Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Battle of Loos, 1915

Many battles are exercises in futility that cost the lives of thousands of men due to the incompetence of their commanders. This was certainly true of the Battle of Loos, fought in September 1915 during the First World War.

The battle was fought as part of the British Army’s support of France against Germany in a mining district of north-eastern France (the Loos in question is Loos-en-Gohelle, near Lens). The men in charge of the British troops were Field Marshal John French and General Douglas Haig, who did not always see eye to eye (Haig often complained about French’s character and tactics). In turn, the two commanders distrusted the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, General Joffre.

Lack of artillery governed the decision to begin the offensive by releasing poisonous chlorine gas towards the German positions, but this tactic failed due to the lack of wind. The cloud of gas therefore hovered over no-man’s-land and the British advance, when it happened, was hampered by lack of visibility caused by this self-inflicted hazard.

As the first day of the battle continued, General Haig became convinced that he would need to call up reserve troops, and he therefore asked Field Marshal French to release the recently-formed XI Corps, which was under the command of General Richard Haking. This corps included two divisions, the 21st and 24th, which comprised recent recruits from England who therefore had no experience of service in the field. French thought that using these troops was a mistake, but Haig made the extraordinary claim that “with the enthusiasm of ignorance they would tear their way through the German line”. He also assured Haking that the troops would not be used unless and until German morale had already been crushed and they were in retreat.

The two divisions were force-marched to the front during the day and into the night, in the pouring rain and without food. The march took 18 hours to complete, after which the men were assembled in the positions from which they would be ordered to mount their attack. After only a few hours rest they advanced “over the top” the next morning in close formation – ten ranks of up a thousand men in breadth. Their officers had no maps and very little idea of the terrain they had to cross. They did not know that the Germans were far from being crushed or in retreat, and that they were in fact protected by barbed wire barricades and armed with heavy machine guns fired from parapets that gave them an excellent view of their targets.

The result was utter carnage as the Germans simply mowed down the British troops as they advanced towards the barbed wire, which was 19 feet thick and four feet high. The surviving British troops could do nothing when they reached the wire because they only had clippers that were little better than what they might have used back home to prune roses.
The final tally of British casualties that day was 385 officers and 7,861 men, whereas the German losses were absolutely zero. The battle continued for a few days more with fresh assaults, but the damage had already been done and there was no way by which the British could make any advance.

The callousness and cynicism of the British commanders, particularly General Haig, is difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately he seems to have learned little from the debacle at Loos and would only continue to apply reckless tactics in future battles, notably the Somme and Passchendaele.

© John Welford