Battle of Loos
The Battle of Loos has now divided itself neatly into two separate efforts. In the north, further attacks are ordered against the German reserve line at Hulluch. In the south, the objective is to recapture Hill 70. The MSPaint map, maestro!
Information at this stage is at an absolute premium. The foul weather has grounded the Royal Flying Corps. Accurate information is almost impossible to come by. First Army headquarters is forced to try to draw some kind of picture out of the mess of contradictory and out-of-date reports, messages, requests, pleas, and complaints that have made it back to the rear, mostly by runner with many of the important telephone lines cut by German artillery fire.
It is perhaps not surprising that they take an optimistic line, as most of the messages are tragically over-optimistic. And, of course, General Haig well remembers First Ypres, when his corps had been winnowed down to the marrow of the bare bones and the Germans passed up chance after chance to push in strength and break their line once and for all.
So it is that the men in front of Hulluch are being asked to attack some German trenches that have been heavily reinforced in the night. Their artillery has tried to move forward, but in the general chaos on the roads (seen yesterday, and of which more very soon), they’ve mostly failed. No gas, no smoke, precious little shellfire. What they need, of course, are lashings of trench mortars and hot and cold running grenades. Trench mortars are an endangered species, and while the men had been issued with plenty of No. 15 “cricket ball” grenades, most of the offending items have been rendered harmless by the damp weather.
The men are left with rifles, bayonets, and one non-standard piece of equipment being wielded by Sergeant Beard of the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He’s recently written home for a food parcel…
I’d asked for a piece of home-cured boiled ham, and I had a small piece left. I was chewing it when the order came. Says I, “I’m not going to waste this”, and there I went. Bayonet in one hand, a piece of ham in the other.
The trenches were posibly 400 yards apart, and halfway across was a belt of wire which was supposed to have been blown up. In fact we went through a gap in single file. I was running by the side of Captain Sumner. He asked how many men were left. I said “Three.” We were on the edge of a trench. At that moment, he was shot through the knee, and said “Jump into the that trench.” That was the last I saw or heard of him.
Here I pause to remind everyone that a company should have 250 men in it. Don’t worry, they’re not all dead; they’ve just been separated trying to pass through the wire without getting shot. Captain Sumner’s definitely copped it, though. Beard has fallen into a British-held trench, although among strangers, and quickly volunteers to bring in a wounded man whose screams are putting the wind up everyone, fumbling among corpses for the live one.
He was shot through the stomach. I recognised him as a chap in my platoon I’d reprimanded for shooting pigeons. I was bending over him, when I was shot. The feeling was like a red-hot poker going through the flesh. I stood like a fool for a few moments until I realised I was a target, so I fell and rolled. I’m sure it was pure luck that I rolled into what had been a German communication trench.
The weather had been wet and everyone was covered in chalk clay. I had to climb over sandbag barriers. Each time I was above the trench, exposed to shells and bullets. After two of these I reached a barrier of piled-up dead men. I can still feel the thankfulness 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. 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.
The line is advanced maybe a couple of hundred yards, but all they’re doing is setting themselves up for a German counter-attack. Information remains extremely scarce back at headquarters. Commanding 7th Division, General Capper has got sick and tired of not knowing what’s going on, and goes to the front to see for himself. After extensively touring the trenches, he personally orders another attack and remains behind to see the result for himself, so he doesn’t have to rely on messages.
Unfortunately, his trench is being overlooked by some houses. It has been supposed that the houses have been abandoned by the enemy. They have not. A sniper’s in one of them, and he takes full advantage, shooting Capper through the lungs. Soon enough, the assault fails and the retreating men discover their general.
Hill 70 must be retaken immediately, if not sooner. Fresh men have come up. The number of (among many others) the 12th Northumberland Fusiliers is called, the unit of Captain David Pole. They’re only supposed to provide immediate fire support; but, to answer the question “What with?”, we find Private Harry Fellows of Pole’s company. He should have a new toy to play with, but…
Our platoon officer got hold of me, of course he knew that the transport hadn’t come up. He told us to double back, find the transport, and bring up the Lewis gun.
The Lewis machine-gun has been appearing on the Western Front on a trial basis as the BEF looks for a more modern replacement for the old and heavy Maxim. We’ll be talking a lot more about it soon. For now, suffice it to say that even one Lewis gun would be extremely useful laying down indirect fire for the next attack.
That main road – I can’t describe it! It was just a mass of holes, and debris and dead men and horses everywhere. We worked our way back to where our transport was supposed to be, and of course it had never even got there. We went a bit further and found out it had been shelled. Anything that was left had gone back, and of course there was no gun.
By the time we returned to where we’d been, the Battalion had moved off for the attack. The Adjutant stopped me and said “What company do you belong to?” I said “C Company, sir.” He said, “The Commanding Officer has a message for you.
The message is in fact for Captain Pole; it says “The C.O. wishes the attack to be made with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion.” Private Fellowes folds it away and heads off towards the hill. Again he finds that his company has moved off; this time to attack the redoubt on top of Hill 70. (In fact, although Fellowes doesn’t know it, they’ve tried to go up once already and been forced to take shelter a third of the way up.)
The whole hill was crowded with men, one mass, moving on, cheering like hell. The Germans never fired a shot, and then it seemed somebody gave the order and they all opened out with machine-guns. Men were just mown down. It was slaughter, suicide, all hell let loose. We were being enfiladed from the front and from the left. A lad in front of me was shot in the head. He fell, and I tripped over him. I stayed where I was.
To this day, I don’t feel any shame.
When Fellows returns to where he started from, he finds Lt-Col Warwick, the CO, trying to work out what the hell is going on. Up ahead, Captain Pole has reached another trench, this one just below the main redoubt on the crest of the hill.
Going up I got a horrible bang on the head, so whipped out my handkerchief and tied it over my head. 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. The Germans were perfectly awful with machine-guns, simply mowed our men down.
The Northumberlands are done for, but there’s one man who still fancies another charge. This is Lt-Col Douglas-Hamilton of the 6th Cameron Highlanders, whose spirits have been thoroughly inflamed by the idea that Scotsmen had yesterday been on top of the hill. He’s led the previous two charges up the hill and is now in the same position as Captain Pole, rallying the remnants for a final charge on the summit.
With words like “glory” and “honour” wafting dangerously close to the battlefield, Lt-Col Douglas-Hamilton stands upright on the parapet and yells at his men to charge, before setting off up the last 200-yard rise.
He’s not cut down immediately he stood up, because the Germans on top of the hill are even at that moment preparing a counter-attack. When the Camerons (and plenty of inspired hangers-on) follow their CO over the top, they’re met not only by yet more machine-gun fire (which this time finally rattles into Douglas-Hamilton, who is left to die on the hill), but a counter-charge that sweeps them right back down and all the way out of the back of the trench they’d just come from. A highly undignified retreat all the way back down the hill follows. The Germans chase them all the way, and their counter-attack now falls on (among many others) Lieutenant Christison of the 6th Camerons, who’d been left behind to look after the machine-guns.
A wave of German infantry swept down on us. The gun I was with did some fine execution and then it jammed. As I was struggling to release the jammed drum I looked up, and there was a German officer with a pistol. 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.
Thank Heaven I had been a medical student and done an advanced First Aid course. In panic I snatched off my whistle and stuffed it into the wound, and fixed and tightened my field-dressing with the muzzle of my revolver to make a tourniquet. I lay doggo and managed to change the drum.
A little later, in the general confusion, a counter-counter-attack comes back past Christison and he escapes to the rear. The whole area has now become exceptionally unhealthy, with the German guns blanketing it with fire. Responses from the British guns are feeble at best and dropping far too short at worst. Captain Pole and his remnants cop it badly.
The Germans began to bombard us with high-explosive. They are the very Devil. 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. We were absolutely stuck by want of men. 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.
Meanwhile, off to the left, an attack had been planned for the evening against the German second line, just as soon as Hill 70 had been captured. The troops forming up for the attack are all green as hell, and when they’re unexpectedly counter-attacked they break and run. General Nickalls leaves his shelter to help the officers restore order, but is cut down by the crossfire as he runs forward to the trenches. Confusion reigns thereafter as the Germans come over and the recently-scraped BEF trenches change hands several times.
By nightfall, we’re left with something like this. Sort of.
The attempt to break through has pretty clearly failed, although it’s doubtful if General Haig’s headquarters has enough good information to know that. Now what?
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