Vulnerability and Quiet Solitude

Bedford House Cemetery Ypres

Its finally turning cool again, the days are getting shorter and autumn is on its way, my favourite season of the year. It almost Birthday and Armistice time and that sticks in my mind as it gets closer. I have acquired a new laptop and I’m hopefully going to be able to send a few more blogs more regularly than I have recently. I called the laptop Plumer in honour of one of the few very successful British Generals of the Great War, the first General to achieve a significant breakthrough of the German Lines on the Ypres Salient in June 1917. It was a very hard decision, I also thought of Generals Allenby and Franchet d’Esperay for names but the battlefield of Messines is a very special place to me, it is a place where I can really reconnect and reflect with the events that occurred a century ago. There was no other alternative. It had to be in honour of Field Marshal Plumer of Messines.

The month of September in the Great War was a very significant month for many reasons. One of the principle reasons was that it was the last month where the heat of summer was slowly starting to ebb away. The hot sunshine of summer had kept the ground dry, now it was starting to turn cooler and the days were getting progressively shorter. It was starting to get a lot wetter as the first autumn rains began to shower the troops in the trenches. The long protracted Autumn morning mists created havoc for the heavy guns on both sides as the artillery observers could not see towards enemy positions and dugouts, unable to protect the infantry in the front lines, for which the artillery was designed to do at that time.

September was a month where many of the epic struggles the British Army were involved in during the conflict took place. In 1914 the small British Expeditionary Force after its heroic stand at Mons and Le Cateau in August, after a long retreat southwestwards towards the gates of Paris. The beleaguered British Army stood its ground once again and fought alongside its French counterpart in the titanic clash that was to be called the first Battle of the Marne, and counterattacked the retreating German Army up towards the river Aisne and the Chemin De Dames. The Germans, who now wanted to keep the territory they had seized for the Kaiser, dropped their rifles and subsequently picked up shovels, picks and spades and began to dig defensive trenches on the high banks above the river Aisne. It would be here that they would hold their ground. The Allies would either have to attack them head on or go round the open flank that hadn’t been defended. In late September 1914 both British and German forces fought each other in hastily dug trenches along the Aisne and the Chemin de Dames. Mostly forgotten today these mini engagements would be a fore taste of the horrors to come. Many of the Officers of the Small British Expeditionary Force, many of whom had gone through private education at Eton, and went to universities at Oxford and Cambridge during the Edwardian age. Filled with the stories of Nelson and Wellington, Clive and Wolfe. Potential political leaders and idealists of the future were thrust into a scenario they couldn’t possibly imagine or dream of a few years before. Many of these men and the soldiers they led were killed in futile attacks on the hastily dug German trench lines. Most notably at the village and farm of Soupir on the Aisne. It was on these slopes that the glorious ideals of British Imperialism was now covered in blood.

Soupir Communal Cemetery on the Aisne June 2019

September 1915 saw the British army engage the German army at the tragic battle of Loos. Arguably under significant pressure from the French High Command and the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, the Commander of the BEF Sir John French committed himself to an offensive that possibly in truth, he himself could not see succeeding. He decided to attack the German forces in that area with poison gas, partly in retaliation for the German Gas attack in April on the northern side of the Ypres Salient, which had almost achieved a breakthrough of the Western Front but failed. It was also to test the potential of the new chemical weapon and the fighting capability of the new recruits. The objective was to try and achieve a breakthrough that the Germans had been so close to accomplishing in their offensive at Ypres. It was here for the first time that part time soldiers of the British Army, the Territorial force, along with elements of Kitchener’s new armies which had been recruited in the summer months of 1914, would engage the enemy on the Western Front for the very first time.

On observing the potential battle area from the top of Notre Dame de Lorette, a high position that had been recently taken by French Forces, Sir John was not happy with what he saw. The Mining town of Loos was built on a incline,with the German lines going in and around the outskirts of the town. To the north of Loos was the German defensive position known as the Hohenzollen redoubt. a very strong area which had caused many casualties previously in trench raids. To the south was the double crassiers, the slag heaps from the coal mines that surrounded the town. A perfect observation post, and had a completely unrestricted view of the area and of British intentions. Most importantly an attacking force would literally have no cover or protection from the German machine gun defences, if the Germans were able to recover from the Gas attack and the artillery bombardment of the area, the machine gun would become king of the battlefield, and casualties would be horrendous if the plan failed.

The Battlefield of Loos, the double Crassiers in the distance

The Battle of Loos began on the 25th September 1915 and lasted for three days, the Gas attack had mixed results. To the north of the offensive the gas attack failed. The wind direction changed and the poison gas blew toward the British lines causing havoc in the front line trenches filled with soldiers waiting to go over the top. On attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt, the advancing troops found the German defences intact and the barbed wire still intact. But the British soldiers took the redoubt.

The Gas attack towards Loos was considerably more successful and the town itself was taken on the opening day. Some of the townspeople had still remained in the town, their eyes streaming with the effects of the gas. They recall seeing kilted soldiers with gas masks entering the town, blood streaming down their bayonets.

By the third day the Germans had managed to retrieve the situation, they had lost Loos but had managed to hold Hill 70 to the rear of the town. The reinforcements which Sir John had delayed deploying to the battle zone proved a costly error, the New Army units were mown down by the newly formed German defensive perimeter. 8,000 men out an attacking force of 10,000 were killed or wounded in under 4 hours, the glory of war shattered in one cruel day. In 3 days Britain and her Empire had lost almost 60,000 men and had gone back to their start line from 3 days before. The Germans continually attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt until they retook the position in October 1915, they held the redoubt until 1918.

The Battle Of Loos, the main effort of the British Army on the Western Front in 1915 failed horrendously and cost Sir John French his job as commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force in December. He was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig who was to be nicknamed “the butcher”.

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