Today marks the 97th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, the British ‘big push’ of 1915. The battle was the first time some of Kitchener’s volunteers saw action – for many it would also be the last. These volunteers included men from the 8th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, and the 9th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, who had only arrived in France on 31st August as part of the 24th Division. They were held in reserve and went into action on the second day of the battle near Hulluch. The war diary entry of the 8th Queen’s simply states:
“The battalion advanced under heavy machine gun and shrapnel fire in lines of platoons in extended order. As the advance continued over the Lens – La Bassee road, the machine gun fire from the flanks was very heavy. On reaching the enemy trenches it was found to be protected by barbed wire, which had not been cut and it being impossible to get through it, the brigade retired. There appeared to be no panic & the men walked back still under machine gun and shrapnel fire.”
This entry belies the chaos of the attack – both the 8th Queen’s and the 9th East Surreys suffered heavily due to the uncut wire and the German machine gun fire; between them they suffered 872 casualties.
The Battle is also notable for the first British use of gas. Chlorine gas, a powerful irritant that can be lethal, was released from cylinders along the front line, but with mixed results. Whilst in some places the gas did drift towards the Germans, in other areas it hung over no man’s land or even drifted back into the British lines, causing casualties to the attacking force.
The following extract justifying the British use of gas is taken from one of the weekly publications that appeared during the war – The Great War: the Standard History of the all-Europe Conflict, edited by H.W.Wilson. In total there were 272 parts, and over 41 million copies were sold. They were full of patriotic, morale-boosting articles and supplemented by photographs and sketches. This issue was published in early December 1915 and is entitled ‘The Great Drive in the West and the Battle of Loos’:
“So heavy were the disadvantages of the Allies in attacking against hidden machine guns and deeply entrenched troops, provided with huge magazines of bombs, that there was only one means of overcoming the difficulties in the way of an infantry attack. This means was a gas cloud. If the Germans had not stooped to chemical weapons of torture during their second thrust at Ypres, their own position in the west would have remained stronger. But from April, 1915, they had continued to use asphyxiating and poison gases in so general a way that the Allies were at last compelled in self defence to adopt a similar method. Nevertheless, the British and French commanders were even then able to show the difference between the methods of neo-barbarism and those of the warlike forces of civilisation. The enemy at the time was using the deadliest poison that could be manufactured on a large scale – prussic-acid gas. But the French and British chemists provided their armies with merely an intoxicating stupefying mixture of heavy gases, which put the Germans out of action, and did not kill our own troops if the wind suddenly changed. As a matter of fact, there were cases of British soldiers being suddenly overcome by their own fumes. The result was only longer sleep, an orange-coloured face, and a little discomfort on awakening. There was an avoidance of that moral effect of making men afraid of their own chemical weapons, which had clearly been seen in hesitating advances of the German infantry at Ypres in the previous April, and yet the direct aim of putting deeply-entrenched defending troops out of action was attained.”