The British Campaign in France (april 1917)
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The British Campaign in France. Chapter XIII. The Battle of Loos (First Day) is the 13th article, published in april 1917, in a series of 21 articles written by Arthur Conan Doyle serialized in The Strand Magazine.
- in The Strand Magazine (april 1917 [UK]) (3 ill.)
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916-1920, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. [UK])
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916, George H. Doran Co. [US])
- in The British Campaign in Europe (1914-1918) (november 1928, Geoffrey Bles [UK])
The storming of the trenches round Loos: British soldiers rushing the German poitions on the first day of the great battle.
How piper Laidlaw won the Victoria Cross at Loos.
British troops, with bombers leading the way, swarming over the German first line and dashing on towards Loos, Hill 70, and the famous mining structure nicknamed by our soldiers "The Tower Bridge."
The British Campaign in France
Chapter XIII. The Battle of Loos
(The First Day — September 25th.)
Preparations — The Attack — Charge of the Ninth Division — The Seventh Division — The First Division — The Fifteenth Division — The Forty-seventh Division — Position in the Evening.
Whilst the Army had lain in apparent torpidity during the summer – a torpidity which was only broken by the sharp engagements at Hooge and elsewhere — great preparations for a considerable attack had been going forward. For several months, the sappers and the gunners had been busy concentrating their energies for a serious effort which should, as it was hoped, give the infantry a fair chance of breaking the German line. Similar preparations were going on among the French, both in Foch's Tenth Army to the immediate right of the British line, and also on a larger scale in the region of Champagne. Confining our attention to the British effort, we shall now examine the successive stages of the great action in front of Hulluch and Loos the greatest battle, both as to the numbers engaged and as to the losses incurred, which had ever up to that date been fought by our Army.
The four days which preceded the great attack of September 25th were days of great activity. An incessant and severe bombardment was directed upon the German lines along the whole front, but especially in the sector to the immediate south of the La Bassée Canal, where the main thrust was to be made. To this severe fire the Germans made hardly any reply, though whether from settled policy or from a lack of munitions is not clear. On each of the days a feint attack was made upon the German line so far as could be done without actually exposing the men. The troops for the assault were gradually brought into position, and the gas-cylinders, which were to be used for the first time, were sunk in the front parapets.
The assault in the main area, was to extend from the La Bassée Canal in the north to the village of Grenay in the south, a front of about seven miles, and it was to be supported and supplemented by many subsidiary attacks along the whole line up to the Ypres salient, and northwards still to where the monitors upon the coast held the German coastguards to their sand-dunes. For the moment we will deal only with the fortunes of the main attack. This was to be delivered by two army corps, both belonging to Haig's First Army, that tempered weapon which has so often been the spear-head for the British thrust. The corps were the First (Hubert Gough's) and the Fourth (Rawlinson's). It will be remembered that a British army corps now consisted of three divisions, so that the storming line was composed of six divisions, or about seventy thousand infantry.
The line of the advance was bisected by the high road from Vermelles to Hulluch. This was made the boundary line between the two attacking corps. To the left, or north of this road, was the ground of the First-Corps ; to the right, or south, of the Fourth. The qualities of the regular and Territorial regiments had already been well attested. This was the first occasion, however, when upon a large scale use was made of those new forces which now formed so considerable a proportion of the whole. Let it be said at once that they bore the test magnificently, and that they proved themselves to be worthy of their comrades to the right and the left. It had always been expected that the new infantry would be good, for they had in most cases been under intense training for a year, but it was a surprise to many British soldiers, and a blow to the prophets in Berlin, to find that the scientific branches, the gunners and the sappers, had also reached a high level. "Our enemy may have hoped," said Sir John French, "not perhaps without reason, that it would be impossible for us, starting with such small beginnings, to build up an efficient artillery to provide for the very large expansion of the Army. If he entertained such hopes lie has now good reason to know that they have not been justified by the result. The efficiency of the artillery of the new armies has exceeded all expectations." These were the guns which, in common with many hundreds of every calibre, worked furiously in the early dawn of Saturday, September 25th, to prepare for the impending advance. The high explosives were known to have largely broken down the German system of defences, but it was also known that there were areas where the damage had not been great and where the wire entanglements were still intact. No further delay could be admitted, however, if our advance was to be on the same day as that of the French. The infantry, chafing with impatience, were swarming in the fire trenches. At 5.40 a.m. the gas-cylinders were turned on. At 6.30 a.m. the guns ceased fire, and the ardent soldiers — regulars, new, and Territorials — dashed forward upon their desperate venture.
It is impossible to describe simultaneously the progress of so extended a line. It will be best, therefore, to take the various divisions from the northern end, and to follow the fortunes of each until it reached some definite limit. Afterwards an attempt will be made to co-ordinate these results and show their effects upon each other.
The second regular division (Horne), acting upon the extreme left of the main attack, had two brigades north of the La Bassée Canal and one to the south. The most northern brigade really formed part of the subsidiary attacks, and will be treated under that head. South of it was a brigade to the immediate north of the canal. The gas drifting slowly up the line before a slight southern breeze had contaminated the air in this quarter, and many of the men were suffering from the effects. None the less, at half-past six the advance was made in a most dashing manner, but the barbed wire defences were found to be only partially damaged and the trenches to be intact, so no progress could be effected. The battalions both on the left and right reached the German position, but in face of a murderous fire were unable to make good their hold, and were eventually forced back to their own trenches after enduring heavy losses, shared in a lesser degree by the two battalions in support. Upon their right, south of the canal, the two leading battalions sprang from the trenches and rushed across the intervening space, only to find themselves faced by unbroken and impassable wire. For some reason, probably the slope of the ground, the artillery had produced an imperfect effect upon the defences of the enemy in the whole sector attacked by the Second Division, and if there is one axiom more clearly established than another during the war, it is that no human heroism can carry troops through uncut wire. They will most surely be shot down faster than they can cut the strands. The two battalions lay all day, from morning till dusk, in front of this impenetrable obstacle, lashed and scourged by every sort of fire, and losing heavily. Two companies of another battalion who gallantly charged forward to support them shared their tragic experience. It was only under the cover of dusk that the survivors were able to get back, having done nothing save all that men could do. Their difficult situation was rendered more desperate by the fact that the wind drifted the gas — that filthy and treacherous ally — over a portion of the line, and some of our soldiers were poisoned by the effects. The hold-up was the more unfortunate as it left the Germans the power to outflank the whole advance, and many of the future difficulties arose from the fact that the enemy's guns were still working from Auchy and other points on the left rear of the advancing troops. In justice to the Second Division, it must be remembered that they were faced by the notoriously strong position called " the railway triangle," and also that it is on the flanking units that the strain must especially fall, as was shown equally clearly upon the same day in the great French advance in Champagne.
The advance of the next, the Ninth Scottish Division (Thesiger's) of the new armies was of a most energetic nature, and met with varying fortunes according to the obstacles in their path. The valour and perseverance of the men were equally high in each of its brigades. By an unfortunate chance, General Landon, the officer who had played so essential a part on the fateful October 31st, 1914, and who had commanded the Ninth Division, was invalided home only two days before the battle. His place was taken by General Thesiger. who had little time in which to get acquainted with his staff and surroundings. The front to be assaulted was of a most formidable nature. This Hohenzollern Redoubt jutted forward from the main German line, and was an enclosure seamed with trenches, girdled with wire, and fringed with machine-guns, Behind and to the north of it lay the slag-heap of Fosse 8, The one favourable point lay in the fact that the attacking infantry had only a hundred yards to cross, while in the other parts of the line the average distance was about a quarter of a mile.
Charge of the Ninth Division
The attack of the Ninth Division was carried out with two brigades.
Continuing the plan of taking each unit from the north, we will follow the tragic fortunes of the Brigade on the left. This brigade seems to have been faced by the same unbroken obstacles which had held up their neighbours of the Second Division, and they found it equally impossible to get forward, though the attack was urged with all the constancy of which human nature is capable, as the casualty returns only too dearly show.
The most veteran troops could not have endured a more terrible ordeal or preserved a higher heart than these young soldiers in their first battle. Nineteen officers led one battalion over the parapet. Within a few minutes the whole nineteen lay dead or wounded upon the ground. Valour could no farther go. Of the rank and Me of a single battalion some five hundred out of a thousand were lying in the long grass which faced the German trenches. The other leading battalion had suffered very little less. Ten officers and three hundred men fell in the first rush before they were checked by the barbed wire of the enemy. Every accumulation of evil which can appal the stoutest heart was heaped upon this brigade — not only the two leading regiments, but their comrades. The chief cause of the slaughter was the uncut wire which held up the brigade while the German rifle and machine-gun fire shot them down iii heaps. It was observed that in this part of the line the gas had so small an cited upon the enemy that their infantry could be seen with their heads and shoulders clustering thickly over their parapets as they fired down at the desperate men who tugged and raved in front of the wire entanglement. An additional horror was found in the shape of a covered trench, invisible until one fell into it the bottom of which was studded with stakes and laced with wire. Many of the stormers lost their lives in this murderous ditch. In addition to all this, the fact that the Second Division was held up exposed the brigade on its right to fire on the flank. In spite of every impediment, some of the soldiers fought their way onwards, sprang down into the German trenches, and broke through all opposition. There was no support behind them, however, and after a time the few survivors were compelled to fall back to the trenches from which they had started, the officers having been killed. The repulse on the left of the Ninth Division was complete. The troops in this sector, flushed and furious but impotent, gathered together to hold their line against a possible counter-attack. Shortly after midday they made a second attempt at a forward movement, but fifty per cent of their number was down, all the battalions had lost many of their officers, and for the moment it was not possible to sustain the offensive.
A very different fate had befallen the brigade upon their right. The leading battalions came away with a magnificent rush, closely followed by their supports. It was a splendid example of that furor Scotticus which has shown again and again that it is not less formidable than the Teutonic wrath. The regiments were over the parapet, across the open, through the broken wire, and over the entrenchment like a line of Olympic hurdlers. Into the trenches they dashed, seized or killed the occupants, pressed rapidly onwards up the communications, and by seven o'clock had made their way as far as Fosse 8, a coal-mine with a long, low slag-heap lying in the rear of the great work, but linked up to it in one system of defences. It was a splendid advance, depending for its success upon the extreme speed and decision of the movement. Many officers and men, including the gallant colonel of one battalion, were left upon the ground, but the front of the brigade rolled ever forwards. Not content with this -considerable success, one battalion, with a handful of. another, preserved sufficient momentum to carry it on to the edge of the fortified village of Haisnes, in the rear of the German position. The reserve brigade swept onwards in pursuit of this movement. This brigade had varying fortunes, part of it being held up by wire. It did not get so far forward as the brigade upon its left, but it reached and took Fosse Alley, to the immediate west of the Lens-Hulluch road. This position it held against bombing attacks upon each flank until the morning of Monday, the 27th, as will be described later. The Highlanders upon their left, who had got nearly to Haisnes, dropped back when they found themselves unsupported, and joined the rest of their brigade in the neighbourhood of Fosse 8.
It should be mentioned that field-guns, pushed up in the immediate rear of the firing line of -the Ninth Division, gave effective support to the infantry. The fact that they could do this across the open tends to show that infantry supports could be pushed up without being confined unduly to the communication trenches. The spirited action of these guns was greatly appreciated by the infantry.
The Seventh Division
For the moment we will leave the Ninth Division, its left held up in line with the Second Division, its right flung forward through the Hohenzollern Redoubt and Fosse 8 until the spray from the wave had reached as far as Haisnes. Let us turn now to the veterans of the Seventh Division, the inheritors of the glories of Ypres, who filled the space between the right of the Ninth Division and the road from Vermelles to Hulluch which divided Gough's First and Rawlinson's Fourth Corps. Upon receiving the word to advance, "Over the top and the best of luck!" the regiments swarmed on short ladders out of the fire trenches and advanced with cool, disciplined valour over the open ground. On reaching the German wire the leading brigades lay down for a short breather, while each soldier obeyed instructions by judging for himself the point at which the broken, tangled mass of writhing strands could most easily be penetrated. Then once more the whistles blew, the men rushed forward, and, clearing the wire, they threw themselves into the front trench. The garrison of two hundred men threw their arms down and their hands up with the usual piteous but insincere cry of "Kameraden!" Flooding over the line of trenches, the division pushed rapidly on without a check until they reached the Quarries, a well-marked post in front of the village of Hulluch. Here more prisoners and eight field-guns were taken. From the Quarries to the village is roughly half a mile of uphill ground, devoid of cover. The impetus of the advance carried the men on until they were at the very edge of the village, where they were held up by the furious fire and by a line of barbed wire, which was bravely cut by devoted men. Another smaller village, Cité St. Elie, to the north of Hulluch, was also reached. At both these points the division had reached its limit, but still further to the north its left-hand brigade was at the southern outskirts of Haisnes, in touch with the gallant men of the Ninth Division, who were to the west of that important village. These advanced lines could not be held without supports; one brigade had already been absorbed further back, and the men of the Seventh Division fell back about 4 p.m. as far as the Quarries. where they remained, having lost many officers and men, including a colonel, who was hit by a shell in the first advance, but asked only that he should be let die where he could see his men.
Such was the advance of the First Army Corps, ending in a repulse upon the left of the line and a success upon the right. Across the Vermelles-Hulluch high road the Fourth Army Corps had been advancing on the same line, and its fortunes had been very similar to those of its neighbour. The First Division was operating on the left of the corps, with the Fifteenth Scottish Division in the centre and the Forty-seventh London Territorial on the right. Thus the First Division was advancing upon Hulluch on the immediate right of the Seventh Division, so that its operations are the next to be considered.
The First Division
The attack of this division was carried out by a brigade upon the left and a second upon the right, while the third was in support. Two battalions acted as a small independent unit apart from the brigades. The respective objectives for the two leading brigades were the Chalk Pit and Pit 14 for the right, while the left were to aim at Hulluch. These objectives were somewhat diverging, and the two additional battalions were to fill up the gap so occasioned, and to prevent any German counter-attack coming through.
Both brigades soon found great difficulties in their path. In the case of each the wire was but imperfectly cut, and the German trenches were still strong. We will first follow the fortunes of the left brigade. Their rush was headed by two brave battalions of the new Army, both of which did extraordinarily well, and after bearing down a succession of obstacles got as far as the edge of Hulluch, capturing three lines of trenchers and several guns upon the way. A third battalion pressed close at their heels, lending them the weight to carry them over each successive difficulty. The advance took some time and was very costly. One battalion alone in the course of the day lost seventeen officers and four hundred men, and were led by a young sub-lieutenant at the close. The other two suffered almost as heavily.
The experience of the brigade to the immediate south was still more trying, and it was held up to an extent which had a serious bearing upon the fortunes of the day. The German trenches near Lone Tree, which faced the brigade, were found to be intact and strongly covered by wire. They were attacked by two battalions, with a third in immediate support, but no progress could be made. A fourth threw itself into the fight, but still the post was held at a time when it was vital that the brigade should be at its place in the general scheme of advance. The ground was taken, however, on each flank of the Lone Tree position, and the supplementary force, whose function had been to link up the diverging operations of the two brigades, was brought up for the attack. The two battalions advanced over six hundred yards by platoon rushes under heavy gusts of fire. As they reached a point within fifty yards of the German line, a few grey-clad, battle-stained infantrymen clambered slowly on to the parapet with out-stretched hands. Upon the British ceasing their fire a party of three officers and four hundred men were marched out of the trenches and gave themselves up. Their heroic resistance is a lesson in the effect which a single obstinate detachment can exert in throwing a large scheme out of gear.
The left brigade had now got through, and the other was able to follow them, so that the whole force advanced as far as the Lens-Hulluch road, getting in touch with the Seventh Division on the left. Here the resistance was strong and the fire heavy. The division had lost very heavily. Of one battalion only the colonel, four subalterns, and a hundred and twenty men were left, while many of the other regiments were almost as hard hit. It was now raining and the light was failing. The men dug themselves in near the old German trenches, the supporting brigade coming up and taking its position on the right flank, where late that night it connected up by means of its outer unit with the Twenty-fourth Division, which had come up in support.
The Fifteenth Division
The temporary check to the advance of the First Division had exposed the left flank of its neighbour to the south, the Fifteenth Scottish Division. The two divisions were to have met at Pit 14, but the Fifteenth Division arrived there some hours before the others, for the reason already stated. In spite of this a very fine advance was maths, which gained a considerable stretch of ground and pierced more deeply than any other into the German line. Upon the parapet in front of one brigade a piper marched up and down before the attack under a heavy fire, warming the blood of the crouching men with the maddening scream of his war-pipes. Not until he was shot down did this gallant man cease to urge forward his comrades. This brigade dashed forward at the signal, and with a fine fury flooded over the German trenches, which they carried at a rush, storming onwards across the Lens road and up the long slope of Hill 70, taking Pit 14 upon the way, and eventually reaching the summit of the incline. The supporting brigade came along after them, detaching as they passed one hundred bombers to help the First Division to get forward. These brave men held the advanced line for some hours under heavy fire from the Lens batteries.
The brigade upon the right of the Fifteenth Division had made an advance which was equally fiery and successful. This brigade dashed into the main street of Loos, where they met men of Barton's Forty-seventh Division. They helped to consolidate this flank and to clear the houses of Loos, while some of them pushed forward towards Hill 70. When they reached the crest of the hill they found the remains of the other brigade upon their left. It is possible that they could have dug in and held their own, but the objective as given in the original orders had been the village of St. Augustine, and with heroic perseverance these brave men would be contented with nothing less than the full performance or death in the attempt. Alas! for many of them it was the latter. Gathering themselves together, they flung, themselves forward over the crest. On the other side was a long, low slope with isolated houses at the bottom, the suburbs of the village of St. Lawrent, which they mistook for St. Augustine. These crackled at every window with machine-gun fire. Of the devoted band who rushed forward none reached the houses. The few survivors fell back upon the crest, and then. retiring about one hundred and fifty yards, they dug in upon the slope on the west side of it. Their position was an extraordinarily dangerous one, for they had no protection upon the left flank, where lay a thick wood — the Bois Hugo — through which a German attack might come which would cut them off from the Army. A British colonel. with quick foresight. built up a thin line of resistance upon this side from Pit 14 in the south to the advanced left front, manning it with a few of his own men under a lieutenant. A welcome reinforcement were thrown in to strengthen this weak point. This was done about 1 p.m. It was only just in time, for in the afternoon the German infantry did begin to debouch from the wood, but finding organized resistance they, dropped back, and their advance on this line was not renewed until the next morning, when it fell upon the Twenty-first Division. For a time the pressure was very great. but the men rallied splendidly round a tattered tartan flag, and, although it was impossible to get forward, they still, in a mixed and straggling line with hardly any officers, held firmly to their ground. Late in the evening two more battalions came up to thicken the line.
The Forty-Seventh Division
Leaving the Fifteenth Division holding on desperately to that advanced position where. as Captain Beith has tersely said, a fringe of Jocks and Sandies lie to mark the farthest pint of advance, we turn to the remaining division upon the right — the Forty-seventh London, under General Barter. This division upheld splendidly upon this bloody day the secular reputation of the Cockney as a soldier. With a keen, quick brain, as well as game heart. the Londoner, like the Parisian, has proved that the artificial life of a great city does not necessarily dull the primitive qualities which make the warrior. The cream of the London Territorial regiments had already been distributed among regular brigades, and had made themselves an individual name, but this was the first occasion upon which a whole division were engaged in a really serious operation.
The right of this division was occupied by a brigade which formed the extreme right of the whole attack, a position which caused them to think as much of their flank protection as of their frontal advance.
The advance of the left brigade was a splendid one At the whistle the leading battalion, with a fighting yell, flooded over the parapet with their regimental football kicked in front of them, and were into the German trench like a thunderbolt, A few minutes later they were followed by the battalion in support, who passed the captured trench, rushed on to the second, and finally won the third, which opened for them the road to Loos. Into the south end of Loos they streamed, while a brigade of the Fifteenth Division rushed the north end, turning out or capturing the 23rd Silesians, who held the post. Meanwhile, the brigade on the extreme right had done most useful work by taking the Double Crassier, formidable twin slag-heaps which had become a German fort. The ground to the immediate south of Loos was rapidly seized and consolidated by the Londoners, several guns being captured in the chalk-pits near the village. This operation was of permanent importance. as the successful British advance would inevitably form a salient projecting into the hostile lines, which would be vulnerable if there were not some good defensive position on the flank. The work of the Forty-seventh Division assured such a line in the south.
Position in the Evening
By midday, as has been shown, the British advance had spent its momentum, and had been brought to a standstill at all points. The German lines had been almost — but not quite — shattered. One more heave might have done it. A map of the photographed trenches shows that beyond the point reached by the advanced troops there was only the last line which held them up. To the east of that was open country. But the German reserves were hurrying up from all quarters in their rear, from Roulers, from Thielt, from Courtrai and Menin and Douai. At the latter place was a division of Guards just brought across from the Russian front. These also were hurried into the fight. The extreme British line was too thin for defence, and was held by exhausted men, They were shelled and bombed and worn down by attack after attack until they were compelled to draw slowly back and reform on interior lines. The grand salient which had been captured with such heroic dash and profuse loss of life was pared down here and contracted there, until it no longer cut through the whole German line of defence. The portion to the south held by the Londoners was firmly consolidated, including the important village of Loos and its environs. An enormous mine crane, three hundred feet high, of latticed iron, which had formed an extraordinarily good observation point for the enemy, was one of the gains in this direction. The Fifteenth Division had been driven back to the western side of Hill 70, and to the line of the Lens-Hulluch-La Bassée road. The Seventh and Ninth Divisions had fallen back from Haisnes, but they still held the western outskirts of Hulluch, the edge of St. Elie, the Quarries, and Fosse 8. It was at this end of the line that the situation was most dangerous, for the failure of the Second Division to get forward had left a weak flank upon the north, which was weaker because the heavily-gunned German position of Auchy lay to the north-west of it in a way that partially enfiladed it.
The struggle was particularly desperate round the stag-heaps which were known as Fosse 8. This position was held most tenacious) by three battalions under a murderous tire from the Auchy guns and from persistent bombers till nightfall. When the welcome darkness came, without bringing them the longed-for supports, the three battalions had shrunk to six hundred, men, but their grip of the position was not relaxed, and they held it against, all attacks during the night. About five next morning brigade of the Twenty-fourth Division — a unit straight from home — pushed up to their help in circumstances to he afterwards explained, and shared their great dangers and losses during the second day of the fighting.
The four battalions of the Ninth Division which had got as far as the outskirts of Haisnes held on there until evening. By that time no reinforcements had reached them and they had lost very heavily. At nightfall they were driven back in the direction of the Quarries, which were held by those men of the Seventh Division who had also been compelled to fall back from Hulluch. During the night this position was wired by a company of Royal Engineers, but the Germans by a sudden and furious attack carried it, driving out the garrison and capturing some of them, among whom was a brigadier. After the capture of the Quarries, the advanced troops in the Haisnes direction were compelled to return as far as the old German front line.
While this set-back had occurred upon the left of the attack, the right had consolidated itself very firmly. The position of the Forty-seventh Division when darkness fell was that the brigade on their right had a strong grip of the Double Crassier. On their left a battalion which had lost its colonel and several senior officers was holding South-East is in the rear of the right flank of the Fifteenth Division. Another battalion was holding the Loos chalk-pit, while two others were in the German second line trenches.
There is reason to believe that the rapid dash of the stormers accomplished, results more quickly than had been thought possible. The Twenty-first and Twenty-fourth Divisions were brought up, as Sir John French clearly states in his despatch, for a specific purpose. "To ensure the speedy and effective support of the First and Fourth Corps in the case of their success, the Twenty-first and Twenty-fourth Divisions gassed the night of the 24th and 25th on the line of Beuvry-Noeux-les-Mines."
Leaving the front line holding hard to, or in some cases recoiling from, the advanced positions which they had won, we will turn back and follow the movements of these two divisions. It is well to remember that these divisions had not only never heard the whistle of a bullet, but they had never even been inside a trench, save on some English downside. It is perhaps a pity that it could not be so arranged that troops so unseasoned to actual warfare should occupy some defensive line, while the older troops whom they relieved could have marched to battle. Apart, however, from this experience, which was no fault of their own or of their commanders, there is no doubt at all that the men were well-trained infantry and full of spirit. To bring them to the front without exciting attention, three separate night marches were undertaken, of no inordinate length, but tiring on account of the constant blockings of the road and the long waits which attended them. Finally they reached the point at which Sir John French reported them in his despatch, but by ill-fortune their cookers came late, and they were compelled in many cues to move on again without a proper meal. After this point the cookers never overtook them, and the men were thrown back upon their iron rations. Providence is not a strong point of the British soldier, and it is probable that with more economy and foresight at the beginning these troops would have been less exhausted and hungry at the end. The want of food, however, was not the fault of the supply services.
The troops moved forward with no orders for an instant attack, but with the general idea that they were to wait as a handy reserve and go forward when called upon to do so. One brigade of the Twenty-first Division was sent on first about eleven o'clock, and the other brigades were not really on the road till much later. The roads on which they moved — those which lead through Vermelles to Hulluch or to Loos — were blocked with traffic: guns advancing, ambulances returning, troops of all sorts coming and going, Maltese carts with small-arm ammunition hurrying forward to the fighting-line. The narrow channel was choked with the crowd. The country on either side was intersected with trenches and laced with barbed wire. It was pouring with rain. The soldiers, cold, wet, and hungry, made their way forward with many stoppages towards the firing, their general direction being to the centre of the British line.
"As we got over this plain," writes an officer, "I looked back, and there was a most extraordinary sight as far as you could see there were thousands and thousands of our men coming up. You could see them for miles and miles, and behind them a most colossal thundercloud extending over the whole sky, and the rain was pouring down. It was just getting dark, and the noise of our guns and the whole thing was simply extraordinary."
Early on the march the leading brigade was met by a staff officer of the First Army, who gave the order that it should detach itself, together with a field company of sappers, and hasten to the reinforcement of the Ninth Division at Fosse 8. They went, and the Twenty-fourth Division knew them no more. The other two brigades found themselves between 9 and 10 p.m. in the front German trenches. They had been able to deploy after leaving Vermelles, and the front line were now in touch with the Twenty-first Division upon the right and with the First Division upon their left. Very heavy shrapnel fire burst for half an hour over them while still in the open. "We stood there in an agony," says a frank and brave soldier. "No one showed it. The men were simply splendid. It was the first time any of us had been under fire." The final orders were that at eleven o'clock next day these three divisions — First, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-first — were to make a united assault past Hulluch, which was assumed to be in our hands, and on to the main German line. This, then, was the position of the reserves on the night of September 25th and 26th.
It was a nightmare night in the advanced line of the Army. The weather had been tempestuous all day, though the men had little time to think of such matters. But now they Were not only tired and hungry, but soaked to the skin. An aggressive enemy pelted them with bombs from in front, and their prospects seemed as black as the starless sky above them. It is, however, at such a time that the British soldier a confirmed grumbler in his hours of ease, shows to the best advantage. The men knew that much ground had been gained. They had seen prisoners by hundreds throwing up their hands, and had marked as they rushed past them the vicious necks of the half-buried captured cannon. It was victory for the Army, whatever might be their own discomfort. Their mood, therefore, was hilarious rather than doleful, and thousands of weary Mark Tapleys huddled under the dripping ledges of the parapets. "They went into battle with their tails right up, and though badly mauled have their tails up still." So wrote the officer of a brigade which had lost more than half its effectives.