2015 is the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important, yet little remembered, years in the history of Britain and her armed forces. Often overshadowed by the rush to war in 1914 and the momentous offensive on the Somme in 1916, the battles that the British Expeditionary Force fought on the Western Front in 1915 (as well as the tragic Gallipoli campaign in the Mediterranean), were a key stage in the development of modern warfare.
In France and Belgium, the British fought in a variety of offensive and defensive actions throughout the year, most notably at Neuve Chapelle (10-12 March), Aubers Ridge (9 May), Second Ypres (22 April – 25 May), Festubert (15-27 May) and Loos (25 September – 13 October). Of these, the battle of Loos was the biggest. When it was fought it was the largest land battle in British military history, witnessing the first British use of poison chlorine gas (in bulky cylinders placed in the front line), and the debut of elements of Lord Kitchener’s New Army (composed of citizen volunteers), which had been raised after the outbreak of war. It was also the first time the British experienced the huge cost of major continental campaigns, suffering over 60,000 casualties in little over three weeks – with, on average, British divisions suffering a higher number of men killed in action than would be seen on the infamous 1 July 1916, ‘the first day on the Somme’. Yet this remains largely unknown.
1915 has frequently been lamented as a ‘forgotten’ year of the Great War, and apart from the much-mythologised campaign to secure Constantinople through the Dardanelles, it remains largely overlooked and neglected in writing about the war. Yet if any year seems to epitomise the popular perception of the Western Front in Britain – poison gas clouds, struggling commanders and whole battalions being strung up on barbed wire in no-man’s-land – it is 1915. It was the subject of Alan Clark’s popular account, The Donkeys (1961), which did much to sully the reputation of British commanders. For him 1915 was the year in which the old professional army of the United Kingdom was destroyed. ‘Again and again they were called upon to attempt the impossible,’ he wrote, ‘and in the end they were all killed. It was as simple as that.’
Yet there is undoubtedly more to 1915 than endless, futile slaughter. Indeed, in terms of tactical and technical innovations, it was an incredibly productive year. It witnessed (among others things) the first use of poison gas and smoke; the introduction of short-range wireless sets; the continued development of air power and air-land integration (for example the use of aerial photography at Neuve Chapelle); the beginning of ‘creeping’ artillery barrages; the growing reliance on trench mortars and grenades; the development of the Mark I tank; as well as the birth of so-called ‘infiltration tactics’ (with the publication of Captain André Laffargue’s influential pamphlet in August). 1915 was also the year that the Great War became a total war, as the belligerents harnessed their industrial and financial strength to produce the guns and shells; ships and aircraft that would be required to fight this new kind of war. It thus set the scene for what the Germans would call the Materialschlacht – the ‘material battle’ – that would emerge in the great battles of 1916.
In Britain the official commemorations of the Great War are likely to leave the war on the Western Front in 1915 largely untouched (although Gallipoli will be commemorated), with most of the focus instead being on preparing for the centenary of the Battles of Jutland and the Somme in 2016. Nevertheless 1915 deserves its place in our reappraisal of the war. It was the year when the pre-war armies of 1913 and 1914 began their process of adaptation and innovation that would culminate in the great, industrial battles of the middle years of the war. 1915 was the crucial link between the grand battles of manoeuvre of 1914 and the trench-bound ‘semi-modern’ warfare of the middle years of the war.
Dr Nick Lloyd is Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department and specialises in British military and imperial history in the era of the Great War.