September 25th 1918 was the first day of the Battle of Loos. There are many detailed accounts of the battle available but this account will concentrate on some aspects of the preparations for the battle, particularly the first major use of Gas as a weapon by the British. This was a weapon they had condemned in the gravest terms when used by the Germans in April 1915.
In early September much time was spent digging and repairing trenches. The 7th Bn. Queens Own (Royal West Kent Regt.) a Kitchener Battalion, had lots of practice on Salisbury Plain, but repairing trenches under fire was rather different. Pte. F Bastable recalled how his mate Bill Beckington became the Battalion’s first casualty as he was shot in the head as they both repaired a front line trench.
The 19th County of London Bn. was tasked with digging a new front line trench which had been marked out with white tape by The Royal Engineers at the Bethune-Lens road. They were in a line of men stretched across no- man’s land with no cover. Each pair of men would dig a hole and then join it up with the others to create one continuous trench line. Remarkably, only when this line was complete did the Germans start shelling. The previous evening The London Irish had suffered heavy casualties attempting the same task. Those digging trenches were excused other drills and fatigues and would get a hot bath in one of the many pit head baths in the area. They would also get a hot mid-day meal.
Rifleman F Worrall (12th Service Batt.) The Rifle Brigade was shocked to be called from the front line near Laventie to Battalion HQ. With a group of others, all of whom were in his words ‘skinny’, he ‘volunteered ‘to be part of a tunnelling team preparing to plant a mine under the German front line. A Welsh miner was at the face doing the digging with a listener alongside him. Worrall and the others were filling sand-bags with the spoil. This was probably the mine exploded on the 25th September, but the German line had moved further back and the targeted trench was empty.
The men of the Special Gas Brigades were also volunteers. Over 5,000 gas cylinders had to be moved by wagons from the railhead at Gorre to dumps behind the lines. They did remove the cylinders from boxes their boxes in order to loosen the dome so that the cylinders were ready for action and the gas could be released. A Senior Staff Officer saw them doing this, considered it dangerous which it wasn’t, but stopped them. He certainly did not appreciate the difficulties of opening tightly screwed boxes and removing the tops of cylinders in trenches in the dark.
The cylinders weighed 60lbs and each contained 60lbs of liquid gas. It took two men as long as four hours to take one box over a mile to the front line. They also had to carry the connecting pipes, the pipes that would carry the gas away from the parapet towards the Germans, and also Vermorel Sprayers to clear the trench of gas if something went wrong. To carry all this equipment around narrow trenches was a great achievement, and everything was in place by September 20th with the cylinders installed by The Engineers in specially dug emplacements.
Troops had been shown a scale model of the area of attack, but compared with the Messines Model on Cannock Chase it was a pretty crude effort. The terrain of the battlefield was certainly challenging and the prominent landmarks were the pit heads and slag heaps. The overhead pylons of the pit at Loos were christened Tower Bridge by the Londoners who were to take part in the Battle.
Guns had been arriving throughout September and when the bombardment started on September 21st it was to be the heaviest of the war to date. There was even a concealed battery close to the German lines, only to be used on September 25th to cut a path through the German wire.
The bombardment raised morale at all levels, but General Willocks, not for the first time, did not share Haig’s optimism. He certainly would have been concerned about potential heavy casualties and the difficulties in finding replacements. This was especially so among the officer corps who would understand the language and culture of their men. Whatever the detail, Willocks was dismissed as Commander of the Indian Corps. Their task was to be a ‘subsidiary attack’ on Aubers Ridge over the old Neuve Chappelle battlefield.
The Gordon Highlanders were to attack at Hooge, which Kitchener informed the men was a sacrifice to help the main offensive. As The Gordons moved off, a placard on the German wire taunted, ’Why wait for the25th’?
All these plans however depended on the weather. The battle plan was based on the use of gas, but for that to work, the strength and direction of the wind was crucial. There were forty gas officers along the front sending back hourly reports, with a dozen more officers reporting from behind the lines. There were also collated reports from Paris, but what they needed most was certainty. Zero hour was dependant on the wind and after consultations with Captain Gold his meteorologist, Haig took his advice that the attack should take place as soon as possible which was dawn on September 25th.
The gas supply was limited and experiments on captured German gas masks indicated they were effective for only 30 minutes. The gas cloud therefore needed to cover the German Trenches for at least 40 minutes, but there was not enough gas for that. The plan that was developed was to release the gas cylinders in groups, interspersed with smoke candles. For the first twelve minutes six gas cylinders would be discharged followed at two minute intervals by smoke candles. This pattern was to be repeated ending up with the largest amount of smoke as the men left the trenches.
The men from the Special Gas Brigades whose job it was to discharge the gas made their final preparations and were provided with red, white and green brassards to distinguish them as special troops and prevent them being sent over the top.
Lt A.B. White 186 Coy. Royal Engineers was one of many who noted that the wind had dropped as Zero hour approached and in some places there was no wind at all. Divisional H Q was aware of the situation but White and others received a direct order to carry on. In many places the gas was blowing back into the British trenches. One figure suggests 2,632 British Gas Casualties, but only seven deaths were recorded. We now know the lasting damage was caused to these men.
The gas was blowing back into the trenches held by the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. They were hot and uncomfortable in their gas helmets, were apprehensive and holding back, when their piper tore off his own gas mask and led the men over the parapet. They battered and bayoneted their way to the German front line and soldiers were in the village of Loos by 9.00 o’clock. Piper Laidlaw was awarded the VC.
This was only the start of a battle that was to continue into October. There were 60,000 casualties in the main and subsidiary attacks, with over 20,000 killed at Loos. In his book ‘On the Trail of the Great War in Birmingham’ Alan Tucker notes that among the casualties on Sept.25th was Rifleman George Gandy serving with 2nd Kings Royal Rifle Corps and commemorated at St Basil’s, Deritend. Arthur Vickers from No7 Court, Woodcock St Aston serving with 2nd Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regt. was awarded the VC for his gallantry in the attack on the Quarries. Under heavy fire, he stood up and cut the German wire which had been holding up the attack.