Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Three: 1915 Battlefields - Kathryn's history blog

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Three: 1915 Battlefields

Today I drove north to explore the battlefields of 1915 at Loos and Festubert. As I headed north past Areas first thing, the weather could only be described as dreich, with absolutely no view. Nevertheless, once I arrived at Dud Corner Cemetery, my first stop of the day, I could just about see the important features on the skyline.

The Battle of Loos in September 1915 was the largest British Offensive of the year, in which the British first used gas as a weapon, the first significant number of New Army units saw action, and which resulted in a costly defeat to the Germans. Despite some teething problems with the first attack, potential gains were won on the first day. However, with the reserve troops held too far back, and under the control of General French rather than General Haig, such gains could not be exploited.

One of the corners of Dud Corner has steps which lead up to a viewpoint from which one can (theoretically) see the whole battlefield. In contrast to the Somme, this area is largely flat. On this dreary morning I could see the Double Crassier, two slag heaps which dominate the area. This is some of the only high ground and was a formidable German position, although it was captured on 25th September, the first day of the Battle, by 47th (London) Division. It would later be recaptured by the Germans and held until 1918. It should be noted that the Double Crassier of the First World War is different from the one seen today.

Dud Corner Cemetery is built on another German strong point, the Lens Road Redoubt. It is a concentration cemetery filled after the war, and the perimeter is surrounded by the Loos Memorial to the Missing. Between them, there are a number of my local soldiers: Pte A Noad of Slimbridge who had enlisted in the 10th Gloucesters at the outbreak. He was listed as missing, presumed dead on 13th October, although his body was later found. Here also remembers the missing: Arthur Walkley and Charles Trull of Uley (Trull was a Grenadier Guard and the first of four Trulls from the village to die); Frank Gapper and Frederick Reeves of Cam (both Gloucesters volunteers); and Roland Phillips, Francis Nash and Samuel Carrier of of Berkeley (Carrier's granddaughter is a reader of my blog). Three Lieutenant alumni of Pembroke College, Oxford are also remembered here, having all died on 25th September.

For my trip I was broadly following the route put together by Paul Read (battlefields1418.50megs.com/loos_tour) with additional information from the Holts' guide to Western Front - North, the route of which largely runs in reverse to Reed's. I got a little confused on the route and next ended up in Loos itself, which is your typical small French town. I had intended to visit the museum in the Mairie, but hadn't realised that prebooking was essential. So I headed to St Patrick's Cemetery, near the main square and surrounded by housing.

The irregular burials in the centre of this cemetery were made as the soldiers fell, with additional bodies being brought in after the war. Remarkably, among these is a Frenchman, a German and a Brit buried side by side. Both the German and the British soldier are unknown, the Frenchman is Henri Gapon.

To the other side of Loos is a much larger cemetery, Loos British Cemetery, which stands near Hill 70, the natural high ground of the  battle at the south of the front. Work was being done here by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to clean the engravings on the headstones. It was interesting to see the team at work, and see what goes in to maintaining the cemeteries. Staggeringly, two-thirds of the 3,000 graves here are to unknown soldiers, their names on the previously visited Memorial.

To the west of the town I visited Maroc Cemetery. It became clear here that this area is more industrialised than the Somme and the areas that were once battlefields have been built up. This cemetery, like several others I visited today, is now surrounded by housing. Buried here is Pte Charles Fryer of my village of Cambridge (in Gloucestershire, not the Cambridge). When he enlisted to the 10th Gloucesters in 1914, he was 23 and had three children. He was killed in this area on 4th April 1916, when the battalion were holding the line in the Double Crassier. The war diary remarks the day to have been 'very uneventful' despite 'one sergeant killed in the sap on the Crassier and three men killed when forming a working party on The Embankment. Pte Griffiths and Pte Kingston who died alongside him are buried in the same row.

2nd Lieut Brander, who witnessed the incident, remarked that 'we were digging and the shell came. Death was instantaneous ... [Fryer] was a qualified bomber, about the best in the company'.

Next I drove north east to St Mary's ADS Cemetery, named for the advanced dressing station. An incredible 90 per cent of graves here are unknown, including until recent years Plot VII D 2, which has now been dedicated to Lieut Jack Kipling, the son of Rudyard Kipling. The story here is famous and doubts remain over whether the body really is Kipling's but it has become a focus point for his remembrance, as seen withthe wreath laid by the Kipling Society.

In the fields behind this cemetery are two smaller ones. The first, and smallest, is Ninth Avenue Cemetery. In fact, there are only five graves here, albeit with one being a "comrades' grave" to 42 members of the 1st Cameron Highlanders who fell on 25th September. Representative headstones surround the perimeter.

Across the field is Bois Carré Cemetery, containing largely Irish graves. These post-date the 1915 battle, the 8th and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers coming under gas attack in this area in April 1916, as part of the smaller Battle of Hulluch.

What is striking here in the middle of the Loos battlefield is the wide expanse of the front, even today when areas have been developed. The next target ahead is not clearly visible. There is no ridge just ahead, no clearly defined sectors, or strategic aims. It is easy to see how the men became so lost, although there would have been more of a network in front of them with the trench system. The Double Crassier looms large over what is now a flat expanse of fields. In the low cloud of this morning it was difficult to find my bearings so one can only imagine how difficult it was in the fog of battle.

By now it was past midday and the cloud cover was luckily beginning to lift. I drove north into Vermelles, stopping briefly at the 46th (North Midland) Division Territorial Force Memorial, which was established in commemoration of the unit's fighting at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, where they had been all but wiped out.

It was towards Hohenzollern that I headed next, and to Quarry Cemetery. This is a very interesting cemetery, built into a 10ft chalk pit and as a result is reached from above. 

Among the burials here is Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the Queen's uncle (and Queen Mother's brother). Like Kipling's, this is a recent rededication. In 1920 his name was included in the graves registration for this cemetery. However, by 1925 it had been omitted and he was subsequently included in the Loos Memorial. Evidence was presented by his grandson and the headstone was erected in 2012.

Following the track beside the cemetery, I approached the best possible view of what was the Hohenzollern Redoubt. It is now merely a clump of trees and some housing, elevated from the surrounding fields by mere metres. However, in 1915 it was a strong hold, which could not be captured by the British, despite fierce fighting in September and October. Two Divisions were virtually wiped out here: 9th Scottish and 46th North Midland.

My final stop of my Loos tour was to Vermelles British Cemetery on the other side of town. This had originally been known as Gloucester Graveyard, as it was laid out by the pioneers of 1st battalion. However, I could not find any Glosters buried here. Like many cemeteries around here, it was expanded after the war and now covers both sides of a small road and a total of 2134 graves. Among the burials is 2nd Lieut WHL Vesey Fitzgerald whose epitaph reads 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'. Evidently to his family it wasn't an old lie.

I next headed north towards Festubert, stopping (thanks to a typical Sat nav detour) at the interestingly named Woburn Abbey Cemetery in Cuinchy. The CWGC report that it's name was taken from a battalion HQ which was presumably named by Bedfordshire soldiers. It was begun in 1915 by the Berkshires but was only used briefly during the war as it remained in range of German guns throughout the conflict.

A few miles further north, I came to the Festubert battlefield. This battle, a follow up to the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915 was part of the wider Artois Offensive. Here, the element of surprise was trialled with the battle being launched at night but while minor British gains were made, they were done so at double the rate of casualties to the Germans. It was also crucial in exposing the Shell Scandal.


My first stop was to the Guards' Cemetery at the nicknamed Windy Corner. The Holts' Guide notes two graves here: the first to Major John Mackenzie who had won the VC in the Ashanti Uprising in Ghana in 1900. The second is to Guardsman Kelsall, whose epitaph reads 'In a grave that we may never see May someone place a flower for me'. This is now partially obscured by the flowers of a lavender bush - the CWGC have certainly upheld the request.

Next I came to Brown's Road Cemetery, which contains graves as far apart as October 1914 and April 1918. A reminder of the war's stagnation. One grave here, to Rifleman Laurence Fisher, bears the epitaph 'Mother I must go'. Presumably, and sadly, these were Fisher's last words to his mum. He was killed in the May 1915 battle.


My last scheduled stop was to Le Touret Memorial and cemetery. The missing named here are the ones which predate Loos. This is a very ornate memorial, with colonnades and a quadrangle. Among the names, is 2nd Lieut Ballinger, of Gloucester who was educated at Pembroke College. He was killed in the neighbouring village of Richebourg on 22nd May 1915.


By now it was approaching 5pm so I turned for home, even though Neuve Chapelle was signed for only 4km away. However, the route south brought me pat the Indian Memorial to the Missing so I stopped, to admire the tigers which overlook the roundabout. Upon the central column are the words 'God is the one He is the victory', as well as words in the four main languages of India. The architecture of India is apparent here, although it is also inkeeping with the CWGC's Portland stone.


On the other side of the small car park is a Portugese Cemetery, of soldiers who were lost in the German Offensive of April 1918. While the construction of the cemetery is impressive, and takes obvious Catholic inspiration (an interesting comparison to the Indian memorial), The headstones are not kept to the standard one is used to in Commonwealth cemeteries. No doubt, the resources are not made available to maintain them, but their contribution and remembrance remains important nonetheless. Each headstone bears the same coat of arms and the dates 1917-1918, as well as the individual's details and a small cross.

After this visit, I really was heading back to the Somme, taking an interesting drive down the motorway and through Arras at rush hour! I found today to have been a fascinating day of different landscapes and I could very easily have kept going with looking at more and more 1915 battlefields.
Kathryn

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