The Battle of Loos
The Battle of Loos was one of the major British offensives mounted on the Western Front in 1915 during World War I. It marked the first time the British used poison gas during the war, and is also famous for the fact that it witnessed the first large-scale use of ‘new’ or Kitchener’s Army units.
The battle also marked the third use of specialist Royal Engineer tunnelling companies, who deployed mines underground to disrupt enemy defence lines through the use of tunnels and the detonation of large amounts of explosives at zero hour.
Course of the Battle
The battle was the British component of the combined Anglo-French offensive known as the Third Battle of Artois. General Douglas Haig, then commander of the British First Army, directed the battle; however, his plans were limited by the shortage of artillery ammunition which meant the preliminary bombardment, essential for success in the emerging trench warfare, was weak. Prior to the British attack at about 0630, 140 tons of chlorine gas was released with mixed success—in places the gas was blown back onto British trenches. Due to the inefficiency of the contemporary gas masks, many soldiers removed them as they could not see through the fogged-up talc eyepieces, or could barely breathe with them on. This led to some British soldiers being affected by their own gas as it blew back across their lines.
The battle opened on 25 September, the British were able to break through the weaker German defences and capture the town of Loos, mainly due to numerical superiority. However, the inevitable supply and communications problems, combined with the late arrival of reserves, meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. A further complication for many British soldiers was the failure of their artillery to cut the German wire in many places in advance of the attack. Advancing over open fields in range of German machine guns and artillery, British losses were devastating. When the battle resumed the following day, the Germans were prepared and repulsed attempts to continue the advance. The fighting subsided on 28 September with the British having retreated to their starting positions. Their attacks had cost over 20,000 casualties, including three divisional commanders; George Thesiger, Thompson Capper and Frederick Wing. Following the initial attacks by the British, the Germans made several attempts to recapture the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This was accomplished on 3 October. On 8 October the Germans attempted to recapture much of the lost ground by launching a major offensive along the entire line, but abandoned the effort by nightfall due to heavy losses. This marked the official end of hostilities, although in an attempt to strike before the winter rain set in, the British attempted a final offensive on 13 October, which failed due to a lack of hand grenades. General Haig thought it might be possible to launch another attack on 7 November but the combination of heavy rain and accurate German shelling during the second half of October finally persuaded him to abandon the attempt.
Major-General Richard Hilton, at that time a Forward Observation Officer, said of the battle:
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, 25th 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 bellyfull 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, and 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.
As the British had a limited amount of artillery ammunition, the Royal Flying Corps flew target identification sorties prior to the battle to ensure that shells were not wasted. During the first few days of the attack, the Flying Corps’ target-marking squadrons with their recently improved air-to-ground wireless communications helped ensure that German targets were heavily pounded by the British artillery. Later in the battle, Flying Corps pilots carried out the first successful tactical bombing operation in history. Aircraft of the Second and Third wings carried out multiple sorties, dropping many 100-pound bombs on German troops, trains, rail lines and marshalling yards. As the land offensive stalled, British pilots and observers flew low over enemy positions, providing targeting information to the artillery.
Among the dead on the British side were Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Consort, of George VI and “Queen Mother”), author and poet Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, and the poet Charles Sorley.
Several survivors wrote of their experiences. Poet Robert Graves, described the battle and succeeding days in his war memoir Goodbye to All That. Author Patrick MacGill, who served as a stretcher-bearer in the London Irish and was wounded at Loos in October 1915, described the battle in his autobiographical novel The Great Push. James Norman Hall, the American author, related his experiences in the British Army in his first book, Kitchener’s Mob.
The Loos Memorial commemorates over 20,000 officers and men who fell in the battle and have no known grave.
The community of Loos, British Columbia name was changed to commemorate the battle.
The battle was referenced in the film Oh What a Lovely War. During the upbeat title song, sung by the chorus of officers, a scoreboard is plainly seen in the background reading “Battle: Loos/ British Losses: 60,000/ Total Allied Losses: 250,000/ Ground Gained: 0 Yards”.
- Angus Falconer Douglas-Hamilton, commanding officer of the 6th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for leading his men against a German machine gun post and was killed at their head.
- Arthur Frederick Saunders, of the Suffolk Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for supporting the Cameron Highlanders with machine guns despite his own injuries.
- George Stanley Peachment, of the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps was awarded the Victoria Cross for attempting with no regard to his own safety to provide first aid to his company commander who was lying wounded in the open. He died on 25 September 1915 near Hulluch.
- The 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles distinguished themselves when storming across No-Man’s Land to capture the enemy trenches, Sgt. Frank Edwards, the Captain of the football team, kicked a football along in front of the troops. This earned the LIR their second Battle Honour – “Loos, 1915”, the football is still preserved in the Regimental Museum. To this day, Sergeant Edwards’ memory is commemorated on Loos Sunday.
- Daniel Laidlaw, a Scottish piper received the Victoria Cross as a reward for rousing his unit to a charge.
- The 39th Garhwal Battalion was led by Rana Jodha with great courage and gallantry which won him the Military Cross. Rana Jodha Jang Bahadur, who, in spite of being wounded, continued to lead his men against the Germans, and did not desist until a second wound rendered him unconscious. He received 5 bullet wounds in the neck and upper shoulder during The Great War and recovered in Europe.
- Subedar-Major Jagindar Singh Saini, a Sikh officer from the Sappers, received the Indian Order of Merit and the Order of British India for ‘conspicuous bravery’ and ‘striking leadership’.