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08 October 1915 – Counterattack

Aside from the limited attack on the British salient at Ypres in April, the German General Staff has not undertaken any large offensives on the Western Front this year. Instead, virtually all spare German troops have been used to beat the Russian Army back to a new line on the Eastern Front, conquering Poland and most of Lithuania, while a second shift to the south now aims to break their Austrian ally’s Serbian enemy, thus shoring up the fortunes of the Central Powers. But the western Entente allies have pressed against German lines for two weeks, with France pitching two armies against the German 3rd Army in Champagne while the British Army attacks on the French left flank at Loos, and today brings another German counterattack against the slim gains these efforts have made.

Five days have passed since German soldiers recaptured the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a prominent defensive bulge in their lines at Loos. In a sign of just how thinly-stretched the German Army really is, today’s operation involves just five regiments, with two assigned to regain the trenches known as ‘Quarry’ and ‘Big Willie’ that connect to the redoubt. There is a stubborn fog this morning which severely hampers German artillery observation, but the French defenders on Hill 70 are still able to see that paths have been cut through the German wire overnight and pass the warning of an impending attack.

The German preparatory bombardment begins at noon, lasting four hours, but their gunners are unable to break the allies’ defenses, and so the counterattack goes ‘over the top’ against intact barbed wire. An assault on French lines on the Lens-to-Béthune Road captures only one short stretch of trench near the slag heaps known as the Double Crassier; a second German attack emerges from the Bois Hugo to hit the British 1st Division between the points known as Puits 14 bis and Chalk Pit Wood, but withers under intense rifle fire; reflecting improved production and delivery of key munitions, the Grenadier Guards Division repulses the attack on Quarry Trench with nine thousand grenades. Forced to defend themselves on three sides, the 3rd Guards Battalion are forced back from Big Willie Trench, but Lance Sergeant Oliver Brooks wins a Victoria Cross leading a successful rally with the Coldstream Guards to win back the position.

Altogether, the Germans win almost nothing today for the sacrifice of three thousand casualties, but the attack does cause General Douglas Haig to delay his preparations for a renewed British offensive at Loos tomorrow. German counterattack doctrine is greatly inhibiting allied offensive efforts, spurring rapid innovation aimed at achieving the longed-for breakthrough that still eludes allied planners. And most of this activity is taking place in the sky.

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A twin-seat B.E.2E, produced by the Royal Aircraft Factory. Suitable for reconnaissance, bombing, or deep agent insertion

New, lighter radio sets have made it easier for reconnaissance flights to correct artillery fire, and although coordination with the ground is still imperfect, fire control officers are now much better-trained and equipped than they were even a few months ago. A year ago, decent maps were almost nonexistent, but now grid maps suitable for fire control have been printed and widely distributed, allowing pilots to silence German guns with effective counterbattery fire and stifle advancing infantry. French and British bombers have also been hitting railways in the triangle of northern occupied France for weeks, causing damage to at least fifteen different points and partially-wrecking or damaging five trains. One mission on the 26th of September actually detonated an ammunition train at Valenciennes, stopping all traffic for at least two days while the line underwent repairs.

Yet the 3rd Army still receives their reinforcements on time, for these efforts are not sustained day-to-day by a still-small Royal Flying Corps (RFC), while the bombs these small planes carry are simply not powerful enough to do real damage to most targets. Bad weather also grounds the planes, or forces pilots to fly under the cloud cover, taking greater risks from ground-fire; the skies are becoming more dangerous every day now. During the Battle of Loos, the ‘Fokker Scourge‘ also reaches critical mass, for enough of the deadly monoplanes have now been produced to form a real threat to allied air operations, making it necessary to add one of the new Vickers F.B.5 push-propeller fighters to every reconnaissance flight. By the end of October, the struggle for air supremacy over the Western Front is in full swing.

The Battle of Loos has also seen one more new emerging role for aircraft: the insertion of intelligence agents behind enemy lines. On September 13th, Captain T.W. Mulcahy-Morgan of the 6th Squadron attempts to land in a field near Courtrai, in occupied territory, but the landing zone is too small and both men are injured when the plane collides with a tree. Although they are captured, local civilians manage to remove their papers, codebook, and carrier pigeons, thus preventing the Germans from gaining an intelligence coup. But other insertions go better, providing the British Army with an increasingly-detailed picture of German activities far behind the front lines.

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Britain’s main defense against the Fokker: a Vickers F.B.5 in flight. Note the gunner in the forward position