In the early hours of 25 September the 9th Devons took up position in the support trenches and waited. Three hours, then the bombardment intensified. Fifteen minutes, gas and smoke were released along the British lines. At 6.30 am the attack began. The 8th Devons, in the first wave, left their trenches and the 9th began to move forward. Before long, though, their designated route through the communication trenches was so congested with returning wounded that progress became impossible. They climbed out and advanced across the open.
Hard to imagine, now, that first moment of exposure to actual battle. Under intense bombardment and enfiladed by machine gun and rifle fire, in a smoke and gas cloud which the light wind was barely moving, the open ground ahead of the Devons was already littered with dead and wounded. No time, though, to watch or wonder. Perhaps the uncomfortable gas hoods they wore were almost a mercy at first, impairing vision and fixing each man’s view on the way ahead – until they became so uncomfortable and unpleasant they had to be taken off.
Advance. Before reaching no-man’s-land the CO, Colonel Storey, his second-in-command and three of the four company commanders had fallen victim to shell or machine gun fire. Several subalterns were also down and a substantial number of men. The survivors pushed on as best they could. By 8.15 two groups had reached the former German front line. South of the Vermelles-Hulluch road the remnants of A company, with Captain Nation and two subalterns, continued to move forward until they linked up with men from the first wave of the attack.
North of the road, the adjutant, Captain Brindley, and three junior officers led what was left of B, C and D companies across open ground to the site of four captured German artillery guns; the position would become know as Gun Trench. Noel Hodgson and his bombers diverted briefly to help the battalion on their left but soon rejoined them. Later, Brindley would tell the official historian of the war that he had too few men to attempt any further advance. A reconnaissance led by the bombers had found thickets of uncut wire ahead; they had no choice but to dig in where they were. So they set about digging a new trench right under the guns, knowing this was the safest option: German gunners in the rear could range fire accurately on what had been their own trenches but they would avoid hitting the guns. Given a chance, they would want to take those back intact.
Safest, but not safe. Snipers from the village of Cité St Elie to the left punished every careless movement. Shells were still falling. During the morning Captain Brindley was talking to 2nd Lieutenant Davies when a shell landed near them. Brindley was stunned for a few moments. Davies disappeared. Around mid-day a company of the Wiltshire regiment attempted to reinforce and the Devons looked on helpless as over half of the would-be reinforcements fell to machine gun fire from the village.
It was a miserable afternoon. The light drizzle of early morning had turned to a steady, unremitting downpour. Few were equipped for rain; in his own account of the battle Noel Hodgson described how he tried to take a dead man’s waterproof. The waterproof groundsheets they had were given to the wounded. Exhausted, hungry, soaked and very muddy, the officers gradually managed to sort their own men out from the survivors of other battalions and to organise the best defence they could, knowing that a counter attack must come.
And it did, falling particularly hard south of the road. Captain Nation was badly wounded and had to be left behind as the survivors of A Company, together with remnants of other battalions, were pushed back to Gun Trench and beyond. For a few moments there was chaos as the defenders north of the road realised that part of Gun Trench had fallen, but they held on and kept firing. 2nd Lieutenant Smyth of A company rallied the survivors to the south and re-took the trench, and with the help of some well-aimed British artillery fire on the road the counter attack petered out.
It was long past midnight when the survivors paused to draw breath and wondered what the dawn would bring.