53: Fall Offensives Pt. 3


With the failures of the French in Artois and Champagne, will the British do better at Loos?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 53. This week I would like to invite everybody who listens to this episode over to the Facebook page at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar. I try to post interesting information from time to time, generally relating to the episodes, so come check it out. In this episode we will be continuing our discussion about the French and British fall offensives in 1915. Last week we covered the French attacks in Artois and Champagne from September and October, both of which can be classified as failures. While the French were attacking these two locations they were joined by the British who were attacking near the village of Loos. Joffre had been adamant that the British join in the attack from the very beginning, and in Episode 51 we talked about how that happened. What I didn’t fully realize until just recently was the position this battle occupies in popular history. The 100th Anniversary of Loos was about a week ago and I read through several stories and a plethora of comments online discussing how the British were dragged into the offensive by the French, almost against their will. I thought I might address this before we talk about the action. The French had certainly sought the help of the British, but I don’t see any instance where it was any more intense than other requests for help from other allies during the war. The French had upped the pressure during the summer, but not more than should be expected from any alliance in war time. The war was a year old and the French contribution to this point was much greater than the British contribution, especially if you look at the Western Front. Another factor in favor of attack was that part of the British leadership including the commander of the British Army Sir John French were spoiling for another attack. While the positioning wasn’t perfectly what they wanted, they certainly weren’t unwilling to join in the attack. I believe this is an example of trying to find somebody to blame for failures, which there were many of in fall 1915. There are many different options when it comes to assigning blame for the failues at Loos, but I am not sure the French are the right targets. With that, I will get off my soapbox, and we will jump into the build up to the battle.

There was a person on the British side that wasn’t a huge fan of the offensive and that was the man leading it, General Douglas Haig. His First Army would be carrying out the attack. He had several concerns most of which revolved around the artillery situation on the First Army. In Haig’s mind the first army didn’t have enough heavy artillery or enough ammunition for the artillery in general. These were valid concerns, this was the point in the war where the British were really feeling the pinch of supply shortages and when they were probably feeling it the worst. The British industry just wasn’t producing enough shells to keep up with demand and through the summer they found it difficult to catch up. To put things into maybe a bit of perspective, we have spent almost an entire episode discussing Austria-Hungary’s economic and manufacturing challenges, and even they were producing more shells than the British. There was also a member of French’s own staff that didn’t fully support the attack and that was his Chief of Staff Robertson. Even with these two high ranking officers voicing concerns Sir John French and Henry Wilson both fully believed in it. Henry Wilson was one of the architect of the British/french alliance and during 1915 he was a liaison between the British and French. An important aspect of the agreement between French of Foch had been that the British were strictly attacking in support of the French. The terms off the agreement were very clear, if the French stopped attacking so would the British, unless the British advance was going extremely well. We discussed this aspect last week, and it meant that the French kept attacking when they probably should have stopped just to keep the British attacking, who also probably should have stopped. A bad situation for both parties. Regardless of why the British were attacking or who did or did not want the attack to happen, they would be attacking, and where they would be attacking was between Loos and La Bassee with the goal of punching through the German line and cutting off a few of the railways behind the front that the Germans used to move troops and supplies back and forth along the front. The village of Loos, for which the battle is named, was a small coal mining village in northern France, and unfortunately by the end of the war it would be completely destroyed. The shelling during the Battle of Loos and other actions in 1915 resulted in it being a pile of rubble by the end of the year, and more action over the last half of the war just ground that rubble into dust. Such was the fate of villages caught between the lines. The First Army would be executing the attacking, specifically the IV and I Corps of the First Army commanded by General Rawlinson and Gough respectively. The two corps were comprised of 6 divisions, which is a paltry number when compared with the number of troops the French were using for their attacks. Fortunately for the British they would be facing just 1 German division in their attack. The British knew they would have a numerical advantage, although maybe not 6 to 1, but even with the advantage General Rawlinson did think the chances of his Fourth Corps were very good “[General Haig] tells me that we are to attack au fond, that the French are doing likewise and making supreme effort. It will cost us dearly, and we shall not get very far.” For those who don’t know, au fond means in essence, I didn’t know that, so maybe other people don’t as well. The attack would be launched on a 10 kilometer front, of course the British didn’t use kilometers in 1915 so they measure the distance in yards, 11,200 of them to be precise. And before this attack there would be a 4 day bombardment which would include the use of gas, for the first time on a large scale for the British. The gas that they would be using was chlorine gas that would be delivered via large cylinders at the front with the hope that the clouds of the gas would be carried over to the German lines by the wind. There were 5,000 cylinders in total spread along the front which totaled 50 tons of gas. This sounds like a lot of gas, 50 tons, 100,000 pounds, but in this case it really wasn’t. Loos would take place months after the first gas attack on the Western Front at Ypres and during that time both sides had readied themselves for further gas attacks. The German troops would have gas masks to protect them and even if they were not very advanced at this stage in the war they would still provide some protection. Based on captured examples the British knew that the masks would effective for about 40 minutes, at which point the filtering mechanism would be overwhelmed by the gas. And this time, 40 minutes, is why 50 tons of gas wasn’t very much. The problem was that it wasn’t enough to cover the German lines for more than 40 minutes under anything but the absolute perfect weather conditions, so the British improvised. First, they turned the gas on and off, hoping to prolong the effect of the gas, the concentration would be reduced, but it was hoped that spreading it out would help. The second improvisation was the use of smoke candles to make the Germans believe that the gas was continuous. Nobody, on either side, would risk taking their mask off with anything even sort of looking like gas floating around them so the British hoped that by making sure that the Germans kept their masks on it might hinder their fighting ability when the British troops attacked. Anybody who has warn chemical warfare gear, even the latest and greatest, can tell you that having to fight for extended periods with it on can be pretty rough. In WW1, when gas masks were extremely crude it could be even worse. Neither of these improvisations by the British were ideal, and the entire plan to use gas would be a problem for the British as the battle approached mostly due to weather. All of the preparations on the front, from the greater artillery concentration, to the gas being brought up to the front, couldn’t go unnoticed by the Germans and they were continuously improving their defenses throughout the summer. Like on other parts of the front they put special emphasis on the second line of trenches. These new trenches were either created where none existed or they were strengthened where they did exist. The Germans also brought in more heavy artillery and sighted it to have the greatest possible effect. All of this was designed on the new defense in depth paradigm. The first line was just there to slow the attackers down, the second line was designed to actually stop them. As the day of the attack drew closer Sir John French knew what was on the line. “Whatever may happen I shall have to bear the brunt of it, and in cricket language they may ‘Change the bowler’” Sir John French knew that support for his command was waning back in London, and it was completely possible that another failure would result in a change of command, you will just have to wait and see if he is correct. A few days before the attack began Kitchener appeared near the front to congratulate the soldiers that would take part in the opening attacks, he discussed the honor that was being put on them by being in the opening thrust. I’m sure this was a morale boost for the troops before the attack, although I doubt it helped much once the ball got rolling. Four days before the attack the artillery fire began, and for four days and nights the constant fire continued.

As the hours ticked down the question of the weather grew in importance in the minds of the British leaders. Haig was very worried, an extremely specific set of weather conditions were required to properly utilize the British gas and the forecast was uncertain on whether or not they would be present for the battle. There had to be a bit of wind that would take the gas to the German lines, fast enough to move the gas quickly, but slow enough not to completely dissipate it. Haig had staff of meteorologists at his headquarters and they were doing their best, and the conclusion they came to the day before was a big maybe on if the conditions would be appropriate. The problem in this case was the complete lack of wind on the front, if the gas was released with the stagnant air it would just sit over the British lines. An hour by hour watch developed and 12 hours before the attack nobody knew the situation, however at 9PM, and 9 hours before the gas was to be released all signs pointed to good conditions. It was also at 9PM that the final order went out to the commanders at the front that the offensive was going to happen, but this order did not contain definitive information on the gas situation. At 3AM the time for the gas release was pinpointed for 5:50AM and over the next 3 hours I am sure everybody anxiously watched the wind, every gust in the wrong direction causing them to hold their breath. At 5:15 the explicit order to release the gas at 5:50AM went out to the officers in charge of the gas canisters. On some parts of the line, when this order arrived there was not a breath of wind. The gas was released at 5:50AM along most of the front. On the right, in the south, it generally went pretty well with the gas slowly drifting toward the German Lines. On the left, in the north, the story was different. In some areas it didn’t move at all and it just sat in front of the British lines. In some areas the wind was blowing completely in the wrong direction and it blew back over the British lines. In The Real War by XXXXXX there are reports of officers in the 2nd Division refusing to release the gas due to the lack of wind on their front, and they continueed to refuse until direct orders were delivered from their commanders. Overall, even on the parts of the front where the wind took the gas in the right direction, the results were disappointing at best. When it did reach the German line it reached it slow enough that the soldiers were easily able to put their gas masks on to protect themselves. In the areas where it didn’t reach the German lines it was a serious problem for the attacking British. Even when it didn’t blow back over the lines, it would just sit between the lines which meant that the British would have to attack through it. This was the worst situation for the British soldiers moving forward. They were protected by their P Gas Masks, so they weren’t in any real danger, but wearing the masks made it hard to see, hear, and breath as they charged forward. There is a saying by XXXXX that if you cannot see you cannot fight, if you cannot hear you cannot fight, and if you cannot breath you cannot fight, and the British were having problems doing all three of them. Corporal Henri Laporte would say of his movement forward “I remember having difficulty in breathing and was stumbling along.” On Lieutenant H. G. Picton Davies part of the front the gas worked as expected “At 5.30 am the gas was released. On the front of our division the wind was in the right direction and the right strength - the gas went over well. When the cylinders were exhausted, a smoke screen was put down, the trenches were bridged over with duckboards, and the infantry, wearing their gas masks, went over at 6.30 am.” The results of the first British attacks were wholly dependent on the gas situation on each part of the front. On the right the 47th and 15th divisions did quite well and it was here that the gas performed as expected. The village of Loos itself was captured along with Hill 70, which was an important landmark in the region. As you move north along the line the successes taper off as the results of the gas become less and less so do the advances. The 1st Division in the British center was slowed down by the gas sitting in no man’s land and didn’t achieve their objectives. On the far left the 7th and 9th divisions had to fight through the clouds of chlorine before fighting through the Germans, they made a little progress but nowhere near what was hoped or as much as they could have under better circumstances. Even in their most successful areas on the right the British ran into the same problems as the French had in Champagne. They moved over the first line of German trenches easily enough, the lines were completely obliterated by artillery. It is interesting to see the artillery for the British and French learning so much in less than a year, in the first battles of 1915 they had failed to even cut the first set of wire and now they were able to easily cut it to ribbons. Part of this was just the sheer volume of fire, but part of it was also learning the proper type of ammunition and the correct bombardment patterns to have the greatest effect. The British infantry, having gotten through the first line of trenches ran into the second line, and here just like in Champagne, they began to bog down and they came to a complete stop. There were a few isolated incidents of British troops forging their way through the second line and occupying it for a short amount of time, but all of these instances were the exception and not the rule. Where it did happen the troops found themselves without a way to get any kind of support, they were often at the maximum range of their artillery fire and right in the perfect spot to be blasted by the German guns. With the attack stopped as the second line of trenches the question at the front became, where were the reserves, and when would they be arriving. And with that question we arrive at the biggest criticism of the British commanders during this battle. During the attack Haig had committed all of his troops with very few Corps and Army level reserves ready to be utilized. Haig was completely dependent on the reserves controlled by Sir John French, reserves that would move into the attack at Haig’s request. The two divisions that were available were the 21st and 24th, both of the New Army. These troops were very green, having almost no combat experience, but they would still be able to, maybe, do some damage if they could get to the front. Haig’s entire plan was predicated on getting these troops forward to the point of need as quickly as possible, to beat German reinforcements to the point of possible success. It would be the only way for the First Army to keep the attack going, and unfortunately for everyone involved, they were stationed too far away to provide this necessary support. The two divisionss were around 15 miles from the front, and they moved forward as soon as they got the order that they were needed, but it was going to take awhile to move those 15 miles. 15 miles is a good solid day of marching for an army that is making good speed but it was impossible for the two divisions to make good speed on the 25th of September. There were only so many roads to the front, most of them were narrow country dirt roads that were full of other traffic. This traffic included wounded men in ambulances being evacuated, ammunition trains moving forward to the guns, supply trains moving forward to bring food, ammunitions, and everything else needed to keep the army running, all of these were moving along the same roads and often in the different directions. French has been the one to position the reserves, and he bears the fault for their late arrival. However, Haig should have kept some sort of reserve that he could use close to the front, that is just best practice in all wartime attacks for any situation, always keep a reserve. As it was, Haig didn’t find out where the 21st and 24th divisions were until well into the afternoon on the 25th, after the attack was already stopped on most of the front. After the battle Haig would state in his account of the action “If there had been even one division in reserve close up we could have walked right through. General headquarters refused to recognize the teaching of the war as regards the control of reserves” In this instance, I believe, Haig is being far too confident in what another division could do in the battle, they probably would have been stopped by the second line, and even if they could somehow capture the second line, that was not the end of the German defense. Part of this account, and his blame on the positioning of reserves also could have been for selfish reasons, as we will talk about when Haig replaces French as British commander. With the attacks on the 25th at a stop, and no reinforcements present, there was only one option, pause the attacks and continue the next day with the 21st and 24th divisions available.

As the second day of the attack dawned Haig ordered another attack against the second line of German trenches in the areas where the attack had gotten to them the day before. These trenches were still mostly unharmed by the 4 day bombardment before the battle, making them far stronger obstacles than what the troops had faced the first day. The artillery support for the attack also wouldn’t be as helpful, the preparations were measured in just hours instead of days. This meant that all of the German machine guns, and barbed wire, would be almost completely intact and waiting for the British. The troops that were available were the tired troopers from the first day and the reinforcements that had finally arrived. These two new divisions had very little experience and that wasn’t their only problem, they also had been marching all afternoon and evening, then had spent the night and morning trying to get organized and ready to attack at 11AM. Tired troops and intact defenses are a recipe for a complete disaster and instead of going through the events of the attacks on the 26th I will just give three quotes of the attack, 2 from the German side, and then one from a British soldier. This first quote is from To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild where he quotes an unnamed German soldier where he describes the columns of British attacking through no man’s land “Each about a thousand men, all advancing as if carrying out a parade-ground drill…Nevver had machine guns had suuch straight forward work to do…with barrels becoming hot…they traversed to and fro along the enemy’s ranks; one machine gun alone fired 12,500 rounds that afternoon. The result was devastating. The enemy could be seen falling literally in the hundreds, by they continued to march.” As the British were forced back, some German positions stopped firing on them. And this German commander’s account describes why “My machine gunners were so filled with pity, remorse and nausea that they refused to fire another shot” In A World Undone G. J. Meyer quotes a British soldier who had taken part in the attack “Coming back over the ground that had been captured that day,” one Tommy wrote, “the sight that met our eyes was quite unbelievable. If you can imagine a flock of sheep lying down sleeping in a field, the bodies were as thick as that. Some of them were still alive, and they were crying out, begging for water and plucking at our legs as we went by. One hefty chap grabbed me around both knees and held me. ‘Water, water,’ he cried. I was just going to take the cork out of my water-bottle—I had a little left—but I was immediately hustled on by the man behind me. ‘Get on, get on, we are going to get lost in no man’s land, come on.’ So it was a case where compassion had to give way to discipline and I had to break away.” The casualties for the attacks were staggering. The British went forward with 15,000 men and more than 8,000 of them were killed or wounded. Over 80%. Some battalions lost almost all of their officers and most of their men, and the Germans didn’t lose hardly any men at all. With the failures of the 26th you might expect the offensive to be over, a huge failure on that scale surely was the end? It was not the end, the Germans launched a series of counter attacks over the next several days while the British tried to consolidate. If you remember from last week, the plan was actually to resume the attack on October the 1st in conjunction with the French. These attacks got delayed all the way until the 13th due to both British and French necessitated delays. When the attack did finally take place, the German lines were stronger than they had ever been and to try and soften them up the British were able to muster only 2 hours of bombardment. To quote the official British history “The fighting on the 13th-14th October had not improved the general situation in any way and had brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry” And with this final failure the battle of Loos was over. Next week we will take an episode to look back at the fall offensives in the West before doing a review of the entire year on the war’s most important front.