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World War 1: The Corpse Field of Loos

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WWI: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. 1914.

WWI: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. 1914.

1915 The Battle of Loos. Why?

In 1915, the Western Front armies were exhausted from the early months of World War One, and the fighting had stagnated into trench warfare all along the front, meandering 400-odd miles from the English Channel southeast to the Swiss Border.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Britain’s small Regular Army in France, was being enlarged with divisions of the “New Army,” an army of volunteers organized by Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener. The first time New Army divisions fought was at the Battle of Loos. It didn’t go well. The Germans named it the “Leichenfeld von Loos”-- the Corpse Field of Loos.

As the small and battered professional British Army swelled with Kitchener’s new divisions of volunteers, they were able to assume control of longer stretches of front from French units. French General Joffre, assessing the Allied position as a whole-- the beleaguered Russians on the Eastern Front, the debacle of the Allied invasion of Gallipoli against the Turks and the stalemate in France-- decided it was time to strike the Germans. At the same time, the Allies outnumbered them on the Western Front. He wanted two coordinated battles, where the British would attack at and north of Loos, a small town held by the Germans, while the French launched their own attack south of Loos.

The Germans, for their part, had decided to fight a defensive war in the West until they defeated the Russians in the East and had shifted many divisions east. To compensate for this loss of manpower, they strengthened their trench system by constructing a strong secondary trench line about three miles behind the front trenches and supported the troops with additional machine gun emplacements and defensive artillery. The secondary position would allow them time to concentrate reinforcements and retake any front-line positions lost.

WW1: British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos. 25 September 1915.

WW1: British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos. 25 September 1915.

Planning Begins

Despite British generals’ misgivings-- the land was open and flat with no cover, and the New Army units hadn’t been tested in battle-- Kitchener and other politicians insisted the British had to prove to the French that they were capable of launching a large-scale offensive.

Once on board, British General John French, commander of the BEF, and his subordinate General Douglas Haig started planning their “Big Push,” which would become known as the Battle of Loos. Although at first outnumbering the Germans 7-to-1 in the coming battle, British troops were committed to a battle not of their choosing, over ground unsuited for attackers and without clear objectives. Adding to that, England was buzzing with talk about the coming “Big Push,” so the only thing the Germans weren’t sure of was exactly what day and what time the attack would start.

September 21 The Bombardment Begins

On September 21, 1915, the British began a four-day artillery bombardment of the German lines, intent on destroying the enemy trenches and clearing the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the trenches. Over 250,000 shells were fired, seriously depleting their store of munitions.

Attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt

World War One: Photograph showing the British attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt during the Battle of Loos. A cloud of smoke and gas appears in the centre and left.

World War One: Photograph showing the British attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt during the Battle of Loos. A cloud of smoke and gas appears in the centre and left.

September 25 Over the Top

Early in the morning, on September 25, the British used gas for the first time and opened thousands of cylinders of chlorine gas. An hour later, elements of six divisions, including “New Army” units, advanced along roughly a five-mile front. Unfortunately, the wind didn't cooperate and some advanced into the gas cloud, causing 2,500 casualties, though only seven died from the chlorine gas.

There was success in the north, where a German strong point known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt was stormed and taken. To the south, the British captured the village of Loos. Elsewhere, the soldiers discovered that neither the German trenches nor the barbed-wire had been cleared by the four-day bombardment; they found themselves pinned down in No Man's Land by enemy artillery and machine guns. Despite these “minor” setbacks, Haig requested that two additional “New Army” divisions, supposedly held in reserve, be thrown into battle to exploit a hole made in the enemy's front-line and attack their secondary trench line.

Unfortunately, the 21st and 24th New Army Divisions were six miles away, having already marched 50 miles in four days. They had arrived in France earlier in the month, having never seen combat. By the time they were in position to attack, it was the afternoon of the next day, September 26 and many had gone without food or water. In the meantime, the Germans had rushed reinforcements into the area.

Aerial Photograph of the Hohenzollern Redoubt

WW1: Aerial photograph of the Hohenzollern redoubt. German lines are in the top half. The Hohenzollern Redoubt is the tip of the salient protruding southwest closest to the British lines; British lines are in the bottom half. September 21, 1915.

WW1: Aerial photograph of the Hohenzollern redoubt. German lines are in the top half. The Hohenzollern Redoubt is the tip of the salient protruding southwest closest to the British lines; British lines are in the bottom half. September 21, 1915.

September 26, the Corpse Field

The New Army troops finally attacked the afternoon of September 26. Their orders were vague, basically “advance against the enemy's secondary trenches”. Because of difficulties moving the artillery and the shortage of shells, they were not supported by a bombardment, so the Germans were surprised to see them advancing through the tall grass. Dumbfounded, the Germans saw that, instead of advancing in waves, the British were marching-- some as if on parade-- toward them in ten columns, gradually filling No Man's Land.

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The German machine guns went to work, cutting them down by the hundreds like scythed wheat. German soldiers climbed above their parapets and fired their rifles into the mass of men trying to advance. The oil in the machine guns boiled; one machine gun alone fired 12,500 rounds. And still the British columns kept coming. And still the German machine guns chattered. Finally, the British could go no further, blocked by impenetrable barbed-wire entanglements that were supposed to have been obliterated by the artillery bombardment.

When the confused and dazed survivors realized they could advance no further, they finally turned and headed back the way they'd come. As they retired through the corpse-strewn grass, the Germans, so overcome and sickened by the slaughter, stopped shooting to allow them to return to their trenches in peace. German medical personnel came forward and gave first aid to the British wounded. The 21st and 24th Divisions lost more than 8,000 killed and wounded that afternoon.

Map of the Hohenzollern Redoubt

WWI: Trench map depicting the Hohenzollern Redoubt in October 1915.

WWI: Trench map depicting the Hohenzollern Redoubt in October 1915.

September 28 Effectively Over

The battle was effectively over on the 28th. Despite further British attacks, the Germans, now strengthened, counterattacked and pushed the British back.

Over the next two weeks, there was still fighting, but it was mainly around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which the Germans recaptured. On October 13, a final British attack on the redoubt failed.

Extent of the Battle of Loos


The Battle of Loos, which yielded a slight dent along a few miles of front, cost the British 50,000 casualties, including about 16,000 dead. Three British major generals observing the battle were also killed. The Germans suffered an estimated 25,000 casualties.

The New Army 21st Division went on to be one of the finest British Divisions in the war, participating in many more battles. When it was all over they had suffered a total of 55,581 casualties.

The New Army 24th Division also went on to fight in many more battles. Their total casualties by the end of the war were 35,362.

Sir John French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as Commander of the BEF. The artillery munition shortage and the late-arriving reserve divisions had tipped the balance and political maneuvering did the rest. That such a disaster as the Battle of Loos would be far eclipsed less than a year later by the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele after that, helps explain the deeply held British reverence to this day for those who died in the Great War.

German Regimental Diarist

“Never had the machine-gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so unceasingly. The men stood on the firestep, some even on the parapets, and fired exultantly into the mass of men advancing across the open grassland. As the entire field of fire was covered with the enemy's infantry the effect was devastating and they could be seen falling in hundreds.”

German Soldier

“We were very surprised to seem them walking. We had never seen that before. The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim. We just fired into them.”

Three Hours

8,250 out of almost 10,000 British soldiers fell in three hours.

Battle of Loos

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 David Hunt


FlourishAnyway from USA on November 23, 2018:

Utterly devastating waste of human life. The combination of factors that led those young men into that fog hopefully leave us with some key takeaways for military leadership. That's the least amount of respect they are owed. Well written.

walibooks on May 10, 2015:

important knowledge

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 31, 2014:

Deborah, your question "Why does nobody seem to know the Battle of Loos" (replace "Loos" with many other WW1 battles) is precisely why I write so much about WW1. We simply must not forget the horror of this or any other war. You can bet the generals would have forbidden any mercy the frontline troops showed had they been there. That would apply to either side because those who do the fighting cannot "appreciate" the bigger picture and political ramifications of their "betters".

Deborah Pottinger on July 31, 2014:

Suggest you look at the diary of the 9th Batt E Surrey Regiment diary. Kitchener's Army (24th Div) walked uphill into the Field of Corpses SE of Hulluch thinking that they were flanked by allies, moving towards wire that had not been cut. As I understand it, the corpses were not all corpses, but men pinned to the ground by fire on three sides. The 9th E Surreys had stood in the pouring rain for hours before the command to advance. Due to supply difficulties, they had been unfed and unwatered for up to 60 hrs, and this was their first day in battle ... this was my grandfather's first experience of war after the jingoism. The survivors were ultimately destined for the Somme. Why is this not very widely known? Why does nobody seem to know the Battle of Loos,, unless they read Kipling??

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 07, 2014:

Thanks very much CMHypno. "Well, that didn't work... let's try it again-- this time with more cowbell" (apologies to Saturday Night Live and Christopher Walken). Lack of communication was also a recurring problem. Even if the troops met their initial objectives, they were unable to keep headquarters informed, so the slightest deviation from the "plan" threw everything into chaos-- and what plan doesn't break down when the enemy fails to cooperate. Thanks for reading and commenting!

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on February 07, 2014:

Fascinating hub UnamedHarald. Most people have heard about Ypres and the Somme, but there were several battles in the Great War like Loos where there were huge amounts of casualties . The barbed-wire not being cut by the bombardment and troops who expected the way to be clear seemed to be a bit of a theme through the war, leading to unnecessary deaths and injuries

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 21, 2013:

Anne, thank you so much for your grandfather's poem. I have no words to add to his verse, except to say it is an honor to see them in my hub.

Anne Morley on February 21, 2013:

My Grandfather was in the 2nd Rifle Brigade and wrote poetry during WW1. One of the 7 verses in "The Bumming Second" might interest you:

We are the patient Second

The all-obedient RBs

And Sep 25th will be reckoned

A black day with the 20th Bs

For the stolid RBs

The solid RBs

Took their three lines under hellish fire

And the Bavarians they took stock

For they gave them an awful shock

But alas the order came they'd to retire.

Written 5.10.15 when he was in the Battallion HQ Staff in the trenches between Sailly and Estaires.

Anne Morley on February 21, 2013:

My Grandfather wrote poetry in WW1 while he was in the 2 nd Battallion Rifle Brigade. In one of the 7 verses of "The Bumming Second" he writes

We are the patient Second

The all-obedient RBs

And Sep 25th will be reckoned

A black day for the 20th Bs

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 23, 2012:

Hi old albion. This is one article I've always wanted to write because the image of the soldiers marching in columns across no man's land, for me, encapsulated the war: the unbelievable bravery of the soldiers and officers, the incomprehensible stupidity of those in charge and slaughter so terrible the enemy was moved to tears. Trouble was, I didn't know which battle it occurred in. I knew all about the Somme, which, incredibly, would eclipse Loos and where the soldiers were ordered to walk slowly across no man's land, but I was looking for the battle with the marching columns-- as if on parade. I finally found it. I had to write this.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on November 22, 2012:

Hi UH. Your description of the lads being mown down was horrifying. Slaughter indeed. Your mention of the German medics assisting was also very good, your picture of the men advancing into a Gas cloud bring home the terrible toll this war brought on all sides. First class as usual.

Voted up and all.


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 22, 2012:

Thanks, shining. I fear the only way to do away with war is if everyone involved in the decision to go to war was issued rifles and uniforms.

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on November 22, 2012:

Greta addition to your other hubs. As my Dad always said "War is hell, if it was pleasant, they would cal it something else."

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 21, 2012:

Thank you for your kind comment, joan. I always try to remember how confusing all those battles and generals and unfamiliar place names were to me when I first read them and then try not to overwhelm the reader with too many strange names.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 21, 2012:

Pavlo, they hadn't experienced combat and were definitely brave, but the mindset of patriotism, for god and king-- all contributed. The inexperience must have been shared by their officers to march like that. Many officers died also. It seems to be the same thing that caused soldiers to go "over the top" against the machine guns. It's hard to fathom such acts in today's world. It's one of the aspects of the war I find compelling-- like a horror story-- to try to understand. Society was so different then. WW1 mixed the commoners with the upper class like nothing before. Thank you for commenting.

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on November 21, 2012:

Hi, David, I finally made it back to my normal schedule, so read this Hub with interest! The slaughter that is typical of WW1 was no novelty, but your ability to turn out brilliant descriptions with just a few words, was impressive! I could almost feel I was participating! A great read, voted up, awesome and interesting. Congrats, and have a good day!

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on November 21, 2012:

Dear David, this part of history is amazing. Why did they march against a machine gun? So brave, drunk, or afraid to disobey orders?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 20, 2012:

Hello, Jan. The tragedy of it is the British couldn't hold a candle to the arrogance of the French or the Russian leadership. And there is some effort being put forward to salvage the way the war was fought. Basically the argument is "well, what else could they do?". Thanks for your comment.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 20, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, Steve. The Battle of Loos was the inspiration behind "Oh What a Lovely War"-- a musical complete with a background scorecard showing casualties and yards gained. It was not pro-war.

JanMaklak from Canada on November 20, 2012:

What a great article. British arrogance in their leadership caused a lot of needless death. Probably the war could have been brought to a conclusion much sooner if the British did not squander their human assets.

Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on November 20, 2012:

Another excellent war hub David, cheers. Keep em coming.

So much slaughter and death. War, what is it good for?

Voted Up and Interesting.

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