The first ‘Big Push’ – The Battle of Loos, September 1915
Posted on September 28th, 2015
When talking about the Great War – if they ever do – most people usually remember what they were taught about the Battle of the Somme. Which is hardly surprising, given that its opening day still stands as the British Army’s blackest day ever; of the 60,000 casualties suffered by Kitchener’s New Armies almost 20,000 were killed outright in a matter of hours on the morning of 1st July 1916. Further, not only is the Battle of the Somme remembered as being the start of the expected ‘Big Push’ – of Germany’s armies back towards its own borders – but folk memory also recalls those brave young men encouraged to walk across No Man’s Land whilst kicking a football. But, that is to forget the trying and testing battles of 1915 during which the Territorial Force took to the field, culminating in what was really the first ‘Big Push’ during which a football was first kicked out in front of attacking troops. I am writing specifically of the Battle of Loos, which opened on 25th September 1915 exactly 100 years ago this last weekend.
I often tell people that my interest in the Great War was first sparked when, as a child, I was taken to a Thankful Village in Somerset. But, fifty years ago this weekend, I was also told by my grandfather about the Battle of Loos and, more specifically, its effects upon the City of Dundee in which he was born and brought up and lived all his life. I don’t remember exactly but I am sure that the local newspaper – The Dundee Courier – must have produced a commemorative paper over which both my grand and great-grand parents (I had three of those at the time) must have been feasting their eyes, remembering names and families with whom they had shared both the school room and workplace. Indeed, although I came to believe that it must have been a ‘received’ memory, my grandfather told me that he had watched the city’s own battalion – 1st/4th Bn (City of Dundee) Black Watch – march through the city on their way to the Tayport train station on the first leg of their journey to the Western Front. I am glad that I never told him that I thought he had been imaging this because, not only are there photographs of the troops marching through the city, there is a most atmospheric one of the men at the station ; atmospheric because their faces are very clear and, although one doesn’t know their names, one knows their fate.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1st July 1916, it is recorded that whole streets in the industrial towns and cities the length and breadth of the country – from whom the men of the ‘Pal’s’ Battalions had poured in August 1914 – resounded to the sound of women weeping and what Wilfred Owen would later refer to as ‘the drawing down of blinds’ – the old fashioned way that people advised their community that a family had suffered a bereavement. But as of 26th September 1915, the morning after the opening attack of the Battle of Loos, Scotland reverberated to that same eerie sound of grief struck keening and, in due course, the curtains and drapes of some 6,000 homes would be lowered. For two whole divisions of Scottish soldiers (9th & 15th) had been committed to the battle, amongst whom was numbered the 1/4th (City of Dundee) Battalion Black Watch.
As the battalion marched into battle it numbered 20 Officers and 420 other ranks. By the end of the first day’s fighting – during which they attained their objectives but had then been forced back because of heavy counterattack in the face of no reinforcement – it had been reduced to 1 officer and 230 men! All too often these days public commentary about the war reflects Alan Clarke’s mid-1960’s view that the British Army was ‘lions led by donkeys’, the donkeys having been, in his opinion, the Officers who led countless fruitless attacks from the rear. All 19 of the Battalion’s officers were killed or wounded mortally leading their men during that first day, including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Walker C.M.G whose death was registered on 27th September 1915. The remnants of Col Walker’s battalion were amalgamated with the 2nd Battalion the following day, in order to continue the attack, and were not able to resume their battalion identity until after the battle had ended in November 1915.
As of 25th September 1916, Dundee’s city father’s instituted an annual formal Act of Remembrance which culminated with the lighting of a beacon at the top of the Law Hill monument. Although by the time I was spending time in the city with my beloved grandparents this commemoration had fallen out of practice, this last weekend the beacon has shone out across the city once more. And the centenary commemorations were attended by Prince Charles whose great-uncle, Fergus Bowes-Lyon was killed on the third day of the battle.