Stoner resumed his account on the 22nd September when he wrote they moved from Lillors [Lillers a small town 15km NW of Bethune] at 4.30 am and arrived at Verquet (?) at 7.30 pm, where they slept in the Marie. Lovely weather. On the 23rd, he continued, they moved at 6pm to a place he said was called masons keep.’ Realy speaking it was once a farm and a very big one but now its one mass of sandbags and sleepers. Lovely dugouts [about I mile from Vermeilles] raining all afternoon and in view of German lines. Our shells over our heads’. The next day he wrote that the guns were still roaring ‘The HA guns are making me deaf. They ave been shelling all day long sometimes rapid and now its big guns’. The build up for the Battle of Loos was well under way.
The battle of Loos was planned as a big push to break the deadlock of the summer of 1915. It was a joint operation with the French who were to attack to the south at Vimy Ridge and in Champagne. Sir John French saw prospects of success with a greater force (swelled with Territorial and New Army battalions) and stronger artillery fire. The British line of attack stretched from the La Bassee Canal in the north, across the flat ground near to Loos, and ending on the main road between Bethune and Lens. The book Tommy recounts that General French at Loos “visited HQ to brief commanders personally and as one officer reported was seen “riding quite alone through the shattered villages behind the line and thanking all he met…wearing his familiar khaki, stock around his neck and his soft gor’blimey general’s hat “
What was the area like? Prelude to Loos tragedy by Philip Gibbs (We were there 14) tells us that ‘in the early days some forward posts included wreckage of houses which with sandbags stacked gave reasonable cover and concealment for observers and the men moving onto and out of line. But as conflict grew these gradually razed, requiring deep trenches be dug. For miles around Loos the giant steel structures and gantries nicknamed London Bridge and Crystal Palace. “It was a hideous territory the Black Country between Loos and Hulloch…there rose a number of high black cones made by the refuse of the coal mines called Fosses, pit heads and winding gear” and of the young women he wrote “with smoothly braided hair they gathered round British soldiers in steel hats and clasped their arms or leaned against their shoulders. They had known many of these men before. They were their sweethearts. In those foul little mining towns the British troops had liked their billets because of the girls there…kept company with pretty slatterns who stole their badges for keepsakes and taught them a base patois of French and had a smudge of tears on their cheeks when the boys went away for a spell in the ditches or death. They were kind hearted little sluts with astonishing courage”. Hulluch was situated on part of the Nord-de-Pas-de-Calais coal seam and mining had started in 1902. It suffered through two world wars and has few ancient monuments, although there are some old buildings representing the style of the region, with bricks and clay tiles and sloping roofs. There are some farms that escaped the destruction. Some bunkers from WW1 remain in peoples’ gardens.
The weather was heavy with mist and a drizzle of rain. On the morning 25th Haig waited for a breeze for a batch of 5000 chlorine gas cylinders had been readied in the forward trenches. Early in the morning he saw the leaves of nearby poplar trees rustling and ordered release of the gas. It had been found that German gas masks were only effective for 30 minutes, so gas was needed for 40 minutes but there was not enough so the plan developed was to release the cylinders in groups interspersed with smoke candles, gas for 12 minutes and then smoke for two minutes. However wind was not strong enough and gas lingered in no mans land with some blowing back. The infantry had some very basic instructions on the use of their gas mask Men grabbed their primitive gas masks. The mask was a canvas hood with eyepieces and a tube through which to breath, it was treated with chemicals to absorb the chlorine gas. However the masks were hot and the small eyepiece misted over reducing visibility. Some removed them and were gassed. Not all gas could be released because wrong spanners for turning the cocks of the canisters had been sent and the gas-men rushed about trying to borrow adjustable ones. The Germans had better masks, put them on and lit bundles of cotton waste in front of their trenches to protect themselves. Then they retaliated and some of their artillery hi the unopened canisters breaking them open
The Battalion diary says that the battalion was detailed in operation orders to be a supporting battalion for the attack on the German line on 25 Sept and was assigned a position in the old support line from Boyau 2 on the 1eft to Boyau AS on the right with one company , B, in the old firing line, its left resting on B2. The positions were taken up at 1.50 am on the 25th. The orders were that immediately the two assaulting battalions 1st Loyal North Lancashires and 2 KRRS advanced the Royal Sussex were to move forward and occupy their trenches on the front line in readiness to move forward again in support once it was ascertained that the assaulting battalions had obtained a footing in the German front line trenches, This happened at 6.30 am. “Not possible to see their advance due to dense smoke from the smoke candles. Gas blown back causing confusion ‘ my company commanders then on their own initiative at once advanced and pushed on to the assault thus becoming part of the assaulting line.” All of the Royal Sussex Machine Gun section which tried to reach German line was annihilated about 50 yards in front of Lone Tree. Unable to find what the situation was like on ground due to heavy fire until 3.40 pm when the Germans in front of 2nd Brigade surrendered after a second attack by Green’s force. “Major Willetts with Lts Baker & Wallington collected all the men we could, some 70 and formed a line to Lone Tree and when the Germans in the front line surrendered I occupied their trenches and from thence pushed onto chalk pit where by order of the GOC 2nd Brigade we entrenched ourselves along the Lens – La Basse Rd with our right resting on the Chalk Pit. Held this line until relieved about 3am on 26/9 when we returned to old British line in front of Bois Carree”.
Packhams account ‘We started from our billets on the 24th and marched towards battle area. Stopped in field until dark. Sing song around camp fire. Issued with green envelopes for anyone who wanted to write to be posted that night. [Green envelopes contained letters which would not be censored]. As soon as dark on move and into position in support trench. Checked for correct battle gear. Each man to carry an extra bandolier of ammunition, others issued with either box periscope, wire cutters or a spade. Gas blown back – everyone wearing gas masks – flannel bag with mica slot to see through. As each line advanced fewer and fewer left. Air worse on ground. Then call to turn back, 47th and 15th division had captured Loos.
All those not wounded were ordered to move along trench to our left and later we got over the top and formed into four groups as in artillery formation – advance for about 10 mins and then formed into one. An officer got in front pointed out line of trees – said was Loos – La Bassee road and we were to get there and dig and hold. As we advanced we could see places that had been pointed out on training maps. On Left Fosse8 and Hohenzollern redoubt (where lots of fighting going on) and right twin towers of Loos, Boise Hugo and the village of hillock (sic). Reached road at noon, during advance stopped to inspect German trenches and dugouts, some shells. Seemed very few reached road,
Out of Major Potters diary “5.50 Lt White reported he could not use gas as it would blow straight down our lines. Immediately after gas from south with dense smoke began to roll along front line – smoke helmets needed. 6.30 over parapet. That on south side wiped out by machine gun. B to north soon reached fire. Couldn’t see – some went too far over road.
Philip Gibbs – Philip Gibbs preclude to Loos tragedy. “The weather was heavy with mist and a drizzle of rain. From the whole length of our French trench as far as the eye could reach rose vertically at first a grey cloud of smoke and gas, that impelled by a gentle wind, spread slowly towards the enemy’s trenches. Very soon enveloping the whole of our range of vision in its opaque veil. This was our view of the assault, this dismal vapour the aura that was to surround a thousand sacrifices, the cloak that was to hide 1000 gallant deeds the winding sheet that was to enwrap so many a hero”.
SDN 21/10/1915 had this account by Private Christopher Arnold stretcher-bearer 2nd RSR one of five sons of Mrs Arnold of Crowborugh now Eastbourne ‘We went up to the German trenches collecting wounded (20 of us) and when we came back we had two killed outright , and four wounded, including one officer. Three or four of us were hit by bullets, but they only just went through the clothing and caused some sort of scratches…my mess-mate was knocked right out. While we had a stretcher on our shoulders, the enemy turned a machine gun on us, and its lucky we weren’t killed. We had to lie down flat in the open for over half an hour, till it got a bit darker, and it was pouring with rain, so you can guess a little what it was like…some of our killed and wounded were suspended on the German barbed wire, like washing hanging out to dry, I counted about 30 of the poor old Sussex.”
“Of the 2nd brigade there was nothing to be seen but groups of dead and wounded out in front, and gas and wounded men struggling”
One of those to die was Josiah Terry killed 25/9/1915 and commemorated the on Loos Panel. In the SDN he was reported wounded now reported also missing. His medal card states he was killed in action. More famously was Sergeant L/8088 Harry WELLS VC. 2nd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (RSR), killed in VC Action Saturday 25th September 1915 aged 27 years. Roughly the same age as Robert they served in India together so might have known each other well. He was born 19th September 1888 at “Hole Cottage”, Millbank, Herne, near Herne Bay in Kent (a street in Herne Bay itself is named after Harry). Harry left school and became a farm hand working at Ridgeway Farm, Herne Bay. Whilst working on the farm he lost two fingers on his right hand in an accident with a haymaking machine. He later worked for a Mrs Woottton at Herne Mill. A tall youth, over 6 feet tall at the age of 16 he joined the Army in 1904. He served in the Royal Sussex Regiment for 7 years mostly in India .. Harry left the Army in 1911 and joined the Kent Police Force. In November of that year Harry became a Police Constable in the Ashford division. He resigned from the Police Force on 31st December 1913 still serving in Ashford. Upon leaving the police he worked for a short while at the Beaver Inn, Beaver Road, South Ashford as a barman. When the war came Harry was immediately recalled to the Colours to rejoin his former regiment and rose through the ranks very quickly. Harry’s Victoria Cross was presented to his mother by H.M The King (George V) at Buckingham Palace on 27 November 1916.
“of the 2nd brigade there was nothing to be seen but groups of dead and wounded out in front, and gas and wounded men struggling”
Loos Patrick McGill
“The firefly haunts were lighted up
As we scaled the top of the parapet
But the east grew pale to another fire
As our bayonets gleamed by the foreman’s wire
And the sky was tinged with gold and grey
And under our feet the dead men play
Stiff by the loop-holed barricade
Food of the bombs and the hand grenade
Still in the slushy pools and mud
Ah! The path we came was a path of blood
When we went to Loos in the morning
Command and control in 1915 : the attack on Lone Tree, 25 September 1915 by Nick Lloyd (Stand To! Sept 2005, 74) In this article the author considers a commonly held view about the battle as expressed by Henry Williamson in A fox Under My Cloak (1955). The Hun position behind Lone Tree is threatened on both flanks. So what does the staff order? Shall I tell you? Screamed Captain West. Above the screamings of 18 pounder shells. The Staff has ordered a second frontal attack against uncut wire! Does that, or does that not, strike you as the quintessence of criminal stupidity? The Lone Tree was the mutilated stump of a large cherry tree lying in the middle of no mans land on a small rise known as the Grenay Ridge. Lone Tree was manned by a company of 157 Infantry regiment commanded by Colonel Ritter. These were reinforced by men fleeing the fighting further south, and from the numbers which surrendered could have been over 1000. The main controversy is not why the Sussex regiment went over - this happened very quickly after the first assault when the trenches were in great confusion, and as the RSR war diary says the company commanders acted on their own initiative. But why when this failed was third attempt made using Green's force?
During the battle the British suffered 50,000 casualties. German casualties were estimated much lower, at approximately half the British total. The British failure at Loos contributed to Haig replacing French as Commander-in-Chief at the close of 1915. However it was felt battle a success with ground gained (not given up until 1918) but critical that the reserve divisions could have been better placed.
Unfortunately the Newspaper Cuttings finish now and for the rest of Robert’s time in the 2nd Battalion I have used the Battalion’s War Diary