The mystery of the Loos casualties…

At 2.30 am on 30 September 1915 the survivors of the 9th Devons finally left the Loos battlefield, marching by companies back to Noyelles. From there they marched on together to billets in Beuvry, where they would have a day to rest and draw breath before moving on to a new trench line. They reached Beuvry around 6am. Some had been out on the battlefield for the best part of six days; others almost five. Since the 27th they had been behind the old British front line, digging and consolidating trenches and moving forward to hold the front line when ordered: they were exhausted, dirty, wet, and unshaven and they had had no rations for three days. The fighting strength of the battalion was down to 12 officers and 325 men. Before they left the trenches, Lieut. Rayner carved a memorial to his number 12 Platoon in the chalk, with a cross and the Devons’ motto ‘Semper Fidelis’

A few years ago, when I was writing Before Action  I chanced on a discussion thread on the Great War Forum concerning the 9th Devon casualties for Loos. Someone was researching a man from the battalion  killed in action on 30 September. He couldn’t understand how this fitted in with the uneventful day recorded in the War Diary. I registered this as an interesting question but not one I needed to answer just then. Coming back to it now, I find that it’s a much bigger question than it seemed.

Atkinson’s history of the Devonshire Regiment lists all the First World War casualties by battalion, with names, dates and other details. He identifies a total of 120 men of the 9th Battalion killed in action or died of wounds during the time they were engaged at Loos. Save for a few individuals, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records tally. So it comes as a surprise to find that in the chaos of 25 September, when the CO, his second in command, three of the four company commanders and.most of the subalterns became casualties, and when those who managed to get across the battlefield to Gun Trench faced shell and sniper fire through the day and a vicious counter-attack during the night, only five other ranks are supposed to have died. On the 26th, apparently, four men died; then two on the 27th, when the battalion was pulled back from Gun Trench; two on the 28th and three on the 29th. But on the 30th, when the battalion marched away to Beuvry in the early hours, the total shoots up to 105 men.

The CWGC reduces the figure slightly, moving four of Atkinson’s 30 September casualties to the 25th, one to the 26th, and one ‘between 25/09/1915 and 30/09/1915’. That still leaves us with 99 men dying on a day when the battalion went out of the line. Two can be accounted for: they died of wounds and have known graves; 19-year-old Private Ernest Reeves in Chocques Military Cemetery  north of Bethune, where there was a Casualty Clearing Station, and Private John Henry Watson at Etaples: he died in the hospital at Camiers. No mystery about them, but what of the other 97? All their names are on the Loos Memorial to the Missing, along with most of those said to have died on the 25th or the days following.

There has to be a mistake here, but it’s hard to see how it happened. Easy enough to understand that in the chaos of the first few hours no one would have seen what was happening to any man not immediately in view. The scattered groups of survivors pinned down in Gun Trench for two days did begin to take stock, or try to, and a more comprehensive view was possible after the 27th, when they were all together. At Beuvry there would surely have been a roll call and lists of the missing would have been made. And maybe by then there would be a lot of men  whom no one remembered seeing. But putting together all the accounts of what happened, from the official records to private letters describing individual experiences, it seems clear that most of the 97 would have died crossing no man’s land or in Gun Trench, on 25 or 26 September.  The survivors would have known that and even if they weren’t sure which day a man died, why would they record an obviously wrong dat, the 30th? A simple administrative mistake, perhaps? The officer writing up the list at Beuvry on 30 September started with the date, 30 September, and someone at Brigade or further back took it to be the date of death?  I’m floundering here… If anyone reading this knows the answer or has any better ideas, please say!


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