25th September - 14th October 1915
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.
The battle was the British component of the combined Anglo-French offensive known as the Third Battle of Artois. Field Marshal Sir John French and Haig (GOC British First Army), both of whom initially regarded the ground, overlooked by German-held slagheaps and colliery towers, as unsuitable for an attack, persuaded themselves that the Loos attack could succeed, perhaps as the use of gas would allow a decisive victory.
Sir John decided to keep a strong reserve consisting of the Cavalry Corps, the Indian Cavalry Corps and Haking’s XI Corps, which consisted of the Guards Division and two New Army Divisions (21st and 24th) just arrived in France and a corps staff some of whom had never worked together or served on a staff before. Murray (Deputy CIGS) advised French that as troops fresh from training they were suited for the long marches of an exploitation rather than for trench warfare. French was privately doubtful that a breakthrough would be achieved. Haig (and Foch, Commander of the French Northern Army Group) wanted the reserves close to hand to exploit a breakthrough on the first day; French agreed to deploy them closer to the front but still thought they should be committed on the second day.
However, Haig's 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, about 140 tons of chlorine gas was released, with mixed success—for, 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.
Wanting to be closer to the battle, French had moved to a forward command post at Lilliers, less than 20 miles behind First Army’s front. He left most of his staff behind at GHQ and had no direct telephone link to First Army. Haig’s infantry attacked at 6.30am on 25 September and he sent an officer by car requesting release of the reserves at 7am.
The battle opened on 25 September. In many places British artillery had failed to cut the German wire in advance of the attack. Advancing over open fields within range of German machine guns and artillery, British losses were devastating. However, the British were able to break through the weaker German defences and capture the town of Loos, mainly due to numerical superiority. The inevitable supply and communications problems, combined with the late arrival of reserves, meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited.
Haig did not hear until 10.02am that the divisions were moving up to the front. French visited Haig between 11 and 11.30 and agreed that Haig could have the reserve, but rather than using the telephone he drove to Haking’s Headquarters and gave the order personally at 12.10pm. Haig then heard from Haking at 1.20pm that the reserves were moving forward.
When the battle resumed the following day, the Germans were prepared and repulsed attempts to continue the advance. The reserves were committed against strengthened German positions. Rawlinson wrote to the King's adviser Stamfordham (28 September) “From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.” The twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours.
Sir John French told Foch (28 September) that a gap could be “rushed” just north of Hill 70, although Foch felt that this would be difficult to coordinate and Haig told him that First Army was not in a position for further attacks at the moment. 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 effective end of the battle, 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, 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.
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.
Field Marshal Sir John French, already being criticised before the battle, lost his remaining support in both the Government and Army as a result of the British failure at Loos and his perceived poor handling of his reserve divisions in the battle. He was replaced by Douglas Haig as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915.
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's 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.
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.
Alfred Alexander Burt, a corporal in 1/1st Battalion the Hertfordshire Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross for an action that took place on 27 September near Cuinchy. He saved the lives of many of his comrades by disarming a trench-mortar round that had landed amongst them as the battalion formed up to attack.
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.
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.
William Noel Hodgson was awarded the Military Cross for holding a captured trench for 36 hours without reinforcements or supplies during the battle and he was subsequently promoted to lieutenant.
Captain Anketell Moutray Read VC. On 25 September 1915 near Hulluch, France, Captain Read, although partially gassed, went out several times in order to rally parties of different units which were disorganised and retiring. He led them back into the firing line and regardless of danger to himself, moved about under withering fire, encouraging them, but he was mortally wounded while carrying out this gallant work. He had shown conspicuous bravery on other occasions, particularly on the night of 29/30 July when he carried out of action an officer who was mortally wounded, under a hot fire of rifle and grenades.He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.