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.’