For almost six weeks in May and June 1915 the French Général Victor d’Urbal’s 10e Armée had tried to break the German line and take the strategic site of Vimy Ridge.
The line in places had been broken and for a few days the Moroccan Division had stood on Vimy Ridge at Cote 140 (Hill 145) and surveyed the coal fields beyond, at Lens and Loos. Reserves had not been immediately to hand and the numerical superiority of the German Artillery laid waste to the best endeavours of flesh and blood.
The French Commander in Chief: Général Joseph Joffre now wanted the 10e Armée to try again. What he wanted was a breakthrough, but if that was not possible he would settle, for the moment, on having a tenable position on Vimy Ridge.
The 3rd Battle of Artois was scheduled to take place at the same time, and as a subsidiary to, a major French offensive in Champagne to the east of Rheims. Originally planned for late August, the 2nd Battle of Champagne was postponed to the 8th September and finally to the 25th in order that sufficient artillery could be provided.
This reorganisation and planning however had a knock-on effect resulting in the French artillery having fewer pieces in Artois than had been available in the Spring. It also gave the Germans in Champagne extra weeks in which to prepare a second line of defence and bring up reserves.
If the enemy artillery and machine gun posts could not be subdued it was almost impossible to advance with any certainty of success. The war was only a year old and the French had already witnessed the loss of hundreds of thousands of men to the machinery of war.
To bolster the French offensive Joffre requested that the British Army to take over more of the line to the north of Arras. He also asked them to engage in an attack against the German lines directly behind Vimy—at Loos.
General Haig (First Army) in command of the British offensive was not happy about the terrain over which he would have to advance but found himself swayed by the insistence of London that he cooperate with Général Joffre. In an important concession, London also authorised Haig to use chlorine gas; its first use by the British Army.
By the end of August the French had managed to increase their own troop allocations and brought their heavy artillery up to almost 350 pieces. About 250,000 rounds for the heavies would be available with a further 20,000 in reserve.
The French Artillery opened up its preliminary bombardment on 19th September and despite the foul weather the date of the attack remained fixed for the 25th.
Whilst weather was a consideration for the French Army it was a vital element in General Haig’s planning. Gas could only be released (from cylinders at this time) if the wind was absolutely perfect.
At 1225 hours the French launched their assault (Many hours after the British it should be noted). Within half an hour it was pouring with rain and the Poilus became bogged down in the mud which had already been partially created by the German defences, in Souchez, re-routing the river system.
Some success was to be had though.
From the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette, Général Louis Maistre’s 21e Corps d’Armée (CA) pushed down into the outskirts of Souchez Village whilst Général Marie Fayolle’s 33e CA took the fortress of Château de Carleul and Souchez village cemetery.
On the other side of Vimy Ridge word from the British suggested that the fight was going well, Loos had been taken and Hill 70 was achievable.
The Château de Carleul had become more of a medieval fort than country house. Lines of shelters covered a five metre ditch, behind which within the ruins lay a seemingly impregnable nest of machine guns. The wood surrounding the château was a mess of broken trees and marsh adding to the defences enjoyed by the German garrison.
Eventually the French sappers had managed to get close enough to start throwing footbridges across whilst many troops braved the knee deep water and mud of the moat.
On 26th September and after a year of resistance, Souchez fell to the French who took over a thousand prisoners.
There however, the main gains of the French Army came to a halt. Over the next couple of days some small gains were made and the 33e CA gained the Valley of the Zouaves running between Souchez and Hill 119 (The Pimple).
Both Allied commanders wanted to push on with what they had gained but the moment had been lost at Loos and German counter attacks were threatening to recuperate all of their lost territory.
It was going to be necessary to accept the gains that had been made. A few half hearted attacks during the beginning of October produced little in real terms and the offensive was called off. In Champagne, Philippe Pétain’s 2e Armée and Fernand Langle de Cary’s 4e Armée had (like at Loos) carried the first German defences only to run aground on the second. The impossibility of moving the supporting artillery forward over a devastated battlefield would eventually set French minds to creating their own tanks.
In Artois, the French had made a significant advance over the previous two campaigns in capturing the remainder of the Notre Dame de Lorette Ridge, Carency, Ablain and Souchez, but, with the failure to hold Vimy Ridge, they had brought themselves right under the eye of the Germans on the heights.
The British Army would find this out for themselves when they took over the area in early 1916.