“Breaking the Stalemate”: the Battle of Loos – 25th September to 18th October 1915

There had been no decisive advance on the Western Front and the stalemate of the trenches continued through the summer of 1915.   The Allies therefore decided upon another major offensive in Champagne to be launched by the French. The British were to provide support to this campaign with a joint Anglo-French attack at Loos.  It was hoped a breakthrough of German defences at Artois and Champagne would restore a war of movement.

The scale of the attack was much greater than any that had been attempted that year and was known as ‘The Big Push’. The battleground, to the south of La Bassée Canal, was less than suitable, being uniformly flat and dominated by slag-heaps. The combined Franco-British offensive would attack eastwards against the German Sixth Army. The whole force, supervised by General Foch, would consist of French Tenth Army and British First Army. It would attack on a 20-mile front between Arras and La Bassée. The British bombardment started on 21 September and continued into 24th.

The 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment, was moved into reserve position west of Givenchy on the 24th September, amid heavy initial bombardments for the battle. They then spent the night carrying gas cylinders to emplacements in the trenches in preparation for the morning.

At dawn of the 25th the poisonous chlorine gas was released, which formed a 30 to 50 feet high blanket, moving forward slowly in places but virtually standing still in the British assault positions in other areas, with devastating effects.  Very soon rumours of a disaster began to filter back to the reserve – the windless conditions had caused the gas to hang motionless in the air in front of the parapet, and even in some cases had drifted back onto the British troops.   As the troops advanced out of the trenches it was realised that the initial bombardment had failed to cut extensively the German wire; within range of German machine guns and artillery, advancing over open ground, the losses were great. Whilst numerical superiority had initially enabled the capture of the town of Loos-en-Gohelle, the late arrival of reserves meant this breakthrough could not be exploited.

Two companies of the 2nd Battalion were sent forward in the support of the Highland Light Infantry, but before they reached the front line it had been decided to suspend the attack. By sunset the Battalion was again back in the reserve position, having suffered few casualties.

Meanwhile, further north the 10th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment in reserve at Le Hamel, marched forwards to Le Plantin. There the attack was counter-ordered and they trudged back to their previous billets at Locon.

Throughout the day of the 26th September the 2nd Worcestershire waited, eventually receiving orders to move southwards to join 1st Royal Berks and 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps to form an improvised Brigade. During the night the situation altered and a strong enemy counter-attack had driven back the troops of the 7th Division and had recaptured the Quarries. The 7th Division were unable to regain ground.

Battle of Loos 26 Sept 1915

Battle of Loos 26 Sept 1915

The 2nd Worcesters were ordered to lead an attack at “the Quarries”. The battalion deployed in four waves, coming under heavy fire as they reached the old German lines. When the two leading companies had got clear of the trench, Colonel Lambton again signalled the advance. In short rushes of small squads, firing and dashing, they pushed on up the gentle slope towards the enemy. Major P. S. G. Wainman leading the men was mortally wounded. The survivors of the 2nd Worcesters held their ground opposite the enemy’s line during the remaining hours of daylight. Nearly half the Battalion had been lost (13 officers and more than 300 N.C.O.’s and men).  Throughout the night the stretcher-bearers toiled to clear the battlefield.

Major P. S. G. Wainman

Major P. S. G. Wainman

At 5 am on the 27th a strong German bombing party, advancing along the communication trench, was driven back. Throughout the day sharp firing was kept up between the trenches.   At one point, CSM E. Welch mounted a machine-gun to repel another bombing party coming up the communication trench. The following day was spent in miserable conditions under continual firing.  At dawn on the 29th September, the Worcesters repelled a fresh attack, with Colonel Lambton ordering a charge over the parapet.

After a long and hard day, the Worcesters were relieved by the 2nd Kings Own, and made their way back across the battlefield. They then remained at Essars till the following day.  By this time the Germans had retaken both the Slagheap of ‘Fosse 8’ and the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and it was decided that the 2nd Division should relieve the 7th Division at Gun Trench with a view to regaining the lost ground. In the afternoon of the 30th the 2nd Worcesters re-joined the 5th Brigade at Vermelles.

An attack by the Highland Light Infantry was made on the evening of 2nd October; whilst the Worcestershire waited for orders to join in the fight. Presently it became known this would not happen and the attack had failed. The 2nd Battalion was spent the final day of battle for the under enemy shell, eventually being relieved after midnight. Their battle was over!  As a result of their actions men of the Battalion were awarded:  one Military Cross (Captain C.H. Ralston) and no less than seven Distinguished Conduct Medals.

Fighting continued until the 18th October.  British casualties were estimated at 50,000 whilst German losses were thought considerably lower at around 25,000.

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