Military History Battle of Loos
by
Ian Isherwood
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0189

Introduction

In September 1915, the British and French armies began a combined major offensive on the western front. The French offensive was aimed at the Champagne and Artois regions, while the British Expeditionary Force’s objective was near Lens, in the industrial region between La Bassee and Loos. The battle was instigated by the French high command, who believed that a simultaneous attack upon the German army would yield results within a theater of war that had become stalemated. Despite reservations about the offensive’s intended results and the ground chosen for the attack, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir John French, agreed to the offensive. Along with his subordinate, First Army’s commander Sir Douglas Haig, French planned an offensive that was the largest operation of the BEF on the western front to date. The battle itself began with a four-day preliminary bombardment of German trenches on 21 September. The bombardment did little damage and notably did little to German barbed wire, which proved to be a serious impediment for advancing infantry. On 25 September, the battle began in earnest with six divisions attacking using a new weapon, chlorine gas. This was the first time gas was used by the BEF, and it proved to be as much as a hinderance as an advantage in attack. Still, the first day saw some advances notably those of the 9th Scottish Division at the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the 47th and 15th divisions to the south. To capitalize on gains made during the first day, Sir John French called up the 21st and 24th Reserve Divisions, untested men who had been exhausted by days of marching. These New Army divisions were committed to battle immediately on the 26th in hastily prepared attacks without adequate artillery support against an entrenched enemy. They lost half their number. After the opening phase of the battle, the advantage then shifted to the defender, and the German army fought a series of counterattacks, the battle devolving into a stalemate. By the second week of October, it became clear that any gains by the BEF had been negligible, especially considering the high cost in lives. In the end, the “big push” of 1915 ended in failure, with more than 50,000 British casualties. As a result of what was seen as a significant failure on the part of staff work and generalship at Loos, Field Marshal Sir John French was replaced by his subordinate, Sir Douglas Haig.

General Overviews

There are significantly fewer books on Allied operations in 1915 than there are on the large attritional battles later in the war. In particular, the Battle of Loos has some excellently informed studies, but does not have as vast a historiography as later campaigns. Since the late 1990s, there has been a resurgence of interest in Loos. The new histories are widely in accordance with revisionism on the combat performance and “learning curve” of the BEF in France. Of existing general works, the Edmonds 1928 official history provides a solid base for understanding the battle. Similar to the official history is Kearsey 1929, which offers a summary of the battle from the British perspective. The German equivalent of Edmonds, Der Weltkrieg, has been translated into English in Humphries and Maker 2010, though it offers far less on the battle than the British official history. For quite some time, Warner 1976 was the standard secondary work on the battle. In recent years, the battle has come into clearer focus by historians intent on revisiting September 1915 as an essential moment in understanding the BEF’s learning process. Of recent works, Corrigan 2006 provides an informed and opinionated survey of the battle; both Cherry 2005 and Lloyd 2006 offer more detailed analysis, particularly of operations, and provide valuable tables and appendices to demonstrate the significance of the battle. Of the recent histories, Lloyd is the best and comes from the widest source base. Doyle 2012 offers a pithy history of the battle that is a welcome addition for new readers; similar, in terms of its accessibility, is MacDonald 1997, a book that personalizes the fighting by offering first-hand accounts by British soldiers. Both Rawson 2002 and Rawson 2003 provide solid foundational history of the battle along with contemporary insights into the landscape for battlefield tourists.

  • Cherry, Niall. Most Unfavourable Ground: The Battle of Loos 1915. Solihull, UK: Helion, 2005.

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    A military history of the battle that follows the British official history closely. The maps and the breakdown of casualties by unit are particularly valuable. For a more thorough and fresh analysis, see Lloyd 2006.

  • Corrigan, Gordon. Loos 1915. Stroud, UK: Spellmont, 2006.

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    A pithy general overview that provides a very clear narrative of a complex battle. Very readable and engaging. The argument presented here is that the battle was “unwanted” but that the BEF learned from its mistakes and that Loos would be foundational to the battles of 1916. Valuable appendices help to tell the story from the British perspective.

  • Doyle, Peter. Loos 1915. Stroud, UK: Spellmont, 2012.

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    An excellent short general history of the contesting armies and of the battle itself. Remarkably concise for a brief overview, with interesting sections on the armies themselves. Meant for a general audience or for someone new to the war.

  • Edmonds, Sir James, ed. Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1915. Vol. 2, Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos. London: HMSO, 1928.

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    The official British military history of the battle and a good starting place for research.

  • Humphries, Mark Osborne, and John Maker, eds. Germany’s Western Front: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War. Vol. 2, 1915. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.

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    English translation of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Die Operationen des Jahres 1915 (1933), the official German history of military operations in 1915.

  • Jones, Spencer, ed. Courage without Glory: The British Army on the Western Front in 1915. Solihill, UK: Helion, 2005.

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    An edited collection of essays on the British army’s performance in 1915. Chapter 13 by Brian Curragh is on Loos. This collection puts the battle in the wider perspective of BEF operations in 1915.

  • Kearsey, Alexander. 1915 Campaign in France: The Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert & Loos Considered in relation to the Field Service Regulations. Aldershot, UK: Gale and Polden, 1929.

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    Summary of the battle by a British army officer as it related to others in 1915 in relation to the Field Service Regulations. Largely based on reprinted official reports.

  • Lloyd, Nick. Loos 1915. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2006.

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    This is a very fine narrative account of the battle based on extensive archival work. Perhaps the best overall history of the battle in that it engages with the wider historiography of the conduct of war on the western front and includes a vast research base that helps to contextualize the battle within the overall narrative of the war. Highly recommended for beginners, as well as experienced military historians.

  • MacDonald, Lynn. 1915: The End of Innocence. London: Penguin, 1997.

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    Personal accounts of the battle from multiple perspectives. Part 7 pertains to Loos. MacDonald is a narrative compiler who is interested in showing the personal experiences of the war.

  • Rawson, Andrew. Battleground Europe, Loos: Hill 70. Barnsley, UK: Leo Cooper, 2002.

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    History of the fighting near and at Hill 70. An account that offers then-and-now comparisons of the landscape for battlefield tourists. The book has particularly fine photographs and maps.

  • Rawson, Andrew. Battleground Europe, Loos: Hohenzollern Redoubt. Barnsley, UK: Leo Cooper, 2003.

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    History of the fighting at Loos surrounding the Hohenzollern Redoubt. An account that offers then-and-now comparisons of the landscape for battlefield tourists. Readable and useful.

  • Warner, Philip. The Battle of Loos. London: William Kimber, 1976.

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    This is mostly an edited compilation of first-hand accounts. The author received 150 recollections and letters from veterans who wanted their stories told. The very short narrative account of the battle lays much of the blame for the failure at Loos at the hands of the high command and poor/inadequate staff work. More could be done here to put these sources into context. Read alongside a recent general history.

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