Before The Charge: The Great Push, Loos, September 1915

Before the Charge

The night is still and the air is keen,
Tense with menace the time crawls by,
In front is the town and its homes are seen,
Blurred in outline against the sky.
The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
From the face of death. – We charge at dawn.
   Patrick MacGill

The painting by Lady Butler that immortalized footballers of the London Irish Rifles charging the enemy


On September 25th, 1915, some 75,000 British soldiers rose from their trenches to attack the German lines at Loos-en-Gohelle, a mining area of northern France. It was the biggest single battle to date in British history.

It was a scene of incredible bravery under fire. It was also an unmitigated disaster – a bloody day of war second only to the first day of the Somme – July 1st 1916. The battle of Loos continued for three weeks, but was effectively over after three days at a loss of  20,000 British soldiers.

The battle involved six army divisions and the casualty rates were high. There were 10,240 British war deaths that day – 8,500 of them at Loos.

On the morning of September 25th soldiers were sent over the top to walk across no-man’s land toward the German trenches. For the first time the  British used chlorine gas but the wind blew it back over the advancing troops. The Germans were ready and the machine gun fire was deadly.

It was the start of a great debacle. Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That Graves describes it as a dark comedy of errors and uses the more precise term for military mismanagement and chaos – a “bloody balls up”.

While the luxury of hindsight allows us to pass judgment, this particular fog of war was full of miscalculation, miscommunication, missed opportunities, advances at great cost, counter-attacks, gained ground and lost ground, extraordinary courage in the face of withering fire and mass slaughter on an industrial scale.

We have no shortage of written accounts of what happened – see sidebar for a small sample.

One of them Robert Graves, twenty years old at the time of the battle. In Goodbye to All That, Graves he tells  officer’s story.

When his platoon had run about twenty yards, he signaled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on the left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole and waved and signaled ‘Forward.’ Nobody stirred.”

“He shouted, ‘you bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go alone?’ His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped out….

“Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead.”

Another remarkable first-hand account – The Great Push (1916) – was by Patrick MacGill, a writer who was a stretcher bearer with the London Irish Rifles. He wrote it after he was wounded with a “blighty” on the second day of the battle.


Like Graves”, MacGill’s story has all the elements of fiction while being solidly grounded in memory and actual events and it’s laced with verse, songs and snatches of conversation.

MacGill tells of the assault by the 1st battalion of the London Irish Rifles that includes the memorable – and possibly apocryphal – story of Frank Edwards, the footballer of Loos, who kicked a football across no-man’s land and lived to tell the tale.

MacGill was from Donegal and claimed to be one of only two Irishmen in his unit – the others were second and third generation Irish Londoners. He was 24 but already a published novelist.

These extracts tell the story of that particular football sideshow of the battle.

He wrote: “After all, war is an approved licence for brotherly mutilation, its aims are sanctioned, only the means towards its end are disputed. It is a sad and sorry business from start to finish.”  (p.101)

CHAPTER V
OVER THE TOP

A boy came along the trench carrying a football under his arm. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked.

“It’s some idea, this,” he said with a laugh.

“We’re going to kick it across into the German trench.”

“It is some idea,” I said. “What are our chances of victory in the game?”

“The playing will tell,” he answered enigmatically. “It’s about four o’clock now,” he added, paused and became thoughtful. The mention of the hour suggested something to him. . . .

…..

A heavy rifle fire was opened by the Germans and the bullets snapped viciously at our sandbags. Such little things bullets seemed in the midst of all the pandemonium! But bigger stuff was coming. Twenty yards away a shell dropped on a dug-out and sandbags and occupants whirled up in mid-air. The call for stretcher-bearers came to my bay, and I rushed round the traverse towards the spot where help was required accompanied by two others. A shrapnel shell burst overhead and the man in front of me fell. I bent to lift him, but he stumbled to his feet. The concussion had knocked him down; he was little the worse for his accident, but he felt a bit shaken. The other stretcher-bearer was bleeding at the cheek and temple, and I took him back to a sound dug-out and dressed his wound. He was in great pain, but very brave, and when another stricken boy came in he set about dressing him. I went outside into the trench. A perfect hurricane of shells was coming across, concussion shells that whirled the sandbags broadcast and shrapnel that burst high in air and shot their freight to earth with resistless precipitancy; bombs whirled in air and burst when they found earth with an ear-splitting clatter. “Out in the open!” I muttered and tried not to think too clearly, of what would happen when we got out there.

It was now grey day, hazy and moist, and the thick clouds of pale yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from the scene of war. The word was passed along. “London Irish lead on to assembly trench.” The assembly trench was in front, and there the scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death, as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands, and at a little distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard.

CHAPTER VI

Patrick Macgill

ACROSS THE OPEN

“The firefly lamps were lighted yet, 
As we Crossed the top of the parapet, 
But the East grew pale to another fire, 
As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman’s wire. 
And the Eastern sky was gold and grey, 
And under our feet the dead men lay, 
As we entered Loos in the morning.”

THE moment had come when it was unwise to think. The country round Loos was like a sponge; the god of war had stamped with his foot on it, and thousands of men, armed, ready to kill. were squirted out on to the level, barren fields of danger. To dwell for a moment on the novel position of being standing where a thousand deaths swept by, missing you by a mere hair’s breadth, would be sheer folly. There on the open field of death my life was out of my keeping, but the sensation of fear never entered my being. There was so much simplicity and so little effort in doing what I had done, in doing what eight hundred comrades had done, that I felt I could carry through the work before me with as much credit as my code of self respect required. The maxims went crackle like dry brushwood under the feet of a marching host. A bullet passed very close to my face like a sharp, sudden breath; a second hit the ground in front, flicked up a little shower of dust, and ricochetted to the left, hitting the earth many times before it found a resting place. The air was vicious. with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental precision, and twice on the way across the Irish boys halted for a moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there was some confusion and a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench.

….

By the German barbed wire entanglements were the shambles of war. Here our men were seen by the enemy for the first time that morning. Up till then the foe had fired erratically through the oncoming curtain of smoke; but when the cloud cleared away, the attackers were seen advancing, picking their way through the wires which had been cut to little pieces by our bombardment. The Irish were now met with harrying rifle fire, deadly petrol bombs and hand grenades. Here I came across dead, dying and sorely wounded; lives maimed and finished, and all the romance and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever. Here, too, I saw, bullet-riddled, against one of the spider webs known as chevaux de frise, a limp lump of pliable leather, the football which the boys had kicked across the field.

CHAPTER VIII
HOW MY COMRADES FARED

Seven supple lads and clean
Sat down to drink one night,
Sat down to drink at Nouex-les-Mines
Then went away to fight.

Seven supple lads and clean
Are finished with the fight;
But only three at Nouex-les-Mines
Sit down to drink to-night.

CHAPTER X
A NIGHT IN LOOS

A Scottish regiment relieved from the trenches stood round a steaming dixie of tea, each man with a mess-tin in his hand. I approached the Jocks.

“Any tea to spare?” I asked one.

“Aye, mon, of course there’s a drappie goin’,” he answered, and handed me the mess-tin from which he had been drinking.

“How did you fare to-day?” I asked.

“There’s a wheen o’ us left yet,” he replied with a solemn smile. “A dozen dixies of tea would nae gang far among us yesterday; but wi’ one dixie the noo, we’ve some to spare.

Wha’ d’ye belong tae?” he asked.

“The London Irish,” I told him.

“‘Twas your fellows that kicked the futba’ across the field?”

.”Yes.”

“Into the German trench?”

“Not so far,” I told the man. “A bullet hit the ball by the barbed-wire entanglements; I saw it lying there during the day.”

`Twas the maddest thing I’ve ever heard o’,” said the Jock. “Hae ye lost many men?”

“A good number,” I replied.

CHAPTER XI
LOOS

London Irish football team captain Sgt Frank Edwards who kicked the ball out of the trenches and dribbled it for 20 yards towards the enemy before being shot in the thigh.

I walked up to the church by the trench through the graveyard where the white bones stuck out through the parapet. A pale mist gathered round the broken headstones and crept along the bushes of the fence. The Twin Towers stood in air—moody, apathetic, regardless of the shrapnel incense that the guns wafted against the lean girders. Sparrows twittered in the field, and a crow broke clumsily away from the branches in the spinney. A limber jolted along the road near me creaking and rumbling. On! driver, on! Get to Les Brebis before the dawn, and luck be with you! If the enemy sees you! On! on! I knew that he hurried; that one eye was on the east where the sky was flushing a faint crimson, and the other on the road in front where the dead mules grew more distinct and where the faces of the dead men showed more clearly.

At that moment the enemy began to shell the road and the trench running parallel to it. I slipped into the shelter and waited. The transport came nearer, rolling and rumbling; the shrapnel burst violently. I cowered close to the parapet and I had a vivid mental picture of the driver leaning forward on the neck of his mule, his teeth set, his breath coming in short, sudden gasps. “Christ! am I going to get out of it?” he must have said. “Will dawn find me at Les Brebis?”

Something shot clumsily through the air and went plop! against the parados.

“Heavens! it’s all up with me!” I said, and waited for the explosion. But there was none. I looked round and saw a leg on the floor of the trench, the leg of the transport driver, with its leg-iron shining like silver. The man’s boot was almost worn through in the sole, and the upper was gashed as if with a knife. I’m sure it must have let in the wet. . . . And the man was alive a moment ago! The mule was still clattering along, I could hear the rumble of the wagon. . . . The firing ceased, and I went out in the open again.

I walked on the rim of the parapet and gazed into the dark streak of trench where the shadows clustered round traverse and dug-out door. In one bay a brazier was burning, and a bent figure of a man leant over a mess-tin of bubbling tea. All at once he straightened himself and looked up at me.

‘”Pat MacGill?” he queried.

“A good guess,” I answered. “You’re making breakfast early.”

“A drop of tea on a cold morning goes down well,” he answered. “Will you have a drop? I’ve milk and a sultana cake.”

“How did you come by that?” I asked.

“In a dead man’s pack,” he told me, as he emptied part of the contents of the tin into a tin mug and handed it up.

The tea was excellent. A breeze swept over the- parapet and ushered in the dawn. My heart fluttered like a bird; it was so happy, so wonderful to be alive, drinking tea from a sooty messtin on the parapet of the trench held by the enemy yesterday.

“It’s quiet at present,” I said.

“It’ll soon not be quiet,” said the man in the trench, busy now with a rasher of bacon which he was frying on his mess-tin lid. “Where have you come from?”

“I’ve been all over the place,” I said. “Maroc, and along that way. You should see the road to Maroc. Muck to the knees; limbers, carts, wagons, guns, stretchers, and God knows what! going up and down. Dead and dying mules; bare-legged Jocks flat in the mud and wheels going across them. I’ll never forget it.”

“Nobody that has been through this will ever forget it,” said the man in the trench. “I’ve seen more sights than enough. But nothing disturbs me now. I remember a year ago if I saw a man getting knocked down I’d run a mile; I never saw a dead person till I came here. Will you have a bit of bacon and fried bread?”

“Thanks,” I answered, reaching down for the food. “It’s very good of you.”

“Don’t mention it, Pat,” he said, blushing as if ashamed of his kindness. “Maybe, it’ll be my turn to come to you next time I’m hungry. Any word of when we’re getting relieved?”

“I don’t hear anything,” I said. “Shortly, I hope. Many of your mates killed?” I asked.

“Many of them indeed,” he replied. “Old L. went west the moment he crossed the top. He had only one kick at the ball. A bullet caught him in the belly. I heard him say ‘A foul; a blurry foul!’ as he went all in a heap. He was a sticker! Did you see him out there?”

He pointed a thumb to the field in rear.

“There are so many,” I replied. “I did not come across him.”

“And then B., D., and R., went,” said the man in the trench. “B. with a petrol bomb, D. with shrapnel, and R. with a bayonet wound. Some of the Bavarians made a damned good fight for it.” . . .

Round the traverse a voice rose in song, a trembling, resonant voice, and we guessed that sleep was still heavy in the eyes of the singer:

“There’s a silver lining through the dark clouds shining, 
We’ll ‘turn the dark cloud inside out till the boys come home.”

“Ah! it will be a glad day and a sorrowful day when the boys come home,” said the man in the trench, handing me a piece of sultana cake. “The children will be cheering, the men will be cheering, the women—some of them. One woman will say: ‘There’s my boy, doesn’t he look well in uniform?’ Then another will say: ‘Two boys I had, they’re not here ‘ ”

I saw a tear glisten on the cheek of the boy below me, and something seemed to have caught in his throat. His mood craved privacy, I could tell that by the dumb appeal in his eyes.

“Good luck, matey,” I mumbled, and walked away. The singer looked up as I was passing.

“Mornin’, Pat,” he said. “How goes it?”

“Not at all bad,” I answered.

“Have you seen W?” asked the singer.

“I’ve been talking to him for the last twenty minutes,” I said. “He has given me half his breakfast.”

“I suppose he couldn’t sleep last night,” said the singer, cutting splinters of wood for the morning fire. “You’ve heard that his brother was killed yesterday morning?”

“Oh!” I muttered. “No, I heard nothing about it until now.”

CHAPTER XVIII
BACK AT LOOS

The dead men lay on the shell-scarred plain, 
Where death and the autumn held their reign
Like banded ghosts in the heavens grey
The smoke of the conflict died away.
The boys whom I knew and loved were dead,
Where war’s grim annals were writ in red,
In the town of Loos in the morning.

…..

The London Irish advance was more remarkable than many have realized. The instinct of self-preservation is the strongest in created beings, and here we see hundreds of men whose premier consideration was their own personal safety moving forward to attack with the nonchalance of a church parade. Perhaps the men who kicked the football across were the most nervous in the affair. Football is an exciting pastime, it helped to take the mind away from the crisis ahead, and the dread anticipation of death was forgotten for the time being. But I do not think for a second that the ball was brought for that purpose.

 

Stretcher bearers at Loos. Lithograph, Welllcome Library reference: RAMC/393.

CHAPTER XI
LOOS

The dead men lay on the cellar stair,
Toll of the bomb that found them there;
In the streets men fell as a bullock drops,
Sniped from the fringe of Hulluch copse.
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid—
Food of the bullet and hand-grenade—
This we saw when the charge was done,
And the East grew pale to the rising sun
In the town of Loos in the morning.

….

I walked on the rim of the parapet and gazed into the dark streak of trench where the shadows clustered round traverse and dug-out door. In one bay a brazier was burning, and a bent figure of a man leant over a mess-tin of bubbling tea. All at once he straightened himself and looked up at me.

‘”Pat MacGill?” he queried.

“A good guess,” I answered. “You’re making breakfast early.”

“A drop of tea on a cold morning goes down well,” he answered. “Will you have a drop? I’ve milk and a sultana cake.”

“How did you come by that?” I asked.

“In a dead man’s pack,” he told me, as he emptied part of the contents of the tin into a tin mug and handed it up.

The tea was excellent. A breeze swept over the- parapet and ushered in the dawn. My heart fluttered like a bird; it was so happy, so wonderful to be alive, drinking tea from a sooty messtin on the parapet of the trench held by the enemy yesterday.

“It’s quiet at present,” I said.

“It’ll soon not be quiet,” said the man in the trench, busy now with a rasher of bacon which he was frying on his mess-tin lid. “Where have you come from?”

“I’ve been all over the place,” I said. “Maroc, and along that way. You should see the road to Maroc. Muck to the knees; limbers, carts, wagons, guns, stretchers, and God knows what! going up and down. Dead and dying mules; bare-legged Jocks flat in the mud and wheels going across them. I’ll never forget it.”

“Nobody that has been through this will ever forget it,” said the man in the trench. “I’ve seen more sights than enough. But nothing disturbs me now. I remember a year ago if I saw a man getting knocked down I’d run a mile; I never saw a dead person till I came here. Will you have a bit of bacon and fried bread?”

“Thanks,” I answered, reaching down for the food. “It’s very good of you.”

“Don’t mention it, Pat,” he said, blushing as if ashamed of his kindness. “Maybe, it’ll be my turn to come to you next time I’m hungry. Any word of when we’re getting relieved?”

“I don’t hear anything,” I said. “Shortly, I hope. Many of your mates killed?” I asked.

“Many of them indeed,” he replied. “Old L. went west the moment he crossed the top. He had only one kick at the ball. A bullet caught him in the belly. I heard him say ‘A foul; a blurry foul!’ as he went all in a heap. He was a sticker! Did you see him out there?”

He pointed a thumb to the field in rear.

“There are so many,” I replied. “I did not come across him.”

Wounded with an enviable blighty MacGill imagines “the line of wounded stretches from Lens to Victoria Station on this side, and from Lens to Berlin on the other side.”

And he ends his narrative with:

The rain was falling heavily as I entered the Red Cross wagon, 3008 Rifleman P. MacGill, passenger on the Highway of Pain, which stretched from Loos to Victoria Station.

The football was found  lodged in the German barbed wire after the battle. It is on on display at the London Irish Rifles Association museum

A Convoy of Ambulances of the Royal Army Medical Corps after a Battle by Gilbert Rogers

Loading Wounded at Boulogne
John Hodgson Lobley (1878–1954)

7th Camerons at the Battle of Loos, Hill 70, 25 September 1915
Joseph Gray (1890–1962)

Colliery winding gear at Loos-en-Gohelle, nicknamed “Tower Bridge” by British troops (from a collection of postcards of the war zone. Wellcome Library

 

The Twin Towers – “Tower Bridge”, Loos, after the battle. Lithograph Wellcome Library

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