WHO – WHY & WHAT?
The Battle of Loos and Hohenzollern Redoubt was an attempt by the Allies to break the stalemate of trench warfare in 1915. Despite initial success at Loos on 25th September, the ‘Big Push’ failed with enormous loss of life; Sir John French was made to take the blame and was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig.
Marshall Joseph Joffre, Commander in Chief French Forces, planned a renewal of offensives on 13th October with an attack on a 20 mile front between Arras & La Bassee. The French Army was to attack in Champagne and a joint French British Army was to attack in Artois – along the Line between Bethune and La Basse from Auchy-les Mines to Loos-en-Gohelle.
The 1/5th South Staffordshire Regt under the command of Field Marshall Herbert Plumer (Officer Commanding 2nd Army) was ordered to leave Ypres Salient, Hill 60 & the Caterpillar and move south to join the 1st Army now commanded by Sir Douglas Haig (they later come under the command of Lt Gen R.C.B. Haking 11th Corps 46th Midland Division.
Marshal Joffre’s plan was for the British to capture Hohenzollern Redoubt and Fosse 8, a Bethune Colliery Pithead. British Generals were not happy with this plan for the Hohenzollern Redoubt, (a fortification built in front of the original German Front Line of 1914) was considered to be the strongest German defensive- work on the whole of the Western Front. It was a heavily developed industrial mining area with Pitheads (Fosses) Spoil Heaps (Crassiers) and auxillery Shafts (Puits).
The face of the Redoubt was 300 yards long with excellent views over the British Lines. Both British & German sides had tunnelled into it to create communication trenches, observation posts and machine-gun nests. It curved with extensions to join Big Willie at southern end and Little Willie at the northern end (named of course after Kaiser Wilhelm). The Germans dominated the high ground for in front of Fosse 8 there was a 20ft high Crassier (of mine ‘deads’) an excellent observation post for German sniping in all directions.
To reach the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the Vermelles Trenches, the 1/5th South Staffords had a long march to pass through small colliery villages, like Cuinchy, Cambrin and Vermelles; to compound the difficulties there was a distance of a mile between the entries to the communication trenches and the assembly trenches for the Charge. The Vermelles Trenches, too, were badly damaged with no dugouts to shelter in; soldiers had to contend with the distressing remains of dead bodies lying unburied.< www.ww1.battlefields.co.uk>
Sir Stewart Wortley (C.O. Staffordshire Regt) warned that the area was not suitable for the ‘Big Push’ attack and would cause ‘useless slaughter of infantry’. Tragically his warnings were ignored, as they were again at Gommecourt, Battle of Somme 1st July 1916.
The Long Long Trail: The British Army of 1914-1918 is a must for family historians who wish to gain an insight into why this plan was put into action and what their relatives were expected to do on those three days in October, a hundred years ago. In ‘France & Flanders & the Western Front : The Battle of Loos‘ there is a comprehensive account of the background history of the Battle and of relations between the French and British Generals. Especially interesting is the section ‘Loos Lessons Learned or Not’ giving a list of reasons why the Battle failed despite initial success. It too makes tragic comparison with what was to happen on 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme, when the same mistakes were made.
Andrew Thornton’s website: Staffordshire Territorials and Assault on Hohenzollern. ‘We had done all that was expected of us’, does great service with its comprehensive and vivid description of the Battle of Loos & Hohenzollern Redoubt. <www.hellfirecorner.co.uk >.
From this website we learn that the troops were given 3 days rations, carried 220 pounds of ammunition, (Bombing Parties carried only 100 pounds of ammunition). They were to carry great coats on their backs instead of packs. They also carried 3 empty sandbags, and two smoke helmets.
NB. My father was training to throw hand-grenade bombs before he left for Hospital in Rouen).
Andrew Thornton’s selection from diaries and letters, of individual soldiers’ eyewitness accounts and reactions to the Battle, provides moving insight into their horrific experiences and why the attack failed.
Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That’ contains eyewitness descriptions of the mining villages and experiences of individual soldiers. He himself was billeted in Vermelles in June 1915.
These excellent websites and many others help to give the What ? and the Why? to the Battle of Loos Hohenzollern Redoubt and make the 1/5th South Staffordshire War Diary come alive. The more I read of this Battle the more I wonder how my uncle, Corporal Sydney Hibbett and his QMS Walsall pals could possibly have survived it – many 1/5th Staffords did not. In the first few minutes, 3,643 were killed or wounded. (See Casualty List in previous Post).
Above all, my reading of those three days in October 1915, makes me wonder about my own existence – and that of my brother & sisters – for my father arrived from Hospital in Rouen too late. Otherwise he would, with the rest of ‘A’ Company, have been in the thick of this hell.
NEXT POST: 15th Oct. 1915. The Finest March Past I ever saw.