Friday, March 23, 2012

Battle of Loos Part One

Background information: An explanation and overview of trench warfare in WWI.

Trench warfare refers the the tactic of of digging trenches along a battle line which opposes the trenches dug by the enemy. On signal, the soldiers of one side would come up out of their trenches and charge toward the enemy's line and attempt to gain ground by overrunning or overwhelming the enemy. The point was to gain ground and push the enemy back. Both sides would then dig new trenches. The area of ground between the opposing lines was known as "no man's land."

The idea of the trenches was to protect soldiers from small arms fire and machine gun fire. Chemical weapons were used. Chlorine gas was a favorite. The trenches were protected by barbed wire. It was miserable in the trenches when it rained. It rained a lot.

Trench warfare resulted in long stalemates and infrequent real gains. Sometimes when a trench was breeched by a charge, the enemy would counter attack the next day and drive the opposition back into their original trenches.

The usual procedure for an attack would be for the attacking side to open fire with artillery early in the morning, with the object being to soften up and shell-shock the enemy soldiers in their trenches. Artillery also cut the enemy's barbed wire, or so it was hoped.

Then the chlorine gas was released over the "no man's land" and over the enemy trenches.

Then the attackers, wearing gas masks which didn't allow for good vision or adequate breathing for a running man, would (with bravery I cannot begin to imagine) come up out of their trenches and charge through the chlorine gas over no man's land into the face of the enemy's machine guns. Failure was the result most often encountered. Sheer fatigue would set in. Men would throw off their gas masks in frustration and be killed or disabled by their own gas. As often as not, the wind would change directions and blow the gas back at the attackers anyway. This happened during the Battle of Loos.

How effective was this trench warfare? How dangerous was it? During the the fighting for Loos, a series of British charges began on September 25, 1915, and ended 3 days later. The British gained the enemy trenches and were very close to a breakthrough. They would have prevailed had replacements for their dead been available. That battle ended on September 28, with the British falling back to their original positions. They didn't have enough artillery ammunition. They had no reinforcements to replace the men devastated by machine gun fire on their flank. Due to lack of ammunition, their artillery failed to cut the enemy wire and failed to silence the machine guns. 140 tons of chlorine gas had been released and not all of it, by far, was being breathed by the enemy. The Scots broke through by sheer determination and force of numbers, but were being decimated.

During that single 3-day charge and retreat, the British took 20,000 casualties.

The unspeakable losses of trench warfare begat modern armor. Tanks.


  1. Concise and to the point. Well put.
    The picture, as you know, reflects a genuine raid (as opposed to a charge) on the enemy trenches by the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) mostly Glaswegians. Raids were the most hated of all actions undertaken by the men.

  2. I know very little about the battle of Loos, but recently, historians and military experts carried out experiments to test the effectiveness of artillery during the war in the trenches.

    They used all conceivable types of WW1 artillery ammunition and discovered that most of it was ineffective against something as simple as barbed wire strung across the battlefield.

    Quite often air-burst shells were used in order to kill or injure as many folks on the ground as possible. Of course, they would leave the barbed wire defences intact.

    Other forms of explosive shells tended only to destroy barbed wire defences in the immediate area of impact (a small area indeed, as the blast on detonation went almost always straight up).

    As you can imagine, even after the most ferocious artillery barrage, barbed wire still snagged and hindered the onrushing infantry.

    Lessons were learned, but changes to artillery shells were only implemented after the war.

  3. @Adullamite - No, I didn't know. You keep giving me new things to study. I'm beginning to think I would rather not participate in any war that doesn't use helicopters. I'll be back.

    @Kay G. - Why thank you Kay! And thank you for stopping by.

    @Sym Daddy - What you say about artillery not doing much damage to barbed wire makes a lot of sense.

    I often wonder what would have happened if the soldiers on both sides simply threw down their gas masks and went home. That trench warfare was a terrible mess if you ask me. I thought we had learned our lesson from the Crimea and from the American Civil War that it was best to keep moving and not hunker down in defensive positions. Hit and run. Bide your time until they invented missiles. Something.

  4. And you know, we don't seem to have learned all that much.
    Still too many young men hunkered in trenches, or behind sandbag walls, then ring up on command to cross open ground enfiladed and booby-trapped by the enemy.
    And all for no clear military objective.

    Then again, maybe we have learned something useful... Have your pilots sit at home and fly their drones over a far away battlefield, dealing out missiles and hot metal toward any little green blob on the screen that moves.

    All those kids whose dads yelled at them to quit playing their stupid computer games and do something useful. Who'd have thought it? From useless layabout to combat-pilot, the pay's good, the enemy gets killed, and nobody shoots at you.

    Maybe the next phase of the war could be to give the taliban broadband in their mud huts, and laptops, so they could stay home and their remotely piloted exploding goats could launch leaping attacks on our hellfire spewing drones.

    Then our guys could do the first-world war equivalent of a bombardment on the barbed wire, by launching vast spam attacks to slow their computers right down.

    The cyberwarrior of the future won't be a muscleman like Arnie Eggenschwarzer, he'll be a skinny pale geek with screwdrivers in his top pocket.

  5. Back to that barbed wire, the most effective tool for rapidly breaching it was a thing called the 'Bangalore Torpedo'.
    When I first hear the name, long-long ago, I had a wonderful mental image of a land-torpedo, shot from the trench, and racing over the mud toward its target. But no.
    The originals were made by engineers of the Indian Army in Bengal (bangalore), the prototype was a bamboo tube filled with explosives, the a steel pipe.
    They were simple. A six foot length of steel pipe, packed with explosives and a detonating mechanism. The pipe was threaded on the end, the front end had a rounded dome, so it could be pushed forward without snagging, and extra lengths of pipe could be added at the rear to make it possible to place the business end from a safe distance away.
    When the pipe was thoroughly inserted into the barbed wire, the charge was triggered, and a gap was pulverised through.
    The drawback was that it was a relatively narrow gap, and a loud bang, so it alerted the enemy, and the attackers were particularly vulnerable as they funneled into the gap.

    Versions of the bangalore torpedo are still in use.

  6. @Soubriquet - Interesting things these Bangalore Torpedoes. I have heard of pipe bombs and I have heard of Bangalore, but never a Bangalore Torpedo.

    The first question that crossed my mind was, of course, "Why were the Germans so hard to defeat if they were all blind?" Upon further reflection, I'm guessing these brave men were part of the overall charge and not sent out alone as commandos.

    Upon even more reflection, I think I may have opted to put my war money into more artillery shells and more effective mortars raining down from the sky into the German trenches until they left them. But I am no general.

    And even the Vikings with their catapults had thought up the concept of large shields behind which their men could advance without exposure to enemy arrows. I think you may be right about us, all of us, forgetting the lessons of past wars and trying to reinvent that which is already known.

    No way would I have had my men fight that way. No matter how long the enemy's trenches were, we could always go around them. What were we thinking?

    The thought of 20,000 casualties in 3 days on one side of the battle keeps haunting me. Was nothing at all learned from Gettysburg and the Crimean charges? Even Lee later admitted he should have listened to Longstreet and went around the Union line instead of confronting it.

    Longstreet had a famous bit of advice that was not lost on a man named Schwartzkopf in Iraq 128 years later: "You attack your enemy always with huge superior force. If he has more men than you do, then you attack only part of him at a time."

    Translation: Go around. Eat your enemy morsel by morsel.


    No, no Bangladore Torpedoes and no drones.

  7. A long line of a thousand soldiers when attacked on its flank presents only one man at a time to face the enemy.

  8. There are very few aspects of war that don't come across to me as horrific nightmarish things. Trench warfare, I can't imagine what living like that for months would do to any human being's psyche--would a quick bullet start to seem a good trade?

    I can't imagine, and hope never to experience, the effects of such traumas on people the rest of their lives.

    I know that, sometimes, war cannot be avoided, that it's the only solution to something even worse or more dangerous. But, the effects are so profound and horrific, I feel strongly that it should ever and only be a last resort.



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