The battle of Loos

Learn about one of World War I’s most important battles.

The brutal Battle of Loos (appropriately pronounced ‘Loss’) was fought between 25 September and 4 November 1915. Like those at Arras and Vimy Ridge, the battle was part of the wider Artois–Loos Offensive which, conducted by the British and French, was sometimes known as the Third Battle of Artois. It was launched simultaneously with the main French offensive in Champagne.

Six divisions were committed to the attack, despite Douglas Haig’s fears over a worrying shortage of shells and exhaustion among his troops. He was even more concerned about the difficult terrain that needed crossing, but his troops far outnumbered the Germans and thus the odds seemed in the Allies’s favour. However, having failed to ‘soften’ enemy trenches with a four-day barrage of 250,000 shells, the British used gas for the first time. The Germans had used it previously in the Battle of Ypres with success, but, in a cruel twist of fate, a change in wind direction blew 140 tonnes of British-deployed chlorine gas back onto British lines. Many soldiers, unable to see through their fogged-up inefficient masks, removed them, which led to seven deaths; another 2,600 had to be withdrawn from the front line as a result. The attempted gas attack was an unmitigated disaster.

British cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle © Pierre André Leclercq

Meanwhile, the southern end of the attack proved to be a spectacular success. British troops, predominantly Scots, took the village of Loos and Hill 70 under the cover of smokescreens and advanced towards Lens. However, a delay due to lack of munitions and the late arrival of reinforcements allowed the Germans to retake Hill 70. Further to the north the British advance was slowed by the formidable defences of the Hohenzollern Redoubt – a vast complex of trenches, underground shelters and machine-gun nests. Even so, the British managed to take part of the German line at the front, but the next day German reinforcements arrived in huge numbers to fill the breaches.

By 28 September, after sporadic fighting for several days, the British general staff gave the order to abandon positions taken the previous day. Another offensive on 13 October again opened with a gas attack but came to a similarly disastrous end in poor weather conditions. In a mere ten minutes, the 46th Division lost 180 officers and 3,583 men in an attempt to take the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Overall, British casualties at Loos totalled 50,000, including at least 20,000 dead; the Germans lost some 25,000 men. The nature of the fighting also meant that most of the dead were unrecoverable from the battlefield until after the war, three years later. By then, their bodies were unidentifiable, and many cemeteries around Loos contain a high percentage of unknown graves.

The failure at Loos also led to the British Commander in Chief Sir John French being replaced by General Haig in December 1915. The battlefield is situated 5km northwest of the former mining town of Lens, near the village of Loos-en-Gohelle, off A26 at junction 6 or junction 6.1; follow the signs via the D943.