THE BATTLE OF LOOS
For three weeks in September the Battalion practised the attack in Burbure, which it left on the 20th. Before leaving Burbure an amusing incident took place. The Battalion had paraded and was ready to move off. Suddenly two young women, who were watching dashed into the ranks, embraced two of the men, kissed them with resounding smacks, and then disappeared in the gloom. The consternation of the two men caused great amusement to all. The "Ninth" moved up by stages, marching via Lapugnoy and Verquin, to its battle position in trenches by Le Rutoire Farm, which it reached on the 24th. The Battalion and the London Scottish formed a body called "Green's Force," to which was given as a first objective the German front line trenches in the vicinity of Lone Tree, as this objective was left uncovered by the diverging advance of the 1st Brigade on the right and the 2nd Brigade on the left.
In the grey light of the morning on the 25th September the British guns opened with a furious fire after many days of artillery preparation. The great battle had begun. For some time, and according to orders, the Battalion remained in its position. It was not to advance before 8 0 a.m. At this time the men left the assembly trench to move over the open to the front line. The enemy machine gunners had the range, and several were wounded almost on leaving the trench. The advance was made by sectional rushes, each section seeking what cover there was. Those who were wounded while actually advancing in many cases received slight wounds, but those that were hit while lying down were generally killed, as the bullets struck them in the head or traversed the vital organs for the length of the body. It required a courageous heart to advance seeing one's comrades thus desperately wounded or lying dead. The shell fire was not heavy, and few casualties were attributable to it. Lieutenant Colonel Ramsay led the attack in person, and he was easily recognisable by the wand which he carried. One of the Battalion machine guns was pushed forward about 2 0 p.m. and under the covering fire it afforded the advance was continued. The advance had been slow and losses were severe, but at 3 30 p.m. the men had succeeded in establishing themselves in one line about a hundred yards from the German trenches. A few minutes afterwards the Germans surrendered, and between three and four hundred prisoners were taken. They chiefly belonged to the 59th and 157th Infantry Regiments. A harvest of souvenirs was reaped by the men, many of whom secured the then coveted Pickelhaube helmet. The prisoners were sent to the rear, and the Battalion continued the advance and ultimately established a line on the Lens Hulluch Road. It is to be observed that the Battalion was the only one that got its field kitchens up to the village of Loos on the first day of the battle. At 4 0 a.m. next morning the Battalion was withdrawn to the old British line. Later in the day it moved forward to the old German trench system as reserve in the continued operations, sustaining several gas and shell casualties. On the 28th September the Battalion moved back to Mazingarbe, as the men thought, for a rest. They were soon disappointed. At 7 p.m. on the same day orders were received to take up a position at the Slag Heap or Fosse at Loos, known as London Bridge. At 9 0 p.m. the Battalion left its billets in a deluge of rain and marched back to the line in splendid spirits in spite of the fatigue resulting from the recent fighting. It was relieved from the trenches on the 30th September, and after one night spent in the ruined houses of Loos went to Noeux les Mines for a few days to reorganise and re-equip.
On the 7th October the Battalion returned to the front line which was alongside the Lens Hulluch Road to the north of Loos. The trench had evidently once been the ditch on the side of the road. It was very shallow, and it was decided to deepen it the next night as the men were too tired after their long march. This was a good resolution, but it was not carried out. The enemy commenced next morning about half past ten with heavy shell fire. In the afternoon it became intense and an attack seemed imminent. There was no shelter in the shallow trench, as there had not been sufficient time to make any dug outs. The men could do nothing but wait. Minutes seemed hours. The shelling appeared endless. So terrific was the enemy fire that it was doubted by the artillery observers in rear whether any of the front line garrison was left alive. Ail who might be lucky enough to escape physical destruction would at any rate be morally broken. The Germans who had concentrated in the Bois Hugo attacked about 4 30 p.m. They were repulsed by rifle and machine gun fire, and it is gratifying to know that two of the Battalion machine guns caught the enemy in enfilade and executed great havoc. So exhausted were the men that the Battalion was relieved that night and taken to the neighbourhood of Le Rutoire Farm.
Acquitting themselves with a noble fortitude, the stretcher bearers whose task was, perhaps, the worst of all remained and toiled all night in evacuating the trenches of the wounded. To stretcher bearers fall the most trying duties in war, but in accounts of battles little mention is made of their efforts. While the fight is on they share all the dangers of the private soldier, and often they have to remain when the others are relieved to finish their duty. The terrible sights of open wounds, bodies that have been minced by shell splinters, torn off limbs, dying men uttering their last requests, are enough to unnerve the bravest men. The stretcher bearers nevertheless continue with their task, well knowing what fate may soon befall them.
For the second time in a fortnight the 9th King's had been called upon to play an important part, and worthily had the men acquitted themselves on each occasion.
The following letters were received by the Battalion and show the value of the good work done:-
To 1st Division.
1st Div. No.604/2 (G).
To 2nd Infantry Brigade.
The above remarks were communicated to the men, and they were all very proud of the achievement of their unit and that it had so highly distinguished itself in the defence of their country. For a few days the Battalion remained in support, sending forth working parties each night for the battle that was still continuing.
On the 13th October the 1st Division attacked the village of Hulluch. An intense barrage was directed against the enemy trenches in the early part of the afternoon, and after a discharge of cloud gas an attempt was made in vain to reach the enemy trenches. The 9th was held in close support, ready to exploit any success that was gained, but, unfortunately, the attack was a total failure. The Battalion came in for some very heavy retaliatory shell fire.
On the 14th October the Battalion was taken out of the line and marched to Noeux les Mines, where it entrained for Lillers. Here the men were accommodated in houses in the centre of the town in the vicinity of the Church and the Rue Fanien. The billets were good, the parades not severe, and several of the officers who were well quartered felt to some extent the comforts of a home. The training area was near Burbure, where the Battalion had trained for the battle. Many faces were missing that had been present at the jovial little gatherings that had taken place before the battle, and the survivors wondered at times who would be wanting at the next divisional rest.
As the parades were not onerous, there was plenty of time for recreation. Concerts were arranged in the local concert hall at which the latent talent of the Battalion came into evidence. Leave opened, and the prospect of a trip to England was cheering to those who expected one. The rest at Lillers was pleasantly spent and it was a long time before the men enjoyed a similar holiday.
On the 15th November the Battalion paraded on the Church Square and then marched to Houchin, a particularly dirty little village, where a week was spent. From there it went to Brigade Reserve in the mining village of Philosophe, in which, though very close to the line, a few civilians still remained. Butter, milk and other articles of food could be obtained from the French shopkeepers, and English newspapers could be bought in the streets the day after publication. It was a fairly quiet place, though one's hours were punctuated by the intermittent firing of a battery of 4.7 guns in the colliery in rear, which fired over the billets.
One of the Regular battalions of the 3rd Infantry Brigade was too weak in numbers to do trench duty, and the 9th had the honour of replacing it, and on the 26th November the Battalion found itself once more in the front line and in exactly the same position as the one in which it had so signally distinguished itself on the 8th October.
Snow was lying on the ground and it was freezing hard. Henceforth the men were to know the hardships of a winter campaign. There were no deep dugouts and there were not sufficient shelters for the men to sleep in. During the course of the winter, exposure alone killed some. Ever since the battle the Loos sector had been very active, especially on Sundays, and the trenches and alleys which led up to them were in a very wet condition. The numbers lost in the recent fighting had not been made up, and "C" Company, the weakest, had a trench strength all told of only 67 officers and men.
The relief from the front line on the night of the 29th November was particularly severe. Following the frost came rain on that particular day, and the relief was carried out on a very black night in a steady downpour, and everyone was quickly wet through. The trenches filled with water and the men had first to wade through deep sludge and then over rain sodden ground ankle deep in mud. The men's clothes became caked with the mud from the sides of the trench, which increased the weight to be carried.
During the tours of duty in this sector the paucity of the numbers and the length of the communication trenches made the difficulties of food supply very great. Behind the front line in the Loos sector was a devastated region extending backwards for over two miles. There seemed a big gap between the front line and any form of civilisation. Usable roads were wanting, so that the transport could not approach near to the Battalion. Consequently each company had to detail its own ration party of twenty to twenty five men, and these would assemble just after dusk and wander along Posen or Hay Alley back to the vicinity of Lone Tree, and there pick up the rations and water from the transport wagons. The communication trenches contained a lot of water and caused great hardship to those men who were not fortunate enough to possess gum boots. These ration fatigues lasted from three to five hours, after which the men had to continue their trench duties. Each man cooked his rations as best he could, in his own mess tin; this meant that he did not get a hot meal which was so badly needed in the intensely cold weather.
In this sector there was a great shortage of water. Washing and shaving were impossible, and at times there was not enough to drink. On one occasion a man was known to have scraped the hoar frost off the sandbags to assuage his thirst, and some drank the dirty water that was to be found in shell craters.
At this time there was a great danger of a gas attack, and it was customary to have a bugler on duty in the front line to sound the alarm when gas was seen coming over a scheme which was scarcely likely to be efficacious, for in a few moments he would have been gassed himself. Each man had two anti gas helmets, one with a mica window, and the other with glass eyepieces and a tube through which to breathe out, and which was known later as a P.H. helmet. There were Vermorel Sprayers here and there in the trench, which were entrusted to the care of the sanitary men. Instruction was given from time to time in anti gas precautions, but viewed from a subsequent standpoint these defensive measures were not good.
Steel helmets were in possession of the bombers, who were then called "Grenadiers," and wore little red cloth grenades on their arms. These helmets were called "bombing hats," and regarded as a nuisance. Each man of the Battalion had a leather jerkin and a water proof cape, and the majority had a pair of long gum boots.
There was only one Verey light pistol in each company, and this was carried by the officer on duty. There was no special S.O.S. signal to the artillery. Telephonic communication from the front line existed, and this was freely used. It was not known at the time that the enemy had evolved a means whereby he could hear these conversations. To prevent an illness known as "trench feet" each man had to grease his feet daily with whale oil, which was an ordeal on a bitterly cold day in wet, muddy trenches. With such meticulous care was this done that the Battalion had not more than three cases of trench feet during the whole of that winter, a circumstance which reflects much credit on the men. The defence scheme at this time was to hold the front line in the greatest strength available, and the supports were rather far away. The system of echeloned posts had not yet been developed. Machine guns were kept in the first trench and on account of the intense cold had to be dismounted and kept by lighted braziers to keep the lubricating oil and water in their jackets from freezing. The entanglement in front was very poor and consisted only of one fence.
When not in the line the Battalion rested at Noeux-les Mines or Mazingarbe. At this latter village Christmas Day was spent. Companies were told to make their own arrangements for providing the men with a good dinner on this day. The officers provided the funds and the difficulties of supply were overcome through the aid of Monsieur Levacon, the French interpreter attached to the Battalion. Pigs and extra vegetables were bought; apples and oranges came from somewhere. After great exertions a few barrels of beer came on the scene. Christmas puddings came from England. The school at Mazingarbe made an excellent dining room for two of the companies and through the kindness of a Royal Engineer company in the village the officers were able to secure the necessary timber to improvise tables and chairs. The dinner was a great success and contributed not a little to the good feeling which existed between officers and men.
The next day the Battalion returned to the line. Though not known at the time this was to be the last tour of duty with the 1st Division. Early in January the truth became known that the Battalion was to leave the Division, and on the 7th it proceeded by train to Hocquincourt.
In the 1st Division it had had the honour of serving alongside some of the most illustrious regiments of the Regular Army. The example set by these famous regiments was readily copied, and in some respects emulated, and it is not untrue to say that none of these Regular battalions assumed an air of superiority, but displayed a sense of admiration that Territorial soldiers could have so quickly learnt the profession of war. So good was the human material in the Battalion that, in the space of a few months spent on active service, a body of men picked in a desultory fashion from various trades and occupations was quickly formed into an entity which was able to take its place alongside experienced units of the Army.
The Regiment had already won its laurels at the Battle of Loos. Its glorious achievements were known in Liverpool. It was a Battalion to which all its members were proud to belong. The fame of a military body is a bond of unity which those who have not been soldiers can scarcely understand. The reputation of one's regiment is a matter of personal pride. It is a kind of cement which holds it together at all times. The old spirit soon permeates the newcomers, the recruits become imbued with the spirit which led the veterans to victory, and so it was with this Battalion.