The Battle of Loos was part of the wider Third Battle of Artois, itself part of a wider Allied attack on the German lines in the autumn of 1915 (First World War). 25 September saw the start of the Second Battle of Champagne, while in Artois the French attacked Vimy Ridge.
The British attack was to be launched by six divisions from Douglas Haig’s First Army (three regular – the 1st, 2nd and 7th, two from the New Army – the 9th and 15th Scottish divisions and the 47th Territorial). Two reserve divisions – the 21st and 24th were in the vicinity, but Sir John French refused to release them to Haig’s command before the battle, and on 25 September the reserves were six miles from the battlefield. The attack was preceded by a four day bombardment and would see the first use of poisoned gas by the British.
The Chlorine gas would be a great disappointment. It was released at 5.50 am, giving it forty minutes to do its work before the infantry attacked at 6.30. However, much of the gas either lingered in no mans land or drifted back over the British lines.
Despite this setback, the first British assault was a success. The German front line was breached, with the New Army divisions performing well. North of Loos the strong Hohenzollern redoubt fell to the 9th Division, while further south the village of Loos was captured. Early on the morning of 25 September Haig asked for the reserves to be sent in. French agreed, and ordered the two reserve divisions to join the attack.
Haig needed the reserves because of the nature of the German lines. Having decided to stay on the defensive in the west, and concentrate on winning the war in the East, the Germans had begun to dig in in earnest. Part of this preparation involved the creation of an entire second line of fortifications, running as far as three miles behind the first line. This gap made it very unlikely that any Allied attack could break through both German lines, and allowed the Germans to launch their own counterattacks once the Allied assaults ran out of energy.
By the end of 25 September the British had advanced to within a thousand yards of the German second line to the north of Loos. The reserve divisions were needed to attack this intact second line of defences. However, poor communications and poor planning, partly by French and partly by Haig, meant that the reserves didn’t reach the original British lines until the end of 25 September. The next afternoon the 21st and 24th Divisions launched an attack in ten columns across the open ground in front of the German second line. Largely unaffected by the four day bombardment, the barbed wire in front of this second line was intact. The British advanced to the wire, taking horrific casualties all the time, and were then forced to retreat. The battle had been so one sided that many Germans stopped firing during the British retreat. By the end of the battle the 21st and 24th Divisions had lost 8,000 of their 15,000 infantry killed or wounded. This part of the fighting became known as the "corpse ground of Loos".
The battle continued for another three weeks. When the fighting finally died down, the British front line stood close to the line reached at the end of the first day, although the Germans had recaptured the Hohenzollern Redoubt. British losses at Loos were close to 50,000, with 16,000 dead and 25,000 wounded. Estimates of German casualty figures vary, but the most common figure is for a total of 25,000 losses, half the British figure. The autumn battles of 1915 all ended in a similar tale of Allied failure and heavy losses.
Sir John French was a casualty of the battle. The confusion over the reserves combined with a determined campaign by Douglas Haig resulted in his removal as commander of the BEF. On 16 December Douglas Haig was appointed to command the BEF, a post he would hold for the rest of the war.
Loos, September 1915