As you will be well aware by now, I have been highlighting some of the key battles that the 46th (North Midland) Division participated in during the First World War. So far, I have written about Gommecourt in 1916, Lens in 1917 and the St Quentin Canal in 1918. For this particular blog post, we will be going back to 1915 and the division’s attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt on 13th October during the Battle of Loos.
The Battle of Loos took place to the immediate north of the industrial city of Lens and started on the 25th September 1915. The Battle of Loos was the first large scale British offensive but was still in a supporting role of the larger French attack – Third Battle of Artois. Not only this, it was also the first time that the British used poison gas, after the Germans had first used it on the Western Front six months prior. In spite of heavy casualties, the British had success in getting into deeply defended German positions near to Loos itself and Hulluch. However, this did not last for long as the reserves had been brought forward quickly enough to exploit the successes that had been gained and eventually the offensive broke down into attritional warfare. On 8th October, the Germans launched a counterattack and managed to regain some of the territory that had been lost during the battle.
The attack at the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the 13th October was an attempt to regain this land. This was the first chance that the 46th Division had to show how it could fight against a strong defensive German position. The division had been in positions around Ypres, taking part in further trainings and having attachments to other units, who commented on the impressive nature of the division and its men (with some now well-known names commenting of some of the battalions of the division):
The Division was moved down from Ypres at the end of September and spent some time rotating in and out of trenches around the area of Loos, an area that was completely unfamiliar to all, after six months in the Ypres Salient. The orders for the division were to take the German positions in and behind the Hohenzollern Redoubt including the Corons de Maron, Corons de Pekin and the Dump. The attack would start from British positions already in the redoubt itself, from a trench known as ‘Big Willie’. The attack was to start in the afternoon of the 13th October, rather than the traditional dawn attack and was to be undertaken by the 137th (Staffordshire) and 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Brigades on the right and left respectively. The chief of the divisions General Staff – Lt Col Game – issued a memo to the troops, which makes for quite stirring reading below. Certainly, spirits must have been high among the troops, who finally had a chance to show what they could do:
On 7th October, the division commander Major-General Stuart-Wortley made it known to Corps HQ that he wished to attack the position with bombers in order to take position in a concise manner, one at a time. However, this plan was not authorised by Corps HQ. On the afternoon of the 12th October, the first elements of the division – 1st/5th South Staffords – were sent forward to being relieving the Guards Division from ‘Big Willie.’ However, the Germans were intensely bombing the positions, causing the relief to be pushed back and delayed. In fact, this meant that the relief was not completed until 0600 on the 13th, due to congestion in the trenches and German counter-attacks, meaning that the attacking troops had no opportunity to rest for the coming attack.
The plan was as follows:
12 noon – artillery bombardment to begin (including smoke)
1.00 p.m. – gas released
2.00 p.m. – Artillery bombardment to cease
2.05 p.m. – Assault to begin
Things were already starting to go wrong before the attack started. It was noted throughout the bombardment that the artillery did not seem to be having an effect on the ‘Big Willie’ ‘South Face’ and ‘Dump’ trenches – German snipers were able to target the attackers, causing damage, including taking out three periscopes in twenty minutes in the 1st/5th South Staffords sector, and was happening across the attacking front. Multiple war diaries also suggest that the gas and smoke cloud had dissipated in some sectors, leaving the attackers open and vulnerable without cover.
At 1405, the attack started. Within minutes, it was obvious that there were serious issues occurring across the whole attacking front. On the right of the attack, the 137th Brigade had been ordered by Stuart-Wortley to delay their attack by 5 minutes so that the left attack could start to make its presence felt and engage the Germans before the right attack started. When the right attack started, the 1st line (two companies of 1st/5th North Staffords) advanced followed 50 yards behind by the remaining two companies. Almost immediately, they came under the fire of machine guns and rifle fire, and never reached their objectives. The battalion suffered losses of 19 officers and 488 men, almost exclusively in that first attack. Next to them, was the 1st/5th South Staffords. One of the company commanders saw what had happened to the North Staffords on his left and ordered his troops to not advance. However, the right company of this battalion did not see what had happened and so got out of their positions to advance, suffering the same fate. The 1st/5th South Staffords 2nd line – the two remaining companies – advanced at 1410 but fell victim to heavy fire from ‘Big Willie’ on their left, arriving in the trenched held by the leading company with no officers and very few men.
The 1st/6th South Staffords and 1st/6th North Staffords were already forming up the 3rd and 4th lines of the attack and began moving forward from the assembly areas to the front line trenches. The leading companies of these two battalions suffered the same fates of those who had gone before them – unable to cross to the German lines due to heavy machine gun fire and by this point German artillery as well. It was very clear at this point that the attack was not progressing for the 137th Brigade and the decision was made to retain what was left of the 4th line in the front line trench in order to be able to hold the position, should the Germans counter-attack.
The bombers (those who were trained in the use of ‘bombs’ or grenades as we know call them) had been tasked to bomb ‘Big Willie’ but found themselves in the same position as the attacking troops, with whole bombing parties becoming casualties. The bombing party of the 1st/5th South Staffords, led by Lt. H. Hawkes did manage to engage with a group of Germans, using bombs and bayonets and pushed them back beyond the second barrier of the German position. The party held on until 1600 but was forced to retire. The 1st/6th South Staffords bombing party also managed to install themselves in a German sector of ‘Big Willie’ and held their position until all the throwers were either killed or wounded. After 1600, action on the right flank died down except for the continued artillery bombardments that carried on through the day and night. The night was spent consolidating the front line position again with the troops that remained and organising a bombing raid on the German sector of ‘Big Willie’ which was unsuccessful.
The left flank of the attack started very differently. The 1st line – 1st/4th Leicesters and 1st/5th Lincolns – reached the Hohenzollern Redoubt with comparatively fewer losses and were moving towards ‘Fosse’ trench, another objective for the attack. However, they soon fell victim to German machine guns, which held up their advance and were causing severe losses. The 3rd and 4th lines reached the Hohenzollern Redoubt and held the position but suffered heavy losses whilst getting to that position as did the 5th and 6th lines.
Even the pioneer troops for the division were given roles in the offensive. The 1st Battalion Monmouth Regiment were also tasked with advancing on the Hohenzollern Redoubt and for some time committed troops on the attack, multiple times. At one point in the assault, a party of German troops managed to get into British positions and a reserve unit was sent to repel this counter-attack. However, despite best efforts, the reserve unit was required to retire under intense pressure due to the lack of ammunition available to them, particularly bombs.
At 1445, less than an hour after the assault had started, elements of the 139th (Notts and Derby) Brigade, who had not been allocated a role for the assault, were being called upon to provide support, some of which managed to get into the Hohenzollern Redoubt, resulting in a mixture of units from across the division having a position in the redoubt. At around 1550, the troops in the redoubt rallied under the command of Lt. Col. Evill – one of the few remaining officers and the line was re-established and consolidated. From 1700, Royal Engineers were moving forward to connect the redoubt to the British lines via communication trenches and began laying telephones lines. At 1800, a company from 1st/8th Battalion Sherwood Foresters arrived and all available bombers from that battalion arrived with them and were immediately engaged in bombing raids that carried on throughout the night. By 2100, the Germans had gained a footing on the edge of the redoubt but were pushed out by a counter-attack of the 1st/8th Sherwood Foresters at 1600 on the 14th October. Additional troops arrived in the redoubt throughout the night where, on one occasion, a company from 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters arrived at 0100 and found the position they were to take over being held by Lt Vickers of 1st/7th Sherwood Foresters practically on his own after all of his bombers being killed or wounded. Lt Vickers was awarded the Victoria Cross for holding this position, as his citation reads:
“When nearly all his men had been killed or wounded, and with only two men available to hand him bombs, Captain Vickers held a barrier for some hours against heavy German bomb attacks from front and flank. Regardless of the fact that his own retreat would be cut off, he had ordered a second barrier to be built behind him, in order to ensure the safety of the trench. Finally, he was severely wounded, but not before his magnificent courage and determination had enabled the second barrier to be completed.”
Bombing continued throughout the 14th October and reinforcements were sent throughout the day to replace the numbers that had already been lost. Not all units who had been involved in the assault where reinforced or replaced as swiftly as possible, with some units still being in the positions they had taken at 0800 on 15th October. Eventually, the 2nd Guards Brigade replaced the last remaining units from the 139th Brigade but whilst the relief was being undertaken, the Germans carried out one last counter-attack against the position, which was repelled and caused great casualty numbers.
This first assault for the North Midland Division was costly. A division that was comparatively new to the Western Front, in its first assault suffered 3763 casualties, most of those with the first few minutes. It was certainly a baptism of fire. 6 weeks later, the Division was ordered to proceed to Egypt, with most units leaving Northern France around Christmas time and arriving in Egypt on 13th January 1916. However, after just a few days in Egypt, the division was ordered to return to France and Flanders, where it remained for the rest of the war. The unit spent time around Vimy Ridge before being moved to the area around and taking part in the Battle of Gommecourt, which you can read about here.