The first day of a major offensive is always big, as everything goes off at once. I shudder to think how many words I’m going to spend on the first day of the Somme. Anyway, today is divided into three. For the Battle of Loos, stay right here.
Onward to Loos.
Battle of Loos
As the rain pours down and the wind blows steadily towards the German trenches, the first decision of the battle is taken at about 3am by General Haig at his forward headquarters. He’s spent the night looking at the weather forecasts, over and over again, particularly those concerning the direction and strength of the wind. By 3am he’s got the most up-to-date report from his chief meteorologist. The wind will likely drop when the rain stops, and that could be at any time in the next six hours or so.
The plan of attack relies entirely on a combined gas and smoke release. If the wind is unfavourable, the gas will (at best) sit malevolently in No Man’s Land, or (at worst) blow back on the BEF’s own trenches. Haig asks for a direct opinion; the unfortunate weatherman tells him that the best time to attack is as soon as possible. Out go the orders; dawn is at half past six; the gas is to be turned on 40 minutes before then to give it a chance to get across No Man’s Land; all underground mines will be detonated as close to half past six as possible.
Let’s now have the MSPaint map just before zero hour.
On the ground; the south
The first of our correspondents to go into action is Bombardier Alex Dunbar, he of the dummy wall, his gun trained squarely on the wire in front of the Lens Road redoubt.
Through my telescope sight I had an excellent view of the target and I could pick out the section of wire to be cut. It was easy! This was the first occasion on which I had used direct firing, and I found it much more interesting than laying on an aiming post and never seeing the target.
After firing about 50 rounds, I noticed that my eyes were beginning to water. Before long, I could hardly see at all. I put this down to the fumes of the cordite coming from the breech. The others didn’t seem to be affected, so I changed places with my number 2, but after a few rounds he was crying his eyes out! Just then we became aware of a beautiful smell of lilac filling the room.
Dunbar and friends soldier on (hohoho), keeping their gun firing at the wire as best they can. They can see for themselves the gaps that they’ve cut. The wind here is relatively strong. The lilac smell, of course, is the faintest hint of gas drifting up out of the trenches and back onto them; in his area, they’re lucky, and most of it has gone forward. The Germans are engulfed; although several machine-guns remain in action, the gas and smoke is enough to conceal the attackers as they cross No Man’s Land. Corporal Moylan of the 1/7th Londons was in the second wave of attackers.
War is peculiar. C Company, my own company, had the furthest to go [to attack the second German line]. We had the fewest casualties. B Company lost every officer. A hell of a lot got killed. We were lucky. We found gaps in the wire. It was all a matter of luck.
Dunbar, and men like him all along the front, may have done good work in places. But “in places” isn’t a whole lot of comfort to men who cross No Man’s Land and find the wire intact. Anyway, despite this, things are actually going quite well. Enough of the wire has been cut.
Crossing No Man’s Land, you imagine what a hell of a journey that’s going to be – but it’s not. Either the Germans are dead or there’s no-one there. There were a lot of our dead there, and more at the places where they’d arrived at the wire and it wasn’t cut. We just went through the gaps, but of course we weren’t in the first wave.
They were mopping the German front line up. We got to the second line and they’d gone. The gas had blown over the Germans and that may have driven them out of that second line.
30 minutes after zero hour, messages are flooding back. Men in front of Loos! Men pushing through Loos! Men on the other side of Loos! General Haig calls for reserves, of which more in just a minute.
The north; Hohenzollern Redoubt
The redoubts on the Lens and Loos roads have either been captured or cut off. However, to the north, the wind has been far more capricious. Here it’s vital that the men advance towards Auchy and Hulluch via the Hohenzollern Redoubt to secure the left flank of the men now in Loos. Sergeant Packham, a Regular with the 2nd Royal Sussex:
There was a gas officer in the trench. He looked ghastly. He was saying that the gas was blowing back into our faces. The German shelling was terrific and the forward troops had gone. I thought my platoon had gone over, so over I went to catch them up.
I had my gas mask on, but it was all steamed up and I couldn’t see anything. I was nearly suffocating so I took it off, and to my amazement I saw that there were only about six of us advancing. After a few more yards there were only two of us, and we both flung ourselves to the ground.
Very soon we heard the Germans firing again, and we could see a line advancing. When it reached us there were only two or three left, and they too went to ground. Another wave came over, but it was the same thing again! In fact, nobody from this third line ever got as far as our position.
In good time, Packham is able to scramble back to safety. A couple of battalions in this area have made it forward, but have mostly been stymied by their own gas and intact barbed wire; and, a couple of hours into the battle, the gas is now clearing…
The south; the road to Hill 70
By 9am, there are Scotsmen firmly in charge of the summit of Hill 70. The Germans have abandoned it almost without a fight. If the Scots can get the trenches turned round, bring up machine-guns, ask for some artillery support over their heads, they’ve a fighting chance of holding the last German strong-point before Lens.
But they’re not supposed to be there. Having made quick work of the Loos Road redoubt, they should have continued due east, advancing north of Loos and Hill 70. They shouldn’t just be on top of Hill 70; they should be in the fields and pits all around. Many of them have lost their officers and lost their way. The advance continues, everyone following everyone else.
There is a reserve line behind Loos, nestled among the outskirt buildings of Lens. The few officers and men who’ve kept their head and stayed on Hill 70, trying desperately to exert some command and control, can’t do anything. They can only watch. Perhaps, with artillery support, with gas, with smoke, they might just have got somewhere.
The Germans are pulling themselves back together, pouring into trenches and houses to open fire. The far side of the hill has absolutely no cover of any kind. No bushes, no trees, no dips, no ditches, no sunken roads. The bravest (or the most foolhardy) make it to within eighty yards of the fully intact German wire before being cut down, or playing dead. British artillery fire finally arrives…and it’s coming down in the wrong place.
Messages sent to the rear had indicated that everybody was advancing as planned. So the guns concentrate their fire away north of Hill 70. The German gunners are now blasting everything around and behind Hill 70. Some have lengthened their range to fire on the roads bringing reserves into the area. As morning changes to afternoon, the counter-attacks begin, pushing the Scots off Hill 70, forcing them back a few hundred yards towards Loos.
Let’s go back to Bombadier Alex Dunbar, who has a highly cromulent set of observations for us. He’s waiting for orders to move forward, having seen the attack disappear towards Loos. He’s got nothing better to do than watch the road and swap rumours, and he does give us a desperately-needed funny story.
There were a lot of casualties coming back. Crowded ambulances were returning from the line and all those who could walk were dragging themselves back as best they could.
For light relief there was a large party of German prisoners, well over a hundred. The two front ranks consisted entirely of officers, who seemed to be having a heated argument among themselves. Possibly they were trying to find out who was to blame for their capture. What really made us laugh was their escort; two diminutive Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.
One was sauntering a long with rifle slung across his back, a cigarette in his mouth, and looking as though he didn’t have a care in the world, let alone a hundred Germans behind him. The other was just as small, and he was bringing up the rear with bayonet fixed, giving a threatening jab to any prisoner who looked like lagging behind. He looked about as tall as his rifle! We all roared with laughter.
As the afternoon wears on, Dunbar encounters the reinforcements.
The whole road was black with marching infantry. We were amazed. To come up that road in broad daylight, a road that could be enfiladed by the Germans from end to end! The German balloons were still flying. They must have been able to see that whole road packed with men. It was beyond comprehension. The head of the column was held up and stopped near us. We spoke to one or two of the men. They told us they had only been in France for three weeks! Two divisions, the 21st and 24th. They showed us their bombs as though they were showing off new toys.
The column got on the move again and had just reached a crest in the road when over came half a dozen whizz-bangs. They hit no-one, but the head of the column stopped, turned, and ran back, apparently panic-stricken. The movement seemed to spread in seconds as we watched, right down the long line like a wave. In a few minutes they were out of sight.
Order is eventually restored, and the men move on. Captain Graham-Pole of the 12th Northumberland Fusiliers leads his men through Loos.
We met most ghastly sights, officers and men dead and dying on the road. Star shells went up, shrapnel crashed down amongst us. Horses lay with broken legs, and still the men marched on. I was proud of them; no shouting required, no bullying, just “steady lads, steady”. On they came. Wherever we went, shells followed us, falling amongst us, making the houses rock and fall.
Their transport and supply elements, following on behind, are catching it even worse. It was obvious to General Haig that he needed reinforcements in the line now at about 7:30am, at the latest. As evening turns to night, a few of the leading battalions have just arrived to reinforce. Many more are forced to stop where they are and wait, for fear of losing their way in strange country.
What happened to the reinforcements?
Ah, herein lies a tale. We’ll be coming back to this question in a few days, so I’ll be brief for now. Sir John French had insisted on maintaining personal control of the reserve units, and keeping them many miles back from the front, far further away than General Haig had (rather insistently) asked them to be placed. With a commendable desire to keep lines of communication short, French also left GHQ for an advanced headquarters. Unfortunately, he left for a headquarters with only one telephone line that ran nowhere useful, with no direct communication to either Haig (commanding the attack) or General Haking (commanding the reserves).
Haig’s request for reserves was thereby held up for several hours while the message was sent to French, who then decided to drive himself to Haking to personally give the order to advance. It absolutely beggars belief, doesn’t it? To make matters worse, the reserves were extremely tired from having marched over 15 miles the previous day, and then faced another gruelling march forward, fighting most of the way against a constant press of runners, prisoners, quartermasters, and wounded; all heading to the rear.
The conclusion from these facts seems obvious; but before we jump to it, let’s set one thing against it. The men who bled themselves white against the Germans’ reserve line faced uncut wire and had almost no artillery support. Could the green, untested reserves have advanced anywhere except straight down under those conditions? More soon.
Let’s have the map again.
The situation, although far from ideal, is (from General Haig’s perspective) still pretty good. Darkness will allow those reserves to be mixed into the line for a fresh push tomorrow. Artillery can be moved forward in relative safety. And just never mind the question about how they’re supposed to set up observation posts or to find the range of the new German line; that is unhelpful defeatism, do you hear?
For the story of the BEF’s diversionary attacks at Hooge Chateau and Aubers Ridge, see this post.
For the story of the French Army (and Louis Barthas!) at Third Artois and Second Champagne, see this post.
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