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.

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