from ‘the Sphere’ July 15, 1916
'The 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers at Hulloch'

British Fusiliers at the Battle of Loos

a stone quarry near Hulloch


September 25, 1915

Below the chateau of Vaudricourt there is a wood which closes it around with a sense of security belonging to fir woods, and the zone of pines is dense and fragrant.

On the night of September 23, 1915, the Royal Munster Fusiliers marched from the little village of Philosophe and bivouacked in the Vaudricourt domain. The battalion was on the march again, and that dim, cloudy night they trooped in under the shelter and lighted their camp fires.

The whole effect was mysterious and unreal as things seen in dreams; the columns of luminous smoke soared upwards, illuminating the low strong branches of the trees, and around the fires the men lay huddled in their great-coats, grouped within the circles of flickering light.

Just as the fires were dying down into blackness a little incident that memory dwells upon changed the Vaudricourt woods into an undying picture for those who saw it. One of the men stretched out his arm and placed a lighted candle on a branch just over his head, and as though this simple act appealed to the memories and imaginations of his comrades, in a moment the pine woods of Vaudricourt became transformed into a forest of Christmas trees. One after another the tiny flames appeared, and burned like a hundred little glittering shrines. God knows what memories of childhood and things that were far enough away from war it recalled to the hearts of these men.

Yet the memory of the clouded night, the whisper of the wind in the trees, and the woods of Vaudricourt, bright with the soldiers' candles, comes like a gleam across the vast darkness and lights again the faces of the war-worn battalion once more on its way to the fighting line.

On September 24 the Munsters took up their position close to La Routoire Farm. Beyond these trenches the Germans occupied a long, sweeping ridge of down land; a space of quiet scenery spread out to the horizon like a calm sea. On the German side were Auchy, Hulloch, and Loos, and on the British Cambrin, Vermelle, Philosophe, and Mazingarbe, and between them the desolate ground from which living things are fenced and barred out. The trenches divided the two main roads at right angles, and the Hulloch road played an important part in subsequent operations. Here and there over the grass piles of slag stood out like stubborn towers, black and desolate as some minor, haunting fragment of an evil dream. They masked the mines, and were treacherous, cruel defences on a poor, wasted land.

The weather was gloriously fine, and under the heavy bombardment of the British guns the whole sky line seemed to be in eruption. Huge masses of chalk-dust and smoke lifted hundreds of feet into the air, and rolled slowly away like a drowsy cloud trailing near the ground and reluctant to depart from this "best of all possible worlds."

In the grey light of the morning of September 25 the British guns opened a furious fire, joined by the rattle of rifle and machine guns. Without fuss or disorder the Munsters awaited the moment when they should face a pouring stream of bullets and charge into the teeth of the storm.

Led by Major Considine, the Munsters pushed up the winding trenches to the front line, exchanging a word or two as they went, and relying, as all men do in time of crisis, upon those unexplained resources that stand for all that is best in a soldier. When they reached the front line the leading company was blocked, for the trenches were full of men, with their faces coloured an ashen blue and the buttons and badges on their coats turned green. Some were dead and others unconscious, for they were the helpless victims of gas fumes.

When the Munsters charged over the parapet the Hulloch road was alive with troops racing towards the German trenches, but to the front all was quiet, and a number of khaki figures in blue gas helmets lay very still out over the grass towards the German lines, having so encountered that "last and greatest of all fine sights" in the cold dimness of half oblivion.

The fire from the enemy's guns increased as the Munsters advanced with a yell, and the wire ahead of them was apparently unbroken.

Leading "A" Company, Major Considine fell in the advance, and as he sank down Sergeant-major Jim Leahy rushed forward to carry him into safety. He, too, was hit through the heart by a German bullet, and when he fell the advancing Munsters cheered him as they raced ahead, carrying with them the memory of the two men who had fallen so gallantly, into their fierce charge. Both Major Considine and Sergeant Leahy are buried on the battlefield almost where they fell, 800 yards west of Vermelles.

Up the long-deserted, grass-grown Hulloch road six batteries came at a gallop, wheeling boldly across the open under heavy fire, the Munsters, in conjunction with the brigade, following at a run. Great volcanoes of black smoke shot up immediately as the bombers worked down the German trenches. Lieutenant Denis Conran with six of his company occupied a support trench crowded with German troops, and for forty-eight hours held this small salient of the advance, waging a steady war with unwavering determination and grit. The enemy were all around this small handful, and from where they fought they could see the village of Hulloch being knocked to pieces like a card-house, and again on the right the shell-torn havoc of the advance to Loos, the chalk pit, and Hill 70. The larger stride had been taken at last, and the men in their gas helmets with their five days' growth of beard looked strange and almost oriental as they advanced, receded, and again advanced as the deadly conflict rolled onwards.

Towards evening the weather turned bitterly cold and heavy rain began to fall. The smell of poison gas, shell fumes, and blood became almost overpowering. Among the torn bodies the flotsam of war lay unheeded in the mud. Innumerable blankets, rifles, caps, belts, and bloodstained dressings told that a memory was all that was left to many of those who had been alive and glad a few hours before, and everywhere there were dead, dying, and wounded men, and all the helpless misery of battle.

The troops charged again, and the remnants of the Munsters raised another cheer and rallied for the last rush, and then the strain ended as you may see men pulled suddenly over at a tug-of-war. Four columns of German soldiers filed out of the trenches, holding their hands above their heads.

The road from Loos to Hulloch was clear at a cost of 1,000,000 shells and 50,000 men. A right of way was established at a price that no one can ever tell, since broken lives and hearts are not entered into any known roll of honour, and this right of way was made good by the simple valour and indomitable constancy of the ordinary man.

For them there is no return, for those who waited for them no more reason to cross the days off the calendar; stillness has intervened — the stillness that marks the passing of the mortal to immortality. Tears are useless, broken hearts useless; life will not alter because of these things. The days go on, and we with them; those who have gone have "bought eternity with a little hour, and are not dead."

And the road is now clear from Loos to Hulloch.

Mrs. Victor Rickard.


pages from a British newsmagazine


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