London Irish Rifles Association

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Home Regimental History.

Loos - September 25th 1915.

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HOW THE LONDON IRISH SAVED AN ARMY CORPS.

 

New Regiment’s Glorious Rush and Stand at Battle of Loos.

 

FOOTBALL DRIBBLED INTO ENEMY TRENCH.

 

One of the most stirring stories of British grit and courage in the present war is undoubtedly that of the charge of the London Irish Rifles in the attack upon Loos. Some of them actually played football right up to the German trenches; but this was only one of a thousand acts of cool dare-devilry that marked a day which, according to Brigadier - General Thwaites, witnessed “one of the finest actions of the war.” Indeed, one of the men’s letters from the front quotes Major-General Barter as saying that at one moment in the struggle it was not too much to say that one regiment, the 18th London, known as the London Irish, actually was instrumental in saving a whole army corps.

The following narrative by one of the wounded, now lying in a London hospital, which gives for the first time the story of the regiment’s great charged and equally, great stand against hordes after that, is of peculiar interest at a moment when a special appeal is being made for 500 more recruits for the regiment.

THE WEEKLY DISPATCH, OCTOBER 31, 1915.

The French called it a second “Fontenoy” because they say it was our brigade that saved the whole British sector, but that can hardly be the right title, since we Irish were fighting against England at Fontenoy in 1745 instead of - thank God! - for Britain now. At any rate, we understand what they meant - we were Irish, and proud of it, and prouder still that we had been able to keep up our fighting reputation. Up to that time we had only been called the “lucky ” Irish, for we had occupied nearly every portion on the British front at different times, and had had hardly any casualties to speak of. We wanted the name changed to the “Plucky Irish.” Moreover, we were all tired o the inactivity and wanted to have a go at the Huns.

We were all kinds and creeds and parties in the regiment, and we often thought how only a little over a year ago we were on the point of civil war. But this war has taught us the oneness of the Empire; so you saw landlord and peasant, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist, all friendly as probably never before in Irish history, and all vowing vengeance on the Hun.

NOW THE TIME HAD COME!

As soon as we heard the great bombardment start we knew the big advance was going to begin; and for nineteen solid days the guns banged away, till, as one wit in the regiment put it, “It was a wonder the shells didn’t bally well jam together in the air,” so thick did they come over our heads. When we were ordered one night to the back reserve trenches and “fed up well” we knew the time was near. “Fattening the calf for slaughter,” said we to ourselves. Then everyone began to settle his affairs in case the worst should happen - which is always done. Pals were arranging together that the survivor should writer to the other’s people and the others were making their wills, and all that.

There are lots of gentlemen rankers with us – one ranker, for example, when asked why he had made no separation allowance to his wife, simply replied that he had already made over £3,000 a year to her. I don’t know what his name was. The cousin of the Earl of Donoughmore and the nephew of Lord Dunleath both used to be in the ranks. I can’t tell you the pride we felt when we heard that we were actually to have the honour of heading the division. Our first objective was to be the Valley Cross Roads, which commanded the way to Loos and Hill 70, after taking which we were, if possible to break through as far as Lens, the key to Douai. After three days’ good food and rest we were marched into the first trenches late at night, laden with ammunition, kitbags, and trench tools, and, in fact, everything we could carry.

THE GENERAL’S “SEND-OFF.”

Our first job was to get over the parapet and start digging about three hundred yards nearer to the enemy, and by day we had managed to make a sort of ditch about three foot deep all along our front. It was not dangerous work the first night, for the Germans had not spotted us, and we left off at dawn but when they did spot the new earthworks and realised what we were up to, the first thing they did in the morning was to start a terrific bombardment. We had to lie low all day till it was safe enough to go out again under cover of darkness and complete the job - for we were told we should have to stay in them the next day.

I shall never forget that night. As we “marched into battle,” to use the old expression, the General - God bless him - took the officers one after the other by the hand, with a genial, “Put it there, lad,” and “Good luck,” and then said a few words to the man which stirred us to our inmost souls. “The Empire expects great things of the London Irish today - remember that - for you have been chosen to lead the whole division.” But, Heavens, you’ve got to be a soldier and to have been under fire and facing death for weeks to be able to understand what such words mean. No man can hear them and remain a coward, for you just feel that all the old people at home would scorn to receive you back unless you have done your utmost.

A few minutes after we were crawling out into the open to finish the trench which was to be the springing-off place for the great dash that we hoped would break the German lines. No sooner had we reached this place than the stillness was broken by the roar of the enemy’s guns, and bullets and shells poured on us, the explosions silhouetting us momentarily every few instants, and revealing us hard at work. How the beggars got the range I can’t tell, they must have got it during the day, but it was deadly accurate, and they picked the men off continually. Far from frightening us off the job, though, the only result was that it made us dig the harder for cover, and we got the trench five and in some places six feet deep.

All the time - and it is as fine a thing as I’ve heard of during the war- our colonel and our officers, down to the youngest subaltern, walked calmly up and down in the open, cheering us with words of encouragement and occasionally a drop from their own flasks. In fact, they were ready to do anything for us except to give us permission to smoke, and we knew that would have meant sentencing us to death.

Just before the order to charge we gave the enemy a touch of their own little game - gas. It was the first time we had used it - though God knows how we had clamoured for it ever since the terrible fate of the Canadians at Givenchy. We all got our own respirators on in case of a back winds, but the breeze was quite favourable, and suddenly great waves as white as cotton wool rolled over towards the enemy while our guns banged away over our heads like then thousand thunderstorms. Yet even this was not loud enough to drown the cheers that went up from our own chaps. After the waves of gas another and, I think, a new device was used - namely, blinding smoke that went rolling off in the same way. It was followed by yet other waves of gas, and so on till the whole intervening space was filled. The last wave was a smoke wave; this was in order to enable our chaps to cover the distance between the two trenches under cover of its density.

All the while we had been holding ourselves ready to spring away like dogs upon a leash, and you could see right down the trench the chaps tightening a buckle here and a strap there. Everybody was in the best of spirits - in fact, I don’t think we had ever felt keener for the fray. It seemed as if at last the war for us had really begun. Sonfe looked a trifle pale, others were extra jolly, but all had a look of determination different from any expression they usually wore. One set of our men - footballers by profession - made a strange resolution; it was to take a football along with them. The officer discovered this, and ordered the football to be taken back to the base - which, of course, was carried out. But the old members of the London Irish Football Club were not to be done out of the greatest game of their lives - the last to some of them, poor fellows - and just before Major Beresford gave the signal the leather turned up again mysteriously.

“ON THE BALL, LONDON IRISH!”

Suddenly the officer in command gave the signal, “Over you go, lads.” With that the whole line sprang up as one man, some with a prayer, not a few making the sign of the Cross. But the footballers, they chucked the ball over and went after it just as cool as if on the field, passing it from one to the other, though the bullets were flying thick as hail, crying, “On the ball, London Irish,” just as they might have done at Forest Hill. I believe that they actually kicked it right into the enemy’s trench with the cry, “Goal!” though not before some of them had been picked up on the way. There wasn’t four hundred yards between the trenches and we had to get across the open - a manoeuvre we started just as on parade. All lined up with rifles at the slop. Once our fellows got going it was hard to get them to stop, with the result that some rushed clean into one of our own gas waves and dropped in it just before it had time to get over the enemy’s trench.

The barbed wire had been broken into smithereens by our shells so that we could get right through - but we could see it had been terrible stuff, and we all felt we should not have had a ghost of a chance of getting through had it not been for an unlimited supply of shells expended on it. No one can describe a charge. It’s impossible. You can only feel it. Every step you take is a miracle of pluck, for all the time you can hear and see that stabs of steel and lead rushing past you. Just imagine trying to run down Oxford street alone, with people at every window pelting half a dozen bricks at you. But it is impossible to describe - I give it up. The thing that struck me most, though, wasn’t the danger; it was the voice of our dear old chaplain - the Padre, who actually made the charge with us – giving his blessing and absolution to the men as they fell on every side. God bless him!

When we reached the German trench, which we did under a cloud of smoke, we found nothing but a pack of beings dazed with terror. In a jiffy we were over their parapet and the real work began: a kind of madness comes over you as you stab with your bayonet and hear the shriek of the poor devil suddenly cease as the steel goes through him and you know he’s “Gone West. “ The beggars did not show much fight, most having retired into their second line of trenches when we began to occupy their first to make it our new line of attack. That meant clearing out even the smallest nook or corner that was large enough to hold a man.

THE HAND-TO-HAND FIGHT.

This fell to the bombers. Every bomber is a hero, I think, for he has to rush on fully exposed, laden with enough stuff to send him to “Kingdom come” if a chance shot or a stumble sets him off. Some of the sights were awful in the hand-to-hand struggle - for, of course, that is the worst part. Our own second in command, Major Beresford, was badly wounded. One officer named Hamilton, though shot through the knee just after leaving our trench, was discovered still limping on at the second trench and had to be placed under arrest to prevent his going on till he bled to death. I saw a poor old sergeant burnt to deathby a petrol bomb which caught him full in his chest. It was the most terrible sight I ever saw in my life as he struggled with the flames as they licked his face, screaming all the while till he suddenly went raving mad with pain and dropped to the ground like a log.

They got the worst of it, though, when it came to cold steel, which they can’t stand and they ran like hares. So having left a number of our men in the first trench we went on to the second and then the third, after which other regiments came up to our relief and together we took Loos. It wasn’t really our job at all to take Loos, but we were swept on by the enthusiasm, I suppose, and all day along we were at it, clearing house after house, or rather what was left of the houses - stabbing and shooting and bombing till one felt ready to drop dead one’s self. We wiped the 23rd Silesian Regiment right out, but it was horrible to work on with the cries of the wounded going on all round. You have no idea how the place was fortified: sandbagged up to the roof some of the houses were with wonderfully concealed Maxims that could shoot so that you would not even see the flash from the muzzle. As to their snipers, they are wonderfully plucky chaps, I must say; for some of them are a couple of hundred yards out ahead of their trenches buried up to the neck in a hole and with nothing but a fixed rifle with telescopic sight and an unlimited supply of food and ammunition, firing away till picked off themselves.

VAULTS GIVE UP - THE LIVING.

The most ghastly part of the whole fight I think was the struggle in the cemetery. It had been practically turned into a fort, with great tombstones placed one on the top of the other like sandbags, and wreaths here and there like specks monuments and broken crosses and pillars. It was ghastly, death fighting death, so to speak; but we all realised there was no help for it - for the Germans had taken up the position thinking no doubt that the very sanctity of the place would protect them. It simply went through you to see our guns aimed at the great white crosses and the splinters and stones flying in all directions; but this was nothing to the sights when the hand-to-hand fight began and we had to bayonet some of them on the very stones. As they came out of the vaults in which they had been hiding, it seemed for all the world as if the living could not supply sufficient food for the slaughter and the dead were rising again to die once more. A painter might have made it a picture of the Last Judgement for all the horror it contained. It was the key to the position however, and there was no room for sentiment.

We remembered the words of the general - we were leading a division, and that was enough. We not only cleared the cemetery but went beyond it. There seems to be some mystery about Hill 70 - as to whether it was taken or not. As a matter of fact, Hill 70 is some five or six miles across; it is not a sort of Spion Kop. It is quite possible for the Germans and the English to be occupying it simultaneously without even realising they were on a hill at all, so flat it is. Now what really happened was this: our men went clean over it in the first rush that carried them beyond Loos in the direction of Lens, which we had hoped to capture. Unfortunately the Germans suddenly brought up tremendous reinforcements as soon as they realised that the loss of Lens would probably mean the loss of Douai, and concentrated their whole counter-attack upon some fresh troops who had only been out at the front a fortnight, and these, unused to the tricks that you learn after you’ve been under fire a few times, got into a disadvantageous position which at one moment nearly lost us all our gains.


THE GRIM STRUGGLE.

Luckily during the advance a large quantity of supplies had been moved up from our old trenches to our new trenches, which were nothing more than the Germans’ third line of trenches turned round back to front, the sandbag parapets having been moved sack by sack on to the other side and consolidated, as well as time would allow. The battle now became terrific. It seemed as if the whole of Krupps was being chucked at us wholesale, while our own artillery was peppering away just as hard from behind our backs. It seemed as if they’d pop our heads off at times between them.

“Stick to it, lads,” said one of our officers; “everything depends upon your holding your position. If they once break the line ---” He didn’t have to finish; that was quite sufficient, and the words of the general came back: “Remember you’re Irish and the Empire expects great things of you.” That was enough. If every Jack man of us had to go under we were determined to do so, but we wouldn’t give in. “Von Hindenburg is coming with half a million men,” shouted one German, as he advanced. “Begorra, then, so much the worst for von Hindenburg and his half million,” we shouted; and the fight went on.

The barbed wire had of course been blown to shreds for our own advance, so we could not have its protection now the Germans returned; but as fast as the beggars came we poured the lead into their solid masses till the very rifles burnt our hands and seemed every minute as if they would turn red hot. There we were, a long way from our own lines; in fact, nearly in the enemy’s, isolated from every help and hardly knowing what was happening round us or what part we were really playing in the great struggle. The strain on the nerves was something terrific; every moment you felt as if you were ready to drop from sheer exhaustion, but still you kept up, you couldn’t tell yourself how. Every now and again your next pal would drop beside you with a scream, pipped in the head by a bullet, or in the body by a piece of shrapnel, and you dared not leave your post or lower your file a second for fear the great human wave that had to be shattered before it reached you would break over the parapet.

Some of them would be quite silent, but you could see their lips moving in prayer as they lay there; their thoughts no doubt far away among the green hills of old Ireland. Others you could feel writhing in agony and calling, “Mother, mother, mother,” till you could feel that hot tears welling up in your own eyes, as you thought especially if he happened to be a special pal, that the next day you would have to write to his people and tell the news as gently as possible. The night came on, but you knew you could not expect relief for hours - and you saw the dawn and wondered what fate it heralded for you.

There is nothing in earth more stupendous than dawn on a battlefield; the cold breeze, the streak of light, the rolling clouds and the haze of night gradually lifting, but pierced here and there with the flash of rifle and Maxim gun, and the whole atmosphere shedding a kind of greenish colour on all the faces around. And all the while the thought is ever before your mind that any minute may be your last, and that the sun you see rise you may never see set. All Monday passed and still no relief came; indeed, it was a question whether any minute we should not be blown to atoms and the line swamped with a rush of the enemy. We could hardly stand from fatigue, having been in action steadily since Saturday morning; but still we fought on almost blindly.

“Fight on, lads,” said an officer who was afterwards killed, poor chap.

“Remember the division looks to you. This is bound to end sooner or later. Let it be in a way that will never be forgotten when they hear of it at home in London and Ireland.” So we fought on, and never a single German got nearer than a dozen yards from our lines.

“Soon we got the word that we should be relieved early Tuesday morning under cover of the darkness. The announcement sent a terrific thrill of joy through us, for then we knew we had won.

VICTORY!

The last few hours, however, were terrific. Our own shells had come to our rescue and under their shelter new troops came to relieve us, together with the stretcher-bearers for our wounded. As soon as we got to the back trenches  in safety a huge cheer went up from all the others, London Irish - Hurroo!” and they shook us by the hands and took our rifles from our grasp and the kits from our backs in their eagerness to show their gratitude. One German prisoner whom we had brought in the day before, however, scowled as he recognised us. “Irish butchers,” he hissed in perfectly good English, to which one of our chaps replied, “Worse that you were in Belgium, were we?” and the chap was silent. The first few moments after battle are very wonderful, for it is then that the roll-call takes place and you see for the first time the terrible cost of victory. You hear pals calling out the names of pals and no answer coming back, and then the poor fellow who survives going round to get the last news. It’s terrible. You see chaps who have stood the strain of battle like so many giants crying like children all alone.

“THE EMPIRE WILL BE PROUD.”

Often and often you see a chap dropping on his knees and thanking God aloud for his safety; and, though you might have smiled in peace time, out there in war time you realise these great truths, and - well, you follow suit. The chaplain, too - and they are all bricks - comes round with a few words of faith that has suddenly become so real and gives you his blessing. Then you see others around full of the enthusiasm of the great hour, taking out their pencils and scraps of paper and cardboard or anything in order to let the people get the first news of their escape as quickly as possible and saying that everyone was telling how the 18th Battalion London Regiment had saved the situation. I put that down myself to the ordinary pride of regiment till we got it from the general himself, who assembled us together. “Not only am I proud to have had the honour of being in command of such a regiment as yours, lads, but,” he said, “the whole Empire will be proud whenever in after years the battle of Loos comes to be written; for I can tell you that it was the London Irish who helped to save a whole British army corps. You’ve done one of the greatest actions of the war.”