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The Battle of Loos 25th September 1915 Into the jaws of Hell

On 25th September Captain Pole addressed the battalion explaining that a great battle had commenced that morning and that they would be marching forward to relieve a Scottish division close to the town of Lens. Many of them cheered at the prospect of real action at last. Harold and Harry’s Company – C Company – was leading the column of the 12th Northumberland Fusiliers. As darkness fell that day and the rain beat down on them progress was not easy. The roads were full of shell holes and, frequently, damaged or broken down transport vehicles blocked their way. They had left without food or a drink but despite this Captain Pole was proud of them. “The men were splendid and steady and marched on like veterans”. He said. By now they were encountering walking wounded and stretcher bearers returning from the front line. The war was coming closer with every step.

News came to Captain Pole that they were to advance into the village of Loos which had been captured from the enemy that morning. As they marched towards the village they encountered the worst sights so far. Dead and dying men and horses lined the road and shells burst overhead, raining shrapnel down among them. There was no time to tend the wounded. Harold and Harry and the other lads marched on steadily without looking back. They needed no bullying from their officer to proceed past the hideous scenes along the road.

Once in the village shells were fast and furious, knocking chunks of masonry down onto them. The moon was very bright and lit up the crumbling mining village with its pit head structure known to the British soldiers as Tower Bridge. The battalion now started to suffer casualties from the shellfire and still Capt Pole was overwhelmed by the steady advance of his untried but brave young men. They were ordered to halt and took what shelter they could from the shells and sniper fire among the damaged houses in the village. The lads’ rifles were now loaded and bayonets fixed.

Harold and Harry Fellows became parted in the confusion of moving to take cover. They were now immediately behind the firing line and the Germans a matter of yards away up a slope which was officially designated “Hill 70.”  Some of the men, including Harold were able to climb down into a rough trench where the Scottish Division had had a terrible day of fierce fighting and horrific losses. Gas had been used by the British for the first time and the wind had not carried it to the enemy as had been anticipated. Many British soldiers had suffered the effects of it and lay as if drugged in the trenches. Harry Fellows lay with the others in the field with rifle fire and shrapnel teeming down on them from three sides. Still the lads lay still and controlled, moving only to attend the wounded then returning calmly to their positions.

As the first hint of light came at dawn the lads were able to make out their position at the foot of Hill 70. The mass of barbed wire protecting the German position at the top was terrifying. Harry Fellows could not understand why the enemy didn’t just open fire at that moment as the British were there for all to see, huddled in and behind the trenches below them. The order came for the Company to send men back along the line to find the transport and retrieve the Lewis Guns and ammunition. Harry was relieved to see his mate Harold climbing out of the trench and the two of them set off back through the village in search of the equipment lorries. As they moved clear of the village they met their “oppos” from B Company, they carried no equipment and Harold and Harry were dismayed to see the shock and horror on their faces. “If you’re going for your gun, forget it!” one of them said. “The transport is a shambles.” They had witnessed a terrible sight. A single shell had scored a direct hit on the ammunition. Dead men and mules and the wreckage of their equipment lay all over the road. “Some men are there shooting the badly wounded mules and trying to clear up the mess,” the boys of B Company told them.

Harold and Harry, shocked at the news, decided there was nothing they could do other than to go back and report what had happened. They made their way back into the village of Loos noticing the Commanding Officer of the Battalion had set up his headquarters near the pithead. The Adjutant, Medical Officer and Regimental Sergeant Major were with him. As the lads approached the Adjutant called out to them. “To which Company do you belong?” Harry Fellows replied, “C Company, Sir.”

“Wait a little while, the Commanding Officer has a message for you.” the Adjutant continued. Harold thought there was little point in them both waiting for the message. “I’ll be going, mate,” he said and walked away to join the rest of the Company who were now crowding into the trench.

The British bombardment of the enemy position commenced, greeted in turn with heavy shelling from the Germans. Amid all this Harry Fellows waited patiently until the Adjutant re-appeared. “Take this to Captain Pole,” he was told and took the piece of signal pad which was handed to him. Harry had not spotted Captain Pole since the previous evening but now must find him. He hurried in the direction that Harold had taken.

He was greeted by a sight that stunned him. A deep wall of men stood with bayonets fixed. Some inside the trench with the majority massed behind them. An assault on Hill 70 was about to begin. This was now the front line. Harry Fellows could not reach the rest of his Company, as the wall of men was solid. He saw them begin to climb out of the trench and onto the slope, they were cheering and charging forward. The enemy held their fire. Those behind the trench dropped down into it and then out again and forward. Harry realised that Captain Pole would be up there with C Company and he joined the others surging onto the hillside. When the leading men were about 100 yards from the German wire the gates of hell opened. The enemy machine gunfire swept them aside in one huge and terrible gesture. Row after row of men were scythed to the ground to lie dying or chopped to pieces in mid-air. Captain Pole felt a thud on his head, reaching up and feeling blood he tied his handkerchief around it and went on, grateful for such a slight wound. Turning to see the progress of his men, he saw the scalp of the boy behind him blown clean off. As he reached the impenetrable German wire, and still sucking on his cigar, he found that the issued wire cutters were not sufficiently strong to cut through the tough steel. Many men threw themselves onto the wire to try to flatten it, others tugged at it or tried to climb through it, all were dead within seconds.

Further down the hill Harry Fellows, appalled at the rate of falling bodies, still scanned the scene for Captain Pole. He stumbled over a man who was mown down in front of him and Harry fell flat to the ground. He buried his face in the sweet earth and lay still. He was 19 years old, hungry, exhausted and terrified. The prone figures of his battalion lay around him, heaped upon one another.

Suddenly, the machine gun fire ceased. Harry rose to his knees. The hillside was a mass of dead and dying men, a bloody, groaning heap of those with whom he had lived and trained for a year. Some rose to their feet but fell back down; others tried to help those around them. Still there was no fire from the enemy. From their stronghold on the top of the hill the German soldiers stared in horror at the scene below them. They watched as the British helped each other back to their trench and, filled with disgust and nausea, refused to fire another shot. In German military history Hill 70 would be forever known as “The Corpse Field of Loos.”

Harry Fellows helped a lad who had been shot in the foot back to the safety of the trench in which there was now plenty of room. “Ye nae had a chance,” one of the Royal Scots said. There was no sign of his friend Harold. Neither were there any Officers or NCOs. Harry found himself and others mixed up with the soldiers of the Scottish regiment and they had no idea what they should do or where they should go. The dying on the hill could clearly be heard but there were no stretchers with which to bring them down to safety. It would be many hours before a Field Ambulance Company would go out in the darkness to find them.

Eventually word was spread along the line that all Northumberland Fusiliers should assemble at the Old Brewery in Vermelles some miles away. Numb with exhaustion, Harry made his way there and was cheered to see the Field Kitchens working. Soon he was sipping hot tea which had never tasted so good. He still could not see his friend “Pip” Henson. He did however find Captain Pole and realised that he had still not delivered the message. Harry apologised to the Captain for not being able to find him earlier and handed over the message, it read:

“The CO wishes the attack to be carried out with the Bayonet in the approved Northumbrian manner.”

Captain Pole read the note and looked at the bedraggled young soldier before him. He could not disguise the emotion in his voice. “It doesn’t matter now,” he told Harry Fellowes. “But isn’t that just what we tried to do?”

The battle of Loos was one of the most futile battles of the war. The use of the inexperienced reserve troops was criticised and debated long after the war was over. The attack on Hill 70 had been a disaster, 10,000 men had charged up its slopes that morning and within 200 minutes they had lost 385 Officers and 7,861 men. Harold “Pip” Henson, my father’s brother was one of them. He had walked from Harry Fellowes’ side, to the trench; onto the hill and into all eternity.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Karen says:

    Another stunning article, written with depth and detail. I will never understand why, after such a catastrophic event the British Army (Sir John French) mobilised the BEF and brought the Territorials of the 46th (NOrht Midland) Division to a repeat of such devastating action. Your final sentence brought tears to my eyes – what a waste, what tragedy..

  2. admin says:

    Thank you for your comment, Karen. You and I are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet. The senseless repetition of disastrous campaigns brought about the phrase “Lions led by Donkeys.

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