The Battle of Loos, 25th September-14th October 1915, is remembered a century later as a costly missed opportunity that saw the British Army sustain 60,000 casualties. Many families lost sons, fathers, husbands, uncles and brothers needlessly. Below is part of a diary, ‘Remembrance – 6th Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-18’ by Sidney T Kemp, revealing what it was like to live through the battle, and how much it really cost. You can also read his full diary for free or read our blog giving a general run-down of the Battle of Loos:
“On October 5th we left Magingarbe to march back to the war. Terrific shelling was going on by both sides as we neared Vermelles again, for the main road passed through this village to go to Hulloch and Loos and Lens and further east. This is where the war really started for us. Let me say that Vermelles was a street with rows of small houses and terraces etc. with shops both sides of the main street. Now to the east of Vermelles, and I am pretty clear about this, I should say you could see as there were very few trees, no hedges and no buildings, a distance up the valley for at least half a mile, and I should think it was nearly another half mile before we came to the first captured German trench which ran parallel with the road leading from Vermelles to Hulloch and beyond. I always was, and still am, a good judge of distances, but in that area what lay there not only shocked us but sickened us too, for the ground was literally covered by the bodies of Scottish soldiers laying in all positions, some facing the Germans, some to the left, some to the right.
“These men were all dead and in their kilts. It looked terrible, for not only were they swelling to two or three times their proper size, but their faces and hands were black as coal, and the answer to that was gas, not German gas as was used earlier at Ypres, but British gas, and these, the young mahood of Scotland, had just rushed hell for leather into the gas they were supposed to have been following. Our second in command of B Coy, Captain Towse, begged to be allowed to take his company and bury these chaps. To put it mildly I would say there were hundreds of the flower of Scotland lying there dead, but we later on learned that two Scottish Divisions, the 9th and 15th were thrown into the battle, so those chaps like us in England who had all volunteered, were now thrown away, and hardly any German trenches captured. None of these Scottish soldiers was wearing a gas mask or respirator, whatever you call it, for it was impossible to go madly on to a bayonet charge wearing something that stopped your breathing. The mistake they made was to follow the gas and not try and travel into it. Still, that is that. After Ethel and I moved to Sevenoaks, we met a Scottish lady named Mrs Stott who was a Campbell by birth, and she told us that almost every family in Scotland was bereaved by that awful tragedy of the gas attack which failed at Loos in September 1915.
“We were now going into the German trenches, which were few. The Hohenzollern Redoubt of which the Battle of Loos seemed to be about was a vast honeycomb of fortified trenches, each one a fortress of its own and even the communication trenches were made for troops to be able to fire from. But up this road to Hulloch, before we moved off the road, we saw a sight the like that I never saw afterwards. There was a British infantryman and a German soldier standing leaning against each other, and both had lunged at the same time with their bayonets, and each bayonet was right through the body of the other. This had happened no doubt on that first day, September 25th, and these chaps, enemies to each other, had died almost at the same time. It was pretty horrible to see, but this now was war and what we had seen or done earlier on that summer at the Armentiers sector was just playing at war; that is how I saw it and still do.
“Now the Germans started to retaliate and must have brought up many more guns for their bombardment went on for hours at a time. Our battalion was kind of broken up, part of it, C and D Coy, were in one captured German trench, A and B in another with the Commanding Officer and Head Quarters tucked in beside a Guards regiment, I think it was the Coldstream Guards. Now there was a trench that had been partly captured and which was vital to both sides to have. It was called Gun Trench, from our Head Quarters it laid to the right. I have never understood how this fortified area was laid out by the Germans, but it was the most fortified position they had at our end of the line. We had trouble in getting rations and water up to any of us. We couldn’t use water to wash, and we couldn’t make tea because we had no spare water, and the parties who went to the rear to get food and water just did not return. They were probably the victims of the heavy German bombardment that was stretching well into the reserve line and beyond. I didn’t have a cup of tea or any other warmth between my lips for ten days and at times we were living on sips of water. Cordite from bursting shells makes your mouth drier and drier. I met Fred as often as possible and did my best to keep communications working, but the shelling was always there day and night.
“It was now October 8th and we learned that A Coy and part of B Coy were to attack Gun Trench that evening. Fred was there with Lieutenant Matthews and I was at Head Quarters just behind ready to do the wiring. Well it appears as if Gun Trench was one of the top posts of the German Defence system, so by coincidence he was massed to attack from it to push us further back. Well neither our fellows nor the Germans could advance much. I heard later on that Tom Harris showed immense bravery, and personally challenged the Germans to come out in the open and fight. We lost heavily and the first officer of the battalion was killed that night. His name was Lieutenant Heath of 7 Platoon B Coy. Fred was hit and badly shaken by a blow from a bursting shell splinter that hit his shoulder. After treatment by the doctor he went back to Lieutenant Matthews who was with 8 Platoon, badly now in need of food and water, as was all the rest of the battalion.
“The next morning about 8 o’clock Sergeant Dale told me and Jack Wilson, “Tug” who was now working with me on the wiring, to go and get a line through to part of B Coy who were cut off in the top end of Gun Trench. It appears that a small part of Gun Trench had been taken the previous night and about two platoons under Captain Towse were there. To get to them we had to pass through the lines held by the Battalion of Guards. We started off from where Head Quarters was, which was a captured German dug-out, started to go through the Guards lines when we met our Adjutant. He asked us where we were going, we told him, to lay a line under orders from Sergeant Dale to B Coy. He said, go back, I have just tried to reach them and the shelling a bit further on drove me back. We answered, we will try Sir. We did try. We went part of the way with the help of the Guardsmen; when an officer of the Guards saw us he ordered us to go back. He said, look at my fellows who are getting killed in front of you, and it seemed as if the Germans were concentrating heavy artillery fire just around Gun Trench, as part of it was still held by the Germans. A barrier of sand bags had been placed between one part of B Coy in the trench separating them from the Germans. Well we obeyed the Guards officer and went back and found our Adjudant waiting for us. He quietly said, you couldn’t do it could you. No Sir, we said. But I admire you for trying, said the Adjudant, and he was a fine serving officer.
“Later that morning when the German guns eased up from such heavy shelling, Tug and I started off again. We succeeded in getting a line through to our comrades this time, and weren’t they pleased to see us. There were thirty or forty of them under Captain Towse and our signallers were all right. As soon as they connected the wires, Captain Towse was talking to the Adjutant at Head Quarters when we said that we had better be getting back. He said, you two stay here, I’ve not enough men as it is if the Germans attack again. So for the rest of the day and part of the night we stayed there. The chaps had been through a very bad time sitting in an open trench with the German shells falling everywhere. Still, only a few were killed, and we just stayed and Captain Towse being a good Christian man, I have always thought that he prayed to God that day. It wasn’t many weeks before he himself was killed by a shell.
“As I said, we were relieved that night by the East Surrey Regiment, one of our sister battalions of the 37th Brigade. We went back to a reserve trench where we were served with food and water to drink. We didn’t have a wash at this period for about ten days. Well, by October 13th we were again laying wires to our A B C Coys who were now in support of the Buffs. It appeared that this time it was the Buffs and East Surreys who were to take Gun Trench. So on the afternoon of the 13th these two attacked. But it appears the Buffs were to be sacrificed to let the East Surreys get the trench. The Buffs were, therefore, sent out on the left from the trench previously held by the Guards, and the East Surreys were then to attack and take Gun Trench. They took the trench these Surrey boys, but what havoc the Germans played with the Buffs. They lost the best part of three companies, including the Commanding Officer. Len Bush, who had just joined them, was lucky because he was in the last Company of Buffs that were held back and not sacrificed. He told us all this later.
“Our fellows had many casualties because the Germans were shelling all the trenches, the reserve and support ones too, and couldn’t the Germans shoot too. We took over from where the Buffs had been and been and the next day were relieved by the Middlesex Regiment, and we went out for a few days rest we hoped, to Vermelles. The next day we were issued with some clothes and had our first wash for about ten days which meant some sort of bath. A couple of days later our Commanding Officer had us all on parade and read a message from the Brigadier congratulating us on the fine job that we had done during the last few days. Len Bush told Fred and I that they, the remainder of the Buffs, were put on parade and the General Officer Commanding the 1st Army, of which we were now part, came in person to thank and shake the hands of those of the Buffs who were spared. He was none other than General Sir Douglas Haig, and he it was who was Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force a few days later, when General French was relieved of his command.
“I should say that we of the Royal West Kents went in support of one of the regiments of the 36 Brigade who were to attack to the left part of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This attack seemed to have been hastily prepared for while we were passing through this part of the front line, we saw dug into the parapet facing the Germans about thirty to forty feet apart, cylinders which meant gas, and this meant another gas attack. So when we were taken in to support this attack I somehow guessed that is what it was all about. The attack opened with the usual heavy fire from our artillery. We the Royal West Kents were in the open support trench ready to go to the help of those in front, which I should say was three hundred yards or so. Suddenly, for I was with Battalion Head Quarters, the Adjutant got up onto the parapet and used his binoculars, so I, and I was the only one of our chaps who did it, got up and stood beside him. The gas attack was on, and I saw it gradually rise from the cylinders, form into a white cloud, and this cloud rise about six to eight feet from the ground. The whole lot joined up together, and with a west breeze behind it just went towards the German lines. Behind the gas, walking in an orderly fashion, was the infantry, but they were keeping behind the gas and not belting into it. These fellows took that trench on that October afternoon. The Adjutant was satisfied and so was I, for I think we saw the last gas attack on either side of the war. I should think this happened about October 25th or 26th, as I wrote in my diary that the 36 Brigade went back to the trenches and we supported them. So ended the first terrible chapter of our baptism to war at its worst.”