Sunday, August 20, 2017

GUEST POST What happened to the 8th Lincolns at the battle of Loos?

Nigel Atter, author of In the Shadow of Bois Hugo, on the incredible bravery of the 8th Lincolns.

By early 1915 the Western Front had solidified into 400 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland. The French were committed to removing the German forces from their country. Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, also wanted to assist the Russians allies by attacking in the west.

Kitchener stated, "We must act with all our energy, and do our utmost to help … even though, by so doing, we suffered very heavy casualties indeed."

Thus the British Expeditionary Force was now committed to fight at Loos, in northern France in support of their French and Russian allies.

The general reserves at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 had a torrid time when they went into action. Current historiography has also been unkind to them, saying they were "a disaster waiting to happen", that they were "routed" and worse still that they "bolted" from the field of battle. They are wrong.

The Kitchener 21st and 24th Divisions suffered appalling casualties. Their misuse lead to the dismal of Sir John French and the commanding officer of 21st Division.

As my own great-grandfather served with the 8th Lincolnshire regiment, 63 Brigade, part of 21st Division, I have been determined to find out what really happened.

The 8th Lincolns were established in September 1914. The eager volunteers were mostly agricultural and industrial labourers. The number of men who had any previous military training or experience could be counted on one hand. This also applied to the officers who were mostly young gentlemen straight out of university or older retired officers dug out for military service.

Their training was rudimentary. Lacking equipment and experienced officers they initially did little more than route marches. Khaki uniforms and leather webbing arrived in the spring of 1915. However, they were still equipped with obsolete rifles and bayonets until July 1915. Lead weights were used in training because they did not have any ammunition to carry.

On the 10 September 1915 they left for war service in France. Sir John French decided to use the completely raw and untested 21st and 24th Divisions because they had not became accustomed to trench warfare.

They would not be 'sticky' like other troops who had been out in France for some time. Plus the men were promised that they would be pursuing a beaten enemy – all they had to do was advance unopposed.

The reserves suffered four trying night marches but were in position where Haig had asked them to be. This was some considerable distance five to eight miles behand the British Front line. On 25 September, following a discharge of gas British troops, in places, swept over the German front line.

The 15th (Scottish) Division did particularly well capturing Loos and charging onwards towards Hill 70, where the advance came to a halt.

Haig needed the reserves to exploit the success of the first day. Sir John French procrastinated, but eventually the reserves were released and on the march by 10.30 a.m., some five hours after the initial assault. They were singing was they made their way to the front.

However, their advance was impeded by poor staff work, lack of traffic control and streams of wounded and POWs returning to the rear. Furthermore, there was a paucity of maps and information. The men had not been fed and there was a serious lack of water. It was pouring with rain - officers and men were soaked to the skin.

The 63rd Brigade took point position for 21st Division and reached the wood Bois Hugo sometime after midnight where they were subject to rifle and machine gun fire.

Following a hasty change over the men occupied hurriedly dug rifle pits, no more than two feet deep. Without picks or shovels, sandbags or barbed wire the position could not be improved. The advance was to be resumed at 11 a.m.

Following the breach in their positions the Germans rushed up as many of their reserves as possible. Their position, which the 63rd Brigade faced, was now more strongly defended than the previous day. It was enhanced with concrete machine gun bunkers and defended by barbed wire four feet high and 20 feet deep. This position was untouched by British artillery fire.

Crucial to the advance was the capture of Hill 70 – otherwise the British advance would be subject to German enfilade fire. The assault went in at 9 a.m and failed. This was partly due to a robust German defence, but because British troops had also been shelled by their own artillery.

The attack by the reserves was scheduled for 11 a.m. Nonetheless, they Germans stuck first and counterattacked the men of the 63 Brigade. This fierce fight led to some men retiring in the face of overwhelming rifle and machine gun fire.

The 8th Lincolns were caught in the midst of the melee. Their bravery was incredible. Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Walter led a charge against the Germans and was shot down, mortally wounded. Lieutenant Falkner stepped over his body and blazed away at the Germans to keep them off. Falkner was shot and killed.

Captain McNaught-Davis led two or three charges, alas without success. He was seriously wounded with a bullet wound to the head. The Lincolns to the north of Bois Hugo held fast and fought with doggedness and tenacity. Running short of ammunition they took the cartridges of their dead and dying comrades.

Meanwhile the advance of the reserves went ahead. They were shot to pieces in front of the German wire. Still unbelievable acts of gallantry occurred. Sergeant Saunders won a Victoria Cross for valour on the very field from which the reserves were supposed to have bolted.

The 8th Lincolns position was growing increasingly precarious, exhausted, with their numbers dwindling, their offices dead or seriously wounded, almost out of ammunition the Germans surrounded the survivors. At 6 p.m. in the evening their fight was over – so much for running away!

You can buy In the Shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the battle of Loos, 1915 from Helion & Co. and follow Nigel Atter on Twitter.

No comments: