The Guards Division has spent the Battle of Loos waiting, so far. Today some of the Guards continued to wait, and some attacked, and died.
Last night (after our 15 miles march) we slept pretty readily as you may imagine. Our guns are keeping up a tremendous bombardment from behind and on each side of us. We can hear the shells whizzing over our heads but one doesn’t mind that; indeed the noise of one’s own artillery is a very comfortable sound. The Germans are not doing much in the way of retaliation; they dropped a few shells short of us and some right over us last night.
We all slept in the open, beside the trenches. It is so uncomfortable to sleep in the trench and the men were so tried after these 2 hard days, that this was decided upon as the best system. We had sentries to watch; and if there had been any sign of shell-fire dangerously near us, we should gave jumped down into the trench. There is of course no rifle fire, as we are at present in the support or 2nd line.
This has to rank high on the list of ingenuousness for all paragraphs that end with an implied “so don’t worry, mom.”
We do not know how the battle is going. There are bound to be fluctuations, and of course some of the New Army Divisions are rather shaky. My chief feeling at present is one of thankfulness that I am in the Brigade of Guards…
I do not feel frightened yet, only rather bewildered. We are all in excellent spirits and health. Please don’t worry at all about me…
Yes, there it is, and the more touching for coming after an admission of “bewilderment.” Bimbo’s letter to “Darling Moth” I won’t go into at any length, but it is much the same, although with a touch of Graves on graves:
…we walked 12 miles, from 3 p.m. to nearly 8 p.m., and then slept in a cemetery where I am now writing at 8.30 p.m. I slept on a waterproof sheet with all my clothes and my mackintosh on, but it was none too warm and I should love to be sent a woolly waistcoat if you can dig out one of mine at home.
The guns have been at it the whole time, and we can hear our heavy shells tearing across the sky just like one hears a rocket going up and then coming down. I love hearing them. As we sit here I can see houses with huge holes in the wall or roof, or only three walls, all around us. And there are several places in the cemetery where shells have pitched and wrecked one or two hideous grave-decorations which are like dolls’ houses with glass fronts and full of black and white bead flowers and tin palm leaves, so you can imagine how sordid they look all smashed up…
We are all cheerful and I am very happy, but we don’t yet know what we are going to do to-day. The guns still continue unceasingly, and all the men are writing letters home…
It may seem a little perverse to begin a day of battle and death with these homelike letters to mother. But that, I think, is the point–or, rather, one of the points–of doing broad-bore, real-time history. Yes, someday, everywhere, many sighs are drained, but on those very same days other bright young subalterns are exhilarated, and continue to look forward, and to write home for warmer clothes. So I guess I wanted the intact pullets up here in front today, before the broken egg.
While most of the Guards Division is still on the road, the 4th Brigade has reached the front lines, and is preparing to attack. To get a little perspective on this phase of the battle, let’s go over to the artillery and backwards in time.
Our man in the artillery, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has spent the last few days moving his guns south–from the “subsidiary” or “feint” attack in which the 2/Royal Welch were involved near the La Bassé canal to the main effort opposite Loos itself. Hamilton has been in command of his unit–a “battery” roughly equal to a battalion, and representing the independent artillery strength of the infantry brigade to which it belongs–since the death of his colonel on the 20th. Rather unhelpfully, he calls both the large unit and its four constituent sub-divisions “batteries.”
The battle had–from Hamilton’s perspective–nevertheless gone quite well. He fired accurately and often, and enjoyed good communications with his forward observers through buried telephone lines. He makes no mention of a shell shortage. And, naturally, the attack threw everything into chaos.
On the afternoon of the 25th he lost contact with both his observers and the HQ of his brigade, as the infantry moved forward in support of the attack. The broken nature of the ground–“an enormous plain of waste clay land”–prevented bringing his batteries up and keeping them in action:
We wandered about in the dark for three hours, being shelled by heavy guns. It was an absolute nightmare: everyone we asked said something different.
On the 26th–yesterday–his battery was ensconced at Le Rutoire, and without positive orders from Division, Hamilton began to fire at Hill 70, where, it has been reported, a British attack had failed and a German counter-attack was building. This is courageous, in a way, but also irresponsible. Hill 70, of which we will hear much now, is East of Loos, just off the map section above, which I chose because it shows the positions of Vermelles (upper left), Le Rutoire (a bit to the southeast), the German front lines at the start of the battle (in red) and Loos itself.
So Hamilton is firing, based on a rumor, at a hill which is obscured from his vision–except for, perhaps, the very top (contour maps are hard to read!) by the rising ground between them and the buildings on the outskirts of Loos. After firing for a while, Hamilton desisted:
All afternoon I tried to get orders and information from the front, but was unable to do so. I therefore dared not fire anymore.
As it happens, his guesswork was probably fairly good. A feeble attempt to retake Hill 70 was indeed driven off yesterday, setting the stage for another assault.
And so, today, a century back, the battery retrenched, literally and figuratively. While his batteries improved their defenses at Le Rutoire, Hamilton was ordered to attach himself to the HQ of the Guards Brigade, putting himself personally under the command Brigadier Geoffrey Percy Thynne Feilding, who, if my rapid clicking through the peerage was correct, is a first cousin once removed to Dorothie and Rollo and a first cousin to Rowland. The Brigade is planning the attack on Hill 70, and the Master will thus be firing in direct support of Osbert Sitwell of the 2nd Grenadier Guards (our other young Grenadiers, above, are in other brigades of the division).
So much for crossing. Now for the path–an excellent example of why it is so hard to follow up a local advance:
I had an awful time trying to get up to where General Feilding was. I had to walk about a mile up our own communicating trench and come to our old fire trenches, the ones we had been in till two days ago. After that it was necessary to get out into the open and pass through our wire into thew neutral zone. Crossing the space of some 400 yards before reaching the German trenches was simply Hell incarnate. It was being swept continuously by the German heavy guns and also with shrapnel, to say nothing of rifle-bullets which were coming over the crest. This ground presented a terrible sight, the dead lying about everywhere–principally our own me who had been killed in the assault two days before.
Hamilton made it, and he “was much relieved” when he reached the safety of the German front-line trench. This he would later explore, and become not the last British officer to marvel at how deep, comfortable, and well-made the German trenches were:
I was astounded to see what a palatial place it was. I was specially struck by the officers’ quarters. One of them must have been quite 20 feet underground… there was every luxury.
Hamilton took a newspaper as a trophy, and returned to his batteries. But that will be later–this evening. At 4 p.m. Hamilton/Belhaven watched the Guards attack–not only the (1st) Guards, but the 2nd Brigade as well, which included Rowland Feilding‘s 1st Coldstreams and the unblooded 2nd Irish Guards. He was pleased with his own batteries “distinctly good” shooting, as well as the effectiveness of a smoke screen.
Precisely at the hour, the officers leaped up on to the parapet, immediately followed by the men–this was the 2nd Bn. Irish Guards. There was a shout of “They are off!” and the assault commenced. Almost at once they were lost to sight in the valley in front of us, and, so far as we could see, they had very few casualties to start with.
To start with. But they had a lot of ground to cover. Rudyard Kipling will take up the task of writing the history of the Irish Guards, and we will pick up his account of the 2nd Battalion, beginning yesterday, a century back:
The 2nd Guards Brigade, then, waited on at Haquin till shortly after noon, and moved via Nœux-les-Mines, Sailly-Labourse, Noyelles, and Vermelles, large portions of which were then standing and identifiable, to trenches in front of Le Rutoire. Here the German lines had been driven back a little, and Captains Alexander and Hubbard commanding the two leading companies of the Battalion were sent on to look at them in daylight. The results of the Captains’ adventure, when it is recalled that one set of trenches, at the best of times, looks remarkably like another, and that this was far from being a good time, were surprisingly satisfactory. “There was no one to tell them exactly which trenches were to be taken over, but, from instructions given on the map, and in consultation with the 1st Scots Guards who had to occupy ground on their right, they arranged which set of them to inhabit. Owing to congestion of roads, and having to go across much broken country, etc., it was nearly midnight before the Battalion got into the selected spot—an old line of captured German trenches in front of Lone Tree.”
The Lone Tree, site of the tactical-consolation-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-strategic-defeat on the first day of the battle (the little flanking movement given to Phillip Maddison in A Fox Under My Cloak) now becomes a symbol of the intractable problem of trench warfare. Anywhere they have recently been is broken ground, ground they know intimately, and upon which they can bring to bear any amount of firepower. Can the British generals contrive to make this tactical problem into a bitter irony?
This, as is well known to all regimental historians, was a mark of the German guns almost to the inch, and, unfortunately, formed one of our dressing-stations.
Yes: the British commanders chose the most prominent landmark in the area to serve as the primary care center for their wounded.
At a moderate estimate the Battalion had now been on foot and livelily awake for forty-eight hours; the larger part of that time without any food. It remained for them merely to go into the fight, which they did at half-past two on the morning of the 27th September when they received “verbal instructions to push forward to another line of captured German trenches, some five hundred yards, relieving any troops that might happen to be there.” It was nearly broad daylight by the time that this disposition was completed, and they were much impressed with the permanence and solidity of the German works in which they found themselves, and remarked jestingly one to another, that “Jerry must have built them with the idea of staying there for ever…”
Now we proceed to the immediate preliminaries of today’s assault by the Guards on Hill 70.
The attack of their Brigade developed during the course of the day… At half-past two a heavy bombardment lasting for one hour and a half would be delivered on that sector. At four the Second Irish Guards would advance upon Chalk-Pit Wood and would establish themselves on the north-east and south-east faces of it, supported by the 1st Coldstream…
Chalk-Pit Wood at that time existed as a somewhat dishevelled line of smallish trees and brush running from north to south along the edge of some irregular chalk workings which terminated at their north end, in a deepish circular quarry. It was not easy to arrive at its precise shape and size, for the thing, like so much of the war-landscape of France, was seen but once by the men vitally concerned in its features, and thereafter changed outline almost weekly, as gun-fire smote and levelled it from different angles…
Nos. 1 and 4 Companies were to follow and back up Nos. 3 and 2 respectively. At four o’clock the two leading companies deployed and advanced, “keeping their direction and formation perfectly.” That much could be seen from what remained of Vermelles watertower, where some of the officers of the 1st Battalion were watching, regardless of occasional enemy shell. They advanced quickly, and pushed through to the far edge of the Wood with very few casualties, and those, as far as could be made out, from rifle or machine-gun fire. (Shell-fire had caught them while getting out of their trenches, but, notwithstanding, their losses had not been heavy till then.) The rear companies pushed up to thicken the line, as the fire increased from the front, and while digging in beyond the Wood, 2nd Lieutenant Pakenham-Law was fatally wounded in the head. Digging was not easy work, and seeing that the left of the two first companies did not seem to have extended as far as the Chalk-Pit, at the north of the Wood, the C.O. ordered the last two platoons of No. 4 Company which were just coming up, to bear off to the left and get hold of the place.
In the meantime, the 1st Scots Guards, following orders, had come partly round and partly through the right flank of the Irish, and attacked Puits 14 bis, which was reasonably stocked with machine-guns, but which they captured for the moment. Their rush took with them “some few Irish Guardsmen,” with 2nd Lieutenants W. F. J. Clifford and J. Kipling of No. 2 Company who went forward not less willingly because Captain Cuthbert commanding the Scots Guards party had been adjutant to the Reserve Battalion at Warley ere the 2nd Battalion was formed, and they all knew him.
Together, this rush reached a line beyond the Puits, well under machine-gun fire (out of the Bois Hugo across the Lens–La Bassee road). Here 2nd Lieutenant Clifford was shot and wounded or killed—the body was found later—and 2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing.
This is the only day on which the history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers mentions the actions of 2nd Lieutenant John Kipling. He was Rudyard Kipling’s only son, the eighteen-year-old boy so near-sighted that he needed his father’s personal intervention with senior generals in order to gain his commission. He will remain officially missing for a very long time, his body never to be found.
Kipling will not write directly of this loss, but he will come to write of a dead son, and even of a dead boy named Jack. He had the habit of writing snatches of verse to serve as epigraphs for chapters of his prose, and in a forthcoming book about the war at sea, he will compose a sort of chantey-elegy which, naturally, will be read as voicing the author’s own grief:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
Kipling will also come to write a series of short, brief epigraphs–troubling, easily misread works which we will return to. Here again we must imagine the author to be speaking for himself. But tread carefully. These are formal epitaphs, and the conceit is clearly that the writer speaks in a deep and broad voice, terse lines that come from the voice of the nation. If he had wanted to complete doff his author’s mask and let us see his tears, he would have. These are written by Kipling, and they cannot not be in some sense about his grief–but they are not biographical writings.
My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knewWhat it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.
Jack Kipling is dead, and the war goes on. The history of the Royal Irish continues, too. There is nothing to say: the life of the regiment goes on even when one young subaltern–or several, or scores–are killed. The historian gives voice to a general fury, a righteous anger on behalf of the soldiers betrayed, and not (merely?) the grief of a father bereaved:
…it does not seem to have occurred to any one to suggest that direct infantry attacks, after ninety-minute bombardments, on works begotten out of a generation of thought and prevision, scientifically built up by immense labour and applied science, and developed against all contingencies through nine months, are not likely to find a fortunate issue. So, while the Press was explaining to a puzzled public what a far-reaching success had been achieved, the “greatest battle in the history of the world” simmered down to picking up the pieces on both sides of the line, and a return to autumnal trench-work, until more and heavier guns could be designed and manufactured in England. Meantime, men died.
I first became aware of Private Frank Richards’s remarkable writing talent two days after the battle of Loos… we were both lucky to be alive. Dazed with lack of sleep, I was censoring the company letters…
(Richards, we may remember, claims awareness of “Young Mr. Graves” from two nights ago, as he supervised the ongoing rescue and clean-up operations.) With easy condescension toward semi-literate soldiers, Graves now provides us with an example of the genre of the letter home:
This comes leaving me in the pink which I hope it finds you. We are having a bit of rain at present. I expect you’ll have read in the papers of this latest do. I lost a few good pals but happened to be lucky myself. Fags are always welcome, also socks.
Seldom any more… but suddenly I opened a letter to a wounded friend in hospital, giving him a detailed, grimly joking account of what had really happened to the battalion–uncut wire, heavy Germany shellfire, the R.E.’s bungling of the gas operations, the death of three company commanders… I handed the letter to ‘Deadwood Dick’, a regular officer who was sharing a dugout with me. “Can I pass this? I asked.
Graves, surprisingly, gives the swaggering regular the stylish last word. The letter violates secrecy rules, and should be destroyed or heavily censored, but Buffalo Bill breaks character:
“It’s all true, and the official communique will be all lies, and people at home ought to know what goes on… Here I’ll pass it myself.”
So a timely blow for the solidarity of the soldiers–Regular and recent, Officers and other ranks–against the Staff that betrayed them and the government that will contrive to spread lies about the disaster.
But in Good-Bye to All That we find for today a less humorous account of the enormous suffering and little acts of great heroism that come in the wake of battle:
On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said–not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
References and Footnotes
- From Downing Street to the Trenches, 147-9. ↩
- Letters, 33-34. ↩
- Until recently the 4th (Guards) Brigade, now the (1st) Guards Brigade of the Division of Guards. ↩
- War Diary, 74-79. ↩
- In his father's lifetime, at least. A body that might have been his was located in 1992, but the remains could not be conclusively identified. ↩
- Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 22-28. ↩
- Old Soldiers Never Die, 2. ↩
- Good-Bye to All That, 163-4. ↩