Chapter 32


Two new divisions, the 21st and the 24th, arrived in the early part of September in time to enjoy almost two weeks of balmy weather. The 12th Northumberland Fusiliers were scattered round the village of Eperlecques almost on the Belgian border, ten miles from St Omer and twenty-five miles from the front. It was a delightful spot. And the men, on the whole, were enjoying themselves exploring the unfamiliar delights of the French countryside and doing their best to communicate with the locals by sign language.

The officers had billets in the village and Captain David Graham-Pole was particularly pleased with his. He and the padre were in the house of the village curé and the curé and his sister were hospitality itself. They astonished Captain Pole by producing an excellent and liberal dinner every evening and although the four courses were eaten from a single plate they were washed down by three sorts of wine and followed by coffee and brandy. Captain Pole was given the best bedroom and begged to make use of the garden and to help himself to grapes from the vine that clung to the wall and the luscious pears and tomatoes growing in abundance. The curé even carried a chair and a table into the garden so that Pole could interview the company officers and conduct the company’s business while enjoying the sunshine. The officers agreed that Captain Pole had struck it lucky and, since he invariably shared the fruit with callers, his visitors were many. Even ‘orderly room’ held in these attractive surroundings seemed less of an ordeal to defaulters marched through the garden gate and brought before him for the mildly nefarious offences of indulging in straw fights in their barn billets or succumbing to the temptation of raiding an orchard. The ‘misdemeanours’ were trivial but discipline had to be maintained and already Captain Pole had been obliged to give C Company a dressing-down, for his men had apparently been under the impression that such obligations as saluting officers and polishing buttons could be dispensed with now that they were on ‘active service’. C Company had taken it philosophically and were not much perturbed.

Most of them hailed from Tyneside but there were two ‘foreigners’ in the company, Harry Fellowes and Bob Hanson. Given the choice of regiments when they enlisted at Nottingham just a year ago they had chosen to join the Northumberland Fusiliers for two simple reasons. They were avid supporters of Newcastle United and, since neither had ever travelled more than ten miles from Nottingham in his short life, they fancied the long train ride to the north. Their trip across the Channel in the troopship was the first time Harry and Bob had ever seen the sea and they were still revelling in the delights of foreign travel despite long thirsty route-marches when the water-carts stayed with the transport far down the road at the rear of the battalion. C Company had complained long and loudly. ‘There are few philosophers among them,’ wrote Captain Pole in one of his first letters home.

The Battalion was being toughened up, and if route-marching was not to the men’s taste rifle-practice was another matter, and the new short Lee Enfield rifles were a vast improvement on the wooden weapons they had toted for almost ten months. They were heavy to carry on the march and not many of their owners were more than half proficient in using them but they were still a novelty. Marching along the rough country roads with their new rifles on their shoulders they felt like soldiers at last although there was no word of their going to the front. ‘We may train here for a month or two I hear,’ wrote Captain Pole, ‘route-marching, bomb-throwing, machine-gunning, etc’ Only if they listened very carefully when the wind was in the right direction could they hear the sound of the guns.

The guns were never silent but although machine-gun bullets frequently came ripping over the trenches from the other side of No Man’s Land and snipers in concealed positions were lying in wait for the unwary, apart from an occasional flurry of shots when there was real or imagined cause for alarm, the eight miles of trench-line that stretched from Aubers Ridge across the coalfields around Loos and Lens was reasonably quiet. It was so quiet that one German sniper amused himself for several days in idle moments by training his rifle on the wall of a ruined cottage near the British front-line trench and ‘carving’ a cross in the bricks. It took shape over the course of several days and the soldiers of the Post Office Rifles whose trench ran through the cottage garden rather admired his artistry. It was chalky country and the deep chalk walls of the trenches were a positive invitation to bored Tommies manning the support lines and it was not long before the trench walls were covered with graffiti. There were cartoons: ‘Know Your Enemy’ was a favourite caption, usually under a lampoon laboriously carved out with a jack-knife, and representing some well-known pacifist hanging from a gallows; rough but recognisable. One trench displayed a show-piece that must have taken some patient earth-dweller many hours to carve. It had obviously been copied from the kind of picture post-card which was popular at home and were posted by the thousand to Tommies at the front. It showed a country cottage with roses round the door and a mesh of fine lines to indicate its thatched roof. There was a garden too, with a postman standing at the gate and an old lady rushing down the path to meet him. The outlines stood out boldly in charcoal and the carved caption read ‘A letter from Tommy’. But most offerings were less ambitious and the troops generally confined themselves to written slogans or lines of doggerel inscribed with a combination of indelible pencil and spit. ‘I have no pain, dear Mother, but blimey I am dry, so take me to a brewery and leave me there to die.’ Sometimes they were disgruntled – ‘A loaf in the trench is worth ten at the base’ – and some leaned towards romance with hearts and arrows and mysterious initials. There were also solitary arrows, usually pointing in an easterly direction and confidently announcing To Berlin’.

From a military point of view the chalky ground put the Army at a considerable disadvantage for although the permanent trenches could be reasonably well camouflaged by sandbagged parapets the new trenches could not, and as the Army prepared for the coming battle the long lines of glistening white chalk in full view of the Germans were impossible to miss. Night after night the working parties went out digging. They dug assembly trenches behind the lines, they dug communication trenches, they dug saps that poked into No Man’s Land and they dug trenches in No Man’s Land itself. In the ten nights before the battle they dug twelve thousand yards of them. The Germans would have been blind if they had not realised that a major attack would soon be launched.

Lt. A. Waterlow, 19th (County of London) Bn. (St Pancras), 5 London Brig., 47 (London) Div.

Our job was a somewhat ticklish one. The whole battalion was to go up to the front line armed with picks and shovels, file out along the various saps which had been extended out into No Man’s Land and spread out along a line about two hundred and fifty yards in front of our front line, where patrols usually only crawled about on their stomachs. We were then to dig a new front line, which would be previously marked out in white tape by the Royal Engineers. It was to run from slightly in front of our present front line at the Béthune-Lens main road (where the British and Boche trenches were closest together) in a straight line to meet our present front line in front of South Maroc, so straightening out two re-entrants, taking in a considerable area of No Man’s Land and making a convenient jumping-off trench for the coming attack. We had instructions to carry on with the digging, no matter how heavy the casualties might be. They were expected to be fairly heavy because the London Irish had been digging the new line in front of the right-hand part of the sector on the previous night and, with the new trench running in a straight line and suddenly ending ‘in the air’, it should have been obvious to the Boche during the day what our game was and to get the exact range of the new line and have us taped at night.

When the time came we filed out of the sap-heads like mice and spread out along the taped line. Every man had to take the utmost care not to jangle the picks and shovels against one another or against his equipment. Any slight noise might give us all away, and if the Boches chose to turn a machine-gun on to us they could have practically wiped us out. We were simply a line of men spread out across No Man’s Land with absolutely no cover. The men with the picks got to work at once, while the men with shovels lay at full length on the ground, with the shovel blade in front of them to protect their heads until their turn came. Never have I seen men dig at such a rate! They seemed to be two feet deep in no time.

The policy was for each pair of men to dig a hole to give them both as much shelter as possible and, when this was the required depth, to join up the various holes into one continuous line of bays and traverses. By a marvellous piece of good fortune we only had desultory rifle fire from the Boches, in spite of the fact that they were sending up Very lights regularly which seemed to light us all up so plainly that we could not fail to be observed. In fact it gave one the impression of standing naked and unable to take cover in front of a vast throng of people. But it was two hours before they sent any shells over and by that time the men had dug some cover for themselves. We got a few salvoes at intervals but altogether only two men were wounded. The Boche knew where we were right enough, for all the shells landed only a few feet behind the new line we were digging, so that it passes comprehension of the Boche mentality why he did not turn on a machine-gun or even rifle fire, when he definitely knew that we were there! Our artillery had been given instructions to retaliate with compound interest on the Boche trenches if we got shelled at all but their reply was somewhat feeble. I heard they got ‘strafed’ by the higher powers.

Dug-outs were being constructed as far forward as possible and although that was a specialised job for the Royal Engineers, hapless working parties of infantrymen were pressed into service to supply the unskilled labour.

Cpl. F. Moylan.

They wanted to reinforce a new big dug-out for Advanced Brigade Headquarters for this coming push so that Brigade Headquarters would be nearer up. There was a big cutting and there was a railway in it connected up with a coal mine, and the Engineers took those railway lines and loosened them and we carried them up. God! That was a working party! I forget now whether it was a hundred men, but it was a hell of a lot. We had to pad our shoulders with sandbags. How we lifted those rails on to our shoulders in the dark I don’t know! It took about twenty men to carry one rail. It was a hell of a job. Then you’d go back over this crossing and down into the communication trench.

I was in 11 Platoon and my Platoon Officer, Lieutenant Flower, was in charge. Flower was a very nice chap because I broke a double tooth on an army biscuit when this railway business was going on and it gave me hell, and Flower sent me up to the Regimental Aid Post which was half-way down the communication trench, in a bit of a dug-out. The Medical Officer, Dr Bell, was there and the Medical Sergeant, Gilder. He’d got some empty bully-beef boxes there so he sat me on one and I remember Sergeant Gilder holding my shoulders and the MO – he’d got no anaesthetic or anything! – he just took my double tooth out. It was very painful and he said, ‘I’m not sending you back up the line; you get on a stretcher and have a night’s rest here.’ And I did, and Lieutenant Flower let me take it easy when I got back.

It was peculiar because the same thing happened when I was a prisoner. I broke a double tooth on the opposite side. But there it was a civilian German dentist, who laughed and said, ‘I’m not going to give you an anaesthetic because I haven’t got one. If you want one write to Lloyd George and tell him to take off the blockade.’ That was in 1918. No sympathy then! But Flower was very kind to me the first time, just before Loos. He let me off the working party and that was one good thing anyway.

Night after night the unfortunate troops who were out of the line in reserve or on supposed rest were marched off as soon as darkness fell to navvy through the night. But there were some compensations. After they woke from a long lie-in there was quite often the luxury of a bath parade to scour off the dirt of the night, for with so many mines in the area the men had more chance of a bath, and the pithead baths were equipped with hot water and real showers and the mine owners were happy to oblige the Army with the use of their facilities. There was a hot meal at mid-day and, since men told off for a working party were excused other drills and fatigues when a battalion was at rest, they had a few hours’ spare time before they had to parade to set off for the night’s work. With luck there might be a football match.

The inter-battalion football matches of the 15th Scottish Division always drew a crowd, not only because their footballers were good but because fierce regimental rivalry guaranteed a lively game. The supporters were nothing if not partisan but the banter and insults they freely exchanged would have mystified a civilian football fan, for their origins lay deep in the mists of military history. They also baffled Kitchener’s Army. Few of them had the faintest idea why they were bellowing ‘HLI! HLI!’ – obligatory if a team which looked like winning narrowly kicked the ball over the touchline in the last minutes of the match – but bellow it they did. None but Regulars – and ancient ones at that! – could possibly have been present at the long-ago final of the Army Soccer Championship in India when the Highland Light Infantry maintained their lead and won the championship by this unsporting tactic. But the most thrilling matches were between any battalion of the Black Watch and any battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. The battalions of the Black Watch now in the 15th and 9th Divisions were service battalions. No member of either had been in France for more than four months, yet any doubtful move on the football field which remotely resembled a foul immediately brought down a bombardment of yells of ‘Kaiser’s bodyguard, you bastards. Kaiser’s bodyguard’, which was a reference to an unfortunate incident which befell the Black Watch at Mons. This insult invariably brought down howls of retaliation from the supporters of the Gordons: ‘Wha took the bite oot o’ yer spats?’ Not one man in a hundred was aware that this calumny referred to a long-ago battle against charging Dervishes when the military ancestors of the Black Watch had broken their square and caused the regiment to be disgraced in perpetuity by having a V-shaped incision in their spats. Not that anyone was wearing spats at the front, but this was a point of small importance and often the shindigs among rival supporters carried on for some time after the final whistle blew. But the Military Police were never far away, and the crowds were generally well behaved. The football fans had picked up a new slogan that incorporated their immediate ambition as well as their favourite pastime and it was frequently chanted at half-time. ‘Kaiser Bill we’re going to kill, I bet our score is twelve to nil.’

Young Bill Worrell was also helping to prepare for the projected ‘killing’ of the Kaiser and he was not enjoying himself.

Rfn. W. Worrell.

In the line at Laventie, a number of us were sent for to go back to Battalion HQ. I went back in fear and trembling because I’d been in all sorts of trouble in my time, but I couldn’t imagine what I’d done. Anyhow, when I got back I was asked would I like to take a little job for just a few days. All I should have to do would be four hours’ duty a day. The rest of the time I’d be off and I’d be in the reserve – no trench work, no trench duties, no carrying parties. Well of course, when you had an offer like that the answer’s ‘Certainly!’ Well we moved up, then looking round I saw that the others were just as skinny as I was – I weighed 7 stone 6 pounds in those days, and they were all about the same size as me. There were six of us and we were told, ‘Righto, strip off here. Just keep your trousers on.’ We were wondering what on earth it was all about. Then we went into this sap. We were mining across to put a mine under the German trench in readiness for 25 September, you see. And we got in there, spaced out – there was hardly room to get in – you could just about get in and just sit down. And there we were a few feet back from the Welsh miner who was working on the face digging out, with a listener with him, filling up sandbags with earth as he cut it back, and we had to pass them along and carry them out. It was awfully hot and it was a good thing they told us to strip off because we were perspiring profusely. Four hours of that was a very hard day’s work. That was the only time I ever had anything to do with mining, and I wouldn’t want to do any more of it!

The men who had volunteered to join the special gas brigades were even more fed up, for their job was no picnic and they failed to see how by any stretch of the imagination a ‘special knowledge of chemistry’ was of the slightest assistance in doing it. Muscle power would have been much more to the point for it seemed that the main requirement was for labour and it was no light task to unload the heavy gas cylinders from the trains at the railhead at Gorre and heave them on to the wagons that would take them to dumps behind the line. The only part of the job that demanded any degree of expertise was the task of unscrewing the boxes and removing the cylinders in order to loosen their dome covers with a long spanner so that the cylinders were ready for action and the gas could bespeedily released. This was done on the station platform. It was perfectly safe and there was no possibility of any leakage, but this was not the view of one panicky senior staff officer who came to inspect their progress. He ordered them to stop doing it forthwith. There was no officer of the Royal Engineers of sufficient seniority to argue or to point out the difficulties of opening tightly screwed boxes and undoing the stiff tops of cylinders in trenches in the dark. The General had spoken, there was no more to be said and from then on the weighty boxes were carried straight from the train to the wagons.

The wagon wheels were muffled, and even the hooves of the horses were thrust into partly filled sandbags so that the rumble of wheels and the sound of hooves striking the stone pavé of the roads would not be heard. Sound carried long distances at night, and well the infantry of the working parties knew it as they tramped cautiously humping the heavy gas cylinders from the dumps to the trenches. The cylinders themselves weighed sixty pounds and each contained another sixty pounds of liquid gas. With frequent and necessary halts to rest, it took two men carrying one between them as much as four hours to cover a mile and a half to the front line. They also had to carry other equipment – the seven-foot-long connecting pipes, the ten-foot parapet pipes that would carry the gas well away from the trench to drift towards the German lines and, in case something went wrong, the Vermorel sprayers to be placed at intervals along the trenches to clear them of gas if the need arose.

It was not easy to carry the long pipes through narrow trenches and round traverses but somehow it was accomplished. By 20 September all the cylinders had been carried to the front line and installed by the Royal Engineers in specially dug emplacements, well sandbagged for protection. It had taken many hours of labour and much cursing and swearing to undo the tight domeheads which might easily have been untightened at Gorre. The special gas squads were in charge now and it would be their job to discharge the gas when the moment came. In the course of gas-mask drill officers passed on to the infantry some rudimentary instruction on the effect of gas which they themselves had gleaned sketchily from demonstrations. In the weeks before the battle company officers were sent off in batches for instruction.

Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.

Sept. 5. Today being a holiday, Company Commanders had to go to St Omer to see how to kill our fellow creature with gas. So four of us and some from other regiments started off in a motor bus at 8.45 a.m., arriving at the place of demonstration at 12 noon, where we were taken on to a heath where the gas apparatus had been prepared in a trench. Two cylinders were emptied for our benefit, and several smoke cartridges lit which gave forth volumes of smoke. After lunch in St Omer we started back at 4 p.m., and our driver took us hell for leather back, so that we took in returning about half the time as on our way onward previously.

Walter Bagot-Chester’s ‘holiday’ had ended more happily than Lieutenant Waterlow’s. Several days later he was still suffering the effects.

Lt A. Waterlow.

I had instructions to attend a lecture on gas at Houchin in the afternoon and so I borrowed from battalion HQ one of the signaller’s bikes, which was a great deal too small for me, and made my way back through Noeux-les-Mines, past the bombing school on its western outskirts – where live bombs were bursting perilously near to the road – to the practice trenches at Houchin where the gas lecture took place. There was a large gathering there, including General Barter and members of his staff. After the lecture we all had to pass through the gas. They had a cylinder of gas on the edge of one of the trenches, hissing it out in our faces as we passed along the trench in single file. We only had the plain helmets on, with the piece of mica for a window, and my helmet was by no means gas proof. After getting a whiff of it which made me cough, I held my breath, but the queue in front was very slow in moving and I got held up with the cylinder blowing the stuff right into my face! But I wasn’t chancing a second breath of it, so my lungs were nearly bursting when eventually I got clear. General Barter carefully tied a gaily coloured silk handkerchief round his head before donning his helmet – a mirth-provoking sight.

Troops out of the line were marched to a scale model of the battlefield constructed well away from prying eyes. It covered almost a whole field and was large enough for platoons and even half-companies to walk across the ground that represented their front and, more particularly, the enemy front that lay beyond and the unknown country that would be theirs when they advanced to beat the enemy back. Small mounds of earth were heaped up to represent hills, chalk was sprinkled with careful precision to show the trench-lines, and even the slag-heaps were represented by small piles of coal and buildings by half-bricks. It was far from being a facsimile of the battlefield, but at least it was better than the few yards of ground glimpsed in the mirror of a trench periscope or seen through binoculars from a long way off and it gave the troops a miniature bird’s-eye view of the terrain.

It was a coalfield rather than a battlefield. In the centre of the sector, on the ridge that rose immediately above the British line, the Germans had constructed two redoubts in their front trench system. The Lens Road redoubt protected the main road that led to the large mining village of Lens, invisible behind rising ground and slag-heaps. The Loos Road redoubt, some few hundred yards to the north, straddled a country track from Vermelles to the smaller village of Loos across the valley. It was a strange landscape. Wide stretches of fields and farmland where the crops, unharvested when the fighting came in 1914, had seeded themselves and poked up tentative shoots round the trench-lines in the spring – soon trampled into the earth by the passage of troops and wagons on their way to the line. Behind Loos the ground rose to another ridge that carried a road from Lens to la Bassée, following the slope as the ridge dropped towards Hulluch and dropping with it to run arrow-straight to Auchy and the canal beyond. But the unmistakable landmarks were the mine workings and the slag-heaps the French called ‘crassiers’ that reared up among the villages behind the German line. From the long black fingers of the Double Crassier, across the front of the 47th London Division, to the dumps of the mines round Auchy four miles to the north, it was plain that they would be formidable obstacles. Even the foreign names were difficult for the British to grasp, but the French had originally drawn the trench maps so the Tommies had to put up with them. Not all the slag-heaps were ‘crassiers’. Some appeared as ‘fosse’ on the maps, and the mines themselves as ‘puits’. The nearest most Tommies could get to that was ‘pits’ – and by chance it was a literal translation.

The overhead workings that rose from a pit at Loos doubtless had another peculiar name, but this did not concern the Tommies. It was the most prominent landmark across the front, high twin pylons each topped with an ironwork turret and linked by a long iron walkway. Rearing up beside Loos village it reminded the Londoners forcibly of home. They christened it Tower Bridge.

The whole panorama was well behind the German lines, dug deep, well defended, and protected by what looked to the waiting troops like veritable forests of barbed wire.

In the wire in front of the British trenches gaps were to be stealthily cut during the night before the battle to make passages for the infantry to advance and to rush across No Man’s Land to the German trenches where, they fervently hoped, the wire entanglements that protected the Germans would have been cut to pieces by the guns. And guns had been brought up as close as possible to the front line to make sure that there would be no mistake. One was placed near the foot of the slope where the old road into Loos village was barred on the crest of the ridge by the formidable Loos Road redoubt.

Bdr. A. Dunbar, A Bty., 236 Brig., Royal Field Artillery.

After a busy time at Festubert and Givenchy my battery came into action not far from Vermelles, near the main road from Béthune to Loos. Preparations were obviously in hand for a big push. From our battery position we could see the towers of the Hulluch mine-workings, part of Hill 70 and the Double Crassier nearby. Beyond this and out of our sight was the town of Loos. We suspected that it would be one of the objectives in the attack. My gun was detached from the battery and was to be used only on the day of the opening attack for cutting the wire of the enemy’s trenches to provide spaces through which our infantry could advance. For this to be effective the gun had to be taken as near to the target as possible so that the trajectory of the shrapnel shell and its bullets would be almost parallel to the ground when the shell burst so as to do the maximum damage to the wire.

Alongside the main road and about a mile in front of the other guns of the battery was a row of houses (or partly demolished houses) and their backs looked across open ground to the front-line trenches. Between the German and our front line the distance was about sixty yards. One of these houses had a ground-floor room intact and from the corner of the house we could look straight across to the wire about four hundred yards away. My gun was brought up at night and after cutting through the back wall of the room we positioned it facing the back corner. We then made a right-angled frame of wood and covered this with canvas which we painted to resemble bricks. We cut out the bricks in the corner and replaced them with our ‘dummy’ – hoping that the Germans wouldn’t see the deception! But I went up to our front line the next day and I couldn’t distinguish our dummy wall from the real bricks, even with binoculars. It was a perfect match. That was on 15 September and it was my birthday and I was very pleased.

We got up about two hundred rounds of shrapnel and a few high explosive shells and put plenty of sandbags around the gun and the inside walls of the room. All the outside work had to be done at night because the road was under observation from German balloons and there were always plenty of those on the watch.

After three or four days a bombardment started up and it seemed to us that all the guns for miles were taking part except us. It went on for a week and we wondered where they got all the ammunition from. It certainly disturbed our rest at night and having finished all our work we were hoping for a little peace.

All through the month of September more batteries of guns had arrived and were moved into freshly dug positions behind the lines. They did a lot for the morale of the troops as they passed to and from the front and a new ditty began to enliven the march and their spirits at the same time.

There’s a battery snug in the spinney
A French 75 in the mine
A big 9.2 in the village
Three miles to the rear of the line.
The gunners will clean them at dawning,
And slumber beside them all day,
But the guns chant a chorus at sunset
And then you should hear what they say!

Four days before zero, on 21 September, the guns began to bombard the German lines. By comparison with future bombardments and the battles that lay ahead it was meagre, but it was the heaviest of the war so far. Even the gunners were thrilled. Alan Watson, whose daily diary had hitherto contained little more than a bald record of the weather and letters received, scribbled page after page in his excitement.

Gnr. J. A. Watson, 13th Siege Bty., Royal Garrison Artillery.

Sept. 21. The opening of the bombardment. Heavy firing all day by the Field Artillery, continual roar all day – sounds champion after doing nothing and we have great hopes of advancing. Fired twelve rounds off my gun.

Sept. 22. I would like to write a description of what this is like at the time being. It sounds great. Last night about 10 p.m., heavens what a row! It was like hundreds of railway trains going through the air. This is the second day and the big guns began in earnest at twelve. How it is going and what it is like with the Germans, goodness knows. They are dropping a few round here but we are just reading and playing cards, being off duty. Our relief is on. All our chaps in great spirits. I do hope it is a success. I think we are getting seasoned to the war. Don’t seem to realise that any minute a shell might put paid to our account. If this could only be transferred to Leyburn for half an hour wouldn’t it open their eyes at home! It is worth enlisting for. A chap with the gift could write a book on the impressions this gives. Nothing that I have heard before approaches it. Everyone thinks it is the beginning of the end, but if it is a failure and if the Germans can stand this and what is to come, they will hold out for years yet. Our battery fired about a hundred and sixty rounds today – my gun seventy-two.

Sept. 23. Bombardment worse than ever, especially in the afternoon. I was no. 1 on the gun and it alone fired ninety-two rounds. My head was aching somewhat. Refugees leaving the village, but the Germans are scarcely replying at all. Got complimented by the Captain and Lieutenant on the working of my gun.

Sept. 24. Bombardment still going on. Thunderstorm last night and it was a whisper compared with the artillery fire this afternoon. I have heard some since I came out here, but none to hold a candle to this. Our gun fired sixty-two rounds.

Whatever its effect on the Germans the comforting roar of the guns, the crash of the explosions as shells thundered on the German lines, the exhilarating sensation of giving the enemy ‘what for’ raised everybody’s spirits. An air of optimism rippled like a summer breeze through the ranks of the British Army from the rawest infantry private to General Haig in command of the First Army and even to the Commander-in-Chief himself. But to Haig’s irritation General Willcocks in command of the Indian Corps did not appear to share the general euphoria. The two men had crossed swords in the past and for months now he had been a thorn in Haig’s side for General Willcocks had many grievances and he frequently aired them. The Indians had fought stoically but in almost a year of fighting they had suffered huge casualties and, in General Willcocks’s view, his men had frequently been mishandled. Their numbers had gone steadily down and there was no possibility of getting trained replacements from India. A high proportion of his officers had been killed and arbitrarily replaced by others who were unfamiliar with the character and the shibboleths of Indian troops. There was no leave for the Indians, scant provision was made for their well-being, and General Willcocks was upset that unduly strictcensorship had prevented any detailed news of their exploits being published in India. His frequent complaints, his zealous concern for the morale and efficiency of his troops, had not been welcomed and the matter came to the boil at a conference of senior commanders convened to discuss plans for the offensive. Alone among the Corps Commanders, General Willcocks ‘made difficulties’. Haig’s patience snapped and he sacked him on the spot. It was bad luck on the Indian Corps to lose their Commander and most stalwart supporter just before the battle.

Although a veil was drawn over the details of the quarrel, Willcocks’s main concern was almost certainly the fear of incurring excessive casualties in the weakened ranks of his hard-pressed Indian troops, for they were to undertake a ‘subsidiary attack’, and subsidiary attacks, as Willcocks well knew, were usually denied the support and resources allocated to the main offensive. Their purpose was to keep the enemy guessing, to keep his reserves pinned down and to prevent him from reinforcing his front where the ‘real’ battle was taking place. But subsidiary actions were real enough to the troops who had to fight them. The Indians were to attack on the left of Loos across the old battleground at Neuve Chapelle. Their objective was Aubers Ridge and this time, with the certainty of success at Loos, they would be carried on to the ridge by its momentum. Or so it was hoped. Casualties, in the circumstances, were unavoidable but this time there was no doubt that they would be worth it.

Twenty miles to the north where another subsidiary attack was to be launched in the Ypres salient, the 4th Gordon Highlanders were out of the line practising for the battle. They had no need of a model battlefield to introduce them to the ground for it was only too familiar. They were to fight yet again at Hooge. They had been out for a week on a well-earned rest, camped round the pleasant village of Ouderdom, far enough from the line to have escaped the ravages of war, and U Company made the most of it. There were new faces in every platoon but there were still enough of the original student members to mark the company out from the rest. There was even an inner core now. During one particularly uproarious evening in an estaminet, a dozen of them had formed the ‘Society of Good Johns’. The fact that only three of its members happened to bear the Christian name of John was immaterial. The main object of their exclusive club was quite simply to enjoy themselves.

Sgt. A. Rule.

At our first meeting our wine order was twelve bottles of vin rouge (tres ordinaire!). The after-effects of immature wine are extremely potent and we were fortunate that the day following our inaugural meeting was a Sunday. At the second – and as it turned out the last – meeting of the ‘Johns’, we condescendingly granted admission to three new members who had given evidence of their fitness and one condition was their ability to treat the foundation members to a round of drinks. Our source of inspiration was also augmented by a bottle of whisky and the ‘Johns’ rapidly got down to business. We opened up with the chorus ‘Varsity Y’Gorra’ in full tongue, and then every member in turn sang a song or told a story. Sandwiched in between these items were rousing student songs and army choruses sung with such magnificent gusto that the old pewter pieces on the walls of the estaminet rattled till they threatened to fall. A party of veterans belonging to the Middlesex and the Suffolk afterwards assured us that they would never forget the honour of being present as privileged spectators at a festive meeting of ‘real students’, as they put it!

We evacuated the farmhouse-kitchen estaminet in reasonably good order and set off on a general bearing that would take us to our billets – although two members were with difficulty prevented from sleeping in each other’s arms in a turnip field along the way. The camp was fully warned of our approach by bursts of song, so we sacrificed the element of surprise, but we still managed with great gallantry to make an irregular frontal assault on the bivouacs. A brilliant feint attack on the right flank was carried out by one member who temporarily lost his bearings and rejoined the main party crawling stealthily on all fours, under the impression that he was in No Man’s Land! We met spirited resistance from the occupants of bivouacs near ours when we suddenly descended through their hessian walls on top of them. It was pandemonium until an avenging angel arrived suddenly in the person of an extremely wrathful Regimental Sergeant-Major, torn from his beauty sleep at an unearthly hour on a cold, raw morning. We made a wild dive for our bivouacs and silence descended on the camp – though it was broken for a time by sounds indicating grievous internal suffering!

It was the last meeting of the ‘Good Johns’. Next day, on the eve of their departure for the front, the Brigade was drawn up in close column and had the privilege of being inspected by Lord Kitchener himself. U Company stood at attention with the rest, spruce and burnished, showing no signs of the excesses of the night before. A band played the National Anthem and if some hung-over members of U Company winced as three thousand or so rifles crashed down in a General Salute it was hardly noticeable. All eyes were on legendary Kitchener – the stern face, familiar from ten thousand recruiting posters, the imposing figure, ramrod straight, the chest bearing the ribbons of medals earned in long years of campaigns and service. He moved along the ranks with an escort of staff officers and inspected the men with a critical eye. When he mounted a rostrum to speak to them he did not mince his words.

Sgt. A. Rule.

He bluntly told us that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice to help the main offensive which was to be launched ‘elsewhere’. For that reason, he said, no attempt had been made to conceal our preparations. He congratulated us on the position of honour and responsibility that had fallen to us as a Territorial unit and he wished us ‘as much luck as we could expect in the course of the next few days. His final words to us were ‘Goodbye and good luck!’

It was part of the plan to delude the Germans into believing that the main attack was to be in the salient and it was clear that they had taken the point. Even before they left the trenches to march to Ouderdom the Gordons had been dismayed to observe a taunting placard propped up on the German wire: ‘Why not attack today Jock? Why wait for the 25th?’

General Haking in command of XI Corps which now included the newly formed Guards Division, was a good deal more sanguine than Lord Kitchener had been about the outcome of the battle. He rode over to meet the officers and senior NCOs of the 2nd Guards Brigade to brief them personally on the plans for the battle. He exuded confidence. He compared the German line to the crust of a pie – one thrust and it would be broken and behind it he expected there would be so little resistance that they would have no trouble in carving a way through. But the Coldstream were old campaigners and the general perhaps noticed a look of scepticism on the faces of the men who had been out since Mons. He paused, then added earnestly, Τ don’t tell you this to cheer you up. I tell you because I really believe it.’

The 24th Division was on the move. So was the 21st, somewhat to the surprise of Captain Pole who had expected his battalion to spend weeks or even months in training. They had been just ten days in France, but they were anything but despondent to be marching towards the battle. True, they were only intended to be in general reserve ‘in case of need’, but at least they would be where the action was. It was a long way to march, but they moved off in the early evening, marched late into the night and rested, roughing it, by day. And the days were sunny and nights were fine. A golden harvest moon hung low, growing bigger on every night of the march. There would be a full moon for the battle.

At their first stop David Pole scribbled an answer to a letter he had been surprised to receive on the day that they set off. It was from the worried wife of his commanding officer, Colonel Harry Warwick.

September 19th, 1915.

Dear Captain Pole
I have only met you once but my husband has so often talked to me about you. I want to ask you if you would try to let me know about Harry if he were not well, or if anything was wrong and he could not write to me himself. There is no one else I know well enough to write and ask this, and it would be such a comfort to me to feel there is someone who would let me know at once if possible. I wish I could be less anxious, but I do find it so difficult in these times. I don’t want Harry to think I am worrying so I shall not tell him I have written. I am hoping I may hear from him again soon, but of course he cannot give me any idea where he is and I can’t get used to not knowing yet. But I must just be patient and I do realise it does not help one bit to worry and I am one of the lucky mothers with three little children to take up most of my time, so that I can’t sit down long and think. I am sure you won’t mind doing what I have asked.

Yours sincerely
Margaret J. Warwick

By 23 September, after three nights’ marching, the battalion had reached Allouagne, ten miles behind the front. They were ‘resting’ until further orders. C Company’s officers were squeezed into the house of a French soldier who had been at the front for fourteen months and was home on his first leave. It had expired that morning. He embraced his wife and children and shook hands with all the officers before he left, and now his red-eyed wife was doing her best to make them comfortable. After they had breakfasted on rations supplemented by the last of their sardines, and by pears from the garden, Pole went off to scour the local shops for delicacies to replenish the officers’ mess box. He returned with some tins of asparagus, mushrooms and peas. It was decided unanimously that they should ‘test’ them for lunch and Madame was requested, for a small consideration, to use them as a filling for a few twelve-egg omelettes.

It took Captain Pole the rest of the morning to inspect C Company’s billets. The men were housed in three large barns and Harry Fellowes, who had been dead to the world for some hours, was having some difficulty in fitting his swollen feet into his army boots. The Tommies had stew for lunch and, since hunger is a good sauce, pronounced it ‘not half bad’. They too had pears for dessert, filched from the trees that were reasonably near the roadside, but there were plenty to spare.

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