Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

Heroes of the Battle of Loos

The battle of Loos is the name given to the important military operations which took place on the British Front in September 1915. In conjunction with our brave French Ally we made a determined effort to break through the German lines in France. The 'great advance,' as it is called, was only partially successful. In Champagne the dashing French troops progressed on an extended front for a number of miles, and took many thousands of prisoners. The British captured the enemy's first-line trenches, and also took prisoners to the number of some thousands. The advance in each case may not have succeeded according to the hopes of the Allied commanders, but it proved conclusively that the German lines were not impregnable. This great forward movement was the biggest and most important event of 1915 on the Western Front, and many brave deeds were done both by regiments and individual soldiers. On the British side the two outstanding events of the battle of Loos were the capture of the village of that name and the famous Hill 70.

Weeks before this great autumn advance our artillery had bombarded the German trenches, so that by the morning of September 25th—the date fixed upon for the attack—everything was ready for our gallant troops. The barbed wire in front of the German positions had been completely cut by the shell-fire, and our men awaited the order to leave their trenches and storm the enemy's first line. It was part of our plan that the Germans should not know from what direction our main attack was coming. There was a slight rain falling and a light, south-westerly wind—not very favourable for the smoke and gas which our side had prepared to assist in the capture of the enemy trenches. At six o'clock in the morning the gas was let loose. Then at half-past six the magic word 'Go!' rang out. Shouting and cheering, our brave soldiers leapt over the parapet and, with fixed bayonets, dashed toward the foe. The full story of the great advance cannot be attempted here. Suffice it to say that its chief features were the splendid charges of the 15th (Highland) Division of the New Army and the 47th Division (London Territorials), who captured Hill 70 and the village of Loos respectively. It was very gratifying to find these two units greatly distinguishing themselves in what was practically their baptism of fire.

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During the course of this great battle very many brave acts were performed by our superb soldiers, and no less than seventeen Victoria Crosses were awarded for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, chiefly at Loos, Hill 70, and the Hohenzollern Redoubt. As it is impossible to describe the deed of each of these heroes at length, we can only refer to some of the more outstanding. All fully and equally deserved their great honour, but, as always in such cases, there were certain achievements more picturesque than others. Such a deed was that of Piper Daniel Laidlaw, 7th Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers, which we are now to describe.

Piper Laidlaw is, without doubt, the most popular hero of Loos. His story recalls the famous Dargai incident, when Piper Findlater, during an attack by the Gordon Highlanders on the enemy's positions in an Indian campaign, continued, while wounded, to play his pipes. There is a further similarity in the two cases, for Laidlaw also served on the Indian frontier as a piper—in 1897-98. When the war broke out his time as a soldier had expired, but he patriotically responded to the call and rejoined his old regiment.

On the morning of September 25th the King's Own Scottish Borderers awaited the order to go forward. The Germans had conceived the idea that the main attack was coming from the direction where this regiment was stationed, and rained high-explosive shells upon their trenches. These had the effect of driving the gas we had let loose back amongst our men. They prepared to rise over the parapet and advance, but were temporarily held up by the gas and shell-fire. Many had fallen and the situation began to look serious.

A young and fearless officer, Lieutenant Young, realized that something must be done to steady his men. He noted that Laidlaw had his pipes, and cried out:

"For God's sake, Laidlaw, pipe them together!"

For centuries the martial skirl of the bagpipes has inspired Scotland's brave sons in war, and Piper Laidlaw on this occasion literally played his comrades to victory. With absolute coolness and disregard of danger he mounted the parapet.

"You see," he said afterward, "I was only doing my duty. A piper's place is always at the head of his regiment. I always led them on the march, and it was right that I should lead them when they went to battle."

Laidlaw started to play the famous regimental march, "Blue Bonnets over the Border." The effect on his comrades was electrical. They dashed out of the trench, gave a resounding cheer, and to the strains of the martial music, dashed forward. They met with a terrible reception; the Germans rained shells into their midst. Many of the brave fellows fell, but the rest never wavered. They continued their furious charge, and as they advanced they could still faintly hear the strains of Laidlaw's pipes. The latter knew the grim task to which they had set their hands, and continued to play. The King's Own Scottish Borderers reached the Germans' first-line trenches, and used their bayonets. Then they went forward.

Laidlaw, after seeing the men well away, started to follow. He was resolved to keep up the fine fighting spirit of his comrades, and played continuously. He changed his tune to "The Braes o' Mar," an old favourite of his, and well known to every Scot. As he went forward playing, the troops were heartened, and pursued their irresistible dash.

Soon Laidlaw was forced to give up the advance. A German shell burst a few yards away. Part of it struck gallant Lieutenant Young, mortally wounding him. Laidlaw escaped the shell, but it hurled at the intrepid piper a section of the barbed-wire entanglements, through which our artillery had blasted a way. This wire cut off the heel of his boot, and a strand passed through the leather and lodged in his foot. He had previously received cuts on the face and hands, caused by fragments of shrapnel.

Nothing daunted, Piper Laidlaw continued to hobble after his comrades, still playing. Then he sank to the ground, and, although exhausted, never let go his bagpipes. Despite acute suffering, and weak as he was through loss of blood; he played an inspiring tune, so that the men in front of him should be encouraged to press forward. While lying on the ground Laidlaw had the satisfaction of seeing his regiment make its way to the third line of German trenches. He played until, overcome by sheer exhaustion, the bagpipes fell by his side.

When he had somewhat recovered his strength Laidlaw crawled back to the British lines amid the dropping shells, where he was greeted by an officer who slapped him on the back, exclaiming: "You have done very well this morning, Laidlaw!" He had, indeed!

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Among those who earned the Victoria Cross for gallant conduct at Loos were a number of officers. Of these we may single out two as typical of the conduct of our leaders on this important occasion. Second-Lieutenant Arthur J. T. Fleming-Sandes, and Battalion East Surrey Regiment, was the fifth member of that unit to win the V.C. in the war. He was twenty-one years of age at the time, and was born at Tulse Hill. He was studying for the Civil Service when war broke out, and obtained his commission after training in the Artists Rifles Officers' Training Corps.

After our men had captured the formidable Hohenzollern Redoubt the Germans made desperate efforts to regain it. The position was very critical on September 29th, when Lieutenant Fleming-Sandes was sent to the Redoubt to take charge of a company. Upon reaching the scene he found that the troops on the right were retiring. They had put up a splendid fight against overwhelming odds, and now, to avoid annihilation, had to go back. Lieutenant Fleming-Sandes' company was much shaken by continual bombing and machine-gun fire, and having run short of bombs they were in a serious predicament. The young officer took in the situation at a. glance, and by his coolness and skill was able to hearten the sorely-tried troops. He collected a number of bombs, and to the surprise of those around him fearlessly jumped on to the parapet in full view of the Germans. The latter were only twenty yards away, and the Lieutenant in thus exposing himself courted what seemed certain death. He did not stop to consider his own safety, however, but started to throw his bombs with splendid effect. Having checked the enemy's activity, he was in the act of throwing another bomb when he was struck by one of the German bombs and severely wounded. Still undaunted he struggled to his feet and continued to advance and hurl his bombs till he was again severely wounded.

His amazing bravery had the desired effect. Not only did he help to reduce the German machine-gun fire and bomb-throwing, but he put new heart into his men and saved the situation.

When he returned to London Lieutenant Fleming-Sandes was signally honoured by the Lewisham Borough Council. He was asked to sign his name on the Borough roll of honour, which hitherto only contained two names those of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer, and Sir John Knill, Bart., a former Lord Mayor of London.

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The second officer whom we have selected for mention here also distinguished himself at the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This was Captain Charles G. Vickers, 1/7th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, Territorial Force. He was twenty-one years of age at the time of the battle of Loos, and is the son of a Nottingham Lace Manufacturer. He was educated at Oundle, from which he passed to Merton College, Oxford.

Captain Vickers was an enthusiastic member of the University Officers' Training Corps, and volunteered for service at Oxford, proceeding to the front in February 1915.

None of the "notable tactical points"—to quote Sir John French's words—in the British front was more bitterly contested than the Hohenzollern Redoubt. When on October 13th the North Midland Division was ordered to retake the position, our men advanced from what was practically our original line of September 25th. The Germans, who had recaptured the fortress, had meanwhile restored its original strength.

The full story of how our men fought and won, only to lose again; how they later retook this formidable position, cannot be described here. The fiercest combats raged in the fortified trenches known as 'Big Willie' and 'Little Willie,' and Captain Vickers won his V.C. for a gallant exploit in the latter.

His story is very similar to that of Lieutenant Fleming-Sandes. Most of his men were killed or wounded, and the situation was therefore desperate. Taking his stand on the parapet, with only two men available to hand him bombs, Captain Vickers held a barrier for some hours against heavy German bomb attacks from front and flank. Regardless of the fact that his own retreat would be cut off, he ordered a second barrier to be built behind him in order to ensure the safety of the trench. He continued to hurl his bombs after he had been severely wounded, and his magnificent courage and determination enabled his men to complete the second barrier, which proved a valuable defence.

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Before describing some valiant rescues which gained the Victoria Cross for several Loos heroes, we may briefly refer to the great daring shown by Private Samuel Harvey, 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, who distinguished himself during a heavy bombing attack by the enemy at 'Big Willie' trench on September 29th. Harvey was thirty years of age at the time, and he was the second. Ipswich soldier to win the great distinction which conferred upon his regiment its first V.C. He comes of a fighting family, for three of his brothers are serving in the Army. Although born near Manningtree, Harvey spent practically all his life in the Suffolk town. He enlisted at the age of nineteen at Doncaster, and served seven years with his regiment in India, proceeding into the reserve a few weeks before the war broke out. Private Harvey went out with the original Expeditionary Force, and is one of the veterans of the campaign. He was twice wounded previous to the battle of Loos.

About the middle of September Private Harvey was looking forward to a holiday in England. His regiment was at Bethune, when it was suddenly ordered back to the firing-line, the journey being made by motor-lorry. The men of the York and Lancaster Regiment were disappointed at losing their well-deserved rest, but this quickly passed when they became aware that big things were about to take place. "We longed to be in it again," said Harvey, "rather than going home." His regiment went straight into action, to assist the Canadians, who were surrounded by German bomb-throwers. Certain trenches had been lost, and the men of the York and Lancaster Regiment were ordered to regain them.

A lieutenant of the King's Own Lancasters approached Harvey and asked him if he would show him the way across the open to the bomb stores. Harvey replied he would willingly do so, as he understood more bombs were urgently required by our men. The officer and Harvey presented an easy target for the Germans, but neither was hit. Arrived at the store the two brave men got together a large quantity of bombs and ammunition, and started to carry their loads to the firing-line. The lieutenant was killed, but Harvey persevered, and got his bombs to the troops. He saw that more ammunition would be required if the 'Big Willie' trench was to be defended against the heavy German attack. The communication trench was blocked with wounded and reinforcements, and so, without wavering, Harvey dashed back across the open, under intense fire, and brought up another box of bombs. This dangerous and brave act Harvey accomplished time after time, and succeeded in bringing up no fewer than thirty boxes of bombs before he was wounded in the head. It was mainly due to Private Harvey's cool bravery in supplying bombs that the enemy was eventually driven back from the 'Big Willie' trench.

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Another private who greatly distinguished himself was Robert Dunsire, 13th Battalion Royal Scots. He enlisted in January of 1915, and when the Royal Scots proceeded to France in July of the same year, Dunsire went in the machine-gun section.

During the early part of the battle of Loos the Royal Scots were in reserve, two miles back from the firing-line, and had an excellent view of the first of the great charges that heralded our advance. Then the Royal Scots moved forward to occupy the old firing-line, proceeding by way of the communication trenches. Dunsire says he saw "great sights" while journeying to the vacated first-line trenches. He passed the wounded being brought down—those who were not seriously hurt, laughing and cheery—also German prisoners in big batches, guarded by a few British soldiers. Having reached the old firing-line the Royal Scots remained there until night, when a further journey was made to the captured village of Loos, where they occupied a trench that had been made along the main street. The Germans started to shell this trench, and Dunsire and his comrades were ordered to proceed to the end of the village, where they fixed the machine-gun on the main street.

Later the Royal Scots were ordered to reinforce the firing-line, and after he had been there some minutes Private Dunsire observed an arm raised over the ridge between the British and German lines. He borrowed a pair of field-glasses, and studied the ground closely. What he saw convinced Dunsire that the raised arm belonged to one of our men, and he told an officer, who gave the order to "Cease Fire!" Dunsire asked for permission to go out and fetch the man. Receiving no response, he coolly jumped up and made a dash to where he thought the man would be lying. Shells and bullets fell around him, but, nothing daunted, he gained the farther side of the ridge and found the wounded man. Gently lifting him on to his shoulders, Dunsire again braved the deadly bullets. He was in full view of the Germans when he reached the ridge, but escaped being hit. Carefully and quickly he made his way back to our trenches, and deposited his human burden in the hands of capable helpers.

Dunsire knew that there must be more of our men lying out in the open, and, as if rescuing wounded comrades under a heavy fire was an everyday performance, coolly risked his life a second time to bring in a man who was even nearer the German lines. "I just trusted all to Providence," he says, "and went out."

When he again reached the top of the ridge Dunsire became a target for a regular hurricane of bullets, and had to crawl stretched at full length to reach the stricken man. The latter was very badly injured, and quite unable to move. Dunsire's task was extremely difficult, for the wounded man was very heavy, and as it was not safe to attempt to carry him just then, the hero had to haul him over the ridge. So near was Dunsire to the German trenches that he could actually see the tops of their helmets, and they kept up a hot fire upon the two soldiers. Having got the man over the ridge, Dunsire went down on his knees and heaved him on to his shoulder. Facing imminent death from the bullets whizzing around him, he then rose to his feet and staggered back to the British lines with the unconscious form on his shoulders.

Dunsire's utter disregard of danger and his noble self-sacrifice made him a hero with all. His colonel came forward and thanked him, with emotion. As he said, "You are a brave lad, Dunsire," there were tears on his cheeks.

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Had we the necessary space at our disposal we might have retold the gallant deeds of each of the Loos V.C.s—how brave Private George Peachment, of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, crawled out under an intense fire to rescue his wounded company commander, Captain Dubs, and was killed while remaining by his side; how Sergeant-Major J. C. Raynes, of the Royal Field Artillery, an ex-policeman of Leeds, rescued his friend, Sergeant Ayres, under heavy shell-fire, and performed another gallant deed at the famous 'Quality Street' position; how Private Arthur Vickers, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who tried six times at the recruiting offices before he was accepted, on account of his short stature, on his own initiative went out, under heavy shell, rifle, and machine-gun fire at Hulluch, and cut the barbed wire that was holding up a great part of the battalion. These and the remaining heroes of this great battle deserve equal mention with those above, but our space is exhausted, and here we bring to an end this little book of V.C. heroes.

Of the abundant harvest which has sprung from the native courage of the sons of Britain's Empire on the many battle-fields of the Great War only a few magnificent deeds have been described here. But enough has been told to show that, happily, this generation possesses all the grit, the determination and the endurance which, joined to the capacity for self-sacrifice, have in past ages made the record of the British Army so proud and noble a tradition, and which make glorious even cruel and barbarous war.