'Under Fire at Loos'
Fighting in France
a British charge through the German lines at Loos
On December 4th (1915) I was sent up, with a number of other junior officers in the division, to be attached to the infantry in the Loos sector for a fortnight, in order to get some idea of trench warfare before being put in command of men in action. This was a very sound idea, and I was very grateful for the knowledge which I had gained there, when the division went up dismounted after Christmas, for it is obviously not easy for a young officer to command men in trenches when he does not know anything about the conditions of life there.
Prendergast, another of our officers, came with the party, and Stephens went to. the Infantry Brigade Headquarters to gain some experience of staff work, for which he had considerable aptitude. In addition to being a first rate regimental soldier, he had also considerable administrative ability, and was as good at handling papers as he was at handling men.
We entrained at Lumbres at 7 a.m. and about eleven arrived at Béthune, where we had some lunch in the little restaurant opposite the station. At this time Béthune was almost intact. Bombing was unknown, and the only damage which the town had suffered had been caused by a few long range shells which arrived from time to time.
None of the inhabitants had left the town and life was practically normal, for all the shops appeared to be well stocked, and you could buy almost anything you wanted.
After lunch we were taken in buses to Brigade Headquarters at Mazingarbe, where we were " dished" out to various battalions. Prendergast and I were sent to the 1st Battalion of the Gloucesters, he to "A" Company and I to "B." We started off with a guide, who took us along the road through Philosophe and Loos and finally landed us at Battalion Headquarters, which were in a ruined house just north of the village. It was a very foggy day and you couldn't see more than forty or fifty yards. We had a lot of guns close to the Philosophe-Loos road, and every now and then I heard a word of command out of the fog, followed by the report of the gun and the peculiar squeaking noise which a shell makes when it is rising. Between Philosophe and Loos we passed over the trench which had been the German front line before the battle of September a5th. The ground all round here was strewn with material of all kinds, mostly German. There were great coats, ammunition pouches, bits of machine guns, rifles, torn tunics, buttons, boots, cooking utensils, tins of preserved meat, cigar boxes, dud shells, thousands of rounds of ammunition mostly in machine gun belts, and almost everything that you can think of.
After seeing the Colonel we went off to our Companies. "A" Company was commanded by Durant, who was exceedingly good to me all the time I was there. He showed me all there was to be seen, and gave me all the instruction that he possibly could. "A" Company was at that time in reserve in a trench which had been made by connecting up a number of old German gun-pits, which had contained a battery of field guns before the battle. There were literally thousands of empty shell cases lying about. I heard that that particular battery had been captured during the advance, just as they were limbering up: the battery commander had left it too late and the whole lot were bagged, horses, guns, personnel and all.
There were only two officers in the Company, since they had lost heavily in the attack, and had not yet been made up to strength either in officers or men, so naturally Durant and Parnell had their hands pretty full.
These two appeared to do themselves pretty well in the way of messing. For tea they produced eggs, toast, fresh butter, jam, and tinned fruit, which, when you come to think of it, is not bad for trench food. About five o'clock the Company paraded to march up to the front line, which was about 1,500 yards away. Everything was very quiet, as, I suppose, was natural on a foggy day; I had not heard a Boche shell, and the only sounds were the dull reports of rifles in the distance and the occasional whistle of a bullet overhead. We did the first 6oo yards across the open, and then entered a communication trench which soon led into the front line.
At that time there were no trench boards, riveting frames, or other conveniences which were introduced later; you simply had to plough through the mud as well as you could, and I can vouch or the fact that it was no joke, for I had on a pair of gum-boots, and these were pulled off more than once during that short distance. The second time that they came off I could not find them for some time, for by flow it was pitch dark. A trench in winter never really dries up except during the frosty weather, and this one was especially bad now, because there had been a fall of snow which was just melting, and the snow and the continual traffic up and down had made it into a sort of morass.
The relief of the Company in the line was carried out easily enough, and was in great contrast to some of the chaotic reliefs in which I had the misfortune to participate later on. I must say that this sector was a very easy one for finding your way about, as there were no saps and disused trenches in which to get lost. I shall relate presently how another sector, which we occupied when the division came up a month afterwards, was a regular maze of saps, communication trenches, etc., and how easy it was to lose one's way.
It is difficult to describe one's feelings the first time one goes into the front line. It seemed hard to realise that there, i5o yards away, lurked the Huns about whom one had heard so much and who were the cause of our being there. As soon as it was light I had a good look at the German position and all the country round. The fog had lifted, and I could see a vast expanse of country on three sides of me. In front one could only see about 200 yards, for just behind the Boche front line was a little rise which hid the ground behind from view. I could, however, see the tops of the buildings beyond the ridge.
Behind me and slightly to the right lay what had once been Loos village. Not a single house had a roof left on it, for it had been under the fire of the guns of both sides during the battle, and even now received daily attention from the Huns. On the northern edge of the village stood the double tower at the pit-head of a large mine. This is a wonderful landmark, and can be seen for miles. There it stood apparently unharmed by the terrific bombardments which had demolished every house around, and as if in defiance of the mighty blows which the guns of the two nations had dealt it. Some days afterwards I went close up to it and saw how it had been struck again and again by direct hits, but still the massive iron framework withstood the shocks. When I saw it some weeks afterwards one of the towers had a big list to port, but still stood firm. Beyond the village and farther south I could see the long rise known as the Vimy Ridge, which was to be the scene of much fierce fighting two years afterwards, while behind me I could make out the tops of the houses of the villages some miles back.
North of us the country was one network of trenches. The soil here is chalky and, naturally, any place where the ground had been dug shows up white to the eye. Half-right from where I stood the ground rose gently up to the German lines, which on all that front showed up extraordinarily clearly. This rise is known as Hill 70. Before I saw it I always pictured it as a steep hill, but in reality it is the gentlest of slopes, so gentle in fact as to be scarcely noticeable. I could see from my position that the whole ground was thickly strewn with dead of both sides, mostly German, for this had been the scene of some very fierce fighting on September 25th, and again on October 8th, when the Germans had made a big counterattack and been bloodily repulsed.
A thing which strikes anyone looking at the country round there is the large number of slag heaps which can be seen on all sides. Half-left I could make out that known as Fosse 8, which was beginning to stand out black and gaunt against the red sky. There had been a lot of fighting round it, and I believe it had been actually taken by a Company of Highlanders during the battle. The whole appearance of this country is one of utter desolation. I don't know why it is, but most of the battlefields which I saw, and the ground over which I fought later on, seemed to be the most desolate country I have ever come across. It seemed hard to believe that somewhere in the wide expanse of country before me were thousands of men waiting to get at each other's throats, and yet not a single one could be seen.
At about eight o'clock we had breakfast, and a very good meal it was. The eggs and bacon tasted better than ever they had at home, and I must say that our cook was a master of his art. Some people abuse soldier cooks, and say they are no good, but my experience has been exactly the opposite.
During the day I walked round with Durant, who explained everything to me. There is a lot to be learnt about the way to put up sandbags, about riveting, drainage, loopholes, etc., how to manage reliefs, and a host of other things.
About ten o'clock the Boches sent over the first shell I had ever heard; it was a shrapnel, and burst about fifty yards behind our trench. A dozen more followed in quick succession in exactly the same place. It seemed odd to me that anybody should fire at the same spot the whole time, because it appears fairly obvious that if there is any one there when the first two or three shots come, he will not be foolish enough to stay there for a dozen.
Night is the most interesting time; everything is as quiet as death except for the plop-plop of the Verey Lights. Occasionally you can hear the limbers bringing up the rations-sometimes our own, sometimes the enemy's, according to the direction of the wind-but for the most part absolute quiet reigns, especially during the latter part of the night, when the working parties have finished their tasks, and the ration and ammunition limbers clatter back to billets.
Every night we had patrols out under an officer or N.C.O. Patrolling in No Man's Land between two trench lines is ticklish work, especially when you are close to the enemy's trench. We used to go up to within a few yards of the Hun line, listen for any suspicious noises, crawl along the wire for a hundred yards or so, and then return to our trench. Sometimes we could distinctly see the Huns working, wiring or repairing their trench; we could make out their ugly little round caps and hear them grunting to each other. The corporal who was with me the first time I went out was a fine fellow. He had been in France since Mons, and was up to all the tricks of the trade. He knew that I was fresh to the game, and the first ghillie who has brought you to within shot of a stag.
There 'e be, sir," he whispered. See 'is square 'ead and round cap; couldn't I just pick 'im off nicely!
We could easily have shot him and several others, but our orders were only to listen and afford protection to a wiring party of our own. I went out like this two or three times during my stay with the Gloucesters, but the first night was the only night on which we saw Boches.
Nearly every day our gunners provided us with an amusing sight. They used to carry out concentrated shoots on some particular portion of Hun trench, and it certainly was worth seeing. It appeared to amuse the men, and well it might, for the trench in question became a mass of flying stones, earth, bits of wood and other things, which were said to be arms and legs. The German artillery, on the other hand, was very quiet except on one occasion when they retaliated on our trench, killing five men of our Company and wounding twelve. These were the first casualties I had ever seen. Amongst the killed was an unfortunate boy of eighteen who had only just come out to France. The working of Fate is indeed a curious thing.
There were some men who had been through the whole War since 1914, and had never been touched, and here was this poor lad killed the first time he went into the front line.
On December 18th we returned to our units near Lumbres, and on January 1st a dismounted party was formed out of the Division and sent up to take over the sector of the lijie between the Hohenzollern and the Vermelles-Hulluch road. The journey up was uneventful, except that owing to lack of fuel in our billets in Béthune some of my men tore up the floor boards, an event which seemed to upset Stephens somewhat, and on account of which I was put under arrest. The sector of the line which we held was very unwholesome. My bit was just opposite to Hulluch quarries, and I think this was one of the most gruesome spots I remember. There were about half a dozen huge craters connected by a maze of trenches, and any one can imagine that this was a splendid place for getting hopelessly lost, since it was not easy to distinguish one crater from another. My squadron was very much split up. We had six men here, a dozen there, ten somewhere else, each group in different little posts, usually on the edge of these infernal craters, and it was by no means easy to find the way to each post at night.
On one occasion we sprang a mine close to the enemy lines, and my troop was ordered to take the crater. This does not mean getting into the crater itself, but holding the near edge of it, for to seize the far edge is only to expose yourself unnecessarily and to court disaster.
During this operation I saw a horrible sight. One of my men, Stansfield, had been half buried by the explosion of a trench-mortar shell, and only his head was protruding above ground. This happened outside our trench and only some fifteen yards from the Boches, who were very quick to spot the poor fellow's predicament. Then the awful thing happened. They started. throwing stick-bombs at him. The first one landed some yards away from him, but the second pitched about a foot from his head. There was a delay of about three seconds, a report, and I knew it was all over with the poor fellow.
Several of us rushed to his assistance, but it was too late, and we had to see him perish before our eyes. I do not intend to describe trench life any further, as much has been written on the subject already, and to give a full description of everything I saw would take a volume in itself, but there are some features about a life in the line which are of general interest.
In the first place, it is extraordinary what an effect this life has on the men. If there has been any grousing in billets, it. stops automatically at the first sound of a shell. I don't know how their minds work, or what their thoughts are, but I have felt the same thing myself. I used to feel very angry with Stephens, who used to curse me into heaps at all times - and, I admit, quite rightly, too - when we were in billets or on the march, but the first time I heard a shell or a bullet I used to lose all feeling of resentment, and think only what a capital leader he was. In the same way he used to stop damning and cursing as soon as we got into action. I suppose that the action a feeling of camaraderie which exists nowhere else. The men bring one tea in their mess tins and do all kinds of things for one which they would never do at any other time.
War is a great leveller of persons, some one once said, but he might have stated that it also unites them. And so it went on; day after day, night after night, we occupied that line until we knew it pretty well. Every four days we changed over from the front line into support, or reserve, and then back into the front line. The casualties were on the whole heavy, but craters are not the most wholesome of places.
My troop was on the extreme left of our division, and strangely enough the officer commanding the troop on my left who had had his eyebrows shaved off at Sandhurst. Even now they had not grown properly, but it is a matter of no moment to him now, for the poor chap was killed by a shell a few days afterwards.
Stephens looked after the squadron splendidly all the time we were up, and was as cheery as anything. He was a remarkable man, for he could rag with us and do the most absurd things, such as imitating monkeys, standing on his head, etc., at one moment, and the next curse us into heaps and have us all in the palm of his hand. He was much loved by all the men. No matter how much he cursed and swore, he never put their backs up. The reason was that when you were called all sorts of names you had a sort of sneaking feeling that he was right, and even if you tried to make out to other people that you were not to blame you couldn't persuade yourself against your secret convictions.
Often later on when he found fault with me, I used often to try and "swing it," but he knew very well when an excuse was valid and when it was not. I can remember only one occasion on which I really "swung it" on him.
At the end of February we returned to billets. No one was sorry to get a bath and clean clothes.
Back to Index