Dawn on the battlefield: what happened after 25 September

What happened to the battalion after 25 September?: the following extract is taken from my book Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War, Pen & Sword, December 2014, pp. 128 – 130

Dawn brought the welcome sight of Duncan Martin and the other officers and men who had been held back from the first day’s fighting. Pridham was with them too. They joined Brindley, Hodgson and Rayner under the captured guns. Captain Martin assumed command and set about organising the defence of their position. It was not over yet. They were still tired, wet and hungry. They were still in the middle of a battlefield, closer to the enemy than they were to their own side and out of reach of any support the Army could give, save artillery. The Quarries at the end of Stone Alley, yards north of their position, had been lost during the night leaving them completely exposed. At 9.50am Lieutenant Brindley sent another message to Brigade HQ which emphasises their tension and uncertainty: ‘The enemy are working along from pt 70 to pt 54 [the southern edge of the Quarries leading into Stone Alley] from where they can enfilade our position in GUNPITS 22 – 57. . . It appears as if a flank attack were meditated . . .. Could you please get the artillery to fire on the QUARRY area . . . We are badly handicapped by the lack of a wire to Hdqtrs . . . Capt Martin is now in command. He says that there are about 80 of the 9th Dev on the other side of the HULLUCH Rd but we are not in touch with them . . .Will you please inform me what arrangements have been made about water tonight. . . Our artillery has sent a good many premature bursts into our trench.’

The Germans did not attack. During the morning Duncan Martin was able to establish a reliable line of communication with the Devons south of the Hulluch Road. At mid-day a runner from Brigade HQ brought news of an impending attack on Cité St Elie, but despite a heavy bombardment which lasted all afternoon, no attack came. As darkness fell, another runner warned the Devons to expect relief from the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. Hours passed and nothing happened. It was after midnight when the relief at last arrived and the depleted Battalion was able to move back by Companies – what was left of them – to the original front line. But they were still in the battle. By 3am they had taken up positions in Old Support and Curly Crescent – the very positions they had been aiming for on Saturday morning at the start of the battle, when the crush of wounded men in the trench forced them to climb out and advance in the open. Later in the morning saw the return of the Prodigal – Jack Inchbald and his handful of men, after their visit to 1st Division.* ‘I didn’t know what on earth had happened to our battalion and when I eventually rejoined them on the Monday morning I was quite relieved to find Prid, Smyth, who did magnificently and saved both Anderson and Nation, Smiler, Brindley & Nibby. We six alone were left after the strafe. Of course Thompson, Iscariot [Captain Martin] and Findlay came up the next day.’

For the next three days they remained in the line, moving forward to dig trenches or stand to arms when ordered. ‘We had stuck in Curly till Thursday in misery,’ Harold Rayner wrote, ‘being wettish, and the chalk mud awful. The men never complained and were splendid. We got no rations, and despite all, stuck it. The officers who came through were very popular with the men. I was plastered with mud. My tunic badly torn with wire, my fingers very tender from crawling on the ground, and my beard terrific.’ Finally, at 2.30a.m. on 30 September, their relief came and they began the march back through Vermelles and Noyelles towards rest billets in Beuvry, just east of Béthune.

[*Jack had lost sight of his own platoon when he was sent forward to observe. Seeing one of the other officers wounded he rounded up his men and took them across the battlefield, in the right direction, he thought. In fact the ended up a long way to the south, in another divisional area.]

Loos: night on the battlefield

Through the afternoon of 25 September those members of the battalion who had managed to cross No Man’s Land were pinned down in two small groups, unable to move forward or back. Lieutenant Brindley’s party was in Gun Trench, north of the Vermelles – Hulluch Road; Captain Nation’s party had pushed ahead as far as the Hulluch Crossroads, south of the road. . .

[The following extract is taken from my book Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War, Pen & Sword, Dec 2014, pp 127-128]

But the risk of counter-attack was real. Around midnight the Germans attacked in strength on both sides of the Hulluch Road. Lieutenant Brindley’s party were fortunate in having bombers and two machine guns, and they were able to hold their ground. On the right, though, the attack on the Devons at Hulluch crossroads was so fierce that they were driven back into Gun Trench and beyond, mixed up with their attackers. For a moment it looked as if the Germans had broken through. Brindley, Hodgson and Rayner tried to keep their men from seeing the fighting on the road, knowing that if it was a break through, they would be cut off. According to Harold Rayner, some of the defenders on their right did start to break, ‘and Chinky [Smyth] made them stand fast with the help of the Devons . . . . One way and another he stopped the rot and beat off the counter attack.’ Smyth re-took the trench and with the help of some well-aimed British artillery fire on the road the counter attack petered out. ‘A few shadowy figures are soon all that is left of the attack, running back to cover. . . . no one can live in that hell of shrapnel.’

At 12.45am Lieutenant Brindley sent a message to Brigade HQ. ‘The Germans have just attacked but were driven off without much difficulty though the troops on the right of HULLUCH RD left us in the air. Lieuts HODGSON & RAYNER & about 90 men are with me. Lt PRIDHAM & party of 25 has not returned from drawing rations. We shall want more S.A.A [small arms ammunition] & bombs, but cannot spare men to fetch them.’ Then there was nothing to do but rest, and wonder what the dawn might bring.

Captain Nation had been left for dead at Hulluch crossroads. In fact, he was unconscious. The story told in his company for months after was that he had been bayoneted while in this state, but Major Anderson did not think so. ‘Poor N was badly wounded, (thro’ the centre of the body, from R to L I believe) and left for dead in a dug out,’ he told John Upcott. ‘His wounds were dressed by a German officer & he was not bayoneted but nearly stripped naked while unconscious.’ Nation came to in the early hours of the morning and, finding himself completely alone, managed somehow to crawl back towards Gun Trench, until he was seen by some of the 8th Devons who brought him in. By then he was failing fast. Smyth gave what first aid he could, and two of the Company volunteered to carry Nation back to their own lines, using a trench ladder as a stretcher.

Loos: the first morning

The morning at Loos: extract from my book Before Action:Wiliam Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword December 2014, pp122-126

At 5.50am an intensive bombardment began. ‘What one chiefly noticed was not the noise but the steady swish of the shells passing by hundreds over head.’  This provoked German shelling in reply, which caused some casualties among the men waiting in the forward trenches. Then gas and smoke were released along the British line. At 6.25am, five minutes before the attack began, the rear companies of the 9th Devons, C and D, began to move forward along the trenches leading to the front line. As they reached A and B, so they too began to move. That was at about 6.30am, when the first wave of the attack emerged from the front line. There, in front, the scene was chaotic. The rear Companies of the 8th Devons advanced too quickly, leading to crowding at the prepared gaps in the wire – creating an easy target for rifles and machine guns in the enemy trenches. There was also gas in the air, the wind being too light to carry it away. A private in the 8th Battalion described the scene for a local paper: ‘When we got over the parapet we were met with terrible rifle and shell fire, gas and barbed wire. The enemy seemed to know what we were going to do. . . It was terrible at that point; I am sorry to say scores got killed just here.’ They did. The 8th Battalion lost all but three of its officers at this point, killed or wounded.
What this meant to the 9th Devons, trying to make their way forward, was that as they drew nearer the front the trenches became increasingly choked with wounded from the Battalions that had already gone over. There were other hazards too. C Company was held up for an agonising 15 minutes when their machine guns became entangled with the telephone wires. The decision to give up on the congested trenches altogether and move forward in the open seems to have been made piecemeal. Noel Hodgson and the rest of D Company climbed out of Chapel Alley at the chapel of Notre Dame de Consolation, close to the Hulluch Road, at 7.45am John Upcott saw Alan Hinshelwood moving in the open and climbed onto the parapet of his own communication trench to get some idea of what was happening. He could see right across the battlefield to the village of Cité St Elie, far off behind the German lines, where shadowy figures were moving; who they were he could not tell. It was Major Storey who told him to take C Company out of the trench and across open ground.
There was no alternative if they were to go forward, but leaving the trenches exposed them to rifle and machine gun fire. Geoffrey Tracey, the machine gun officer, was killed as he climbed out of the trench; his sergeant was awarded the Military Medal for taking his place and getting the machine guns up. Tracey was nineteen, just a month short of his twentieth birthday. Major Storey was hit in the right shoulder a few minutes after John Upcott spoke to him. The bullet severed an artery and he would have died if Lieutenant Brindley had not been able to bind the wound and staunch the bleeding. The second-in-command, Major Anderson, also had a narrow escape. One hazard of advancing overground from the rear was the need to cross the forward trenches before reaching no-man’s-land. John Upcott saw the Major attempt to jump a trench and fall in. He helped him out, then they must have been hit at almost the same moment. The Major was shot in the chest, the bullet passing from left to right and grazing his lung, but narrowly missing his heart. ‘I collapsed like a shot rabbit, completely winded, & thought all my ribs were broken by a piece of shell. After a time Smyth came & relieved me of my pack & gave me 1st aid in a most splendid manner & put me on my back where I lay panting from 8.45am to 5pm or later. Some stray men picked me up & brought me along to an Ambulance motor some 1½ miles & I eventually got to 2nd Red Cross Hospl, Rouen.’
Upcott had just returned to his men when, ‘I felt a terrific blow to the shoulder & dropped on my hands & knees. The men thinking it was a signal dropped also. I waved the advance & they went on again. I could see nothing wrong with my shoulder, though my arm & hand were very stiff & numb. Getting up I ran forward & got in front of the line again. M[artin] saw my shoulder & told me I was wounded. Looking down I saw my tunic was covered with blood. Then we separated, he going down the line to the left, while I led the right forward. I remember wishing my wound had been worse, for enfilade fire was sweeping us from the flank & I saw that few of us would get through. The suspense of waiting for one’s quietus is under such circumstances almost unbearable.’
A stretcher bearer in one of the trenches signalled to him to have his wound dressed. He jumped down and was just being attended to when a shell hit the next bay of the trench, exploding an unused gas canister. Gas began to fill the trench; with only one hand useable, John Upcott was not able to put his mask on quickly enough. He took in sufficient gas to make him feel very ill, and a passing Chaplain set him on the way back towards Vermelles, and safety.
All this before they even reached the front line. From about 100 yards back, Harold Rayner watched Captain Muntz and Lieutenant Worrall of B Company cross the low ridge that marked the front under heavy shelling, trying to encourage their men. They passed out of sight; when he reached the place himself with his platoon they were nowhere to be seen. They saw him, though, or at least, Frank Worrall did. ‘I saw Rayner with a small crowd as he passed the 2nd G[erman] trenches but was too weak to cheer him on loud enough to be heard. I got my leg smashed up there. The other two [wounds] didn’t worry me much except I bled a lot and my right arm is still a bit stiff. Yes the lads were grand. . . . I have heard from about 24 of my wounded and my killed were few.’ John Pocock, also of ‘B’ Company, had shrapnel in both legs and an arm broken by a bullet. ‘Pussy’ Martin came across him on the journey back to hospital, and learned from him ‘that Worrall got one in each leg below the knees. Poor old Muntz got one in the mouth & had his top lip split & some teeth carried away.’
‘Pussy’ was injured himself. ‘I got a bullet through my leg,’ he told John Upcott. ‘I have only a hazy recollection of it getting me, but it must have been during one of our halts, as the bullet entered the top of my left calf, travelled down the bone & came out about a foot lower down. It gave me some hell. After a time I thought it advisable to get back to our trenches . . . I got there eventually, picking up a bullet through my left knee on the way.’ Signalling officer Frederick Allen was shot in the stomach and lay out on the battlefield until evening. He died in the Casualty Clearing Station at Lapugnoy. In D Company, Captain Mockridge was wounded in the thigh, Alan Hinshelwood’s arm was broken by a rifle bullet and Bertram Glossop was shot in the leg. His last sighting of the survivors, Noel Hodgson and Mervyn, ‘the Bart’ Davies, still leading D company and the bombers forward, was passed on in ‘Pussy’ Martin’s letter; ‘I got the latest report from him to the effect that Mervyn with an evil leer on his face and his bandy legs twinkling in and out among the bullets was still going strong. Smiler with his bombers was doing great execution against a M.G. [machine gun] in the Breslau redoubt. When last seen Rayner was rushing along at the head of his men somewhere by the German first line, waving a pistol and shouting wildly!’
Hodgson and his bombers had been called away to the left to help deal with a strongpoint in the German line, where they and bombers from the 2nd Borders took 150 prisoners. Rayner saw the prisoners being taken towards the British lines and felt an uncharacteristic surge of anger, knowing that these were the men who had caused so many casualties in the Battalion. He attended to a few of the wounded men close to him, made sure they had water bottles, and pointed them in the direction of the nearest Advanced Dressing Station. Then he paused to take stock. He thought he had about two to three dozen men of C Company with him, and some of B. Ahead of him he could see Noel Hodgson and Lieutenant Brindley, who took over, gathering everyone into a German trench the British knew as Stone Alley. Mervyn Davies was there too with survivors of D company, and Brindley led them into Gun Trench – a series of gun emplacements where eight or nine German guns had been captured by the 8th Devons and the Borders in the first wave of the attack. The bombers rejoined the party. At 10am, Hodgson led them in a reconnaissance through a communication trench leading towards Cité St Elie, to see if it was possible to advance further. But at Puits Trench, which encircled the village on the south-western side, they encountered a thicket of uncut barbed wire. So the survivors began to dig in around the captured guns. It may have seemed unnecessary when there were well-dug German trenches nearby, but it was the safest option. German gunners in the rear could range shells accurately on what had been their own trenches but they would avoid hitting the guns. Given a chance, they would recapture those intact.
Only Harold Rayner was no longer part of this group. He had been diverted by a Staff Captain, who ‘appeared from nowhere in front, and told me to make a line straight in front, so I took some fifteen men, and took up a position on the edge of the rank grass.’ They had no trench and no cover except the grass. While things were quiet this did not matter, though it frustrated Rayner that the village looked empty and might have been taken if only reinforcements were at hand. This was a general experience at Loos. Along the battle front, survivors of the first waves watched helplessly while fresh German troops were brought in, strengthening thinly held positions and making their own plight more dangerous. After about an hour, Rayner saw a sudden increase in gunfire from the village in response to an advancing Company of the Wiltshire Regiment, most of whom were hit. Somewhere around mid-day shells began to fall too, making his position untenable. So he led his men on a crawl through the grass to the safety of the nearest trench, gathering up discarded ammunition on the way. They found themselves in a different part of Gun Trench full of Wiltshires, who directed them to another group of 9th Devons under Lieutenant Pridham. After the first adrenaline rush of the battle a reaction was setting in. There was a cold drizzle falling, and ‘Pridham seemed rather lost and not at all interested in my arrival.’

The last day before Loos

From my book Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War, Pen & Sword, Dec. 2014, pp. 120-122 [ISBN 1783463759]

During the day on 23 September the Devons rested. At 7pm they paraded as a thunderstorm broke, and they marched through torrential rain to Verquin, the sudden, sharp bursts of lightning a grim forewarning of what was to come. They arrived just over three hours later. After breakfast the next morning, Major Storey called the officers to Battalion HQ to go over their orders for the attack. ‘I sat with Tracey in the window, where it was difficult to hear because of the traffic passing constantly over the cobbled streets below’ – this was John Upcott – ‘We are to be in support of the Gordons & 8th Devons. . . . The final objective is unlimited, but we are to make for Pontavendin Bridge if we get through.’ The rest of the morning was given over to kit inspections and the testing of smoke helmets. In the afternoon Hodgson marched his bombers to Sailly Labourse to draw grenades from Brigade stores. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

We had our last supper together in the back room of a little shop at the end of the street. A parcel had just arrived from home & we did our best to finish it; especially the salted almonds which mother had sent. Many of the men asked for a service. It was too late, poor chaps; there were plenty going before. The R.C.s had one in the village church. All the time we were having supper, a 15 inch howitzer was making the whole crazy little house rock.’

At 10pm the Battalion left Verquin, Noel Hodgson at the back in D Company with his Welsh-speaking platoon and his bombing sections. John Upcott, ahead of them with C, and riding now that he commanded his Company, captured the scene in his diary:

There was a full moon; the guns had stopped & the open fields looked glorious in the moonlight as we followed the tracks across the stubble; once a gun limber at full gallop nearly rode into the column at right angles, but I rode out of the line & stopped it. My sensations were such as I had never felt before – a curious detached feeling combined with a great peace of mind – as someone put it “as though we were all on the brink of the next world.” I used the T[homas] à Kempis Prayer, I remember, as I rode. “Defend & keep the souls of thy servants among so many perils of this corruptible life & Thy grace going with us, direct us to the country of everlasting clearness.” And yet I was sure that my time had not come. At Noyelles the column halted & I dismounted & sent my horse back by my groom, giving him my greatcoat & spurs.’

Now the Companies moved off one by one along the Vermelles Road at fifteen minute intervals, walking in single file through the ruins of Vermelles. Major Storey watched them pass before going forward himself. Being at the back, in support of the other Battalions, the 9th Devons took up positions in trenches just beyond the railway line to the east of Vermelles, some distance from the front line. By 2am they were all in place. The final timings for the attack were received at 20 Brigade HQ at 3.40am, and messages were sent round the various units.