Memoirs & Diaries – The Battle of Loos 1915
The 21st Division landed in France in the early part of September 1915.
In the dim light of a hurricane lantern, a few of us sat smoking and talking in an old wreck of a barn. It was full of evil-smelling hay on which, I suppose, thousands of our chaps had rested on their way up to the fight. We couldn’t sleep for excitement, thinking we would be going up the line the next day, and wondering whether we would ever come down again.
But the next day didn’t take us up the line; for a solid fortnight we marched over many a dusty mile of white road and doubled over the green fields towards an imaginary foe. How the British Government and the War Office were cursed for keeping good soldiers rusting in the background!
We got on the move at last and of the places we passed through I have forgotten all but Noeux-les-Mines and Bethune. Never before had we seen a horse on the treadmill climbing an endless stairway as it threshed the corn. How incongruous, too, it seemed to see a giant Frenchman riding in a tiny cart drawn along by four galloping dogs. “Lazy -! Ger-r-r off!” someone shouted, but he, wise man, whether he understood or not, paid no heed.
No one seemed to know where we were bound for. A push, we understood, was about to begin and we were going up to chase the enemy from the field, and a thousand other pieces of folly floated about.
Soldiers take little heed of times or places, general impressions alone are received. The march was an interesting round; the quaint villages; the large towns where we should have liked to stay a while; the nights spent in the open fields wrapped in our overcoats. Three of us slept together for warmth, taking turns who should sleep in the middle.
When I opened my eyes on Saturday morning, September 25th, I could see an aeroplane flying high. All about it round puffs of white smoke appeared, broke, and vanished into the blue. Whose it was I hadn’t a notion. I felt glad that, my body was not inside it. He didn’t get the knock while I watched him, which was not for long, for we were routed out of our comfortable beds in the soft furrows of the ploughed land and, after a hurried meal, we hastened on.
We had not gone many kilometres when a new though distant sound could be heard, like far-away thunder with now and again a louder boom. The air seemed vibrant. It was a thrilling noise and it made my heart ache nervously as if it wanted to stop. Our lads had long since stopped singing on the march, and now, saving some braggart spirit, we had almost stopped talking and given ourselves over to thinking and listening.
The roadside gave evidence of our near approach to the battle. All the possible and impossible litter of war – old wrecked wagons, chairs, bedsteads, and mattresses, an old motor-bike and scraps of a machine gun, and in the ditch a dead mule lay, feet in the air, its belly torn out by shell-fire.
A Scots division had been heavily engaged with the enemy; they had suffered tremendous losses. For an hour or two a continuous stream of their wounded had trickled past us on their way to the rear. Most of them were hit about the arms. They looked grim and bloody. Mingling with these wounded troops were captured Germans who didn’t look sorry; rather, one could see in their eyes a look of relief.
It began to grow dark. Vivid wicked flashes could be seen and bright dazzling balls of red, green, and yellow light illuminated the flattish land in front. We tramped on: the jingling of our equipment, the squelching of boots in mud, the laboured breathing of weary men, an occasional curse, was like an obbligato to the thunderous storm of war that surged around us.
After stumbling on for another half-hour, sometimes up to the knees in liquid mud, I could observe by the light of the sky signals the ruined outline of a village. It was Loos. The moon now shone revealing the roofless walls of the houses, the open spaces where houses had once stood, marked by heaps of rubble. The village was slowly vanishing under the pounding of the guns. A German trench ran along the side of the street.
My company was halted in the village street. It began to rain. We stood talking and smoking and shivering. Suddenly, zip! “What’s that?” “Some fool having a bang,” said a Newcastle lad. Again, zip. A bullet sang past us viciously and buried itself in the crumbling wall behind.
“Like a sniper,” someone ventured. At this we crowded together for moral support. Ping! there it was again; this time finding a bullet in the thigh of a chap in No. 1 Platoon. He gave a howl of pain and was carried away.
That was the first drop of blood shed by the 13th N.F.’s so far as I’m aware. It was not the last. Sure enough it was a sniper and they weren’t long in getting him.
He had been concealed among the rafters of one of the higher houses, and had potted away at us by whatever light there was – moon, flares, and cigarettes.
An officer and a man brought him down the road between them. He was a small white-faced man. I felt a pang of pity for him. He was brave. His comrades had gone on and left him to an almost certain fate. He would be thinking of his wife and bairns, maybe in some quiet rustic village in the Fatherland. I heard later that they plugged him with lead.
We seemed to stand in that street for an eternity of time; actually, I suppose, not more than two or three hours. At last we got the order to move out and we emerged into an open field over which we walked, stumbling over little cocks of hay.
At this point we deployed and became hopelessly lost to one another. It was a cursed bad piece of work to be severed so soon from one’s pals. It means a lot, that, in warfare. Friendship strengthens the heart.
Then there began to burst above us some kind of shell. We flopped on our stomachs when this began. The ground was a quagmire, but mud was better than blood, and we wallowed in the friendly filth. After a while the cannonade quietened and word came along that we were to advance. We did not appear to have an officer anywhere near us. The fellows near me were strangers. Hunger, thirst, and sleeplessness made me faint and weak.
The mud on my greatcoat made it monstrously heavy, so that it flapped like lead against my legs, making the going utterly wearisome. I would willingly have died just then. The ground was so uneven that headway was difficult to make, not uneven by nature either, but by the huddled heaps of men’s bodies. The ground had been bitterly contested.
Hill 70 rose above us darkly. It scarcely deserves the name of hill; quite a moderate rise, but that night it appeared intensely black and forbidding against the flaring lights that gleamed intermittently in the sullen sky beyond it. So far we had seen no enemy. They were over the hill. Would to God, I prayed, they would stop over. Never was I more out of love with war than that first night at the Front. Arrived at the foot of the hill we got orders to lie down. My watch said two o’clock.
Shall I attempt to hide my feelings as I lay there? Why should I? They were the common property of the whole host. How easy it is to sit in an armchair and scorn the coward who flees the conflict.
I confess that I lay in that welter of mud devising schemes of escape; of getting back to the rear on some flimsy pretext or other. I even thought of going sick if I could have found a pain other than in my heart and nerve.
Bullets started dropping all around us like heavy thunder rain. The men on both sides of me lay snoring in exhausted slumber. I felt lonely and wretched. At last I fell asleep. “The next b— I catch asleep I’ll put a bullet through him.” By the flame light I could see the large face of an officer with the badge of the D.L.I.’s in his cap. No one spoke, so he snarled again: “The next. Do you hear?” he grated. “Yes, sir,” someone muttered. No sooner had he walked off than we all dropped off to sleep again till the grey morning dawned.
It was Sunday, if it mattered. The sun peeped brightly over the hill. Except for a general murmuring from the serried and prostrate ranks, there was scarcely a sound. In the early light an appalling scene lay before us. The ground was strewn with dead and dying men. Pieces of horse and gun equipment and the motley gear of war lay everywhere.
Behind the blackening cocks of hay lay men in the attitude of firing, now dead. One lay not two yards from my feet, a giant Scotsman stretched out in the posture of crucifixion. Leaning against a wall was a young fair lad of the Lincolnshires, kneeling as if in prayer; his hands clasped, his twisted face crimson from an ugly gash in his temple.
There was no food to be had – indeed food was far from my thoughts. I was thinking of the battle before us. We got the order to advance up the hill. There was no officer near us, so an aged sergeant, who ought to have been at home with his wife, took charge of us. Our unreadiness to fight was obvious. Our greatcoats impeded our progress; we were still without ammunition in our rifles; our bayonets were still in the frogs.
As we slowly advanced the Germans began sending over all kinds of stuff. The hill gave us fair cover and we weren’t long in gaining the La Bassee road. Here we took off our greatcoats, loaded up, fixed bayonets, and made ready to advance.
At six o’clock, word came along that a general advance was to be attempted; already some had left the shelter of the roadway and were running over the open plateau.
“Come on, lads, we’ve got to do it,” cried stout-hearted old Sergeant J-. We braced ourselves and leapt on to the open field. Misery makes heroes of us all. The darkness of cowardice that had so clouded my mind and filled me with self-despair had fled. I marvelled at my carelessness. Possibly it was the reaction of exhaustion upon my brain. I neither know nor care, but there it was.
The shell-fire was deafening enough, but the clatter that commenced with our further advance was abominable. It was as if the enemy were attacking with a fleet of motorcycles – it was the hellish machine guns. I saw no foe.
Where he was I couldn’t gamble: somewhere in front, how distant or how near no one seemed to know. The firing was indescribably fierce; an invisible hail of lead winged past my ears unceasingly; one flicked my sleeve. How pitiful it is to recall. Our chaps fell like grass under the mower, mostly shot in the guts; so well had he got our range. Groans and shouting were added to the clamour.
A bullet hit me; I feel its sharp sting yet; it felled me to the ground. I imagined the shot was in the head at first, but I soon found out its position when I essayed to crawl back to the road: it had pierced a hole through my right elbow. There was nothing for it but to walk, and, although the fire was growing intense, I managed to dodge the rest.
How heavily we had suffered could be gauged by the bleeding mass of men that lay in the shelter of the roadside. One old man who used to play the pipes in my company was shot just above the belt and was sobbing hysterically for water. A stretcher bearer forbade anyone to give it to him.
Poor old beggar, he should never have been there: he was sixty all but six months, so he used to say. How he raved for water. On my other side a young lad was attempting to staunch the blood which flowed from his opened cheek with a filthy rag. I fainted.
It took me a long time to get to the casualty clearing station. There appeared to be hundreds of wounded all making for the same place. As I passed along, a shell burst on a field-gun battery which had just galloped into a new position. There did not seem to be anything but brown dust and rubbish left. Flame and explosion surrounded me.
On arrival at the dressing station, came inoculation against tetanus; two delirious days spent in a ruined byre awaiting the ambulance. First I was taken to Arques, then to Rouen, and from thence to England, where, at Stratford-on-Avon, soft beds and kind hearts awaited me.
W. Walker joined the colours (13th Northumberland Fusiliers) September 9th, 1914. Went to France with 21st Division early September 1915. Was wounded at Battle of Loos, September 26th, 1915 (machine-gun bullet through elbow joint). Ten months’ hospital treatment. Unfit for further active service. On staff of draft-finding battalion, Rugely Camp, Staffs. Promoted C.Q.M.S., March 1917. To Cologne, March 1919. Demobilized, July 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.