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47th (London) Division – September to November 1915

AT the end of August the Division took over from the 15th (Scottish) Division the W sector, which it had left at the beginning of the month. This sector extended from the Maroc-Puits No. 16 road (exclusive) northwards to the Bethune-Lens road (exclusive). Schemes were by now well in hand for an offensive on a grand scale, and no time was lost in making the necessary preparations. The existing front line was not suitable for the attack opposite Loos; it lay in a concave curve north of the Double Grassier, and diverged, to a distance of some 700 yards, from the enemy front line. A new line was, therefore, dug in the form of a chord across the arc of the old line, joining up the heads of long saps pushed out into No Man’s Land.

Work on this trench — about 1,500 yards from end to end — was started on August 27th by the 141st Brigade, under R.E. direction Every night a battalion was brought up by bus from Noeux-les-Mines and marched to the scene of operations. It was a relief to get these large parties clear of the square in Les Brebis, for it was the rendezvous of all kinds of transport at dusk, and the tall spire of the church made it a well-known target for German guns.

Some remarkably good work was put in by the infantry and R.E. on these new trenches. The front line was deep and well traversed, and in alternate bays special recesses were made to receive gas cylinders. An assembly trench was also dug 50 yards behind, fitted throughout with hurdles to assist the assaulting infantry in climbing out of the trenches, and many connecting saps were cut. Under supervision of the 2/3rd London Field Coy., R.E., over two miles of trenches were dug in three weeks. Luckily, the enemy allowed the work to be carried on almost unmolested, and there were amazingly few casualties among the working or the covering parties which the trench garrison of the 142nd Brigade supplied. Other preparations were made on an unprecedented scale. Dumps of all kinds were built and filled; a system of “keeps” was completed along the old support line; advanced headquarters were made and a water-supply system was arranged.

The telegraph and telephone cables were laid mostly in communication trenches, but where these did not serve they were in some cases buried about one foot to preserve them from traffic and splinters. Artillery lines were laid on the south and west sides of trenches and R.E. lines on the north and east to avoid confusion. Use was made of an electric power cable buried 2ft. 6in. deep and connecting the mines at Les Brebis and Le Maroc. For the approaches to artillery observation posts in the notorious “Artillery Row” at North Maroc rabbit netting was used in some cases, to reduce to a minimum the danger of having communications cut by shell-fire.

On September 18th the first gas-cylinders were carried into the front trench. It was our first sight of these horrid objects, though dark rumours and trial trips into gas-filled trenches had prepared us for the shock, and we handled them with a certain holy dread. They were extraordinarily awkward things to carry up a long and narrow communication trench. Slung horizontally on a pole, they stuck at a sharp corner, and they were abominably heavy. They eventually became by familiarity most unpopular with the troops.

On this and the following nights, however, they were safely stored and packed with sandbags in their appointed bays, and the garrison were left to trust that the skill of the experts, and the unwariness of the enemy, would keep the secret safe until the day. The successful conveyance of the cylinders into the trenches was largely due to the efforts of Captain H.R.A. Hunt, the G.S.O.3, who organised and looked after the whole business.

The work of carrying up these cylinders and putting them in the parapet was performed by the 15th Battalion, who had been specially drilled and trained for the work under Captain Hunt’s supervision. It was completed on the night of September 19th, and the 15th Battalion returned to Haillicourt by omnibuses early on the morning of the 20th.

During this period of preparation a novel form of training for the attack was initiated by the 47th Division. Ground in the rear resembling the objective allotted to the Division was marked out by flags and tracing tapes so that every trench and noticeable feature was shown on the ground. The units detailed for the assault were trained over this course, so that every officer and every man knew exactly what his duty in the assault was to be.

These rehearsals were complete in every detail; assembly for assault through the complicated trench system, advance of waves, reinforcements of bombs and ammunition, and evacuation of casualties were all practised. A thorough reconnaissance of the enemy’s trenches was carried out by all leaders down to platoon-sergeants. Each was provided with a panorama sketch of his own front. The value of this preparation was proved by the immediate success of the assault at a cost of fewer casualties than were incurred by any other division.

The Division had at its disposal its own four Field Artillery Brigades (three with 15-pounders and one with 5-in. howitzers), several regular field batteries attached from other divisions, and a few heavy batteries. The mass of the heavy and siege artillery was under the direct control of the IVth Corps.

Four days’ bombardment preceded the attack. It was good to hear and see. The constant sharp reports of guns, from the light mountain battery, a few hundred yards back, to 60-pounders, and the slow bustle of the howitzers, mostly of the lighter calibres, but occasionally a 9-2 or 15-in. lumbering across like a L.C.C. tram and ending in a mass of red or black dust and smoke in the valley below — all very stimulating after months of enforced economy in ammunition. Aeroplanes were up all day, single machines working for the guns, and large formations that set out on their reconnaissance into the sunrise behind Loos. For the first three days the wind was easterly and the artillery observers were much hampered by the dust and smoke from our own shell, which was blown back by the wind and made observation extremely difficult.

But the Boche seemed to be singularly little impressed by our activity. He was not in any way excited by a demonstration on the 22nd, in which the garrison tried to look as if they meant to attack by blowing whistles, showing rows of bayonets, and trooping like a stage crowd round island traverses, waving scaling-ladders as they went.

On the nights of the 23rd and 24th, the 141st and 140th Brigades relieved the 142nd Brigade in W 3 and W 2 sectors.

The former sector extended from the Grenay-Loos road (exclusive) to the northern limit of W sector, and W 2 extended southwards from the Grenay-Loos road to opposite the south-east corner of South Maroc. The relief on September 23rd was carried out in a violent thunderstorm, which made the guns sound foolish in comparison, and filled the trenches with a foot of water. At the same time, final preparations were pushed on, almost the last work being to throw bridges across the forward trenches to allow the passage of cavalry and guns in the hoped-for break-through on the 25th.

Behind the hues activity was extraordinary, reaching its climax on the night before the battle, when it took one battalion nearly nine hours to get from its billets in Noeux-les-Mines to the position of assembly for the attack. The roads forward of this village were packed with transport after dusk. Supporting divisions were coming up. Supply and ammunition convoys moved in endless procession to their various units and dumps. All available billets were filled to the utmost, and every foot of cover and much open ground was crowded with horse-lines and parked transport.

Every estaminet in Mazingarbe and Les Brebis was packed during business hours with troops, laughing and singing. White wine and watery beer may be poor cheer, but rumour and expectation made up for that.

Gas had not previously been used by the British Army, and our commanders were very shy of it before the battle. The wind might be unfavourable, and, if so, the plan of attack would have to be altered at the last minute. At a corps conference on the 24th it was decided that unless the wind were suitable for gas the 47th Division would attack without it. Shortly before zero, however, the officer in charge of our gas operations reported that the wind was blowing southerly at about one mile per hour. The order was given to carry on.

On the morning of the 25th the extreme right of the British line —W 1 sector — was held by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, whose left flank was to be the pivot of the whole attack. On their left — in W 2 sector — was the 140th Brigade, and on the left again — in W 3 sector — the 141st Brigade, which joined the right flank of the 15th Division. The remaining units of the 142nd Brigade were in reserve in the Grenay line.

At 5.50 a.m. zero the gas and smoke operations started. The gas was worked by the Special Coy., R.E., and the smoke by a company of the 4th R.W.F. (Pioneers). On the 47th Division front the gas went fairly well. The cloud rolled slowly forward, and its effect was apparent from the lessening force of the enemy rifle fire. Nearly all the cylinders were emptied, and our own casualties in letting off gas were few, owing entirely to discipline and obedience to orders regarding the wearing of smoke helmets in the advanced trenches before the attack.

Forty minutes after zero the infantry attack began. On the right a gallant army of dummy figures, worked with strings by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, made progressive appearances in the smoke-cloud, and did their duty in attracting a fair share of fire. The real attack started opposite the Double Grassier, and northwards of this point line after line of men left our trenches. In outward appearance they were hardly more human than the dummies farther south — strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads. Each line went forward at quick time down into the valley and was lost in the smoke. It is a splendid proof of the thoroughness of the practice of the attack and previous reconnaissance that, in spite of the thick smoke, direction was kept all along the line.

The 7th Battalion advanced on the Double Grassier, the west end of which, with the trench running just under it, was their first objective. Their second objective was some 400 yards of the German second line north of its junction with the Grassier. The 6th Battalion attacked on their immediate left the first and second German lines. The 8th Battalion was in close support, and the 15th in brigade reserve. Both the 6th and 7th Battalions reached the first line without many casualties; but it was strongly held, and the garrison seemed to have been frightened rather than incapacitated by our gas, which had mostly drifted across to the 141st Brigade front. The wire in front of the second line was a more serious obstacle, and both battalions had many casualties here; later in the day the 8th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce them. A counter-attack came early against the 7th. The enemy tried to work round the end of the Grassier and eject them from the front line, but Captain Casson’s A Company successfully met every attempt, and, with the help of the 8th Battalion grenadiers, established a firm position on the Crassier. The whole of the 140th Brigade objectives were captured by 8 a.m., together with some 300 prisoners and three machine- guns.

Out of eighteen officers who took part in the attack the 7th Battalion lost fourteen, ten of whom were killed. Captain Casson was among the latter, and his gallant company was cut to pieces, but he had, by a very bold piece of soldiering, held the German counter-attack till reinforcements arrived.

The 141st Brigade, on the left, had farther to go. Their attack was led by the 18th Battalion, whose objective was the German second line from the Lens-Bethune road (where they joined the 6th Battalion) to Loos Cemetery. Two battalions followed them abreast, the 20th on the right and the 19th on the left, and passed through the 18th Battalion when the latter had attained its objective.

The 20th were to capture important points south of the village — a copse and chalk-pit, a small enclosed “garden city,” and a crassier (slag heap) running south-east towards Lens from the Tower Bridge; the 19th attacked the cemetery, the southern edge of the village itself, and the Pylons, or ” Tower Bridge.” The 17th Battalion was held in reserve.

The 18th started off, kicking a football in front of them. No Man’s Land was easy going, and difficulty began at the first German line. It was here that the leading waves suffered most severely. The second line was reached well up to time, and was found to be strongly wired, but, fortunately, it had few defenders.

On the right the 20th pushed on to the “garden city,” which fell into their hands. A Company, under Captain G. Williams, successfully fought their way to the Chalk-pit. Here they captured two field-guns, which were standing a few weeks later in London on the Horse Guards Parade. A line was established northwards from the Chalk-pit to join up with the companies on the Loos Crassier. The 19th Battalion, in the meantime, had a hard fight for the cemetery, where a trench was cut actually through the graveyard, but they won their way through and on to the village, where they joined the 15th Division in clearing houses and cellars.

Here Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, of the 19th, who was killed in action later in the war, did particularly gallant work, for which he was awarded the D.S.O. He led a party of bombers, and in one house, which he entered alone, he captured seven prisoners, after being badly wounded in the face by one of them.

Another act of gallantry, which also won the D.S.O., was performed by Major E. B. Blogg, of the 4th London Field Coy., R.E. Beneath the church tower of Loos the enemy had laid mines. Under heavy shell fire Major Blogg went in and cut the fuse, thereby saving many lives.

The 19th Battalion finally reached their last objective, the Tower Bridge. Lieut.-Colonel C. D. Collison-Morley was killed soon after leaving our trenches at the head of his battalion, and the 19th was put under the orders of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Hubback, of the 20th Battalion, who so had charge of the whole front line of the 141st Brigade.

Soon after nine o’clock all objectives had been captured by the Division except the western end of a narrow spinney which ran south-west from the Chalk-pit, which the 20th Battalion had taken. This contained a network of trenches, and its very plucky defenders held us up for the next forty-eight hours.

The remainder of September 25th was spent in consolidating. Local counter-attacks were met and beaten off on the Double Crassier, in the spinney, and on the south-east edge of Loos, largely by the concentration of artillery fire previously arranged in anticipation of this counter-attack.

During the night the Pioneers linked the southern point of the captured trenches with our old line, thus completing the defensive flank which it had been the task of the 47th Division to secure. Units of the Division had sent back as prisoners 8 officers and 302 other ranks, and had captured 3 field-guns. For the measure of success attained our casualties had been light, amounting to about 1,500 all ranks.

Both before and after zero the enemy’s artillery fire was surprisingly slack considering the warning he must have had. Loos itself, however, soon became a regular shell trap, and an intermittent but very accurate shelling of the Loos-Bethune road caught many wagons and limbers, and left them smashed on the road, while such mules as escaped wandered about in a state of bewilderment for days.

The position of the Division was comparatively simple throughout the Loos operations. It gained its objectives within a few hours of zero, and was subsequently concerned with keeping the position it had won. But north and east of that position a battle of desperate and complex character raged from September 25th to 28th, and it is impossible to appreciate the value and difficulty of the work of the divisions without noting roughly the progress of the general engagement. On the 25th, the 15th (Scottish) Division had, with great gallantry and in face of heavy loss, captured that main part of the village of Loos which lay north of our line of attack, and had pushed on over the crest of Hill 70, with their left flank uncovered east of Puits No. 14 bis., on the Lens-La Bassee road. In the north things had not gone so well, and their neighbours could not get up to cover the 15th Division left flank. In spite of the line start, therefore, their forward position was found to be untenable, and the evening of the 25th found them holding a precarious position on the reverse slope of Hill 70, with a left flank resting on the Bois Hugo.

A farther advance had been planned for September 26th, and the 47th Division had been warned to be ready to follow up a general advance by the IVth and Xlth Corps. As a part of this scheme, with a view to improving and prolonging the defensive flank of the main advance, troops of the 15th Division, reinforced by a brigade of the new 21st Division, made an attack on Hill 70 and the high ground south-east of Loos at 9 a.m. But by this time the Germans fully realised their danger, and the attack met with determined resistance and fearful loss. As the day wore on, our line on Hill 70 moved back, and the force of troops to hold it was seriously weakened. Farther north, also, the main eastward push had been similarly punished. Brand-new troops, hurried forward to their first battle, and ignorant of the country, had advanced bravely, and met with overwhelming loss, especially of their leaders.

In face of this situation, and the inevitable confusion and uncertainty it involved, the position of the Division, and of Brigadier-General Thwaites’ 141st Brigade, was not easy. He held the least stable position of the line. All his battalions had had hard fighting, and must be kept continually on the alert to meet counter- attack. His left flank was unprotected except by a swaying battle on the open ground between Loos and Hulluch, a battle which was going, apparently, not at all in our favour. The withdrawal of the 15th Division had, in fact, left a gap of about a mile between the left of the 141st Brigade and the 1st Division near Hulluch.

Our line from the spinney to the Loos Grassier was intact, held by the 20th and 17th Battalions, but the north of the village lay open to attack. In support, just west of the village, was the 18th Battalion, and early in the afternoon the 23rd Battalion was sent forward to prolong this second line northwards to the Loos-Vermelles road. The west end of the spinney, it will be remembered, was still in the enemy’s hands, but General Thwaites told Divisional Headquarters that he must have the spinney bombarded with heavy guns before he could launch his bombing attack to drive the enemy out.

It is hard enough to follow the course of these operations in retrospect; at the time it was impossible to do so. Wild rumours came in from all sides; small bodies of men came by, saying that they were the only survivors of their units; waves of men moving back over the sky-line to the north were described now as prisoners being brought back, now as our own men retiring. But the one thing that General Thwaites made clear to his C.O.’s, who, in turn, impressed it upon their officers and men, was that they must hold their positions at all costs. Major S. J. Lowe, Brigade Major, 141st Infantry Brigade, and Major A. C. Gordon, 5th London Brigade, R.F.A., together with Lieutenant Young, 20th Battalion, who was killed, distinguished themselves in carrying out these orders under heavy fire.

During the afternoon General Thwaites had moved his own advanced headquarters from Le Maroc to the remains of a house at the “Valley Cross Roads” on the outskirts of Loos. This ruin was so exposed that when night fell it was found inexpedient to use even a shaded light. The reception of messages from Divisional Headquarters by telegraph was therefore impossible, and the telephone had to be used instead until daylight returned. Through these headquarters the Division had to transmit messages later on for the 1st Brigade in Loos, which was temporarily under the orders of our G.O.C., and for the 3rd Cavalry Division (also in Loos), who had no other telegraphic communication with the IVth Corps for some time.

In the first line there was some brisk bomb-fighting, but shelling was nowhere heavy on our front (it is probable that the Lens batteries had been moved back hastily on the 25th; the difficulties were the extraordinary sense of uncertainty and the fatigue of troops who had been fighting or working continuously for thirty-six hours.

During the afternoon the situation was eased by the arrival of the 6th Cavalry Brigade, which relieved the remnants of the 15th Division and became responsible for the line north and east of Loos and for the defence of the village. The Guards Division similarly took over from the XIth Corps (the 21st and 24th Divisions) farther north. At the end of an anxious day of terribly costly fighting, fresh troops were holding an ill-defined defensive line, and waiting for an opportunity to renew the attack. The 47th Division had maintained its position only by constant effort, and night brought no rest from the work of consolidation.

On this same day, September 26th, the French had had considerable success in the Champagne, where 14,000 prisoners had been taken, and farther north General Foch’s Tenth Army had captured Souchez, the scene of bitter fighting throughout the summer.

The attack of the Guards Division on September 27th was timed for 4.50 p.m. At the same hour it was arranged that the 20th Battalion, supported by a company and the bombing platoon of the 23rd and troops of the 19th, should clear the enemy from the west end of the spinney. This operation was entirely successful.

A preliminary bombardment prepared the way, and the assaulting troops, led by bombers, smothered the garrison in the maze of trenches which had been the centre of an obstinate resistance and a perpetual menace for the last two days. With the capture of the spinney the last outstanding piece of the 47th Division’s objective was taken. The heavy and accurate bombardment of the copse at long range by Major Pollard’s howitzer battery contributed largely to the success of the operation.

No one who saw it can forget the advance of the 3rd Guards Brigade to attack Hill 70, as they moved in artillery formation across the open ground down into the Loos Valley. The Welsh Guards, in action for the first time, and the 4th Grenadiers led the attack, and passed through our support line on their way to Hill 70; the supporting battalions halted in our lines during the night. The enemy shelling had gained in strength during the day, as guns were brought back after our first attack was held, and the battalions met with heavy shrapnel-fire as they came forward down the slope. But they moved on in perfect order, and the sight of them did more than restore confidence that had been shaken by the confusion of the previous day. On Hill 70 the Guards met with strong resistance, and suffered very heavily from machine-gun fire on the crest of the hill. They finally consolidated a line well up the slope. On the left the 2nd Guards Brigade had rushed, but were unable to hold Puits No. 14 bis, and held a line running through the Chalk-pit on the Lens-La Bassee road. A second attack in the Puits on September 28th gained no further ground.

At this point our attack came to a standstill, as did that of the French on our right, and a rearrangement was made of the troops in the line. On the night of September 28th-29th the 142nd Brigade relieved the 141st Brigade, who, after four days spent in the most critical part of the divisional front, were withdrawn into reserve at Le Maroc. The 140th Brigade extended their line to include the old W1 sector, which had not moved. On the night of September 29th-30th the 142nd Brigade lengthened their line outwards and relieved the Guards on Hill 70. On their left the 12th Division came up to relieve the Guards Division. On September 30th the 140th Brigade were relieved by the 152nd French Division, which became responsible for the line as far north as the Bethune-Lens road. This was a fine division, very strong, and magnificently equipped, and it was good to see them come marching along the Harrow Road to take the place of our men, who were tired and battle-stained, and very glad of the chance to wash and sleep.

The 142nd Brigade held the line for three days. During this time. Lieutenant Baswitz, bombing officer of the 22nd Battalion, with some bombers, explored some dugouts in No Man’s Land on Hill 70, and brought back six Guardsmen and two Germans, who had been there in forced alliance, the Englishmen for three and the Germans for four days. Lord Cavan wrote sending the thanks of the Guards Division for this exploit.

The Brigade Signal Office in the cellar of a house in Loos was blown in, two infantry runners being killed and several sappers badly knocked about. Communication with the Division was restored within ten minutes.

The telegraph communication between Division and Brigade was well maintained. Lines were laid from brigades to battalions and in some cases to companies as soon as the front line settled down. Visual signalling was not much used on account of the exposed position of headquarters. The motor-cyclists did very good work on the exposed road from Le Maroc to Loos. Communication between the Division and the IVth Corps was maintained with difficulty owing chiefly to the devastating effect of wagons moving in and out of their transport lines during the night.

On the night of October 1st the French relieved the 142nd Brigade, taking over the whole Loos sector, which they held until the 47th Division relieved them there in January, 1916,

For the next few days the Division was in corps reserve, resting and refitting in villages south-west of Bethune.

Comparatively little was said in the newspapers about the part played by the London Division in the Battle of Loos. The characteristic which most strongly impressed the popular fancy was the fact that in these operations the New Army was first employed on a large scale. Moreover, the actual attack is apt to give most scope to the imagination of the war correspondent, and the attack of the 47th Division got quickly home to clearly-defined objectives. And the main share of prisoners and spoils of war did not come our way. But the Division performed a distinct and important function in the general scheme. It was the hinge upon which the attack swung, and its own attacking brigade formed the southern flank of the salient which marked the British advance.

Once captured, a position must be held, and this is apt to be the hardest part, for conclusion of successful attack is not rest, but work and defence against all comers.

At the end of November, shortly before he left France, Sir John French inspected the 142nd Brigade at Lozinghem, and to them, as representing the Division, he expressed in the strongest possible terms his appreciation of the value of the Division’s performance, the success of which, he said, had definitely assured him of the safety of a most vulnerable point in the field of operations.

Read December 1915 to February 1916.