Battle claimed more than 61,000 casualties

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This week, we commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915. It lasted until mid-October and claimed more than 61,000 British Army casualties, nearly 8,000 of them fatalities.

The battle had been regarded as one that would yield a significant breakthrough into the German defensive system, and it was even termed the Big Push.

The lack of progress it made – advances that often could be measured in yards rather than miles – and a shockingly-high loss of life, however, drove home the truth to the British public once and for all that this war would not be settled any time soon.

To help the French army, the senior partner at that time in the Anglo-French alliance, in their bigger offensive further north in the Champagne region, it was agreed that the British Army would attack along a 22-mile wide front just south of La Bassée Canal.

The town of Loos, pronounced loss, is located within the coalfield region of northern France.

Although coal mining has since greatly declined there, in 1915 the various mining villages, collieries and other industrial buildings presented a difficult challenge for any would-be attacker.

Despite the difficult terrain over which the battle would be fought, the commander of the British Army John French complied with the request from General Joseph Joffre, France’s commander of the alliance.

It was a decision that would cost Sir John his job.

His eventual successor, Douglas Haig, among others, had argued that the ground was unsuited to a large attack.

Nevertheless, despite those misgivings, the attack went ahead, first with a gas attack just before 6am, followed 30 minutes later by all of the advancing infantry.

The outlawed use of gas in the British attack plans is interesting as the Germans had first used it, to widespread condemnation, six months before at Ypres.

The British gas attack was unsuccessful. The gas cloud hovered 30 to 50ft above the advancing soldiers and many were gassed by their own attack.

Not only that, but the German army was well dug in, with numerous well-hidden machine-gun positions.

Although the losses were by no means on the scale of the later slaughter at the Somme and Paschendaele, the Battle of Loos produced shocking casualty figures.

Two Scottish divisions, the 9th and 15th, sustained nearly 13,000 casualties between them. More than 12,000 British soldiers died or were injured on September 25 and 26 alone.

The 12th and 13th Northumberland Fusiliers sustained more than 800 casualties between them, including nearly 40 officers.

Among the North Tynesiders who died during the battle were Privates John Henry Lowthian and David Massey, both of Forest Hall; Captain Edward Thomas Milton, of Whitley Bay; Private Richard Norris, of Dudley; and Willington Quay man Sergeant James Bell Usher, all members of the 13th battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

Many other local men died while serving with other regiments of the British army involved in the battle, such as the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Black Watch and the Somerset Light Infantry.

All these men are currently being researched by volunteers from the Northumbria World War One project to create a free and accessible database of casualties of the Great War from North Tyneside.

The expanded Northumbria project is encouraging volunteers to join in with research into this fascinating, if troubling, period of our history.

Anyone interested in helping with this research and also anyone with information about any person killed in, or who died as a result of, the war is asked to contact us via northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or by emailing tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk

The main project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.

Tommy McClements

(Project Research Co-Ordinator)