Chapter 34

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By nine o’clock in the morning of 25 September the flag of the 7th Cameron Highlanders was flying on Hill 70 and Sergeant Tommy Lamb had planted it there with his own hands. The remnants of two brigades were plodding up the hill and they were horribly mixed up, for the 44th Brigade should have advanced in a straight line due east and dead ahead, past the chalk pit near Puits 14 and on across the la Bassée road to Bois Hugo – a long strip of woodland that ran over the crest of the ridge. There had been nothing, or almost nothing to stop them. But, like iron filings drawn towards a magnet, the fighting in Loos had pulled them to their right and into the joyous mêlée of Scots fighting their way through the village. Now the two brigades whose disciplined ranks should have advanced on a broad front were crowded into a space of some six hundred yards, streaming up Hill 70 in a wild confusion of companies and battalions, and as they went they were drifting further and further to their right towards Hill 70 redoubt.

Hill 70 did not lie directly behind Loos but slightly to the south-east, and already the battle-plan had gone awry, for the whole division had been meant to charge straight ahead over the ridge to the north of the hill and on into the valley beyond to capture the line of defences in front of Cité St Auguste.

Cité St Auguste was not a city, nor was it a village. It was an agglomeration of miners’ dwellings and mine workings bordered on the north by farms and woodland, and it was a bastion in the Germans’ second line of defence. It had all looked simple and straightforward on the map but once past Loos, with the familiar slag-heaps and the pylons of Tower Bridge behind them, landmarks disappeared, so it was not so easy to keep direction and the Scotsmen’s blood was up. Fired by the sight of German soldiers running away over Hill 70 the leaders of the pack could not resist giving chase. Gradually but surely the advance swung to the right and there was no stopping it. The two brigades which should have gone forward abreast with Hill 70 on their right now had the hill on their left and were plunging into the valley towards a strong defensive line that circled Lens through the suburb of Cité St Laurent.

There were fewer of them now, for the ranks had thinned out, and the bodies of the Jocks lay like a tartan tide across the slopes of Hill 70, along the streets of Loos and all across the valley back to the first German line, but the Highlanders were only concerned with keeping the Germans on the run and they followed cheering as they went across the wide open slope down to Lens.

It was Colonel Sandilands arriving breathless on Hill 70 and pausing to take stock who realised that something had gone wrong and that the Jocks were not advancing due east to Cité St Auguste. He managed with some difficulty to rally the troops nearby – men of no fewer than nine different battalions – and to hold back the rest still panting up Hill 70 and, gathering them behind the crest of the hill to await developments, he ordered Tommy Lamb to wave the Cameron flag to bring the Camerons back. Tommy waved it for all he was worth but in the excitement of their plunge down the slope not many looked round or caught sight of it. They were running hell for leather. Already they were half-way to Lens and the dozen volunteer runners the Colonel dispatched to pass the word and bring them back were sucked into the throng and carried along pell-mell.

Sandilands watched in a fury of frustration. From his vantage point on the crest of the hill, looking down into Cité St Laurent, he could see barricades of wire hidden by long grass and invisible to the Jocks racing down the hill. He could also see crowds of German soldiers running through the streets to meet them, swarming into trenches and into houses to fire from the upper storeys. But they held their fire until the Scots were less than three hundred yards away. Then they let rip.

There was nowhere to go. No cover of any kind. No bush, no tree, no dip or dent across the wide bare hillside. No shelter or escape from the deadly fire. No means of answering back. All they could do was lie in the open, hoping for reinforcements and hoping even more for the guns to open up a bombardment that would keep the Germans’ heads down and help them to get forward. Some men banded together in small determined groups and made valiant attempts to rush the German wire. Some who survived the storm of answering fire got within eighty yards of it. But it was palpably hopeless, and now the Germans were having things all their own way.

In the confusion of the first advance officers of the 44th Brigade arriving early on Hill 70 had not immediately grasped the inadvertent change of direction and, believing that they were still advancing due east towards Cité St Auguste, sent back reports that troops were advancing on their final objective. The confusion continued all morning, and by the time the error was rectified and the true situation was understood, it was too late. It was certainly too late for the Scots in front of Cité St Laurent, for the artillery bombardment which might have covered their retirement up the hill was thundering down a half mile to their left to assist the ‘advance’ that Headquarters believed was going ahead. Now every single gun was ranging on St Auguste. At St Laurent the Germans were able to fire with impunity at the slightest movement on the hill, to rake the thin line with machine-guns, to bring in reinforcements and to organise the counter-attack that would retrieve Hill 70.

Colonel Sandilands, who was well aware of this danger and powerless to prevent it, played for time, and set his troops to work digging in on the reverse slope of Hill 70. The two assaulting brigades of the 15th Division were reduced to the strength of a single Battalion, but they were on their mettle and the Colonel had every confidence that they would do their damnedest to hang on.

At First Army headquarters at Hinges, twenty-three kilometres north west of the front, the news that Loos had been captured was greeted with jubilation. The line had been punched open, the troops were through, and according to early reports which staff officers had no reason to doubt, they were advancing as fast and as far as anyone had hoped. The plan was working, at least in part, and from the first optimistic reports that reached Headquarters it seemed that almost everywhere the troops had broken through and were making progress. It only remained to push up more troops to sweep through the gaps and carry on the advance. It was time to call on the reserves and it was a matter of annoyance to Sir Douglas Haig that the reserves were not readily available. The General Reserve was still under the orders of Sir John French and he, and he alone, would decide when, and even if, he would release them to General Haig’s command. It was not much of a reserve – only the untried 21st and 24th Divisions and the newly formed Guards Division – but it was all there was. The Commander-in-Chief had strong doubts about the wisdom of employing inexperienced divisions led by inexperienced officers, and strong reservations about what they could be expected to achieve. In his considered view they could be a positive hindrance in a battle. It was true that he had promised them to Haig and true also that he had approved Haig’s dispositions for the battle and knew full well that he had put every one of his available divisions in the line and kept back no reserves. But he had also made a promise to the commanders of the raw divisions and he had sent his Chief of Staff to spell it out in person. In no conceivable circumstances, they were told, would the 21st and 24th Divisions be called on ‘unless and until the Germans were absolutely smashed and retiring in disorder’. All they need be prepared for was ‘a long march’ behind the enemy as he retired. Now Haig wanted them badly and, as soon as the first news reached him from Loos, he sent a staff officer with an urgent message requesting the Commander-in-Chief to release them. French was still reluctant, but the news that Haig’s First Army had broken the enemy line and was surging ahead was a powerful argument and he gave his consent. It was half past ten in the morning. The information on which he based his decision was already three hours old and the reserve divisions were several hours’ march from the line.

It was some time before the order reached the individual brigades and battalions of the new divisions, for twenty thousand men were scattered in bivouacs across the country as much as six miles behind the line. It took longer still to get them on the move and on the march to their assembly positions a mile from the old front line. The men were tired. They had had a long night’s march and every battalion had experienced frustrating halts and weary delays along the way. The traffic was heavy, the roads were narrow, often just wide enough for four men marching abreast, and time after time battalions were forced to break rank and spread out to teeter on the edge of roadside ditches while a train of supply wagons trundled ponderously towards the front. Some were held up at level crossings while long ammunition trains chugged towards the railhead. One brigade was actually kept waiting outside Béthune by an officious Provost Marshal on the remarkable grounds that their Brigadier could not produce an official permit to enter the town. There were a thousand and one delays and a few unfortunate battalions only reached their rendezvous, wet, weary and hungry, at six o’clock in the morning.

The 12th Northumberland Fusiliers had at least enjoyed a few hours’ rest in the dubious comfort of wet fields. They had also had breakfast. Somehow the cookers had managed to fry quantities of bacon and it was dished out with hefty chunks of bread to officers and men alike. There were no ‘ablutions’ of any kind, but Captain Pole managed a shave of sorts in an inch of cold water poured into his silver drinking cup, and a sketchy wash with a handful of water from his water bottle. Since Harry Fellowes only shaved at most twice a week he made do with a splash of muddy rainwater from a puddle, and rather wished he hadn’t bothered.

It was half past one before they reached the assembly position near Vermelles, for now that the battle had started the roads were even more congested than on the march of the night before. Dispatch riders were scorching up and down the road, ambulances were streaming back, and as they neared the battle-field clutches of prisoners and walking wounded forced them to make way. The prisoners were a heartening sight, and the very fact that they themselves were on the move was evidence that things were going well, but the sound of the big guns pounding and thundering closer and closer as they approached was hardly reassuring and by the time they reached Vermelles where the heavy guns were ranged it was hard for the men who had never heard a shot fired in anger not to jump involuntarily at every ear-splitting crash. But there was worse to come. The German artillery was searching for the guns and as the Northumberland Fusiliers huddled nervously in a field uncomfortably close to a battery of nine-pounders, munching a hasty snack of bully beef, shrapnel shells began to fall close by. The order to fall in and move forward was almost a relief. They had no idea what was expected of them. Colonel Harry Warwick was no wiser than any man in the ranks and even Brigadier-General Wilkinson had made no bones about the fact that he was equally ignorant. His own orders had been ambiguous and when he called his Battalion Commanders together before they moved off he was able to do little more than point out the position of Hill 70 on the map. ‘We do not know what’s happened on Hill 70,’ he told them. ‘You must go and find out. If the Germans are holding it, attack them. If our people are there, support them. If no one is there, dig in.’ No one had reconnoitred the ground. No guides were provided, but in greatcoats and packs, prepared as they had been instructed for a long march, the 64th Brigade began to march in fours, battalion by battalion, down the Lens road towards the line.

It was late afternoon now. The fortunes of battle had shifted since the morning and on Hill 70 they had shifted in the enemy’s favour.

The straggle of Scottish soldiers in front of St Laurent held out until midday. When the Germans counter-attacked the few who remained scattered to run up the hill but most of them were killed or captured as they ran. On the hill itself the small mixed force fought hard to hold on but they were gradually pushed back, first from the hastily dug line beneath the crest, then from the Hill 70 redoubt. But they still clung to the slopes and to the high ground to the north, left of the redoubt, where the confusion of troops had at last been reorganised and spread out towards Bois Hugo. The enemy had persisted, and between the salvoes of shells close by it was possible to hear the drum of gunfire to the south where the French attack was at last underway and the fast-firing 75s were supporting the poilus as they stormed the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette. They could almost be said to be supporting the troops at Loos, for now the enemy was in a dilemma. The reserves they might have used to push home their attempt to regain their lost line were diverted to stem the threat to their line further south. At Loos, at least for the moment, there was a breathing space. But the guns thundered on and the troops stood fast, waiting for relief, for reinforcements or, at worst, for nightfall to bring their fragile force a little respite.

Alex Dunbar’s gun-team was waiting for the order to move forward, but it was a long long wait, orders were slow to arrive and the gunners had plenty of time to look around and pick up rumours.

Bdr. A. Dunbar.

A lot of traffic was moving up and down the road and there were a lot of casualties coming back. Crowded ambulances were returning from the line and all those who were capable of walking were dragging themselves along as best they could. One thing I shall never forget was the sight of eight sergeants of the Gordons, with their arms around each others’ shoulders, all suffering from gas and staggering along holding each other up. A little further down the road was a turning known as Quality Street. There had been some big houses there once but now the ruins held a Casualty Clearing Station, and an infantry brigade HQ and various other units. They were having a busy time.

For light relief there was a large party of German prisoners – well over a hundred – marching eight abreast. The two front ranks consisted entirely of officers, including two or three giants of six feet six inches or more. All the officers seemed to be having a heated argument amongst themselves. Possibly they were trying to find out who was to blame for their capture. What made us really smile, though, was their escort – two diminutive Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. One was sauntering along with his rifle slung across his back, a cigarette in his mouth, and looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world let alone a hundred or so prisoners behind him. The other was just as small, and he had his bayonet fixed bringing up the rear, giving a threatening jab to any prisoner who looked like lagging behind. He looked about as tall as his rifle. We roared with laughter, to the astonishment of some of the prisoners. They couldn’t see the funny side of it as we could!

We heard that the 15th Division had been held in front of Lens and were unable to get on because reinforcements had not arrived. Something had gone wrong. But later we saw at the far end of the long stretch of road some troops marching up and soon the whole road was black with hundreds of marching infantry. Their officers were riding on horses in front of each company. We were amazed. This was probably the reinforcement the 15th Division were waiting for. But to come up that road in broad daylight, a road that could be enfiladed by the Germans from end to end! Above all, the German balloons were still there. They must have been able to see that whole road packed with troops. It was beyond comprehension. One of the lads said, ‘Perhaps the war is over?’ And someone else replied, ‘It must be.’

The head of the column was held up and stopped near us for a spell and we spoke to one or two of the men. They told us they had not been in action before and had only been in France three weeks! They said there were two Divisions, the 21st and the 24th. They showed us their Mills bombs as if they were showing off new toys. We were still more amazed.

Ten minutes after, the column got on the move again and the front rank had just reached a slight crest in the road when over came half a dozen whizz-bangs and burst about thirty yards in front. They hit no one, but suddenly the head of the column stopped, turned and began to run back – apparently panic stricken. The movement seemed to spread in seconds as we watched, right down the length of that long line of troops like a wave and in a few minutes they were out of sight. We stood there with our mouths open in astonishment.

What had happened to cause that debacle? Much later when we went up the road to where the trouble started there was a shelled GS wagon in the ditch at the side, and dead horses and three dead men that no one had had time to attend to.

We came to the conclusion that this was the first time those men in front had seen such a sight and at that psychological moment they got their first shelling. The combination was probably too much for them and they broke and ran. Of course those behind them couldn’t have known why, but inevitably they became infected and mass hysteria was the result. That seemed to us the only reasonable explanation.

It was not the sight of the dead that had panicked the troops of the leading battalion, it was the salvo of shells that fell among them as they drew closer to Loos. But the panic was soon contained, the ranks were re-formed, and they marched on. Halted a mile behind them the Northumberland Fusiliers had no idea what had caused the hold-up. It was a good half hour before they set off again.

Capt. D. Graham-Pole, 12th Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers, 62nd Brig., 21st Div.

Then I got orders to march on after the Battalion which had already started for Loos. We had just taken it from the Germans that morning. As we marched along we met most ghastly sights – officers and men lying dead and dying on and alongside the road. Star shells went up and showed us up and shrapnel came crashing amongst us. Horses lay with broken legs and still the men marched on steadily. There was no time to attend to the wounded and if your best friend was knocked out you just had to leave him and go on without breaking the column of fours. I was proud of my men; no shouting required, no bullying, only ‘Steady lads, steady’, and on they came and never even looked back. Then we got to Loos and wherever we went, along streets or more in the open, shells followed us, falling amongst us or into the houses, making them rock and fall or huge pieces fall out of their sides.

But the Battalion had escaped the worst of it. It was the transport column at the rear that caught the full force of the shelling.

Less than a mile away the 24th Division was making for the Hohenzollern redoubt where the 9th Scottish Division was clinging to a wavering foothold.

Pte. G. Marrin, 13th Bn., 73 Brig., 24 Div.

We marched straight into the battle. By the time we got into the front line we were right by the coal mine, Fosse 8, on the left, that’s where the Scots got slaughtered, yes, because we saw these men lying around and coming in wounded – thousands of them! The whole thing was an absolute shambles. We were frightened out of our lives. It was terrible. It was our first experience of warfare, and there was machine-gun fire and shelling, and everything seemed to be exploding everywhere. You just didn’t know what was taking place. Then we got somewhere – they said it was in the line. We didn’t know! You were facing one way and they said, That’s where they are’, but you didn’t know! You put up rifle fire but you didn’t know what you were shooting at! You’d no idea what you were doing or supposed to be doing. It was just a continual bashing of gunfire. Terrifying! You couldn’t think! We were scared out of our wits.

The guns boomed on, but late in the evening the rain eased off. A full moon sailed from behind the clouds and shone so brightly that, squatting in a field outside Loos, Captain Pole could see well enough to write a letter to his sister. It calmed his nerves, and it was something to do to pass the time while his Battalion waited for orders.

Sunday 26th September 1915. 3 a.m.
(In action).

A day, Jessie, I shall never forget.

Well, we have been in action right enough but as far as we were concerned with no chance of replying. (I am writing under shell fire by moonlight.) Forgive the writing Jessie, this is being written on top of a map where we have been most of the night and an hour ago it didn’t look as if a single one of us would shortly be alive. My servant Holbrook lying by my side got a bullet in his arm and two men in front of me were wounded. I am here with two companies with magazines charged and bayonets fixed and I don’t know the minute we may have to go forward and charge another line of trenches.

We were first in the open and although shrapnel and shells were flying they were not concentrated on our small area as they seemed to be an hour ago. Then about nine o’clock I was asked to hold a line of cottages as it was believed there was a gap in our line in front. No sooner had I got in position, digging in and fixing machine-guns, than I was told to go on to a small town and occupy that (Loos). We did so – not without casualties. It is really awful seeing dead and dying lying about and wounded being carried back. It really is Hell. None of us ever want any more of this attacking. That village or town was simply shelled till we had to leave it. I lay down and tried to sleep till orders came to get out into the open and I was to hold this field quite near. I am still holding it – quite calmly, rather hungrily, would give anything for a cup of tea. How and when it will end I can’t tell. They are driven back all along the line some four miles.

In the Headquarters chateau at Hinges telephones buzzed busily now, dispatch riders roared up at intervals and it was only now, in the long hours of the night that reports could be properly analysed and the position accurately assessed. The Staff were far from pessimistic, for although things had not gone as well as they had hoped in certain places, the line had been broken, Loos had been captured, almost everywhere the troops had progressed and, with a little more effort, the German defence would surely crumble. And if the subsidiary attacks had not gained much, at least they had achieved the objective of keeping the enemy occupied elsewhere and pinning down his reserves.

In the Ypres salient the turmoil of the day’s fighting was over and the night, by comparison, was quiet. An occasional shell came over and now and again a burst from a machine-gun or the crack of a rifle showed that the Germans were still on the alert and fearful that the British would attack by night before the arrival of the reinforcements, marching under cover of the darkness to the line. But there was no fight left in them. Alex Rule lay alone in a sandbagged shelter in Sanctuary Wood drifting in and out of consciousness as he waited to be carried out of the line. His left foot was shattered, he was weak from loss of blood and he had no idea what time it was.

U Company had been in the thick of the fight. Like the other ‘subsidiary attacks’ it began as night was ebbing towards dawn and the troops at Loos were still filing into position when the guns opened up on the Bellewaerde Ridge. It was still dark, and still raining when the bombers who were to lead the attack crawled into No Man’s Land to crouch doggo in shell-holes to wait for zero, and it was a long uncomfortable wait, for the shell-holes were inches thick in squelching mud. The bombers were not objects of envy to their comrades. Shaking hands with Alex Rule as he prepared to cross the parapet, casting a gloomy eye at the dozen bombs that hung in pockets of webbing about his person, Joe Reid remarked, ‘Well, cheerio. I dinna wish ye any ill-luck, mind ye, but if ye happen to get in the way of an explosive bullet with a’ they bombs around ye, ye’ll get blown to buggery.’ But waiting in the pouring rain the bombers’ thoughts were wholly concerned with keeping the muzzles of their rifles out of the mud and their brassards of thick emery paper from getting soaked. If that happened, and the brassards were too wet to ignite the fuses of their bombs when they were struck, the bombers knew they would be well and truly scuppered.

At zero hour two mines exploded with a roar beneath the German front line, the guns lifted and the bombing party dashed across ahead of the infantry. In the few weeks since the Germans had regained the ground round Hooge, as always they had taken pains to fortify their defences. A length of their front trench-line was devastated by the explosion but the impenetrable tangles of barbed wire in front of it had hardly been touched. Rule and his companions blessed their luck when they found a gap.

Sgt. A. Rule.

Immediately in front of us the belt of wire had luckily been cut in one or two places where an odd percussion shell had landed. Wire-cutters did the rest, and we got to the German front line with comparatively light casualties, thanks to a slight fold in the ground that masked the rifle and machine-gun fire from the redoubt. But elsewhere the wire was practically untouched. Our light shrapnel barrage might have been rain for all the good it did. As we lay on the parapet of the German front line waiting for our guns to lift from our next objective I saw one of the most magnificent sights of the war – a headlong charge by kilted troops! On our flank the 1st Gordons were sweeping forward against the German front line. The wire ahead of them was intact and as they charged into it they were caught in deadly fire. Their line seemed to crumple, almost like a wave breaking on a rocky coast, but they were in such a frenzy that those who survived it kept going and charged right into that belt of terrible wire. Exactly the same thing happened to the next wave. It was all over in a few moments but that picture remains stamped on my memory. But they were ‘bonnie fechters’, and the few that were left of them worked their way through the wire on part of our front and carried on.

Later, when we were actually in the German line, I saw one private almost going berserk. He was being ordered back to get his wound dressed and he stood there yelling, ‘I’m no’ goin’ back to any bloody dressing station until I’ve had it oot wi’ Jerry! I’d never forgie mysel’ if I didnae get the bugger that killed Jimmy.’ I assumed that he and Jimmy had been inseparable pals. Another Jock put a clumsy bandage on the wound on his left arm and as soon as it was done he grabbed his rifle with his sound right arm and dashed off into the thick of a bombing scrap a few yards away. I didn’t see him again, but I wouldn’t have swapped places with any Germans he met that day for all the tea in China.

At first it seemed that they were winning. They had captured a good stretch of the German front line and they sent back a creditable bag of prisoners. Rule’s party got well ahead, bombing and capturing dug-outs until their bombs ran out and their numbers were winnowed away. Other less fortunate squads plunged impotently into the fight, trying in vain to ignite bombs on damp muddy brassards, trying in vain to defend themselves with rifles clogged with mud until they were shot at point-blank range.

The 14th Division attacking across the old ground in front of Y wood managed in places to penetrate the German line, but Bellewaerde Farm defeated them. There were no supporting troops, no reserves, no reinforcements, for such reserves as there were had been sent to Loos. Lord Kitchener’s grim prophecy of sacrifice and loss had been more than fulfilled, and long before nightfall German counter-attacks had pushed the exhausted survivors back to their start lines. They had not gained their objectives, but they had achieved their purpose. They could only hope that it had been worth it.

Sgt. A. Rule.

I was numb with the pain of my wounds and a cigarette was the only thing in the wide world that I really longed for. After a long time I heard the voice of our medical orderly saying, ‘God, there’s someone still in here. I thought this dug-out had been cleared hours ago.’ He placed me on a stretcher and I asked for the latest news of U Company. From what he said I gathered that all our platoon commanders and the entire rank and file were now either killed or wounded or missing. Three weeks afterwards a letter reached me in hospital from my old platoon sergeant. He said he had called the company’s roll at the close of that eventful day and only two or three of its original members had answered their names. Joe Reid got through. He got a large chunk of shrapnel in his left lung, but he kept firing his machine-gun until he was dragged forcibly away from it. When I met him afterwards he confessed that the shell had nearly settled him, but he shrugged it off. He said, ‘Anyway, every bloody dug-out in Sanctuary Wood was full of moaning wounded and I refused to die in miserable company. So I carried on.’ Months later when we were discharged from hospital a few of the survivors of Hooge came together for a spell at camp in Ripon. After that we drifted our separate ways. And that was the end of U Company.

Bill Worrell was also on his way to hospital. So was Walter Bagot-Chester. Arthur Agius had miraculously survived. All three had been in the attack north of Lens across the old battlefield of Neuve Chapelle. They called it the action of Piètre and the attack at least had a worthwhile objective, for if they could gain a foothold on the Aubers Ridge, link up with the troops attacking on their left at Bois Grenier, and join in with a victorious advance at Loos on their right, they would have been well on the way to Lille. Like the men who fought at Hooge, they were back where they started, but the first two German lines had already been captured when the 12th Rifle Brigade went ‘over the top’ for the first time.

Rfn. W. Worrell.

At about 8 a.m. on the 25th the order was passed down for 9 Platoon to move up to the front line. Those ten hours of waiting, up to our knees in mud, had certainly dampened our fighting spirit. As we reached the front line I had a shock. My Company Commander was being held up by his runner. He had been shot through the forehead while standing on the firestep encouraging the company as they went over. He must have been killed instantly. Duckboards with every other bar knocked out were being used as ladders. I found myself in front of our barbed wire with Albert Chitty. Every few minutes a Jerry shrapnel shell exploded with a roar and a burst of black smoke just to our right, and we could hear the bullets and splinters plopping into the mud around us and machine-guns and rifle fire were enfilading from the left flank. We decided not to wait for the rest of the platoon but to push on. The safest place seemed to be the German trench! We slithered and scrambled across the long, long two hundred yards between the trenches, found a gap in the German wire and jumped into the trench. Propped up in a corner on the firestep was a huge Black Watch private. He was unconscious and blowing bubbles of blood from his mouth and nose. It was obvious that he was dying fast. There was nothing that we could do for him except hope that the stretcher-bearers would be following up.

We moved forward until we were in the German third line and we were still alone. Albert Chitty said, ‘Well, we’ll have to wait till the rest of the company come up, they’ve got to pass by this place, so we’ll sit here.’ We sat down and while we were waiting there was a terrific bang in front of me on the other side of the trench. A German shell hit the parados and shot the lot in on me. The trench had a wooden revetting frame to hold it in position, and the top of this frame caught me across my face and it was holding me down, pinning me against the back of the trench – broke my jaw top and bottom. The shrapnel went into my tongue and I had a bit of shrapnel in my head. Albert Chitty was just a little farther up and he came rushing down. He got hold of one of the other lads there and they got their rifles in at the top between the revetting frame and the wall of the trench, and they heaved, and I fell into the gap underneath and they pulled me out.

By this time it was a wholesale retreat of our troops. The Indian troops were coming back over the top of us and through the trench. ‘Run, Johnnie, run,’ they were shouting ‘Allemagne coming.’ Albert said, ‘Come on, boys, we’ve got to get out of here,’ and they dragged me, carried me, pulled me along, and they got me back into our line. It was a nightmare experience. It took two hours. I was suffering from shock and concussion, in addition to my wounds, and I can only remember flashes of that awful journey. I just remember Albert saying to me, ‘Come on, keep going. If you don’t, you’ll die! Come on.’ And he kept me going.

The Battalion dressing station was almost in the front line. That was the day that our Medical Officer, Captain Maling of the RAMC, won the VC. He had a little aid post in one firebay of the trench. The back of it had been knocked right out, and there was all sorts of bits and pieces of men lying about there. He looked at me and he said, ‘If you can get out, go! Can you walk?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ Well I couldn’t walk. My knees were giving way under me, and there was this big Welsh lad who was in my company, big Ben Williams, who was wounded in the arm, and he was making his way out by Winchester Road communication trench. Albert saw him and he said, ‘Would you take Billy out with you?’ He said he would, so we went on along Winchester Trench, and it was about three feet deep in water! Everybody was trying to get through it, and we kept on feeling things underneath us, which of course were wounded men who had fallen and drowned in the mud. Ben said, ‘I don’t like to leave you, but I’m going over the top.’ Well, I couldn’t talk – my face was tied up by then, you see – my stomach was hurting me like hell, I don’t know what it was. So he said, ‘Right, come and stand over here and I’ll climb over you and pull you up.’ So he climbed up and got over the top, then pulled me over with his one arm, and helped me down.

We got to the end, where the communication trench came out on the road outside Laventie (it was an awfully long way, I remember!), and there was one of the old horse-drawn ambulances, and the chap was saying, ‘Walking cases only, walking cases only.’ So Taffy said, ‘Well he’s a walking case, he can get in.’ Of course I was half dead, and the driver didn’t want to take me. Anyhow, eventually Ben got me on. The next I knew was when I woke up lying on the floor in the convent at Estaires where the sisters were looking after our people. I had this anti-tetanus jab and this sister came along with a little funnel. My nose was completely blocked up. My mouth was closed up and I was breathing through just a little hole. She put this funnel in and began pouring tea in – kindly meant, but I couldn’t breathe and my reaction was to blow, and I blew the tea back all over her! The Mother Superior came round and had a look at me, and had me taken in to her little cubby-hole where she bathed my mouth and eventually cleaned the blood up, and then I was put on the ambulance which took me to a train, then to Rouen.

The 12th Rifle Brigade had covered themselves with glory. They were the only battalion of the 20th Division to go into the attack, and they had not let the division down. They reached and held the third line of German trenches, but they were out on a limb. The Bareilly Brigade on their right had done well too, but when they were driven back the riflemen beside them had no alternative but to retire. It was a bitter blow, and the action cost them dear. Bill Worrell was one of three hundred and twenty-nine casualties – killed or wounded or missing.

The Garhwal Brigade of the Meerut Division had fared worst of all. Their frontage, on the right of the attack, ran south from Mauquissart, and the 3rd Londons were in the support line ready to advance in the second wave when the Gurkhas and the Leicesters had captured the first enemy line. Arthur Agius’s company was in position behind the Duck’s Bill, where a small rectangle of breastworks enclosed a watery waste of craters and dug-outs. It was thrust out well into No Man’s Land towards the enemy line, connected by a long sap to the British front-line trench. Such a fine target for enemy guns was constantly shelled and since enemy machine-gunners seldom left it alone the Duck’s Bill was a hot spot. The Gurkhas were to advance on either side to capture the German front line and a Gas Brigade detachment was standing by ready to release clouds of gas and smoke that would smother the enemy before the infantry attacked.

Stand-to, for the infantry, was at 3.30 in the morning. Platoon officers roused their men and called the roll, rifles were inspected with special care, hot tea was handed out. Later, towards zero hour, there would be a rum ration, and meanwhile the men were warned to keep their heads down. The bombardment was well under way, the enemy guns were sending back shell for shell and here in the support line there had already been some casualties. Captain Agius, making his rounds to see for himself that all was well, was constantly called back to the signallers’ dug-out. Messages were arriving thick and fast. The one they had all been waiting for was logged at six minutes past four: ‘Zero 5.50. Please acknowledge.’ But long before zero they were overtaken by disaster.

The shell fell well in front of the trench, but it was near enough to cause the men to duck involuntarily and let out a collective sigh of relief when the fall-out subsided. It was several minutes before Lieutenant Taylor of the Royal Engineers came staggering down the sap and almost collapsed into Agius’s arms. He was incapable of speech, he was green and gasping, and he was waving a message which he apparently wished Agius to wire to brigade headquarters: ‘Am somewhat gassed,’ it read, ‘but will attempt carry on at time stated if you wish. Wind one mile per hour southerly direction.’ Taylor was quite obviously unfit to ‘carry on’, and in no state even to tell what had happened but it was not hard to guess that the shell had hit the gas cylinders in the trench ahead and already there was a whiff of gas in the air. There was nothing to be done but to call for stretcher-bearers, to rewrite the illegible message adding ‘Lieutenant Taylor incapable of carrying on’ and dispatch it by runner.

Even before Agius could go forward to find out what precisely had happened another message arrived, scribbled with frantic haste, blurred and spattered with raindrops, but its purport was plain enough. ‘To Captain 3rd London: one battery of cylinders destroyed by bomb 4.35. Several men gassed slightly, one seriously.’ It was signed ‘Figg Acting Sergeant RE’.

It was the first of Figg’s urgent calls for help, and even before Agius had mustered a party of volunteers to go forward another arrived. The messenger’s eyes were bulging and streaming as he stumbled out of the sap. ‘Must have twenty men at once to cover remaining gas batteries with sandbags. Figg Acting Sergeant RE.’

Pulling on his gas-mask, Agius went forward to see the situation for himself. It was desperate. The trench was badly knocked about. Despite Figg’s valiant efforts gas was seeping steadily from the damaged cylinders. One after another, as the gas spread, men were collapsing wild eyed, vomiting, gasping for breath, and it was obvious that Sergeant Figg himself was on the point of collapse.

Agius’s men did their best. It was hard labour working in suffocating gas-helmets to rebuild the broken trench, to tear sandbags from the sides of the sap, to heave them to the forward post, to pile them round the cylinders in a blinding smog of concentrated fumes. Man after man succumbed. The guns were thundering, time was running out, the gas was still escaping from the damaged cylinders. Now it was hanging thick in front of the trenches and drifting lazily northward enveloping more of their own line as it went, drifting everywhere but towards the Germans.

At zero hour the Gurkhas waiting to go donned gas-helmets and charged through it. It was a bad start.

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

Clouds of gas blew backwards and we had to tuck our helmets which we were wearing all the tighter. I was wearing two helmets one over the other, but in spite of these my throat became very sore. Even before we started one of the gas men in the traverse in which I was standing keeping an eye on my watch became overcome while working his removal sprayer and was lying at my feet groaning horribly. I was counting the seconds and when I gave the signal to cross the parapet I think we were all glad to get out of our trench full of gas. The air in front was thick with gas and smoke from the smoke bombs and we couldn’t see more than a few yards. There was not a shot fired from the Germans and owing to this we were able to slacken our pace to a quick walk and dress our line to a certain extent. The distance to the front German trench was about two hundred yards. For the first eighty yards the air was thick, but as we emerged into view of the Hun they let drive at us. I found my men dropping all round me, and when I reached the German wire I was practically alone and I found myself with one or two others literally running along the outside cage of the German wire searching for a way through.

The wire was not cut, and there was no way through. In a matter of moments Bagot-Chester felt a sharp blow on his right shoulder and fell to the ground close to the German wire. It would have impaled him had he not been flung backwards by the force of the bullet. He thanked his lucky stars for that and rolled into a shell-hole a yard or so away. It was the smallest of shell-holes, gouged by a ‘pipsqueak’ – too small and too shallow to give much cover. Havildar Budhiman was already there, clutching his wounded arm, and there was just enough room for the two of them lying face to face on their uninjured sides. Raising his head an inch to risk a cautious look across the pock-marked ground Bagot-Chester could see wounded men in every shell-hole, squirming and jumping under a shower of shrapnel and flying bullets. There was a squeal beside him. Budhiman had been hit again. His breathing became laboured, his face turned grey and pallid, he was obviously in pain. Bagot-Chester had morphia in his pocket but the shell-hole was so shallow, the firing was so fierce, the cover was so puny, that he dared not turn to reach it with his left hand, and his right hand beneath his shattered shoulder was useless. There was nothing for it but to lie still, to hope for the best and to wait for the dark.

They lay there for thirteen hours. By mid-afternoon both men were half unconscious with pain, for Budhiman had been hit again in the legs, and a shell fragment had pierced his captain’s right groin, and by and by two more splinters wounded his left foot and his left leg below the knee. Late in the afternoon to complete their misery the rain came on in torrents and their shell-hole began to fill with water. But at least the discomfort roused them to consciousness and, better still, the firing eased up as the machine-gunners who had been paying them such assiduous attention sought shelter. All that Bagot-Chester could see from his position just below ground level was the rain running from strand to strand on the black wall of barbed wire looming above him and the merest glimpse of a trench behind it. It was not a pleasant sight but, feeling instinctively that his best chance of survival lay in staying conscious, he forced his eyes to stay open and nudged Budhiman from time to time when he showed signs of drifting off.

It was the longest day of his life.

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

The rain stopped after a time and dusk began to come on, so slowly it seemed to us. Budhiman wanted to be off, but I was not taking any risks. We had lain about all day and it was stupid to spoil our chance by leaving half an hour too early. I suppose it was about eight o’clock when we started. I had lost so much blood I couldn’t get up on my feet, and in trying to do so I was very sick. Fortunately the rain had made the clay soil so slippery that I was able to slide myself along on my back. Every now and then I came up against a dead body in the dark and it was a great effort to me in my weak state to get round them. My progress was very slow. When I got about half-way back to our trenches, I was able to stand on my feet – or rather on one foot and the other heel – but I couldn’t walk more than five yards without collapsing, so really I got on quicker on my back. Finally I struck a muddy wet ditch about fifty yards from our trenches, and thinking to get on quicker along its slippery bottom I crawled into it, but I found it worse, and I was too weak to get out again, so I had to give it up. Fortunately the ditch seemed to be a highway for other wounded and unwounded and presently to my surprise an old Colour-Sergeant of mine in the 2nd Black Watch – Sutherland by name – came crawling along with some of his men. He tried to help me to move along, but I couldn’t do any more so he went on and let them know in our own trenches that I was out. After waiting some time, wet through and almost frozen stiff, Captain Burton, DSO (since killed), came out, bringing four of his men and a stretcher. I was soon in then, and he gave me some whisky. It was about 10.30 p.m. before I got to our first aid dressing station and after fifteen minutes’ rest in our doctor’s dug-out he sent me on to the advanced dressing station which meant being carried on a stretcher down a communication trench about eight hundred yards long, and then on a tramway another mile and a half. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep every time the stretcher stopped in the communication trench.

But at least he was alive and on his way to safety. So was Havildar Budhiman, but of Bagot-Chester’s hundred and twenty men who had gone into action, eighty-six had been killed, wounded or were missing.*

The firing tailed off as if the enemy too was exhausted by the gruelling events of the day. The troops were back where they started. Sentries had been posted, the men were dozing as best they could but Agius was still awake, still harassed as he had been all day by urgent requests for information. Apart from the fact that the attack on his immediate front had failed he had very little idea of what had happened in the course of the day. He had half filled his message pad in the course of the last twenty hours and responding to the latest urgent request for information he took the opportunity of trying to find out.

Situation unchanged. Mist prevents anything from being seen. Night fairly quiet. We dispersed a German party working on their parapet 3.50. Can you tell me how far the right of the Brigade has got on?

The fact was that it hadn’t got on at all.

Just a mile or so away on the Loos front beyond the la Bassée Canal, the shelling went on at intervals all night. Behind the enemy line they were rushing up munitions, gathering what reinforcements they could and reorganising their line. After their first spectacular dash the French had been brought to a halt at the foot of the Vimy Ridge. From the German point of view the situation there was still precarious but with the cessation of the attacks at Neuve Chapelle, Bois Grenier, and Hooge, it was becoming clear to the German High Command that the main push was against Loos. Tomorrow the attack would surely be renewed, and tomorrow they would be ready for it. Scarce though their manpower was, twenty-two extra battalions were rushed to the battle area. By morning the second line would be far more strongly held than their front line had been at the outset of the British attack.

It had been a long day for the gunners, and an exhausting one, but towards evening when Alan Watson’s team no longer had a gun to fire, he unexpectedly had time on his hands, and he used it to scribble in his diary.

Gnr. J. A. Watson.

September 25th. A most exciting day. The attack was made with the aid of a very strong kind of gas which killed hundreds of Germans. Our casualties very few. Advanced about three miles. Everybody in great spirits. I will never forget this week, especially today on the gun. We were working all night and started firing at 3 a.m. – wet to the skin. From our gun we fired a hundred and nineteen shells and then the gun burst! Heavens, what an explosion! We were all round the gun and not a soul was touched – a miraculous escape. One piece of steel ploughed through about eighty yards all trees, hit a wall and glanced off and cut down a tree about six or eight inches thick. Another one about the same size (about one and a half hundredweight) hit the wheel of a gun carriage about four yards to my right and smashed it to smithereens. It was dusk when that happened and the flash nearly blinded us. It was a truly marvellous escape. Saw a good few German prisoners, a miserable-looking lot, all sorts and sizes. Would not have missed today for worlds – really great!

At First Army headquarters in the chateau at Hinges the lights burned late and the orders that went out to the line were clear and straightforward. Tomorrow where the line had not been broken the troops were to break it, where they had succeeded they were to press forward, and tomorrow they were to recapture Hill 70. Now that they had the assistance of two fresh divisions, in the opinion of the Army Commander there was nothing to stop them smashing the Germans’ second line. The assault of 25 September had not been wholly successful but neither had it been entirely unsatisfactory. The official communique had already been wired from St Omer to London and although it was too soon to expect detailed information, exultant headlines had already been set in type and the presses in Fleet Street were rolling. In a very few hours the welcome news of victory at Loos would thud on to a million doormats to rejoice the Home Front at the breakfast table.

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