The Battle of Loos, Philip Warner. The heart of this book is a series of eyewitness accounts of the battle from each of the British divisions involved in the battle, mostly taken from letters written to the author by survivors of the fighting in the 1970s. The result is a classic work of military history that takes us into the trenches in a way that few other books manage. [read full review]
Battle of Loos
The Battle of Loos took place on the Western Front between 25 September and 13 October 1915. At the time, it was the largest British offensive of the First World War and witnessed the Army's first use of gas.
Gas attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt at Loos, October 1915
Gas attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt at Loos, October 1915
Poison Gas and World War Two
The use of poison gas in World War Two was a very real fear. Poison gas had been used in World War One and many expected that it would be used in World War Two. As a result people in Britain were issued with gas masks and gas mask drills became a routine.
The gases used in World War 1 were crude but effective. In fact, technically many of them were not gases but minute solid particles suspended in air like the spray from an aerosol can. Regardless of whether they were a true gas or not, they brought very great fear to the front line. By 1939, these gases had been refined and had the potential for being far more effective – just as fighter planes had markedly changed between 1918 and 1939, so it was believed was a military’s ability to deliver poison gas – and create new and more deadly versions.
The gases used to such effect in World War One were still potential weapons in World War Two. Mustard gas had been used by the Italians in their campaign in Abyssinia from 1935 to 1936. Chlorine was a potential weapon but it had been overtaken in effectiveness by diphosgene and carbonyl chloride. Both of these were choking gases that damaged the respiratory system. Tear gases were also available – a more potent version of it was Adamsite which not only causes the classic symptoms of tear gas but also causes respiratory problems, vomiting and general nausea.
Mustard gas blistered the skin causing extreme pain. It was also capable of soaking through material onto skin beneath a uniform. A more severe version of it was Lewisite which had the same effect on skin but also caused respiratory problems and pneumonia.
Far more deadly than these gases were cyanide, carbon monoxide and cyanogens chloride. All of these impede the ability of blood to absorb oxygen. Unable to gain oxygen, the body quickly shuts down. “Death is rapid, sure and relatively painless.” (Brian Ford)
Nerve gas was also available to governments in World War Two. One of the first to be developed was Tabun by German scientists. Nerve gases attack the body’s nervous system. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, muscular twitching, convulsions, cessation of breathing and death. Sarin and Soman were also developed as nerve gases. Of the three nerve gases named here, Soman was the most deadly. From inhalation, it is only a matter of seconds before a victim goes into convulsions. The US Army Manual TM 3-215 estimated that a victim of Soman would be dead within two minutes.
There is no doubt that most protagonists in World War Two had stockpiles of poison gas. By 1945, the Germans had 7,000 tons of Sarin alone – enough to kill the occupants of 30 cities the size of Paris. The Americans also had sizeable quantities of poison gases stockpiled. Britain experimented with anthrax on remote Scottish islands to see its impact on the animal population there. All countries that possessed poison gas in any form also had the potential to deliver it on an enemy.
With such potency and the ability to change the course of a battle why wasn’t poison gas used – even as a last resource? It would appear certain that the fear of retaliation was the reason and the fear that the enemy may well have developed a poison gas more virulent that anything the other side had. So in a war where atomic weapons were used, napalm, phosphorous, unrestricted submarine warfare etc, where civilians were seen by some as legitimate targets, no side was prepared to risk using a weapon that had been so feared in World War One.
Gas attack at Loos, September 1915 (2 of 2) - History
During the First World War, the Battle of Loos was the largest offensive mounted on the Western Front in 1915. This was the first time the British used poison gas and the battle was the very first engagement of New Army units.
Prelude to Battle
This battle marked the third use of the specialist Royal Engineer tunneling companies, who used underground mines to disrupt the enemy defense lines. This was done by using tunnels and detonating large explosives at zero hour. Sir John decided to keep a strong reserve that consisted of the Indian Cavalry Corps, Cavalry Corps, and Haking’s XI Corps (consisting of Guards Division and two New Army Divisions).
The Deputy CIGS, Murray, advised the French that fresh troops direct from training were better suited for long marches of an exploitation rather than trench warfare. The French were very doubtful that a breakthrough would be possible. Haig wanted the reserves close at hand to be able to exploit a breakthrough on the first day. The French agreed to deploy them closer to the front although they still thought they should be committed on the second day.
Using Chemical Warfare
Haig’s plans were quite limited by a shortage of artillery ammunition. This meant that the preliminary bombardment was very weak. About 150 tons of chlorine gas was released prior to the British attack. The contemporary gas masks used by soldiers were very inefficient and many soldiers removed them.
This meant that the British soldiers were affected by their own gas. The French wanted to be closer to the battle and so they moved to a forward command post at Lilliers, less than 20 miles behind the First Army’s front. Haig left most of his staff behind at GHQ. His infantry attacked at 6:30 a.m. on September 25th.
Details of the Battle
The Battle of Loos opened on September 25th. In many areas, the British artillery had not succeeded in cutting the German wire in advance of the attack. While advancing over open fields within the range of German artillery and guns, the British suffered heavy losses.
However, due to numerical superiority, the British were finally able to break through the weak German defenses and capture the town of Loos. Communication problems, late arrival of reserves, and the inevitable end of their supply meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. At around 11:00 a.m., the French visited Haig and agreed that he could have the reserve. At 1:20 p.m., Haig heard from Haking that the reserves were moving forward.
The German Efforts
The battle resumed the following day and the Germans were very prepared and held back any attempts to continue the opposing side’s advance. All the reserves were committed against the strengthened German positions. The 12 attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in just four hours. On September 28th, the fighting subsided with the British having retreated to their starting positions. Their attacks had resulted to more than 20,000 casualties, including three divisional commanders.
After the initial attacks by British, the Germans made several attempts to recapture Hohenzollern Redoubt. They succeeded on October 3rd. On October 8th, Germans tried to recapture much of the lost ground. They were able to disrupt the British attack preparations and therefore caused a delay until October 13th. The final attack from the British was on October 13th, but this failed due to lack of grenades.
Casualties at Loos
During the Battle of Loos, the British casualties in main attack were 48,367 and 10,880 in subsidiary attack. The German casualties were about 51,100 men.
The Long, Long Trail
The Special Companies at the start of the war
No Special Companies existed in 1914. They were a war time invention. The Great War was the first in which chemical weapons were deployed. There was great moral shock and outrage at the first use of Chlorine, released by the Germans against defenceless French troops in the Ypres Salient. The Special Companies of the Royal Engineers were formed to develop the British response. By 1918, gas was used both offensively and defensively, delivered by a range of sophisticated techniques.
The first use of poison gas, 22 April 1915
A bulletin issued by the French Tenth Army on 30 March 1915 noted that the German XV Corps in the neighbourhood of Zillebeke (near Ypres) had installed iron cylinders containing an asphyxiating gas into their front-line trenches. A German prisoner taken near Langemark on 14 April told of a forthcoming gas attack on the French units in that sector, arranged for noon on 13 April but delayed while waiting for a favourable wind. The man carried a small sack filled with cotton waste, which would be dipped in some chemical solution to counteract the effect of the gas. A Belgian agent reported much the same thing. A reconnaissance flight by No 6 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps reported nothing unusual in the German positions. Further iformation from Belgian sources on 16 April 1915 reported the manufacture in Ghent of 20,000 face masks.
Despite these warning signs, no specific defensive steps were taken: the concept of large concentrations of a poison gas was unfamiliar, and barely believable from a practical or moral viewpoint. It was specifically banned by the Hague Convention of 1907.
The Germans attacked using a cloud of Chlorine gas, a bluish-white mist rolling forward on the wind, on 22 April 1915 near Langemarck. The subsequent fighting, with both sides rushing reinforcement into the area, developed as the Second Battle of Ypres.
Chlorine has a powerful irritant action on the lungs and mucous membranes prolonged exposure is fatal. Men who stayed in position, especially on the firestep of the trenches, suffered least as the cloud rolled past them. Terrified men who ran with it, and the wounded lying on the ground or in trench bottoms, got the worst exposure. The Germans released 180 tonnes of gas, in a flow which lasted for 5 minutes..
French and British reaction
Allied reaction was one of outrage and much propaganda capital was made of the German use of gas, but by mid-May 1915, after gas had been used again in the Ypres Salient on several more occasions, both French and British defences were already in place. The first batch of gas helmets (flannel bags with talc eye-pieces), enough to issue 16 to each infantry battalion, were provided for machine-gunners. Men already knew by then that a piece of gauze or cotton wadding, soaked in urine, provided a crude protection. Vermoral sprayers were issued, to neutralise any gas that hung in the trenches. With modification, these measures carried on throughout the war ‘gas gongs’ (usually an empty shell-case) were located in most front-line trenches as an immediate signal of any presence of gas to unwary troops.
Instructions issued to troops in June 1915. A copy of a document attached to the war diary of the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Crown copyright. National Archives WO95/1272.
The first Special Companies are formed
As early as 3 May 1915 the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, authorised the preparation of measures to retaliate against the German use of poison gas. Experimental research work was carried out at Porton, and a laboratory established at Helfaut, near St Omer in France. The Castner-Kellner Alkali Company, being the only firm in Britain capable of manufacturing Chlorine gases in quantity, supervised trials with the final large-scale one taking place at Runcorn on 4 June. The method – as used by the Germans – was to form a continuous cloud by discharging compressed gas from cylinders to the atmosphere, and allowing the wind to move it over the enemy positions.
Special Companies of technically skilled men, under Major C.H. Foulkes of the Royal Engineers, were formed with a Depot at Helfaut, to deal with the new weapon. Nos 186 and 187 Special Companies were formed first, in July 1915, followed by 188 and 189 Companies in August. All of the men were given the rank of Chemist Corporal. On 4 September 1915 the first two Companies, totalling 34 Sections of 28 men, were assigned to First Army for forthcoming operations.
The British decide to use gas in the attack at Loos, 25 September 1915
The British army employed poison gas for the first time in the opening barrage for the Battle of Loos, principally to overcome a shortage of artillery. All ranks were issued with the original pattern gas helmets, but the battle and weather conditions at Loos proved them to be a severe hindrance (the eye-pieces prohibited vision and movement rain caused chemicals in the fabric to run out and irritate the eyes, and breathing was difficult). Many men chose to discard the helmet.
Both sides develop gas as an offensive weapon
Significant advances in the production of gas were made after Loos by the Chemical Department of the Ministry of Munitions. Carbonyl Chloride – or Phosgene – had already been identified as a suitable cloud gas. It was similar to Chlorine yet could be inhaled for a considerable time without being noticed, only to produce serious or fatal inflammation of the lungs. (The Germans were the first to release Phosgene, in an attack at Ypres on 19 December 1915). The Allies decided to employ a Phosgene-Chlorine mixture, codenaming it ‘White Star’.
In June 1915, British Commander-in-Chief Sir John French requested that 10% of all4.5-inch, 60-pounder and 12-inch shell production should contain gas, in response to increased German use of lacrymatory (tear) gas shells. The first trial SK (South Kensington, codename for Ethyl Idoacetate) shells arrived in September 1915, but it was not until April 1916 that 10,000 rounds had arrived, giving a small battlefield supply. By the end of 1916, only 160,000 rounds had been delivered and it was not until large quantities of Phosgene shell became available in 1917 that the Army was adequately equipped.
In the 1916 Battles of the Somme, the British army released 1,120 tons of gas, mostly White Star, in 98 separate attacks. Very little gas shell was used, all of which was fired by French artillery.
Defensive measures are also developed
The P (Phenate) gas helmet with glass eyepieces was introduced in November 1915. It did not protect adequately against Phosgene, and was replaced by the PH (Phenate-Hexamine) helmet from January 1916. From August 1916, the PH was replaced by the small box respirator, which although an unwieldy design gave protection against the different gases in use.
The Special Brigade is formed
Despite the limited results achieved by the cloud gas discharge at Loos, it was believed sufficiently successful to warrant further development. One of the first acts of Sir Douglas Haig on his appointment as Commander-in-Chief was to request that the War Office expand the four Special Companies of the RE into a more substantial force, viz.
- Four Special Battalions, each of four Companies, to handle gas discharge from cylinders and smoke from candles
- Four Special Companies to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars. Each Company to have 48 such weapons
- Four Special Sections to handle flame projectors (throwers)
- plus a Headquarters and Depot, making all all an establishment of 208 officers and 5306 men.
This request was approved and the Brigade built up by adding volunteers from units already in France to the four original Companies. Later, drafts from England would join. The force was designated the Special Brigade. It was placed under the command of Col. C.Foulkes, RE, who was appointed Assistant Director of Gas Services he reported to Brigadier-General H.Thuillier, RE, Director of Gas Services. Lt-Col. S.Cummins, RAMC acted as Director of Anti-Gas Measures.
By the end of May 1916, No 1 Special Battalion and No 2 (less a Company) were allocated to Fourth Army No 3 (less a Company) to Second Army No 4 (also less a Company) to Third Army. No 4A Battalion was provisionally formed from the three detached Companies, and was attached to First Army. No 5 Battalion was the Stokes mortar unit, and had 3 Companies attached to Fourth Army and 1 to Third Army. The Flame Projector Sections arrived in France 26 June 1916. The principal base in France was established at Helfaut.
Poison Gas and World War One
Of all the weapons used during World War One, poison gas was probably the most feared. Unlike infantry weapons and artillery, poison gas offered a silent means of attacking the enemy trenches even when there was no battle going on.
Poison gas also delivered a more painful death while infantry weapons offered an instant or fast demise, the lack of or failure of gas masks could leave a victim in agony for days or even weeks before he eventually passed away.
Many assume that the first side to use gas during World War One was Germany. However, the first recorded gas attack was actually by the French. In August 1914, France used tear gas grenades containing xylyl bromide on the Germans. Although just an irritant rather than a deadly weapon, the tear gas did work in preventing Germany from advancing throughout Belgium and parts of France.
However, Germany had already begun its work on gas and in October 1914, the Germans attacked Neuve Chapelle by firing gas shells at the French. The chemical inside the shells prompted large sneezing fits and left them unable to defend themselves.
Once trench warfare took hold and the war lost its mobility, both sides began looking for other ways to boost their campaigns. One way military commanders planned to achieve this was to develop a gas weapon that was so devastating that it would impact not only the front line, but the ability of any other personnel to deal with the crisis that would ensue.
Poison gas (chlorine) was first used at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The first sign that the gas was deployed was when French sentries noticed a cloud of yellow-green moving towards them at around 17:00 hrs on 22nd April. The gas had been delivered by pressurised cylinders, which had been dug into the German front line between Steenstraat and Langemarck.
Initially, the French troops believed the gas to be a smoke screen that was being used to disguise the movements of German troops, and as a result the French soldiers were ordered to front line of their trench.
The impact of the chlorine was devastating, forcing French and Algerian troops to flee in terror. The confusion created the perfect opportunity for the Germans to capitalise but they too were so shocked by the success of the chlorine that they failed to follow up its success and advance into the Ypres salient.
Once the chlorine attack had taken place it gave the Allied nations the perfect excuse to retaliate with the same force. Britain became the first Allied nation to respond and in September 1915 the newly formed Special Gas Companies attacked the German troops at Loos. Replicating the use of gas cylinders, the Brits waited for the wind to change course and then released the gas, which drifted across enemy lines and was swiftly followed by a well-timed infantry attack. However, the wind did change direction at certain points along the front line, causing 2,000 British casualties and seven fatalities.
Eventually, developments in the use of gas as a weapon or “accessory” resulted in both phosgene and mustard gas being deployed. Phosgene was particularly potent, impacting on its victims in just 48 hours with very few symptoms to attract the attention of medics. Mustard gas - first used by the Germans in September 1917 - was much more obvious, causing both internal and external blisters within just hours of exposure. While only occasionally fatal, it was incredibly painful and left many men blind.
When gas became a more regular part of war, armies rapidly developed gas masks to provide their soldiers with protection provided they were sufficiently warned. Soldiers also used to make their own cloth soaked in urine was supposed to be particularly effective against chlorine. By 1918, gas masks had become relatively sophisticated and were more readily available to soldiers on the Western Front.
By the end of the war, Germany had become the main user of poison gas, followed by France and then Britain. While a terrifying weapon, there is significant debate about the actual impact it had on the war while it caused great terror, there were relatively few fatalities as a result of poison gas.
In total, the British Empire suffered 188,000 gas casualties but only 8,100 fatalities. Russia is believed to have suffered the most, with more than 50,000 fatalities, while France only had 8,000. In total, World War One resulted in around 1,250,00 has casualties but only 91,000 fatalities, with 50 per cent of these Russian. However, these figures do not account for those who died from their wounds and injuries after the war, or those who were permanently disabled.
Development of Advanced Weaponry
Both sides tried to break the trench stalemate using scientific and technological advances. On April 22, 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans (violating the Hague Convention) used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. After a two-day bombardment, the Germans released a cloud of 171 tons of chlorine gas onto the battlefield. Though primarily a powerful irritant, it can asphyxiate in high concentrations or prolonged exposure. The gas crept across no man’s land and drifted into the French trenches. The green-yellow cloud killed some defenders and those in the rear fled in panic, creating an undefended 3.7 mile gap in the Allied line. The Germans were unprepared for the level of their success and lacked sufficient reserves to exploit the opening. Canadian troops on the right drew back their left flank and repelled the German advance.
The success of this attack would not be repeated, as the Allies countered by introducing gas masks and other countermeasures. The British retaliated, developing their own chlorine gas and using it at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Fickle winds and inexperience led to more British casualties from the gas than German. Several types of gas soon became widely used by both sides, and though it never proved a decisive, battle-winning weapon, poison gas became one of the most-feared and best-remembered horrors of the war. French, British, and German forces all escalated the use of gas attacks through the rest of the war, developing the more deadly phosgene gas in 1915, then the infamous mustard gas in 1917, which could linger for days and kill slowly and painfully. Countermeasures also improved and the stalemate continued.
Tanks were developed by Britain and France, and were first used in combat by the British during the Battle of Flers–Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) on September 15, 1916, with only partial success. However, their effectiveness would grow as the war progressed the Allies built tanks in large numbers, whilst the Germans employed only a few of their own design supplemented by captured Allied tanks.
Battles - The Second Battle of Ypres, 1915
The Second Battle of Ypres comprised the only major attack launched by the German forces on the Western Front in 1915, Eric von Falkenhayn preferring to concentrate German efforts against the Russians on the Eastern Front.
Begun in April and used primarily as a means of diverting Allied attention from the Eastern Front, and as a means of testing the use of chlorine gas, it eventually concluded in failure in May. As a consequence of the failure of this attack the German army gave up its attempts to take the town, choosing instead to demolish it through constant bombardment. By the end of the war Ypres had been largely reduced to piles of rubble, the town's magnificent Cloth Hall a wreck (although rebuilt to the original designs in the 1950's).
Second Ypres is generally remembered today as marking the first use of gas on the Western Front. Although introduced with minimal effect on the Russian Eastern Front at Bolimov by the Germans earlier in the war (where it was so cold the gas had frozen), and in conflict with the Hague Convention which outlawed gas warfare, its impact during Second Ypres was startlingly effective.
5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released at sunrise on 22 April against French Algerian and territorial division troops following a brief preliminary bombardment by 17-inch howitzers. A veil of greenish-yellow mist could be clearly seen rolling across from the German front lines to the French positions.
The effectiveness of the gas attack was so complete that it surprised the German infantry who followed up the release of the chlorine gas. The stunned Allied troops fled in panic towards Ypres, the heavy gas settling and clogging the trenches where it gathered. (Click here to read the official German statement issued in the aftermath of the attack.)
Covering four miles of trench lines, the gas affected some 10,000 troops, half of whom died within ten minutes of the gas reaching the front line. Death was caused by asphyxiation. Those who lived were temporarily blinded and stumbled in confusion, coughing heavily. 2,000 of these troops were captured as prisoners of war.
The two advancing Germans corps wearing primitive respirators paced warily through a clear seven kilometre gap in the Allied lines, wary of traps. In planning the attack no reserves had been thought necessary, the German command considering it inconceivable that a major breakthrough could be achieved.
In consequence the actual breakthrough was not exploited to the full. After advancing three kilometres into Allied lines the Germans halted under the hail of a scrambled British General Smith-Dorrien's Second Army counter-offensive. Even so, the loss of high ground to the north significantly weakened the Allied position.
The Germans released a second batch of chlorine gas two days later, on 24 April, this time directed against Canadian troops situated north-east of Ypres and again prefaced by a sharp artillery bombardment.
Again the German forces gained ground against the unprotected Canadian troops, although fighting was fierce, spreading far south to Hill 60. The novelty of gas warfare was wearing off, and the advancing German infantry sustained heavy losses from the defending Canadians, who were relieved by arriving British troops on 3 May. During this time the Canadians had suffered heavily, with 5,975 casualties, including 1,000 fatalities.
General Smith-Dorrien proposed a two and a half mile withdrawal closer to Ypres. He felt that nothing short of a large-scale counter-offensive was likely to push the German forces back to their original positions. The idea was met coolly by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir John French, who effectively dismissed Smith-Dorrien by sending him home to England. (Click here to read Sir John French's reaction to the German use of poison gas.)
Ironically Smith-Dorrien's replacement, General Herbert Plumer (later famed for his successful Messines Offensive), also recommended a general withdrawal to French. The suggestion was this time accepted, taking place following a failed Allied counter-attack by two divisions presided over by French General Ferdinand Foch on 29 April. French executed the planned withdrawal on 1-3 May 1915.
Fighting renewed around Ypres on 8 May and continued until 13 May, and then again from 24-25 May, with repeated use of gas attacks. Still the Allied lines held, although German forces secured additional high ground to the east of the town from 8-12 May.
On 24 May a heavy German assault forced a further Allied withdrawal, although little extra ground was ceded. A want of supplies and manpower obliged the Germans to call off the offensive all that they could do was to bombard the town. Even so, the German attacks had considerably reduced the size of the Allied salient. The highest ground had been lost and it was no more than three miles across and five miles deep.
Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at 69,000 Allied troops (59,000 British, 10,000 French), against 35,000 German, the difference in numbers explained by the use of chlorine gas. The Germans' innovative use of gas set the trend for the rest of the war.
Although roundly condemned by the Allies as barbaric and reprehensible, sentiments echoed by many neutral nations, the Allies quickly developed their own form of gas warfare, with the British releasing gas canisters at Loos at the end of September 1915 (although the prevailing wind turned and wafted the gas back into the British trenches). All the allied countries had made extensive use of poison gas by the close of the war.
Historical Events in 1915 (Part 2)
- Emanuel Querido ("Kerido") begins publishing Querido Boston Red Sox ask Boston Braves for use of Braves Field (10,000+ capacity) for Baseball World Series against Philadelphia Phillies Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas) holds its 1st class Xavier University, 1st Black Catholic College in US, opens in NO LA Battle of Loos commenced, lasted until 14th October. Chlorine gas deployed by the British was blown back into their own trenches: 59,000 British & 26,000 German casualties The Second Battle of Champagne begins. Battle of Kut-el-Amara: British defeat Turks in Mesopotamia 1st transcontinental radio telephone message is sent
Oct 5 Detroit Tigers speedster Ty Cobb steals his 96th base of the season in 5-0 loss to Cleveland Indians stands as MLB record until 1962 (Maury Wills, 104)
Event of Interest
Oct 7 English nurse Edith Cavell sentenced to death along with 34 others by German court martial for running underground network to free Allied soldiers
- Battle of Loos on WWI Western Front ends, German forces contain British attack (85,000 casualties) Phillies win their 1st & only World Series game before 1980, beating Red Sox, 3-1, with an 8th inning 2 run rally Belgrade, Serbia, surrenders to Central leaders Gil Anderson races auto (165.1 km record) in Sheepshead Bay, New York Louis Kaufmans comedy "Unchastened Woman" premieres in New York City
Event of Interest
Oct 9 Woodrow Wilson becomes first US President to attend a World Series game
Oct 12 Ford Motor Company under Henry Ford manufactures its 1 millionth automobile at the River Rouge plant in Detroit
Event of Interest
Oct 12 Theodore Roosevelt criticizes US citizens who identify themselves with dual nationalities
- Despite international protest, Edith Cavell an English nurse in Belgium, is executed by the Germans for aiding the escape of Allied prisoners Boston Red Sox beat Philadelphia Phillies, 4 games to 1 in 12th World Series Great Britain declares war on Bulgaria 3rd Italian offensive at Isonzo Russia and Italy declare war on Bulgaria US bankers arrange a $500 million loan to the British and French 1st transatlantic radiotelephone message, Arlington, Va to Paris
Event of Interest
Oct 21 William Jennings Bryan's successor as US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, sends a note to Britain protesting interference with US shipping
Women's Suffrage March on Fifth Ave, New York
Oct 23 An estimated 25,000 supporters in a women's suffrage march on New York's Fifth Ave, led by Dr. Anna Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters
- James L Curtis named US Minister for Liberia Andrew Fisher is replaced as Labour Prime Minister by William 'Billy' Hughes, who will advocate a more active role for Australians in the war
Event of Interest
Oct 28 Richard Strauss' Alpensymfonie, premieres in Berlin
Election of Interest
Oct 29 Aristide Briand becomes Prime Minister of France for the 3rd time
- Parris Island is officially designated a US Marine Corps Recruit Depot. First US election by proportional representation, Ashtabula, Ohio 1st military flight in Dutch East Indies (Tandjong Priok) Sophokles Skouloudis forms Greek government An Austrian-Hungarian submarine torpedoes and sinks the Italian liner 'Ancona' without warning, killing over 200 people
Event of Interest
Nov 14 Tomáš Masaryk demands independence for Czechoslovakia
- CFL Grey Cup, Varsity Stadium, Toronto: Hamilton Tigers win 2nd title beat Toronto Rowing Association, 13-7 On the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, the Battle of Ctesiphon between Allied and Turkish forces enters its second day Serbian leader flees to Albania Fire destroys most of the buildings on Santa Catalina Island, California. St John Ervine's "John Ferguson" premieres in Dublin The US requests that Germany withdraw its military and naval attaches from the Embassy in Washington General Joseph Joffre becomes Commander-in-Chief of the French Armies Frank Friday Fletcher is first US admiral to receive Congressional Medal of Honor Ku Klux Klan receives charter from Fulton County, Georgia Panama-Pacific International Exposition closes in San Francisco
Event of Interest
Dec 4 Henry Ford's peace ship, Oscar II, sails for Europe 'to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas'
For most in Britain, September 1915 is best remembered for the battle of Loos, which saw the first British use of poison gas and the first extensive use of Kitchener’s ‘new army divisions’ in battle. It is also remembered as a great ‘what-if’ of history, as British successes at Loos offered a tantalizing possibility of effective breakthrough for the first time since trench warfare had set in on the Western Front in late 1914. The battle might also be remembered for its high casualties, with the twelve British battalions suffering 8,000 casualties in just four hours of fighting on 25 September. As my colleague, Nick Lloyd has written in his book Loos 1915, the casualty rate for British divisions engaged on this day was equal, if not greater, than that of the better-remembered first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
For the German defenders of the Western Front, however, the battle at Loos is remembered differently. For them, Loos was only part of a much larger-scale Anglo-French offensive in late September and early October 1915. Planned by the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, this offensive was comprised of two main components. First, in Artois, the German 6 th Army defended against the British 1 st Army’s attack on Loos and the French 10 th Army’s assault on Souchez and Vimy Ridge to the south. Second, in the Champagne, the German 3 rd Army defended against an offensive by the French 4 th and 2 nd Armies. In Artois, eight German divisions of the 6 th Army faced nineteen French and nine British divisions, with the Germans deploying 475 guns against more than 1,500 French and British. In the Champagne, seven divisions from the 3 rd Army faced nineteen French divisions attacking in the first line. Again, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered in guns with 700 guns of all calibers against almost 2,000 French guns. Thus, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered – fifteen divisions from two armies faced forty-seven French and British divisions from four armies or a more than 3 to 1 disadvantage in numbers of units – on two geographically separate fronts.
Unsurprisingly, the Anglo-French forces made some substantial initial gains when they attacked on 25 September. At Loos, five British divisions attacked a single German division. The British 1 st Army succeeded in penetrating the first German defensive position, and with little reserves to close the gap, the 6 th Army feared a breakthrough here. The German official history wrote laconically, ‘the situation at Loos was extremely serious.’ A pause in the fighting in the afternoon of 25 September allowed the defenders of the 117 th Infantry Division to catch their breath and consolidate in their second defensive position. The French 10 th Army attacked in the afternoon of 25 September and also achieved considerable initial success, taking the village of Souchez and penetrating the German defensive line north of Vimy Ridge.
In the Champagne, new infantry tactics and massive superiority in men and munitions helped the French 4 th and 2 nd Armies penetrate the German 3 rd Army’s first line along a 13-kilometer front around Souain and Perthes. There, eight French divisions, supported by gas, attacked three German divisions and all but annihilated the defenders. In the sector of the 24 th Reserve Division, its commander was forced to deploy the half-trained troops from its recruit depot in its second position to stop the French advance. All told, the German 3 rd Army lost more than 15,000 men and 50 guns by the end of the 25 September, and the French offensive showed little signs of slowing down.
Of the two offensives, the German High Command saw the French attack in the Champagne as being the most threatening. The German position in Belgium and France was largely a product of where fighting had stopped towards the end of 1914. Consequently, the German defensive line on the Western Front extended farther east the further north it went to the English Channel. From Verdun to Soissons, the German defensive line ran almost east-west rather than north-south. A French breakthrough in the Champagne would potentially cut off the German forces further north and east. At the very least, a breakthrough in the Champagne could cause a withdrawal of the German armies in Artois and in Flanders. Moreover, in the confused reports arriving from the front over the course of 25 September, the situation in the Champagne appeared to be slipping out of the 3 rd Army’s control. Therefore, Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, sent the bulk of available reinforcements to the 3 rd Army, rather than the 6 th Army.
The Anglo-French offensives hit the German army of the Western Front when it was at its weakest point. Having withdrawn many units for the German offensive on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915, the Germans had only seven divisions and three brigades left in reserve across the entire Western Front. Four additional divisions had just returned from combat in the east, but were in the process of resting and refitting. Moreover, most of the German modern heavy artillery was still deployed on the Eastern Front. These meager reserves, as well as individual regiments and battalions from quieter sectors of the Western Front, were thrown into the battles as quickly as they could be moved. In essence, the defenders would have to do with what few reserves were on hand.
Somewhat surprisingly, these were enough. When the British and French renewed their offensives on 26 September, they achieved little more ground. Major pushes on 6 October in the Champagne and on 11 and 13 October in Artois were largely beaten back. Indeed, German counterattacks succeeded in regaining some of the ground that had been lost on 25 September. After the initial successes, neither offensive came close to its objective of breaking through the German defensive positions, let alone allowing the waiting cavalry to be able to range deep behind German lines or causing the collapse of the German army on the Western Front. From mid-October, reinforcements arrived from the Eastern Front and allowed the battered units of the 6 th and 3 rd Armies some relief they also ensured that the Anglo-French offensives were well and truly contained.
The successful defense during the Herbstschlachten (Autumn Battles), as they were named by the Germans, came at considerable cost, however. The German 6 th Army lost around 1,100 officers and 50,000 men in the course of the offensive, while the 3 rd Army lost about 1,700 officers and 80,000 men.
The German army generally and Falkenhayn more specifically drew conclusions from the battles that would have important implications for the conduct of the war in 1916. First, they demonstrated just how difficult it was to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. The British and the French had at least a 3 to 1 superiority in men throughout most of the battles, probably much more at certain points. They also had a superiority of around 3 to 1 in guns. The Anglo-French forces put this artillery superiority to good use, with the French alone firing some 4,369,900 field artillery rounds and some 832,100 heavy artillery rounds in the battles. The outnumbered and outgunned German defenders gave ground in the face of this onslaught, but they did not break and were even able to retake some of their lost positions.
As I examine in my book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, the experience convinced Falkenhayn that the German army would never be able to achieve a large-scale breakthrough on the Western Front. The battles did show, however, that small-scale advances were possible at relatively low cost, if enough artillery was concentrated. Indeed, Falkenhayn focused on the role of artillery in defense. Considerably overestimating French casualties (Falkenhayn assumed they had suffered some 250,000, though real figures were closer to 150,000), Falkenhayn put this down to the effects of artillery on troops attacking in the open. Reaching very similar conclusions to the British general, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and the French general Philippe Pétain, the experience of the Herbstschlachten convinced Falkenhayn that it was possible for German troops to seize terrain important to defenders in a rapid initial advance, after which German artillery would be able to inflict heavy casualties on counter-attacking enemy troops. These lessons would play an important role in the attritional tactics Falkenhayn hoped to employ in the battle of Verdun in early 1916.
The battles also convinced most German soldiers that their defensive tactics worked well. Most German observers believed that holding the forward line at all costs and retaking lost positions through counter-attacks had prevented an Anglo-French breakthrough in September and October 1915. However, though this might have served the German army well under the conditions of late 1915, against enemies better provided with artillery and munitions it would cost German defenders dearly on the Somme battlefield in 1916.
This post is based on a podcast done as part of the First World War Research Group‘s support to the Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme. This podcast can be downloaded from their website, along with a collection of podcasts on other First World War topic. Additionally, the podcast of this post can be listened to online or downloaded here.
Image: French troops attacking German positions at Somme-Py during the Herbstschlacht. Image via Wikimedia Commons.List of site sources >>>