Battle of Loos
The BEF has one more card left to play as it searches for that elusive breakthrough of the German reserve line. The Foot Guards are the elite of the British infantry; “Guards” because their primary peacetime duty is to protect the King. When tourists go to see the shiny soldiers in silly bearskin hats in London, it’s odds-on that they’re Guardsmen. It was a Guards battalion that reputedly installed a tablecloth and china dining service in its officers’ dugout just after arriving on the Aisne in September 1914. If the Guards can’t win the day, then that’s surely as good a signal as any; now is the time to dig in and hold the ground that’s been gained.
The MSPaint map:
However, the Guards, like most of the reserve, have been held miles to the rear until needed, and it’ll take most of the day to bring them into action. And the Germans have no intention of politely sitting and waiting to be attacked. They’ve brought machine-guns forward to their new positions atop the Dump, and are spreading liberal amounts of fire all around the rear. After a morning of this, the men are pulled back further, trying to hold onto the positions in front of Hulluch, but with their mates to the left now almost forced back to the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
And the situation claims another senior casualty. General Thesiger, commanding 9th Division, is killed in this area, again while trying to rectify his lack of information by finding out what’s going on for himself.
As the afternoon wears on, finally the Guards are arriving at the battle. Unfortunately, they’re expected, and that ghastly Mr Fritz over the way has prepared a reception committee. Private Jackman, 4th Grenadier Guards:
We went up from Vermelles over a ridge. 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. The order came, “Get into artillery formation!” We went down the hill in line, ten feet apart. It was the most eerie affair. It sounded like whips cracking, and then you’d see the man on the left flop down and that was that!
Private Spencer, of the same battalion:
I was a bit disappointed with the first two shells! I thought they’d make more explosion. But I found out that it wasn’t always the ones that made the most explosion that caused the most damage.
Spencer has just found out the difference between high explosive and shrapnel; of course the Germans are firing shrapnel against human targets in the open.
We saw some old trenches which had been occupied by British troops that had gone forward. They were mostly Scotsmen, and I always remember two who were actually hanging on the barbed wire. In kilts. That’s very vivid in my memory.
Still, a little gruesome horror never stopped the Guards doing anything. Captain Brett of the 23rd Londons, who the Guards are relieving, remembers the scene as they came through his rear trench:
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 men through. They reached us and passed through. Every man in step, rank closed up, heads erect, probably the finest men the world has ever seen.
By the time they get into the line, the sun is almost setting. Most of the Guards can do nothing other than dig in and wait out the night before attacking tomorrow. Some of the Welsh Guards succumb to bravado and charge Hill 70, with predictable results. Meanwhile, the 2nd Irish Guards are detailed to clear out and hold some of the trenches at the foot of the hill, just below its north-eastern slope.
This battalion includes one Lieutenant John Kipling, son of Rudyard, there due to his father’s extensive string-pulling on his behalf. He’s only just turned 18, the minimum age for officers to see active service. The life expectancy of a platoon commander in the BEF is usually cited as six weeks; Kipling’s birthday was six weeks ago.
What exactly happened will probably never be known. What we do know is that they went into action, and by this time tomorrow, Lieutenant Kipling will be officially missing.
The position at the end of the day:
Champagne & Artois
The situation in Artois:
Despite the apparent agreement by Foch and Joffre to quickly wind down Third Artois and to abandon attacks up Vimy Ridge, the French are still attacking towards the crest. Through sheer brute force they’re advancing, a hundred yards here, two hundred there. The Germans are not immune to fatigue, hunger, trouble with supplies. Their reinforcements have mostly gone to Loos or Champagne.
Sir John French has also been lobbying heavily to keep the French in the game, securing an agreement from General Foch to lend him some French artillery support. He’s also written to General Joffre asking for the French Army to take over some of his line so he can create a further reserve to keep up the Battle of Loos.
Second Champagne sees a renewed push at the tips of the two French salients, with some artillery having now been moved forward, and two reserve corps being committed to the battle; once again, they achieve sod-all. General Petain reports that only a “meticulously prepared” attack, like that of the 25th, would be capable of destroying the forests of barbed wire that protect the German reserve line.
In the afternoon, my friend Gayraud, the colonel’s barber, the pride of the 13th Squad to which he still nominally belonged, paid me a visit. The squad is like a little family, a center of affection where deep feelings prevail, of solidarity, mutual devotion, intimacy, and from which the officer and even the sergeant are excluded. To them, the soldier doesn’t open up, is mistrustful, and any officer who will want to try to describe the strange life of the trenches, as I’m doing, will never have known, except by accident, the real sentiments, the true spirit, the clear language and the deepest thoughts of the soldier.
This description I find extremely telling. Among writings coming from the BEF, many speak of similar feelings extending up to platoon or even company level, and often including the sergeant, lieutenant and captain (depending on their character; a bad officer or NCO would be excluded just as efficiently).
So that he would always have his barber at hand, the colonel had named Gayraud his personal orderly. In this spot, he knew all the inside news, which he hastened to tell us. Knowing that I “was writing” the true account of our dolorous calvary, he brought me precious bits of intelligence that even the superior officers didn’t know.
The practical upshot of this is that General Niessel has issued another order to capture Farbus (on the far side of Vimy Ridge). After yet more hours of wandering aimlessly in the rain and the dark, they come under fire.
Without realizing it, the 23rd Company, which preceded our own [21st], had gone past our forward listening posts, into no-man’s-land, and fell right into a German trench and a welcoming hailstorm of bullets.
Evidently that all went according to plan. Out of fear that we wouldn’t attack, they decided to push us beyond our forward positions without telling us. Once we were right on top of the Germans we would have to take care of ourselves and make the best of it. This crude trick could have had grave consequences, and it shows the villainous mentality of our leaders. It did nothing to raise their prestige in our eyes, or to diminish the mistrust which they inspired in us.
The men of the 23rd Company hit the ground, until the hail of gunfire subsided; then they came rushing back in disarray, throwing the whole regiment into a confused panic. There were plenty of dead and wounded in that company.
The men eventually take shelter for the rest of the night in a wrecked ex-German trench.
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