19 September 1915 – Mission Profile

Few battles are impromptu affairs; most are organized to the last detail, though of course Moltke the Elder’s warning that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’ is as true as ever a century ago. Today, the British First Army and IV Corps receive detailed final orders for their next great offensive of 1915. The contents represent weeks of planning and preparation based on analysis of Britain’s previous offensive efforts at Nueve Chapelle and Festubert, neither of which could be mistaken for an overwhelming success. Both took place on relatively narrow sectors of front, allowing the German defenders to concentrate artillery fire, so the new operations plan uses six divisions to attack on a wide front. Smoke will be used to mask infantry movements, and to supplement the still-inadequate British heavy artillery, the assault will also follow behind the very first chlorine gas attack ever launched by the British Army.

Referred to only as ‘the accessory’ in today’s OP order, security around the chlorine gas has been extraordinarily tight, with 150 tons of the stuff being shipped across the English Channel and on French railroads in unmarked wooden crates. Since Germany first used chlorine in April, a special 1,400-man unit has been assembled and trained to handle the 190-lb. steel cylinders, placing them in the foremost trenches while intensified air patrols prevent German reconnaissance from observing all the activity. Finally, thousands of ‘Hypo helmets’ (actually smoke hoods, seen above) made of flannel and celluloid are distributed to the men who will be going over the top wreathed in the poisonous cloud.

Another iconic innovation of the Great War will be tested in this coming battle. Stamped from carbon steel and based on the medieval ‘chapel de fer,’ the first and only batch of 4,400 ‘Type A’ Brodie helmets have been produced on a design created by an American named John Leopold Brodie who works at the Army and Navy Store in London. Easier to manufacture than the more-fragile Adrian helmet being produced now in France, the Brodie helmet is not received with joy by some officers who grumble that it looks un-soldierly. But battlefield experiences will quickly change minds, for the shaped steel is quite good at shrugging off the bursting fire overhead that has caused so many of the war’s gruesome injuries. Suggestions garnered after the Battle of Loos will be incorporated into the ‘Type B’ design; stamped from tougher manganese steel starting in October, it will become the Mark I helmet that is distributed to every British soldier by April.

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Seen here in 1916 on the Somme battlefield, the Brodie helmet is about to receive its first test at Loos

British commander Sir John French arranges for Second Army to make diversionary attacks near Ypres, putting some 75,000 of his troops into the fight at once. Nor will Britain go on the attack alone, for much of the planning time has been spent on strategic communications. French supreme commander Joseph Joffre is at last ready to resume his long-postponed offensive in Champagne Province, and the western allies are duty-bound to relieve Russia from the German offensives which have put the Tsar’s peasant army back on its heels. The British force will attack in concert with the French Tenth Army under General Ferdinand Foch, extending the frontage of the assault along twenty miles between Arras and La Bassée. A four-day bombardment with more than four hundred heavy guns will precede the infantry waves, and both powers will keep two cavalry divisions on hand to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough.

This coordinated effort — which is already the subject of chatter in the streets of London as ‘the Big Push’ — aims to crush the German Sixth Army. Advancing in column formations, the attacking divisions in Artois will have the entire Western Front standing by for a potential order of general advance. Organization and traffic management will be key to a successful advance. Previous experiences with supply lines being jammed lead to intense training and preparation for the inevitable counterflow of casualties and messages going back while reinforcements and ammunition go forward. As zero hour draws closer, reserve divisions receive extra rations in expectation that field kitchens will be last in the order of battle. Tens of thousands of greatcoats are distributed, for the season is turning and the nights are becoming chilly. The British First Army alone sets up forty-five medical stations to process an expected forty thousand wounded men, while ambulance trains, barges, and ambulance convoys are pre-positioned to evacuate them.

It all seems a very good plan, and very modern, especially as both powers use their air arms to attack the intended zone in depth, bombing railways and infrastructure. By our latter-day lights, the Battle of Loos seems an archetypal combined arms operation, and it is, but this is still going to be the biggest and most complex operation the allies have attempted all year; and for all the detailed planning and preparation involved in formulating the plan, the men expected to execute the operations order now have just five days to learn it.

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A map of the main British attack on September 25th, known as the Battle of Loos