On 9th September 1915 the 12th (Service) Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers (62nd Bde, 21st Division) - just one unit of Kitchener's New Army - left England for France. The main body of the battalion travelled by way of Folkestone to Boulogne, but since all their equipment was with the battalion transport the signallers, stretcher bearers and Lewis gunners went with it by way of Southampton - Le Havre. Arriving at the latter port in the early hours of the morning I found myself, a Lewis gunner, assisting in entraining mules, limbers (mule-drawn box-like vehicles), field kitchens, etc., during the whole of that day. After a tedious nightlong rail journey we eventually rejoined the main body of the battalion at the little village of Eperlecques in Belgium.
During our early training, first at the small market town of Tring, Herts, and later at Halton Camp, Kitchener had decreed that men not serving in their County Regiments should be allowed to serve together in the Regiment of their choice. Consequently No.11 Platoon, C Company was almost entirely composed of men from the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire recruiting areas.
My memory is a blank as to the events at Eperleques. until the afternoon of 20th September when we received the order to pack and clean out our billets (barns) as we should be leaving that evening. And so began a period of five nights of marching.
The war historians, in their summing up of the prelude to this battle, lay much stress on the hardships experienced by the men of the 21st and 24th Divisions during these marches. Personally I have no bad memories of them. I think that the general attitude was that we were on Active Service now and that these conditions had to be accepted as the norm. I certainly cannot remember any grumbling!
With two Divisions, each 20,000 men, along with their ancillary transport, marching in a confined area, holdups were frequent which made marching very tedious, but I think that the greatest hardship was not being allowed to smoke or sing on the march.
Each day the same routine was adhered to: We would fall in at dusk (about 8pm) and after the usual inspections would march off about an hour later. Dress was Full Marching Order (full packs and 120 rounds of ammunition in pouches) and with a 10 minute rest interval in each hour we would march until the early hours of the morning. Our field kitchens were fired on the line of march and when we reached our bivouac area tea would be served within half an hour. Blankets would then be issued (one per man) then out would come ground sheets and the order would be "Down to it". As soon as daylight came men who could not sleep would begin walking around and that would be the end of all thoughts of sleep for the rest of us. I imagine that we averaged four hours of sleep each day.
Breakfast would be ready about 9.30am (one large army loaf between seven men, with bacon) after which would come the usual inspections: rifle, feet (for blisters) and ammunition, to ensure that none had been discarded during the previous night to lighten the burden! Blankets would then be handed in, rolled in bundles of ten. Midway through the day 'Plum-and-Apple' would be issued, with cheese and butter for those who had any bread left and these were thin on the ground! The main meal was stew or 'gippo', as it came to be called, ready about 5pm, after which the bivouac area would be cleared, latrines filled, etc., ready for the night's march.
The name of the place where we eventually finished our five night trek is still a mystery to me, but when some big guns commenced firing immediately behind our bivouac area, it became obvious that we were near the front line. There was no sleep that day! During the late afternoon we received the order to "Fall in by Companies" and our Company Commander, Capt Graham Pole addressed us. He told us that we were going to take part in a battle that had commenced in the early hours of that morning and which, it was hoped, would result in a breach in the German lines. Several divisions had taken part and a Scottish Division was now on the outskirts of the mining town of Lens. We would be going forward that evening to relieve them. I can still remember the cheers! Little did we know what was before us!
During the early evening we were issued with a bread and cheese ration, with special orders not to eat it until ordered. Shortly afterwards we received the order to "Fall In" as a battalion and after the usual inspections, we marched off. On the line of march it was the custom of our CO, Lt-Col H.B. Warwick, to change the leading company of the battalion and now it was my C Company that had this honour. Our field kitchens and cooks had been taken away from us, otherwise the whole of the battalion transport was following in the rear.
When ambulances and walking wounded began to pass us going towards the rear we realised that we were getting near the scene of action and we passed through a built-up area along the Lens Road called Philosophe. By this time it was quite dark. After Philosophe and Quality Street came our passage through the old trench system.
The trenches across the road must have been filled in and the barbed wire removed since I have no recollection of any obstacle underfoot.
In a hollow to our left front some enemy shells were bursting and in the light from these we saw some buildings which afterwards turned out to be the village of Loos. It appeared to be so far away to our left that it seemed we must bypass it. However, we were getting nearer all the time and presently we were at its outskirts and owing to shell holes in the road and fallen masonry progress was reduced to a crawl. It must have taken my company an hour to pass through the village and we suddenly came to a full stop, afterwards finding that the head of the battalion had been halted by the front line! It was obvious that someone had blundered and we had to wait for things to be sorted out'.
The usual procedure for infantry going into action at that time was as follows:
1) The transport would stay behind at the transport lines to form a base for the battalion.
2) All Quartermasters, both Regimental and Company, would stay behind to facilitate the issue of rations, mail, etc.
3) The heavy packs, suitably marked, would be handed in and replaced by haversacks containing just essential equipment.
4) All specialist sections, i.e.signallers, stretcher bearers, Lewis gunners, etc., the personnel of which had been drawn from the various companies, would go in as complete sections with their respective equipment.
5) One the line of march all special equipment would be handed in to the transport and the men would join their respective companies.
This last was the situation in which we found ourselves when the head of the battalion was halted.
The village of Loos was not unlike an English mining village, with several rows of terraced houses just a few hundred yards from the pit itself. The pit-head was the outstanding feature of the landscape. Composed of two steel lattice-work towers joined by a similarly constructed gantry near their summit it was inevitable that, when the war correspondents came on the scene, it should be named Tower Bridge. This structure was about 100 yards to our right and the Germans were continually shelling it, with the odd shell into the village.
Some of these shells were shrapnel and we began to get casualties as we stood on the road. Our MO was kept busy patching them up with their own field dressings and sending them to the rear. As we became accustomed to the light and with no small assistance from the shell bursts we could see to our left some troops in a trench which had been recently dug. It was obvious that this was the front line and we were eventually led, a platoon at a time, along the back of this trench. From the accents of the occupants we knew that we had met the Jocks, who I suspect were from the 15th (Scottish) Division.
We did not relieve them. They stayed in the trench and those of us who could got in with them, whilst the main body of the company crowded along the parados. Apart from the occasional shell aimed at the pit-head structure and into the village it was ominously quiet. Rifle and machine-gun fire seemed to have gone out of fashion.
As soon as the first streaks of day came we began to see where we were: at the bottom of a gentle slope, with the enemy entrenched along the crest. Thus we had our introduction to the famous, or infamous, Hill 70! The absence of small arms fire during the night was easily explained when we saw the mass of barbed wire the enemy had been stringing under cover of darkness.
The trench which the Scots occupied was about 4ft 6ins deep and 2ft 6ins wide with all the earth thrown to the front to form a parapet and one could see that it had been hastily dug since it was in a straight line, in fact it was little more than a slit trench. It still remains a mystery to me why the enemy did not open fire on us: we were crowded in the trench and along the rear, in full view, and men were still walking about on the road.
Having no watch I could not be sure of the time but it was early in the morning when the order was passed for Numbers One and Two on C Company's Lewis gun to go to the transport for the gun and ammunition. Looking along to the left I saw my mate get out of the trench and I joined him in walking along the parados and out onto the road.
Passing along the village street it soon became evident that the night's shelling had done the place no good. Fallen masonry was quite abundant, but we did not find great difficulty in passing through. As soon as we got clear of the street we met our 'oppos' from B Company. They were empty-handed and we could see from the looks on their faces that they had bad news for us. One of them said: "If you are going to get your gun, forget it'. The transport is a shambles'. Dead men and mules are lying all around, mixed up with damaged limbers. Some men are there shooting the badly wounded mules and trying to clear up the mess'."
Later, one of our transport drivers told me: "We were standing in a group on the road discussing the battalion hold-up when a single shell, aimed for the road, scored a direct hit on the ammunition limber. Bullets were flying around like hail, men were falling and some mules stampeded. After the panic had subsided we sorted the wounded men from the dead and, taking the wounded with us, we 'Got to Hell out of it' ". Our RQMS was among others killed in this incident.
We could do no other than go back the way we had come and on reaching the end of the road near the pit-head we found that our CO had established his HQ where the battalion had come to a halt. The Adjutant, MO, and RSH were with him and, as we approached, the Adjutant called out: "To which Company do you belong?" and I replied "C Company, Sir". "Wait a little while! The CO has a message for you'. " My mate, 'Tip' Henson, a Geordie from Ashington, walked towards the trench and out of my life - I never saw him again'.
After a little while the Adjutant gave me a slip of paper from an ordinary Field Message pad on which was written: "The CO wishes the attack to be carried out with the Bayonet in the approved Northumbrian manner". The Adjutant said: "Take this to Captain Pole". The message was not signed, or dated, but I remember those words as I remember the Lord's Prayer and this was the first intimation I had that we were going to attack'. I had not seen Capt Pole since we had been led into the trench during the night, now I had to find him.
As I walked along the parados I could plainly see that events had been moving during the time I had been away. All the men crowded together, along with those of our men in the trench, were standing with bayonets fixed. It was useless trying to get into the trench as it was so solidly packed. Then our lads began to climb out and go forward as fast as their cumbersome equipment would allow. The men at the back dropped into the places which had been vacated and then climbed forward. Moving like this it just becames mob: The only example to which I could liken it would be the pictures one sees on television of a crowd invading a football pitch'.
Suddenly realising that the Captain must have gone forward, but not comprehending that the message I had for him was now out of date I scrambled across, still intent on finding him. The whole slope in front of me and as far away to the left as far as one could see was crowded with cheering men moving forward as fast as they could. And still the enemy had not fired a shot'. It seemed they had gone home!
The leading men would have been about 100 yards from the German wire, and I was about the same distance from my starting point, when all Hell was let loose! As if from some predetermined signal the enemy machine guns opened up with a murderous fire, both from the front and enfilading fire from some buildings which had been out of sight behind some trees. Men began to stumble and fall, then to go down like standing corn before a scythe.
The cap from the head of the lad in front of me flew from his head and he fell - I stumbled over him - and even to this day I feel no shame when I say that I stayed where I was: my face buried in the grass, and never had the good earth smelled so sweet! I was 19 years old and no hero - just a scared teenager who had no wish to die and, after seeing all that devastation in front of my eyes, I was FRIGHTENED! The firing seemed to go on for hours. I afterwards learned that it was not even ten minutes. Bullets were cracking over head and then it ceased as abrubptly as it had commenced.
After a few more minutes I rose to my knees and should I live to be a hundred I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes. The whole slope was one mass of prone figures, some even lying on top of one another. The only thing I could liken it to would be one of the old fashioned fly-papers which used to hang in my mother's kitchen and which, after a hot summer day, were loaded with dead flys!
The Germans still held their fire and soon there was some movement. Men began to get their feet, others rose only to fall back again, whilst others limped and some even crawled. Many, like the lad I had stumbled over, would never move again. He had been shot through the head! There was plenty of movement on the slope now. Many men, even though wounded themselves, were helping their wounded comrades back.
Still the Germans held their fire. Some months later the German commander of this particular sector was reported to have said: "My machine gunners were so filled with pity, remorse and nausea at the Corpse Field of Loos that they refused to fire another shot'." This I do believe.
Assisting a lad who had a bullet wound in his foot, I arrived back in the trench near where the Scots had their machine gun. They had stayed behind in the attack, having obviously been mauled during the previous day's fighting. One of the team offered me his water bottle: water was extremely scarce. I still remember the emotion in his voice as he said: "Ye nae had a chance!"
There was plenty of room in the trench now and we set about the task of trying to sort ourselves out. There did not seem to be any officers or NCOs left and being with the Scots our companies were all mixed up and we wondered just what the immediate future held for us.
With the exception of a few rifle shots in the distance and the welcome sound of a few of our shells passing over, everything had gone ominously quiet again and it was nerve racking to hear the cries of the men lying wounded on the slope. Even if the Germans had allowed us to help them - which I believe they would - we had no stretchers. Ours had gone back with what was left of our transport and the Scots had used all theirs up with their own wounded during the previous day's fighting. I learned afterwards that a Field Ambulance company went in that night, but I am afraid that many would have died before then.
The problem of what was to happen to us was partly solved during mid-afternoon when the Scots heard that they were to be relieved that evening by a battalion from the Guards Division, and it was fully solved a little later when the word was passed down the line for "All Northumberlands to make their own way back and rendezvous at the Old Brewery in Noyelles-les-Vermelles".
On receiving this order we made our way through the village and across the old trench system, singly or in small groups, in an effort to find the Old Brewery. Some years ago I read an account of this battle in which allusion was made to "Stragglers from the 21st Division being turned back on the old battlefield", the inference being that we were running away. Although I have no recollection of anyone trying to turn me back I have often wondered if we could have been those stragglers.
On reaching our destination we were met with the heartening sight of two of our field kitchens in action and we were soon sipping hot tea which tasted like nectar. We certainly looked a very bedraggled lot with three days growth of beard and as we had had no sleep for a similar number of days we were out on our feet.
Looking around I was pleased to see that Capt Pole was safe and remembering the message I still had for him I handed it to him with an apology for the delay. After reading it he said, with a tremor in his voice: "It doesn't matter now. But isn't that just what we tried to do?"
The only official figure I have been able to obtain as to the battalion's casualties at Loos are 150 killed. It seems that no records were kept of wounded as so many returned to fight again. A general ratio of wounded to killed for an engagement of this description would be 3 to 1 and this would give us total casualties of 600 from a strength of just over 1000.
My own Company, C, had lost three-quarters of its men and was now down to platoon strength, 60 men; we had one officer. Captain Pole, and one NCO, Corporal Mclntosh, left. Our CO, Lt-Col Warwick, was also numbered amongst the wounded and Captain Pole took over the duties of CO during the period of reorganization.
An avid reader since retirement I have sometimes come across references to the contribution paid by the two divisions of the New Armies, the 21st and 24th, in the Battle of Loos. None are very complimentary. Success was not measured in the number of casualties, only in the number of yards gained. The one reference which I read that seems worthy of comment is that which describes us as being "Untried and Untrained".
Untried! How could we be any other? Until the opening day of the battle we had never heard a shot fired in anger! Untrained! If this definition applies to those in the upper Staff echelons who ordered heavily equipped, near-exhausted men to jump into a trench and clamber out again and to run up a hill in broad daylight and to be slaughtered, then I do agree that this description is apt! However, should it mean that we were raw recruits then I think this description is worthy of explanation. In England we had endured nearly 12 months of rigorous training, albeit according to the lessons learned during the Boer War. There was no one to teach us how to overcome barbed wire or machine guns and until the coming of the tanks I'm afraid those lessons were never learned.
A squadron of tanks would have cleared that hill in no time, but we had no tanks. Some months later, during the Battles of the Somme, Winston Churchill put the whole problem in one phrase when he said it was "Bare chests versus Machine Guns".