Chapter 2 – The Battle of Loos.
The Attack Plan.
The offensive, which was about to open, was designed to break the German front in Artois and Champagne. The French were to deal with the Champagne attack exclusively, while the Artois attack was to be delivered by the 10th French Army on the right, the British 1st Army in the centre, and the British 2nd Army on the left. The 2nd Army, under General H Plumer, was required to pin the enemy down in the north from Ypres to Armentieres. The northern portion of Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army. from the south of Armentieres to the La Bassée Canal, comprising 3rd Corps, the Indian Corps and 2nd Division (1st Corps) was to demonstrate against Aubers Ridge and the enemy north of the canal.
South of the Canal to Grenay, the southern portion of the 1st Army was to conduct the main attack from La Bassée Canal in the north to Grenay in the south. On the right of the British 1st Army, General d’Urbals’ French 10th Army was to assault from the Grenay–Loos railway line to Vimy Ridge.
The 47th Division Objectives.
The 47th (London) Division was to attack between the Mazingarbe-Lens road and the Double Crassier, with the 141st Brigade on the left with the 140th Brigade on the right – while the 21st and 22nd Battalions (142nd Brigade) held a defensive front on the right of the 140th Brigade.
The right of the 140th Brigade was the 7th Battalion, London Regiment, with the western end of the Double Crassier (coal mining slap heap) and the trench underneath as the first objective, and 400 yards of the German second line, north of its junction with the Crassier, as the second objective. The 6th Battalion, London Regiment occupied the line on the left of the 7th Battalion and was required to take the German 1st and 2nd lines on its frontage. The support and reserve troops of the 140th Brigade were the 8th and 15th Battalions, London Regiment respectively.
On the left of the 140th Brigade was the 141st Brigade. The attack of this Brigade was to be led by the London Irish, whose first objective was the German front line, approximately 400 yards distant. The final objective was the enemy 2nd line, approximately 1,500 yards distant from the junction with the 6th Battalion on the Bethune–Lens road on the right, to the Loos Cemetery on the left. When the London Irish had cleared the way, the 20th Battalion on the right and 19th on their left was to sweep through the London Irish to their final objectives.
The objectives of the 20th Battalion were the Copse and Chalk Pit, the Enclosure (a small garden village) and the greater part of the Loos Crassier running from the Loos Pylons (Tower Bridge). The 19th Battalion, on the left of the 20th Battalion, were to take the cemetery, the school, houses on the south side of Loos, Puits (mine pit) 15 mine buildings (including the Loos Pylons) and the adjacent portion of the Loos Crassier. The 17th Battalion was the Reserve Battalion.
The London Irish Disposition and Order of Battle.
The attack was to be launched from the front line, between Saps 6 and 18 inclusive, in five waves on a three platoon frontage. “A” Company (Captain Hobbs), on the right; “C” Company (Captain HU Mann), in the centre; and “D” Company (Captain Trinder), on the left. “B” Company (Captain Willock), (less two sections) as local reserve. Objectives were as given above.
The leading platoons of each Company to form up in the new front line, the second and third platoons of the three Companies, grenadier section and RE mine searchers to occupy the assembly trench fifty yards in the rear of the firing line. The fourth platoons of “A”, “C” and “D” Companies to occupy the original front line between Saps 6 and 18. and to move forward into Saps 6, 8 and 12, respectively 10 minutes before zero and, on reaching the junction of the saps and the new assembly trench to be spaced at four paces interval and to kneel down and wait until timed to follow the leading waves. ‘B’ Company, the local reserve, with grenadiers, Vickers guns and RE personnel to form up in the old front line. Battalion HQ to be situated in Trench No 26.
At zero, the leading platoons to leave the front line, the signal for the advance being one long blast on the whistle given by OC “C” Company. Thirty seconds later, the second wave to advance, followed twelve seconds later by the third wave. Immediately following the departure of the third wave from the assembly trench, the fourth wave to file rapidly into the trench and then to advance at 150 yards distance in rear of the third wave. Two minutes and fifteen seconds after zero, the platoons of the local reserve to follow on the same frontage as the preceding Companies with the fourth platoon in the rear.
Action at the First Objective.
Platoons of attacking Companies to lead straight over and to proceed directly to the Second Objective, irrespective of the enemy in his front line. The local reserve to deal with any enemy in the front line. Lt Bateman and a section of grenadiers to work south to establish connection with the 140th Brigade, Lt Lane and a platoon and grenadiers to work north to establish contact with 44th Brigade, 15th Division. Two sections of 19th Battalion grenadiers attached and the leading platoon of “D” Company to secure trenches north of Valley Cross Roads.
Attacking platoons of the first wave to carry Divisional discs, coloured yellow with a black cross thereon. Discs to be waved to indicate to artillery the progress of the attack and to be taken forward at all costs and to be looked upon as Battalion colours.
Action at the Enemy Second Line (Final Objective).
After capture, consolidation to be put in hand forthwith and pursuit of enemy carried on by fire. As the Battalion’s task was to seize and hold the enemy second line, no one. except grenadiers, was to go beyond in any circumstances with 6th Battalion (in 140th Brigade) on the right and 15th Division on the left and for pushing down communication trenches and keeping the enemy beyond bombing range.
Prior to 25th September, the date fixed for the assault, an artillery programme was prepared and, on a definite schedule, the artillery carried out shots designed to damage the enemy trenches and strong points and to destroy the enemy’s wire defences. The bombardment was commenced on the 21st September and was continued for four days. During this period, bad light and dust precluded good observation and wire cutting was unsatisfactory. The infantry in the line kept up a constant fire by night and prevented carrying out repairs.
A shower of rain on the night of 23rd/24th September cleared the air and, with improved observation, the task of wire cutting was properly finished. To ascertain the probable artillery and machine gun response from the enemy, combined artillery and infantry demonstrations were carried out on 22nd and 24th September. On neither occasion, did the enemy show any marked interest. During the demonstrations on the 22nd, hostile infantry made no reply except from two machine guns sited in Puits No 16. These guns were duly dealt with by the 60 pounders. On the 24th September demonstration, a fairly heavy rifle fire was opened by the enemy and this fact, combined with patrol reports, indicated that the enemy continued to hold his front line in normal strength, and allayed fears that he might have withdrawn his troops to the second line. It was anticipated that artillery and gas would account completely for the front line garrison and the attacking troops were informed that the preparations were on such a scale that no opposition need be expected from the enemy front line.
Gas and Smoke.
Subject to favourable wind, gas and smoke would be discharged from the trenches alternately commencing at 550am, as a prelude to an assault timed to commence at 630am.
The Battalion’s Final Preparation.
On 24th September, the Battalion spent the day at Les Brebis, preparing for the fray. Overcoats were dumped in the ruined school, iron rations and extra food was issued, ammunition and identity discs were inspected, and final lectures given by the officers. The Bombers spent a good deal of time putting detonators into grenades and were issued with special containers, to be worn across the chest, in which ten Battye Bombs (grenade used in the early part of the war) were to be packed. Buckets were provided to enable Bombers to carry a further ten or so bombs of the ball or Waterloo type. In the evening, the troops rested.
At 1115pm, the assembled Battalion, commanded by Lt Col JP Tredennick, moved off to the trenches east of North Maroc. Near the entrance to the communication trench, Brigadier General Thwaites was waiting and, as the troops passed him, the Brigadier shook hands with the officers, wished the men good luck and remarked that he expected great things of the London Irish. The presence of the General was much appreciated by the troops, who replied with cheerful confidence to his greetings.
At 1230am on 25th September, the Battalion entered the trenches. It was raining at the time and, ankle deep in mud, the men made their way to their allotted positions. By 2am, the whole Battalion was correctly assembled. Rain continued to fall and the men spent a cold, wet and uninspiring night in the sticky trenches, while, throughout the night, the artillery kept up a steady fire.