Chapter 35

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Sunday morning dawned bleak, with a grey drizzling mist. The men were cold and wet and hungry, for not one in a hundred quartermasters endeavouring to convey hot food to their men had managed to reach the line, still less discover their battalions. Some soldiers still had the remains of their iron rations – hard biscuits and perhaps a bite of cheese, but most water bottles had long ago been emptied and it was difficult to eat the dry untempting food when mouths and throats were dry and parched with thirst.

Lying out with his machine-guns to the left of Bois Hugo, Lieutenant Christison of the 6th Camerons was probably the first man to catch a glimpse of the Germans that morning. During the hours of darkness a battalion of the Northamptons had come up on the left of his post but the patrol Christison sent out returned with disquieting news. The Northamptons had moved away. Now the machine-gunners were isolated up the hill, some hundreds of yards ahead of their Battalion and well out in front of the ragged line.

Lt. A. F. P. Christison, MC.

We stood-to for a bit but all was quiet, and we brewed up some tea. Suddenly looking to my left I saw a line of Boches running forward and jumping into the trench vacated by the Northamptons. I noticed they were the famous 17th Bavarians. I wished we had some bombers, but all I could do was to pull back one machine-gun and a few men to protect my exposed flank. I felt machine-guns should not be sent out on their own without supporting infantry.

The infantry who might have supported them was still in confusion and efforts to reorganise them during the night and to push forward the new divisions to stiffen the front had only added to the chaos. After dark, plodding through rain and mist in search of some approximate position in strange country, it was remarkable that

some Battalions had reached the line at all, for roads and tracks were few and the maps the Army had so optimistically issued were of little use, although they helpfully covered many miles of territory east of Loos to guide the troops on their ‘long walk’ after the fleeing Germans. The immediate front occupied such a small area of the large map that few, if any, landmarks were shown – none of the small tracks, none of the numerous slag-heaps, and only an occasional blob to indicate a wood. Even Hill 70 was only marked by a faint contour line. Faced with the need to appoint a rendezvous ‘off the map’ for its supply and ammunition wagons, and for lack of any other clearly distinguishable spot, most battalions had independently plumped for the farm of le Rutoire. Le Rutoire lay almost directly behind the front at Lone Tree on a narrow road linking the highway from Béthune to Lens and the road from Vermelles to the village of Hulluch, and not far from the ruined cottage where Alex Dunbar’s gun was hidden at the start of the battle. It was a narrow road and in peacetime on a busy day during harvest perhaps five or six farm wagons would lumber along its rutted unmade surface. Now, with fifty, sixty, seventy horse-drawn army limbers trying to make their way to the same spot it was little short of mayhem. The jam stretched back for miles.

The difficulties were just as bad on the main Béthune to Lens road, the vital highway to the line at Loos. It was still being shelled; its surface was so broken and cratered, so littered with dead and the debris of shattered wagons, so choked with streams of wounded, that it had taken hours of sweat and labour to get even a few guns forward and it was almost impossible to get ammunition through. There would not be nearly enough of either to support the new attack on Hill 70. The bombardment was due to begin at eight o’clock in the morning. An hour later the infantry would go into the attack.

At First Army Headquarters at Hinges it was difficult to appreciate the shifting circumstances that prevailed at the battle-front, for they were beyond description. It would have required hours of study to analyse and weigh up the dispatches of seven separate divisions, which had themselves been compiled from the reports of twenty-one brigades, summing up the position – so far as they could judge it – of eighty-four confused and disorganised battalions. Only time, patience, and the exercise of considerable leaps of imagination and intuition, might have resulted in an omniscient grasp of how matters stood. On the maps on which staff officers had so scrupulously drawn the advanced line, battalions stood neatly ranged in their supposed positions as lead soldiers might be ranged for a set-piece battle. Naturally, they were aware that there had been casualties, and Major General McCracken had made it clear in his report from 15th Divisional Headquarters that his division was in no fit state to renew the assault in the morning, but his objections had been overcome. The 62nd Brigade would be detached from the 21st Division to assist him. The advance must be pressed, and before it could go forward, Hill 70 must be retrieved. With that he had to be satisfied.

Tower Bridge had caught it badly during the night. Its battered twin towers were hidden in the mist. But loose iron girders creaked and clanked in the morning breeze above the Northumberland Fusiliers shivering in rough and ready trenches in a field not far away. They had been waiting and shivering for two tedious hours before orders reached them not long before the bombardment began at eight o’clock. Colonel Harry Warwick summoned the company officers to the shack that served as Battalion Headquarters. Two battalions, their sister battalion the 13th Northumberland Fusiliers and the 8th East Yorks, were to follow in immediate support of the 45th Brigade of the 15th Division. Their own role was to follow two hundred yards behind, attacking on either side of the track that led to Hill 70 redoubt. No track was marked on their maps, the ground was unfamiliar, and the Colonel could only point out the general direction and wish them luck. David Graham-Pole returned to C Company to pass on the orders and warn his men to stand by. Harry Fellowes was not ready. His Lewis gun which had been loaded on to the transport had not yet reached the line.

Pte. H. Fellowes, 12th Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers, 62 Brig., 21 Div.

Our platoon officer got hold of me, and of course he knew that the transport hadn’t come up. There were two of us, so he told us to double back and go as quickly as we could and find the transport and bring back the Lewis gun, because we were going into action. So we set off. It took us a long time to work our way back past the road where the cemetery was and on to the main road we’d come down the night before. That main road – well I can’t describe it! It was just a mass of holes, and debris and dead men and horses lying everywhere. We worked our way back and eventually we came to where our transport should have been. Of course, it wasn’t there. It had never even got there! We went a bit further and it was only then that we found out that it had been shelled – knocked out! Anything that was left of it had gone back, and of course there was no gun. So we had to turn and go back again. This took a long time and by now the shells were flying over our heads, and now and again we had to stop and duck down. By the time we did get back to where we’d been, the Battalion had moved off, going up to the attack, you see. When I came back from what was left of the transport, I hadn’t got my gun, but the Adjutant stopped me. He said, ‘What company do you belong to?’ I said, ‘C Company, sir.’ He said, ‘The C.O.’s got a message for you.’

He thrust a paper into Harry’s hand and said, ‘Make your way up to the front and give it to Captain Pole.’ The message was written on a sheet from a signal pad and it read, ‘The C.O. wishes the attack to be carried out with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion.’ Harry thrust the message into his pocket and plodded off towards the hill, following his nose. The bombardment had lifted and the sound of the fighting ahead showed him the way.

When he arrived in front of the redoubt the first waves were well ahead and when he eventually found C Company they were standing with bayonets fixed and on the point of going over the top. The whistles blew, the men clambered over the parapet and began to run towards the redoubt a hundred yards ahead. For a moment the trench was empty then the following wave dropped in from the parados to take their place. Pushing his way through looking for Captain Pole, Fellowes could not see a single familiar face. C Company had gone. Guessing that Captain Pole would be with them, and intent on delivering the message, Fellowes scrambled over the top and ran after them into the fight.

Pte. H. Fellowes.

The whole hill was crowded with men. There was no formation of any description. The whole hill was just one mass of men, moving on, cheering like hell. All the time we were running across the Germans never fired a shot and then it just seemed as if somebody had given the order and they all opened out with machine-guns. Men were just mown down. It was just slaughter, just suicide, all hell let loose. Men began to stumble and fall, and machine-guns were firing from the front of us enfilading from the left-hand side from some other Germans. A lad in front of me was shot in the head and he fell, and I tripped and fell over him. To this day I don’t feel any shame. I stayed where I was!

Capt. D. Graham-Pole.

Going up the hill I got a horrible bang on the head, put my hand up and found it covered with blood, so whipped out my handkerchief tied it over my head and under my chin. The blood stopped flowing – it was only a surface wound – and served as a good hair fixer, as I hadn’t had time to do my hair that morning. Then I went on. When quite near the German trenches I found I was still sucking on a cigar. The Germans were perfectly awful with machine-guns – simply mowed our men down.

How long I stayed there I don’t know.

Pte. H. Fellowes.

It seemed like hours. Afterwards I knew it could only have been about ten minutes, but I’ll remember the sight until my dying day. The whole slope was full of prone figures. Men began to come back. Others never left – like the lad I stumbled over who’d been shot through the head. After a bit I began to crawl back and I got back into the trench. I landed in the same place where I’d left. We wondered what was going to happen to us! We lay there and it was awful listening to the cries of the men on the field. Some were screaming – terrible! The Scots were in a trench that they dug themselves, about four foot deep, and our lads were crowded at the back. It was trickling with rain all the time.

Colonel Warwick went forward himself after his battalion was pushed back, but there was nothing to be done. He could only stop in the trench looking for his own men in the confusion of troops who had fallen back, and hoping against hope that the confusion was such that the few bemused officers and men he could find were not all that was left of his Battalion.

Twice they had charged up Hill 70 and twice they had very nearly succeeded in taking it. The front trenches were overrun but two hundred men in a keep in the centre of the redoubt held out. The keep was constructed with just such an attack in mind. Its trenches were deep and formidable. They faced in four directions and up to twenty machine-guns could pour out fire from concealed positions. They could command the slopes in front when fresh waves pressed on from the captured trenches. They could command the summit of the hill behind if any troops managed to gain it. Not many did, for the machine-guns in the keep also dominated the slopes on either side and the British soldiers attempting to pass were scythed down like meadow grass. The Scots were in the vanguard of the rush up the hill. Some of them survived and almost reached the crest, but it was too much to expect of the half-trained inexperienced soldiers of the 62nd Brigade. The survivors following close behind hesitated, wavered and then began to drift back, crawling, stumbling, even running in a dash for safety. A few remaining Scottish soldiers, unsettled by the sight, or perhaps believing that an order had been given to retire, followed suit.

Lieutenant Christison had been ordered to bring back his guns from the outposts near Bois Hugo and to protect the left flank of the Battalion as the Camerons went forward to the attack.

Lt. A. F. P. Christison.

My chaps were most indignant. They felt they had done well and were in a strong position. Lance-Corporal Campbell even argued we should ignore the message but Orders is orders’ and regretfully we disengaged and ran for it across the Lens road under fairly heavy rifle fire, losing another gun and one or two men on the way. When we got to a large German support trench near Puits 14 bis, I found a party of about eighty or a hundred Camerons in it without an officer. I could see a battle going on on Hill 70 under heavy fire and I heard that we had taken and now lost Hill 70. It seemed we were trying to retake it and I tried to lead the party in the trench forward to help. But they were unwilling. Seeing most of them were West Highlanders or Islemen I stood on the parapet and sang the first verse of the ‘March of the Cameron Men’.

There’s many a man of the Cameron clan,

That has followed his chief to the field;

He has sworn to support him, or die by his side,

For a Cameron never can yield.

He sang it in Gaelic and it was a song that had stirred the blood of the Highlanders for as long as anyone could remember. The men still looked sullen and frightened but there was a twitch of reaction. Christison was dangerously exposed standing at full height on the parapet but he launched into the well-known chorus, roaring rather than singing it to make himself heard above the chatter of machine-guns and the clamour of battle.

I hear the pibroch sounding, sounding,

Deep o’er the mountain and glen;

While light springing footsteps are trampling the heath,

‘Tis the march of the Cameron men,

‘Tis the march, ‘Tis the march,

‘Tis the march of the Cameron men.

They were stirring now, standing up, picking up rifles, and Christison knew that he had won. He hardly needed to continue. As he launched on the third verse the Camerons were already scrambling out of the trench and encouraging reluctant stragglers to come on.

Oh! proudly they walk, but each Cameron knows,

He may tread on the heather no more;

But boldly he follows his chief to the field,

Where his laurels were gathered before.

Hoarse with his efforts Lieutenant Christison led the Cameron men at a trot to pick up what laurels they could on Hill 70.

Lt. A. F. P. Christison.

As we approached the main part of the Battalion I was told the CO. had led two charges up the hill and gained some ground each time. He was preparing for a final effort.

I handed over the stragglers I had brought forward to Captain Campbell Colquhoun and was told by the Adjutant to get my guns out to the left flank and give covering fire. I do not think there was any artillery support as the situation was too confused. There was no Forward Observation Officer.

The arrival of the stragglers gave Colonel Douglas Hamilton the chance to charge again – and he knew very well it was the last chance, for there were precious few Camerons left. A little way to his right, in the immediate vicinity of Hill 70, there was no sign of another advance. The officers of the 62nd Brigade had bravely tried to rally their men, knowing that they must, but so many officers had courted danger in setting an example, waving encouragement from the rims of the shelter pits where the shocked men were huddled, that most had been shot down in the act. So far Colonel Douglas Hamilton had seemed to be immune, twice charging up the hill ten yards ahead of his men in fruitless attempts to reach the top. Now he prepared to try for a third time. His force was almost spent, but if, with a supreme effort, they could advance, it might do a great deal to encourage others to join in, and one more charge might just succeed in encircling the vipers’ nest in the redoubt and outflanking it.

He was the first man out of the trench. He raised his arm, gave a final shout of encouragement – ‘Camerons… charge!’ – and set off up the hill. As the Camerons began running forward the Germans were lining up and preparing to counter-attack. They met before the Camerons had got half-way up the hill and, spent and exhausted as they were, they hardly stood a chance. Those who survived the encounter were pushed back well beyond their start-line. The Colonel was hit and, seeing him fall, Campbell Colquhoun dragged him to the shelter of a shell-hole and did his best to bind up his wounds. Douglas Hamilton had been caught across the middle of his body by machine-gun bullets and he only spoke twice more. ‘Colquhoun, I’m done!’ he muttered as the captain cut away his tunic to staunch the blood. For a time he seemed to be unconscious, then he opened his eyes and began to struggle a little, saying, ‘I must get up, I must get up!’ Moments later he died.

Christison and his machine-guns had been left behind.

Lt. A. F. P. Christison.

I was left away forward with my two guns. I never discovered what happened to one of them, but a wave of German infantry swept down on us. The gun I was with did some fine execution and then it jammed. I struggled with it while I sent the No. 1 back to collect more drums from the No. 3 and for some reason the No. 2 crawled out of our shell hole and was immediately hit, and I was left alone. The No. 3 crawled up with the last two drums and as he handed them to me he was hit and rolled into the next shell-hole. As I was struggling to release the drum which had jammed I looked up, and there was a German officer with a pistol in his hand. I drew mine and we fired together. I felt as if a mule had kicked me in the groin and he fell dead on top of me while the waves of German infantry swept by. I heaved him off and got a fright when I saw where he had caught me – in the thigh just below the groin. Thank Heaven I had been a medical student and had done an advanced course in First Aid. I suspected that an artery had been severed and I thought I was done. In panic I snatched off my whistle and stuffed it into the wound – which was not hurting then – and fixed and tightened my field dressing with the muzzle of my revolver to make a tourniquet. I tried to remember how many minutes later one had to release it and re-tie. I lay doggo and managed to change the drum.

Until now there had been little shelling for the position was too indeterminate for the Germans to risk hitting their own men, but on the dot of eleven o’clock their guns opened up and shells began to fall on the western slopes of Hill 70 where the remnants of the infantry lay helpless in front of the redoubt now firmly back in enemy hands. And the enemy, intending it should stay there, were pulverising the trenches and the ground for a mile behind to prevent supports and reserves from coming up to renew the assault. But there were no supports, and there were no reserves, and the frontal assault on Hill 70 would not now be renewed.

The plan had been for the 24th Division and the remainder of the 21st to attack side by side as soon as Hill 70 was captured. Even though the attack on the hill had failed, the Corps Commander intended to carry on with the second part of the plan, for the two new divisions were to attack to the left of Hill 70 between Bois Hugo and the village of Hulluch, secure behind the Germans’ second-line defences, which the 7th Division had disappointingly failed to capture the previous day. Now the 1st Division was to try again and General Hairing reasoned that, if two divisions at full strength could advance alongside them far enough to penetrate the German second line, Hill 70 would be out-flanked and easily enveloped. It was true that the 21st Division was short of its 62nd Brigade, now spent and shattered, but there was still, it seemed, a very reasonable chance of success. The 24th Division was also short of a Brigade. Their 73rd Brigade was with the 9th Division at Fosse 8.

The 21st Division was already in position in the line, the 24th was not, and written orders for the attack only reached them at 5.30 that evening long after it was over. They would have known nothing of it had Brigadier-General Nickalls not gone to Divisional Headquarters and returned with verbal instructions a matter of minutes before they were due to begin. Long before they reached the line their sister Division had been forestalled by events and overtaken by near disaster.

Since early morning small reconnoitring parties of the enemy had been filtering out of the second-line position a thousand yards ahead and working their way towards the British outpost line concealed by the morning mist. When it cleared there had been skirmishes, and even before larger bodies began to approach there had been many casualties in the fledgling battalions. But they had stood it well, and they had stuck it out with little protection from a heavy bombardment that preceded the German attack. When it lifted, the Germans moved forward and began to take up position for the assault. The 12th West Yorks had done well. They had already repulsed one attempt by rifle fire alone and now they were in action again, in a crude and shallow trench just north of Bois Hugo, firing at a group of enemy infantry moving diagonally across their front some hundreds of yards ahead. Their line was the base of a rough triangle formed by the western leg of Bois Hugo and the Lens-la Bassée road. The West Yorks were firing steadily and well, then a burst of fire from the eastern end of the wood took them by surprise. It ripped along their line, at lethal close quarters, and it caused devastation, It also caused panic. Soon most of the survivors were running back towards the Lens road. They ran fast and purposefully, but they were not an unruly mob; they were merely adjusting to the circumstances, and, with good Yorkshire sense, removing themselves as far as possible from the hurricane of bullets that showed no signs of letting up. Many more were wounded or killed as they ran. It was unfortunate that the colonel had been knocked out minutes earlier by a shell, and although the officers did their best to rally their men on the road and in the Chalk Pit further back, they met with no success. Brigadier Nickalls who saw the debacle from his headquarters at Chalk Pit House ran forward personally to help and was killed as he ran. After that there was no stopping them. One battalion after another, unsettled by the sight of men streaming back from the line, rose up and joined them in the retreat through Chalk Pit Wood and beyond, and the Germans began to follow in a great mass. Then it was their turn to panic. Five heavy shells fell among the leaders as they emerged from the cover of Bois Hugo and, stunned by the explosions and the sight of the carnage, the rest turned and fled back into the shelter of the wood.

As the British troops continued down the hill intent on reaching the shelter of its lower slopes they almost ran into disaster. A battalion of the Durham Light Infantry on its way up saw them approach, mistook them in their long overcoats for Germans, and opened fire. There were several casualties before the mistake was realised and the firing ceased. The men in retreat were not deterred – and neither were the 14th Durhams. They moved on, advancing up the slope to the front through the lines of retiring soldiers. The 15th Durhams were also on the way and, like the men of the 14th, they pushed on steadily to the line. On the stroke of eleven o’clock at the precise moment at which the attack of the two divisions had been planned, the two solitary battalions fixed bayonets and advanced in accordance with their orders. They did not get very far.

The 24th Division was in better fettle. It was true that they had started late and left the support position at the time they should have been going into the attack, and it was also true that, due to the detachment of one brigade and two battalions of another, they were at half strength, but they were full of pep and gave every impression of being delighted at the prospect of getting to grips with the enemy. They moved off in immaculate order down the long bare slope from Lone Tree Ridge into Loos Valley and, circling to their left to bring them parallel to their objective, kept in a perfect alignment. The very precision of their advance, their cheerful demeanour and their resolute step, put heart into men who were still retreating. As they dressed into fighting formation and began to advance up the hill, most of the men who were falling back turned and went back with them. They were still disorganised, the brigadier was gone and there was no one to direct the battalions to any particular objective, but when the whistles finally blew, they began to advance from more or less the positions they had left.

No order had reached Lieutenant Christison. He was still lying wounded far out in front. The tide of battle had flowed past him, and ebbed, and flowed past again. But lying in a small pocket of ground, he still had his machine-gun and it was enough to protect him, and to hold off any Germans who might have captured him. He had accounted for quite a few of the enemy as he lay waiting and hoping for support, or for reinforcements, or for rescue.

Lt. A. F. P. Christison.

Some time later I saw the lines of the 24th Division moving forward and the Germans running back. The Suffolks came through where I was and seemed to be going well. Then they wavered, and to my horror I saw them and the troops on both sides of them doubling back and leaving me isolated again. But one stout fellow, Sergeant A. F. Saunders, refused to retire. He had a Lewis gun he had picked up with a full drum on it. He crawled over to me and said he’d stay and fight. He made to crawl over to the next shell-hole and as he did so a shell landed and blew part of his left leg off about the knee. I crawled over and got him into the shell-hole, putting a tourniquet on his leg and giving him my water bottle, as his was empty. I crawled back to my hole and a few minutes later on looking over the top I saw a fresh wave of Germans advancing. I was wondering what to do – whether to lie doggo or open fire. There seemed no point in opening fire as there were perhaps a hundred and fifty enemy advancing rather diagonally across our front. To my amazement I heard short sharp bursts of Lewis gun-fire coming from the shell hole on my right. This was Sergeant Saunders, more or less minus a leg! The Germans were taken by surprise and bunched up, so I joined in and between us we took a heavy toll and the rest retired out of sight. I took down Sergeant Saunders’s number, name and regiment. I did not see a live German again that day.

Before they had been pushed back and pursued by large masses of the enemy, the leading battalions of the 24th Division had done wonderfully well, advancing eastwards north of Bois Hugo and down the long open slopes almost to their objective – the second German line. The line was all but impregnable. It bristled with concrete emplacements and strongpoints and during a night of interminable labour in the dark and the rain the Germans had stiffened its already strong defences, closing the few gaps to present an unbroken front, broadening and heightening the barbed-wire entanglements until they were fully four feet high and fifteen feet wide. Unlike their equally formidable front line which had been stormed so successfully the previous day, the second-line defences had not been shelled before the attack, and the 24th Division’s own guns which should have fired some kind of bombardment in advance of their assault were in trouble themselves. In the struggle and muddle during the hours of darkness they had failed to find their proper positions and, when daylight came, the gunners discovered, to their horror, that the guns were spread out on open ground across the Lone Tree Ridge. There was no cover, no means of camouflaging the battery positions, and they were in full view of several of the enemy’s guns which immediately opened fire. It was hardly surprising that their fire in support of their own Division was sparse and inaccurate. Some shells had fallen on their own troops. None but a few ranging shots had reached the objective they were about to assault.

The Germans had moved up more men in the night. This time there could be no helpful release of gas to take the fight out of them. As the British battalions ran down the gentle descent they could see the enemy soldiers with heads and shoulders well above their parapets firing on them as they came. They were also being fired on from both flanks – from the line in front of Hulluch, now behind them on their left, and from Bois Hugo as they passed it on their right. Inevitably, as they pressed further on, the enemy was firing at their backs. Not many men had reached the German wire, but a few of them did, and some even worked their way through it, but most of those who tried to cut some desperate passage through the wire were killed in the attempt, leaving a handful of survivors lying out in the long grass waiting for the reinforcements who would help them carry the line. They had waited until they were killed or wounded, or overwhelmed when the enemy advanced for the waves that had started to follow them were forced to retire. It was a gallant effort for untried troops in their first battle.

Now that they had recaptured the whole of Hill 70 redoubt and pushed the troops back down the hill the enemy guns were busy.

Capt. D. Graham-Pole.

The Germans began to bombard us with high-explosive shells. They are the very Devil and horribly nerve-racking. When they hit a man they simply send him into pieces. One lump of the Post Corporal – one of my men – was heaved at me hot and steaming. It was horrible! We were absolutely stuck by want of men and the attack had to be abandoned – the ground strewn with dead and dying – eloquent testimony to the pluck of our men! We got orders to retire about 4 p.m. as the trench was being enfiladed from both flanks. I was the last to get back to our old trench and there I just about collapsed. The Colonel was shot on the way back. About five o’clock I got with some other men to another line of trenches. We helped to hold these until we were relieved between 1 and 2 a.m. on Monday morning.

All along the line attacks had failed – but some German attacks had also been repulsed. On the northern flank the situation at Fosse 8 was still precarious, in the small hours of the morning the enemy had succeeded in reoccupying the quarries half-way between Hohenzollern redoubt and the Hulluch Road, and the situation north of the Hulluch Road was worrying. The 2nd Division which had failed to make much headway on the 25th and was back in its original trenches astride the la Bassée Canal had been ordered to stand fast and had suffered less than some others. Now they were ordered to provide a composite force of three battalions, to move it two miles to the south and to recover the quarries. They were put under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel B. C. M. Carter of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, and they called it Carter’s Force. Joe Beard was on the left-hand flank of the attack.

Sgt. J. Beard, 1st Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 6 Brig., 2 Div.

Throughout the 26th, a Sunday, we waited in support, eventually getting to the front line by evening. As you can imagine, by this second day it was quite a battlefield scene. Horses were dead around a wrecked field artillery gun which must have been driven across the trench over some temporary bridge. There were other casualties, too, and I can recall looking at them and thinking, ‘Some mother’s son.’

I was afraid of being afraid, the more so because I had a responsible job as NCO. Actually there was a sense of relief that the inevitable had happened: ‘Let’s get it over!’ I suppose adrenalin flows and a person isolates the mind from thoughts of danger – gets on with the job.

There we are, fixed bayonets, waiting. A while previously Aunt Elizabeth had asked me what would I like in a food parcel. I’d asked her to send me a piece of home-cured boiled bacon and I had a small piece left. I was chewing it when the order came. ‘CCompany. Over the top.’ Up we jump. Says I, ‘Well chaps, I’m not going to waste this,’ and there I went, bayonet in one hand, a piece of ham in the other.

Just previous to the command there was heavy enemy machine-gunning along our parapet which would have been murderous. But as we ran forward it ceased – for a spell. From that point I can recall every thought and action. I was thinking, ‘Mary, Mary,’ just looking at a picture of my lovely sweetheart in my mind. Afterwards I felt ashamed that I hadn’t thought first of Mother.

The trenches were possibly four hundred yards apart and half-way across there was a barrier of barbed wire which was supposed to have been blown to smithereens, but in fact we went through a gap in single file. The Germans could easily have wiped out our section. They held their fire, until we were through. Then they let us have it.

I was running by the side of our Company Officer, Captain Sumner. He asked, ‘How many are there left?’ I glanced around. ‘Three.’ Very luckily we were on the edge of a captured German trench. At that moment he was shot through the knee and said, ‘Jump into that trench.’ That was the last I saw or heard of him. Which left Lance-Corporal Priddy, DCM, and myself.

In a dug-out was sitting a lone Captain of a regiment which had unsuccessfully attacked. A wounded man was screaming out in front and the Captain said, ‘I wish you could fetch that man in.’ Priddy and I looked at each other, then we both jumped out. By this time it was quite dusk, about seven o’clock. I bent down, feeling corpses. Machine-guns were turned on us but I found the wounded man. He was shot through the stomach. I recognised him as a chap in my platoon I’d reprimanded for shooting pigeons. His eyes were pinpointed towards his nose through shock. I was bending over him when I was shot – a spate of bullets ragged my clothing and the emergency first aid pack sewn into the corner of my tunic was shattered. The feeling was like a red hot poker going through the flesh. I clapped my hands over my groin and I remember shouting, ‘Priddy, I’m shot.’ I stood like a fool for a few moments then I realised that I was still a target, so I fell down and rolled. I am sure it was pure luck that I rolled into what had been a German communication trench.

I could only crawl and drag myself along. The weather had been wet and everyone was covered in greyish-white chalk clay. I had to climb over sandbag barriers – all wet and shiny. Each time I got to the top of one I was above the trench, exposed to shells or bullets. After two of these I reached a barrier of piled-up dead men. I can still feel the thankfulness I felt as I got a good hold of the stiffs’ clothing and slid over!

Eventually I fell into a group of our own company. Fortunately I didn’t know how bad my wound was. I was soaked with blood. Someone cut off my right trouser leg and I remember a corporal saying, ‘Well lad, I can’t do anything with it.’ Lieutenant Adie gave me a drink of brandy from his flask – he was killed later that night. Someone poured iodine into the wound; the pain was so intense I fainted.

Hulluch and the quarries remained in German hands. Now everything depended on the Guards – the last remaining reserves. They had been a long time on the way, for although the order to bring them into battle had been sent out early in the morning it had only reached some of the brigades at noon. But they had made good time marching through the throng of returning troops and vehicles, pressing on, hardly faltering in the shell-fire that sped them along the road. Late in the afternoon they reached the trenches outside Loos.

Pte. W. Jackman, 4th Grenadier Guards, 3rd Guards Brig.

Getting nearer our destination we kept seeing wounded chaps passing us and when we saw a lot of Highland regiments, they had aprons over their kilts, so we knew we were getting nearer to the firing line.

My company was Number 1 Company, leading, and we went up from Vermelles over a ridge. It was like a big valley. In front of us was Hill 70. Then we came under fire. Well, I didn’t understand it was fire! It was like a lot of whips cracking. And the order came, ‘Get into artillery formation.’ Well, artillery formation is about ten feet between each soldier, and we went down in line like that, straight down the hillside, and it was a most eerie affair because it sounded like whips cracking, and then you’d see the man on the left, he’d just flop down and that was that!

Capt. G. A. Brett, DSO, MC, 23rd Bn., London Regt.

Looking backward from the village into Loos Valley, the late No Man’s Land, the straw-coloured ground rose gently up to the ridge and the mining hamlets of Philosophe and Maroc stood against the sky some fifteen hundred yards away. A platoon of troops appeared over the sky-line near Maroc, marching in fours towards us. Another showed to their right, then another and another, until the crest of the ridge was dotted with moving black squares. More and more followed until the whole straw-coloured slope began to look like a gigantic moving chess-board.

Soon after the leading platoons came over the crest German batteries opened fire on them, and quickly every possible enemy gun was concentrating on the chess-board. The platoons never hesitated. They came steadily on, more and more of them, through a real hell of explosion and flame – no halting, every gap filled immediately it was made. ‘It’s the Guards,’ said someone, ‘the Guards Division coming into action for the first time.’

Pte. W. Spencer, 4th Bn., Grenadier Guards, Guards Div.

Well, I wasn’t really frightened to tell you the truth. We were all marching in fours, you know, the same as we might do in England. Then all of a sudden when the first shell burst near the road as we were marching up, we all deployed left and right of the road and spread out, and we kept on marching. Some were knocked out, but we kept on going and we did feel a little excited but not frightened – that’s the impression it gave me. As a matter of fact, I was a bit disappointed with the first two shells. I thought they’d make more explosion. But I found out afterwards it wasn’t always the ones that made the most explosion that caused the most damage. No! We advanced roughly about a mile and then we saw some old trenches which had been occupied previously by British troops that had gone forward and they were mostly Scotsmen who were laying about on the ground and I always remember two who were actually hanging on the barbed wire. In kilts. That’s very vivid in my memory. We paused by those trenches and then went forward again and our battalion went straight forward for the town of Loos.

Capt. G. A. Brett. DSO, MC.

Our men leapt spontaneously from their cover into machine-gun fire to pull aside barbed wire and throw plank bridges across the trenches, anything to help these magnificent soldiers through. They reached us and passed through us, every man in step, rank closed up, heads erect, probably the finest men the world has ever seen.

Next day, it was hoped, the Guards would recapture the Chalk Pit and Puits 14 bis, and deliver a two-pronged assault that would finally secure Hill 70. Meanwhile they would take over the line from the remnants of the divisions whose men were on their last legs. The 3rd Cavalry Brigade, who had expected by this time to be dashing across the Douai Plain, stabled their horses and set off on foot to help them hold the line.

Pte. W. Jackman.

The people in front was this 21st Division, and we had to try and get in and take over the line from them, but they’d started off by digging a small trench alongside the road, and we all laid down there and the order came to dig in. Well, we only had trenching tools and there was a little mound in front of us what they’d chucked up and we had a bit of cover like that. So we kept on digging away. Where I dropped in the trench there was a dead man, and me and another chap had to hump this bloke out. That was my first experience of a dead man. We dug, and dug and dug, and it was hard chalk and all you could do with a trenching tool was dig into the bank, the wall of the trench. The shrapnel was coming over, and we was trying to make a hole to get our head in there.

Trpr. W. Clarke.

We were practically on top of Jerry’s trench and relieving was a dodgy business. It was only twenty or twenty-five yards from them and you couldn’t stand up or you’d get it in the noddle. Right, we crouch our way to this trench, start to go in – and by the way I’ve got my load on my back, plus a huge trench periscope made of sheet steel. I was so loaded I could hardly walk, let alone crouch. We get half-way up the trench and a message is passed down, ‘Lieutenant So-and-So refuses to be relieved.’ What we heard him called by the men we were to relieve I can’t repeat here, but after almost having a riot on his hands he gave in.

Right, we get to our position and I had to go along to the left. When I got there I found I was the only man. Round the corner from my bit of trench it had all been blown in and it was filled with liquid mud, so when I reported this I had orders that every two hours I must crawl along the trench and make contact with the infantry on our left. Which I did… now and again! On the way there was a dead Welsh Fusilier, lying on the fire platform, and he wasn’t a pretty sight, a great big hefty fellow, about six feet four inches. He was beginning to smell terrible. We reported him and later that night came a message: ‘Soames, Clarke, bury that man.’ I thought, ‘Oh blimey, here we go again.’ Anyway we had a go. He was too heavy and bloated for us to get him over the top and bury him, so in the end we dug a hole in the side of the trench, pushed him in and covered him up the best we could. But as it rained the earth washed away and there was our companion again! We kept on having to cover him.

Pte. W. Spencer.

Our company was on the extreme right nearest to Tower Bridge. We got half-way up the hill, there was quite a steep gradient where we were, and then we paused again and got down and we were ordered to take cover as much as we could. But there wasn’t much cover at all, and of course we were right in the line for machine-gun fire from the Germans. All we could do was lay out in the open, that’s what it was. By then it was getting dusk and we lay down on the ground and there was plenty of firing coming up, and then Jerry started sending these Very lights up to see people who were moving and train machine-guns on them. Well! Next thing a Very light came over and just missed my back and settled on my haversack. I could feel it! It had flared up and smoke was pouring over my head, you see? I could smell it and I thought, ‘My God! I’m on fire.’ I rolled over quick on my back and rolled back and forward to smother it. No time to get it off – it was blazing! Then I pulled it off when it got to a smoulder. I kept that haversack for years. It had a large hole in it where the Very light had burned through.

Throughout the night as others moved in to relieve them, small parties of exhausted men made their way out of the line and went thankfully back from the battle zone in such an inextricable confusion of units and formations that large numbers of military police had to be posted along the roads to direct them to their various rendezvous and guide them across country in the dark. The remnant of the 15th Scottish Division was to move back into reserve. The 21st and 24th Divisions would be withdrawn and re-formed.

Behind the soldiers plodding wearily westwards the horizon glowed with the flash of the guns and flared into brilliance as Very lights streaked through the sky. A mile or so to the north, where the battle for the slag-heaps near the Hohenzollern redoubt swung back and forth and the position was touch and go, the remaining brigade of the 24th Division was still in the line, and the men were clinging as best they could to trenches along the eastern edge of Fosse 8. There was no relief for them, or if any was planned no word of it had reached George Marrin.

Pte. G. Marrin.

I was ordered to go on a ration party, and four or five of us had to find our way from the front line back to the wagons, or as far as the wagons could get up the line, which would be some long distance really. But you didn’t know where you were going and they just gave you that direction, ‘You keep going that way and youll find them because theyre looking for you in any case.’ Which was quite true. We found the ration depot, drew our rations and we had to put them into sandbags, and our duty then was to get this food back to the line. We were so exhausted that I can remember we tied the rations to our feet to drag it along because we couldn’t walk by that time – we were so tired. But of course we never got to the line, because when we got to the line there was no line there! Where we’d been, or where we thought we’d been, it had all gone, the men had all gone and everything had moved, so we didn’t know where we were. And there we were, back in the line again with these ration bags tied to our feet and everybody had gone. They’d either moved back or forward and there was no means of telling where they’d gone, you see? Somebody would come along and say, ‘Oh yes, they’ve moved to so-and-so,’ so you’d try and find out where that was, just wandering. Then, when these other relief regiments came through, we were challenged. ‘Who are you?’ And I said to this officer, ‘I’m 13th Battalion Middlesex.’ He said, ‘They don’t exist, get out of it!’ I can remember him now, standing there on the trench saying, ‘Get out of it, get out the bloody way!’ He was bringing in a new posse of troops that knew more about it than we ever did. They were trained soldiers. We did what we were instructed to do. We found the communication trench and we walked through the communication trench and got out at Vermelles, and from there we had to go back and find the base and find our regiment somehow – or what was left of it.

But that was days later. Meanwhile the unfortunate 73rd Brigade stuck it out in the trenches they were soon to lose. It was the end of the second day of the Battle of Loos, and the beginning of a long, hard and ultimately fruitless grind.

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