half-crazy… Soon whole battalions and companies were getting mixed up in an inextricable confusion…
In a letter home Genet painted a picture of abject misery as the French offensive petered out in the final days of September:
We continued on our advance until darkness set in and lay all that night in a drenching rain in watery mud. Sleep was practically impossible. Shells were dropping around us every few minutes and anyway the horrors of the day just closed were too awful to allow pleasant dreams or even sleep to follow. All night the cries of the dying could be heard. I felt as though I were in some weird nightmare. I wish it had been, for then I could have awakened and found it to be only a dream.
The Allied losses were staggering: the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead (among them Rudyard Kipling’s son John), while the French suffered 192,000 casualties, presumably with a similar proportion killed in action. According to the British soldier Jackson, “The losses of the division ran into the thousands and our own battalion had lost 700 out of 950 who went into action.” Genet, in the French Foreign Legion, estimated: “In an attack we made on September 28, out of our company of 250 there are not quite 60 left…” The Germans sustained around 150,000 casualties.
British and French newspapers did their best to paint the fall offensive as a great victory, but ordinary people were fast becoming inured to official propaganda. Aldrich later wrote in her diary: “For several days our hearts were high. Then there began to creep into the papers hints that it had been a gallant advance, but not a great victory, and far too costly, and that there had been blunders…” And the British diarist Vera Brittain remembered the slow dawning of reality on the home front:
“Two Real Victories at Last!” announced the Daily Mail in exuberant headlines… Gradually, after a few days in which the awful sluggishness of the hours seemed a specially devised torture of hell, came the usual apologetic modifications of our “great victory,” and, still later, the lists showing that price that we had paid for this sorry achievement. The country, though growing accustomed to horror, staggered at the devastating magnitude of the cost of Loos.