About World War 1: The Corpse Field of Loos
1915 The Battle of Loos-- Why
In 1915, the armies of the Western Front 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 while 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 make up 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.
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 the Battle of Loos. British troops, although at first outnumbering the Germans 7-to-1 in the coming battle, were therefore 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.
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.
8,250 out of almost 10,000 British soldiers fell in three hours.
“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 Regimental Diarist
“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.” -- German soldier
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.
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.
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.
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.