The Battle of Loos. 25 th September 1915-18 th October 1915 (though most fighting took place 25 th -27 th Sept.). Why attack at Loos?. To try to break the stalemate on the Western Front after failures at Neuve Chapelle and Vimy Ridge.
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The Battle of Loos 25th September 1915-18th October 1915 (though most fighting took place 25th-27th Sept.)
Why attack at Loos? • To try to break the stalemate on the Western Front after failures at Neuve Chapelle and Vimy Ridge. • The opening up of a Mediterranean Front at Gallipoli was bogged down. • The Russians were struggling to hold the Germans on the Eastern Front. • To distract the Germans from a planned French attack. • Kitchener was keen to reinforce British-French cooperation.” We must act with all energy and do our utmost to help France in this offensive, even though…..we may suffer heavy losses.”
General Haig’s concerns before battle • He believed that there were not enough shells and heavy artillery for such a large offensive. • The attack would be heavily dependent on Kitchener’s New Armies of volunteers which were not yet fully trained and lacked experience. • The territory was unsuitable. Haig said the area was “not a favourable one for an attack…the ground, for the most part bare and open, would be so swept by machine-gun and rifle-fire….that a rapid advance would be impossible”. Sir Henry Rawlinson (Haig’s second-in-command) said that the “front is as flat as the palm of my hand. Hardly any cover anywhere….”
The Role of the Scots • The Battle of Loos saw the greatest mobilisation of Scots troops since Culloden(1746). • Two of the six British assault divisions were the 9th and 15th (Scottish) Divisions of the New Army. • There were a dozen other Scottish formations within the regular (ie not New Army) Divisions • Nearly 30,000 Scots were amongst those who tried to attack and hold German positions between 25th and 27th September 1915, the first and most intense phase of the battle. • Of the 72 infantry battalions which took part in the first phase of the battle, half bore Scottish names. • Sir Douglas Haig was himself a Scot.
Before the Battle • Haig was in charge of the British forces in the initial assault, though the French General Foch was in overall command of this particular offensive (the French were to attack further south some hours after the British.) The British reserves, however, were under the command of Sir John French, the British Commander-in-Chief. • 5,000 gas cylinders brought up to the front-lines. This was to be the first use of gas by British forces. • A four-day preliminary artillery bombardment took place from 21st September.
New trenches were dug in the chalky soil to allow thousands of men to be positioned nearer or at the front-line but the newly-dug trenches were clearly visible to the Germans and forewarned them of the attack, as did the very obvious movement forward of huge numbers of troops and munitions. • Torrential rain and thunderstorms 23rd/24th Sept. flooded British trenches and the artillery bombardment created shell-holes and craters which made no man’s land even more difficult to cross once soldiers went “over the top”. • British soldiers were issued gas masks but they were primitive and extremely uncomfortable to wear.
25th September – Day 1 • Gas was released along with smoke –shells at first light to kill the enemy and allow the British to advance, but the wind dropped in some areas and even blew back onto the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Highland Light Infantry causing over 2,500 casualties and weakening the advance. The gas had been insufficient to kill the German machine gunners and the artillery bombardment had failed in many places to cut the enemy barbed wire. Where the Germans did retreat, they deliberately flooded their own trenches and retreated to well-prepared and fortified second-line trenches which were often above the British lines and therefore harder to capture.
Early success? • There were some successes at the Hohenzollern Redoubt for the Gordon and Seaforth Highlanders and the Camerons. The Scots of the 15th Div. battered and bayonetted their way across the German lines so quickly that the Germans fled uphill to their second line trenches in the village of Loos, despite having controlled most of the higher ground including the mineworks which towered over the village. The flag of the 7th Cameron Highlanders was flying on Hill 70, another key position where Scots dug in. The Scots of the 9th and 15th Divisions had indeed played a key role in punching a great hole some two miles deep through the German lines. But could they consolidate and build on their gains?
26th September – Day2 • The element of surprise was now lost, and there was no gas or preliminary bombardment to “soften up” the enemy before the next assaults. • The Germans had brought in 22 divisions of reinforcements and reinforced their own positions. • The British line was further forward in some places than others and was beginning to lose direction and outdistance supplies and reinforcements. • Many of the soldiers had had no hot breakfast, there was insufficient food and water, and it was cold, drizzling and misty. • The surrounding roads were clogged with traffic, so troop movement was slow and poorly-coordinated.
From Bad to Worse • There was a delay in bringing in the reserves. Sir John French had kept them too far back behind the lines and when they arrived, they were tired, cold, wet and hungry. Haig was furious. • The 3 reserve divisions were inexperienced or newly-formed and no match for the ferocity of the German counter-attacks and machine-guns. • The slaughter on the second day was so great that the Germans eventually held their own fire to allow the surviving British to retreat and retrieve the bodies of their dead. • The official figures for the battle listed casualties as over 50,000, of whom more than 26,000 were killed or missing, the vast majority of these being killed in the first three days.
The Main Phase Ends • The British did hold on to some of their gains. • By the 27th, although the Germans had reinforced their positions, they were unable to counter-attack further. • By nightfall on the 27th, any hope of a successful “big push” had evaporated, though the battle did not officially end until October 18th. • On the 28th, French informed Haig that two of the reserve divisions were to be withdrawn for further training. • Despite massive losses, the battle was seen by many at the time as a victory, though later historians have described it as “an almost win” and “an unnecessary and unwanted battle”.
The Significance for Scotland • At Loos, 1 in 3 of those listed as missing in action were Scots and the bodies of almost 7,000 killed in action were never found/identified. • Of the 12 British Battalions which lost more than 500 casualties, 8 were Scottish, from the 7th Camerons (687) to the Seaforths (502). • Of the 950 men of the 6th Camerons who had gone into action, 700 had become casualties. At roll-call, the survivors called out “Ower the hill” when the names of the missing were read out. • The 9th (Scottish) Div. suffered 6,058 casualties incl. 190 officers, the 15th suffered 6,896 casualties incl. 228 officers. • At least 6 Scottish battalions lost their commanding officers. • The poet Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed.
Contd. • 5 Scots were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour, including Piper D. Laidlaw, who, unarmed, played his pipes to encourage the men of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers out of the trenches and continued playing even when wounded and lying in the mud. • Sir Douglas Haig replaced Sir John French as Commander-In-Chief. • The British had learned the importance of the creeping/rolling barrage and steady machine-gun fire. • Scots troops who survived were more experienced and battle-hardened. Sir Henry Rawlinson said “As a fighter, there is none to beat a Scotsman….”After initial mockery, German troops nicknamed the kilted Scots the “Ladies from Hell” and “Devils in Skirts”, so fiercely did they fight.
The Memorial to the Missing at Loos 139 panels bear the names of 20,597 men killed in this area, many of them killed in the Battle of Loos, whose bodies were never found / identified. One-third were Scottish.