The battles of the war

The stalemate on the Western Front meant that both sides tried to break through the enemy's defensive positions. Troops would be sent over the top in frontal assaults, resulting in high numbers of casualties.

The Battle of Loos, 1915

The Battle of Loos started in September 1915. It was the first time that Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, had used armies of volunteers in a major attack. 35,000 Scots took part in the battle.

The Battle of Loos was led by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig
Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig

General Douglas Haig realised there were major problems before the battle started: He knew that the attacking soldiers had almost no cover and so would be in full view of the German machine gunners.

Haig planned to release chlorine gas but the success of the attack depended on steady wind blowing the gas towards the Germans. British forces faced many problems:

  • Some reports suggested that the wind changed, blowing the gas towards the attacking Scots.
  • In many parts of the battlefield the Germans were pushed back but casualties were very high.
  • Reinforcements were needed but they were slow to arrive.
  • When the attack resumed the Germans had also been reinforced.
  • The British attack had lost the element of surprise and had no gas cover, so the German machine guns killed men in their thousands.

Battalions from every Scottish regiment fought in the Battle of Loos and suffered huge numbers of casualties. Of the 21,000 killed, over 7,000 were Scottish soldiers. Almost every town and village in Scotland was affected by the losses at Loos.

The Battle of the Somme, 1916

For a number of months the French had been taking severe losses at Verdun to the east of Paris. The Allied High Command decided to attack the Germans to the north of Verdun, forcing the Germans to move some of their men away from the Verdun salient (an outward bulge in a line of military attack or defence).

  • Before the battle, Haig battered the enemy lines with a five-day-long artillery barrage.
  • This was intended to destroy the Germans' barbed wire, wreck their trenches and kill the defenders.
  • In reality, the barrage had little effect on German bunkers that were enforced with concrete.
Medics crawl across no man's land to retrieve wounded soldiers
Medics crawl across no man's land to retrieve wounded soldiers

The battle started on 1 July 1916. On that day the British army suffered its largest number of casualties ever – 19,200 dead and 40,000 wounded or missing. Most of the casualties fell in the first hundred metres of no man’s land.

  • The Battle of the Somme has been described as the graveyard of the various local battalions that had been raised across Scotland.
  • On the Somme, the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry (the Boys’ Brigade Battalion) suffered more than 500 casualties.
  • McCrae’s (Hearts) Battalion of the Royal Scots suffered 75 per cent casualties.
  • Overall 400,000 British soldiers lost their lives on the Somme but it cost the Germans almost as many. Only later did it become clear that the Battle of the Somme had broken the back of the German army on the Western Front.

The Battle of Arras, 1917

Between April and May 1917, the British Army launched an offensive beside the northern French town of Arras:

  • The aim was to launch a focused artillery bombardment along a short stretch of land.
  • A tunnel system was also built towards the German lines, to allow for the placement of mines.
  • Protected by their own heavy artillery in a creeping barrage, the British Army advanced on 9th April. Over the next few days, significant gains were made.
  • However, the Germans continued to deploy reinforcements to the area and the ability of either side to advance was lost in what became a battle of attrition (attempt to wear each other down).
  • The Allied forces lost a total of 158,000 men, including many Scots.

The Third Battle of Ypres, 1917

Heavy artillary equipment near Ypres
Heavy artillary equipment near Ypres

The Third Battle of Ypres stands out among the battles of World War One not only for its cost, but also for the conditions in which those casualties were incurred:

  • The main attack went in over low-lying land veined by water courses. Constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems.
  • The heavy rains which coincided with the opening assault produced thick, clinging mud, which caked uniforms and clogged rifles.
  • It eventually became so deep that, in many places, men, horses and pack mules drowned in it.

Battle of Cambrai, 1917

The Battle of Cambrai began in November, 1917.

  • Royal Flying Corps aircraft dropped bombs on German anti-tank guns and strongpoints to clear a path for the Allied tanks and ground troops.
  • It is an early example of the 'Blitzkrieg' tactics destined to be used by the Germans so effectively in World War Two.
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