In the popular view of the Western Front in World War I, 1915 can be something of a forgotten year. By the end of 1914 and the famous Christmas truces, the trench network stretched from the Jura to the Channel, and the Front had settled into the basic pattern it would maintain for the next four years: updated siege warfare, fragile human flesh attacking horribly effective mechanised defences. True, spring 1915 brought fighting at one of the Front’s most famous locations with the Second Battle of Ypres. From that point onwards, however, the spotlight tends to fall on other areas – most notably Gallipoli.
With the advantage of hindsight, the entire year can be seen as prelude, the armies gathering to be fed in 1916 into the great meat-grinders of Verdun and the Somme. The names of the actions fought in that year, chiefly south of Ypres as the Allies tried to straighten out the salient around that city, have a lesser prominence: Neuve Chappelle, Aubers Ridge and Loos.
If World War I had ended at Christmas 1915, it would already have left a huge impact in terms of numbers killed and in terms of the technology of combat: trenches, machine guns, massive artillery barrages, poison gas, aircraft and submarines were here to stay. The battle of Loos, fought in the autumn of 1915, marks a pivot between phases of the war, as combatants came to terms with the new warfare and with the sheer bludgeoning scale of attack, and killing, that would be necessary to break through the impasse and return a war of movement.
Twelve months after the outbreak of war, Loos saw Britain’s New Army, recruited from the patriotic volunteers of the war’s first months, flung into action on a major scale for the first time. It also saw the first use of poison gas by the British forces, largely ineffectively. The battle took place in the flat coal-mining area north of Lens, an area dominated on the German side by a pair of pithead winding-gear towers dubbed ‘Tower Bridge’ by the British soldiers, located in the mining village of Loos-en-Gohelle.
On September 25th 1915 British and Empire troops attacked in numbers, following the release of 140,000 kilogrammes of chlorine gas. Winds were light and variable, and in some areas of the battlefield the gas lingered in No-Man’s Land or even blew back into the British trenches; the gas-masks issued to British troops were also ineffective and many soldiers suffered gas injuries when they removed them to wipe fogged-up eye-pieces. The advance, into the teeth of German machine-gun fire, was partly successful: in the centre of the battlefield, the 15th (Scottish) Division took Loos and ascended the gentle rise beyond it, the point known as Hill 70 from which there was, fleetingly, the possibility of further advance into the suburbs of Lens. But the men in the centre were by now exhausted, the reserves could not reach them in time, and on the left and right of the battlefield advances were slowed or halted by ineffective use of gas and all-too-effective German machine guns.
The fleeting opportunity vanished, as so often in Western Front battles, before commanders knew it was there and before men could have been brought up to push through the breach in the first German line. Subsequent counter-attacks meant that the ground was lost again, and plans to renew the offensive on the British side petered out as the autumn rain set in and put paid to dreams of a war of movement until the following year. By mid-October the battle was at an end and the front returned to its normal state of attritional stasis.
In one sense nothing changed: the front remained basically where it had been, and there was to be no breakthrough, no sweeping cavalry movements over the plains towards Lille. For the men killed or wounded – nearly sixty-thousand casualties in each side – everything changed.
For the Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling, an enthusiastic propagandist for war against Germany, Loos brought a shattering blow: his eighteen-year-old son John, commissioned into the Irish Guards through his father pulling strings (John’s eyesight was poor and would normally have meant his being rejected for Army service) was killed on September 27th, 48 hours after arriving at the front in a party of reinforcements. Kipling remained haunted by his son’s death and his own role in helping it come about. The bitterness of his lines on the fallen of World War I:
If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied
may well speak of his own guilt. Over 20,000 British and Empire troops had no known grave, John Kipling among them (a body has now been identified as his, although this identification is questioned by some): when, after the War, Kipling chose inscriptions for war cemeteries and selected “Known unto God” for the graves of unidentified servicemen, he would have known that his son’s tombstone, if he had one somewhere, would carry this wording.
At the top level there was change, too: the British commander, General Sir John French, was criticised for failing to exploit the offensive and was replaced by General Douglas Haig, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force for the remainder of the War. Haig has become the personification, in the popular view, of an officer class whose only answer to the carnage of the Western Front was to do things exactly as before, but bigger and even bloodier. This is, of course, an over-simplification, but Haig’s responsibility for the Battle of the Somme and, on 1st July 1916, the heaviest day for casualties In the history of the British Army, shows how the caricature came about.
Loos, then, draws a line under Act 1 on the Western Front. The siege warfare of the trenches is established; new technologies are being deployed in attempts to break the stalemate, but only succeed in increasing the killing; and the dramatis personae are in place to do the whole thing over again on an even larger scale in 1916.For thousands of men, however, there would be no 1916.
In the midst of it all, the Royal Army Medical Corps were there trying to keep people alive in the face of all the technology devoted to killing them. The digitised papers of Royal Army Medical Corps document their role through a selection of drawings, photographs and a map showing the area before the battle and the shattered wreckage afterwards.
Elsewhere, the papers of the physiologist Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer (1850-1935) tell of the human cost. Amongst the family photographs, a small boy in a smock, his legs too short to reach the ground from where he sits: his younger son Tom, who would be killed at Loos.
Author: Dr Chris Hilton is a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.
The blog post title is from one of the many popular songs re-purposed by the British soldiers in the World War I:
I wore a tunic, a dirty khaki tunic
While you wore your civvy clothes:
We fought and bled at Loos
While you were on the booze,
The booze that no-one here knows…
The song can be heard, of course, in the play and film “Oh! What a Lovely War”.