Friday, September 25, 2015

Loos, 1915

Today, September 25, is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos. It's an important battle - the largest fought by the British in 1915; the first use of gas by the British in the war; and the first significant use of New Army troops in the war. It was, for the most part, a disaster. The Brits had a huge numerical superiority, but their preliminaries did not dislodge the Germans, who mowed them down, as machine guns will - the Germans then brought up reserves and drove back subsequent attacks. They kept fighting for a few more days - dragged it on for weeks - but nothing really changed. (That's the basic description of every battle of WWI - bloody and disastrous initial attack, that maybe made some progress - reinforcements and counter-attacks that negate whatever advantages were gained - weeks of both sides trying it again - nothing different at the end.) (You can read all the details here, matter of factly - with casualty numbers at the end.)

Loos was very badly handled. It was the first big British attack, and it was fraught with trouble. There weren't enough shells - so the artillery barrage didn't really suppress the German lines, even the front lines. didn't break the wire. didn't support the initial waves of attack. (This would become a major scandal - it would help to bring down the British commanding general, John French, leading to Douglas Haig taking his place.) The gas (the "accessory") didn't do much good - the Brits released it from canisters, hoping the winds would carry it into the German lines. The wind wasn't blowing; it hung over the battlefield and sometimes drifted back into the British lines. It probably could have been worse - Robert Graves says that the gas-company had the wrong spanners, and couldn't get the canisters open - only a few of them went off, though of course they did the Brits more harm than the Germans. The Germans were ready (says Graves) - and managed to do what the gas company couldn't - scored a couple direct hits on the unopened canisters, releasing their contents to add to the confusion... All this mess was compounded by French's misuse of reserves - by supply problems (Graves writes about a New Army division that made notable advances, only to have to retreat when they ran out of rations) - and by general and complete confusion.

I know the battle best through Robert Graves' account in Goodbye to All That. It's a masterpiece of understated fury. Graves was at the left of the line, part of the attack on the town of La Bassée, a diversion from the main assault in theory. He described the attack as a complete fiasco - even before the battle, with drunken subalterns and staff officers abusing their commanders. Everyone expects disaster - a "glorious balls-up". And it is. Not enough artillery; the gas attack goes all wrong; when the attack gets going, the communication lines are broken, so no one behind the lines knows what is happening, no orders come up, no information goes back. The fighting itself is pure confusion - men go forward, are shot, and come back, or lay in shell holes sniping at the Germans to no effect. There is heroism - almost all of it involving men risking their lives to save their comrades. Or a fatally wounded man choking himself to stop crying so no one else will be killed to try saving him.

He had no love for the higher officers, Graves. He tells us how the colonel went to the rear with the wounded, "with a slight cut on the hand." (The junior officer who chewed his hand to stop himself from screaming, meanwhile, was hit 17 times. Lieutenants and captains take the brunt of the damage and acquit themselves well in Graves' account.) He ends his story of the battle with a very nasty (but typically understated) story of two second lieutenants who survived the brunt of the fighting. (2 of 3 officers in their battalion to emerge from the battle unwounded.) They reported to their commander, who they found eating a meat pie; he took their report, and sent them on their way (without offering any of the pie), with an admonition to make sure that men remembered to button their shoulder straps. Graves adds that the colonel was heard to complain “that he only had two blankets and that it was a deucedly cold night.” At least another officer, having heard the story, gets some payback, by helping himself to the meat pie without being invited...

It's an extraordinary passage, and well worth seeking out. (The book, of course, is itself extraordinary, and well worth the read.) It gets at so much of what was wrong in the war - the pointlessness of the tactics; the endless screw ups, undermining the already bad plans; the absurdity of the class structure and command structure that kept haunting the war effort. (He tells the story of the son of a prominent Jamaican planter who got appointed a first lieutenant by the governor of Jamaica. The boy (a kid, 18 or so) was hopelessly incompetent, but outranked most of the other officers. He was appointed to the mortal battalion, since he was otherwise useless - at first, mortars were useless too, but they were starting to become valuable by the end of 1915. When the battle started, the kid ("Jamaica" as Graves call shim) did all right, working the mortars - but in the middle of the battle, a captain, the only man in the battalion to treat him well, was mortally wounded - and "Jamaica" fell to pieces. Abandoned the mortars - leaving one German machine gun unscathed, machine gun that proceeded to cut down attackers in swaths. And more - "Jamaica" and his wounded captain blocked the trenches, so men couldn't move top and from the battle - another disaster. But all too typical, given the men in positions of authority because of who they knew, rather than what they knew...) Grave's account is, in miniature, as clear eyed a picture of what the hwole war was like as you can get.

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