The Great Episodes of the War
two illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'
The Battle of Loos marks a definite stage in the progress of the Great War. For months the German Great General Staff built their plan of campaign on the supposition that it would be impossible for the Allies to break through the line of steel and fire they had built in the west. They believed we would beat our heads against it in vain.
At first the German claim seemed right. Both sides held what were practically the same positions in Flanders and in Northern France for nearly a year. Trenches took the appearance of permanent fortifications. Men talked of stalemate. It seemed as though we were held up. The advance on Loos and the French advance in Champagne prove that it is possible, at a cost, to penetrate almost any position, however armed and defended.
The plan of campaign of the Allies was simple. Large numbers of heavy gunsfrom "Granny," the monster pet of the British Army, downwardswere accumulated along our front. Numbers of new British troops arrived, until our army in Flanders was estimated to be a million strong. The French brought up their reserves. Tremendous stocks of shells were accumulated. Towards the end of the fourth week in September our artillery fire became overwhelming. Our guns poured a hurricane of high-explosive shells on the German front, breaking up the elaborate lines of wire entanglements and overwhelming the men. The enemy's guns were smashed or buried in the earth. Minenwerfers. the famous German trench mortars, were knocked out of action. The hail of fire on the front lines reached such an intensity that German soldiers crept in dug-outs and in cellars to escape it. Simultaneously a strong force of aeroplanes sailed over the rear of the German lines, and by concentrating their fire upon railways and vital roads, prevented the enemy from bringing up reinforcements.
The Germans knew that a great advance was impending. They anticipated that it would come along the Belgian coast, and for at least a fortnight before our advance they had hurried large numbers of troops into Northern Belgium. A garrison of 80,000 men was placed in Antwerp alone. Fortifications were strengthened, more big guns were placed on the coast, and everything was made ready to resist a British movement from the sea. The heavy bombardment at a hundred points along the great line of the Allies, from the coast to Switzerland, made it difficult to forecast where our land blow would be struck.
The British Army was well aware in a general way that something big was in the air. The hospitals in the front lines were being cleared, and every possible man sent down to the base, a sure sign that a great offensive was anticipated. Every road was full of marching troops. Kitchener's Army had come. No one, however, beyond a very small circlethe inner group of the General Staffknew our plans until Friday, September 24th. Then word was given out to the divisional commanders and to the brigadiers, and the electric whisper passed along our lines that the hour had struck.
The French and the Belgians were attacking simultaneously with ourselves. General Joffre issued an Order of the Day to his men, worthy of Napoleon in its brevity and force.
"The offensive will be carried on without truce and without respite. Remember the Marne. Victory or death."
Our own Generals told their men straightly and simply that the big moment had come, and that the future of the war and the future of our race would largely depend on what they then did. One Order of the Day, issued by Lord Cavan to the British Guards Division, may be taken as typical:
Division Command of the Guards Division. On the eve of the greatest battle of all time the Commander of the Guards Division wishes his troops much luck. He has nothing to add to the animating words of the Commanding General as given out this morning, "but wishes his men to keep two things well before their mind first, that upon the result of this battle the fate of the coming generation of Britons depends; second, that the greatest things are expected of the Guards Division. From his thirty years' acquaintance of the Guards he knows that he need say no more.
The German Commanders, on their side, sensing what was coming, issued orders to their troops urging them to stand fast. "Comrades," wrote General von Fleck to his men in Champagne, "let us swear in this solemn hour that each one of us, no matter where he may be, whether in the trenches, in the batteries, or in positions of command, will do his duty there right to the bitter end. Wherever the enemy may hurl himself to assault, we will receive him with a well-directed fire, and if he reaches our positions, we will throw him back on the point of the bayonet, and pelt him with hand- grenades." The General went on to express his confidence that the German "wall of steel" would break every enemy attack.
Leaving out of the present review the splendid French advances in Champagne and in the Artois, and the Belgian activity to the north, let us follow the British troops. Our main attack was made, not in the north, as the Germans anticipated, but in part of the new line recently taken over by us, south of the La Bassee Canal. Advances were attempted farther north, some of which were in the nature of feints, to divert the enemy's forces. Others ' kept the main body of the Germans occupied, while our real blow was delivered elsewhere.
Picture the scene in the lines of trenches, from Givenchy to Grenay, on that fateful Saturday morning. Large numbers of troops had come up during the night, and were packed in the narrow trenches waiting for the dawn. Our artillery was thundering overhead with ear-splitting din. In our front lines, like eagles ready to strike their prey, were the bomb-throwers, decked around with their strange uniform of death. Every man felt, as he stood with nerves taut, that now was the moment when he must show his best. He was being asked to do what theorists had declared could not be done. He, veteran of the old Regular Army, Territorial, or Kitchener's man, was going to do the seemingly impossible.
The Force of the Initial Dash
The German guns were busy. Now the enemy employed their reserve weapon poison gas. At the first sign of the deadly cloud every man in our ranks pulled his poison helmet over his head, hastily dashing the anti-gas solution on the front of the breathing-pipe, which he placed in his mouth. Thus our soldiers stood with hooded heads, bombs in hand.
There came one tremendous explosion, drowning even the thunder of the guns. At point after point our engineers had undermined the German front, and had blown up the trenches. Then came sharp silence. Our guns ceased. Our lads were up, over the parapets right out for the No Man's Land, the five or ten score yards of disputed land between the lines. They tore the gas helmets off their faces and yelled as they jumped forward. The Germans tried to use their machine-guns. We were on them, with cold steel. The first line of the trenches was won.
There were points, of course, where this did not happen. At some places the poison gas got home with deadly effect. At others, even our artillery fire had failed to destroy German resistance. The dream of the French General that the artillery should so finish the work that the soldiers could march into the opposite trenches with rifles over their shoulders has not yet been realised.
Some Germans surrendered out of hand. Others were so stupefied by our artillery that they proved an easy capture. Still others fought to the last man, hurling grenades, firing, defending themselves by every means. Now came a time when every yard had to be fought for. From the first trench we advanced at once to the second line. These were a much more formidable task. From them we attempted to reach to the third, but the force of our attack had spent itself. The Germans by now were pouring up reinforcements. Fighting was going along at innumerable points, around every house in the village of Loos, which we had entered, and around pit- heads.
At the end of the day it was possible to sum up our gains. North of the La Bassee Canal the main work of our troops had been to draw towards them strong reserves of the enemy. There had been very heavy fighting, but without any marked gains to us. Immediately to the south of the canal there had been very severe fighting, with varying results. We captured the village of Hulluch, but it was recovered later by the Germans. Our main success was south. There we took five miles of the enemy's trenches, penetrating the German lines in some places as far as 5,000 yards. The village of Loos, the mining works near by, and an elevated position, Hill 70, of great importance because of its command of the flat country around, had all passed into our hands. Many of the enemy's positions that were captured were exceedingly strong. We had taken 2,500 prisoners, eight guns, and many machine-guns.
The Ordeal of Holding Fast
The problem of holding enemy trenches in an advance such as this is greater than the work of capturing them. This was what our men found. The Germans at once concentrated their artillery fire on our new salient. The heavy German forces that had opposed our men north of the canal swept south-eastwards, and the next few days saw almost incessant fighting. The Germans made repeated attacks, losing large numbers of men. We again attacked Hulluch, and recaptured part of it. At point after point victory leaned now to this side, now to that.
As the fighting continued, the Germans, by pushing up enormous bodies of reserve troops and by the reckless expenditure of men, succeeded in getting back a small part of their position. But our gains still remained considerable. We had proved our ability to advance. The break in the German front was, in the words of our King. "but the prelude to greater deeds and further victories." There was the hope that while the Germans were throwing their massed armies on our new lines to the south of the canal other blows, struck elsewhere, were bringing a yet more rapid decision.
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