The Battle of Loos was fought in September 1915. The battle at Loos was part of Marshal Joffre’s campaign in Artois that was designed to push back the Germans in a two-pronged offensive. Hence why on September 25th the British 1st Army commanded by Douglas Haig attacked German positions at Loos.
1915 had not been a particularly successful year for the Allies. There had been no decisive advance on the Western Front where trench warfare remained dominant. The Allies were also still reeling from the disaster at Gallipoli and the Germans were inflicting continuing major damage on the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. Joffre, pictured above, wanted to launch a joint British-French attack on the Germans in Artois, the success of which would do a great deal to boost the morale of the Allies with the ultimate goal of delivering a decisive blow against the Germans. One prong of Joffre’s attack would be carried out solely by the French with an attack on the Germans in Champagne. A joint British-French attack in Artois involved the British attacking just north of Lens at Loos with the French 10th Army attacking the German south of Lens.
With such pressure put on him, Haig had to come up with a plan for the attack at Loos. He decided to attack in a very narrow frontage so that the British could concentrate their fire to its maximum extent against German machine guns. Haig’s plan was simple – concentrated British artillery fire and pinpoint infantry fire would give the advancing British troops sufficient cover.
However, in the lead up to the attack, another weapon became available to Haig – poison gas. He realised that such a weapon would neutralise the German machine gunners. As a result he decided to widen the attack front as he was convinced that he had a weapon that would be devastating.
However, Haig faced one major problem – he was ordered to co-ordinate his attack with that of the French. He was told that he could only attack on September 25th and no earlier. He decided to build a degree of flexibility into his plan. In fact, Haig came up with two plans for the attack at Loos. If the weather was good (i.e. the wind was blowing in the right direction) he would order an attack on a wide front using gas across the whole front. His second plan was to attack on the 25th on a narrow front if the weather was not good and gas could not be used. A follow-up attack on the wider front with poison gas would occur in the immediate days after the 25th if the weather permitted.
With such flexibility built into his attack, Haig was confident of success. British forces attacked the Germans early on September 25th. The French attacked over five hours later.
At 05.50 gas was released from pressurised cylinders. The release of chlorine gas occurred on and off over a 40 minute period. The infantry attack started at 06.30.
The British had a tolerably good first day but failed to follow up their successes. Why?
To succeed, the British had to send in reserve divisions to consolidate the work done by those who had fought in the initial assault. The divisions held in reserve (the 21st and 24th and commanded by Sir John French) comprised of raw recruits who had only arrived in France in September. The two divisions were held too far away from Loos to have any impact. Simply to get to the battle zone, they had to march miles – 50 miles in four days. Haig had assumed that the 2 reserve divisions would move up to the front as soon as the infantry had started their attack at 06.30. This did not happen. They arrived too late to have any impact on the success of the British on Day 1. They were also extremely tired from their marching – even Haig called them “poor fellows”. Haig blamed Sir John French for the delay in their arrival.
The battle effectively ended on September 28th. The British suffered 50,000 casualties while the Germans lost about 25,000 men.