BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1915: The Battle of Loos
After a year of fighting the First World War from trenches, the Allies decided it was time to break through the lines and restore open warfare by pushing the Germans back.
The British were to attack at Loos, with the French going on the offensive at Champagne. As the British did not have enough artillery to support the whole of their attack, commander General Sir Douglas Haig decided to use gas on a large scale for the first time.
On the morning of 25 September, Haig waited for a breeze. A batch of 5,000 chlorine gas cylinders were readied in the forward trenches, waiting for his command. Early in the morning, he saw the leaves of nearby poplar trees rustling and ordered the release of the gas. However, the wind was not strong enough and the gas lingered in no man’s land, with some blowing back into the British trenches.
Men grabbed their primitive flannel gas masks but they were hot and the small eyepieces misted over, reducing visibility. Some of the troops removed the masks to breathe fresh air and were subsequently gassed. It was quickly realised that the entire volume of the gas could not be released
from the canisters because the wrong spanners for turning the cocks had been sent and the gas-men rushed about trying to borrow adjustable spanners from comrades.
The Germans, who had been using gas all year, put on their masks – which were better than the British version – and lit bundles of cotton waste in front of their trenches to protect them. They then retaliated against the attack and shelled the British positions from which the gas had been sent, breaking open some of the unused full cylinders and releasing more gas into the British lines. “The gas company stampeded,” wrote Rupert Graves, who was a junior officer on duty at the incident.
Four days of artillery fire had preceded the attack but there was insufficient ammunition to ensure the German lines were clear. Not enough high explosive had been used to destroy the lines of barbed wire.
With the exception of those who were there, or were told by witnesses, your kin knew nothing of this fiasco. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was imperious and secretive and did not allow journalists at the front so only official information was published. The reports that your forebears read were anodyne such as “methodical and determined advance... hard fighting took place throughout the day with varying success”.
The main attack plan was a frontal assault by thousands of soldiers marchingg throughg no man’s land to the enemmy lines. A German regimental war diaryd records the result with chilling precision: “Ten columns of extended liness could clearly be distinguished, and each one estimated at more than 1,000 men, and offering such a target as had never been seen before or even thought possible. The machinegunners never had such straightforward work to dod nor done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro across the enemy’s ranks unceasingly.”
On one part of the battlefield, the 47th Territorial Division went into action merrily dribbling a football in front of them. Within an hour, they had lost 15 per cent of their number. The British made limited gains before they ran out of shells. Scottish regiments took two German trench lines in front of Loos then, thinking their part of the battle was over, proceeded like “a Bank Holiday crowd” to advance. They were cut down by devastating fire from the German second line that they had not anticipated.
On the second day, more frontal assaults were halted by barbed-wire entanglements and machine-gun fire. The battle dragged on for another two months, and left Loos in Allied hands but in ruins. British newspapers announced Loos as a “Victory in the West” but it was sourly noted by Winston Churchill: “Victoryy was boughtg so dear as to be almost indistinguish hable from defeat.” The British loost 60,000 men and
20,00 0 German soldiers died.
Bombs from above
TThe year had begun with a terrifying new addition tto the horrors of war. For the first time, British civilians were bombed from the air. TTwo Zeppelins crossed thhe Norfolk coast on the evvening of 19 January andd dropped bombs on Kingg’s Lynn and Yarmouth. Fourr people died and a furthher 16 were injured.
TThe military advantage of such activity was negligible. It may even have been counter-productive in that bombing strengthened civilian morale and support for the armed services. However, it reinforced the national opinion of German ‘beastliness’ and made the British all the more determined to punish ‘the Hun’, which meant even tentative remarks about peace could not be contemplated. This promoted extreme anti-German feeling – even against those who had been in Britain a long time, as well as their descendants. The magazine John Bull, a compendium of jingoism, threatened: “a national vendetta, pledged to exterminate every German-born man in Britain – and to deport every German-born woman and child”.
Unsurprisingly, many of your ancestors with German-sounding names changed them at this time.
A new type of passport
One surviving document of your ancestors may be a passport, which for the first time this year had to have a photograph as well as a description of the holder. The new form of passports was a single sheet folded into eight with a cardboard cover and had to be renewed every two years.
Far-reaching changes came about as a result of the consolidation of attitudes towards Britishness caused by the war. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 came into force on 1 January 1915. British subject status was acquired in a variety of ways, including through birth within His Majesty’s dominions, naturalisation and descent through the legitimate male line for one generation (so the illegitimate children of British planters and soldiers in India, for example, did not automatically become British subjects).
It was becoming clear during 1915 that the system of relying on volunteers to maintain the armed forces was not working. It failed to keep up with the numbers that the army needed and removed from the workforce those skilled workers who felt compelled to volunteer out of a sense of duty
THE MAIN ATTACK PLAN WAS A FRONTAL ASSAULT BY THOUSANDS OF SOLDIERS WALKING
THROUGH NO MAN’S LAND TO ENEMY LINES
but would have been more use had they continued in their jobs.
Your ancestors living at this time would have heard and probably participated in arguments over conscription, which was opposed by Lord Kitchener and by most of the Liberals, but favoured by the Conservatives.
Your female relatives at this time may have worked in munitions, engineering and shipbuilding, but the transition to allow women and other less skilled workers into highly unionised industries was tortuous. This ‘dilution’ of skilled labour had supposedly been agreed between unions and management, but a final agreement was not made until the Treasury Agreement presided over by Lloyd George in March 1915. ‘Dilution’ was accepted and strikes were outlawed, but with safeguards, and only on the understanding that working conditions wwould return to normal after the war. This was all sweetened with wwage increases and bonuses but there were still some strikes such as one in the South Wales coalfields in July 1915.
One of many moral panics in the war period involved women workers at munitions plants and other wartime industries. Women were said to be using the new-found wealth of their wages and domestic freedom (with husbands away in the forces) to go to pubs to have a good time. Women munition workers earned three pounds a week for night shifts and half that for day shifts. The
Times reported: “we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation”.
Strict licensing laws restricting the hours of pubs to the afternoon and evening were in force under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914, which aimed at stopping drunkenness from hampering war production.
This year the No Treating Order was introduced by the government to further reduce consumption, this was to stop people buying rounds of drinks – as each person in the round was honour-bound to do the same.
King George V ordered in April 1915 that no drink should be consumed in the royal household until the end of the war. Lord Kitchener also stopped drinking “for the duration”, but the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith decided not to abstain. He was nicknamed ‘Squiffy’, the 19th-century expression for slightly inebriated – a condition that he was often found to be in.
A formal portrait of Lieutenant
General Sir Douglas Haig
The short white socks and
shoes, worn with a simple
dress were typical wear for young girls around this
date. Long hair was drawn
off the face and secured
with a large bow often to
one side, although this is
not the case here.
The woman wears the new silhouette
with a shorter skirt, along with a
fashionable wide- brimmed hat and
shoes, which were becoming more
commonly worn than ankle boots. The cloth cap of the worker is conspicuous among the men, the older man still sporting a moustache. The shorts suit was now worn by boys as quite a formal outfififit, with a prominent white collar, here seen with socks and ankle boots. Around this date, shorts rose to above the knee and fabrics like jersey were also used to make more practical boys’ clothing.
A female munitions worker in Nottinghamshire, 1917