The town council of Loos-en-Gohelle held a commemoration day on Sunday 11th November 2018 to mark the centenary of the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Great War. The Regimental Association was very pleased to be invited by M. Jean-Francois Caron, the Mayor, to attend but since word of this arrived quite close to the event it was not possible to organise a larger group to make the visit. However with the Chairman, Vice Chairman and three committee members and their wives present we were able to fully represent the Association and let our hosts know we were delighted to be with them on such an important occasion.
A two night stay in Arras gave the opportunity for visits to CWGC cemeteries before and after the day in Loos. A visit was also made to the Wellington Tunnels (named after the engineer unit from New Zealand who prepared extensive ancient chalk and limestone workings below Arras) where twenty thousand Allied troops were secretly amassed over about two weeks in 1917 prior to a surprise attack on the Germans.
The Loos event started in the club room of the town fire brigade shortly after 9am. Since it was a cold morning, coffee and brandy formed part of the warm hospitality from the Mayor and those running the day which were very welcome. A short wreath laying ceremony took place at a memorial in the town before a service in the church of St. Vaast which, although huge, was absolutely full. Music was provided by the Fantasia Band who combine their duties as the town’s fire brigade with the role of town band. Following the service, a gathering took place in the main square where small woollen figures in national colours, symbolizing the reunification of civilian and military elements of the nation after the disruption of war across France, were handed to everyone. This was followed by a procession to the French military cemetery, in which there are also a few British military graves, where a brief service included the laying of wreaths by the Association Chairman and others.
A Vin D’Honneur concluded the formal events where the Mayor in his speech to the large gathering acknowledged the continuing close ties between the town and the London Irish Rifles. We were able to view (but there is never enough time is there?) the extensive museum and we also visited the newly opened memorial to the Canadian Division who fought for Hill 70 at the edge of the town in 1917 which was dedicated, but not yet completed, in 2017.
A visit to Loos-en-Gohelle is always an occasion for mixed emotions. We remember the contribution, bravery and loss of life of London Irishmen and, of course, those of many other Allied units. But we also share briefly in the present life of the townspeople who welcome us with great warmth as they continue with their traditional farming around the town and turn to new light industries to replace the closed coal mines that for much of the 20th century were the primary planks of the local economy. Access to that coal was in part the reason that Germany in 1915 sought to retain with such vigour this part of France that they had marched into the previous year.