Today, a century back, the battle of Loos began. As an action on the left flank of a larger French assault, it is slightly hyperbolic to refer to it (though many have recently done so) as the greatest action of the war, or the largest battle in human history. But it’s the biggest push yet, a great effort that many on the allied side–although not General Haig, commander of First Army–believe may lead to breakthrough and victory.
So great an effort, in fact that, instead of moving simply from one writer to the next, I will use chronological sub-headings, moving through the stages of the attack and occasionally returning to the same writer later in the day. In this way I hope to give some sense of the overall picture while also recounting the experiences of the assault troops of the first wave, of Phillip Maddison with the gas troops and the (fictional) Gaultshires, of the Royal Welch in the second line against uncut wire, and of the Guards in reserve hastening forward–and to include a little of the fiction and poetry generated by observers and artillery officers.
Gas in the Half Light
A grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the German lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. “Why the devil don’t they send them over quicker?” The Actor complained. This isn’t my idea of a bombardment. We’re getting nothing opposite us. What little there seems to be is going into the Hohenzollern.”
“Shell shortage. Expected it,” was Thomas’ laconic reply.
This is Robert Graves, watching with D company of the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers from the second line trenches. “The Actor,” by the way, is the officer described by Frank Richards as “Deadwood Dick,” former sidekick to “Buffalo Bill.” Richards describes his view of the attack:
Dawn broke at last and we were anxiously waiting for the time when the Grand Slam commenced. The assembly trenches were about seven hundred yards behind our front line. Dann and I were closely watching to see our gas going over, which we were told would kill every German for over a mile in front of us and which none of us believed in… At last we saw the gas going over in two or three places: it looked like small clouds rolling along close to the ground. The white clouds hadn’t travelled far before they seemed to stop and melt away. I found out later that the wind that should have taken it across no-man’s-land hadn’t put in an appearance and the gas had spread back into our trenches…
We were now told to hold ourselves in readiness to proceed to the front line. I told Dann we wouldn’t carry that rabbit wire any further, so we dumped it in a shell hole…
So much for the worst overburden of the signaller. Back to Graves:
The events of the next few minutes are difficult for me now to sort out. I found it more difficult still at the time. All we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle fire, yells, heavy shelling booming on our front line, more shouts, yells and cries, and a continuous rapid rattle of machine-guns. After a few minutes, lightly wounded men of the Middlesex came stumbling down Maison Rouge Alley to the dressing-station. I stood at the junction of the siding and the Alley.
‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ I asked.
‘Bloody balls-up,’ was the most detailed answer I could get.
Among the wounded were a number of men yellow-faced and choking, their buttons tarnished green–gas cases. Then came the badly wounded. Maison Rouge Alley being narrow, the stretchers had difficulty in getting down. The Germans started shelling it with five-point-nines.
Thomas went back to battalion headquarters through the shelling to ask for orders. It was the same place that I had visited on my first night in the trenches. This cluster of dugouts in the reserve line showed very plainly from the air as battalion headquarters, and never should have been occupied during a battle. Just before Thomas arrived, the Germans put five shells into it. The adjutant jumped one way, the colonel the other, the RSM a third. One shell went into the signals dugout, killed some signallers and destroyed the telephone. The colonel, slightly cut on the hand, joined the stream of wounded and was carried back as far as the base with it. The adjutant took command.
It’s interesting to note the different accounts of the wound that incapacitated “the colonel,” Lt. Col. Williams, the commander of the battalion. In the regimental history he is wounded over the eye “from which blood streamed down his face.” Dunn’s account–and Dunn was the doctor that day–has the similar but more clinical “a wound over his eye, from which the blood ran down his face.” Graves, obviously, is implying something rather shameful…
Meanwhile ‘A’ company had been waiting in the siding for the rum to arrive; the tradition being a double tot of rum beforehand. all the other companies got theirs. The Actor began cursing: “where the bloody hell’s that storeman gone?” We fixed bayonets in readiness to go up and attack as soon as Captain Thomas returned with orders. Hundreds of wounded streamed by. At last Thomas’ orderly appeared. “Captain’s orders, sir: ‘A’ company to move up to the front line.” At that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum bottle, red-faced and retching. He staggered up to The Actor and said, “there you are, sir!”, then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. The stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. This was a crime that deserved the death penalty. He put one foot on the storeman’s neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. Then he gave the order “Company Forward!” The company advanced with a clatter of steel, and this was the last I ever heard of the storeman.
The black comedy lurches on. In the front line, a disaster is unfolding.
The First Attack
It seems that at half-past four an R[oyal] E[ngineer] captain commanding the gas-company in the front line phoned through to divisional headquarters: “Dead calm. Impossible discharge accessory.” The answer he got was: “Accessory to be discharged at all costs.” Thomas had not over-estimated the gas-company’s efficiency. The spanners for unscrewing the cocks of the cylinders proved, with two or three exceptions, to be misfits. The gas-men rushed about shouting for the adjustable spanner. They managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards off in no man’s land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. The Germans, who had been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours. Bundles of oily cotton-waste were strewn along the German parapet and set alight as a barrier to the gas. Then their batteries opened on our lines. The confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas-company stampeded.
There is a good mix of witness, fact, exaggeration, and fiction in that paragraph. Sober histories claim that not a single gas cylinder was actually hit and exploded in the front line, but none dispute the basic problem: a wind so feeble as to useless, and in some cases counter-productive. And, of course,the wrong spanners–here is the flip side of British amateurism and ingenuity and all the rest. Half-trained motley units are hurried together and given none of the best men, then expected to function with little preparation.
Is it irony, then, that the right (southern) flank of the attack was initially quite successful? Somehow, the German wire was cut, and the bombardment was well-timed, and the first wave of troops pushed through the German lines and took the town of Loos.
The center of the German positions (trenches in red, the British front line marked by a single dotted line on the left) assaulted today, with the town of Hulluch in the upper right.
There would seem to be an opportunity, there, for fiction. But Henry Williamson is not primarily interested in either irony or tragedy. The long Loos section of A Fox Under My Coat is historical gourmandising, an all-you-can-eat feast in which Phillip Maddison is alternately a raw soul tossed on the eddies of history, a reader’s eye at the center of the storm, and a paragon of historical fiction, transformed into a man of action at the right place and in the right time.
Williamson positions Maddison where he can witness–and play a role in–both general disaster and local triumph.
First, the gas. The hapless Phillip is tucked under the wing of the mercurial, scenery-chewing Captain West:
“God’s teeth, that blasted light stabs my eyeballs… This tea is cold, dammit.” Then, “What’s the time?”
“Four minutes to go, skipper.”
That would make it 5:46 a.m., a century back.
Captain West sprang off the bed, and touching Phillip on the shoulder said quietly, “Come with me.”
Phillip followed… out past men standing up in a sickly light, ominous with rain that hung everywhere in threat above the dead-white parapet. Some were smoking; a few were talking; but all were silent as they watched the two officers climbing two scaling ladders, placed side by side, to look out over the dreaded top.
“No wind,” said Captain West. “Do you agree?”
“Yes, I do.”
West makes Phillip phone through to brigade–the lines still work, before the German interdiction shelling has begun–and tell them that he–West–has, in the absence of the expected westerly (i.e. west-to-east) wind, countermanded the order to release the gas.
Brigade has already been informed of the lack of wind, but ordered by Division Headquarters–far enough behind to ignore the wind, we must suppose–to carry on as planned. There is a timetable, after all. This did happen, yet the tone of this detail seems to be borrowed from Graves’s memoir.
Williamson has placed the “Gaultshires” opposite the town of Hulluch, with the “Lone Tree”–a much-scarred cherry tree–marking the German front line (visible in the center-left, above, in square 17c). From here he and West will watch the attack.
The German first line… lay just behind the turn-over of the imperceptible slope, marked by a stark and solitary tree near the wire-belt concealed by the grass. This front line, on the reverse slope, was connected laterally with the Loos Road Redoubt on Hill 69… one of three dominating the British positions, with the Hohenzollern to the north and Hill 70 to the south. There were many steel cupolas, with splayed slits for machine-gun fire… The Loos Road Redoubt was the objective of the brigade of which the Gaultshires was the leading battalion.
The Gaultshires take the place, then, of the real 2/Bedfordshires, who were in the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division. Their first wave–the first, in a way, of the long line of doomed British advances that will stalk through the history, literature, and popular mythology of the Grear War–is cut down by German machine guns and rifles. The survivors shelter in shell-holes or lie flat in the sparse grass under the German guns. Nearly every account of Loos quotes the German regimental diary which describes how the German gunners, sickened by the slaughter, spontaneously held their fire once the British began to fall back.
The crackle of rifle-fire came undiminished from over the grassy battlefield pocked by white craters of chalk, and strewn with figures in khaki…
Phillip stood up. Unknown to him, the effect of his presence upon “Spectre” West was calming. Phillip felt no fear. He was a mere spectator; he had no part in what was happening. He was free.
For a moment it is almost as if Phillip is a time-traveler, rather than a favorite of the special fortune of historical fiction. In any event, his freedom is now subsumed in a strange sort of pseudo-adoption, a literary move clunky almost to ridiculousness, yet also moving in the manner of earnest, angry, bluff fiction. West has been ordered to stay behind, presumably in order to command the reserves. Now he reads the situation and sees that any further assaults into uncut wire would be pointless–the Germans are not destroyed; they are simply waiting. Yet there has been an advance to the south, and the German positions behind Lone Tree are outflanked–they don’t need to be attacked from the front.
He calls the higher-ups asking for permission to do this. No: there must be a frontal assault. It has been ordered already–it has been determined. Young Phillip Maddison wonders what they should do, and the apoplectic “Westy”/”Spectre” treats us to another map-exposition scene:
“God’s teeth, I thought you had brains!” went on Captain West, contemptuously… He flung open his map, knelt down to spread it on the ground, and pressed it with a finger as he cried, “Here is Lone Tree. And here… is where the First Brigade us now, just about to outflank Lone Tree to the north. And here… is where the Jocks on our right have got to. Yet here”–driving his finger through the map into the loamy clay underneath–“is where we are ordered to attack the same uncut wire frontally! And this in modern war–not in the Crimea!”
Not subtle. Nor is Maddison’s sudden transformation. He wanders off, but only far enough for a whizz-bang ex machina to come crashing down and hit Captain West. “Spectre” is gruesomely and mortally wounded. His loyal batman summons Phillip, then supplies his master with a fatal dose of morphine–an acceleration of his previous role as the gentle poisoner-with-whiskey. Now a death-bed scene in a muddy trench bottom:
The jaws worked; the slow, partial swallow; the struggle to articulate. The batman said, “All right, sir, don’t you worry yourself no more. Mr Maddison ‘eard you, sir. ‘Get round the flank.’ Didn’t you, sir?”
“Yes, Westy, I heard. I”ll carry on. Leave it to me. We’ll get round the flank.”
The scene of Phillip Maddison’s flanking action. German trenches marked in red; each square is 500 yards to the side.
And so he does. Maddison becomes the adopted son of West (oh, Freshman English!) and carries on the flame. Somehow the old regular’s tenacity and courage mystically pass on to Phillip, who at other times is fearful to the point of punishable cowardice.
He will lead the Gaultshires on! And in doing so he seems to depart from fictionalized history and into historical fiction, taking the leading role in a bit of ripped-from-the-headlines heroic initiative, a blow not only for Britain against Germany, but for the infantry in “Westy’s” war against the staff.
The action itself is borrowed from the 2/Welch regiment, who outflanked the Lone Tree today, a century back. In the novel, our haplessly heroic hero takes command of the remnants of the Gaultshires and suddenly inhabits his own boyhood fantasy of himself.
We are meant to think either that “Westy” has inspired him or that his enormous capacity for headlong improvisation and socially catastrophic playacting finally serves him in good stead. Or both–inspiration tips his character flaws into a battlefield asset. Phillip, the quondam coward, misfit, and would-be passive observer now plays the unflappable upper class subaltern, and it works. He simply leads the reserves of the Gaultshires over the top, down along the Hulluch Road (see above), and then, just like in boy scout exercises or training camp, he gives the few commands that swing his scratch battalion to the right. They advance in open order through the wood and find themselves suddenly within the German positions.
And there, heroism and success meet, naturally, with anticlimax. The Germans behind Lone Tree, knowing full well that they are nearly surrounded, and completely out of ammunition, promptly surrender.
Phillip manages a wan joke in German (their English is, naturally, much better than his German) and accepts the surrender. Other troops come up, including an officer who has disliked him in the past and is suspicious of his presence with the Gaultshires. So just like that, Phillip turns over command of the battalion he was not even a member of, and wanders back toward the rear, his inherited quest fulfilled.
He is apparently unaware that he has been very brave and that, in following Westy’s dying injunction to disobey orders, he has helped to secure a large section of German trenches that otherwise would have been lost. There might be grander irony in this if Williamson were, like Graves, always interested in irony and bathos. He is not–this was one good thing that happened on a bad day, and it is given as a sort of mystical reward to Phillip. And now, less like a temporary gas officer resuming an unlikely independence than like an ordinary Joe in the aftermath of a quantum leap, he resumes his role as a sort of choral observer.
He wanted to see his [gas] emplacements, not from a sense of duty (which he did not as yet possess) but out of curiosity. His mind, formed in ancient terrors, brooded romantically on the war: not the war of waves breaking, and dying, upon the foreshore of terror: not the war of each actual laborious moment, but War, an extended dream, the jetsam of combat become quiescent under ceased movement and lost hope. He wanted to walk about and stand and stare and let his feelings possess him, so that he could lose himself in a dream that was beyond nightmare–the romance of war, the visual echoes of tragic action. Gas brassard on arm, he was free; no-one would question him if he appeared to be going about his job. He must visit the Lone Tree, imagine the barbed-wire as it was when holding up the assault…
In the rear he will come upon another battalion of the Gaultshires–the very unit that he had trained with, antagonized, been bullied by, and ignominiously left. They are part of the delayed reserve–the Kitchener’s Army troops who should have been there to exploit successes like the capture of Lone Tree and Loos, but were too far back. Phillip’s road tomorrow will lie with them, as the whole creaking structure of the novel–Williamson’s own story given a sidewise smack with a sledgehammer–contrives to get him back into the battle.
For every other character in this battle–especially those who were actually there, sunk in the stew of social pressures and ambitions that keep units from giving in to the sum of the ordinary fears of their members–this was a period of real tension. Yet once the plan broke down and the artillery timetables were out of sync there was sudden leeway. No matter how rigid the army hierarchy was or how explicit orders were it always seems that there was one way for battalion officers to play for time, whether out of circumspection or a simple unwillingness to be slaughtered. They could ask for orders. Even for clarifications to existing orders. With a counter-barrage underway and troops clogging the communications trenches, there was every likelihood that decisions would be delayed for many long minutes, or–if brigade headquarters felt the need to communicate with division, division with corps, etc.–for hours.
Attack: The Second Wave
Let’s turn back to the Royal Welch, whose officers now have some decisions to make. They were supposed to be the second wave of the initial assault, but the attack of the Middlesex Regiment, in front of them, has failed–for many reasons. The first is the gas–not only did it not reach the Germans (who were in any case well-prepared for it) but much of it wafted back into the trench, so the Middlesex, rather than choke on their own gas, had attacked piecemeal and unsupported by the timed bombardment.
To all this Graves adds a colorful story of how the brigade trench mortars–operated by one efficient Royal Welch officer and a pathetically incompetent teenage officer of the Middlesex, known as “Jamaica”–had knocked out all but one German machine gun opposite. But that one gun, left undamaged because Jamaica had abandoned his post to care for a wounded sergeant, now pinned down the survivors of the Middlesex attack in the shell craters of No-Man’s Land, where they discovered that their grenades didn’t work. The 2nd Division had apparently not been issued the new Mills Bombs, but been fobbed off with grenades that actually needed to be lit by matches–and it had, of course, rained all night.
Maison Rouge Alley–not shown on the map for security reasons–was a British communications trench running roughly from the bottom-left-most “B” east through the next “A” and into the British front line. The German positions they will assault are shown in red.
Those of the rest of the Middlesex who had actually left their trenches to attack had either been hit by German artillery–which after all had long ago registered the exact position of the British trenches–or shot down by rifles. Because there was no supporting bombardment the Germans could stand up on their fire steps, head and shoulders above ground level, and take aim. “At this point,” Graves writes, “the Royal Welch Fusiliers came up Maison Rouge Alley.”
The Germans were shelling it [Maison Rouge] with five-nines (called ‘Jack Johnsons’ because of their black smoke) and lachrymatory shells. This caused a continual scramble backwards and forwards, to cries of: ‘Come on!’ ‘Get back, you bastards!’ ‘Gas turning on us!’ ‘Keep your heads, you men!’ ‘Back like hell, boys!’ ‘Whose orders?’ ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Gas!’ ‘Back!’ ‘Come on!’ ‘Gas!’ ”Back’.
In all this confusion, Childe-Freeman loses half his company–B Company–by the time they reach the front line.
Frank Richards, following with A company, paints a very similar picture of these minutes. Meeting some of the walking wounded from the first wave, he asks how the attack is proceeding:
“A bloody balls-up” was the reply.
One man said that as soon as Old Jerrie commenced to shell the front line the gas-wallahs vanished. The trench was soon full of gas, and that was the reason they [the Middlesex of the first wave] went over the top before the bombardment commenced.
So–a bloody balls-up. Everyone agrees. The Middlesex have been cut down, and there can be no hope of success for an attack in daylight against well-fortified, fully alert troops. The very overconfidence of the battle plan gives the Welch something of an out: the first objectives have not been met, and there is no provision for failure, so what do we do?
Leadership problems might provide another excuse: not only are the colonel and his deputy wounded, but now Childe-Freeman collapses and dies, apparently a victim of heart failure.
Nevertheless, the Welch, commanded by their adjutant, Captain Owen, decide to press on.
Two different contributors to Dunn’s history now use a phrase that could be drawn from another century or two back in the regiment’s annals: they call the two companies of the Royal Welch slated to continue the attack a “Forlorn Hope.” This is not technically correct: a Forlorn Hope–the term derives from early modern siege warfare–was a unit of volunteers who led the initial assault against a breached fortress. They were not expected to survive. They were not “forlorn” in the sense of being displeased with their fate but rather verloren–lost. Their job was to draw the fire from the defenders’ cannon and muskets, allowing a second storming party to reach the wall while they reloaded.
But it’s 1915, and the enemy are not a hundred yards away; nor are they armed with slow-loading muskets. They are several hundred yards away, behind thickets of barbed wire, and they have bolt-action rifles and machine guns–“machine” in that they load themselves, using the kickback of the last round too chamber the next, in a tiny fraction of a second. And a forlorn hope sacrifices itself explicitly in order to allow another unit to succeed in its wake. So this is (tragically) inexact. Perhaps the idea is that by keeping up their “diversionary” attack the German decision-makers will divert reserves away from the south, thus allowing that assault to succeed. But I think rather that the loose use of the term reflects the core of its meaning: a courageous willingness to be shot to pieces as part of a larger plan.
We are very far, here, from Rupert Brooke‘s pretty nuzzlings of the idea of wartime self-sacrifice. This is the real thing: self-sacrifice not for England, but for the Regiment and the army. Death preferred to discretion in loyalty to an obscure but powerful sort of professional pride.
So then, here are tactics that have utterly failed, in service to a bad strategy chosen for reasons of allied grand strategy. And here are other, older, considerations, less rational but no less real, which cluster together to form that stout but unyielding concept, honor. The Welch officers consider it unacceptable to choose not to attack when other troops have done so.
Never mind the tactics: this attack will not help the wounded and trapped members of the Middlesex. In fact, it will bring down more fire upon them. Nor will disjointed attacks possible succeed in reaching a German trench. Nevertheless, the remainder of B company attacks. The descriptions of this are succinct: “About 8 o’clock the officers blew their whistles and over we went… Half of B Company fell in 30 yards.”
The “Pope’s Nose” is in the upper right corner of square 27B, above. The machine gun likely would have been in the second or third line, perhaps in the circled redoubt to the northeast, marked with a blue “22.”
Robert Graves takes up the tale:
A few minutes later, Captain Sampson, with ‘C’ Company and the remainder of ‘B,” reached our front line. Finding the the gas-cylinders still whistling and the trench full of dying men, he decided to go over too–he could not have it said that the Royal Welch had let down the Middlesex.
Reputation–honor–is sometimes more important than survival, especially when victory does not seem like it can be gained in either case. This is the stuff of epic, but Graves–a mischievous and controversy-courting author, but one who we now must never forget has seen dozens of men he knew and worked with gunned down before his eyes–is committed to dark comedy,
One of ‘C’ officers told me later what happened. It had been agreed to advance by platoon rushes with supporting fire. When his platoon had gone about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on his left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole, waved, and signalled ‘Forward!’
He shouted: ‘You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?’
His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped: ‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all f—ing dead.’
The Pope’s Nose machine-gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.
Graves may be guilty of hyperbole–all dead? But not much. Halve the carnage, and remember that roughly half of those shot are not mortally wounded, and you find consistent reports in the sober regimental accounts: “C Company may have gone 40 yards and then the line just fell down;” “Half [of A] company fell in the first thirty yards… the remainder dropped in their tracks and stayed where they were.”
Frank Richards, too, was watching:
Not a man in either company got more than thirty yards… Major Sampson [Captain Sampson of C company] was laying out in front mortally wounded: three men, one after the other, sprung over the parapet and made a rush towards him with the intention of bringing him in but they were bowled over by rifle-fire.
For three hours the survivors–and several died during the interval–waited to see whether the rest of the battalion would come out. The waited in shell holes or scratched shallow shelters with their entrenching tools, and hunkered down.
And as for Graves and D company, well–Jamaica’s soft-hearted damage isn’t done yet. He is found in a communications trench trying to minister to the wounds of the sergeant who had taught and protected him. He is blocking the advance of the Welch, and so The Actor orders the dying sergeant’s stretcher thrown over the top in order to make the trench passable. Jamaica is a pathetic figure–he gets the line “I do think you’re the most heartless beast I’ve ever met”–but he does not win Graves’s sympathy. The dying man gets thrown out into the open so that healthy men–for the moment–can do their jobs with less risk.
Good-Bye to All That wobbles, here: Graves is an innovator, a skilled fabulist, a dire dark comedian. But he hasn’t made the leap to absurdity–Joseph Heller is not in this trench, and Jamaica ministering to the sergeant is not Yossarian crouched over Snowden. Graves is there, in that trench, and not about to expose himself to shell fire before the attack, just for sentiment, or to approve it in retrospect.
Besides, he’s writing a conventional comedy. Everyone has their roles.
And so, horror and bathos:
We went up to the corpse-strewn front line. The captain of the gas-company, who was keeping his head and wore a special oxygen respirator, had by now turned off the gas-cocks. Vermorel-sprayers had cleared out most of the gas, but we were still warned to wear our masks. We climbed up and crouched on the fire-step, where the gas was not so thick–gas, being heavy stuff, kept low. Then Thomas brought up the remainder of ‘A’ Company and, with ‘D’, we waited for the whistle to follow the other two companies over. Fortunately at this moment the adjutant appeared. He was now left in command of the battalion, and told Thomas that he didn’t care a damn about orders; he was going to cut his losses and not send ‘A’ and ‘D’ over to their deaths until he got definite orders from brigade. He had sent a runner back, and we must wait…
While waiting, Graves watches more short-falls from their own bombardment land amidst the remnants of B and C companies, lying in the open between the lines.
My mouth was dry, my eyes out of focus, and my legs quaking under me. I found a water-bottle full of rum and drank about half a pint; it quieted me, and my head remained clear. Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise.
We waited a couple of hours for the order to charge. The men were silent and depressed … Finally a runner arrived with a message that the attack had been postponed…
The Attack of the Devonshires, along Hulluch Road, upper left.
Not every second wave attack met with such a disaster. A few miles south of the Welch were the 8th and 9th Devonshires, in the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division, not far to the north of the “Gaultshires” (note the chapel in the upper left of the map, which also shows the Lone Tree).
The 9th Devons had watched the 8th battalion of their Regiment (it’s unusual to find to battalions of the same regiment in the same brigade, but not unheard of) bunch up before the wire and take heavy casualties. Or, rather, they had struggled forward, much like the 2/Royal Welch, while the massacre was going on:
…as they drew nearer the front the trenches became increasingly choked with wounded from the battalions that had already gone over. There were other hazards too. C Company was held up for an agonising 15 minutes when their machine guns became entangled with the telephone wires. The decision to give up on the congested trenches altogether and move forward in the open seems to have been made piecemeal. Noel Hodgson and the rest of D Company climbed out of Chapel Alley at the chapel of Notre Dame de Consolation, close to the Hulluch Road, at 7.45am…
Almost immediately they began taking heavy casualties. Charlotte Zeepvalt’s composite account continues:
Captain Mockridge was wounded in the thigh, Alan Hinshelwood’s arm was broken by a rifle bullet and Bertram Glossop was shot in the leg. His last sighting of the survivors, Noel Hodgson and Mervyn, ‘the Bart’ Davies, still leading D Company and the bombers forward, was passed on in ‘Pussy’ Martin’s letter:
I got the latest report from him to the effect that Mervyn with an evil leer on his face and his bandy legs twinkling in and out among the bullets was still going strong. Smiler with his bombers was doing great execution against a M.G. [machine gun] in the Breslau redoubt. When last seen Rayner was rushing along at the head of his men somewhere by the German first line, waving a pistol and shouting wildly!
Hodgson and his bombers had been called away to the left to help deal with a strongpoint in the German line, where they and bombers from the 2nd Borders took 150 prisoners.
Noel Hodgson left two accounts of his experiences in the German lines: the Battalion War Diary, which is in his handwriting from 21 to 27 September, and a twenty-two page account on odd sheets of paper, written in the third person, as the grenade officer. But it matches Rayner’s account and others precisely, and presents an uncompromising picture of the conditions they endured. At one point he finds six men killed in their sleep by a single shell, a shortfall from their own artillery. He sees ‘a white hand with a ring on the little finger, ’ and, ‘thinking of some girl or wife at home, bends down to recover the ring, and finds that the hand ends abruptly at the wrist. There is no sign of the owner about.’
Noel Hodgson and his grenades, before the Battle of Loos
A surfeit of horror, on a long day. But two things here must not be overlooked. First, even when an attack has faltered against barbed wire and machine guns, it can still go forward. Massed assaults of infantry sometimes present nothing more than unmissable targets, where small groups of “bombers” working with whatever cover is available can dislodge defenders.
Second, we have our first decorated New Army poet. “Smiler” Hodgson–the diffident Bombing Officer–will win the Military Cross for his day’s work.
After the Reprieve
We return to the Royal Welch, and Robert Graves’s account of the aftermath of the aborted attack.
My memory of that day is hazy. We spent it getting the wounded down to the dressing-station, spraying the trenches and dug-outs to get rid of the gas, and clearing away the earth where the trenches were blocked. The trenches stank of a gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell. Late in the afternoon we watched through our field-glasses the advance of reserves under heavy shell-fire toward Loos and Hill 70; it looked like a real break-through.
It was–for a little while. Due in part to French’s refusal to release his reserves to Haig before the battle–nearly every history mentions at this point the flabbergasting fact that there was no telephone linkup between Army and BEF headquarters, so Haig had to send an officer there and back in a car to get permission–and in part to the fact that it is always difficult to hold captured ground when the enemy has had ample warning to assemble a counter-attack force, most of the gains were lost during the afternoon.
At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death…
This awful image was tidier–slightly–in a contemporary poem that goes a long way toward showing where Graves is as a writer now, rather than when looking back, recomposing, and bidding “Good-Bye” in his memoir. The typescript, at right, is held in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
The Dead Fox Hunter, courtesy of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive
The elegy is mostly traditional and very firmly of a place and class–fox hunting is not the sport of Graves the awkward intellectual, but rather of the old school Regulars (and country gentlemen like Sassoon). We can find a hint of mischief-making, perhaps, in Graves’s hope that heavenly choirs will be shoved aside for celestial blood sports, but, really, this is a straightforward elegy to a brave soldier who did his duty, and died. And it doesn’t much wonder why.
During the whole of the night the Company were employed in bringing in the wounded and dead and the enemy didn’t fire a shot during the whole of the night… Young Mr. Graves worked like a Trojan in this work and when I saw him late in the night he looked thoroughly exhausted…
He told a few of us outside the signaller’s dugout how bravely Major Sampson had died. He had found him with his two thumbs in his mouth which he had very nearly bitten through to save himself crying out in his agony, and so as not to attract enemy fire on some of the lightly-wounded men that were laying around him…
The Germans behaved generously. I do not remember hearing a shot fired that night, though we kept in until it was nearly dawn and we could see plainly; then they fired a few warning shots, and we gave it up.
Robert Graves is now in command of B company, one of only five or six officers in the battalion yet unwounded. Thomas, the brave adjutant, will be killed early tomorrow after carelessly exposing himself to a sniper.
Thomas need not have been killed; but everything had gone so wrong that he seemed not to care one way or the other.
Most writing about major battles in the Great War–including most of what’s above, today–emphasizes the enormous casualties suffered in the frontal assaults of the first wave. And yet most of these were successful. The failure to deal with the barbed wire was a serious problem (that will recur), but no matter how strongly defended a trench system is, the very fact that it is a static defensive system means that massive firepower can be brought to bear against it. If there is enough artillery, well-enough coordinated, then the infantry will be able to advance, and take a trench, or several trenches, full of dead, wounded, or shocked defenders. A more insoluble problem is keeping this advance going while the second and third lines of defense awaken and artillery in the rear begins firing to “interdict” supporting troops moving up toward the front lines and across the former no-man’s land.
Despite the terrible descriptions of men trapped in front of uncut wire andcut down by un-bombarded machine guns, it was this failure–coordinating the exploitation of the gains on the southern flank of the assault–that doomed the assault. The New Army divisions that were to have pushed ahead will be delayed until tomorrow. And the Guards–the vaunted new division of elites–will not be available until the third day of the battle. Kipling’s description of their march evokes the frustration of coming upon a great effort already withering:
At noon on the 25th September the position stood thus: The First Army Corps held up between the Béthune–La Bassée Canal and the Hohenzollern redoubt; the Seventh Division hard pressed among the quarries and houses by Hulluch; the Ninth in little better case as regarded Pit 8 and the redoubt itself; the Highland Division pushed forward in the right centre holding on precariously in the shambles round Loos and being already forced back for lack of supports.
All along the line the attack had spent itself among uncut wire and unsubdued machine-gun positions. There were no more troops to follow at once on the heels of the first, nor was there time to dig in before the counter-attacks were delivered by the Germans, to whom every minute of delay meant the certainty of more available reserves fresh from the rail. A little after noon their pressure began to take effect, and ground won during the first rush of the advance was blasted out of our possession by gunfire, bombing, and floods of enemy troops arriving throughout the night.
Rowland Feilding is with the Coldstream Guards, and writes to prepare his wife for the coming assault of the reserves.
September 25, 1915, Houchin
By the time you get this you will have heard that a great combined French and British attack was launched to-day. The weather yesterday was fine, but during the night a drizzle set in which continued till the morning…
Our bombardment of the German trenches continued through the night, reaching its climax in the morning as the moment of assault approached. Then did the fire become so violent that even at Rely, where we slept, though 18 miles behind the line, the ground shook, and my iron bedstead at the “Mairie” rattled at the heavier bursts.
We expected to march shortly after midnight, but this order was cancelled, and we fell in instead at 5.45 in the morning… and arrived here, very wet, after many halts, at 9 p.m.
As we came within sight of the drifting battle smoke and looked upon the familiar flat landscape and the great cone-shaped spoil-heaps of the coal-mines which stand up like the Pyramids against the sky, a message from Lord Cavan was passed round. It said “that we were on the eve of the greatest battle in history”—“that future generations depended on the result of it”—and “that great things are expected from the Guards Division.” Later, we received the splendid news that our troops had broken through the German line and taken Hulloch, Loos, and Cite de St. Elie; all places that we have looked towards so long from the trenches in front of Vermelles…
Would that it were true.
Poetry of Combat: The Second Step
Robert Nichols witnessed the fighting today from a few miles back–but he was no safer. Working the guns, Nichols’ battery was subjected to accurate German counter-battery fire, and although he was not visibly injured, he suffered from concussion and what was beginning to be recognized as “shell-shock,” or the neurological/emotional after-effects of shelling.
But when he wrote of the battle, it was the infantry he strove to make the subject of his poetry. Strove mightily–but awkwardly. This “misdirected attempt at realism” attempts to solve the problem of representing modern war by simply throwing a lot of words at it:
Gather, heart, all thoughts that drift;
Be steel, soul, Compress thyself
Into a round, bright whole. I cannot speak.
I hear my whistle shriek…
It goes on:
On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail.
Spatter. Whirr! Whirr!
“Toward that patch of brown;
Direction left.” Bullets a stream.
Devouring thought crying in a dream.
Men, crumpled, going down. . . .
Go on. Go.
Deafness. Numbness.The loudening tornado.
Bullets. Mud. Stumbling and skating.
My voice’s strangled shout:
“Steady pace, boys!“
The still light: gladness.
“Look, sir. Look out!“
Ha! ha! Bunched figures waiting.
Revolver levelled quick!
Flick! Flick! Red as blood.
Germans. Germans. Good!
O good! Cool madness.
Nichols will improve. The problem, I think, is that this is neither testimony nor insight nor music: he is not recording his own actions for posterity; there is no poetic compression, no cracking open of some kernel of experience; and it’s not, er, much in the way of verse. And although the effect of the staccato, impressionistic lines is modern, the attempt to convey a sort of exhilarating madness as the essence of battle is more Romantic than anything else. None of our prose writers who were there in the front lines today, a century back, were much interested in their own bayonets or revolvers, or in drawing German blood.
Writers and Fictions on a Memorable Day
I’ve tried to sketch something of what the battle was like, both as a major offensive and as a minor watershed in British war writing. But it was also the biggest day of the year, a red-letter date that would stick in many memories. So let’s have just one example of how Loos could stand, in fiction, for one sort of experience.
John Buchan has been busy. His propagandistic quick-fire histories have been selling well, although not as well as his popular thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was serialized over the summer and will released as a book in October. He has already been sent to report on the second battle of Ypres, and now he is back at the front, an official unofficial war reporter. A man like Buchan can be relied upon to tell the story properly. And he is no fool–or at least he considers himself to be no fool.
Yet just yesterday he wrote home parroting the blithe confidence he had picked up from various generals about the extraordinary success of the coming attack. Nothing of Haig’s pessimism seems to have reached him. Tomorrow, then, Buchan will be writing with evident surprise that the “victory” may have been terribly costly. But he was there nonetheless, to see the great day, the first day in action for so many New Army battalions. And so, in his next fiction, he used Loos as an opportunity to cross his own paths: in Greenmantle, the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, today’s battle will lurk behind all of the derring-do and strangely conceived spycraft as the day that Britain’s New Army was tested and proved its mettle. It reads a little like a later cinematic convention, namely the traumatic preamble to an action movie which must be revisited several times in flashback in order for the hero to overcome a failure and accomplish a new heroic feat…
“For more than a year I had been a busy battalion officer, with no other thought than to hammer a lot of raw stuff into good soldiers. I had succeeded pretty well, and there was no prouder man on earth than Richard Hannay when he took his Lennox Highlanders over the parapets on that glorious and bloody 25th of September. Loos was no picnic…
No picnic, but time to escape to the romancers. This is war writing, too. It’s funny: this war will not produce an epic, and although it produced many good novels, it did not produce the kind of novels that vie for the status once accorded to epic. Joyce is hopping about the periphery, slipping back to pre-war Dublin; Tolstoy is gone; Hardy has no more monster projects in him. The first flowerings of novels that don’t so much record personal experience of the war as seek to use it or address it for grand literary purposes are not heading epic-ward, but heliotroping off instead after very different stars. The historians, like Buchan, are bungling their impossible task of combining the accurate history of a “bloody balls-up” with the sturdy narrative confidence in ultimate victory which they must project.
That leaves the romancers–as Buchan is aware. As he will write, next year, in a foreword to the book, “Some day, when the full history is written–sober history with ample documents–the poor romancer will give up his business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.”
This, at times, seems like a very good idea. For the history has now been written, most ways, and time and again. And romance has surely retreated–in fact, most “romance,” in the classic sense of “adventure story,” that gets published these days follows in the footsteps of Tolkien and Stapledon: fantasy and science fiction must vastly outnumber military or geopolitical adventure stories. And there are even the thirty-nine footsteps of Buchan to follow too, since his second novel ran away with a new art form and became an excellent cinematic thriller.
In any event, three more years of history and writing–then Miss Austen and the hermitage.