The Battle of Loos – The worst day of my life
The Battle of Loos, that’s what it is being called – and described as some sort of success. I don’t know what they saw, but in my view it was a disaster. Our biggest push so far, with a week long bombardment and Kitchener’s new army at full strength, has ended in failure. We are back on our own lines after taking three lines of enemy trenches will heavy losses and then being forced back. We had no support on our flanks and the reinforcements we needed to take advantage didn’t arrive. The wire wasn’t cut by the massive bombardment and the gas attack we launched blew back and affected us more the Hun. The germans came back at us with bombing parties and heavy shelling. There were so many of them. We just didn’t have the numbers to defend our new positions. Colonel Walker is dead, Major tosh, Lt Steven, Cpl Quinn and five of my mates who joined up with me. Heaven knows how many are missing, captured or taken prisoner. Lt Cunningham is the only officer who survived unscathed. we are back at Pont du Hem a mere 200 of us from nearly 450 who set off. There are so few of us that we have been formed into two companies and incorporated into 2nd Battalion. The whole army has suffered a similar fate – a battalion of Scot Fusiliers, who stayed in the tobacco factory at Bethune have been reduced from 1100 to 90. We are all dazed and exhausted.
The week began so differently, with me so pleased to be back with he lads. I made a special effort to see Lieutenant Steven, to thank him for helping me when I was convalescing. It was his intervention that got me posted to Ormskirk with the Horse Remount Depot. He was pleased to see me and shook me by the hand. He said it was good to see some old faces. That was praise indeed from a man who won the Military Cross a few months ago. It is true, though, there were lots of new faces. The battalion was almost to full strength and there were lots of eager and excited young lads everywhere . Tom Lewis said they were a danger to themselves in the front line, making lots of noise and getting shot at by German snipers. He said that wo got hit last time out, just peering over the top for a look. They just couldn’t help themselves.
There was so much activity, that it seems obvious that there was something coming. The artillery were steadily building up their bombardments. There was a time they would only fire a few a shells a day just to keep the Hun on their toes, but now they were firing regularly. And the number of trucks and soldiers I saw when I came down from St Omer, suggested to me that there was going to be a big push.
Then it was announced that we were going to have inter-regimental games. The 2nd, 4th and 5th were together and there were going to be football, running, highland dancing and a tug’o’war. Cpl Quinn told Lugs McLeod he was in the football team. Others volunteered for the running and Danny Robertson and Jack Gray both volunteered for the Tug’o’war, though only Danny got into the team.
We didn’t have a very successful sporting day, though we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The 2nd Battalion proved to be excellent runners and better footballers. Lugs was furious and our only successful sport was the Tug’O’War. But a good time was had by all: Much banter, laughter, food and even drink. At the end of the day Colonel Wauchope gave a short speech and presented the 2nd with a cup. The guns, which had been firing steadily all day seemed to stop for the Colonel’s speech, resuming again as he finished. We marched back in a good mood, especially Tom Lewis, who had won £6 betting through the day.
The next day we received orders to prepare to move. Obviously the camp burst into action. By the afternoon we had achieved nearly all that was required and Cpl Quinn came round with pencils and paper for us to write home. This was quite a shock for the new lads. Suddenly they realised that they could be killed. We old hands knew what was expected of us, having written the electors before. I wrote mine out, revisiting my feelings for each of my family and, of course, Lily. We were also each given a red rag to pin to our backs for identification.
Later we were paraded for Major Tosh. The weather had been foul – lots of rain. but it gradually started to improve to pale sunshine. w eerier organised into 4 companies, a,b,c, and d. I was in C company under captain Moodie, and Lt Steven. Then Colonel Walker came to speak to us. He spoke of the great history of the Black Watch, mentioning Fontenoy, Alexandria, Waterloo, Alma and Sudan. Then he said ” Let us add to the glorious history of our Regiment, Let this victory display on our colours for all to see! Go the fighting fourth!”
And we joyfully gave him three cheers. Eric Brodie said he probably didn’t mention Cawnpore and Lucknow, because they are on our side now…
Afterwards we were ordered back to our tents and Cpl Quinn came around to check our equipment. We were then ordered to leave our backpacks behind, with our letters in. and take just our overcoats and haversacks with ammunition and rations for a day. We set off as darkness fell. Double file. told to be silent, but we were so laden down with equipment it was impossible. But with the guns firing away the Hun could not have heard us.
At about 11pm we came to a stop in a reserve trench. We couldn’t move further forward – It was like market day in there, soldiers pushing to get backwards and forwards. At midnight the rum ration came round. the new lads drank thirstily because they feared the unknown. We drank because we know there would be a long wait. Gradually we moved closer to the front trench with D Company, under Captain Couper. There were also our bombing section and machine gun section. to our left were the Punjabis and then the 2nd battalion. To our right the Gurkhas.
At the front, shells occasionally fell close to us. The new lads shrank into the trench walls and prayed. I looked at them with some pity. I knew what they were praying for – to be brave, to overcome their fear no matter what. That is what I prayed for before Neuve Chapelle. This time I prayed not to be injured and left in No Mans Land crying for water in agony until death takes me. I prayed “If it is to be, let it be quick.”
I almost slept for a short while and woke with my head rested against a jute sandbag in the trench wall. For a few moments I was reminded of my mother – had she made these very bags? – then Chrissy, full and cheek and with money in her pocket and bonny Janet. They seemed so very far away. And then father, who says he understands, but can never really know.. I prayed that Lily would not receive that letter. I wished I had torn it up.
An hour before dawn the guns fall silent. we are shaken awake by Cpl Quinn and Lt Steven moving along the line, to see we were responsive. At 5.40 we were ordered to stand to – put on our gas masks and fix bayonets. I was on the firestep, keeping my head down. Some engineers came along the trenches and are pulled back tarpaulins revealing those red star canisters I had seen before. I suddenly realised that these were gas cannisters. I was horrified. This might be expected of the Hun, but not us! Gas is underhand and most dishonourable! They began to release the gas along pipes that stretched out towards the Hun’s trenches. I don’t know why they hadn’t thought about this, but the wind blew back the gas in our direction. In fact our attempts with gas were little short of a disaster as some of our own troops were caught unaware and gassed and I also heard later that some of the keys for activating the canisters did not fit. Even worse some full canisters were later hit by enemy shells and we were gassed in our own trenches!
And so, at ten minutes to six, I was looking out across N Mans land, when I saw the biggest explosion I shall ever witness. We had planted a mine and , to my left, the whole line seems to rise, silently into the air. As it paused momentarily, before falling, the posts, trees and walls that marked the trenches evaporated into dust. Then there was the loudest explosion, followed by the very earth moving as if we were riding in a train carriage at 50 miles an hour. I heavy hail of earth fell upon our heads. I pitied those poor soldiers in that trench. Then our guns started again.
A few minutes later the whistles blew and we were off.
We could hardly see anything, with the gas and our masks, but it seemed obvious that the gas had not reached the enemy trenches. We advanced at a steady double across No Mans land and we made about 60 yards before the Hun started to fire. I was amazed that there was anyone still alive after the week of shelling and that huge mine, but a few men fell, including Major Tarleton. I followed Quinn, who I could see ahead of me. Soon we were being shelled – shrapnel everywhere. we got to the wire and found it still intact. We had no choice but to get down on our bellies, then over on our backs to wriggle underneath the wire..
The first trench was just a few yards beyond the wire and we were on them very quickly. We leapt into the first trench, in a blinded fury. But one push was sufficient. The Prussian Guards had no fight in them. They sat with their hands on their heads. some were crying. Most could hardly stand. Looking around I could see a kind of Hell. The trench had been pummelled by our guns until there were hardy any features left. These survivors had obviously been frequently buried in earth and rubble, starved of food and water and had no sleep for a week. they were shells of real men, living in a ditch with body parts and human debris scattered everywhere.
Captain Moodie gathered us around. I was relieved to see Tom and Danny, Cpl Quinn and Eric. The Captain told us that we must get to the Hun support trenches before they could bring reinforcements. At the signal we jumped out of the trench and ran hell for leather for the next trench. I was yelling like Billy-o, but they couldn’t have heard me through that ridiculous mask. As I approached the trench, almost blind, I took the decision to pull it up so that I could breathe. There was not a whiff of the stuff. We were in the reserve trench in a flash. The fighting here was more intense, the Hun putting up some resistance. But we were furies and could not be stopped. Bayonet and rifle butt won the day. We just kept advancing down the trench line. Big, small, armed or not, we did not care. Our blood was up. Finally there were just a few huddled together screaming kamerad, their hands up, palms towards us. Quinn was there, trying to restrain us, ordering us to stop. When I looked around, I could see that this trench was just as damaged as the first. Out guns, despite failing to destroy the wire had pulverised these lines. I was pleased to Eric still with me. He was helping a lad to take of his tunic and shirt to apply a field dressing. But apart from him and Cpl Quinn, there were only a few others from C company and some from D Company.
Fortunately we were joined by some men from A company. They told us that Major Tosh was down, Hit almost as soon as he left the trench. We could also see some Punjabis to our left and the 2nd Battalion BW to their left and we joined them to attack the windmill. It was very heavily fortified. As we advanced I noticed that there weren’t many Gurkhas there on our right flank. They must have had more trouble than we did. We rushed forward and leapt in. They must have been firing like Billy, but I didn’t notice. I just ran and leapt in bayonet first. There were dozens of us. Stabbing, slashing. The narrow confines were crammed with writhing bodies, some attacking, some running all fighting for some room. Our training and fury drove us – stab, stabbing, driven on by those behind, bouncing off the trench walls, leaping dead, firing into them, stabbing again. Then I lost my footing and was trampled over by my pals.
I don’t know how long I was out for. A few minutes I imagine. I woke coughing and spluttering and sat again the trench wall to catch my breath. I looked around to count seven dead, six German, one of the new lads. I didn’t even know his name. Apart from my rattling gulps, it was surprisingly quiet. At the end of this part of the trench, I saw a German standing stock still, facing down towards me. I was completely defenceless and for a moment very frightened. It was only after a few seconds that I realised that he was dead – probably impaled on something. But he looked straight out the trench, eyes wide open. He could have been on sentry duty.
Eventually I scrambled to my feet, found my rifle, collected some ammunition from the others and then caught up with the others who were only a few yards further down the trench. From this point our job was to consolidate our positions. Lt Cunningham was here and he said that we were waiting for colonel Walker to arrive before advancing any further. We set to work moving the sand bags from the front to back of the trench. In the distance we could already see movement in front of us. We knew it would not be long before we faced a counter attack.
At first, their shelling was wild, but gradually they honed in on us. We took what shelter we could, knowing that this was just to soften us up. I wondered where our guns were now? why couldn’t they have helped us? or the flyers? But we bore the brunt of it with out any reply that I could see. Lt Stewart and his machine gun section got a direct hit – 14 men down. I could see that we were terribly vulnerable. There were so few of us and our right flank had no support at all. I have no idea what happened to those Gurkhas. Consequently it wasn’t long before the Hun started working their way along the empty trenches towards us. We could hardly hold a like to the front, there being perhaps a man every 8 or 10 feet. Captain Air arrived, trying to bring up a machine gun. He said that we should get reinforcements shortly. We held as best we could, holding back the attacks down the trench, whilst all the time looking for the frontal attack that was bound to come. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. and our reinforcements didn’t come.
At about 10.30 or so they started to move forward, bullets spitting at us as their bombing parties came up. We held them back as best we could, but we struggled to keep them a distance away from us. At the same time, they pushed harder through the trenches. Colonel Walker was there, and Captain Air, encouraging us. He had sent several men back with urgent requests for more men, but none arrived. perhaps the runners hadn’t made it – the gunfire and shelling was pretty hot. It was soon obvious that we couldn’t hold this line and orders were given to move back.
And so, a few minutes later, I found myself back in the trench with the German sentry. His mates swarmed into the trench we had just vacated and, foolishly immediately took a look to see where we were. We made them pay for that. However, we now had to move sand bags to the back wall of the trench out new defensive line. And there seemed to be thousand of the blighters. Jamie was dead by then and so was Ken Collins. I saw their bodies.
Finally Lt Cunningham told us to run for it back to our own trenches. Corporal Quinn took charge and we tried to retreat in an orderly manner – run, turn and fire. run turn and fire. It was so difficult. We were exhausted and scared. the ground was covered with our own dead – our own friends – sometimes so thick on the ground that we could not avoid trampling on them. They distracted us, made us look at them when we should have been concentrating on defending ourselves. The bodies were thickest only a hundred or so yards infant of our own trenches. What a dreadful waste.
As I ran through a clutter of bodies, a hand reached out, grasping my leg. A bloody face looked up, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, and begged for water. I instinctively reached down to my bottle. I had a little left. I stooped down, but Quinn was on me and bustling me forward “Get on, get on, no stopping!” I shook the man off , broke free and I ran.
The trench was full of wounded, with the orderlies doing their best, trying to get the seriously injured – alt least those who had clawed their way back – into the reserve trenches as quickly as possible, but they struggled in the confines space and against those still active who were trying the defend the trench. Fortunately the Hun weren’t tempted to push on. If they had jam not sure we would have been able to hold. I know that Major Rogers did his best behind us, but there were just so many. That evening we were relieved. the new lads couldn’t have arrived sooner anyway. exhausted, we were marched out by the only fit officer, Lt Cunningham. the rumours about the dead had already started. I saw Colonel Walker fall, Major Tarleton and Captain Air and heard about Major Tosh, but I didn’t know about Lt Steven until we had returned to Pont du Hem.
This was the worst day of my life.