It’s such a big day that I’ve had to split the story into three posts. For the BEF’s attack at the Battle of Loos, see this post. For the French Army’s attack at Second Champagne and Third Artois, see this post.
But here is the question this post considers. To suffer and die in the service of the Big Push is one thing. To suffer and die in the service of a hopeless diversionary attack for the Big Push is, ahem, quite another.
Diversionary attack at Hooge Chateau
The attack is preceded by the detonation of several mines, and several more pleasing explosions. However, in common with the mining efforts at Loos, the Germans have countered this technique by the simple expedient of evacuating their first line in areas where they’ve heard BEF miners at work. As soon as the dust settles, they move back forward and re-occupy the craters. It then falls to Sergeant Alex Rule of the 1/4th Gordon Highlanders to take his men over the top. Like many others, he’s lucky; the wire in front of him has been cut.
Elsewhere, the wire was practically untouched. Our light shrapnel barrage might have been rain. As we lay on the parapet of the German front line waiting for our guns to lift from our next objective, I saw one of the most magnificent sights of the war. A headlong charge by kilted troops! On our flank the 1st Gordons were sweeping forward against the German front line. The wire ahead of them was intact. As they charged into it, they were caught by deadly fire. Their line crumpled like a wave breaking on a rocky coast, but they were in such a frenzy that the survivors kept going and charged right into the wire. Exactly the same thing happened to the next wave.
It was all over in a few moment, but that picture remains stamped on my memory.
At first it seems that all is going well, but the Germans have plenty of local reserves, and plenty of artillery ammunition to spare. Rule and friends have none; it’s all been sent to Loos. The counter-attacks come; the Gordons hold as long as they can, and then retire back to their starting point. Rule has been wounded repeatedly and is evacuated to hospital.
I gathered that all our platoon commanders and the entire rank and file were either killed, wounded, or missing.
The Gordons have been shattered beyond repair. When the survivors become fit enough for duty, most of them months later, they’ll be penny-packeted away in reinforcement-drafts for other units.
Diversionary attack on Aubers Ridge
And now we go to Aubers Ridge to catch up with some old friends. First, Bill Worrell of the 12th Rifle Brigade.
As we reached the front line I had a shock. My company commander was being held up by his runner. He had been shot through the forehead while standing on the fire-step, encouraging the company over the top. He must have been killed instantly.
We moved forward until we were in the German third line, and we were alone. While we were waiting, there was a terrific bang. A German shell hit the parados and collapsed the whole trench in on me. The trench had a wooden frame to hold it up, and it caught me across my face, pinning me against the back of the trench. It broke my jaw, top and bottom. The shrapnel went into my tongue and I had a bit in my head.
Worrell is pulled out by his mates and evacuated. They’ve advanced shockingly well considering the lack of support, but now the inevitable counter-attacks have arrived; and while the Rifle Brigade has done well, the poor old Indian Corps has suffered every possible calamity. Captain Arthur Agius of the 3rd Royal Fusiliers was supposed to be attacking from the old German strong-point at Mauquissart. Unlike at Ypres, this diversionary attack has been granted a supply of gas; but at 6am a German high-explosive shell fell directly into one of the forward saps. The shell scored a direct hit on several gas cylinders; and in this part of the line, the wind is blowing directly back over the BEF’s trenches.
Agius does not go over the top. Instead, he and his men spend the day working in gas-masks to stop the flow of gas, and then to rebuild the trenches. However, Captain Bagot-Chester of the Gurkhas is not nearly so lucky, and he does go over. Though he wasn’t in the main attack, his account seems to sum up perfectly what must have happened to the poor fuckers who did go over (and then down) elsewhere.
I was wearing two helmets, one over the other, but my throat became very sore. I was counting the seconds and when I gave the signal to cross the parapet I think we were all glad to get out of our trench full of gas. The air in front was thick with gas and smoke from the smoke bombs. There was not a shot fired from the Germans, so we were able to slow to a quick walk and dress our line.
For the first eighty yards the air was thick, but as we emerged into view of the Hun, they let drive at us. My men were dropping all around me, and when I reached the German wire I was practically alone. With one or two others I was running round the outside cage of the German wire, looking for a way through.
He doesn’t last long like this; a bullet screams into his right shoulder and throws him backwards and down. Had he fallen forwards, he would have been left to hang on the old barbed wire. Instead he falls and rolls into a shell-hole, already occupied by one of his NCOs, Havildar Budhiman. Budhiman and Bagot-Chester lie there listening to the wounded and the dying and the German fire for thirteen hours until night falls.
I had lost so much blood I couldn’t get up on my feet. Fortunately the rain had made the soil so slippery that I was able to slide myself along on my back. Every now and then I bumped against a dead body in the dark. Finally I struck a muddy wet ditch, which seemed to be a highway for other wounded. Presently, to my surprise, an old Colour-Sergeant of mine came crawling along with his men. He went on and let them know in our own trenches that I was out.
A rescue party is organised, and Bagot-Chester is brought in. He’ll spend more than a year recovering from the wound.
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