The battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915. It was the first offensive that was viewed, in Britain, as the British Expeditionary Force taking the fight to the Germans in an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. It was the largest battle that the British Army had ever fought (soon overtaken by the battle of the Somme), with nearly 60,000 British troops engaged in it, supported (with very mixed results) by poison gas. One of the key units taking part was the 2nd London Division, who attacked at the southern end of the British line.
There are plenty of good accounts of the battle as a whole – for example here on the ever-useful Long, Long Trail website. For us the focus is on the 2nd London Division.
The division was formed in August 1914, made up of units of the London Regiment, an entirely Territorial Force regiment. As the 1915 order of battle (see below) shows, many of its units came from particular areas of London: for example the 17th battalion was the Poplar and Stepney Rifles, while the artillery batteries in VII London Brigade RFA were from Fulham and Shepherds Bush. Others reflected jobs or background, such as the Post Office Rifles and the London Irish Rifles.
The division was eventually given the official title of the 47th Division – rather untidily, since the 1st London Division was made the 56th Division. The 47th Division was sent to France in March 1915, the second TF division to arrive in France and Flanders. The division took part in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May 1915 and were allocated a position on the right wing of the attack at Loos.
The division’s official history is available online. Here is its account of the part the division played on 25 September:
On the morning of the 25th the extreme right of the British line — W1 sector — was held by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, whose left flank was to be the pivot of the whole attack. On their left — in W2 sector — was the 140th Brigade, and on the left again — in W3 sector — the 141st Brigade, which joined the right flank of the 15th Division. The remaining units of the 142nd Brigade were in reserve in the Grenay line.
At 5.50 a.m. zero the gas and smoke operations started. The gas was worked by the Special Coy., R.E., and the smoke by a company of the 4th R.W.F. (Pioneers). On the 47th Division front the gas went fairly well. The cloud rolled slowly forward, and its effect was apparent from the lessening force of the enemy rifle fire. Nearly all the cylinders were emptied, and our own casualties in letting off gas were few, owing entirely to discipline and obedience to orders regarding the wearing of smoke helmets in the advanced trenches before the attack.
Forty minutes after zero the infantry attack began. On the right a gallant army of dummy figures, worked with strings by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, made progressive appearances in the smoke-cloud, and did their duty in attracting a fair share of fire. The real attack started opposite the Double Crassier, and north-wards of this point line after line of men left our trenches. In outward appearance they were hardly more human than the dummies farther south — strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads. Each line went forward at quick time down into the valley and was lost in the smoke. It is a splendid proof of the thoroughness of the practice of the attack and previous reconnaissance that, in spite of the thick smoke, direction was kept all along the line.
The 7th Battalion advanced on the Double Crassier, the west end of which, with the trench running just under it, was their first objective. Their second objective was some 400 yards of the German second line north of its junction with the Crassier. The 6th Battalion attacked on their immediate left the first and second German lines. The 8th Battalion was in close support, and the 15th in brigade reserve. Both the 6th and 7th Battalions reached the first line without many casualties; but it was strongly held, and the garrison seemed to have been frightened rather than incapacitated by our gas, which had mostly drifted across to the 141st Brigade front. The wire in front of the second line was a more serious obstacle, and both battalions had many casualties here ; later in the day the 8th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce them. A counter-attack came early against the 7th. The enemy tried to work round the end of the Crassier and eject them from the front line, but Captain Gasson’s A Company successfully met every attempt, and, with the help of the 8th Battalion grenadiers, established a firm position on the Crassier. The whole of the 140th Brigade objectives were captured by 8 a.m., together with some 300 prisoners and three machine- guns.
Out of eighteen officers who took part in the attack the 7th Battalion lost fourteen, ten of whom were killed. Captain Casson was among the latter, and his gallant company was cut to pieces, but he had, by a very bold piece of soldiering, held the German counter-attack till reinforcements arrived.
The 141st Brigade, on the left, had farther to go. Their attack was led by the 15th Battalion, whose objective was the German second line from the Lens-Bethune road (where they joined the 6th Battalion) to Loos Cemetery. Two battalions followed them abreast, the 20th on the right and the 19th on the left, and passed through the i8th Battalion when the latter had attained its objective. The 20th were to capture important points south of the village — a copse and chalk-pit, a small enclosed ” garden city,” and a crassier (slag heap) running south-east towards Lens from the Tower Bridge; the 19th attacked the cemetery, the southern edge of the village itself, and the Pylons, or “Tower Bridge.” The 17th Battalion was held in reserve.
The 15th [Battalion] started off, kicking a football in front of them. No Man’s Land was easy going, and difficulty began at the first German line. It was here that the leading waves suffered most severely. The second line was reached well up to time, and was found to be strongly wired, but, fortunately, it had few defenders. On the right the 20th pushed on to the “garden city,” which fell into their hands. A Company, under Captain G. Williams, successfully fought their way to the Chalk-pit. Here they captured two field-guns, which were standing a few weeks later in London on the Horse Guards Parade. A line was established northwards from the Chalk-pit to join up with the companies on the Loos Crassier. The 19th Battalion, in the meantime, had a hard fight for the cemetery, where a trench was cut actually through the graveyard, but they won their way through and on to the village, where they joined the 15th Division in clearing houses and cellars.
Here Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, of the 19th, who was killed in action later in the war, did particularly gallant work, for which he was awarded the D.S.O. He led a party of bombers, and in one house, which he entered alone, he captured seven prisoners, after being badly wounded in the face by one of them.
Another act of gallantry, which also won the D.S.O., was performed by Major E. B. Blogg, of the 4th London Field Coy., R.E. Beneath the church tower of Loos the enemy had laid mines. Under heavy shell fire Major Blogg went in and cut the fuse, thereby saving many lives. The 19th Battalion finally reached their last objective, the Tower Bridge. Lieut.-Colonel C. D. Collison-Morley was killed soon after leaving our trenches at the head of his battalion, and the 19th was put under the orders of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Hubback, of the 20th Battalion, who so had charge of the whole front line of the 141st Brigade.
Soon after nine o’clock all objectives had been captured by the Division except the western end of a narrow spinney which ran south-west from the Chalk-pit, which the 20th Battalion had taken. This contained a network of trenches, and its very plucky defenders held us up for the next forty-eight hours.
The remainder of September 25th was spent in consolidating. Local counter-attacks were met and beaten off on the Double Crassier, in the spinney, and on the south-east edge of Loos, largely by the concentration of artillery fire previously arranged in anticipation of this counter-attack.
During the night the Pioneers linked the southern point of the captured trenches with our old line, thus completing the defensive flank which it had been the task of the 47th Division to secure. Units of the Division had sent back as prisoners 8 officers and 302 other ranks, and had captured 3 field-guns. For the measure of success attained our casualties had been light, amounting to about 1,500 all ranks.
The 47th Division was one of the more successful units in the attack on 25 September. In other areas the gas blew back into the faces of the British troops without hampering the defending Germans.
A few notes on people mentioned in the text:
- The football kicked into action is said, by Ed Harris in his book on the subject, to have been blown up and kicked by Private Frederick Edwards, a 21 year old from Chelsea serving in the London Irish Rifles.
- Frederick Leopold Pusch was the son of a Russian-born banker; he was born in Islington and educated at Harrow. He was awarded his DSO by the King in March 1916 (as you can see in this newsreel, 6 minutes into the video) after having transferred to the Irish Guards. He was killed in action on 27 June 1916, aged 20 – his brother Ernest died a few weeks later.
- Major Casson was 42 year old William Casson, originally from Port Madoc, Carnarvonshire. In 1911 he was the chief assistant engineer for London Central Railway (i.e. the Central Line) and living in Notting Hill; in 1914 he had married Annie Gertrude Allsop.
At the time of the battle of Loos, the Division was made up of the following units (list from 1914-1918.net): 140th (4th London) Brigade
- 1/15th Bn, the London Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles)
- 1/6th Bn, the London Regiment (Rifles)
- 1/7th Bn, the London Regiment
- 1/8th Bn, the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)
141st (5th London) Brigade
- 1/17th Bn, the London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles)
- 1/18th Bn, the London Regiment (London Irish Rifles)
- 1/19th Bn, the London Regiment (St Pancras)
- 1/20th Bn, the London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich)
142nd (6th London) Brigade
- 1/21st Bn, the London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles)
- 1/22nd Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)
- 1/23rd Bn, the London Regiment
- 1/24th Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)
- 1/4th Bn, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Pioneers)
Divisional Mounted Troops
- C Sqn, the 1st King Edward’s Horse
- 2nd London Divisional Cyclist Company
- V London Brigade, RFA (made up of batteries from Kennington and Paddington)
- VI London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Brixton)
- VII London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Fulham and Shepherds Bush)
- VIII London (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA (batteries from Clifton and Gloucester)
- 47th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA
- 517th (3rd London) Field Company
- 518th (4th London) Field Company
- 520th (2/3rd London) Company
- 47th Divisional Signals Company
Royal Army Medical Corps
- 4th London Field Ambulance
- 5th London Field Ambulance
- 6th London Field Ambulance
- 47th Sanitary Section
Other Divisional Troops
- 47th Divisional Train ASC
- 2nd London Mobile Veterinary Section AVC
- 47th Divisional Ambulance Workshop
London soldiers played a full part in this first British offensive (which in fact was part of a bigger French assault in the Champagne region). Indeed the 47th Division did better than most other British divisions on the day; despite the official history’s assurances about light casualties, its attack was still costly.
- The 47th (London) Division on archive.org
- Footballer of Loos by Ed Harris
- Long, Long Trail: 1914-1918.net (as ever!)