The third day of my count down to the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1.
Walter was one of the early volunteers, evidently responding to Lord Kitchener’s famous appeal for troops shortly after the beginning of the war, as he swore his allegiance to the crown on 4th September 1914. Originally, he joined the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and was part of the 71st Brigade RFA, subsequently transferring to the Royal Engineers in May 1917. He served on the Western Front in France and arrived there for the first time in July 1915.
The 71st Brigade RFA was deployed with the 15th (Scottish) Division and remained with them throughout the war. It comprised 4 batteries (A thru D) each of 4 guns – A, B and C batteries armed with the 18 Pounder field gun and D battery armed with the 4.5” howitzer – these were the standard field artillery pieces used by British Empire forces in WW1. Below is a picture from the Imperial War Museum of a battery of these guns.
From the surviving War Diary of the 71st Brigade RFA it was evident that on arrival on the continent they were posted to the Loos sector in northern France and came into action for the very first time on 31st July in front of Mazingarbe, a few miles south west of Lille. Two months later they were in the thick of the fighting known as the Battle of Loos from 21st Sep – 15th Oct.
This was the first major battle for Kitchener’s “New Army” of volunteers and, for many, it was still a crazy adventure – one unit, the London Irish Rifles, went over the top kicking a football into no man’s land! Also, as so many of the units were Scottish, they were led into battle by their pipers, Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers winning the Victoria Cross for bravery.
But with grim inevitability the horror of mechanised war soon struck home. Loos was notable as the first time the allies used poison gas and so the troops attacked in their primitive PH gas hoods. Many soldiers found them almost suffocating and took them off, but then the wind changed direction and the chlorine gas drifted back on the advancing British, killing many.
And then, like so many battles yet to come, the German machine guns opened up on the ranks of the attacking British troops with utterly devastating effect. In his autobiography “Goodbye to All That”, Robert Graves relates one officer’s story at Loos...
"When his platoon had run about twenty yards, he signaled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on the left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole and waved and signaled ‘Forward.’ Nobody stirred.
He shouted, “You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go alone?” His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped out…. “Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead.”"
Yet, despite the slaughter the battle was a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. On the morning of their attack the 15th Division captured Loos but incompetence and delay on the part of senior staff meant that support didn’t get to them in time before the German defenders recovered and mounted a strong counter-attack. Ultimately the British were driven back to their starting positions at the cost of 50,000 casualties, nearly 7000 in 15th Division alone.
The dithering of Sir John French, the overall commander, cost him his job and resulted in the promotion of Sir Douglas Haig as his replacement (but perhaps that had just as much to do with Haig complaining in writing to the War Secretary about French behind his back and Haig’s wife being a personal friend of the Queen... you couldn't make this stuff up!).
So much for the big picture of the battle of Loos and the New Army's baptism of fire, but it wasn’t clear to me what my great-uncle might have been doing in it. What might his role have been?