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By Peter Doyle
The History PressCopyright © 2012 The History Press
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The ill-fated Loos offensive was undertaken directly against the opinion of Haig, the man who, as Commander of the First Army, had to carry it out.
Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, 1930
In 1915, the Entente Powers were on the back foot; the Germans were still in the ascendancy, fighting a holding war of position in the west, while forcing the Russians back in the east. In the opening days of the war, the Schlieffen Plan had been intended to knock France out, but the swinging door of the German Army had met the door jamb of the Marne, just in front of Paris. From this point on, the war was condemned to be a long engagement, and, as Kitchener would predict, it would last at least three years. On the Marne it was the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, who was to recall all reservists, famously ferried from Paris to the front in taxicabs by the order of General Gallieni. The French were to be joined by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in holding the enemy at a most critical point in the campaign. From this point on, and until the end of 1914, the battles that would become known as the 'Race to the Sea' would witness the two sides trying to turn the flank of the other in the traditional cockpit of Europe – Flanders, the flat manoeuvring ground of European armies for centuries. This distinctive region of northern Europe stretches from the sand-dune-stretched littoral of France and Belgium to the chalk upland of Artois, and has seen warfare since the Middle Ages. Journeying to the south, the landscape of this flat and open region passes from the Belgian clay plain to the dowdy industrial chalk flats of French Flanders.
For the BEF, placed between what remained of the Belgian armies (reinforced by the French) at the coast of Flanders and the French armies in Artois, Flanders would become the place of battle for four years of a hard war. Ypres – now the Flemish-speaking town of Ieper – would be the centre of British endeavour, with battles there from late 1914 right the way through to the end of the war in 1918. The First Battle of Ypres, in November–December 1914, was to form part of the 'Race to the Sea', with British regular troops (and some Territorials) holding on tenaciously in the face of a determined German Army. Here there would be waterlogged ground, hasty scrapes in the earth and the birth of the legend of the old BEF and its fire rate of fifteen rounds a minute from Lee-Enfield rifles. With the German line held by the close of the year, the early part of 1915 saw the development of the tradition of trench warfare that has come to represent the Great War to so many people. Grimly holding on, the British toiled in and around the clay plain of Ypres, while the Germans set about holding the high ground that faced the town on three sides, part of the Ypres Salient.
This bulge, following the low rising hills to the east of the town, defined an arc with a long axis running approximately north–south, facing east–west. The salient had been born in November 1914, when the German attacks from Armentières to Nieuport ran out of steam. Running around the hills, the German line, and British line following it, passed southwards over its saddle back and down to the damp valley of the Lys and on to Armentières. Farther south, the line passed through French Flanders to the canal of La Bassée, in that flat tract of land between the Lys and the Scarpe rivers. South from this the line was in French hands and ran southwards to Noyon, before tracking westwards to Verdun and the St Mihiel Salient, from there arcing around to the Swiss frontier. Stabilised in late 1914, this line would form the linear fortress of the Western Front, scene of the titanic battles of 1916–18, and successive attempts to break the line and sweep to victory. However, in 1915, matters were complicated.
For the French, the occupation of their home soil by the Germans was a national disgrace. General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French armies and hero of the Marne, was a strong character whose relationship with his British Allies was not always what it should have been. Commanding armies many divisions strong, it was obvious that Joffre and the French were the principal opponents of the Germans on the Western Front, with the BEF in a subsidiary role at this point in its history. Field Marshal Sir John French, the British commander, was ordered to maintain an independent command, yet was unable to act alone. Though having the power to organise and command his armies and their dispositions, the British commander would, in essence, have to bow to the pressures of his French ally to press the enemy line and force the Germans back.
With this in mind, General Joffre enacted plans in late 1914 and 1915 that would throw the might of the French Tenth Army at the Germans in Artois, close to the city of Arras, and particularly the natural stronghold of Vimy Ridge; while also committing the French Fourth and Second Armies in the Champagne. In attacks that commenced in the winter of 1914–15 he hoped that the right-angled dogleg of the German front could be driven in, thereby allowing for mobile warfare to be resumed. This plan would form the basis of French planning throughout 1915 – and would see a vast toll of French casualties mount up in these war-blighted areas. Subsidiary to the might of the French armies, all the BEF could do was bob up and down on the line like flotsam brought in by the tide, yet still carrying out its main responsibilities – to support the French commander-in-chief while maintaining its guard on the Channel ports vital to both the protection of the BEF itself and to the defence of the coast of southern England, facing France across the Channel. This would mean a number of small offensives in 1915 north of La Bassée canal intended to support the French, at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 and at Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May 1915. These attacks would all have two points in common: a lack of resources and reserves, and a certainty that any breakthrough would quickly be swallowed up by the envelope of the German Army.
For the British, their first taste of their own offensive came with the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, on 10 March 1915. Part of the general French strategy to try to break the German hold in French Flanders, it was largely unsupported. Despite its limitations, however, it nearly worked, with the British breaking through the line – a magnificent force of arms that was only to stall for want of artillery and ammunition. These would be repetitive themes in all British offensives fought throughout 1915. The limitations of this offensive did not deter the Allies, however, and at a meeting in Chantilly in late March the British commander-in-chief agreed to resume the offensive in Artois in May. Attacking once more to the north of La Bassée canal, there was hope that Aubers Ridge would be taken, thereby paving the way for cavalry exploitation. With even fewer resources than those available for the previous battle, this would be a faint hope indeed.
For their part, the Germans would also attempt to break the line in an offensive in Flanders; this would be fought at Ypres in April–May 1915, and would see the use of a new and terrible weapon of war, poison 'cloud gas' released from cylinders, employing the wind as a major contributor to the outcome of this warfare. When deployed at 5pm on 22 April 1915, the effect of the gas spreading across the Ypres battlefields was sufficient to drive French troops occupying the northern limb of the salient back in terror, losing around 6,000 killed to the asphyxiating effects of the chlorine gas. Nevertheless, its success came as a surprise to the Germans, who did not exploit the 4-mile gap that had opened in the line. Canadian troops of the British Second Army, clutching to their faces extemporised masks of cotton soaked in urine, held the line; Ypres was not to fall, and remained in Allied hands throughout the war.
While Second Ypres was being fought, the French continued to press their proposal to have Artois as the main offensive area, punching away at the German 6. Armee in an attempt to stove in the bulwark. With the French attacking Vimy Ridge to the south, to the north of La Bassée canal the British would once more take on the ground it had assaulted during Neuve Chapelle two months earlier. Here the British First Army under General Haig engaged in a battle, Aubers Ridge, which would become infamous for its lack of progress at high cost. However, with the French offensive in Artois rolling on, a new attack, this time on a limited front, would be fought at Festubert, again with a similarly limited effect. Together, the combined first and second battles of Artois would cost the French at least 100,000 casualties, with an overall gain of a few miles of territory. It did not break the line; it would barely push the Germans back. The proposed breakthrough was indeed some way off. With this backdrop, it might possibly have been expected that the French would give up their aspirations to break through in Artois; but not in General Joffre's mind. Instead, the charismatic general made plans to carry out a third offensive to deliver the overall aim, comprising two titanic battles, again to be fought in Artois and the Champagne, once more with the aim of cutting off the knee of the Noyon Salient. While the Champagne would be solely a French affair, the Artois battle front would be an Anglo-French endeavour.
Facing General Sixt von Armin's IV Armeekorps (German 6. Armee), the French Tenth Army would attack the Germans with seventeen divisions to the south of the substantial mining town of Lens, their front running from Arras northwards to this industrial centre. Well equipped with both artillery and ammunition, the French could expect that the opposing German trenches would be 'flattened'. However, like the British, the French were equipped primarily with field guns (with the famous 75mm gun being rightly celebrated and highly prised in infantry attacks), and the chances of dislodging their enemies from deep excavations were limited.
The BEF was allotted the sector north of the city of Lens, in the area south of La Bassée canal – south of the region they had assaulted earlier in the year. Here, three corps of the British First Army would be committed, comprising a mixture of regular and Territorial divisions, but leavened by three divisions of Kitchener's New Army. These New Army divisions were just starting to become available, but were of variable experience with most having just landed in France. The British would be seriously undergunned, however – a factor that was to hang over the British generals like a cloud. With the lost opportunities of Neuve Chapelle just months before fresh in the minds of Sir John French and his commanders, there were memories of the acute shortage of ammunition in this battle. This had led to the 'Shell Scandal', an affair splashed across the front pages of the popular British Northcliffe press that was ultimately to see the fall of the Liberal government and the creation of a new Ministry of Munitions.
The new ministry would have much to do in reshaping British munitions supply in the latter years of the war, but it would have little effect in the late summer of 1915; thus planning for a new offensive would mean careful husbanding of resources. This would be particularly important as the lessons of the earlier battles had shown that those fought on a narrow front, though concentrating effort at one point in the line, would also suffer the combined weight of enemy artillery fire on two sides, ranging across the battle front. With that in mind, the Battle of Loos would be fought on a much wider front than before, some 20 miles; expanding the front would decrease the effect of fire from both flanks sweeping the new line, but it would mean that there was a need for a much greater concentration of artillery fire in order to pursue the offensive. Yet in the summer of 1915, there was no way that this need could be met – unless, that is, there was another weapon that could be deployed. There was: gas. The British Government had sanctioned the use of gas as retaliation for the German attack in April 1915. With plans, research and manufacturing stepped up, Loos would see the first British attempt at a gas attack during the war.CHAPTER 2
'Kitchener's mob' they were called in the early days of August, 1914, when London hoardings were clamorous with the first calls for volunteers. The seasoned regulars of the first British expeditionary force said it patronisingly, the great British public hopefully, the world at large doubtfully.
James Norman Hall, Kitchener's Mob, 1915
The British Army
When Britain went to war in 1914, it had a small but highly trained army. The army had been overhauled in 1881 to create sixty-one regiments, each allied directly with a county or region, with a home depot and two locally recruited regular battalions. Further reforms by Lord Haldane in 1908 granted regiments a Special Reserve Battalion (whose purpose was to gather recruits) and three locally raised Territorial battalions. Men serving as Territorials did so on the understanding that they would serve as part-timers engaged on home defence, with no overseas commitment. However, with the coming of war, most 'terriers' joined the colours for full-time service overseas and Territorial recruitment was placed on the same level as all the others.
For the regular soldier, mobilised for war, there was the usual budget of training, six months with the third battalion at the base depot before being deployed into the first or second battalion. The regular army was to maintain its cachet throughout the war, and belonging to the first or second battalion of an infantry regiment was seen as a badge of honour. The regular battalions available at home in 1914 were to form six infantry divisions; each division was to have three infantry brigades, with each brigade in turn composed of four infantry battalions. Brigades rarely had more than one battalion from a given regiment. The typical infantry division of 1914 would also have a significant artillery presence and an attached cavalry squadron, as well as components from all the other arms and services required to keep it operating in the field, a massive undertaking with around 15,000 men in a typical, full-strength British division. The six original divisions were to form the BEF in 1914, the first four of them taking part in the retreat from Mons in 1914, the other two being present in France by September 1914. By the end of the war, the British Army had expanded from its original six to seventy-five infantry divisions.
When Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum took over as Secretary of State for War in August 1914, he was quick to understand that this war would be costly in manpower. Not confident that the Territorial battalions could be sufficiently flexible to allow rapid expansion, Kitchener made a direct appeal to the public, his sights set on expanding the army by 500,000 men, with separate appeals, in 100,000 tranches, to be numbered successively K1, K2, K3, and so on. The 'First Hundred Thousand', or K1, were recruited within days of the appeal; two divisions of K1 men would serve at Loos. Kitchener was to issue four further appeals through the late summer and early autumn of 1914. The phenomenon most closely associated with the hothouse of recruitment in 1914–15 was the raising of 'pals' battalions by local dignitaries, 1,000 men strong. It was Lord Derby who suggested the raising of battalions of men of the 'commercial classes' in a letter published in the Liverpool press on 27 August 1914. In all, 144 pals battalions would be raised, enough for twelve infantry divisions of the K4 and K5 recruitment tranches. These men would serve on the Somme in 1916; it would be the men of K1 and K3 who would serve at Loos.
The first recruits to join Kitchener's New Army were forced to make compromises: little in the way of equipment, no uniforms, no barracks. In the early stages of the war, supply of arms, uniform and equipment to the enthusiastic recruits of Kitchener's army was a difficult task; the Kitchener battalions were to be fed, housed and equipped at the initial expense of the authority that raised them. This meant sourcing uniforms from official and even commercial suppliers at a time when the country was alive with such pleas along its length and breadth. As a consequence, recruits were more often than not clothed in civilian garb and, as training camps had not yet been formed or established, they found themselves still living at home. Kitchener's men 'went to war' training in flat caps and tweed suits with broom handles before simple uniforms were supplied in what has become known as 'Kitchener Blue' – blue serge in place of khaki.
Excerpted from Loos 1915 by Peter Doyle. Copyright © 2012 The History Press. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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