For most in Britain, September 1915 is best remembered for the battle of Loos, which saw the first British use of poison gas and the first extensive use of Kitchener’s ‘new army divisions’ in battle. It is also remembered as a great ‘what-if’ of history, as British successes at Loos offered a tantalizing possibility of effective breakthrough for the first time since trench warfare had set in on the Western Front in late 1914. The battle might also be remembered for its high casualties, with the twelve British battalions suffering 8,000 casualties in just four hours of fighting on 25 September. As my colleague, Nick Lloyd has written in his book Loos 1915, the casualty rate for British divisions engaged on this day was equal, if not greater, than that of the better-remembered first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
For the German defenders of the Western Front, however, the battle at Loos is remembered differently. For them, Loos was only part of a much larger-scale Anglo-French offensive in late September and early October 1915. Planned by the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, this offensive was comprised of two main components. First, in Artois, the German 6th Army defended against the British 1st Army’s attack on Loos and the French 10th Army’s assault on Souchez and Vimy Ridge to the south. Second, in the Champagne, the German 3rd Army defended against an offensive by the French 4th and 2nd Armies. In Artois, eight German divisions of the 6th Army faced nineteen French and nine British divisions, with the Germans deploying 475 guns against more than 1,500 French and British. In the Champagne, seven divisions from the 3rd Army faced nineteen French divisions attacking in the first line. Again, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered in guns with 700 guns of all calibers against almost 2,000 French guns. Thus, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered – fifteen divisions from two armies faced forty-seven French and British divisions from four armies or a more than 3 to 1 disadvantage in numbers of units – on two geographically separate fronts.
Unsurprisingly, the Anglo-French forces made some substantial initial gains when they attacked on 25 September. At Loos, five British divisions attacked a single German division. The British 1st Army succeeded in penetrating the first German defensive position, and with little reserves to close the gap, the 6th Army feared a breakthrough here. The German official history wrote laconically, ‘the situation at Loos was extremely serious.’ A pause in the fighting in the afternoon of 25 September allowed the defenders of the 117th Infantry Division to catch their breath and consolidate in their second defensive position. The French 10th Army attacked in the afternoon of 25 September and also achieved considerable initial success, taking the village of Souchez and penetrating the German defensive line north of Vimy Ridge.
In the Champagne, new infantry tactics and massive superiority in men and munitions helped the French 4th and 2nd Armies penetrate the German 3rd Army’s first line along a 13-kilometer front around Souain and Perthes. There, eight French divisions, supported by gas, attacked three German divisions and all but annihilated the defenders. In the sector of the 24th Reserve Division, its commander was forced to deploy the half-trained troops from its recruit depot in its second position to stop the French advance. All told, the German 3rd Army lost more than 15,000 men and 50 guns by the end of the 25 September, and the French offensive showed little signs of slowing down.
Of the two offensives, the German High Command saw the French attack in the Champagne as being the most threatening. The German position in Belgium and France was largely a product of where fighting had stopped towards the end of 1914. Consequently, the German defensive line on the Western Front extended farther east the further north it went to the English Channel. From Verdun to Soissons, the German defensive line ran almost east-west rather than north-south. A French breakthrough in the Champagne would potentially cut off the German forces further north and east. At the very least, a breakthrough in the Champagne could cause a withdrawal of the German armies in Artois and in Flanders. Moreover, in the confused reports arriving from the front over the course of 25 September, the situation in the Champagne appeared to be slipping out of the 3rd Army’s control. Therefore, Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, sent the bulk of available reinforcements to the 3rd Army, rather than the 6th Army.
The Anglo-French offensives hit the German army of the Western Front when it was at its weakest point. Having withdrawn many units for the German offensive on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915, the Germans had only seven divisions and three brigades left in reserve across the entire Western Front. Four additional divisions had just returned from combat in the east, but were in the process of resting and refitting. Moreover, most of the German modern heavy artillery was still deployed on the Eastern Front. These meager reserves, as well as individual regiments and battalions from quieter sectors of the Western Front, were thrown into the battles as quickly as they could be moved. In essence, the defenders would have to do with what few reserves were on hand.
Somewhat surprisingly, these were enough. When the British and French renewed their offensives on 26 September, they achieved little more ground. Major pushes on 6 October in the Champagne and on 11 and 13 October in Artois were largely beaten back. Indeed, German counterattacks succeeded in regaining some of the ground that had been lost on 25 September. After the initial successes, neither offensive came close to its objective of breaking through the German defensive positions, let alone allowing the waiting cavalry to be able to range deep behind German lines or causing the collapse of the German army on the Western Front. From mid-October, reinforcements arrived from the Eastern Front and allowed the battered units of the 6th and 3rd Armies some relief; they also ensured that the Anglo-French offensives were well and truly contained.
The successful defense during the Herbstschlachten (Autumn Battles), as they were named by the Germans, came at considerable cost, however. The German 6th Army lost around 1,100 officers and 50,000 men in the course of the offensive, while the 3rd Army lost about 1,700 officers and 80,000 men.
The German army generally and Falkenhayn more specifically drew conclusions from the battles that would have important implications for the conduct of the war in 1916. First, they demonstrated just how difficult it was to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. The British and the French had at least a 3 to 1 superiority in men throughout most of the battles, probably much more at certain points. They also had a superiority of around 3 to 1 in guns. The Anglo-French forces put this artillery superiority to good use, with the French alone firing some 4,369,900 field artillery rounds and some 832,100 heavy artillery rounds in the battles. The outnumbered and outgunned German defenders gave ground in the face of this onslaught, but they did not break and were even able to retake some of their lost positions.
As I examine in my book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, the experience convinced Falkenhayn that the German army would never be able to achieve a large-scale breakthrough on the Western Front. The battles did show, however, that small-scale advances were possible at relatively low cost, if enough artillery was concentrated. Indeed, Falkenhayn focused on the role of artillery in defense. Considerably overestimating French casualties (Falkenhayn assumed they had suffered some 250,000, though real figures were closer to 150,000), Falkenhayn put this down to the effects of artillery on troops attacking in the open. Reaching very similar conclusions to the British general, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and the French general Philippe Pétain, the experience of the Herbstschlachten convinced Falkenhayn that it was possible for German troops to seize terrain important to defenders in a rapid initial advance, after which German artillery would be able to inflict heavy casualties on counter-attacking enemy troops. These lessons would play an important role in the attritional tactics Falkenhayn hoped to employ in the battle of Verdun in early 1916.
The battles also convinced most German soldiers that their defensive tactics worked well. Most German observers believed that holding the forward line at all costs and retaking lost positions through counter-attacks had prevented an Anglo-French breakthrough in September and October 1915. However, though this might have served the German army well under the conditions of late 1915, against enemies better provided with artillery and munitions it would cost German defenders dearly on the Somme battlefield in 1916.
This post is based on a podcast done as part of the First World War Research Group‘s support to the Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme. This podcast can be downloaded from their website, along with a collection of podcasts on other First World War topic. Additionally, the podcast of this post can be listened to online or downloaded here.
Image: French troops attacking German positions at Somme-Py during the Herbstschlacht. Image via Wikimedia Commons.