The assault launched by British forces on the German army at Loos on 25 September 1915 was one of the great set-piece battles of the war - indeed the largest up to that point - but also one of the least successful. It is well-known that the decision to participate in a joint attack alongside French forces was taken at the insistence of General Joffre and thus to maintain the unity of the Allies. Joffre had far greater manpower and material at his command and believed firmly in the capacity of an offensive to remove the German occupiers from French soil.
Kitchener, Field-Marshall and a member of the Cabinet as Secretary of State for War, did not share this optimism and preferred to wait until the outcome of the Dardanelles campaign was clearer and the New Army battalions were trained up and capable of strengthening the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), whose Regular forces had been grievously reduced in the first months of the war. Moreover the British supply of equipment of all kinds, and notoriously of ammunition and artillery shells, was at this stage of the war not adequate in either volume or potency to support a major offensive. But Gallipoli and the weak position of Russia prompted a changed calculation and, in spite of his earlier misgivings, on the eve of the battle Kitchener instructed his army commanders in the field to "take the offensive and act vigorously".
Map: Loos 1915 general map
Relations between the two principal commanders at Loos, Sir John French (Commander-in-Chief of the BEF) and Sir Douglas Haig (whose First Army held the front northwards from its border with France's Tenth Army opposite Lens to south of Ypres) were not good. French believed, correctly, that earlier failures had weakened his authority in London and certainly Haig had secured direct lines of communication with Kitchener and the monarchy. Nonetheless neither man welcomed the prospect of an offensive at Loos, in which the British role would be essentially to support the simultaneous Tenth Army attack in the Artois. Sir John feared that another tactical defeat would be fatal to his command of the BEF, as indeed it was, while Haig regarded the battle-ground over which his forces must make their assault as highly unfavourable, compared with sectors of the front north of the La Bassée canal. But Haig now pinned his hopes on surprising the enemy with the deployment of a new weapon, which Germany had first used against British troops the previous April: poison gas.
Map: Loos attack of 21st and 24th Divisions up to 11.30am, 26 September 1915
Militarily, if not morally, the use of gas at Loos on 25 September was contentious. The advantage of surprise only applies to the first use and at Loos it was wasted. Because the attack had to be coordinated with the French assault, it could not be delayed until the wind was strongly from the west and on 25 September the breeze was at best light and variable. Casualties due to gas were experienced by both sides, but crucially even where the German front line was affected, the gas did not penetrate far enough to disable the reserve line and artillery fire had little impact on German defensive wire. Where reports indicated that there had been some success, on the right of the British attack at Loos village and Hill 70 and more centrally in front of Hulluch, any possibility of a breakthrough depended on the prompt use of reserve divisions to press home the attack or at least to consolidate any gains. But to add to the predictable problems of poor communication between advancing troops and Army and divisional staffs and a tendency to prioritise good news where there was any to report, was the extraordinary fact that at dawn on the first day of the battle, the First Army had no reserves under its command to call up.
The General Reserve, XI Corps, comprised three divisions (Guards, 21st and 24th), three brigades to each division, and four battalions to each brigade. For whatever reason - perhaps fear of German counter-attack, or ambition to play a crucial role in a successful breakthrough - French did not release XI Corps to Haig's command until probably the early afternoon of the 25th (the exact time was disputed, and there was a time lapse between an order and its receipt). This error was compounded by French's decision to hold the lead divisions (21st and 24th) eleven to sixteen miles from the front line, so that it was not until mid-morning on the 26th after an exhausting and difficult night march from Lillers that these divisions were in position to move in support of the previous day's offensive.
What converted this mismanagement into a shocking waste of lives and opportunity were a series of extraordinary decisions taken in preceding days. The 21st and 24th were New Army divisions which, like the other formations composed of civilian volunteers, had not been expected to contribute to the fighting strength of the army until they had spent time in front-line trenches, acquiring the routines and habits which would transform them into hardened and battle-ready soldiers. Indeed, the first K1 divisions had been arriving in France since the end of May 1915 and were three months into the learning process. But the 21st and 24th (K3 divisions) were the rawest of the raw. They were not issued with their service rifles until July, arrived in France on the last day of August and were billeted a few miles from the coast until 20 September. But Sir John French, who in January had expressed the view that such inexperienced troops "might easily become a positive danger", now saw it as an advantage that they had not acquired the "sedentary habits of trench warfare". He evidently believed, and allowed the divisions to believe, that their role would be vigorous pursuit of German units in retreat, though if that possibility had ever existed, it did not survive beyond 9am on the 25th. But in any case it was bizarre preparation for the intended role of the New Army divisions, to require them to march the seventy miles over three nights from the Montreuil area to Lillers. After a rest day on 24th they then had an appallingly difficult march to the front line on the night of the 25th through the congestion and carnage of the battlefield.
How bad this final march was is confirmed in the autobiography of Harold Macmillan, future prime minister but then a junior officer in the Guards Division composed mostly of war-experienced troops, which was following the 21st and 24th divisions a day later. Added to the exhaustion, hunger and thirst was the first experience of shelling and machine-gun fire.
"I can still remember vividly this march from Vermelles to Loos. I must confess that for many months and even years I would dream of it ... What was distressing for our men was that the whole ground that we covered in our march was filled, or seemed to be filled, with the remnants of troops who had attacked in the earlier days of the battle ... [There] were the men of the 21st and 24th. Some were dead, some wounded, some broken and having lost all discipline or order. I have often wondered since why the decision was made to put in these divisions, who had never seen a shot fired and come straight from England, ahead of the Guards Division. It seemed a fatal error."
The 21st and 24th divisions whose remnants Macmillan and the Guards encountered had attacked the German second line on 26 September, the second day of the battle. Exhausted after their march, thirsty for lack of water, and hungry being separated from their 'cookers', they found that the gains of the previous day had already been lost and the defenders of the line were now strongly reinforced. Casualties (killed, wounded or captured) in the two divisions were heavy: over 8,000, or a third of their complement. The open area in front of the German reserve line between Hulluch to the north and Chalk Pit Wood and Bois Hugo to the south became known to the German army as the "field of corpses". Attacking troops who reached the line found that the defensive wire was untouched by British artillery fire and impregnable, and indeed after 2pm the German machine-gunners ceased firing, "nauseated by the sight of the massacre" according to a German regimental history. Astonishingly, but confirmed by the Official History of the Great War, German medical personnel came out to assist the wounded to return to the British lines.
It should be borne in mind that 24th Division, whose performance on the 26th was called into question, (though more in the immediate aftermath of the battle than on later reflection) entered the field with only half its strength. Of its three brigades, 73 Brigade had been reallocated to support 9th Division in front of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The attack by 24th Division was led by 72 Brigade (8/Queen's, 8/Buffs, 9/East Surrey, 8/Royal West Kent), whose losses were particularly heavy and 71 Brigade, two of whose battalions (9/Norfolk, 8/Bedfordshire) had been detached to support 7th Division facing the Quarries. 71 Brigade thus consisted of just two battalions, 11/Essex and 9/Suffolk. (Whether or not the 24 battalions of the two divisions were casualties on the "field of corpses" itself, all were badly mauled wherever they fought on 26 September).
Map: Loos 13 October 1915, attack by 7/Suffolk at the Quarries
By September 1915 there were six battalions of the Suffolk Regiment on war service, either at Gallipoli (5th Territorial Force) or on the Western Front. Of the latter five, 1st and 2nd were Regular battalions, 4th was TF, and 7th 8th and 9th were Service (New Army) battalions. Three of these - 1st, 7th and 9th - were engaged in different phases of the battle of Loos, and in the ranks within each was one of three brothers; Arthur, George and Edmund Leonard (Ned) Goodchild. All three brothers were Kitchener volunteers who in August/September 1914 had left the family home at Grundisburgh near Woodbridge. Like their father Joe, all the sons were farm labourers who supplemented their meagre wages with what they could make from keeping pigs. The Goodchilds were a close and affectionate family and this was reflected in some 300 letters that they wrote to their mother Etta between enlistment and July 1916. She kept their letters, and they form the basis of a website (www.goodchilds.org) which reconstructs their experiences in training and on active service in the light of what they wrote, as well as of the general literature on the Great War. The full collection of letters is also available on the website in transcribed and searchable form.
Ned served in 9/Suffolk, 24th Division. He thus participated in the 'long march' from Alette (near Montreuil), which began on 20 September and culminated in the debacle of the attack on 26th. He had enlisted during the first ten days of September 1914 and arrived in France on the final day of August 1915 with the last New Army division to reach France before Loos. Ned survived Loos, but 71 Brigade was then transferred to 6th Division and moved to the Ypres sector. It was there, during the first German phosgene gas attack on 19 December 1915, that Ned was killed.
Image: Ned Goodchild’s platoon, 9/Suffolk, February 1915. Ned is standing in the back row, on the extreme right
Ned's letters, like those of his brothers, were not written to give posterity a glimpse of what it was like to live and die in the trenches - indeed, a month before he was hit by a shell he wrote that "people in England who have never been out here will never realise what it's like, they can read papers till their eyes drop out, if they never experience it". His main aim was to reassure his parents and his young sister - my mother - that he was coping and they were not to worry, but he did admit that "We have all had very narrow escapes, and can think ourselves lucky we are still alive ... I wonder us three have got through as far as we have."
The next Goodchild brother to go into action at Loos was Arthur, the youngest of the three. His strange progression through four battalions of the Suffolk Regiment had much to do with his underage enlistment (16 years 10 months) and the fact that since childhood he was very deaf. He attested in Ipswich a few days after Ned but began his training at Shoreham alongside Ned in 9/Suffolk. His disciplinary record was not good, mainly, though not always, because he could not hear what was said to him. From December to March 1915 he (and Ned) were billeted in Brighton, refugees from the rain, mud and ill-constructed huts at Shoreham, and while there he met and fell in love with Dolly, who wrote to him faithfully at least until July 1916. In March 1915 he was transferred to 3/Suffolk, a Special Reserve battalion stationed at Felixstowe - close to home but a long way from Brighton - causing him and his relieved mother to believe that he was designated fit for home service only. But not so. At the end of July he arrived in France, a month ahead of Ned and his old battalion, in a draft intended for 1/Suffolk.
Image: Arthur Goodchild (left), Sutton Smith (neighbour from Grundisburgh, killed March 1917), Ned Goodchild (right)
This battalion was one of two Regular battalions in the pre-war Regiment. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, 2/Suffolk was stationed in Ireland at the Curragh; before the end of the month as part of the BEF it had held up the advance of the German army, sustaining very heavy losses at Le Cateau. Almost a quarter of all 1914-18 deaths in the Suffolk Regiment were in the 2nd battalion. 1/Suffolk, by contrast, was in Khartoum when war was declared and did not arrive in France until mid-January 1915. In April-May it was heavily engaged in the second battle of Ypres and approximately two-thirds of all 1/Suffolk deaths during the war were sustained in those two months.
Doubtless Arthur's draft was to plug the gap left by those losses but on arrival at Rouen on 28 July he was sent to 4/Suffolk (TF) (according to its postal address an Entrenching Battalion) and spent the next six weeks digging trenches and felling trees for timber to reinforce the trenches, probably in the area of Neuve Chapelle, north of La Bassée. But on about 22 September he finally joined 1/Suffolk and almost immediately the battalion was sent to the Loos sector, reaching Sailly-Labourse on the 28th. Four days later they moved into support trenches opposite the 'Little Willie' trench at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which the battalion as part of 84 Brigade was ordered to attack on 2-3 October. The attack failed, according to the regimental historian, in somewhat farcical circumstances but the close fighting was intense and the battalion sustained about 160 casualties in this brief visit to the front line.
On his own reckoning Arthur's involvement at Loos lasted a week, a terrifying experience but one which was not to be repeated. On 7 October 1/Suffolk was 20 miles from the front line and by the end of the month with the rest of 28 Division was in Egypt en route to Salonika, in northern Greece. Arthur remained there, bored but not endangered, until invalided home for surgery on his ear in mid-1916. The surgery failed and Arthur was discharged from the army as unfit for further service.
The third Goodchild brother to see action at Loos was George, whose 7/Suffolk battalion (K1) arrived in France with the rest of 35 Brigade, 12th Division on the last day of May 1915, exactly three months before Ned. After many weeks of rotating with 9/Essex in front-line trenches at Ploegsteert the battalion was redeployed to Loos on 30 September (and remained in this sector until the end of April 1916). The first task of 7/Suffolk was to relieve 1/Coldstream Guards at Chalk Pit and to complete the extended trench system begun by the Guards, under heavy fire. "We suffered fearful losses and I shall never forget the sights I saw." The commanding officers of both 1/Coldstream Guards and 35 Brigade were killed in this perilous location. The battalion was relieved on 3 October by 1/Gloucestershire, and was reintroduced into the line on 12 October in front of the Quarries, where it relieved the 1st Guards Brigade. The following day all four divisions of 35 Brigade attacked the Quarries with partial success, but at great cost, 1/Suffolk losing 160 killed and wounded (George believed the number to have been 400).
Image: George Goodchild, with Kitchener, George V, and French
A week after the attack the battalion came out of the front line, but on 25 October they returned. "[We] had only ten officers and there weren't above two hundred of us. If Kitchener had seen us and he knew we were the 7 Suffolks, I will swear he would have wept at the sight of us." But there was now only sporadic fighting at Loos, and the battle was formally declared over on 4 November. Ironically, on that day George was working in the Hohenzollern Redoubt repairing a parapet when he received a leg wound. "When I got hit there were four of us standing close to each other, talking and smoking, Ford and Palmer they were on my left and they both got killed by the same bomb [grenade] that hit me, the other fellow was on my right and he escaped." Invalided home, George was treated at Graylingwell Military Hospital near Chichester. But after he was discharged in February 1916 he successfully resisted pressure to be returned to the trenches, and completed his war service in Britain and Ireland.
Letters from their mother at home kept each brother informed about the welfare of the others and rumour - not always accurate of course - let them know about the activities of the other Suffolk battalions. But the brothers did not see each other at Loos. After the 26 September attack and retirement, Ned's 9th Battalion was withdrawn from the front line. Arthur, heading towards the front, wrote on 29 September: "We went within half a mile of the 9th batt, and I saw my Capt who was over me there. I wish I had seen Ned, I hope he is alright." The next day Ned expressed the same disappointment: "I have seen the First Suffolks, but am sorry to say I never saw Arthur." George was at Chalk Pit from 30 September to 3 October ("I have been wondering how Ned got on, his lot were cut up [on the 26th] next to us on our left"), and went back in on 12 October opposite the Quarries. Arthur's brief involvement, also near the Quarries, came during 2-7 October. Before the end of December George was in hospital in England, Arthur was in Salonika, and Ned had been killed at St Jean.
Article and images contributed by Henry Finch