Disaster At Loos

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 203rd installment in the series.   

September 25-28, 1915: Disaster at Loos 

The bloodiest defeat suffered by the British so far in the First World War, Loos was a monument to the incredible bravery of British soldiers and the confusion or outright incompetence of their commanders. The attack proceeded despite a general acknowledgement that British artillery faced a dire shortage of artillery shells, using thousands of new, totally untested troops, and involving the first (also untested) British use of poison gas in the war. In short it was a recipe for disaster, and that is what they got. 

The assault would be carried out by the British First Army under General Douglas Haig, as part of French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s ambitious plan calling for simultaneous attacks by the French Tenth Army in Artois and the French Third and Fourth Armies in Champagne. Together, Joffre hoped these coordinated offensives would form the arms of a giant pincer, cutting off the German armies in northern France.

The British First Army was composed of the I Corps and IV Corps, which would carry out the initial attack, and XI Corps, held in reserve to exploit the hoped-for strategic breakthrough. The I Corps, under Hubert Gough, consisted of the 2nd Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division; the IV Corps, under Henry Rawlinson, the 1st Division, 15th (Scottish) Division, and 47th (London) Division; and the XI Corps, under Richard Haking, the 12th (Eastern) Division, 21st Division, 24th Division, 46th (North Midland) Division, and the Guards Division, as well as the Cavalry Corps – although only the 21st and 24th Divisions were available when the battle began. 

The six divisions in the I and IV Corps who would lead the attack were given a daunting task. Although they enjoyed a two-to-one advantage over the Germans to begin with, the terrain was extremely unfavorable for an attack on the well-entrenched defenders: across the battlefield the German trenches were at least two hundred yards away from the British trenches, and in some places as much as 4,000 yards – all over a flat, featureless plain gently sloping upwards to elevated German positions, giving the latter an ideal vantage point for artillery spotting. 

After a final bombardment which mostly failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches (above), at dawn on September 25, 1915, the British opened 5,500 cylinders containing over 150 tons of chlorine gas, relying on prevailing winds to carry the gas over the German lines – but the weather failed to cooperate, and on the British left the gas swept back over the British lines, causing 2,200 casualties before the attack even began. 

Following this distinctly unpromising start, the British attack fell prey to further confusion, as some troops couldn’t hear the orders to attack over the incredible din of the artillery: the 15th (Scottish) Division, assigned to cross 1,500 yards to capture Loos itself, only realized it was time to attack when the division’s bagpiper marched along the parapet of the trench, piping them to battle – an incredible act of bravery for which he later received the Victoria Cross.

The troops who went over the top found themselves in a surreal and supremely dangerous scene, advancing across flat, open fields behind the gas cloud, mingling with smoke from artillery shells and lit by flares and “star shells,” while German machine guns and rifles crackled (top). One soldier in the London Irish of the 47th Division, Patrick MacGill, recalled: 

The air was vicious with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. 

Even more bizarre, to show their disdain for danger the London Irish of the 47th Division dribbled a football across no man’s land as they advanced (below). 

Another soldier, John Jackson of the Scottish 6th Camerons, remembered the advance on Loos, where he states they killed Germans trying to surrender: 

In short rushes we kept on, grim and determined, through a tangled growth of long grass, till we came to the enemy front line… In spite of growing losses in our own ranks we kept on driving the Germans before us and soon had them on the run for the village, and here they set up a desperate defence. Their machine guns took a terrible toll from our thinning ranks, but still we hung on till we were again in hand-to-hand conflict with them. From house to house, and cellar to cellar, we hunted them. Machine-gunners slaying us from their hidden posts, threw up their hands crying “Kamerad”, when we got within striking distance, but they deserved and received no quarter. Cold steel and bombs did their duty then, and the village was strewn with dead and running with blood. 

The attackers suffered breathtaking casualties, as thousands were gunned down in the barbed wire entanglements, with the 47th Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division suffering especially heavy losses; the 9th Division was tasked with capturing a fortress-like complex called the Hohenzollern Redoubt, while the 7th Division had to capture another strongpoint called “The Quarries.” But despite the appalling losses, through sheer willpower they succeeded in capturing the German trenches along a stretch 4.5 miles long and up to two miles deep. 

The battle had reached a critical moment, and decisions now would later stir enormous controversy: Haig and Gough both claimed that if they had been able to employ the 21st Division and 24th Division, held in reserve, to follow up the gains of the 9th Division on the afternoon of September 25, they would have completed the strategic breakthrough and shatter the German front. However British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French refused to allow them to use the reserves at first, fearing a sudden German counterattack and arguing that the first wave troops should be able to carry the offensive through to the end. 

As a result, the reserves didn’t arrive at the front until the evening of September 25 and didn’t go into action until the following day – a crucial delay which gave the Germans a chance to rush reinforcements to plug the gap in their lines. Overnight seven new German divisions arrived and dug in along new defensive positions, including a long, low hill east of Loos called “Hill 70.” Much of the fighting over the following days would be a futile contest for control of the hill. 

One of the British reinforcements, W. Walker, recalled moving up the frontline positions in heavy autumn rain, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and seeing the ruins of Loos on the night of September 25 (above): 

It began to grow dark. Vivid wicked flashes could be seen and bright dazzling balls of red, green, and yellow light illuminated the flattish land in front… After stumbling on for another half-hour, sometimes up to the knees in liquid mud, I could observe by the light of the sky signals the ruined outline of a village. It was Loos. The moon now shone revealing the roofless walls of the houses, the open spaces where houses had once stood, marked by heaps of rubble. The village was slowly vanishing under the pounding of the guns. A German trench ran along the side of the street. 

Another one of the reinforcements, James N. Hall, recalled the chaotic scene as they waited to move forward through the unfamiliar trenches: 

We halted to wait for our trench guides at the village of Vermelles, about three miles back of our lines. The men lay down thankfully in the mud and many were soon asleep despite the terrific noise. Our batteries, concealed in the ruins of houses, were keeping up a steady fire and the German guns were replying almost as hotly. The weird flashes lit up the shattered walls with a fascinating, bizarre effect. By their light, I saw men lying with their heads thrown back over their pack-sacks, their rifles leaning across their bodies; others standing in attitudes of suspended animation. The noise was deafening.

Unbeknownst to them, the men of the 21st Division and 24th Division were in for an even more brutal reception than the first wave of attackers (most of them so depleted they could contribute little to the second push). The assault on Hill 70 began at 11 am on September 26, and by nightfall the 21st Division and 24th Division were basically destroyed, while the 1st Division, assigned to capture the nearby village of Hulluch, was in tatters. Walker recalled the attack on German positions on Hill 70:

The shell-fire was deafening enough, but the clatter that commenced with our further advance was abominable. It was as if the enemy were attacking with a fleet of motorcycles – it was the hellish machine guns. I saw no foe. Where he was I couldn’t gamble: somewhere in front, how distant or how near no one seemed to know. The firing was indescribably fierce; an invisible hail of lead winged past my ears unceasingly; one flicked my sleeve. How pitiful it is to recall. Our chaps fell like grass under the mower, mostly shot in the guts… Groans and shouting were added to the clamour. 

At some point in the afternoon Walker became a casualty as well: 

A bullet hit me; I feel its sharp sting yet; it felled me to the ground… it had pierced a hole in my right elbow. There was nothing for it but to walk, and, although the fire was growing intense, I managed to dodge the rest… It took me a long time to get to the casualty clearing station. There appeared to be hundreds of wounded all making for the same place… On arrival at the dressing station, came inoculation against tetanus; two delirious days spent in a ruined byre awaiting the ambulance. 

The experience of lying out in the open for days, either waiting for stretcher bearers or an ambulance, was a common one for wounded men at Loos, as at other battles. Harold Peat, a Canadian private, remembered lying wounded in the ruins of a farmhouse for two days before he was rescued: “I never lost consciousness. Darkness came and dawn. Another day went by and the shelling went on as before. Another night, another dawn and then two Highland stretcher-bearers came in.” Meanwhile troops occupying the captured German trenches confronted gruesome tasks, as described by Hall: “Many of the men had been literally blown to pieces, and it was necessary to gather the fragments in blankets. For weeks afterward we had to eat and sleep and work and think among such awful sights. We became hardened to them finally.” 

The last available reserve, the Guards Division, arrived to reinforce the beleaguered British troops on Hill 70 on September 27, but it was far too late to restore the momentum of the offensive. On September 28 the British positions had stabilized in a new defensive line, although the Germans succeeded in recapturing the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 3rd. By October 8th, when a German counterattack failed, the Battle of Loos was effectively over. 

To the east the French offensive in Champagne was also grinding to a halt amid similar scenes of carnage and suffering. At first the French, who had a much larger supply of artillery shells than the British, succeeded in destroying the German frontline trenches – but the attack was frustrated by barbed wire in front of the German reserve trenches which lay behind. Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small French village, transcribed a letter from a French soldier describing the French attack: 

At daybreak the bombardment recommenced--a terrible storm of shells of every calibre--bombs, torpedoes [mortar shells]--flew overhead to salute the Boches, and to complete the destruction which had been going on for three days… All along our front, in both directions, all we could see was a thick cloud of dust and smoke… Once there I seem to remember nothing in detail. It was as if, by enchantment, that I found myself in the midst of the struggle, in heaps of dead and dying. When I fell, and found myself useless in the fight, I dragged myself, on my stomach, towards our trenches. I met stretcher-bearers who were willing to carry me, but I was able to crawl, and so many of my comrades were worse off, that I refused. I crept two kilometres like that until I found a dressing-station. I was suffering terribly with the bullet in my ankle. They extracted it there and dressed the ankle, but I remained, stretched on the ground, two days before I was removed, and I had nothing to eat until I reached here yesterday--four days after I fell. But that could not be helped. There were so many to attend to. 

Edmond Genet, an American volunteering with the French Foreign Legion, described the effects of the French artillery bombardment in Champagne: 

The bombardment of the German trenches before the charge was terrific. The German line looked like a wall of fire and hellish flames from the bursting shells… We followed up the Colonials and passed part of the late morning in the captured German trenches. They were battered beyond description and filled with dead – mostly Germans… The sight of the dead lying about was awful. Most of them had been literally torn to pieces by the exploding shells. The sight of one will never pass from my memory. A Colonial was in a sitting posture against a small embankment. There was an expression of agonizing terror on his features, and no wonder, for below his waist he had been blown to shreds. One of his feet, the only thing recognizable of his lower anatomy, was lying several yards in front of him. I think we all shuddered as we passed.

Like the British, the French offensive also suffered from a failure to bring up reinforcements in time, according to the soldier Louis Barthas, who described the unnerving experience of trying to navigate through unfamiliar trenches filled with wounded men: 

We passed through the ruined village of La Targette; then we got caught up in an entanglement of trenches, crossing and recrossing the same places without finding the right path. We came upon men, isolated or in small groups, heading to the rear. Most gave no response to our questions. Others exclaimed, “The poor guys, the poor guys…” or “It’s horrible, frightful.” They seemed half-crazy… Soon whole battalions and companies were getting mixed up in an inextricable confusion… 

In a letter home Genet painted a picture of abject misery as the French offensive petered out in the final days of September: 

We continued on our advance until darkness set in and lay all that night in a drenching rain in watery mud. Sleep was practically impossible. Shells were dropping around us every few minutes and anyway the horrors of the day just closed were too awful to allow pleasant dreams or even sleep to follow. All night the cries of the dying could be heard. I felt as though I were in some weird nightmare. I wish it had been, for then I could have awakened and found it to be only a dream. 

The Allied losses were staggering: the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead (among them Rudyard Kipling’s son John), while the French suffered 192,000 casualties, presumably with a similar proportion killed in action. According to the British soldier Jackson, “The losses of the division ran into the thousands and our own battalion had lost 700 out of 950 who went into action.” Genet, in the French Foreign Legion, estimated: “In an attack we made on September 28, out of our company of 250 there are not quite 60 left…” The Germans sustained around 150,000 casualties. 

British and French newspapers did their best to paint the fall offensive as a great victory, but ordinary people were fast becoming inured to official propaganda. Aldrich later wrote in her diary: “For several days our hearts were high. Then there began to creep into the papers hints that it had been a gallant advance, but not a great victory, and far too costly, and that there had been blunders…” And the British diarist Vera Brittain remembered the slow dawning of reality on the home front:

“Two Real Victories at Last!” announced the Daily Mail in exuberant headlines… Gradually, after a few days in which the awful sluggishness of the hours seemed a specially devised torture of hell, came the usual apologetic modifications of our “great victory,” and, still later, the lists showing that price that we had paid for this sorry achievement. The country, though growing accustomed to horror, staggered at the devastating magnitude of the cost of Loos. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)