Staffordshire's Territorials and the Assault on the Hohenzollern Redoubt 13th October 1915
"It was absolute hell with the lid off. Dying and wounded all over the place.
Shall never forget this day."
Private Sidney Richards
Machine Gun Section, 1/5th Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment
Entry in his pocket diary for 13th October 1915
On the road between Vermelles to Hulluch stands a stone cross commemorating an action largely forgotten today. The memorial is that of 46th (North Midland) Division and commemorates the sacrifice made by their comrades on one afternoon in October 1915.
The year sees the 85th Anniversary of the North Midlanders' attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This action took place during the final stage of the Battle of Loos, a battle that does not receive the same coverage as later battles on the Somme and Third Ypres. The losses experienced by the units of the 46th (North Midland) Division were just as devastating as those suffered by the "Pals" Battalions of 31st Division at Serre on 1st July 1916 - the "First Day of the Somme" - the same day that the North Midlanders were again in action at Gommecourt. The communities from which the units recruited also had many of their sons killed, but the impact of the casualties suffered on 13th October 1915 was diminished by other battles as the war progressed. Few people have heard of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, but most have at least some awareness of the Somme.
This narrative is primarily based on the letters and diaries of soldiers from Staffordshire who took part in the Division's assault on the Hohenzollern Redoubt on 13th October 1915. Their impressions of the battle were often written within days of the events described taking place. War Diaries and Battalion Histories were used to construct the description of the planning and preparations that took place before the assault. The same sources provided information regarding the sequence of events during the battle, supported by the personal testimony of the survivors. Information about casualties, as well as details of the cemeteries and memorials around the battlefield where the fallen of the Staffordshire Brigade are buried and commemorated, has also been included.
"Parading from morn til night" - Preparations for the Attack
The Battle of Loos commenced on 25th September 1915. In an attempt to prevent the movement of German reserves, several divisions along the front held by the British Army were ordered to make diversionary attacks, or to participate in "demonstrations". To the north of the British line, 46th (North Midland) Division, commanded by Major General E. J. Montague-Stuart-Wortley were holding the sector around Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient when the Loos Offensive began. On 25th September, the Divisional Artillery bombarded German trenches in the area while 3rd Division made an attack at Hooge. Private Sidney Richards , serving with the Machine Gun Section of the 1/5th South Staffords, witnessed the bombardment:
"A terrible bombardment started all along our line. The Belgian battery behind us fired over 24 shells a minute. It was a fine sight watching the guns blazing away, the flashes illuminating the ruined villages in the darkness of the night."
A few days later the Division received orders to move south to participate in the Battle of Loos. Before they were relieved at Hill 60, several senior staff officers visited the units to wish them luck. Lieutenant Colonel T. F. Waterhouse , the commanding officer of the 1/6th South Staffords, recalled in his diary what happened when his battalion received one such visitor:
"A very senior officer of the Staff concluded his address of farewell to the Battalion with the following words, which have never been forgotten: ' And I shall watch the future career of the 6th South Staffords with the greatest interest and sympathy. Where's my car?'"
The Division now began their journey south. The main body of troops marched to railway stations some way behind the lines and entrained. The Transport Sections made their way towards the concentration area by road. The Staffords, together with other units, detrained at Fouquereuil, near Bethune between the 2nd and 3rd October in preparation for their deployment. The Division was now under the command of 11th Corps, which formed part of the 1st Army.
After a few days in billets around Robecq, the 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade moved to new areas. The 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffords were located in quarters at Vaudricourt, while the 1/5th and 1/6th North Staffords moved to billets in and around Drouvin. The Divisional Engineers; 1/1st, 1/2nd and 2/1st North Midland Field Companies, and 1/3rd North Midland Field Ambulance were located at Fouquieres, while 1/2nd and 1/3rd North Midland Field Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery moved to billets around Busnes.
Soon after their arrival in the area, senior officers from the Division attended conferences at their respective Brigade Headquarters where they were informed of the impending operation in which 46th Division were to participate.
The Division's objective was to attack and capture the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the immediate area behind it. The Redoubt, located on a slight slope that afforded excellent observation and fields of fire for the Germans, was a formidable fortification. The position took the form of a salient that protruded into "No Man's Land". The Redoubt was linked to the German front line by two trenches; "Big Willie" and "Little Willie", both of which were deep, well-fortified positions that contained several machine-gun positions. "Big Willie" trench was partially occupied by the British, a trench block being the only barrier between the two sides. Two communication trenches; North Face and South Face, lead back to "Fosse" and "Dump" trenches, which were built in the shadow of a large slagheap known as the "Dump". At the base of the slagheap was a mine, "Fosse 8". The engine house of "Fosse 8", as well as the "Madagascar" cottages: the ruins of the corons, or miner's houses, were also key German defensive strong points. "No-Man's Land" was very exposed to machine gun and rifle fire from the Redoubt and the corons. The position had been captured by the 9th (Scottish) Division on the first day of the battle, but had been recaptured shortly afterwards. An attempt by 28th Division to recapture it had failed, a task now allotted to the North Midlanders.
Officers from all units of the Division went to Vermelles to carry out a reconnaissance of the ground over which they were to make their attack. Having met their guides from the Guards Division who were holding the sector at this time, groups of officers from the Brigade made their way up the communication trenches to the front line. The trenches were cut into the chalky ground but had been badly damaged during the earlier fighting. The wet conditions made the trenches very slippery, a situation which was not improved by the drainage channels that had been dug in the centre of the walkway. Using trench periscopes to scan the area, the Guards directed the assembled officers' attention to the key points of the objective; the redoubt itself, the Dump, the engine house of Fosse 8 and the ruins of the corons. A group of officers from the 1/6th South Staffords made a visit to the line on 7th October, but their survey had not been completed by nightfall and the party had to go back to their billets. Their return journey coincided with one of the Guards battalions being relieved, which made the communications trenches even more congested than usual. The following morning, the party reassembled and was driven to Vermelles on motor buses to complete the reconnaissance. On reaching the village Lieutenant-Colonel Waterhouse of the 1/6th South Staffords was severely wounded in the head when a shell burst near the party. He was evacuated to 6th Casualty Clearing Station at Lillers and required surgery on his wounds, which resulted in him losing an eye . Major "Fred" Law took over command of the battalion.
|Lieutenant-Colonel T. F. Waterhouse T.D.
Colonel Waterhouse joined the 3rd Volunteer Battalion
of the South Staffordshire Regiment in 1889 as a
Photo taken during the summer of 1915 while in billets at Ouderdom. (Courtesy of the Staffordshire Regimental Museum)
On the afternoon of 8th October, the Germans attacked Big Willie trench. 46th Division was immediately placed on standby to move up to the line in case of a breakthrough. The troops holding the position at the time, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, were hard pressed, with two companies virtually surrounded. The 3rd Coldstream Guards launched a counter-attack and the Germans were eventually beaten back . However, a large portion of Big Willie had been taken by the Germans and would later compel the staff at 46th Division Headquarters to alter the locations of the assembly trenches from where the assault would commence.
While the plans for the assault were being formulated, the troops carried out training, including route marches and Physical Training, near their billets. New drafts of men also arrived from the Division's Base Depot in Rouen to bring the units up to strength. Among the new arrivals was Private Joseph Barlow, a soldier from Fenton, who was part of a draft of 50 men for the 1/5th North Staffords that arrived at Drouvin on 7th October. He recalled that: "On the Saturday we had lectures & c., on the coming charge." Private Sidney Richards of the 1/5th South Staffords, was billeted at Vaudricourt. He recorded his activities in his pocket diary:
7th October Bomb practice. Machine gun practice.
8th October Machine gun, bomb throwing. Night had to stand to.
9th October Machine gun practice. Bomb throwing.
10th October Machine gun practice. Bomb throwing.
Each battalion at this time had a "platoon" of bombers, consisting of a Battalion Bombing Officer, a Sergeant and 32 other ranks. The importance of using hand grenades in the close-quarter battles that usually took place in trench warfare had increased by this point. Although several patterns of grenades were in existence at the time, the recently introduced Mills Bomb was considered to be the best weapon available. Following the Guards Division's defence of Big Willie, where it was estimated that 3rd Coldstream had used around 5,000 Mills Bombs, the bombers of 46th Division were issued and trained with this type of grenade alone. To assist the bombers in their training, they practised carrying out attacks on dummy trenches that had been constructed near Fouquieres by the Divisional Engineers.
As well as digging the practice trenches, the Royal Engineers of 46th Division also sent sections forward into the front line to carry out repairs and improvements. Other essential work was also being carried out, as detailed in the War Diary of 1/3rd North Midland Field Ambulance:
"Fouquieres - 10.10.15
Instituted system of latrines in which the faecal matter is at once burnt in an incinerator within the latrine enclosure - urine passed into a separate receptacle + supplied into a urine bucket.
Got working the engine in an adjoining Steam Laundry. Men of the unit repairing the boiler - using the appliances facility as Baths + pantry for washing & drying clothes, Hospital Towels etc."
A model of the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the surrounding area had also been constructed in a field outside Divisional Headquarters at Gosnay. The British line was marked out with green tape, the German positions in white, with bricks and pieces of coal positioned to represent the key features. All ranks were encouraged to visit the model to familiarise themselves with the ground, as they had no opportunity of going into the front line to do so before the attack. Private S. Orpe of the 1/5th North Staffords recalled that: "It was here that our Colonel gave an explanation of what we had to do, and was quite jolly over it."
When they had the opportunity of doing so, most soldiers wrote letters home. For many men, like Corporal Jack Shipley of the 1/5th South Staffords, their thoughts were focused on the impending attack:
"I am writing with very mixed feelings. I cannot say what may happen but whatever comes I shall not budge. If I do not return from the attack think of me as doing my duty - not a slacker."
Divisional Headquarters issued the Operational Orders on 10th October detailing the objectives for the coming assault. The original plan had been to deploy 137th Brigade in the forward line to the east of Big Willie. However, the fighting that had taken place on 8th October, as well as the complicated layout of the trenches in the locality, made this impossible. Major General Montague-Stuart-Wortley therefore decided that both of the brigades that were to carry out the attack, 137th and 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Brigades, would commence their advance from the old front line from where 9th Division had made their assault on 25th September. Stuart-Wortley was also been in favour of mounting a sequential attack on the trenches around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, capturing and securing one position at a time before moving forward to take another. 11th Corps Headquarters overruled this plan and 46th Division's assault would follow basically the same pattern as that used by 9th Division. 137th Brigade was to be on the right of 46th Division's attack and were to link up with 12th (Eastern) Division, who were detailed to capture the neighbouring "Quarries" position:
"The 137th Brigade from the old British front trench between G. 10. b. 98 and G. 4. d. 26 and assembly trenches in the rear will assault at 2 p.m. with their left directed on the N.W. corner of the DUMP.
1st Objective:- Track crossing FOSSE ALLEY at G. 5. b. 68 - G. 5. b. 39 and A. 29. d. 22 to PENTAGON REDOUBT at A. 29 C. 53 (inclusive). The assault will pass straight on without pause to the far side of the DUMP. Bombing parties will be told off by the Commander, Right Attack to bomb along the following trenches as they are successfully reached by the assault.
i) SOUTH FACE.
ii) FOSSE ALLEY to join up with the left of 12th Division about the track at G. 5. b. 68.
iii) Trench running towards 3 CABARETS from A. 29. D. 22.
Bombing parties will also be organised to deal with DUMP TRENCH and SLAG ALLEY and with machine-gun emplacements and other defences found in the DUMP, and clear them of the enemy. Dug-outs must be cleared by bombing and the greatest care that none are left unsearched.
2nd Objective:- A.29.d.25 - 3 CABARETS, N.E. edge of CORONS DE PEKIN - W. edge of CORONS DE MAROC - railway A.29.c.16 (exclusively)."
The artillery allocated for the operation consisted of three Heavy Artillery Groups, under the control of the commander of 11th Corps, and one group of Divisional Artillery, consisting of six field brigades and one howitzer brigade, under the command of the C.R.A. of 28th Division. The 46th Division's artillery would form part of this group, but 4th North Midland Brigade, equipped with 4.5-inch Howitzers, would be placed under the control of the C.R.A. of 12th Division to support their attack. The 137th Brigade would have direct artillery support provided by 22nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
The artillery would also provide detachments to assist with creating a smoke screen in front of the trenches. Five 95mm mortars and two Stokes Mortars were issued, crewed by a detachment drawn from the five units of the Divisional Artillery. Each party would consist of one Officer, a Sergeant and ten other ranks. The crews of the Stokes Mortars, one from the Divisional Ammunition Column, the other drawn from 1st North Midland Field Brigade, would provide the smoke screen in front of the infantry to allow them to form up under cover prior to making their advance. The task of the 95mm mortar teams was to provide further smoke cover for the infantry once they had reached the first objective, the intention of which was to assist with the work of consolidating the positions. The 137th Brigade was allocated the support of both Stokes Mortars and three 95mm mortars. In addition to the mortar crews, the Divisional Artillery were ordered to supply a detachment of five Officers and 250 other ranks to act as carrying parties once the assault had got under way.
The Divisional Engineers would also be committed to the operation. 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, (Major Christopher Hatton ), was ordered to provide two sections that would be attached to the forward companies of 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords. Two sections of 1/1st North Midland Field Company, (Major Samuel Tonks), would support the 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Brigade. The sections would form trench-blocking parties and assist in consolidating the captured ground with barbed wire entanglements. The remaining two sections from both companies would be retained in reserve. 2/1st North Midland Field Company, (Major James Selby Gardner), was placed under the command of the C.R.E. at Divisional Headquarters.
On the evening of the 10th October, Lieutenant-General R. C. B. Haking , the commander of 11th Corps, of which 46th Division formed part, addressed the officers of the Division in the courtyard of the chateau at Gosnay. In speech that was no doubt intended to reassure and encourage them, he told the assembled group that the Division's attack would be supported by the largest concentration of artillery yet made by the British Army, and to expect little resistance from the German machine gun positions around the Hohenzollern Redoubt. He also added that, providing that the wind was in the right direction, gas would almost certainly be used in support of the attack.
On 11th October, Brigadier Feetham issued a further Operational Order , which set out the dispositions of the units of 137th Brigade for the attack.
|Brigadier-General Edward Feetham (1863-1918)
Edward Feetham was educated at Marlborough and was commissioned into the Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1883 from the Militia. He saw active service in Sudan during 1885-1886 and in South Africa from 1901 to 1902, where he was in command of the 10th Battalion of Mounted Infantry. Feetham took command of the 2nd Battalion in October 1910 whilst the Battalion was in India, attended the Delhi Durbar for which he received the Delhi Durbar Medal, and was still in command when war was declared and took them from India to the Western Front, as part of 25th Brigade, 8th Division. On the 14th March he took command of the 24th Brigade and on 2nd April was appointed as G.O.C of the 1/1st (137th from 12th May) Staffordshire Brigade. He was awarded the C.B. in 1915 and the C.M.G. in 1917. Feetham was appointed to command 39th Division on 20th August 1917 on his promotion to Major General. He was hit in the neck and killed by a shell fragment on 29th March 1918, while walking up the main street of Demuin with his G.S.O. 1. Edward Feetham is buried at Picquiny British Cemetery.
Photograph taken in 1911 while Feetham was serving with the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Berkshire Regiment. (Courtesy of Martin McIntyre)
The Brigade would deploy 1/5th South Staffords, (Lieutenant-Colonel R. Richmond Rayner ), and 1/5th North Staffords, (Lieutenant-Colonel John Hall Knight ), in the first line of attack. The support battalions would be the 1/6th South Staffords, (Acting Lieutenant-Colonel F. W. B. Law), and 1/6th North Staffords, (Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ratcliff ). 1/5th North Staffords would be positioned on the left of the Brigade's frontage and would advance closest to the Redoubt. 1/5th South Staffords were split into two parts; "B" and "C" Companies were to be located in an old communications trench that was linked to Big Willie, with Battalion Headquarters, "A" and "D" Companies deployed on the right of 1/5th North Staffords. Each battalion was ordered to make available two bombing parties and an additional detachment of bombers drawn from 139th (Sherwood Foresters) Brigade was also attached to the Staffords. Half of the Brigade's machine-gunners - 8 gun teams - would move forward with the third wave, while the remainder would remain in the first-line trenches to provide covering fire in support of the advance. 137th Brigade's attack was also postponed for five minutes by Major-General Montague-Stuart-Wortley, and would now take place at five minutes past two. The intention of this delay was to allow the 138th Brigade to attack the West Face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt and therefore hopefully divert the attention of the defenders from 137th Brigade's assault.
On the morning of 12th October, the Staffords paraded ready to enter the battle. Each man was issued with three days' rations, 220 rounds of ammunition and three empty sandbags, the additional ammunition being carried in cotton bandoliers. The men serving with the bombing parties carried only 100 rounds of ammunition, but were to be issued with two sacks containing grenades from a supply dump closer to the front line. In addition to this, each man had two "smoke helmets" to carry. Operational Orders stipulated that prior to the release of gas in the front line, all troops were to wear their "Hypo" helmets, a primitive gas mask worn over the head. Made of cotton impregnated with chemicals that reduced the effects of chlorine gas, the hood-shaped mask had a cellulose acetate window in the front to enable the soldier to see. The troops had also recently been issued with the more advanced "Phenate" smoke helmet, which was to be kept in a satchel as a spare. The men also carried their greatcoats on their back instead of packs.
The machine gun sections, under the command of Captain Charles Caddick-Adams of the 1/5th North Staffords, assembled at Verquin at 10.00 a.m. and commenced their march up to the line. By early afternoon, the machine gunners had reached Vermelles. After unloading their limber wagons, which then made the return journey back down to their transport lines, the men trudged forward towards the communication trenches, toiling with the burden of guns, tripods, ammunition and other equipment.
The remainder of the 137th Brigade marched from their billets and also formed up near Verquin at a road junction. The 1/5th South Staffords had received orders to commence their march ahead of the rest of the Brigade and were already on their way up towards the line. The order of march was as follows:
1/6th South Staffords
Detachment of Bombers from 139th Brigade
1/2nd North Midland Field Company
1/5th North Staffords
1/6th North Staffords
The Brigade Band would lead the column for part of the journey. Private J. Harrison, a Burslem man serving with the 1/5th North Staffords, was a member of one of the bombing parties. He gave a description of the first stage of the march:
"At 3.15 the Colonel's whistle sounded giving the signal "Quick March". In the space of two minutes a long line of dusty-clad warriors were gliding along that French road, some singing such songs as "Bonnie Scotland" and "Tommy Atkins" & c., whilst others (some I may say went before) heard the cracking of a bullet, or the screaming of a shell, thinking deeply of what the future may foretell, and others of the dear ones at "Home Sweet Home". On, on we marched, past collieries and villages, the people of which stood at their doors with wide-spread eyes, wishing us a jovial "bon-sohait" and "bon-soir", as each four tramped along."
Major General Montague-Stuart-Wortley watched the column march past and made encouraging remarks as the men filed by. The column eventually reached a field just outside the village of Sailly Labourse, where Private Harrison and his comrades made a welcome halt:
"The shades of evening falling rapidly when we marched on to a piece of waste ground on which fires were burning and loaves and bags of food awaiting digestion, whilst others contained the following day's rations. Here we halted after a march of about six miles and not having had anything in the food line since dinner, I can assure you we anxiously awaited some 'grub' ."
The battalion cookers had accompanied the column on its march and were already brewing dixies of tea and issuing the men with a ration of bread and bacon, which was intended to eaten for supper on the following day. After a short rest, the column was ordered to fall in and continued the march up towards Vermelles. The cookers returned to the Transport Lines at Fouquieres. It was now getting dark, and as the Staffords moved closer to the front line, the sound of artillery fire was becoming more intense. The rise and fall of flares and flashes from the guns illuminated the horizon in front of them.
Each battalion had been ordered to provide an advance party of one Officer and ten other ranks to move forward to the Brewery at Vermelles, where the Division's Royal Engineers had established their supply park. Their task was to assist with the issuing of trench stores and equipment for the assault troops to carry up into the line. Private S. Orpe was a member of the advance party sent forward by 1/5th North Staffords:
"We set off about noon and went to Vermelles as an advance party. There we got all the tools ready for the company when they came at night. Here as we were waiting they began to shell the village. It was a good thing the troops were not coming, as they would have had it hot. Our company arrived at 8 o'clock."
Captain W. W. C. Weetman was serving with the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters. His battalion, together with the rest of 139th Brigade, was in reserve for the attack. He recalled his impressions of the Staffordshire Territorials as they marched past him:
"We had a very pleasant and easy march up to Vermelles, where a halt was made for tea. Here we passed one of the Stafford Battalions who were to make the assault. It was too dark to see their faces, but their voices were full of confidence and cheeriness which did one good to hear."
After a brief rest at Vermelles, the Staffords marched up the road for about a mile until they reached the beginning of the communication trenches. Guides from the Divisional Cyclist Company were waiting at the entrance of Gordon Alley to lead them forward to the assembly trenches.
The 1/3rd North Midland Field Ambulance (Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. C. Dent) had received instructions to move up to the Chateau at Vermelles to act as the Main Dressing Station for 46th Division. Forty stretcher-bearers were sent by the unit to the reserve trenches to set up a Collecting Station in a communications trench, Barts Alley, to which all wounded were to be taken. From here, the stretcher cases would be taken to the Main Dressing Station, and from there would be evacuated by Motor Ambulance to one of the many Casualty Clearing Stations located behind the lines.
Two sections each from the 1/1st and 1/2nd North Midland Field Companies had already moved forward into the front line, in preparation for the arrival of the main body of the Division. Dumps of supplies: ammunition, grenades, barbed wire and tools, were already established to the rear of the front line. Further depots were placed in the communication trenches. Signboards were also erected. During the night, parties of Royal Engineers went over the parapet of the British front line to cut gaps in the barbed wire through which the infantry could advance. While carrying out work in the trenches to be occupied by 138th Brigade, the 1/1st North Midland Field Company had four men killed and one wounded.
The journey up into the firing line was torturously slow, the battalions being forced to halt several times as they struggled up the congested trenches to relieve the Guards Division. The 1/5th South Staffords had arrived at the entrance of the communication trenches before the main body of the Brigade. An anonymous Sergeant from Walsall recalled the journey in a letter home:
"As we passed through a village the Germans started to shell one of our batteries. Some of them came dangerously close to us. A little later we went across open country, and from there it took us four hours to get into the first-line trench, as there were all sorts of obstacles. The delay was largely caused by what we call "whizz-bangs", which the Germans sent over in good supply. Our first-line trench was originally the second-line German trench. All night long there were shell noses flying about, but only one man was hit, and his injuries were merely bruises."
It had been dark for several hours by the time the 1/5th North Staffords started their passage up the communication trenches. For recent arrivals at the front, such as Private Joseph Barlow, the experience was an inauspicious introduction to the war:
"What a night! First night in the trenches too! It took us all night creeping and dodging down the different communication trenches with the "whiz-bangs" and "Jack Johnsons" bursting all around us."
It would take the Staffords until the morning of the 13th October to reach the assembly trenches and to take over responsibility for the line from the Guards. It was estimated that the distance between the entrances of the communication trenches to the assembly trenches was about one mile.
Private Harrison of the 1/5th North Staffords reached the front line just before dawn:
"When posted to my particular bay I partook of a short but sound sleep until about 6 a.m., and at this juncture I awoke and viewed the piece of ground over which we were to charge. At 8 a.m. on that notable morning I enjoyed my last meal previous to the battle - a tin of meat and vegetables. You may guess I did justice to same."
The assembly trenches were now crowded with troops. Strict orders to keep out of sight of the Germans were adhered to. There were no dugouts in which the men could shelter, and the trenches themselves had been badly damaged during the earlier fighting. Private C. C. Oram, a soldier from Lichfield serving with "C" Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, wrote about the conditions in his section of the line:
"It was a beastly old trench, dead bodies lying about and all knocked about, having been a few days ago a German trench."
Men from 187th Special Company, Royal Engineers had also arrived in the front line trenches. This was a specialist unit formed to conduct chemical warfare, and would be providing the gas attack to support 46th Division's assault. The Company had been formed at St Omer in July 1915 and was comprised of men who had knowledge of chemistry, many of whom were university graduates. The sappers began to bring up the cylinders of chlorine gas up to the forward positions from where they would release their cargo. To allow the engineers to set up the equipment, and also to limit casualties should a cylinder burst, some of the troops in the front line were temporarily withdrawn to the reserve trenches. So as not to be confused with the assault troops, the sappers wore armbands made up of vertical strips of red, white and green. The direction of the wind was also noted, a gentle breeze blowing from the south-west, and was closely monitored prior to the scheduled time for commencing the gas attack.
Preparations for the artillery bombardment were also well in hand. The two companies of the 1/5th South Staffords located in the most forward position held by the Brigade were ordered to withdraw to positions in the old British front line. At mid-day, the barrage commenced. The shelling of the German line was awe-inspiring to the Staffords waiting for the assault, as Private Barlow of the 1/5th North Staffords recalled:
"Well, I cannot attempt to describe what it was like; it was acknowledged to be the fiercest bombardment the world had ever seen. I had many a look over the parapet and what a sight! For miles you could see their first line of trenches - one blazing, raging mass of flames, smoke and dust."
However impressive the bombardment may have been to Private Barlow, the artillery barrage was not effective. Although the key positions in front of 137th Brigade: South Face, Big Willie and Dump Trench came under a heavy onslaught, the machine gun emplacements located there, as well as the fortified ruins of the buildings around the Dump, were not destroyed. Half an hour into the British bombardment, the German artillery began a counter-barrage and shelled the reserve and communication trenches in the Brigade's sector. Lieutenant "Pip-Jock" Slater , the Signal Officer of the 1/6th South Staffords, recalled an incident that happened at his battalion headquarters:
"We had a little mouth-organ concert while we were waiting to "go over", and had quite a merry time, though in the middle of the bombardment our Hqrs. telephonist got hit on the head right in the middle of us. I don't think he was badly hurt. We, Law, Lewis, Collison and myself, were all crowded into a little rabbit-hole place, and the piece suddenly buzzed in."
The British artillery continued with their bombardment. At 1.00 p.m. the mortar detachments drawn from the Divisional Artillery started to fire smoke rounds in front of the forward trenches. The sappers of 187th Special Company also began to unleash the gas. The infantry in the trenches pulled their gas masks down over their heads and tucked them into the collar of their tunics. The chlorine gas was discharged from the cylinders and smoke candles ignited by the Royal Engineers. The yellowish-green cloud began to rise and drift towards the German lines. However, despite favourable winds, the gas settled in the remains of trenches and shell holes that bisected the shattered ground. A few of the gas cylinders had also been hit during the counter-barrage, with the Brigade suffering a few gas-related casualties. The gas had also served as a warning to the German garrison in the area that an attack on them was imminent.
Despite the Corps commander's reassurances to the contrary at Gosnay three days before, machine-gun fire from the German lines raked the parapet of the British trenches, as commented on by Major Law, the acting commanding officer of 1/6th South Staffords:
"At 1.30 p.m. I heard the enemy machine guns ranging on these same trenches for five minutes. This I reported to Brigade Hqrs., saying that I believed the fire came from the direction of the 'Dump". At 1.45 p.m. they started again. I reported this, saying that more machine guns seemed to be firing, and that their fire came from the South Face trench, and rear of it."
Lieutenant-Colonel Raymer of the 1/5th South Staffords recorded that three trench periscopes were hit by machine-gun fire in his battalion's trenches in the minutes before the attack was due to commence. It became evident to the men waiting to attack that the bombardment had failed to suppress the German machine guns, as Private Barlow observed:
"We thought that there wouldn't be a German left alive. But would you believe it, about five minutes before we charged they opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, simply sweeping our parapets. It was a mystery to us, but we still knew we had to face it in a few minutes".
As "zero hour" crept ever closer, the officers went along the assembly trenches to check that their men were ready, as well as to give them encouragement. Scaling ladders were placed against the sandbagged walls of the trench. Bayonets were fixed. Nervous eyes looked at their watches, counting down the minutes and seconds until the officers blew their whistles to signal the troops to climb over the parapet. The Staffords were ready to attack.
Click here to read the full 46th Division Orders for the attack
Click here to read the full 137 Brigade Orders for the attack
Go to the next part of the story - "Over the Bridge of Death"
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Copyright © Andrew Thornton, January, 2000.
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