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Captured at Loos: John Easton’s story

26 Sep

Yesterday, we heard about the 2nd London Division in action at Loos on 25 September 1915. The battle did not end that day, however: the fighting continued over the next few days and the battle itself officially lasted into October. One of those who fought in the days after the initial attack was John Easton from Friern Barnet.

John Easton was born in February 1895 and finished school in the summer of 1914. He had attended the City of London School (then at Blackfriars, now next to the Millennium Bridge) and served in its Officer Training Corps.

On September 2nd, he was one of the 3,479 men who joined up in London (and nearly 17,000 nationwide) – this was the height of the recruiting boom, remember. Easton joined the 19th (2nd Public Schools) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers; as with many recruits to the public schools units, he never saw action with them but was identified as a potential officer.

On 4 January 1915 he filled out a blue ‘Application for appointment to a temporary commission in the Regular Army for the period of the War’ and on the 28th he left the 19th Royal Fusiliers to take up his commission.

In the late summer of 1915, Second Lieutenant John Easton arrived on the Western Front. He was still with the Royal Fusiliers, but now was an officer in B Company of the 12th Battalion – which in turn was part of 73rd Brigade in 24th Division. 24th Division was one of the reserve units used during the Battle of Loos. Along with the 21st Division, the 24th were sent in too late, according to historian Trevor Wilson,

‘But this did not meant they went unused. Late in the morning of the 26th, without aid of gas or significant artillery preparation, they were directed to advance across 1,500 yards of No-Man’s-Land towards solid banks of barbed wire and well sited machine-guns. So hopeless was their task, and so atrocious was the resulting slaughter, that when the battered remains abandoned the attempt and began to stumble back, numbers of German machine-gunners and riflemen stopped shooting because they had not the heart to continue the massacre.’

The 24th Division went into action around ‘the Dump’ and Fosse 8, as seen on this map:

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From battlefields1418.50megs.com

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From battlefields1418.50megs.com

John Easton was in the centre of the melee. He later wrote a brief account of the events leading up to his capture at Fosse 8. It gives an impression of the hardship and loss suffered by the soldiers there.

At 11.0 am on Sept 25th 1915 the battalion marched up from Beuvry, where it had breakfasted and slept. Water bottles were empty owing to the non-arrival of the carts, nor could men find opportunity to fill them on the road. We also had no bombs [i.e. hand grenades]. We took up supporting position at 3.0 p.m. and at 7.0 my company with ½ A Coy were pushed up into an advanced position holding workman’s cottages at Fosse 8. Iron rations [i.e. emergency rations] were eaten on the 26th, orders Lieut Col Garnons Williams,* second in command 12th Royal Fusiliers. We could get neither rations nor water in the rear, nor was any of the latter to be found in the houses. Owing to the continuous bombardment, lack of cover in shallow trenches and extent of front [being held], men could get no sleep. We held these trenches until after midday on the 27th, by which time, owing to the success of the German attacks on our flanks (they had captured the Dump and houses between us and the Fosse Trench) we were practically surrounded. Two officers and some sixty men succeeded in retiring through the small gap, 200 yds, left to us between the Dump and the Village. We took up position in Dump Trench and passed the day in repelling attacks, reorganising the men, who were now mixed up with units of two other brigades, and attempting to obtain food, water, and bombs. Rifles jammed in the mud, the night was bitterly could. The men were soaked by a fine drizzling rain, and, owing to the necessity of being on the alert, were again unable to get any sleep. We were now reduced to the last stages of physical exhaustion, several of the men also suffering from light wounds. At 3.0 a.m. on the 28th we joined in with a company of the 1st Berkshires to retake the Dump. We cleared the Dump of the enemy, who however, being much superior in number, surrounded the whole of the bottom of the Dump. We had no bombs with which to dislodge them; both the Berkshire officers were killed so I lined the edge of the Dump facing Slag Alley, while Lieut Skeet lined the Northern edge. I was captured by enemy coming up in rear while engaged to my front. They told me later they had a shaft leading up into the centre of the dump. I had between 15 and 20 men with me while Lieut Skeet had a similar number. The remainder of the attacking force, which had consisted of about 200 men were killed by the continuous machine gun and artillery fire which swept the Dump from all quarters. I was captured at 4.30 am.

(* R.D. Garnons Williams died during the battle, he was 59 years old and had played for Wales in their first ever rugby international.)

A much longer account, also written by Easton is held by the National Archives (as part of this file) and makes for very interesting reading.

According to Wilson, ‘Even in a war so rich in episodes of purposeless sacrifice, the travails of these two divisions on 26 September seem cause for indignation’. Immediately after the battle, 73rd Brigade’s commander was dismissed – his successor seems to have partly laid the blame on the greenness of the brigade’s soldiers and staff, but acknowledged that it would have been tough for even an experienced, regular army unit to have succeeded under the conditions that 73rd Brigade found themselves.

Easton remained a prisoner of war until November 1918; strangely he was promoted to acting Lieutenant in July 1917. In August 1916, he is recorded as having been a prisoner in Fürstenberg officers’ camp in Germany. As an officer, he would have been spared the hard labour and terrible conditions faced my the other ranks soldiers, sailors and airmen who were taken prisoner. All sides on the Western and – particularly – the Eastern Front mistreated prisoners of war during the Great War, including physical assault, poor diet and work in perilous conditions, including close to the battlefields (see Heather Jones’s excellent book Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War for a detailed study of the subject).

By September 1918, Lieutenant Easton was interned in Holland – which is where he wrote the longer account. On 16 November 1918, Easton was sent home via Rotterdam, arriving in Hull on 18 November and reporting to the Prsioners of War Reception Camp in Ripon. He was granted two months’ leave during which time we was asked to write the account of his capture quoted above. In April 1919, a Standing Committee of Enquiry, made up of senior officers, looked into the capture and decided that ‘no blame attaches to him in the matter’.

The fighting on the Western Front could be utterly horrendous and the Battle of Loos was a notoriously badly-handled one on the British side. John Easton’s account of the 12th Royal Fusilers’ part in the battle, and his own capture, give us an insight into just one of the smaller battles fought within the wider battle of Loos.

Sources:

  • National Archives: Accounts of Loos (CAB 45/120); Lt J Easton’s service record (WO 339/32692).
  • The Long, Long Trail
  • Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War
  • Nick Lloyd, Loos 1915
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Posted by on 26 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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