Harry Fellowes remembered very little of the long trek back. All he retained was a muddled impression of trudging in anonymous clusters of men, dragging along like automatons, stumbling and limping up the dark road, sometimes falling, sometimes dropping out to slump at the roadside, too weary to curse or complain when passing transport forced them into the ditch. Looking back it seemed to him that they had spent more time in the ditch than on the pavé for there was, as ever, a solid stream of limbers, ambulance wagons, staff cars, motor cycles, attempting to reach the front in the hours of darkness, and working-parties toiling to repair the gaping shell-holes that impeded them. Tempers were short. Everyone on the road that night was engaged on urgent business, and the exhausted Tommies making their way piecemeal from the line came low in the list of priorities. Here and there an equally done-up officer took a group of stragglers under his wing and tried to introduce a semblance of order to encourage them along the road. The leaderless men were kept going by a simple urge to get out of it.
Further back there were Military Police at the road junctions but it was almost mid-day before Harry Fellowes was set on the road to Vermelles with other survivors of the 62nd Brigade, and it was almost nightfall before he found his own battalion. It had taken twenty hours to cover less than six miles from the front, and Fellowes was too close to collapse to sup more than half the hot soup that was ladled into his mess-tin and then crawl into a bivouac tent to stretch out on the naked earth. He slept far into the forenoon of the following day and woke up ravenous.
The Battalion was camped in the field where they had rested on the way to battle. Now the same field might have easily accommodated all four battalions of the Brigade. More stragglers came in during the morning and after dinners at noon the men were paraded for roll-call. They were a sadly bedraggled bunch and there were not many of them. In C Company perhaps sixty men lined up and Fellowes spotted only a few familiar faces. He could see few officers. Captain Pole was there, not in his familiar place in front of C Company but out in front, facing the thinned-out ranks of dishevelled men. All but five other officers had been killed or wounded and Pole was now in command of what remained of the Battalion. He looked as drawn and hollow-eyed as anyone, but he stood the men at ease and addressed them kindly. He knew they had been through a hard time, but they had done well in their first experience of battle. He knew and understood that every man was tired, but very soon they would be moving back to billets. Meantime he urged them to smarten up and to prepare to march out in a soldierly manner as a credit to the Battalion. He would inspect them in the morning. Until then there would be no drills or parades. He nodded to the senior sergeant to dismiss the parade and began to walk away.
Captain, now Acting-Colonel, Pole had started along the road when Harry Fellowes caught up with him. Until a few moments ago he had completely forgotten the existence of the message he still carried in his pocket. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he called, and handing Pole the crumpled paper he began to pour out excuses and apologies. Pole read the message: ‘The C. O. wishes the attack to be carried out with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion.’ Harry said again, ‘I’m very sorry, sir. I did try to find you.’ It was some moments before Pole looked up and spoke. ‘It doesn’t matter, sonny, now.’ Harry never forgot Pole’s words nor the tears that were coursing down his face.
The wounded who were fortunate enough to be rescued were well on their way back to safety. Christison was one of the lucky ones, but it had been touch and go.
Lt. A. F. P. Christison.
I was very weak, almost out, and very glad to see bearer parties from the Royal Engineers looking for wounded. They got me and Sergeant Saunders on stretchers and started to carry us back, but shells dropped close and we were abandoned. We were lucky. A bearer party from the Scots Guards picked us up and got us to the advanced dressing station where emergency surgery was carried out. From there I went back in a two-horsed ambulance which was hell, as my wounds were now hurting and every jolt was unpleasant. I had another operation in a base hospital at Choques and was evacuated to the Royal Free Hospital in London, via Boulogne, in the hospital ship Anglia on 28 September. Our Battalion casualties on 25 and 26 September had been 8 officers and 102 other ranks killed and 350 wounded. Thirty-six were missing. Sergeant Saunders, now without a leg, was awarded the VC and I was given the Military Cross.
Sgt. J. Beard.
During the night we were collected and laid out in a group. In early morning we were transferred to an Advanced Dressing Station – a schoolroom – about 10.30.1 was put on the slab and the surgeon said, ‘You’re a lucky chap, Sergeant. Can you bear to see it?’ I peeped up. There was a hole in my groin you could put a fist in! The surgeon told me I’d had a miraculous escape. It had just missed the femoral artery, and a fraction of an inch any other way and the bone could have been shattered or I could have been emasculated. Lucky me!
I was put on a train to the base hospital at Rouen. On Saturday 2 October, I was taken aboard the hospital ship, St George, and by hospital train to Derby. We had a wonderful reception when we arrived at Derby. It seemed as though the whole town turned out to wave and cheer. Women were kissing us and we were showered with cigarettes. How lovely it was to lie in a nice warm bed! By the way, the wounded man I went out to was rescued. I met him later at camp in Sheerness.
Young Bill Worrell who, thanks to Ben Williams, had got out early, was taken to a base hospital at Rouen.
Rfn. W. Worrell.
It was a canvas marquee hospital and I woke up – I’d been half-conscious, most of the time – and I woke up and behold, there was somebody I knew. It was Doctor Dowding, a great friend of my aunt, and there he was, to my absolute astonishment. He was in the RAMC then. He’d seen my name on the casualty list and he’d come in to have a look. So he said, ‘Well, we’ll get you back to England as soon as possible.’ My jaw was all wired up by then and I could hardly speak, but I said, ‘Do you think I’ll get there?’ He said, ‘You certainly will! Now is there anything you want?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ve lost my hat. Could you possibly find me an officer’s hat with a Rifle Brigade badge?’ Of course we all used to scrounge there, because there were no strict restrictions on dress – and out of the line any time you wore any sort of cap – that was before they issued the floppy cap that you could put in your pocket. But for your best, you’d always try, if you could, to get an officer’s hat. That was a mark of complete distinction – an officer’s hat with a floppy top, a big rim, and you were made! I don’t know how Dr Dowding wangled it but next day, sure enough, he came back with an officer’s hat – Rifle Brigade badge and all.
Well! I clung to that hat. I wouldn’t let it out of my sight in case it got pinched – in fact at night I slept with it under my pillow. You see, when we went into the line that night we were wearing woollen helmets because of having our gas-masks rolled up over them, which you couldn’t do over a cap, though as things were I’d probably have lost my cap in any case. Anyway, Dr Dowding got me a really posh hat, though it was ages before I could wear it because when I got to England I was months in bed in hospital. But I kept it with me all the time. It was my most prized possession and when I did eventually get out in my hospital blue suit I wore my officer’s hat and I was as pleased as Punch.
Not all the wounded had been got away safely and the troops could only hope that the injured men they had been forced to leave close to the German line had been picked up and cared for by the enemy. The dead were another matter. They were long past help and it was pointless to risk more lives just to retrieve their bodies. Old soldiers accepted this but there were men in the New Army who did not agree with that precept. A day or two after the opening of the battle Colonel Thuillier commanding the 1st Division’s artillery, had a chance meeting that deeply impressed him.
Lt. Col. H. F. Thuillier.
Returning from Loos along the straight Lens Road I met a sergeant and six or eight men of the 7th KOSB near the top of the ridge where the old German front line had been. I warned the sergeant that he would be exposed to enemy machine-gun fire farther along the road, and advised him to take his men across country. He thanked me, and asked how he could get to Hill 70. I replied that he couldn’t get there at all, because it was now in the enemy’s hands. He said, ‘How can that be, sir? The Regiment took the hill and got over the other side.’ I answered that there had been a lot of fighting since then, and that the Germans were on the top of it now, and I asked him why he wanted to go there. He said that his Colonel had sent him up to bury two officers of the regiment who had been killed on the top of the hill. I told him that it was out of the question, but he replied that he knew exactly where the officers had fallen and that he and his men proposed to get as near the spot as possible by daylight, creep out at night, and bring in the bodies. I explained that it was impossible, but he said, ‘Well, sir, we couldn’t go back and face the Regiment when we hadn’t even tried to bury the officers, so we’ll be getting along and make the best try we can. Thank you kindly for warning us all the same.’ His men, who had been listening intently, gave unmistakable murmurs of agreement and the party prepared to move off. I said, ‘Now, look here, Sergeant, it’s really quite useless. You’ll only lose your lives, and we can’t afford to lose men like you. I’m not going to allow you to go to certain death. I forbid you to go, and I am ordering you back to your regiment.’ The NCO, evidently very disappointed, said, ‘Well, sir, if you order me to go back I must go, but I can’t face the Colonel and say I haven’t carried out his orders unless I show him in writing the order you’ve given me. I must also ask you, sir, if you’ll excuse me, to give me a note with your name, rank, and regiment on it.’ I gave him the documents, and saw him and his party, very reluctantly, turn about and go down the road towards Mazin-garbe.
I don’t think I have ever been more impressed with the spirit of any men than I was with that of those eight or nine Scotsmen. The NCO appeared to be an old regular soldier, but his men were all youngsters and the story doesn’t show half the difficulty I had in turning them back.
It was true that Hill 70 was now back in the hands of the Germans. Even the illustrious Guards had not succeeded in taking it.
The plan was for the 2nd Guards Brigade to recapture the Chalk Pit, circling to approach it from the north, and to carry on to storm the pithead buildings of Puits 14 bis before the 3rd Guards Brigade struck from the west to assault Hill 70. It was late in the day. The light was failing but the Irish Guards of the 2nd Brigade reached their objective and thrust the Germans out of the Chalk Pit and Chalk Pit Wood just as they had planned and, just as it was planned, the Scots Guards swept up behind them to press on to Puits 14 bis. The Irish Guards had not been intended to go with them, but somehow, in the enthusiasm of this first success, they were swept up and carried along across the long stretch of open ground between Chalk Pit Wood and Puits 14 bis.
Just up the slope across the Lens—la Bassée road German machine-gunners were posted at intervals round three edges of Bois Hugo. As the Guards came running across their front they presented a target that was a machine-gunner’s dream. They were cut down as they ran. The advance ground to a halt and withered away, and as the 3rd Guards Brigade began moving towards Hill 70 their comrades were already in retreat. It was not a rout. They were the Guards, and although for many it was a first experience of battle they had been trained and disciplined in a hard school. Later some guardsmen insisted that they had heard a shouted order to retire. If they had it had been a ruse by the Germans and, true or false, their retirement was so determined that it took all the efforts of their few remaining officers to stop and steady them.
A handful stood fast in the Chalk Pit. One of them was the son of Rudyard Kipling, an eighteen-year-old Lieutenant in the Irish Guards. A year previously his father had pulled strings and used his considerable influence to wangle John Kipling a commission at the age of seventeen. Now he was shot in the mouth. And there, in the Chalk Pit, he died.*
Despite the fact that Bois Hugo and Chalet Wood had not been captured, the 3rd Guards Brigade went straight in to attack Hill 70. It was almost dark by now, the enemy was on the alert and even the invincible Guards could not get forward.
They stuck it out for three days, repulsing counter-attacks, suffering shelling – and gas shelling too, for the enemy had moved further ahead in the technology of gas warfare. And the Guards tried again to capture the hill, but their efforts were futile and their casualties were huge. Hill 70 held out. It was a bitter blow.
So far as the Staff were concerned the lack of progress was a hard pill to swallow after the success of the first breakthrough. And just as Hill 70 had baulked the British, the operations of the French Army on their right had come to a standstill in front of the bastion of the Vimy Ridge. But neither the French nor the British Command had given up hope. It was necessary to pause, it was even more necessary to reorganise, and it was clearly necessary to bring in fresh troops, but there could be no question of abandoning the offensive. At Sir John French’s urgent insistence, and in the light of his concern that his reserves were being so rapidly used up, General Joffre agreed to draw a division from his own reserve to relieve the 47th Division and the Guards and to carry his line northwards to include the Double Crassier, the ruined village of Loos and the killing field on Hill 70. And when the relief was completed, as soon as plans could be made for a new, and this time a joint attack, the French would do their utmost to regain it.
Slowly the hardest hit battalions were recovering. They had cleaned up, they were comparatively well rested, and a few square meals had done a good deal to restore them. Most now had a roof over their heads, even if it was only the roof of a barn, but they had not yet fully recovered their morale. Despite the efforts of officers to get up sports and football matches and despite the return to normal routine, the air of depression was slow to dissipate. All too often there were reminders.
Pte. G. Cribley, 8th Bn., Gloucestershire Regt., 57 Brig., 19 Div.
My friend was killed. We lived next door to each other at home. We were boys together. After we came out the line the Post Corporal said to me, There’s a parcel for your mate, George’ – parcels couldn’t be sent home so they were divided up between the rest of us. There was a gooseberry pie in his parcel and it was all mildewed and had to be thrown away. I thought of his poor old mother picking those gooseberries as I’d often seen her do, and bottling them, because it was past the gooseberry season, and I thought of how she would feel when she got to hear of his death. The sight of those dead I will never forget. They were a ghastly sight, and I used to think what their mothers would have felt if they could see their boys now. It was that gooseberry pie brought it home to me.
It was quickly brought home to the new drafts, now arriving to make up the numbers, that they had been brought in to fill the gaps. Less than a week after their fight at Hill 70 Carson Stewart joined the 7th Camerons.
Pte. C. Stewart, 7th Bn., Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 44 Brig., 15 Div.
A while before I left I went to see a pal of mine in hospital, George Sutherland. He’d been wounded at Festubert and sent home, and he said to me, ‘You’d better take your running shoes to France for you’ll have to get off your mark at the double.’ He wasn’t keen on going back. Oh, no! But I was full of beans. I was attached to the 44th Brigade (all Scots Regiments, kilty lads) and we were in reserve at the coal-mining village of Noeux-les-Mines. My battalion hadn’t long come out of the attack. It was a very badly arranged attack. The lads that came back said that the Colonel of the 7th Camerons, Colonel Sandilands, wouldn’t give them their usual drop of rum before the Battle of Loos. He told them that if they were going to meet their Maker, then he wanted them to be sober and he poured the rum into the trench before they went into action on the morning of the 25th. They talked more about that than they did about their losses. But they told us all about it.
They took the small hill at Loos just beyond the coal-pit, but they met with terrible machine-gun fire – so much so that the 44th Brigade were cut to ribbons. They couldn’t hold on to the hill and so they were ordered to retire to our side of the hill. But not many who went over the hill ever got back to our side of it. The machine-gun fire was just murder!
I got all my information about the Battle of Loos from our boys after it was all over. I joined the survivors of the 7th Battalion Cameron Highlanders immediately after Loos. Soon after I got there, the next day I think, there was a mail came in. All the boys in my company were crowded round to see what there was for them and the Post Corporal was calling out the names and dishing out the letters and parcels. Half the names that were called out there was nobody to answer them. Then a voice would call out, ‘Ower the hill.’ Then one or two more, then another name – and there would be silence, then his chum would call out, ‘Ower the hill.’ That was all you could hear: ‘Ower the hill. Ower the hill. Ower the hill.’ If it was parcels they dished them out anyway and we new arrivals got a share of the parcels that were meant for the boys who’d got killed.
Letters for men who were wounded were returned to the base and reached them, sooner or later, in hospital. Parcels were shared out among their comrades. Letters addressed to the men who had gone were stamped ‘Killed’ and returned to the senders. Sometimes, though seldom, such letters arrived at a soldier’s home address before the official telegram informing his next of kin that he was dead.
Orderly room clerks as well as Post Corporals were kept busy, for a great tide of paper flowed out from every battalion in the days after the battle. The soldiers were all writing letters to worried families and sweethearts. ‘Dear Mum and Dad… Dear Ethel… Dear Sarah… Dear Aunt May…’, and, however bald and uninformative, they brought welcome reassurance to anxious friends at home. ‘We’ve been in a big fight, but I’ve come through… I am in the pink and hope you are the same. Hope this finds you as it leaves me.’ There were no words to express what they had experienced, no way of telling the relief of being alive. Some day they might have a tale to tell. Not now.
Officers were dutifully applying themselves to the depressing task of writing to relatives of the men who had been killed. As the newly appointed Battalion Commander, David Pole was swamped with paperwork, but he had led C Company into the battle, and he felt that, like any Company Commander, he had a personal obligation to write to the families of the men who had not come back. A personal letter might ease the pain of the terse official telegram. ‘Dear Mr and Mrs Craven, It is my painful duty to tell you that your son, Sergeant Craven…’ It was indeed a painful duty. Later it would become routine. But there was one special letter that took priority: ‘Dear Mrs Warwick, You asked me to write if any mishap befell your husband and I must first hasten to assure you that, although the Colonel was wounded in our recent attack, I have every reason to believe that he is going on well and that you may confidently expect to have him home soon…’ It was 29 September. As Pole wrote the date at the top of his letter he must surely have been struck by the fact that it was just three weeks to the day since the Battalion had landed in France.
Every surviving officer was writing difficult letters, but there were other matters to be attended to and some were pleasanter tasks for they were instructed to send in recommendations for gallantry awards. It was Arthur Agius’s impression that every one of his men had earned a reward but, since the authorities were unlikely to share this view and the allocation of medals would be limited, he confined himself to the most deserving.
No. 1783 Private BUTE, WILFRED
No. 1919 Private PEPPER, JOSEPH WILLIAM
On the early morning of Sept. 25th when an enemy minenwerfer bomb exploded a battery of gas cylinders in the DUCKS BILL, these two men assisted to evacuate the casualties which were numerous and to clear the gas in the trench.
The difficulties and danger of this operation were accentuated by the fact that it was still dark, the trench was full of escaped gas and gas appliances, the officer in charge of the gas and most of his personnel were gassed, and there were two full gas batteries adjacent. This is the first time that these men had experienced gas. The DUCKS BILL is a dangerous spot, 80 yards from the enemy lines and 100 from ours.
Signed: Capt. A. J. Agius
Senior officers were busily engaged in writing their reports and Brigadier-General Jelf, in command of the 73rd Brigade, took particular pains with his. He had taken over command of the Brigade on 26 September after its own Brigadier was killed. He was angry. And he was more than angry. He was incensed. It had come to his notice that the 24th Division, and his Brigade in particular, was being criticised by higher authority. He expressed himself frankly:
No communication of any kind had been established with my Battalions either by wire or orderly, and I attribute this to the fact that all battalions and the Brigade Staff were quite ignorant of the rudiments of what to do in the trenches, how communications were established, the method of drawing rations, etc. They never had been in trenches in their lives before. And I can confidently assert, after many months of trench warfare, that it would have taxed to the uttermost the resources of any Regular battalions with plenty of experience behind them, to have kept themselves supplied, under similar conditions.
The post-mortems and reappraisals had already begun and the thrusting of the two untried and imperfectly trained divisions into battle, even the very fact that they were employed as almost the only reserves, was already a sore point. Sir John French had recognised the value of bringing in fresh divisions whose attitudes had not yet been stultified by the stalemate of trench warfare, but it was for exactly this reason that he was reluctant to commit them until success was certain and a breakthrough assured. He had promised the Divisional Commanders as much, making it clear that all that would be required of them would be to pursue the advance, or more precisely, to pursue the enemy in his flight. It was not his intention that they should be thrown in to attempt to smash the enemy’s second line. It was his right and entitlement, indeed as Commander-in-Chief it was his duty to retain a proportion of troops as reserves, but under his own orders, and to release them only when, in his judgement and his judgement alone, it was the right moment to send them in. It had previously been arranged, with the concurrence of Sir Douglas Haig, that the reserves should be held a short distance behind the battle-front, for there was no certainty that they would be required. Everything hinged on success in the first stage of the battle, and as soon as news reached the Commander-in-Chief that the German line had been breached, that the troops were swarming forward and that they had captured Loos, he released his hold on the reserves and placed them at the disposal of Sir Douglas Haig. It was Haig’s orders that sent them into the attack, and he had issued them in good faith on the basis of the information he received and in the belief that British troops were already tackling the Germans’ second line. But the fortunes of war are fickle and the fog of war grows thicker as confused information travels along the chain of command and across the miles from the front, and, as often as not, by the time news reached Army Headquarters the situation had already changed.
After the relish of a glorious beginning, matters had gone downhill. The self-satisfaction of the First Army Staff had received a severe jolt and the laurels which they believed they had justly earned were beginning to look slightly wilted in the backlash.
The friction between the Commander-in-Chief and the ambitious commander of the First Army had been increasing over the months. Now Haig, affronted as much by the recent failure as he had been gratified by the initial success, settled in his own mind on whose shoulders the blame should be laid. In the course of a meeting on 28 September Sir John French informed him that he was withdrawing the 21st and 24th Divisions for further training. It was a private meeting and there is no record of what passed between them, although shortly afterwards Haig confided to his diary: ‘It seems impossible to discuss military problems with an unreasoning brain of this kind. At any rate, no good result is to be expected from so doing.’ Next day Haig wrote a carefully considered letter to Lord Kitchener himself.
Wednesday 29th September
1st Army H.Q.
My dear Lord Kitchener,
You will doubtless recollect how earnestly I pressed you to ensure an adequate Reserve being close in rear of my attacking Divisions, and under my orders. It may interest you to know what happened. No Reserve was placed under me. My attack, as has been reported, was a complete success. The enemy had no troops in his second line, which some of my plucky fellows reached and entered without opposition. Prisoners state the enemy was so hard put to it for troops to stem our advance that the officers’ servants, fatigue-men, etc., in Lens were pushed forward to hold their 2nd Line to the east of Loos and Hill 70.
The two Reserve Divisions (under C. in C.’s orders) were directed to join me as soon as the success of the First Army was known at GHQ. They came on as quick as they could, poor fellows, but only crossed our old trench line with their heads at 6 p.m. We had captured Loos 12 hours previously, and Reserves should have been at hand then. This, you will remember, I requested should be arranged by GHQ and Robertson quite concurred in my views and wished to put the Reserve Divisions under me, but was not allowed.
The final result is that the enemy had been allowed time in which to bring up troops and to strengthen his second line, and probably to construct a third line in the direction in which we are heading, viz., Pont à Vendin.
I have now been given some fresh Divisions, and am busy planning an attack to break the enemy’s second line. But the element of surprise has gone, and our task will be a difficult one.
I think it right that you should know how the lessons which have been learnt in the war at such cost have been neglected. We were in a position to make this the turning point in the war, and I still hope we may do so, but naturally I feel annoyed at the lost opportunity.
We were all very pleased to receive your kind telegram, and I am,
yours very truly,
Lord Kitchener was obliged to investigate Haig’s complaint and he wrote a kind and tactful letter to the Commander-in-Chief. It was marked ‘Private and Secret’ and written, as he told him, ‘with great reluctance’, but it was insistent. ‘Colleagues’ had put certain facts before him and he had no alternative but to ask the Commander-in-Chief for his side of the story. Sir John French replied in formal terms stating the facts from his own point of view, but writing privately he was more forthright. ‘It is all, of course absolutely false and stupid,’ he wrote, ‘and full explanations have been given.’ There was probably little doubt in his own mind as to who the mysterious ‘colleagues’ were. He was well aware that General Haig had the ear of influential friends in high places, including that of the king himself.
Fresh troops from the Second Army in the north were already marching towards Loos. In a week’s time new attacks would be launched and the battle would drag on. But little was gained. Much later, and with hindsight, the Battle Nomenclature Committee decreed officially that the Battle of Loos ended with the failure of the joint Franco-British offensive on 8 October, but it was only on 4 November that Sir Douglas Haig was finally forced to inform the Commander-in-Chief that his efforts must be abandoned. By then many more lives had been lost. Between 25 September and 16 October alone there were more than fifty thousand casualties, and almost sixty thousand if the subsidiary attacks are included, and more than twenty-six thousand of the casualties were killed or missing. A few of the missing turned up later as prisoners of war, but more than half the casualties at Loos, at Piètre, at Bois Grenier and Hooge, had gone ‘ower the hill’.
It was too early to count the cost. The full force of disappointment was yet to come and no one could deny that on 25 September the British Army had won its first real victory of the war. They had smashed through the German defences, they had advanced the line, and they were holding on. Surely it was only the beginning. The ground they had gained measured little over a mile but it was better than an advance of yards, it was infinitely better than retreat, and it looked most impressive on the maps that illustrated the glowing newspaper reports which were still being published days after the start of the battle.
Sir Douglas Haig was the hero of the hour and the news of victory spread fast and far. Before long it reached Gallipoli and some senior officers hatched a plan to celebrate. At a certain hour a thunderous cheer would be raised all along the line. The front-line troops were taken with the idea and were quite willing to cooperate. Some introduced a further refinement and fearing that the Turks might not fully understand the reason for the celebration stuffed proclamations of the victory into empty bottles to be hurled at the enemy trenches when the time came.
It was quite a performance. Up and down the line from Suvla to Cape Helles the sky above the trenches rang with cheering and a fusillade of bottles descended on the heads of the unsuspecting Turks. Assuming quite reasonably that they were about to be attacked the Turks replied with fusillades of bullets, thereby – as one officer remarked happily – ‘wasting thousands of rounds of ammunition’. Regrettably, there was some casualties. Nevertheless it was an event that was long remembered. Months later a wounded officer of the Royal Scots whiled away the long hours of convalescence by writing an epic that described it.
With faces flushed and eyes like wine
The men sat mute along the line,
And some polemical design
Was palpably in view.
A flare soared sudden through the murk
They turned unflinching towards the Turk,
And shouted all they knew.
A wilder din you will not meet,
It hit the hills, it shocked the Fleet,
And many a brave heart dropped a beat,
To hear the hideous choir,
While the pale Turk, with lips tight set,
Peered out across the parapet,
And opened rapid fire.
Far down the lines the Faithful heard,
And had no notion what occurred,
But plied their triggers undeterred,
By trifles such as that.
From sea to sea the tumult spread
Nor could a single man have said,
What he was shouting at.
And a despatch in pleasing wise,
Spoke of a daring enterprise,
‘Against some enemy supplies’,
Adding this tragic note:
‘The casualties of the force,
Were sixty men extremely hoarse,
And one severe sore throat.’
Although a few men had paid the price of the celebration with their lives it possibly did something to raise morale – and the troops on Gallipoli sorely needed it.
Cut off far from home, isolated on the peninsula, they were beginning to feel that they were a forgotten army. But they were not forgotten, for the situation in Gallipoli was very much on the minds of the men who were conducting the war and opinion was sharply divided.
The sun still burned warm and bright in daytime but already the nights had turned cool and offshore there were stormy flurries that whipped the sea into a frenzy of raging waves that battered the beaches and presaged worse to come. Piers at Suvla and Anzac were swept away, small vessels were cast adrift and smashed against the rocks, and before long it would clearly be difficult, if not impossible, to land the stores that would be so urgently needed if the troops were to withstand the winter. Already they were in a bad way. Sickness was rife. Almost a thousand men were being evacuated every day and the vast majority were not wounded but sick – with dysentery, with blood poisoning from infected insect bites, with heart disease, skin disease, or simply with debilitation. In a very short time huge quantities of supplies would be required before the onset of the cold weather – warm clothing, thousands of tons of timber and corrugated iron to build huts and shelters to shield the soldiers in the winter, as well as constant supplies of food and ammunition. If conditions worsened, how were the troops to be supplied? If reinforcements were sent, how were they to be landed? If (and some added ‘Perish the thought!’) it was decided to give up the peninsula and withdraw the troops, how were they to be safely evacuated? No one could come up with a satisfactory answer.
All through the month of October controversy raged. Public opinion had been roused and there was much criticism of the Gallipoli campaign and, as the arguments continued, the fate and future of the Gallipoli operations swung in the balance. When the Dardanelles Committee met on 11 October two papers lay before them and each one was a bombshell. The first was the report of General Sir Frederick Stopford, now relieved of his command and back in England, who had hastened to present a report designed to defend his actions and disclaim responsibility for the debacle at Suvla Bay. It was a farrago of half-truths and downright lies and it implied harsh criticism of Sir Ian Hamilton’s conduct of operations, not only at Suvla but on the peninsula as a whole. It was viciously unfair, but it went unchallenged. Sir Ian Hamilton, who had not even seen it, was given no opportunity to reply, but Lord Kitchener had already made up his mind. Although he had appointed four Generals of the War Office staff to make further inquiries, and despite the fact that they had neutrally reported back that they felt unable to make any judgement ‘without much fuller information’, Kitchener informed the Government with all the weight of his authority that the Generals’ review had resulted in ‘considerable criticism of Sir Ian Hamilton’s leadership’. It had done no such thing, but this was not all. An Australian journalist, Mr Keith Murdoch (who was to become the father of Rupert Murdoch), had recently taken it upon himself to write a virulent letter to the Prime Minister of Australia, attacking the conduct of all the troops on the peninsula (with the exception of the Australians) and violently attacking Sir Ian Hamilton and the chief of his General Staff. He had shown this letter to Lloyd George and, at his suggestion, had sent a copy to the British Prime Minister. These documents now lay before the Dardanelles committee and they had a considerable influence on their deliberations.
The dilemma which faced them was whether to strongly reinforce the troops in the peninsula as Sir Ian Hamilton had desired, and to make an all-out effort to capture it, or to cut their losses and give it up. Already opinion was split between ‘Easterners’ who clung to the idea of pursuing the strategy in the eastern Mediterranean and ‘Westerners’ who subscribed to the belief that the war could only be won on the western front. There were many factors to take into consideration. Bulgaria, just as they had feared, had now entered the war on the side of their enemies and had already invaded Serbia. At the behest of the French the 10th Division had already been dispatched with a French Division from Gallipoli to the Greek port of Salonika in an effort to break through to help the Serbs, and although it was even now apparent that they had only a slender chance of succeeding the French were pressing for reinforcements. It was a delicate political situation, not least because of the continuing neutrality of Greece. What was to be done? No one could decide.
Eventually a compromise was reached and it was agreed that a strong force should be sent to Egypt ‘without prejudice to its final destination’. Gallipoli? Salonika? It was anybody’s guess, but at least it would buy time. But the Dardanelles Committee did reach one unanimous decision. Sir Ian Hamilton was to be sacked.
Another head was also destined for the block. Returning by special train from an Anglo-French conference at Chantilly at which the Salonika question had been the main item on the agenda, General Callwell, then Director of Military Operations at the War Office, overheard an interesting conversation in the dining car. Lloyd George, Mr Asquith and Sir Edward Grey were discussing the replacement of Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France. They made no effort to lower their voices and since a short train of only two coaches makes less noise than a long one, their words were plainly heard.
Major-General C. E. Callwell, KCB.
The Big Three sat together at one table, whilst we lesser fry congregated close at hand at others. They may perhaps have been somewhat stimulated by draughts of sparkling vintage! But, be that as it may, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Munitions were in their most expansive mood, and after a time their conversation was followed by the rest of us with considerable interest. To the sailors present, also to one or two of the junior officers, it was probably news – and it must surely have been news to the waiters – to learn that Sir John French was shortly to vacate command of the BEF in France. Nor could we be other than gratified at the discussions concerning Sir Douglas Haig’s qualifications as a successor. I was expecting every moment to hear Sir William Robertson’s suitability for the post freely canvassed – he was sitting back-to-back with the Munitions Minister. Cabinet Ministers certainly are quaint people.
But Haig seemed the obvious candidate for the job of Commander-in-Chief, and there was little doubt on whom the final choice would fall.
Jock Macleod celebrated his twenty-first birthday in style. After a better-than-usual dinner in the mess, supplemented by a birthday cake from home, the officers drank his health in port wine laid down by his godfather in the year of his birth, and which he had brought back after his last leave with this occasion in mind. It was the eve of the 27th Division’s departure for an unknown destination and early next morning the Battalion marched off to entrain. It was a long, slow journey. Mail was collected along the way to be censored and dispatched at the first opportunity, and Jock was able to post a letter home.
I am now using a new pony.
Nothing seems to do any good
to my old pony, which still
remains lame in spite of
all bandages. The pony that
I now have belonged to our origi-
nal padre, who has left us
for the Base Camp at Havre.
On the completion of his year he
returns to his parish. He had
merely six weeks to do until then,
and so the authorities decided to
retain him in France. It did not
seem worthwhile to
employ him with us, and then
immediately send him back.
Last night we had a
long rumour that a Bulgarian gen-
eral had been assassinated.
Sorry that I have no news!
The censor passed it without comment for its contents were of no importance. But it was of considerable interest to his family, for it was written in a clever code, prearranged with Jock’s father. Added together, the first letters of each line spelt out the news he wished to impart: I-N T-R-A-I-N F-O-R M-A-R-S-E-I-L-L-E-S.
He had no idea where the 27th Division was ultimately bound for. Neither had anyone else. The 27th Division had been sent off ‘without prejudice to its final destination’. But they were only too thankful to kick the mud of Flanders from their feet and nobody gave a hoot where they were going.