The Battle of Loos – New Offensives On The Western Front I THE GREAT WAR – Week 62


Russia had been losing territory to Germany
and Austria-Hungary for five months at an enormous rate, and had repeatedly asked her
allies France and Britain to make new offensives in the west to reduce the German pressure,
and this week, the Allies strike. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the Germans took Vilna from Russia,
a pretty big loss, but the German advance of the past five months was winding down and
the Russians began to secure their lines. There was rioting at home in Russia and new
taxes in Britain, and Bulgarian troops mobilized, though they claimed it had nothing to do with
Serbia. Here’s what followed. Things have been relatively quiet on the Western
Front for a while, but no longer, and I’ll jump in right there. France and Britain simply could not ignore
the danger that Russia might actually fall any longer; all those German troops in the
east would then be transferred to the west, so now they both launched ambitious new offensives. The French targets were, as they had been
all year, the Vimy Ridge in Artois and the Railway junction at Mezieres in Champagne.
The German defenses at the Vimy Ridge were extremely strong, though, and the attacks
launched at 12:25 on September 25th had very little success. The next day, though, the
French took Souchez and make large gains at the ridge, the crest of which they captured
on the 29th, but already French leader General Joseph Joffre was losing faith in the whole
operation and began to think of it as a demonstration that was meant to encourage the British further
north. As to the French attack also taking place
in Champagne, it was on a front stretching from Auberive to Massiges and went off at
9:15 AM also on the 25th with a force of 18 divisions attacking the German positions.
Wave after wave of Frenchmen came crashing across no-mans land and over the German trenches
and the French made a three km dent in the German line along a 24 km front. In many places
they broke through, and sent assault troops to the next line of trenches while others
mopped up. Actually, in some places, three whole lines of trenches were overrun, and
there was a big expectation of a breakthrough, but the Germans had one more card to play:
about three kilometers behind the German lines was a second system of German trenches, they
were on reverse slopes and they were a serious obstacle. Over the next few days, the French
repeatedly attacked, but couldn’t get enough artillery forward, and the Germans were able
to bring up loads of reserves to launch devastating counter attacks wherever the French made a
breakthrough. The French casualties were mounting so alarmingly, that Joffre suspended the offensive
September 30th. He would soon order his commanders to abandon the idea of a breakthrough in Champagne,
though, and to wage a war of attrition instead as the autumn dragged on. Well, that’s the French attacks, but what
of the British? The British kicked off the Battle of Loos,
also on the 25th, on a 10 km front where they used poison gas for the first time, releasing
150 tons of chlorine gas from 5,243 gas cylinders. 600 German soldiers were directly killed by
the gas. At one point, British troops even advanced nearly 5 km and one battalion, and
I don’t know which unfortunately, led its assault by dribbling a football across no-mans
land. On the second day of the battle the British
pushed through Loos to the Lens-La Bassee road, and though they had a considerable numerical
advantage, several dozen German machine guns now faced them. Now, here’s a quote from
five months earlier in the war from British General Sir Douglas Haig, “The machine gun
is a much overrated weapon and two per battalion is more than sufficient.” He was, as was
his habit, very wrong, for the Germans had this to write about the advancing columns
of thousands of British troops, “The men stood… and fired triumphantly into the mass
of men advancing across no-mans land. As the entire field of fire was covered with the
enemy’s infantry the effect was devastating and they could be seen falling literally in
hundreds.” For the British, the death toll at Loos was
more intense than in any previous battle of the war. The slaughter also continued further
south where they advanced on Bois Hugo. Robert Graves wrote years later stories about
Loos in his book “Goodbye to all that”. One officer led his troops forward 20 meters
and had them lie down and begin covering fire. When the platoon to his left also lay down,
he whistled for his men to rise and advance. He jumped up from the shell hole he was in
and signaled for his men, but nobody moved, so he screamed, “you bloody cowards, are
you leaving me to go alone?!” His sergeant, who was lying on the ground with a broken
shoulder, moaned, “not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead.”
A German machine gun had caught them all as they rose to the whistle and killed them all. The Germans called the battle the Leichenfeld
der Loos- the field of corpses of Loos. After the fifth British attempt at Bois Hugo to
pass the woods had failed, the Germans even stopped firing at the British entirely out
of sheer compassion for the appalling destruction they had wrought on the attackers. Indeed, one source claims that the 12 attacking
battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours (Holmes, the Little
Field Marshal (about John French)), and on the 28th, General Henry Rawlinson wrote to
the King about the offensive, “From what I can ascertain some of the divisions did
actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on barbed wire”
(the Wiki Loos article). J.E. Edmonds, the British official historian,
gave the British casualties in the main attack the 25th-28th of September as 48,367 men.
(Edmonds, Military operations in France and Belgium…). The Germans, though, were not experiencing
the same success over on the Eastern Front. On the 25th, they were driven back at Dvinsk
with heavy losses, on the 26th driven back south of Pinsk, on the 28th they pressed the
Russians in the Pripet Marshes but again lost heavily and on the 30th, the German advance
came to a standstill along the entire line. The British were coming to a standstill as
well, but far away in the Middle East. Things were getting tricky for General Charles
Townshend’s forces as they tried to move up the Tigris River, and his supply train
stretching from Kut back to Basra was having big problems. There was a shortage of river
transport, but the main problem was the Tigris itself. It wound all over the place and had
strong currents so it was only navigable through a narrow channel, even though it was 150 meters
wide, and Townshend’s requests for more men, more munitions, and more transport, were
refused, but slowly the 6th Indian division had advanced up the river, some in river transports,
but many marching way more than was good for them across inhospitable ground under the
blazing Middle eastern sun. They concentrated at Sheikh Sa’ad, made a feint on the Ottoman
positions on the west bank, and assaulted the east bank on September 28th. Townshend,
as usual, planned carefully and brilliantly, moving his troops on pontoon bridges under
cover of darkness, and combining fixing and flanking attacks to win what turned out to
be a hard fought battle. The enemy retired orderly toward Baghdad,
but the British riverboats couldn’t charge after them, conditions on the Tigris were
just too bad. Still, Townshend entered Kut on September 29th. There were plenty of other
issues though: the thirst was so intense it incapacitated men, and the darkness at night
so deep that wounded men could not be found and they were robbed, mutilated, and murdered
by marauding Arabs, but the British had come 600 kilometers from the sea in spite of everything,
and the high command wanted Townshend to head for Baghdad. And that was the week. The Germans being stopped
in the east, the British taking territory in the Middle East but being stopped by the
terrain for the moment, and the big news of course, was the huge new allied offensives
on the western front. I’m gonna end today with a quote I read
in Martin Gilbert’s “The First World War”. A young officer, Roland Leighton, wrote this
to his fiancé, “let him who thinks war is a glorious, golden thing, who loves to
roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honor and Praise and Valor and Love
of Country… let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a
skull and a shin-bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on
its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, perfect but that it is headless, and with
the tattered clothing still draped round it; and let him realize how grand and glorious
a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a fetid heap of putrescence…
Who is there that has known and seen, who can say that victory is worth the death of
even one of these?” So this was the beginning of Britain’s autumn offensive. If you’d like to see what happened in Britain’s spring offensive you can click right here to see the battle of Neuve-Chapelle. Our Patreon supporter of the week is April
Joy Greibrok. Thanks to April we were able to improve our map and our animations. If
you also want to contribute to our show, consider supporting us on Patreon. For a small glimpse behind the scenes of our
show check out our Instagram page and don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!

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