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By Nick Lloyd
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Nick Lloyd
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THE ORIGINS OF THE BATTLE OF LOOS: MAY–AUGUST 1915
The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 cast a long shadow over the events of the following four years. The collapse of Germany's bold bid for victory in the west, and the failure of France's efforts to take the war to the enemy in Alsace-Lorraine, left both sides in uncharted territory. With the creation of a trench stalemate stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland, Germany and France were forced to rethink their strategies in the winter of 1914–15. After fevered debates over whether to concentrate her strength against France or Russia, Germany sanctioned increased efforts in the east and the Balkans during 1915. France, meanwhile, was left to face the devastating consequences of the loss of much of her industrial heartland and the presence of the enemy a mere five days' march from Paris. With inactivity a politically unacceptable strategy, the French Army conducted a series of major offensives on the Western Front throughout 1915, determined to drive the invaders from the soil of France.
Beginning in late December and continuing until the end of March, the First Battle of Champagne raged on the wooded slopes between Rheims and Verdun. The French infantry, floundering heroically against the prepared German positions, desperately tried to open a big enough breach in the enemy lines to win a major strategic victory. But although much blood and ammunition was spent, the German line stubbornly refused to crack. The fighting then flickered further north. Between May and June the Second Battle of Artois was fought, and while the nature of trench warfare was beginning to become depressingly familiar, with its heavy casualties and limited gains of ground, tantalising success was achieved around Souchez and Vimy Ridge. One French corps almost reached the battle-scarred summit, before ammunition supplies dwindled, troops became exhausted and the suffocating cloak of stalemate descended once again upon the opposing positions.
The French High Command, known as Grand Quartier Général (GQG), was not, however, unduly disturbed by the events of the winter and spring. The autumn would see the culmination of France's offensive efforts in 1915 with huge sequenced attacks in both Artois and Champagne. Aimed at striking the flanks of the German line, which bulged out around Noyon, it was hoped that these attacks would cause the collapse of the entire enemy position and restore the war of movement. This great effort required the application of not only every man and gun in the French Army, but also the assistance of her allies on the Western Front. The Belgian Army, largely locked up in the last remaining free corner of Belgium around the Yser, would be unable to help, but the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), holding a line of ever-increasing length from Ypres to Lens, would prove a valuable ally. Britain's contribution to the autumn offensive would take the form of the Battle of Loos, a subsidiary operation fought around the northern outskirts of Lens, on the left of the French attack in Artois.
The failure of the Schlieffen Plan had profound consequences for Germany's strategy during the First World War. Haunted by the prospect of a war on two fronts, which it was believed Germany could not win, it had been an article of faith for Count Alfred von Schlieffen and his successors that only by an annihilating victory in the west (Vernichtung) could victory be achieved. With France regarded as the most dangerous of the Reich's foes, the vast bulk of Germany's strength would be deployed in an ambitious flanking march through Belgium and northern France. It was calculated that by bringing such overwhelming strength to bear, France's numerically weaker forces would succumb in six weeks, leaving Germany to deal with Russia's more ponderous masses at leisure. But events had not conformed to Schlieffen's grand design. This forced a dramatic revision in Germany's traditional orientation. The decision in the winter of 1914–15 by the German High Command, in effect, to reverse the tenets of the Schlieffen Plan and attempt to gain victory in the east, had not been taken lightly. The breakdown and subsequent retirement of Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the General Staff, in mid-September 1914 had brought the then War Minister, General Erich von Falkenhayn, to the fore. Falkenhayn was 54 years-old in 1915, a cold, calculating, but thoroughly modern soldier. Although he despaired that Germany's failure to win a short war meant that she was now condemned to lose a long one, Falkenhayn still believed in the primacy of the Western Front. But this position was becoming under increasing criticism, especially from those officers who had experienced a different war in the east. With the spectacular tactical success of the Battle of Tannenburg (26–31 August 1914) already approaching near mythical status, the views of its chief architects, the duo of General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, could not be ignored. They believed that Russia was now Germany's weaker foe and massive pincer movements in the east could retrieve the decisive victory lost on the Marne.
While the backroom intrigues that surrounded the reorientation of German strategy in this period do not concern us, suffice to say Falkenhayn was extremely reluctant to divert his gaze from the west. Haunted by Napoleon's doomed campaign against Russia in 1812, Falkenhayn dreaded his armies being sucked into the endless expanses of Poland and Ukraine. As he recorded in his memoirs, 'Napoleon's experiences did not invite an imitation of his example.' But under pressure Falkenhayn eventually gave in and agreed to renewed offensive operations in the east. The performance of German troops versus the Russians had been cause for celebration, but the weakness of Austria-Hungary had been palpable, with defeats in Galicia and Serbia sharpening the ethnic divisions in her armed forces. German reinforcements were duly dispatched eastwards. Although Falkenhayn tried to temper the grand plans of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, their operations were spectacularly successful. On 2 May 1915 the booming of a four-hour German bombardment signalled the beginning of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. What one historian has described as the 'greatest single campaign of the whole war', Gorlice-Tarnow precipitated the great Russian retreat of the summer. The Russian Army, crippled by unrest at home and shortages of even the most basic war materiel, could offer only spasmodic resistance. By the end of the summer, the Central Powers had advanced over 300 miles and inflicted around two million casualties on their enemy. This success then filtered down to the Balkans. On 7 October, assault troops crossed the Danube and forced the Serbs south through Montenegro and Albania. Bulgaria joined the Central Powers the same month, helping to complete the conquest of Serbia.
1915 was a year of repeated German success, but it was a bleak year for the Allies, and not only on the Western Front. Although buoyed by Italy's declaration of war against Austria on 23 May, it soon became clear that she would not be able to achieve decisive results. The following month she began the first of eleven bloody, but inconclusive, battles of the Isonzo. Stalemate had also spread to the Mediterranean. While the oceans had long been swept of German raiders, and command of the sea was firmly back in the hands of the British Admiralty, there were some who wanted the Royal Navy to be doing more. Winston Churchill, the energetic First Lord of the Admiralty, was one of them. By the close of 1914 he had become the leading proponent of an ambitious scheme to clear the Dardanelles Straits. Strategically daring, even reckless, it imagined a swift, surgical naval strike that would clear the way to Constantinople and defeat Turkey, Germany's main ally in the region. If a way through to the Black Sea could be made, Russia could be supplied and her surplus stores of grain exported to the west. But, as has been recounted numerous times, the Gallipoli expedition, far from being a decisive operation using 'spare' British naval strength, became an open, running sore that devoured ships and precious infantry divisions throughout the year. The belated Anglo-French landing at Salonika, and its swift bottling-up, only served to underline Allied powerlessness.
Debate in Germany over how the war should be won was confined to a small clique of high-ranking officers and statesmen, but the more unstable political situation in France made such a closed debate unlikely. The French Parliament, after being evacuated to Bordeaux in early September 1914, returned to Paris on 20 December, beginning ordinary sessions of parliament the following month. With this return to something approaching normality, French political life regained much of its zest and character. Criticism of the war effort, especially the role of the Commander-in-Chief, which had been silenced after the Union Sacrée of August 1914, gradually resurfaced as 1915 wore on. The lack of any real progress in the war, despite heavy fighting – and the catastrophic French casualties – unsettled the country and made the increasing rumours of mismanagement and incompetence, which emanated from the various sections of the war effort, intolerable. Although bitterly resented by the army, a number of parliamentary commissions were set up in 1915 and began to investigate the alleged errors and mistakes that had been made.
As it was difficult to criticise the Commander-in-Chief – most of the French newspapers were solidly pro-army – much of the discontent was directed at the Minister of War, the 56 year-old Socialist, Alexandre Millerand. Widely admired as a calm and determined patriot, Millerand had great political experience. During his time as War Minister in 1912–13 he had worked tirelessly to prepare the nation and her army for a war that he regarded as inevitable. Millerand believed that his primary task was to let the generals get on with the war and keep political interference to a minimum. Others, however, did not share these views. As 1915 continued, criticism of Millerand, and pressure on him to yield some of his power, gradually increased. At a meeting of the Cabinet on 27 May, Raymond Poincaré, the President of the Republic, accused Millerand of not only giving GQG too much leeway, but also 'of ceaselessly abdicating the rights of civilian power'. That Millerand was too authoritarian, independent and unaccountable was also the opinion of the powerful Senate Army Commission, and with the lack of any tangible Allied victory, Millerand's time was running out.
The Second Battle of Artois ground to a bloody halt in June; the French Tenth Army suffering over 4,000 casualties for every square kilometre it had advanced. Despite its failure and the unsettled political situation at home, the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre, was determined that a renewed offensive in July could prove decisive. Joffre was a big man. Physically intimidating, 'the Victor of the Marne' was a stubborn, phlegmatic engineer, direct and intolerant, yet surprisingly calm. After making his reputation in Africa and the Far East he rose rapidly. Untouched by any trace of scandal that had so damaged the pre-war army, he became Chief of the General Staff in 1911. By the outbreak of war Joffre s imprint was firmly upon the French Army. While purging his command of officers that he did not regard as having sufficient 'offensive spirit', Joffre had adopted Plan XVII, a series of mobilisation orders to be followed once war broke out.
Why did Joffre believe that a new offensive could succeed where previous ones had failed? An analysis of French strategy in this period lies beyond the scope of this study, but it is necessary to understand the principles upon which it was based. Unlike Falkenhayn, Joffre did not have the luxury of deciding where his army would fight. As Correlli Barnett has observed, the German occupation of Belgium and northern France in 1914 presented the Allies with an 'inescapable political compulsion' to drive the invaders out. Joffre recorded in his memoirs how:
The best and largest portion of the German army was on our soil, with its line of battle jutting out a mere five days' march from the heart of France. The situation made it clear to every Frenchman that our task consisted in defeating this enemy, and driving him out of our country.
This had been the rationale behind the heavy fighting of the winter and the larger efforts in the spring. It would again be the chief motivation for the autumn offensive. Joffre was impatient to achieve decision on the battlefield. He was aware that Frances waxing strength would reach its numerical and material peak in the autumn of 1915. If the enemy forces at present occupying northern France could not be defeated, how would the French Army be able to outfight the ten or fifteen corps that Germany could (conceivably) bring from the east in the event of a Russian collapse?
Criticism of this aggressive strategy was not long in arriving. As in Britain, there were serious misgivings in France about letting her soldiers – in Churchill's stinging phrase – 'chew barbed wire' in the west. An increasing number of politicians would have preferred to defer attacking the German lines, at least until Britain's New Armies were ready and fully equipped. On 6 August 1915, Poincaré stated in Parliament that he did not look forward to a new offensive in France and believed that the best policy to pursue was 'active defence'. Joffre was disgusted by such an attitude. He once remarked how 'he had certainly never dreamt of such a thing', and that because it was 'a form of war which was entirely negative ... he was therefore wholly opposed to it'. It was also 'unfair' to France's allies, especially Russia, then being pummelled into defeat. According to Joffre, it was 'morally impossible not to pay heed to the appeals of our unfortunate allies'. Joffre was also buttressed by the sheer size of his planned operations. By early June he had sketched out plans for a much larger offensive to take place sometime in July. Instead of singular attacks either in Artois or Champagne, a concept of'sequenced concentric attacks' was developed. Joffre's plan was a simple extension of his thoughts behind the earlier attempts to break the enemy line in the winter and spring. The flanks of the great German salient between Arras and Rheims were to be struck. A preparatory attack would initially draw off enemy reserves, before the main attack broke through the German lines, causing the collapse of the entire enemy position. Joffre believed that once this had been achieved, a war of movement would resume and Germany's armies could be defeated in detail. As was communicated to the British, it was hoped that 'an attack by upwards of 40 divisions on a front extending from the present left of the Tenth Army to a point some 10 kilometres South of Arras [and] an attack by some 10 divisions in Champagne' could be arranged.
Would this attack achieve its ambitious objectives? Considering both the strength of the German defensive positions and the weaknesses afflicting the French Army, historians have not been slow to criticise Joffre's aggressive strategy. Indeed, although Millerand's tenure as War Minister oversaw vast improvements in the production of war materiel, it could not compensate for a number of serious faults at all levels within the French Army. Confronted by humiliating defeat in 1870, political disarray and demoralisation over the Dreyfus Affair, and a whole series of funding crises and doctrinal confusions, by the turn of the century the French Army was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Fortified by a unifying belief in the importance of'offensive spirit' and 'moral force', however, a considerable revival had occurred by 1914. Although the extent of its pre-war 'cult of the offensive' has perhaps been overstated, there is little doubt that a belief in the power of the tactical attack, even into the teeth of unsuppressed enemy rifle and machine gun fire, was an important pillar of French military thought before the war. The Commandant of the École Supérieure de la Guerre, Colonel Ferdinand Foch (later to command Groupe d'Armées du Nord during 1915) was one of the most forceful proponents of the need to inculcate troops with sufficient 'offensive spirit'. Although Foch and his fellow thinkers – notably the influential 'High Priest' of the offensive, Colonel Louis Loizeau de Grandmaison – recognised the strength of modern firepower, they believed that the most important factor in warfare was morale and having an unshakeable will to victory. If troops were imbued with such élan, which echoed an earlier, Napoleonic concept of war, it was believed that they could cross the fire-swept zone between opposing armies and take the fight to the enemy with the 'cold steel'. Such an emphasis on the power of the offensive and morale in warfare proved resistant to change. Joffre s communiqué to his generals on the eve of the autumn offensive remained consistent with this pre-war thought. While admitting that heavy artillery was the 'principal weapon of attack', he explained that the 'dash and devotion of the troops are the principle factors which make for the success of the attack'.
Excerpted from Loos 1915 by Nick Lloyd. Copyright © 2013 Nick Lloyd. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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