Part 4 out of 10
"Going fine!" said an English officer. But he looked anxious, and
wetted a finger and held it up, to get the direction of the wind.
Some of the communication trenches were crowded with the Black Watch
of the 1st Division, hard, bronzed fellows, with the red heckle in
their bonnets. (It was before the time of steel hats.) They were
leaning up against the walls of the trenches, waiting. They were
strung round with spades, bombs, and sacks.
"A queer kind o' stink!" said one of them, sniffing.
Some of the men began coughing. Others were rubbing their eyes, as
though they smarted.
The poison-gas. . . The wind had carried it half way across No Man's
Land, then a swirl changed its course, and flicked it down a gully,
and swept it right round to the Black Watch in the narrow trenches.
Some German shell-fire was coming, too. In one small bunch eight men
fell in a mush of blood and raw flesh. But the gas was worse. There
was a movement in the trenches, the huddling together of frightened
men who had been very brave. They were coughing, spitting, gasping.
Some of them fell limp against their fellows, with pallid cheeks which
blackened. Others tied handkerchiefs about their mouths and noses, but
choked inside those bandages, and dropped to earth with a clatter of
shovels. Officers and men were cursing and groaning. An hour later,
when the whistles blew, there were gaps in the line of the 1st
Division which went over the top. In the trenches lay gassed men. In
No Man's Land others fell, swept by machine-gun bullets, shrapnel, and
high explosives. The 1st Division was "checked." . . .
"We caught it badly," said some of them I met later in the day,
bandaged and bloody, and plastered in wet chalk, while gassed men lay
on stretchers about them, unconscious, with laboring lungs.
Farther south the front-lines of the 15th (Scottish) Division climbed
over their parapets at six-thirty, and saw the open ground before
them, and the dusky, paling sky above them, and broken wire in front
of the enemy's churned-up trenches; and through the smoke, faintly,
and far away, three and a half miles away, the ghostly outline of the
"Tower Bridge" of Loos, which was their goal. For an hour there were
steady tides of men all streaming slowly up those narrow communication
ways, cut through the chalk to get into the light also, where death
was in ambush for many of them somewhere in the shadows of that dawn.
By seven-forty the two assaulting brigades of the 15th Division had
left the trenches and were in the open. Shriller than the scream of
shells above them was the skirl of pipes, going with them. The Pipe
Major of the 8th Gordons was badly wounded, but refused to be touched
until the other men were tended. He was a giant, too big for a
stretcher, and had to be carried back on a tarpaulin. At the dressing-
station his leg was amputated, but he died after two operations, and
the Gordons mourned him.
While the Highlanders went forward with their pipes, two brigades of
the Londoners, on their right, were advancing in the direction of the
long, double slag heap, southwest of Loos, called the Double Crassier.
Some of them were blowing mouth-organs, playing the music-hall song of
"Hullo, hullo, it's a different girl again!" and the "Robert E. Lee,"
until one after another a musician fell in a crumpled heap. Shrapnel
burst over them, and here and there shells plowed up the earth where
they were trudging. On the right of the Londoners the French still
stayed in their trenches--their own attack was postponed until midday-
-and they cheered the London men, as they went forward, with cries of,
"Vivent les Angdais!" "A mort--les Boches!" It was they who saw one
man kicking a football in advance of the others.
"He is mad!" they said. "The poor boy is a lunatic!"
"He is not mad," said a French officer who had lived in England. "It
is a beau geste. He is a sportsman scornful of death. That is the
It was a London Irishman dribbling a football toward the goal, and he
held it for fourteen hundred yards--the best-kicked goal in history.
Many men fell in the five hundred yards of No Man's Land. But they
were not missed then by those who went on in waves--rather, like
molecules, separating, collecting, splitting up into smaller groups,
bunching together again, on the way to the first line of German
trenches. A glint of bayonets made a quickset hedge along the line of
churned-up earth which had been the Germans' front--line trench. Our
guns had cut the wire or torn gaps into it. Through the broken strands
went the Londoners on the right, the Scots on the left, shouting
hoarsely now. They saw red. They were hunters of human flesh. They
swarmed down into the first long ditch, trampling over dead bodies,
falling over them, clawing the earth and scrambling up the parados,
all broken and crumbled, then on again to another ditch. Boys dropped
with bullets in their brains, throats, and bodies. German machine-guns
were at work at close range.
"Give'em hell!" said an officer of the Londoners--a boy of nineteen.
There were a lot of living Germans in the second ditch, and in holes
about. Some of them stood still, as though turned to clay, until they
fell with half the length of a bayonet through their stomachs. Others
shrieked and ran a little way before they died. Others sat behind
hillocks of earth, spraying our men with machine-gun bullets until
bombs were hurled on them and they were scattered into lumps of flesh.
Three lines of trench were taken, and the Londoners and the Scots went
forward again in a spate toward Loos. All the way from our old lines
men were streaming up, with shells bursting among them or near them.
On the way to Loos a company of Scots came face to face with a tall
German. He was stone-dead, with a bullet in his brain, his face all
blackened with the grime of battle; but he stood erect in the path,
wedged somehow in a bit of trench. The Scots stared at this figure,
and their line parted and swept each side of him, as though some
obscene specter barred the way. Rank after rank streamed up, and then
a big tide of men poured through the German trench systems and rushed
forward. Three--quarters of a mile more to Loos. Some of them were
panting, out of breath, speechless. Others talked to the men about
them in stray sentences. Most of them were silent, staring ahead of
them and licking their lips with swollen tongues. They were parched
with thirst, some of them told me. Many stopped to drink the last drop
out of their water-bottles. As one man drank he spun round and fell
with a thud on his face. Machine-gun bullets were whipping up the
earth. From Loos came a loud and constant rattle of machine-guns.
Machine-guns were firing out of the broken windows of the houses and
from the top of the "Tower Bridge," those steel girders which rose
three hundred feet high from the center of the village, and from slit
trenches across the narrow streets. There were one hundred machine-
guns in the cemetery to the southwest of the town, pouring out lead
upon the Londoners who had to pass that place.
Scots and London men were mixed up, and mingled in crowds which
encircled Loos, and forced their way into the village; but roughly
still, and in the mass, they were Scots who assaulted Loos itself, and
London men who went south of it to the chalk-pits and the Double
It was eight o'clock in the morning when the first crowds reached the
village, and for nearly two hours afterward there was street-fighting.
It was the fighting of men in the open, armed with bayonets, rifles,
and bombs, against men invisible and in hiding, with machine-guns.
Small groups of Scots, like packs of wolves, prowled around the
houses, where the lower rooms and cellars were crammed with Germans,
trapped and terrified, but still defending themselves. In some of the
houses they would not surrender, afraid of certain death, anyhow, and
kept the Scots at bay awhile until those kilted men flung themselves
in and killed their enemy to the last man. Outside those red-brick
houses lay dead and wounded Scots. Inside there were the curses and
screams of a bloody vengeance. In other houses the machine-gun
garrisons ceased fire and put white rags through the broken windows,
and surrendered like sheep. So it was in one house entered by a little
kilted signaler, who shot down three men who tried to kill him. Thirty
others held their hands up and said, in a chorus of fear, "Kamerad!
A company of the 8th Gordons were among the first into Loos, led by
some of those Highland officers I have mentioned on another page. It
was "Honest John" who led one crowd of them, and he claims now, with a
laugh, that he gained his Military Cross for saving the lives of two
hundred Germans. "I ought to have got the Royal Humane Society's
medal," he said. Those Germans--Poles, really, from Silesia--came
swarming out of a house with their hands up. But the Gordons had
tasted blood. They were hungry for it. They were panting and shouting,
with red bayonets, behind their officer.
That young man thought deeply and quickly. If there were "no quarter"
it might be ugly for the Gordons later in the day, and the day was
young, and Loos was still untaken.
He stood facing his own men, ordered them sternly to keep steady.
These men were to be taken prisoners and sent back under escort. He
had his revolver handy, and, anyhow, the men knew him. They obeyed,
There was the noise of fire in other parts of the village, and the
tap-tap-tap of machine-guns from many cellars. Bombing-parties of
Scots silenced those machine-gunners at last by going to the head of
the stairways and flinging down their hand-grenades. The cellars of
Loos were full of dead.
In one of them, hours after the fighting had ceased among the ruins of
the village, and the line of fire was forward of Hill 70, a living man
still hid and carried on his work. The colonel of one of our forward
battalions came into Loos with his signalers and runners, and
established his headquarters in a house almost untouched by shell-
fire. At the time there was very little shelling, as the artillery
officers on either side were afraid of killing their own men, and the
house seemed fairly safe for the purpose of a temporary signal-
But the colonel noticed that shortly after his arrival heavy shells
began to fall very close and the Germans obviously were aiming
directly for this building. He ordered the cellars to be searched, and
three Germans were found. It was only after he had been in the house
for forty minutes that in a deeper cellar, which had not been seen
before, the discovery was made of a German officer who was telephoning
to his own batteries and directing their fire. Suspecting that the
colonel and his companions were important officers directing general
operations, he had caused the shells to fall upon the house knowing
that a lucky shot would mean his own death as well as theirs.
As our searchers came into the cellar, he rose and stood there,
waiting, with a cold dignity, for the fate which he knew would come to
him, as it did. He was a very brave man.
Another German officer remained hiding in the church, which was so
heavily mined that it would have blown half the village into dust and
ashes if he had touched off the charges. He was fumbling at the job
when our men found and killed him.
In the southern outskirts of Loos, and in the cemetery, the Londoners
had a bloody fight among the tombstones, where nests of German
machine-guns had been built into the vaults. New corpses, still
bleeding, lay among old dead torn from their coffins by shell-fire.
Londoners and Siiesian Germans lay together across one another's
bodies. The London men routed out most of the machine-gunners and
bayoneted some and took prisoners of others. They were not so fierce
as the Scots, but in those hours forgot the flower-gardens in
Streatham and Tooting Bec and the manners of suburban drawing rooms. .
. It is strange that one German machine-gun, served by four men,
remained hidden behind a gravestone all through that day, and
Saturday, and Sunday, and sniped stray men of ours until routed at
last by moppers-up of the Guards brigade.
As the Londoners came down the slope to the southern edge of Loos
village, through a thick haze of smoke from shell-fire and burning
houses, they were astounded to meet a crowd of civilians, mostly women
and children, who came streaming across the open in panic-stricken
groups. Some of them fell under machine-gun fire snapping from the
houses or under shrapnel bursting overhead. The women were haggard and
gaunt, with wild eyes and wild hair, like witches. They held their
children in tight claws until they were near our soldiers, when they
all set up a shrill crying and wailing. The children were dazed with
terror. Other civilians crawled up from their cellars in Loos,
spattered with German blood, and wandered about among soldiers of many
British battalions who crowded amid the scarred and shattered houses,
and among the wounded men who came staggering through the streets,
where army doctors were giving first aid in the roadway, while shells
were bursting overhead and all the roar of the battle filled the air
for miles around with infernal tumult.
Isolated Germans still kept sniping from secret places, and some of
them fired at a dressing-station in the market-place, until a French
girl, afterward decorated for valor--she was called the Lady of Loos
by Londoners and Scots--borrowed a revolver and shot two of them dead
in a neighboring house. Then she came back to the soup she was making
for wounded men.
Some of the German prisoners were impressed as stretcher-bearers, and
one, "Jock," had compelled four Germans to carry him in, while he lay
talking to them in broadest Scots, grinning despite his blood and
A London lieutenant called out to a stretcher-bearer helping to carry
down a German officer, and was astounded to be greeted by the wounded
"Hullo, Leslie!. . . I knew we should meet one day."
Looking at the man's face, the Londoner saw it was his own cousin. . .
There was all the drama of war in that dirty village of Loos, which
reeked with the smell of death then, and years later, when I went
walking through it on another day of war, after another battle on Hill
While the village of Loos was crowded with hunters of men, wounded,
dead, batches of panic-stricken prisoners, women, doctors, Highlanders
and Lowlanders "fey" with the intoxication of blood, London soldiers
with tattered uniforms and muddy rifles and stained bayonets, mixed
brigades were moving forward to new objectives. The orders of the
Scottish troops, which I saw, were to go "all out," and to press on as
far as they could, with the absolute assurance that all the ground
they gained would be held behind them by supporting troops; and having
that promise, they trudged on to Hill 70. The Londoners had been
ordered to make a defensive flank on the right of the Scots by
capturing the chalk-pit south of Loos and digging in. They did this
after savage fighting in the pit, where they bayoneted many Germans,
though raked by machine-gun bullets from a neighboring copse, which
was a fringe of gashed and tattered trees. But some of the London boys
were mixed up with the advancing Scots and went on with them, and a
battalion of Scots Fusiliers who had been in the supporting brigade of
the 15th Division, which was intended to follow the advance, joined
the first assault, either through eagerness or a wrong order, and,
unknown to their brigadier, were among the leaders in the bloody
struggle in Loos, and labored on to Hill 70, where Camerons, Gordons,
Black Watch, Seaforths, Argyll, and Sutherland men and Londoners were
now up the slopes, stabbing stray Germans who were trying to retreat
to a redoubt on the reverse side of the hill.
For a time there was a kind of Bank Holiday crowd on Hill 70. The
German gunners, knowing that the redoubt on the crest was still held
by their men, dared not fire; and many German batteries were on the
move, out of Lens and from their secret lairs in the country
thereabouts, in a state of panic. On our right the French were
fighting desperately at Souchez and Neuville St.-Vaast and up the
lower slopes of Vimy, suffering horrible casualties and failing to
gain the heights in spite of the reckless valor of their men, but
alarming the German staffs, who for a time had lost touch with the
situation--their telephones had been destroyed by gun-fire--and were
filled with gloomy apprehensions. So Hill 70 was quiet, except for
spasms of machine-gun fire from the redoubt on the German side of the
slope and the bombing of German dugouts, or the bayoneting of single
men routed out from holes in the earth.
One of our men came face to face with four Germans, two of whom were
armed with rifles and two with bombs. They were standing in the
wreckage of a trench, pallid, and with the fear of death in their
eyes. The rifles clattered to the earth, the bombs fell at their feet,
and their hands went up when the young Scot appeared before them with
his bayonet down. He was alone, and they could have killed him, but
surrendered, and were glad of the life he granted them. As more men
came up the slope there were greetings between comrades, of:
"Is that you, Alf?"
They were rummaging about for souvenirs in half-destroyed dugouts
where dead bodies lay. They were "swapping" souvenirs--taken from
prisoners--silver watches, tobacco-boxes, revolvers, compasses. Many
of them put on German field-caps, like schoolboys with paper caps from
Christmas crackers, shouting with laughter because of their German
look. They thought the battle was won. After the first wild rush the
shell-fire, the killing, the sight of dead comrades, the smell of
blood, the nightmare of that hour after dawn, they were beginning to
get normal again, to be conscious of themselves, to rejoice in their
luck at having got so far with whole skins. It had been a fine
victory. The enemy was nowhere. He had "mizzled off."
Some of the Scots, with the hunter's instinct still strong, decided to
go on still farther to a new objective. They straggled away in batches
to one of the suburbs of Lens--the Cite St.-Auguste. Very few of them
came back with the tale of their comrades' slaughter by sudden bursts
of machine-gun fire which cut off all chance of retreat. . . .
The quietude of Hill 70 was broken by the beginning of a new
bombardment from German guns.
"Dig in," said the officers. "We must hold on at all costs until the
supports come up."
Where were the supporting troops which had been promised? There was no
sign of them coming forward from Loos. The Scots were strangely
isolated on the slopes of Hill 70. At night the sky above them was lit
up by the red glow of fires in Lens, and at twelve-thirty that night,
under that ruddy sky, dark figures moved on the east of the hill and a
storm of machine-gun bullets swept down on the Highlanders and
Lowlanders, who crouched low in the mangled earth. It was a counter-
attack by masses of men crawling up to the crest from the reverse side
and trying to get the Scots out of the slopes below. Bst the men of
the 15th Division answered by volleys of rifle-fire, machine-gun fire,
and bombs. They held on in spite of dead and wounded men thinning out
their fighting strength. At five-thirty in the morning there was
another strong counter-attack, repulsed also, but at another price of
life in those holes and ditches on the hillside.
Scottish officers stared anxiously back toward their old lines. Where
were the supports? Why did they get no help? Why were they left
clinging like this to an isolated hill? The German artillery had
reorganized. They were barraging the ground about Loos fiercely and
continuously. They were covering a great stretch of country up to
Hulluch, and north of it, with intense harassing fire. Later on that
Saturday morning the 15th Division received orders to attack and
capture the German earthwork redoubt on the crest of the hill. A
brigade of the 21st Division was nominally in support of them, but
only small groups of that brigade appeared on the scene, a few white-
faced officers, savage with anger, almost mad with some despair in
them, with batches of English lads who looked famished with hunger,
weak after long marching, demoralized by some tragedy that had
happened to them. They were Scots who did most of the work in trying
to capture the redoubt, the same Scots who had fought through Loos.
They tried to reach the crest. Again and again they crawled forward
and up, but the blasts of machine-gun fire mowed them down, and many
young Scots lay motionless on those chalky slopes, with their kilts
riddled with bullets. Others, hit in the head, or arms, or legs,
writhed like snakes back to the cover of broken trenches.
"Where are the supports?" asked the Scottish officers. "In God's name,
where are the troops who were to follow on? Why did we do all this
bloody fighting to be hung up in the air like this?"
The answer to their question has not been given in any official
despatch. It is answered by the tragedy of the 21st and 24th
Divisions, who will never forget the misery of that day, though not
many are now alive who suffered it. Their part of the battle I will
To onlookers there were some of the signs of victory on that day of
September 25th--of victory and its price. I met great numbers of the
lightly wounded men, mostly "Jocks," and they were in exalted spirits
because they had done well in this ordeal and had come through it, and
out of it--alive. They came straggling back through the villages
behind the lines to the casualty clearing--stations and ambulance-
trains. Some of them had the sleeves of their tunics cut away and
showed brown, brawny arms tightly bandaged and smeared with blood.
Some of them were wounded in the legs and hobbled with their arms
about their comrades' necks. Their kilts were torn and plastered with
chalky mud. Nearly all of them had some "souvenir" of the fighting--
German watches, caps, cartridges. They carried themselves with a
warrior look, so hard, so lean, so clear-eyed, these young Scots of
the Black Watch and Camerons and Gordons. They told tales of their own
adventure in broad Scots, hard to understand, and laughed grimly at
the killing they had done, though here and there a lad among them had
a look of bad remembrance in his eyes, and older men spoke gravely of
the scenes on the battlefield and called it "hellish." But their pride
was high. They had done what they had been asked to do. The 15th
Division had proved its quality. Their old battalions, famous in
history, had gained new honor.
Thousands of those lightly wounded men swarmed about a long ambulance-
train standing in a field near the village of Choques. They crowded
the carriages, leaned out of the windows with their bandaged heads and
arms, shouting at friends they saw in the other crowds. The spirit of
victory, and of lucky escape, uplifted those lads, drugged them. And
now they were going home for a spell. Home to bonny Scotland, with a
wound that would take some time to heal.
There were other wounded men from whom no laughter came, nor any
sound. They were carried to the train on stretchers, laid down awhile
on the wooden platforms, covered with blankets up to their chins--
unless they uncovered themselves with convulsive movements. I saw one
young Londoner so smashed about the face that only his eyes were
uncovered between layers of bandages, and they were glazed with the
first film of death. Another had his jaw blown clean away, so the
doctor told me, and the upper half of his face was livid and
discolored by explosive gases. A splendid boy of the Black Watch was
but a living trunk. Both his arms and both his legs were shattered. If
he lived after butcher's work of surgery he would be one of those who
go about in boxes on wheels, from whom men turn their eyes away, sick
with a sense of horror. There were blind boys led to the train by
wounded comrades, groping, very quiet, thinking of a life of darkness
ahead of them--forever in the darkness which shut in their souls. For
days and weeks that followed there was always a procession of
ambulances on the way to the dirty little town of Lillers, and going
along the roads I used to look back at them and see the soles of muddy
boots upturned below brown blankets. It was more human wreckage coming
down from the salient of Loos, from the chalkpits of Hulluch and the
tumbled earth of the Hohenzollern redoubt, which had been partly
gained by the battle which did not succeed. Outside a square brick
building, which was the Town Hall of Lillers, and for a time a
casualty clearing-station, the "bad" cases were unloaded; men with
chunks of steel in their lungs and bowels were vomiting great gobs of
blood, men with arms and legs torn from their trunks, men without
noses, and their brains throbbing through opened scalps, men without
faces . . .
To a field behind the railway station near the grimy village of
Choques, on the edge of this Black Country of France, the prisoners
were brought; and I went among them and talked with some of them, on a
Sunday morning, when now the rain had stopped and there was a blue sky
overhead and good visibility for German guns and ours.
There were fourteen hundred German prisoners awaiting entrainment, a
mass of slate-gray men lying on the wet earth in huddled heaps of
misery, while a few of our fresh-faced Tommies stood among them with
fixed bayonets. They were the men who had surrendered from deep
dugouts in the trenches between us and Loos and from the cellars of
Loos itself. They had seen many of their comrades bayoneted. Some of
them had shrieked for mercy. Others had not shrieked, having no power
of sound in their throats, but had shrunk back at the sight of
glinting bayonets, with an animal fear of death. Now, all that was a
nightmare memory, and they were out of it all until the war should
end, next year, the year after, the year after that--who could tell?
They had been soaked to the skin in the night and their gray uniforms
were still soddened. Many of them were sleeping, in huddled, grotesque
postures, like dead men, some lying on their stomachs, face downward.
Others were awake, sitting hunched up, with drooping heads and a
beaten, exhausted look. Others paced up and down, up and down, like
caged animals, as they were, famished and parched, until we could
distribute the rations. Many of them were dying, and a German
ambulanceman went among them, injecting them with morphine to ease the
agony which made them writhe and groan. Two men held their stomachs,
moaning and whimpering with a pain that gnawed their bowels, caused by
cold and damp. They cried out to me, asking for a doctor. A friend of
mine carried a water jar to some of the wounded and held it to their
lips. One of them refused. He was a tall, evil-looking fellow, with a
bloody rag round his head--a typical "Hun," I thought. But he pointed
to a comrade who lay gasping beside him and said, in German, "He needs
it first." This man had never heard of Sir Philip Sidney, who at
Zutphen, when thirsty and near death, said, "His need is greater than
mine," but he had the same chivalry in his soul.
The officer in charge of their escort could not speak German and had
no means of explaining to the prisoners that they were to take their
turn to get rations and water at a dump nearby. It was a war
correspondent, young Valentine Williams, afterward a very gallant
officer in the Irish Guards who gave the orders in fluent and incisive
German. He began with a hoarse shout of "Achtung!" and that old word
of command had an electrical effect on many of the men. Even those who
had seemed asleep staggered to their feet and stood at attention. The
habit of discipline was part of their very life, and men almost dead
strove to obey.
The non-commissioned officers formed parties to draw and distribute
the rations, and then those prisoners clutched at hunks of bread and
ate in a famished way, like starved beasts. Some of them had been four
days hungry, cut off from their supplies by our barrage fire, and
intense hunger gave them a kind of vitality when food appeared. The
sight of that mass of men reduced to such depths of human misery was
horrible. One had no hate in one's heart for them then.
"Poor devils!" said an officer with me. "Poor beasts! Here we see the
`glory' of war! the `romance' of war!"
I spoke to some of them in bad German, and understood their answer.
"It is better here than on the battlefield," said one of them. "We are
glad to be prisoners."
One of them waved his hand toward the tumult of guns which were firing
"I pity our poor people there," he said.
One of them, who spoke English, described all he had seen of the
battle, which was not much, because no man at such a time sees more
than what happens within a yard or two.
"The English caught us by surprise when the attack came at last," he
said. "The bombardment had been going on for days, and we could not
guess when the attack would begin. I was in a deep dugout, wondering
how long it would be before a shell came through the roof and blow us
to pieces. The earth shook above our heads. Wounded men crawled into
the dugout, and some of them died down there. We sat looking at their
bodies in the doorway and up the steps. I climbed over them when a
lull came. A friend of mine was there, dead, and I stepped on his
stomach to get upstairs. The first thing I saw was a crowd of your
soldiers streaming past our trenches. We were surrounded on three
sides, and our position was hopeless. Some of our men started firing,
but it was only asking for death. Your men killed them with bayonets.
I went back into my dugout and waited. Presently there was an
explosion in the doorway and part of the dugout fell in. One of the
men with me had his head blown off, and his blood spurted on me. I was
dazed, but through the fumes I saw an English soldier in a petticoat
standing at the doorway, making ready to throw another bomb.
"I shouted to him in English:
"'Don't kill us! We surrender!'
"He was silent for a second or two, and I thought he would throw his
bomb. Then he said:
"'Come out, you swine.'
"So we went out, and saw many soldiers in petticoats, your
Highlanders, with bayonets. They wanted to kill us, but one man argued
with them in words I could not understand-a dialect-and we were told
to go along a trench. Even then we expected death, but came to another
group of prisoners, and joined them on their way back. Gott sei dank!"
He spoke gravely and simply, this dirty, bearded man, who had been a
clerk in a London office. He had the truthfulness of a man who had
just come from great horrors.
Many of the men around him were Silesians-more Polish than German.
Some of them could not speak more than a few words of German, and were
true Slavs in physical type, with flat cheek-bones.
A group of German artillery officers had been captured and they were
behaving with studied arrogance and insolence as they smoked
cigarettes apart from the men, and looked in a jeering way at our
"Did you get any of our gas this morning?" I asked them, and one of
them laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"I smelled it a little. It was rather nice . . . The English always
imitate the German war-methods, but without much success."
They grinned and imitated my way of saying "Guten Tag" when I left
them. It took a year or more to tame the arrogance of the German
officer. At the end of the Somme battles he changed his manner when
captured, and was very polite.
In another place--a prison in St.-Omer--I had a conversation with two
other officers of the German army who were more courteous than the
gunners. They had been taken at Hooge and were both Prussians--one a
stout captain, smiling behind horn spectacles, with a false, jovial
manner, hiding the effect of the ordeal from which he had just
escaped, and his hatred of us; the other a young, slim fellow, with
clear-cut features, who was very nervous, but bowed repeatedly, with
his heels together, as though in a cafe at Ehrenbreitstein, when high
officers came in. A few hours before he had been buried alive. One of
our mines had exploded under him, flinging a heap of earth over him.
The fat man by his side--his captain--had been buried, too, in the
dugout. They had scraped themselves out by clawing at the earth.
They were cautious about answering questions on the war, but the
younger man said they were prepared down to the last gaiter for
another winter campaign and--that seemed to me at the time a fine
touch of audacity--for two more winter campaigns if need be. The
winter of '16, after this autumn and winter of '15, and then after
that the winter of '17! The words of that young Prussian seemed to me,
the more I thought of them, idiotic and almost insane. Why, the world
itself could not suffer two more years of war. It would end before
then in general anarchy, the wild revolutions of armies on all fronts.
Humanity of every nation would revolt against such prolonged
slaughter. . . It was I who was mad, in the foolish faith that the war
would end before another year had passed, because I thought that would
be the limit of endurance of such mutual massacre.
In a room next to those two officers--a week before this battle, the
captain had been rowing with his wife on the lake at Potsdam--was
another prisoner, who wept and wept. He had escaped to our lines
before the battle to save his skin, and now was conscience-stricken
and thought he had lost his soul. What stabbed his conscience most was
the thought that his wife and children would lose their allowances
because of his treachery. He stared at us with wild, red eyes.
"Ach, mein armes Weib! Meine Kinder!. . . Ach, Gott in Himmel!"
He had no pride, no dignity, no courage.
This tall, bearded man, father of a family, put his hands against the
wall and laid his head on his arm and wept.
During the battle, for several days I went with other men to various
points of view, trying to see something of the human conflict from
slag heaps and rising ground, but could only see the swirl and flurry
of gun-fire and the smoke of shells mixing with wet mist, and the
backwash of wounded and prisoners, and the traffic of guns, and
wagons, and supporting troops. Like an ant on the edge of a volcano I
sat among the slag heaps with gunner observers, who were listening at
telephones dumped down in the fields and connected with artillery
brigades and field batteries.
"The Guards are fighting round Fosse 8," said one of these observers.
Through the mist I could see Fosse 8, a flat-topped hill of coal-dust.
Little glinting lights were playing about it, like confetti shining in
the sun. That was German shrapnel. Eruptions of red flame and black
earth vomited out of the hill. That was German high explosive. For a
time on Monday, September 27th, it was the storm-center of battle.
"What's that?" asked an artillery staff-officer, with his ear to the
field telephone. "What's that?. . . Hullo!. . . Are you there?. . .
The Guards have been kicked off Fosse 8. . . Oh, hell!"
From all parts of the field of battle such whispers came to listening
men and were passed on to headquarters, where other men listened. This
brigade was doing pretty well. That was hard pressed. The Germans were
counter-attacking heavily. Their barrage was strong and our casualties
heavy. "Oh, hell!" said other men. From behind the mist came the news
of life and death, revealing things which no onlooker could see.
I went closer to see--into the center of the arc of battle, up by the
Loos redoubt, where the German dead and ours still lay in heaps. John
Buchan was my companion on that walk, and together we stood staring
over the edge of a trench to where, grim and gaunt against the gray
sky, loomed the high, steel columns of the "Tower Bridge," the mining-
works which I had seen before the battle as an inaccessible landmark
in the German lines. Now they were within our lines in the center of
Loos, and no longer "leering" at us, as an officer once told me they
used to do when he led his men into communication trenches under their
Behind us now was the turmoil of war--thousands and scores of
thousands of men moving in steady columns forward and backward in the
queer, tangled way which during a great battle seems to have no
purpose or meaning, except to the directing brains on the Headquarters
Staff, and, sometimes in history, none to them.
Vast convoys of transports choked the roads, with teams of mules
harnessed to wagons and gun-limbers, with trains of motor ambulances
packed with wounded men, with infantry brigades plodding through the
slush and slime, with divisional cavalry halted in the villages, and
great bivouacs in the boggy fields.
The men, Londoners, and Scots, and Guards, and Yorkshires, and
Leinsters, passed and repassed in dense masses, in small battalions,
in scattered groups. One could tell them from those who were filling
their places by the white chalk which covered them from head to foot,
and sometimes by the blood which had splashed them.
Regiments which had lost many of their comrades and had fought in
attack and counter-attack through those days and nights went very
silently, and no man cheered them. Legions of tall lads, who a few
months before marched smart and trim down English lanes, trudged
toward the fighting-lines under the burden of their heavy packs, with
all their smartness befouled by the business of war, but wonderful and
pitiful to see because of the look of courage and the gravity in their
eyes as they went up to dreadful places. Farther away within the zone
of the enemy's fire the traffic ceased, and I came into the desolate
lands of death, where there is but little movement, and the only noise
is that of guns. I passed by ruined villages and towns.
To the left was Vermelles (two months before death nearly caught me
there), and I stared at those broken houses and roofless farms and
fallen churches which used to make one's soul shiver even when they
stood clear in the daylight.
To the right, a few hundred yards away, was Masingarbe, from which
many of our troops marched out to begin the great attack. Farther back
were the great slag heaps of Noeux-les-Mines, and all around other
black hills of this mining country which rise out of the flat plain.
It was a long walk through narrow trenches toward that Loos redoubt
where at last I stood. There was the smell of death in those narrow,
winding ways. One boy, whom death had taken almost at the entrance-
way, knelt on the fire-step, with his head bent and his forehead
against the wet clay, as though in prayer. Farther on other bodies of
London boys and Scots lay huddled up.
We were in the center of a wide field of fire, with the enemy's
batteries on one side and ours on the other in sweeping semicircles.
The shells of all these batteries went crying through the air with
high, whining sighs, which ended in the cough of death. The roar of
the guns was incessant and very close. The enemy was sweeping a road
to my right, and his shells went overhead with a continual rush,
passing our shells, which answered back. The whole sky was filled with
these thunderbolts. Many of them were "Jack Johnsons," which raised a
volume of black smoke where they fell. I wondered how it would feel to
be caught by one of them, whether one would have any consciousness
before being scattered. Fear, which had walked with me part of the
way, left me for a time. I had a strange sense of exhilaration, an
intoxicated interest in this foul scene and the activity of that
Peering over the parapet, we saw the whole panorama of the
battleground. It was but an ugly, naked plain, rising up to Hulluch
and Haisnes on the north, falling down to Loos on the east, from where
we stood, and rising again to Hill 70 (now in German hands again),
still farther east and a little south.
The villages of Haisnes and Hulluch fretted the skyline, and Fosse 8
was a black wart between them. The "Tower Bridge," close by in the
town of Loos, was the one high landmark which broke the monotony of
No men moved about this ground. Yet thousands of men were hidden about
us in the ditches, waiting for another counter-attack behind storms of
fire. The only moving things were the shells which vomited up earth
and smoke and steel as they burst in all directions over the whole
zone. We were shelling Hulluch and Haisnes and Fosse 8 with an
intense, concentrated fire, and the enemy was retaliating by
scattering shells over the town of Loos and our new line between Hill
70 and the chalk-pit, and the whole length of our line from north to
Only two men moved about above the trenches. They were two London boys
carrying a gas-cylinder, and whistling as though it were a health
resort under the autumn sun. . . It was not a health resort. It stank
of death, from piles of corpses, all mangled and in a mush of flesh
and bones lying around the Loos redoubt and all the ground in this
neighborhood, and for a long distance north.
Through the streets of Bethune streamed a tide of war: the transport
of divisions, gun-teams with their limber ambulance convoys,
ammunition wagons, infantry moving up to the front, despatch riders,
staff-officers, signalers, and a great host of men and mules and
motor-cars. The rain lashed down upon the crowds; waterproofs and
burberries and the tarpaulin covers of forage-carts streamed with
water, and the bronzed faces of the soldiers were dripping wet. Mud
splashed them to the thighs. Fountains of mud spurted up from the
wheels of gun-carriages. The chill of winter made Highlanders as well
as Indians--those poor, brave, wretched Indians who had been flung
into the holding attack on the canal at La Bassee, and mown down in
the inevitable way by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets--shiver in the
Yet, in spite of rain and great death, there was a spirit of
exultation among many fighting-men. At last there was a break in the
months of stationary warfare. We were up and out of the trenches. The
first proofs of victory were visible there in a long line of German
guns captured at Loos, guarded on each side by British soldiers with
fixed bayonets. Men moving up did not know the general failure that
had swamped a partial success. They stared at the guns and said, "By
God--we've got 'em going this time!"
A group of French civilians gathered round them, excited at the sight.
Artillery officers examined their broken breech-blocks and their
"Pro Gloria et Patria."
"Ultima ratio regis."
The irony of the words made some of the onlookers laugh. A French
interpreter spoke to some English officers with a thrill of joy in his
voice. Had they heard the last news from Champagne? The French had
broken through the enemy's line. The Germans were in full retreat . .
. It was utterly untrue, because after the desperate valor of heroic
youth and horrible casualties, the French attack had broken down. But
the spirit of hope came down the cold wind and went with the men whom
I saw marching to the fields of fate in the slanting rain, as the
darkness and the mist came to end another day of battle.
Outside the headquarters of a British army corps stood another line of
captured field-guns and several machine-guns, of which one had a
strange history of adventure. It was a Russian machine-gun, taken by
the Germans on the eastern front and retaken by us on the western
In General Rawlinson's headquarters I saw a queer piece of booty. It
was a big bronze bell used by the Germans in their trenches to signal
a British gas-attack.
General Rawlinson was taking tea in his chateau when I called on him,
and was having an animated argument with Lord Cavan, commanding the
Guards, as to the disposal of the captured artillery and other
trophies. Lord Cavan claimed some for his own, with some violence of
speech. But General Rawlinson was bright and breezy as usual. Our
losses were not worrying him. As a great general he did not allow
losses to worry him. He ate his tea with a hearty appetite, and
chaffed his staff-officers. They were anticipating the real German
counter-attack--a big affair. Away up the line there would be more
dead piled up, more filth and stench of human slaughter, but the smell
of it would not reach back to headquarters.
In a despatch by Sir John French, dated October 15, 1915, and issued
by the War Office on November 1st of that year, the Commander-in-Chief
stated that: "In view of the great length of line along which the
British troops were operating it was necessary to keep a strong
reserve in my own hand. The 11th Corps, consisting of the Guards, the
21st and the 24th Divisions, were detailed for this purpose. This
reserve was the more necessary owing to the fact that the Tenth French
Army had to postpone its attack until one o'clock in the day; and
further, that the corps operating on the French left had to be
directed in a more or less southeasterly direction, involving, in case
of our success, a considerable gap in our line. To insure, however,
the speedy and effective support of the 1st and 4th Corps in the case
of their success, the 21st and 24th Divisions passed the night of the
24th and 25th on the line Beuvry (to the east of Bethune)-Noeux-les-
Mines. The Guards Division was in the neighborhood of Lillers on the
By that statement, and by the facts that happened in accordance with
it, the whole scheme of attack in the battle of Loos will stand
challenged in history. Lord French admits in that despatch that he
held his reserves "in his own hand," and later he states that it was
not until nine-thirty on the morning of battle that "I placed the 21st
and 24th Divisions at the disposal of the General Officer commanding
First Army." He still held the Guards. He makes, as a defense of the
decision to hold back the reserves, the extraordinary statement that
there "would be a considerable gap in our line in case of our
success." That is to say, he was actually envisaging a gap in the line
if the attack succeeded according to his expectations, and risking the
most frightful catastrophe that may befall any army in an assault upon
a powerful enemy, provided with enormous reserves, as the Germans were
at that time, and as our Commander-in-Chief ought to have known.
But apart from that the whole time-table of the battle was, as it now
appears, fatally wrong. To move divisions along narrow roads requires
an immense amount of time, even if the roads are clear, and those
roads toward Loos were crowded with the transport and gun-limbers of
the assaulting troops. To move them in daylight to the trenches meant
inevitable loss of life and almost certain demoralization under the
"Between 11 A.M. and 12 noon the central brigade of these divisions
filed past me at Bethune and Noeux-les-Mines, respectively," wrote Sir
John French. It was not possible for them to reach our old trenches
until 4 P.M. It was Gen. Sir Frederick Maurice, the Chief of Staff,
who revealed that fact to me afterward in an official explanation, and
it was confirmed by battalion officers of the 24th Division whom I
That time-table led to disaster. By eight o'clock in the morning there
were Scots on Hill 70. They had been told to go "all out," with the
promise that the ground they gained would be consolidated by following
troops. Yet no supports were due to arrive until 4 P.M. at our
original line of attack--still away back from Hill 70--by which time
the enemy had recovered from his first surprise, had reorganized his
guns, and was moving up his own supports. Tragedy befell the Scots on
Hill 70 and in the Cite St.-Auguste, as I have told. Worse tragedy
happened to the 21st and 24th Divisions. They became hopelessly
checked and tangled in the traffic of the roads, and in their heavy
kit were exhausted long before they reached the battlefield. They
drank the water out of their bottles, and then were parched. They ate
their iron rations, and then were hungry. Some of their transport
moved too far forward in daylight, was seen by German observers,
ranged on by German guns, and blown to bits on the road. The cookers
were destroyed, and with them that night's food. None of the officers
had been told that they were expected to attack on that day. All they
anticipated was the duty of holding the old support trenches. In
actual fact they arrived when the enemy was preparing a heavy counter-
attack and flinging over storms of shell-fire. The officers had no
maps and no orders. They were utterly bewildered with the situation,
and had no knowledge as to the where-abouts of the enemy or their own
objectives. Their men met heavy fire for the first time when their
physical and moral condition was weakened by the long march, the lack
of food and water, and the unexpected terror ahead of them. They
crowded into broken trenches, where shells burst over them and into
them. Young officers acting on their own initiative tried to lead
their men forward, and isolated parties went forward, but uncertainly,
not knowing the ground nor their purpose. Shrapnel lashed them, and
high-explosive shells plowed up the earth about them and with them.
Dusk came, and then darkness. Some officers were cursing, and some
wept, fearing dishonor. The men were huddled together like sheep
without shepherds when wolves are about, and saw by the bewilderment
of the officers that they were without leadership. It is that which
makes for demoralization, and these men, who afterward in the battle
of the Somme in the following year fought with magnificent valor, were
on that day at Loos demoralized in a tragic and complete way. Those
who had gone forward came back to the crowded trenches and added to
the panic and the rage and the anguish. Men smashed their rifles in a
kind of madness. Boys were cursing and weeping at the same time. They
were too hopelessly disordered and dismayed by the lack of guidance
and by the shock to their sense of discipline to be of much use in
that battle. Some bodies of them in both these unhappy divisions
arrived in front of Hill 70 at the very time when the enemy launched
his first counter-attack, and were driven back in disorder. . . Some
days later I saw the 21st Division marching back behind the lines.
Rain slashed them. They walked with bent heads. The young officers
were blanched and had a beaten look. The sight of those dejected men
was tragic and pitiful.
Meanwhile, at 6 P.M. on the evening of the first day of battle, the
Guards arrived at Noeux-les-Mines. As I saw them march up, splendid in
their height and strength and glory of youth, I looked out for the
officers I knew, yet hoped I should not see them--that man who had
given a farewell touch to the flowers in the garden of our billet,
that other one who knew he would be wounded, those two young brothers
who had played cricket on a sunny afternoon. I did not see them, but
saw only columns of men, staring grimly ahead of them, with strange,
unspeakable thoughts behind their masklike faces.
It was not until the morning of the 26th that the Commander-in-Chief
"placed them at the disposal of the General Officer commanding First
Army," and it was on the afternoon of Monday, the 27th, that they were
ordered to attack.
By that time we had lost Fosse 8, one brigade of the 9th Scottish
Division having been flung back to its own trenches after desperate
fighting, at frightful cost, after the capture of the Hohenzollern
redoubt by the 26th Brigade of that division. To the north of them the
7th Division was also suffering horrible losses after the capture of
the quarries, near Hulluch, and the village of Haisnes, which
afterward was lost. The commanding officers of both divisions, General
Capper of the 7th, and General Thesiger of the 9th, were killed as
they reconnoitered the ground, and wounded men were pouring down to
the casualty clearing stations if they had the luck to get so far.
Some of them had not that luck, but lay for nearly two days before
they were rescued by the stretcher-bearers from Quality Street and
It was bad all along the line. The whole plan had gone astray from the
beginning. With an optimism which was splendid in fighting-men and
costly in the High Command, our men had attacked positions of enormous
strength--held by an enemy in the full height of his power--without
sufficient troops in reserve to follow up and support the initial
attack, to consolidate the ground, and resist inevitable counter-
attacks. What reserves the Commander-in-Chief had he held "in his own
hand" too long and too far back.
The Guards went in when the enemy was reorganized to meet them. The
28th Division, afterward in support, was too late to be a decisive
I do not blame Lord French. I have no right to blame him, as I am not
a soldier nor a military expert. He did his best, with the highest
motives. The blunders he made were due to ignorance of modern battles.
Many other generals made many other blunders, and our men paid with
their lives. Our High Command had to learn by mistakes, by ghastly
mistakes, repeated often, until they became visible to the military
mind and were paid for again by the slaughter of British youth. One
does not blame. A writing-man, who was an observer and recorder, like
myself, does not sit in judgment. He has no right to judge. He merely
cries out, "O God! . . . O God!" in remembrance of all that agony and
that waste of splendid boys who loved life, and died.
On Sunday, as I have told, the situation was full of danger. The Scots
of the 15th Division, weakened by many losses and exhausted by their
long fatigue, had been forced to abandon the important position of
Puits 14--a mine-shaft half a mile north of Hill 70, linked up in
defense with the enemy's redoubt on the northeast side of Hill 70. The
Germans had been given time to bring up their reserves, to reorganize
their broken lines, and to get their batteries into action again.
There was a consultation of anxious brigadiers in Loos when no man
could find safe shelter owing to the heavy shelling which now ravaged
among the houses. Rations were running short, and rain fell through
the roofless ruins, and officers and men shivered in wet clothes. Dead
bodies blown into bits, headless trunks, pools of blood, made a
ghastly mess in the roadways and the houses. Badly wounded men were
dragged down into the cellars, and lay there in the filth of Friday's
fighting. The headquarters of one of the London brigades had put up in
a roofless barn, but were shelled out, and settled down on some heaps
of brick in the open. It was as cold as death in the night, and no
fire could be lighted, and iron rations were the only food, until two
chaplains, "R. C." and Church of England (no difference of dogma
then), came up as volunteers in a perilous adventure, with bottles of
hot soup in mackintoshes. They brought a touch of human warmth to the
brigade staff, made those hours of the night more endurable, but the
men farther forward had no such luck. They were famishing and soaked,
in a cold hell where shells tossed up the earth about them and
spattered them with the blood and flesh of their comrades.
On Monday morning the situation was still more critical, all along the
line, and the Guards were ordered up to attack Hill 70, to which only
a few Scots were clinging on the near slopes. The 6th Cavalry Brigade
dismounted--no more dreams of exploiting success and galloping round
Lens--were sent into Loos with orders to hold the village at all cost,
with the men of the 15th Division, who had been left there.
The Londoners were still holding on to the chalk-pit south of Loos,
under murderous fire.
It was a bad position for the troops sent into action at that stage.
The result of the battle on September 25th had been to create a
salient thrust like a wedge into the German position and enfiladed by
their guns. The sides of the salient ran sharply back--from Hulluch in
the north, past the chalk-quarries to Givenchy, and in the south from
the lower slopes of Hill 70 past the Double Crassier to Grenay. The
orders given to the Guards were to straighten out this salient on the
north by capturing the whole of Hill 70, Puits 14, to the north of it,
and the chalk-pit still farther north.
It was the 2d Brigade of Guards, including Grenadiers, Welsh and Scots
Guards, which was to lead the assault, while the 1st Brigade on the
left maintained a holding position and the 3d Brigade was in support,
As soon as the Guards started to attack they were met by a heavy storm
of gas-shells. This checked them for a time, as smoke-helmets--the old
fashioned things of flannel which were afterward changed for the masks
with nozzles--had to be served out, and already men were choking and
gasping in the poisonous fumes. Among them was the colonel of the
Grenadiers, whose command was taken over by the major. Soon the men
advanced again, looking like devils, as, in artillery formation (small
separate groups), they groped their way through the poisoned clouds.
Shrapnel and high explosives burst over them and among them, and many
men fell as they came within close range of the enemy's positions
running from Hill 70 northward to the chalk-pit.
The Irish Guards, supported by the Coldstreamers, advanced down the
valley beyond Loos and gained the lower edge of Bois Hugo, near the
chalk-pit, while the Scots Guards assaulted Puits 14 and the building
in its group of houses known as the Keep. Another body of Guards,
including Grenadiers and Welsh, attacked at the same time the lower
slopes of Hill 70.
Puits 14 itself was won by a party of Scots Guards, led by an officer
named Captain Cuthbert, which engaged in hand-to-hand fighting,
routing out the enemy from the houses. Some companies of the
Grenadiers came to the support of their comrades in the Scots Guards,
but suffered heavy losses themselves. A platoon under a young
lieutenant named Ayres Ritchie reached the Puits, and, storming their
way into the Keep, knocked out a machine-gun, mounted on the second
floor, by a desperate bombing attack. The officer held on in a most
dauntless way to the position, until almost every man was either
killed or wounded, unable to receive support, owing to the enfilade
fire of the German machine-guns.
Night had now come on, the sky lightened by the bursting of shells and
flares, and terrible in its tumult of battle. Some of the
Coldstreamers had gained possession of the chalk-pit, which they were
organizing into a strong defensive position, and various companies of
the Guards divisions, after heroic assaults upon Hill 70, where they
were shattered by the fire which met them on the crest from the
enemy's redoubt on the northeast side, had dug themselves into the
There was a strange visitor that day at the headquarters of the Guards
division, where Lord Cavan was directing operations. A young officer
came in and said, quite calmly: "Sir, I have to report that my
battalion has been cut to pieces. We have been utterly destroyed."
Lord Cavan questioned him, and then sent for another officer. "Look
after that young man," he said, quietly. "He is mad. It is a case of
Reports came through of a mysterious officer going the round of the
batteries, saying that the Germans had broken through and that they
had better retire. Two batteries did actually move away.
Another unknown officer called out, "Retire! Retire!" until he was
shot through the head. "German spies!" said some of our officers and
men, but the Intelligence branch said, "Not spies . . . madmen . . .
Before the dawn came the Coldstreamers made another desperate attempt
to attack and hold Puits 14, but the position was too deadly even for
their height of valor, and although some men pushed on into this
raging fire, the survivors had to fall back to the woods, where they
strengthened their defensive works.
On the following day the position was the same, the sufferings of our
men being still further increased by heavy shelling from 8-inch
howitzers. Colonel Egerton of the Coldstream Guards and his adjutant
were killed in the chalk-pit.
It was now seen by the headquarters staff of the Guards Division that
Puits 14 was untenable, owing to its enfilading by heavy artillery,
and the order was given for a retirement to the chalk-pit, which was a
place of sanctuary owing to the wonderful work done throughout the
night to strengthen its natural defensive features by sand--bags and
barbed wire, in spite of machine-guns which raked it from the
The retirement was done as though the men were on parade, slowly, and
in perfect order, across the field of fire, each man bearing himself,
so their officers told me, as though at the Trooping of the Colors,
until now one and then another fell in a huddled heap. It was an
astonishing tribute to the strength of tradition among troops. To
safeguard the honor of a famous name these men showed such dignity in
the presence of death that even the enemy must have been moved to
But they had failed, after suffering heavy losses, and the Commander-
in-Chief had to call upon the French for help, realizing that without
strong assistance the salient made by that battle of Loos would be a
death-trap. The French Tenth Army had failed, too, at Vimy, thus
failing to give the British troops protection on their right flank.
"On representing this to General Joffre," wrote Sir John French, "he
was kind enough to ask the commander of the northern group of French
armies to render us assistance. General Foch met those demands in the
same friendly spirit which he has always displayed throughout the
course of the whole campaign, and expressed his readiness to give me
all the support he could. On the morning of the 28th we discussed the
situation, and the general agreed to send the 9th French Corps to take
over the ground occupied by us, extending from the French left up to
and including that portion of Hill 70 which we were holding, and also
the village of Loos. This relief was commenced on September 30th, and
completed on the two following nights."
So ended the battle of Loos, except for a violent counter--attack
delivered on October 8th all along the line from Fosse 8 on the north
to the right of the French 9th Corps on the south, with twenty-eight
battalions in the first line of assault. It was preceded by a
stupendous bombardment which inflicted heavy casualties upon our 1st
Division in the neighborhood of the chalk-pit, and upon the Guards
holding the Hohenzollern redoubt near Hulluch. Once again those
brigades, which had been sorely tried, had to crouch under a fury of
fire, until the living were surrounded by dead, half buried or carved
up into chunks of flesh in the chaos of broken trenches. The Germans
had their own shambles, more frightful, we were told, than ours, and
thousands of dead lay in front of our lines when the tide of their
attack ebbed back and waves of living men were broken by the fire of
our field-guns, rifles, and machine-guns. Sir John French's staff
estimated the number of German dead as from eight to nine thousand. It
was impossible to make any accurate sum in that arithmetic of
slaughter, and always the enemy's losses were exaggerated because of
the dreadful need of balancing accounts in new-made corpses in that
Debit and Credit of war's bookkeeping.
What had we gained by great sacrifices of life? Not Lens, nor Lille,
nor even Hill 70 (for our line had to be withdrawn from those bloody
slopes where our men left many of their dead), but another sharp-edged
salient enfiladed by German guns for two years more, and a foothold on
one slag heap of the Double Crassier, where our men lived, if they
could, a few yards from Germans on the other; and that part of the
Hohenzollern redoubt which became another Hooge where English youth
was blown up by mines, buried by trench-mortars, condemned to a living
death in lousy caves dug into the chalk. Another V-shaped salient,
narrower than that of Ypres, more dismal, and as deadly, among the
pit-heads and the black dust hills and the broken mine-shafts of that
foul country beyond Loos.
The battle which had been begun with such high hopes ended in ghastly
failure by ourselves and by the French. Men who came back from it
spoke in whispers of its generalship and staff work, and said things
which were dangerous to speak aloud, cursing their fate as fighting-
men, asking of God as well as of mortals why the courage of the
soldiers they led should be thrown away in such a muck of slaughter,
laughing with despairing mirth at the optimism of their leaders, who
had been lured on by a strange, false, terrible belief in German
weakness, and looking ahead at unending vistas of such massacre as
this which would lead only to other salients, after desperate and
A WINTER OF DISCONTENT
The winter of 1915 was, I think, the worst of all. There was a settled
hopelessness in it which was heavy in the hearts of men--ours and the
enemy's. In 1914 there was the first battle of Ypres, when the bodies
of British soldiers lay strewn in the fields beyond this city and
their brown lines barred the way to Calais, but the war did not seem
likely to go on forever. Most men believed, even then, that it would
end quickly, and each side had faith in some miracle that might
happen. In 1916-17 the winter was foul over the fields of the Somme
after battles which had cut all our divisions to pieces and staggered
the soul of the world by the immense martyrdom of boys--British,
French, and German--on the western front. But the German retreat from
the Somme to the shelter of their Hindenburg line gave some respite to
our men, and theirs, from the long-drawn fury of attack and counter-
attack, and from the intensity of gun-fire. There was at best the
mirage of something like victory on our side, a faint flickering up of
the old faith that the Germans had weakened and were nearly spent.
But for a time in those dark days of 1915 there was no hope ahead. No
mental dope by which our fighting-men could drug themselves into
seeing a vision of the war's end.
The battle of Loos and its aftermath of minor massacres in the ground
we had gained--he new horror of that new salient--had sapped into the
confidence of those battalion officers and men who had been assured of
German weakness by cheery, optimistic, breezy-minded generals. It was
no good some of those old gentlemen saying, "We've got 'em beat!" when
from Hooge to the Hohenzollern redoubt our men sat in wet trenches
under ceaseless bombardment of heavy guns, and when any small attack
they made by the orders of a High Command which believed in small
attacks, without much plan or purpose, was only "asking for trouble"
from German counterattacks by mines, trench-mortars, bombing sorties,
poison-gas, flame-throwers, and other forms of frightfulness which
made a dirty mess of flesh and blood, without definite result on
either side beyond piling up the lists of death.
"It keeps up the fighting spirit of the men," said the generals. "We
must maintain an aggressive policy."
They searched their trench maps for good spots where another "small
operation" might be organized. There was a competition among the corps
and divisional generals as to the highest number of raids, mine
explosions, trench-grabbings undertaken by their men.
"My corps," one old general told me over a cup of tea in his
headquarters mess, "beats the record for raids." His casualties also
beat the record, and many of his officers and men called him, just
bluntly and simply, "Our old murderer." They disliked the necessity of
dying so that he might add one more raid to his heroic competition
with the corps commander of the sector on the left. When they waited
for the explosion of a mine which afterward they had to "rush" in a
race with the German bombing-parties, some of them saw no sense in the
proceeding, but only the likelihood of having legs and arms torn off
by German stick-bombs or shells. "What's the good of it?" they asked,
and could find no answer except the satisfaction of an old man
listening to the distant roar of the new tumult by which he had
"raised hell" again.
The autumn of 1915 was wet in Flanders and Artois, where our men
settled down--knee-deep where the trenches were worst--for the winter
campaign. On rainy days, as I remember, a high wind hurtled over the
Flemish fields, but it was moist, and swept gusts of rain into the
faces of men marching through mud to the fighting-lines and of other
men doing sentry on the fire-steps of trenches into which water came
trickling down the slimy parapets.
When the wind dropped at dusk or dawn a whitish fog crept out of the
ground, so that rifles were clammy to the touch and a blanket of
moisture settled on every stick in the dugouts, and nothing could be
seen through the veil of vapor to the enemy's lines, where he stayed
He was not likely to attack on a big scale while the battlefields were
in that quagmire state. An advancing wave of men would have been
clogged in the mud after the first jump over the slimy sand-bags, and
to advance artillery was sheer impossibility. Nothing would be done on
either side but stick-in-the-mud warfare and those trench-raids and
minings which had no object except "to keep up the spirit of the men."
There was always work to do in the trenches--draining them,
strengthening their parapets, making their walls, tiling or boarding
their floorways, timbering the dugouts, and after it was done another
rainstorm or snowstorm undid most of it, and the parapets slid down,
the water poured in, and spaces were opened for German machine-gun
fire, and there was less head cover against shrapnel bullets which
mixed with the raindrops, and high explosives which smashed through
the mud. The working parties had a bad time and a wet one, in spite of
waders and gum boots which were served out to lucky ones. Some of them
wore a new kind of hat, seen for the first time, and greeted with
guffaws--the "tin" hat which later became the headgear of all
fighting-men. It saved many head wounds, but did not save body wounds,
and every day the casualty lists grew longer in the routine of a
warfare in which there was "Nothing to report."
Our men were never dry. They were wet in their trenches and wet in
their dugouts. They slept in soaking clothes, with boots full of
water, and they drank rain with their tea, and ate mud with their
"bully," and endured it all with the philosophy of "grin and bear it!"
and laughter, as I heard them laughing in those places between
On the other side of the barbed wire the Germans were more miserable,
not because their plight was worse, but because I think they lacked
the English sense of humor. In some places they had the advantage of
our men in better trenches, with better drains and dugouts--due to an
industry with which ours could never compete. Here and there, as in
the ground to the north of Hooge, they were in a worse state, with
such rivers in their trenches that they went to enormous trouble to
drain the Bellewarde Lake which used to slop over in the rainy season.
Those field-gray men had to wade through a Slough of Despond to get to
their line, and at night by Hooge where the lines were close together-
-only a few yards apart--our men could hear their boots squelching in
the mud with sucking, gurgling noises.
"They're drinking soup again!" said our humorists.
There, at Hooge, Germans and English talked to one another, out of
their common misery.
"How deep is it with you?" shouted a German soldier.
His voice came from behind a pile of sand-bags which divided the enemy
and ourselves in a communication trench between the main lines.
"Up to our blooming knees," said an English corporal, who was trying
to keep his bombs dry under a tarpaulin.
"So? . . . You are lucky fellows. We are up to our belts in it."
It was so bad in parts of the line during November storms that whole
sections of trench collapsed into a chaos of slime and ooze. It was
the frost as well as the rain which caused this ruin, making the
earthworks sink under their weight of sand-bags. German and English
soldiers were exposed to one another like ants upturned from their
nests by a minor landslide. They ignored one another. They pretended
that the other fellows were not there. They had not been properly
introduced. In another place, reckless because of their discomfort,
the Germans crawled upon their slimy parapets and sat on top to dry
their legs, and shouted: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"
Our men did not shoot. They, too, sat on the parapets drying their
legs, and grinning at the gray ants yonder, until these incidents were
reported back to G. H. Q.--where good fires were burning under dry
roofs--and stringent orders came against "fraternization." Every
German who showed himself was to be shot. Of course any Englishman who
showed himself--owing to a parapet falling in--would be shot, too. It
was six of one and half a dozen of the other, as always, in this
trench warfare, but the dignity of G. H. Q. would not be outraged by
the thought of such indecent spectacles as British and Germans
refusing to kill each other on sight. Some of the men obeyed orders,
and when a German sat up and said, "Don't shoot!" plugged him through
the head. Others were extremely short-sighted. . . Now and again
Germans crawled over to our trenches and asked meekly to be taken
prisoner. I met a few of these men and spoke with them.
"There is no sense in this war," said one of them. "It is misery on
both sides. There is no use in it."
That thought of war's futility inspired an episode which was narrated
throughout the army in that winter of '15, and led to curious
conversations in dugouts and billets. Above a German front-line trench
appeared a plank on which, in big letters, was scrawled these words
"The English are fools."
"Not such bloody fools as all that!" said a sergeant, and in a few
minutes the plank was smashed to splinters by rifle-fire.
Another plank appeared, with other words:
"The French are fools."
Loyalty to our allies caused the destruction of that board.
A third plank was put up:
"We're all fools. Let's all go home."
That board was also shot to pieces, but the message caused some
laughter, and men repeating it said: "There's a deal of truth in those
words. Why should this go on? What's it all about? Let the old men who
made this war come and fight it out among themselves, at Hooge. The
fighting-men have no real quarrel with one another. We all want to go
home to our wives and our work."
But neither side was prepared to "go home" first. Each side was in a
trap--a devil's trap from which there was no escape. Loyalty to their
own side, discipline, with the death penalty behind it, spell words of
old tradition, obedience to the laws of war or to the caste which
ruled them, all the moral and spiritual propaganda handed out by
pastors, newspapers, generals, staff-officers, old men at home,
exalted women, female furies, a deep and simple love for England and
Germany, pride of manhood, fear of cowardice--a thousand complexities
of thought and sentiment prevented men, on both sides, from breaking
the net of fate in which they were entangled, and revolting against
that mutual, unceasing massacre, by a rising from the trenches with a
shout of, "We're all fools! . . . Let's all go home!"
In Russia they did so, but the Germans did not go home, too. As an
army and a nation they went on to the Peace of Brest-Litovsk and their
doom. But many German soldiers were converted to that gospel of "We're
all fools!" and would not fight again with any spirit, as we found at
times, after August 8th, in the last year of war.
The men remained in the trenches, and suffered horribly. I have told
about lice and rats and mine-shafts there. Another misery came to
torture soldiers in the line, and it was called "trench-foot." Many
men standing in slime for days and nights in field boots or puttees
lost all sense of feeling in their feet. These feet of theirs, so cold
and wet, began to swell, and then to go "dead," and then suddenly to
burn as though touched by red-hot pokers. When the "reliefs" went up
scores of men could not walk back from the trenches, but had to crawl,
or be carried pick-a-back by their comrades, to the field dressing
stations. So I saw hundreds of them, and, as the winter dragged on,
thousands. The medical officers cut off their boots and their puttees,
and the socks that had become part of their skins, exposing blackened
and rotting feet. They put oil on them, and wrapped them round with
cotton-wool, and tied labels to their tunics with the name of that new
disease--"trench-foot." Those medical officers looked serious as the
number of cases increased.
"This is getting beyond a joke," they said. "It is pulling down the
battalion strength worse than wounds."
Brigadiers and divisional generals were gloomy, and cursed the new
affliction of their men. Some of them said it was due to damned
carelessness, others were inclined to think it due to deliberate
malingering at a time when there were many cases of self-inflicted
wounds by men who shot their fingers away, or their toes, to get out
of the trenches.
There was no look of malingering on the faces of those boys who were
being carried pick-a-back to the ambulance-trains at Remy siding, near
Poperinghe, with both feet crippled and tied up in bundles of cotton-
wool. The pain was martyrizing, like that of men tied to burning
fagots for conscience' sake. In one battalion of the 49th (West
Riding) Division there were over four hundred cases in that winter of
'15. Other battalions in the Ypres salient suffered as much.
It was not until the end of the winter, when oil was taken up to the
trenches and rubbing drill was ordered, two or three times a day, that
the malady of trench-foot was reduced, and at last almost eliminated.
The spirit of the men fought against all that misery, resisted it, and
would not be beaten by it.
A sergeant of the West Riding Division was badly wounded as he stood
thigh-high in water. A bomb or a trench-mortar smashed one of his legs
into a pulp of bloody flesh and splintered bone. Word was passed down
to the field ambulance, and a surgeon came up, splashed to the neck in
mud, with his instruments held high. The operation was done in the
water, red with the blood of the wounded man, who was then brought
down, less a leg, to the field hospital. He was put on one side as a
man about to die. . . But that evening he chattered cheerfully, joked
with the priest who came to anoint him, and wrote a letter to his
"I hope this will find you in the pink, as it leaves me," he began. He
mentioned that he had had an "accident" which had taken one of his
legs away. "But the youngsters will like to play with my wooden peg,"
he wrote, and discussed the joke of it. The people round his bed
marveled at him, though day after day they saw great courage; such
courage as that of another man who was brought in mortally wounded and
lay next to a comrade on the operating table.
"Stick it, lad!" he said, "stick it!" and turned his head a little to
look at his friend.
Many of our camps were hardly better than the trenches. Only by duck-
boards could one walk about the morass in which huts were built and
tents were pitched. In the wagon lines gunners tried in vain to groom
their horses, and floundered about in their gum boots, cursing the mud
which clogged bits and chains and bridles, and could find no comfort
anywhere between Dickebusch and Locre.
The Hohenzollern redoubt, near Fosse 8, captured by the 9th Scottish
Division in the battle of Loos, could not be held then under
concentrated gun-fire from German batteries, and the Scots, and the
Guards who followed them, after heavy losses, could only cling on to
part of a communication trench (on the southeast side of the
earthworks) nicknamed "Big Willie," near another trench called "Little
Willie." Our enemies forced their way back into some of their old
trenches in this outpost beyond their main lines, and in spite of the
chaos produced by our shell-fire built up new parapets and sand-bag
barricades, flung out barbed wire, and dug themselves into this
graveyard where their dead and ours were strewn.
Perhaps there was some reason why our generals should covet possession
of the Hohenzollern redoubt, some good military reason beyond the
spell of a high-sounding name. I went up there one day when it was
partly ours and stared at its rigid waves of mine-craters and trench
parapets and upheaved chalk, dazzling white under a blue sky, and
failed to see any beauty in the spot, or any value in it--so close to
the German lines that one could not cough for fear of losing one's
head. It seemed to me a place not to gain and not to hold. If I had
been a general (appalling thought!) I should have said: "Let the enemy
have that little hell of his. Let men live there among half-buried
bodies and crawling lice, and the stench of rotting flesh. There is no
good in it for us, and for him will be an abomination, dreaded by his
But our generals desired it. They hated to think that the enemy should
have crawled back to it after our men had been there. They decided to
"bite it off," that blunt nose which was thrust forward to our line.
It was an operation that would be good to report in the official
communique. Its capture would, no doubt, increase the morale of our
men after their dead had been buried and their wounded patched up and
their losses forgotten.
It was to the 46th Midland Division that the order of assault was
given on October 13th, and into the trenches went the lace-makers of
Nottingham, and the potters of the Five Towns, and the boot-makers of
Leicester, North Staffordshires, and Robin Hoods and Sherwood
Foresters, on the night of the 12th.
On the following morning our artillery concentrated a tremendous fire
upon the redoubt, followed at 1 P.M. by volumes of smoke and gas. The
chief features on this part of the German line were, on the right, a
group of colliers' houses known as the Corons de Pekin, and a slag
heap known as the Dump, to the northeast of that bigger dump called
Fosse 8, and on the left another group of cottages, and another black
hillock farther to the right of the Fosse. These positions were in
advance of the Hohenzollern redoubt which our troops were to attack.
It was not an easy task. It was hellish. Intense as our artillery fire
had been, it failed to destroy the enemy's barbed wire and front
trenches sufficiently to clear the way, and the Germans were still
working their machine-guns when the fuses were lengthened, the fire
lifted, and the gas-clouds rolled away.
I saw that bombardment on the morning of Wednesday, October 13th, and
the beginning of the attack from a slag heap close to some of our
heavy guns. It was a fine, clear day, and some of the French miners
living round the pit-heads on our side of the battle line climbed up
iron ladders and coal heaps, roused to a new interest in the spectacle
of war which had become a monotonous and familiar thing in their
lives, because the intensity of our gun-fire and the volumes of smoke-
clouds, and a certain strange, whitish vapor which was wafted from our
lines toward the enemy stirred their imagination, dulled by the daily
din of guns, to a sense of something beyond the usual flight of shells
in their part of the war zone.
"The English are attacking again!" was the message which brought out
these men still living among ruined cottages on the edge of the
slaughter-fields. They stared into the mist, where, beyond the
brightness of the autumn sun, men were about to fight and die. It was
the same scene that I had watched when I went up to the Loos redoubt
in the September battle--a flat, bare, black plain, crisscrossed with
the whitish earth of the trenches rising a little toward Loos and then
falling again so that in the village there only the Tower Bridge was
visible, with its steel girders glinting, high over the horizon line.
To the left the ruins of Hulluch fretted the low-lying clouds of
smoke, and beyond a huddle of broken houses far away was the town of
Haisnes. Fosse 8 and the Hohenzollern redoubt were hummocks of earth
faintly visible through drifting clouds of thick, sluggish vapor.
On the edge of this battleground the fields were tawny under the
golden light of the autumn sun, and the broken towers of village
churches, red roofs shattered by shell-fire, trees stripped bare of
all leaves before the wind of autumn touched them, were painted in
clear outlines against the gray-blue of the sky.
Our guns had been invisible. Not one of all those batteries which were
massed over a wide stretch of country could be located before the
battle by a searching glass. But when the bombardment began it seemed
as though our shells came from every field and village for miles back,
behind the lines.
The glitter of those bursting shells stabbed through the smoke of
their explosion with little, twinkling flashes, like the sparkle of
innumerable mirrors heliographing messages of death. There was one
incessant roar rising and falling in waves of prodigious sound. The
whole line of battle was in a grayish murk, which obscured all
landmarks, so that even the Tower Bridge was but faintly visible.
Presently, when our artillery lifted, there were new clouds rising
from the ground and spreading upward in a great dense curtain of a
fleecy texture. They came from our smoke-shells, which were to mask
our infantry attack. Through them and beyond them rolled another wave
of cloud, a thinner, whiter vapor, which clung to the ground and then
curled forward to the enemy's lines.
"That's our gas!" said a voice on one of the slag heaps, amid a group
of observers--English and French officers.
"And the wind is dead right for it," said another voice. "The Germans
will get a taste of it this time!"
Then there was silence, and some of those observers held their breath
as though that gas had caught their own throats and choked them a
little. They tried to pierce through that bar of cloud to see the
drama behind its curtain--men caught in those fumes, the terror-
stricken flight before its advance, the sudden cry of the enemy
trapped in their dugouts. Imagination leaped out, through
invisibility, to the realization of the things that were happening
From our place of observation there were brief glimpses of the human
element in this scene of impersonal powers and secret forces. Across a
stretch of flat ground beyond some of those zigzag lines of trenches
little black things were scurrying forward. They were not bunched
together in close groups, but scattered. Some of them seemed to
hesitate, and then to fall and lie where they fell, others hurrying on
until they disappeared in the drifting clouds.
It was the foremost line of our infantry attack, led by the bombers.
The Germans were firing tempests of shells. Some of them were
curiously colored, of a pinkish hue, or with orange-shaped puffs of
vivid green. They were poison-shells giving out noxious gases. All the
chemistry of death was poured out on both sides--and through it went
the men of the Midland Division.
The attack on the right was delivered by a brigade of Staffordshire
men, who advanced in four lines toward the Big Willie trench which
formed the southeast side of the Hohenzollern redoubt. The leading
companies, who were first over our own parapets, made a quick rush,
half blinded by the smoke and the gaseous vapors which filled the air,
and were at once received by a deadly fire from many machine-guns. It
swept their ranks, and men fell on all sides. Others ran on in little
parties flung out in extended order.
Young officers behaved with desperate gallantry, and as they fell
cheered their men on, while others ran forward shouting, followed by
numbers which dwindled at every yard, so that only a few reached the
Big Willie trench in the first assault.
A bombing-party of North Staffordshire men cleared thirty yards of the
trench by the rapidity with which they flung their hand-grenades at
the German bombers who endeavored to keep them out, and again and
again they kept at bay a tide of field-gray men, who swarmed up the
communication trenches, by a series of explosions which blew many of
them to bits as bomb after bomb was hurled into their mass. Other
Germans followed, flinging their own stick-bombs.
The Staffordshires did not yield until nearly every man was wounded
and many were killed. Even then they retreated yard by yard, still
flinging grenades almost with the rhythm of a sower who scatters his
seed, each motion of the hand and arm letting go one of those steel
pomegranates which burst with the noise of a high-explosive shell.
The survivors fell back to the other side of a barricade made in the
Big Willie trench by some of their men behind. Behind them again was
another barrier, in case the first should be rushed.
It seemed as if they might be rushed now, for the Germans were
swarming up Big Willie with strong bombing-parties, and would soon
blast a way through unless they were thrust beyond the range of hand-
grenades. It was a young lieutenant named Hawker, with some South
Staffordshire men, who went forward to meet this attack and kept the
enemy back until four o'clock in the afternoon, when only a few living
men stood among the dead and they had to fall back to the second
Darkness now crept over the battlefield and filled the trenches, and
in the darkness the wounded men were carried back to the rear, while
those who had escaped worked hard to strengthen their defenses by
sand-bags and earthworks, knowing that their only chance of life lay
in fierce industry.
Early next morning an attempt was made by other battalions to come to
the relief of those who held on behind those barriers in Big Willie
trench. They were Nottingham men--Robin Hoods and other Sherwood lads-
-and they came across the open ground in two directions, attacking the
west as well as the east ends of the German communication trenches
which formed the face of the Hohenzollern redoubt.
They were supported by rifle grenade-fire, but their advance was met
by intense fire from artillery and machine-guns, so that many were
blown to bits or mangled or maimed, and none could reach their
comrades in Big Willie trench.
While one brigade of the Midland men had been fighting like this on
the right, another brigade had been engaged on the left. It contained
Sherwood, Leicester, and Lincoln men, who, on the afternoon of October
13th, went forward to the assault with very desperate endeavor.
Advancing in four lines, the leading companies were successful in
reaching the Hohenzollern redoubt, smashed through the barbed wire,
part of which was uncut, and reached the Fosse trench which forms the
north base of the salient.
Machine-gun fire cut down the first two lines severely and the two
remaining lines were heavily shelled by German artillery. It was an
hour in which the courage of those men was agonized. They were exposed
on naked ground swept by bullets, the atmosphere was heavy with gas
and smoke; all the abomination of battle--he moaning of the wounded,
the last cries of the dying, the death-crawl of stricken beings
holding their broken limbs and their entrails--was around them, and in
front a hidden enemy with unlimited supplies of ammunition and a
The Robin Hoods and the men of Lincoln and Leicestershire were
sustained in that shambles by the spirit that had come to them through
the old yeoman stock in which their traditions were rooted, and those
who had not fallen went forward, past their wounded comrades, past
these poor, bloody, moaning men, to the German trenches behind the
At 2.15 P.M. some Monmouth men came up in support, and while their
bombers were at work some of the Lincolns pushed up with a machine-gun
to a point within sixty yards from the Fosse trench, where they stayed
till dark, and then were forced to fall back.
At this time parties of bombers were trying to force their way up the
Little Willie trench on the extreme left of the redoubt, and here
ghastly fighting took place. Some of the Leicesters made a dash three
hundred yards up the trench, but were beaten back by overpowering
numbers of German bombers and bayonet-men, and again and again other
Midland lads went up that alleyway of death, flinging their grenades
until they fell or until few comrades were left to support them as
they stood among their dead and dying.
Single men held on, throwing and throwing, until there was no strength
in their arms to hurl another bomb, or until death came to them. Yet
the business went on through the darkness of the afternoon, and into
the deeper darkness of the night, lit luridly at moments by the white
illumination of German flares and by the flash of bursting shells.
Isolated machine-guns in uncaptured parts of the redoubt still beat a
tattoo like the ruffle of war-drums, and from behind the barriers in
the Big Willie trench came the sharp crack of English rifles, and dull
explosions of other bombs flung by other Englishmen very hard pressed
In the outer trenches, at the nose of the salient, fresh companies of
Sherwood lads were feeling their way along, mixed up confusedly with
comrades from other companies, wounded or spent with fighting, but
determined to hold the ground they had won.
Some of the Robin Hoods up Little Willie trench were holding out
desperately and almost at the last gasp, when they were relieved by
other Sherwoods, and it was here that a young officer named Vickers
was found in the way that won him his V.C.
Charles Geoffrey Vickers stood there for hours against a horde of men
eager for his death, eager to get at the men behind him. But they
could not approach. He and his fellow-bombers kept twenty yards or
more clear before them, and any man who flung himself forward was the
target of a hand-grenade.
From front and from flank German bombs came whizzing, falling short
sometimes, with a blasting roar that tore down lumps of trench, and
sometimes falling very close--close enough to kill.
Vickers saw some of his best men fall, but he kept the barrier still
intact by bombing and bombing.
When many of his comrades were dead or wounded, he wondered how long
the barrier would last, and gave orders for another to be built behind
him, so that when the rush came it would be stopped behind him--and
Men worked at that barricade, piling up sand-bags, and as it was built
that young lieutenant knew that his own retreat was being cut off and
that he was being coffined in that narrow space. Two other men were
with him--I never learned their names--and they were hardly enough to
hand up bombs as quickly as he wished to throw them.
Away there up the trench the Germans were waiting for a pounce. Though
wounded so that he felt faint and giddy, he called out for more bombs.
"More!" he said, "More!" and his hand was like a machine reaching out
Rescue came at last, and the wounded officer was hauled over the
barricade which he had ordered to be built behind him, closing up his
way of escape.
All through October 14th the Midland men of the 46th Division held on
to their ground, and some of the Sherwoods made a new attack, clearing
the enemy out of the east portion of the redoubt.
It was lucky that it coincided with a counter-attack made by the enemy
at a different point, because it relieved the pressure there. Bombing
duels continued hour after hour, and human nature could hardly have
endured so long a struggle without fatigue beyond the strength of men.
So it seems; yet when a brigade of Guards came up on the night of
October 15th the enemy attacked along the whole line of redoubts, and
the Midland men, who were just about to leave the trenches, found
themselves engaged in a new action. They had to fight again before
they could go, and they fought like demons or demigods for their right
of way and home, and bombed the enemy back to his holes in the ground.
So ended the assault on the Hohenzollern by the Midland men of
England, whose division, years later, helped to break the Hindenburg
line along the great canal south of St.-Quentin.
What good came of it mortal men cannot say, unless the generals who
planned it hold the secret. It cost a heavy price in life and agony.
It demonstrated the fighting spirit of many English boys who did the
best they could, with the rage, and fear, and madness of great
courage, before they died or fell, and it left some living men, and
others who relieved them in Big Willie and Little Willie trenches, so
close to the enemy that one could hear them cough, or swear in
And through the winter of '15, and the years that followed, the
Hohenzollern redoubt became another Hooge, as horrible as Hooge, as
deadly, as damnable in its filthy perils, where men of English blood,
and Irish, and Scottish, took their turn, and hated it, and counted
themselves lucky if they escaped from its prison-house, whose walls
stank of new and ancient death.
* * *
Among those who took their turn in the hell of the Hohenzollern were
the men of the 12th Division, New Army men, and all of the old stock
and spirit of England, bred in the shires of Norfolk and Suffolk,
Gloucester and Bedford, and in Surrey, Kent, Sussex, and Middlesex
(which meant London), as the names of their battalions told. In
September they relieved the Guards and cavalry at Loos; in December
they moved on to Givenchy, and in February they began a long spell at
the Hohenzollern. It was there the English battalions learned the
worst things of war and showed the quality of English courage.
A man of Kent, named Corporal Cotter, of the Buffs, was marvelous in
spirit, stronger than the flesh.
On the night of March 6th an attack was made by his company along an
enemy trench, but his own bombing--party was cut off, owing to heavy
casualties in the center of the attack. Things looked serious and
Cotter went back under heavy fire to report and bring up more bombs.
On the return journey his right leg was blown off close below the knee
and he was wounded in both arms. By a kind of miracle--the miracle of
human courage--he did not drop down and die in the mud of the trench,
mud so deep that unwounded men found it hard to walk--but made his way
along fifty yards of trench toward the crater where his comrades were
hard pressed. He came up to Lance-corporal Newman, who was bombing
with his sector to the right of the position. Cotter called to him and
directed him to bomb six feet toward where help was most needed, and
worked his way forward to the crater where the Germans had developed a
Men fell rapidly under the enemy's bomb-fire, but Cotter, with only
one leg, and bleeding from both arms, steadied his comrades, who were
beginning to have the wind-up, as they say, issued orders, controlled
the fire, and then altered dispositions to meet the attack. It was
repulsed after two hours' fighting, and only then did Cotter allow his
wounds to be bandaged. From the dug--out where he lay while the
bombardment still continued he called out cheery words to the men,
until he was carried down, fourteen hours later. He received the V.
C., but died of his wounds.
Officers and men vied with one another, yet not for honor or reward,
round these craters of the Hohenzollern, and in the mud, and the fumes
of shells, and rain-swept darkness, and all the black horror of such a
time and place, sometimes in groups and sometimes quite alone, did
acts of supreme valor. When all the men in one of these infernal
craters were dead or wounded Lieut. Lea Smith, of the Buffs, ran
forward with a Lewis gun, helped by Private Bradley, and served it
during a fierce attack by German bombers until it jammed.
Then he left the gun and took to bombing, and that single figure of
his, flinging grenades like an overarm bowler, kept the enemy at bay
until reinforcements reached him.
Another officer of the Buff's--by name Smeltzer--withdrew his platoon
under heavy fire, and, although he was wounded, fought his way back
slowly to prevent the enemy from following up. The men were proud of
his gallantry, but when he was asked what he had done he could think
of nothing except that "when the Boches began shelling I got into a
dugout, and when they stopped I came out again."
There were many men like that who did amazing things and, in the
English way, said nothing of them. Of that modesty was Capt. Augrere
Dawson, of the West Kents, who did not bother much about a bullet he
met on his way to a crater, though it traveled through his chest to
his shoulder-blade. He had it dressed, and then went back to lead his
men, and remained with them until the German night attack was
repulsed. He was again wounded, this time in the thigh, but did not
trouble the stretcher-men (they had a lot to do on the night of March
18th and 19th), and trudged back alone.
It was valor that was paid for by flesh and blood. The honors gained
by the 12th Division in a few months of trench warfare--one V. C.,
sixteen D. S. C.'s, forty-five Military Crosses, thirty-four Military
Medals--were won by the loss in casualties of more than fourteen
thousand men. That is to say, the losses of their division in that
time, made up by new drafts, was 100 per cent.; and the Hohenzollern
took the highest toll of life and limbs.
I heard no carols in the trenches on Christmas Eve in 1915, but
afterward, when I sat with a pint of water in each of my top-boots,
among a company of men who were wet to the knees and slathered with
moist mud, a friend of mine raised his hand and said, "Listen!"
Through the open door came the music of a mouth--organ, and it was
playing an old tune:
God rest ye, merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay, For Jesus
Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas Day.
Outside the wind was howling across Flanders with a doleful whine,
rising now and then into a savage violence which rattled the window-
panes, and beyond the booming of its lower notes was the faint, dull
rumble of distant guns.
"Christmas Eve!" said an officer. "Nineteen hundred and fifteen years
ago . . . and now--this!"
He sighed heavily, and a few moments later told a funny story, which
was followed by loud laughter. And so it was, I think, in every billet
in Flanders and in every dugout that Christmas Eve, where men thought
of the meaning of the day, with its message of peace and goodwill, and
contrasted it with the great, grim horror of the war, and spoke a few
words of perplexity; and then, after that quick sigh (how many
comrades had gone since last Christmas Day!), caught at a jest, and
had the courage of laughter. It was queer to find the spirit of
Christmas, the little tendernesses of the old tradition, the toys and
trinkets of its feast-day, in places where Death had been busy--and
where the spirit of evil lay in ambush!
So it was when I went through Armentieres within easy range of the
enemy's guns. Already six hundred civilians--mostly women and
children--had been killed there. But, still, other women were chatting
together through broken window-panes, and children were staring into
little shops (only a few yards away from broken roofs and shell-broken
walls) where Christmas toys were on sale.
A wizened boy, in a pair of soldier's boots--a French Hop o' My Thumb
in the giant's boots--was gazing wistfully at some tin soldiers, and
inside the shop a real soldier, not a bit like the tin one, was buying
some Christmas cards worked by a French artist in colored wools for
the benefit of English Tommies, with the aid of a dictionary. Other
soldiers read their legends and laughed at them: "My heart is to you."
"Good luck." "To the success!" "Remind France."
The man who was buying the cards fumbled with French money, and looked
up sheepishly at me, as if shy of the sentiment upon which he was
"The people at home will be glad of 'em," he said. "I s'pose one can't
forget Christmas altogether. Though it ain't the same thing out here."
Going in search of Christmas, I passed through a flooded countryside
and found only scenes of war behind the lines, with gunners driving
their batteries and limber down a road that had become a river-bed,
fountains of spray rising about their mules and wheels, military
motor-cars lurching in the mud beyond the pave, despatch-riders side-
slipping in a wild way through boggy tracks, supply--columns churning
up deep ruts.
And then into the trenches at Neuve Chapelle. If Santa Claus had come
that way, remembering those grown-up boys of ours, the old man with
his white beard must have lifted his red gown high--waist-high--when
he waded up some of the communication trenches to the firing-lines,
and he would have staggered and slithered, now with one top-boot deep
in sludge, now with the other slipping off the trench boards into five
feet of water, as I had to do, grasping with futile hands at slimy
sandbags to save a headlong plunge into icy water.
And this old man of peace, who loved all boys and the laughter of
youth, would have had to duck very low and make sudden bolts across
open spaces, where parapets and earthworks had silted down, in order
to avoid those sniping bullets which came snapping across the dead
ground from a row of slashed trees and a few scarred ruins on the edge
of the enemy's lines.
But sentiment of that sort was out of place in trenches less than a
hundred yards away from men lying behind rifles and waiting to kill.
There was no spirit of Christmas in the tragic desolation of the
scenery of which I had brief glimpses when I stood here and there
nakedly (I felt) in those ugly places, when the officer who was with
me said, "It's best to get a move on here," and, "This road is swept
by machine--gun fire," and, "I don't like this corner; it's quite