RSS

Tag Archives: Loos

Captured at Loos: John Easton’s story

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
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on 26 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

Tags: , , ,

The 2nd London Division at Loos, 25 September 1915

The battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915. It was the first offensive that was viewed, in Britain, as the British Expeditionary Force taking the fight to the Germans in an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. It was the largest battle that the British Army had ever fought (soon overtaken by the battle of the Somme), with nearly 60,000 British troops engaged in it, supported (with very mixed results) by poison gas. One of the key units taking part was the 2nd London Division, who attacked at the southern end of the British line.

There are plenty of good accounts of the battle as a whole – for example here on the ever-useful Long, Long Trail website. For us the focus is on the 2nd London Division.

The division was formed in August 1914, made up of units of the London Regiment, an entirely Territorial Force regiment. As the 1915 order of battle (see below) shows, many of its units came from particular areas of London: for example the 17th battalion was the Poplar and Stepney Rifles, while the artillery batteries in VII London Brigade RFA were from Fulham and Shepherds Bush. Others reflected jobs or background, such as the Post Office Rifles and the London Irish Rifles.

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

The division was eventually given the official title of the 47th Division – rather untidily, since the 1st London Division was made the 56th Division. The 47th Division was sent to France in March 1915, the second TF division to arrive in France and Flanders. The division took part in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May 1915 and were allocated a position on the right wing of the attack at Loos.

47 Division's area of the front, 25 September 1915

47 Division’s area of the front, 25 September 1915

The division’s official history is available online. Here is its account of the part the division played on 25 September:

On the morning of the 25th the extreme right of the British line — W1 sector — was held by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, whose left flank was to be the pivot of the whole attack. On their left — in W2 sector — was the 140th Brigade, and on the left again — in W3 sector — the 141st Brigade, which joined the right flank of the 15th Division. The remaining units of the 142nd Brigade were in reserve in the Grenay line.

At 5.50 a.m. zero the gas and smoke operations started. The gas was worked by the Special Coy., R.E., and the smoke by a company of the 4th R.W.F. (Pioneers). On the 47th Division front the gas went fairly well. The cloud rolled slowly forward, and its effect was apparent from the lessening force of the enemy rifle fire. Nearly all the cylinders were emptied, and our own casualties in letting off gas were few, owing entirely to discipline and obedience to orders regarding the wearing of smoke helmets in the advanced trenches before the attack.

British troops advancing through gas, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

“Strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads”  British troops advancing through gas at Loos, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

Forty minutes after zero the infantry attack began. On the right a gallant army of dummy figures, worked with strings by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, made progressive appearances in the smoke-cloud, and did their duty in attracting a fair share of fire. The real attack started opposite the Double Crassier, and north-wards of this point line after line of men left our trenches. In outward appearance they were hardly more human than the dummies farther south — strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads. Each line went forward at quick time down into the valley and was lost in the smoke. It is a splendid proof of the thoroughness of the practice of the attack and previous reconnaissance that, in spite of the thick smoke, direction was kept all along the line.

The 7th Battalion advanced on the Double Crassier, the west end of which, with the trench running just under it, was their first objective. Their second objective was some 400 yards of the German second line north of its junction with the Crassier. The 6th Battalion attacked on their immediate left the first and second German lines. The 8th Battalion was in close support, and the 15th in brigade reserve. Both the 6th and 7th Battalions reached the first line without many casualties; but it was strongly held, and the garrison seemed to have been frightened rather than incapacitated by our gas, which had mostly drifted across to the 141st Brigade front. The wire in front of the second line was a more serious obstacle, and both battalions had many casualties here ; later in the day the 8th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce them. A counter-attack came early against the 7th. The enemy tried to work round the end of the Crassier and eject them from the front line, but Captain Gasson’s A Company successfully met every attempt, and, with the help of the 8th Battalion grenadiers, established a firm position on the Crassier. The whole of the 140th Brigade objectives were captured by 8 a.m., together with some 300 prisoners and three machine- guns.

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

Out of eighteen officers who took part in the attack the 7th Battalion lost fourteen, ten of whom were killed. Captain Casson was among the latter, and his gallant company was cut to pieces, but he had, by a very bold piece of soldiering, held the German counter-attack till reinforcements arrived.

The 141st Brigade, on the left, had farther to go. Their attack was led by the 15th Battalion, whose objective was the German second line from the Lens-Bethune road (where they joined the 6th Battalion) to Loos Cemetery. Two battalions followed them abreast, the 20th on the right and the 19th on the left, and passed through the i8th Battalion when the latter had attained its objective. The 20th were to capture important points south of the village — a copse and chalk-pit, a small enclosed ” garden city,” and a crassier (slag heap) running south-east towards Lens from the Tower Bridge; the 19th attacked the cemetery, the southern edge of the village itself, and the Pylons, or “Tower Bridge.” The 17th Battalion was held in reserve.

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous tower bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous Tower Bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

The 15th [Battalion] started off, kicking a football in front of them. No Man’s Land was easy going, and difficulty began at the first German line. It was here that the leading waves suffered most severely. The second line was reached well up to time, and was found to be strongly wired, but, fortunately, it had few defenders. On the right the 20th pushed on to the “garden city,” which fell into their hands. A Company, under Captain G. Williams, successfully fought their way to the Chalk-pit. Here they captured two field-guns, which were standing a few weeks later in London on the Horse Guards Parade. A line was established northwards from the Chalk-pit to join up with the companies on the Loos Crassier. The 19th Battalion, in the meantime, had a hard fight for the cemetery, where a trench was cut actually through the graveyard, but they won their way through and on to the village, where they joined the 15th Division in clearing houses and cellars.

Here Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, of the 19th, who was killed in action later in the war, did particularly gallant work, for which he was awarded the D.S.O. He led a party of bombers, and in one house, which he entered alone, he captured seven prisoners, after being badly wounded in the face by one of them.

Another act of gallantry, which also won the D.S.O., was performed by Major E. B. Blogg, of the 4th London Field Coy., R.E. Beneath the church tower of Loos the enemy had laid mines. Under heavy shell fire Major Blogg went in and cut the fuse, thereby saving many lives. The 19th Battalion finally reached their last objective, the Tower Bridge. Lieut.-Colonel C. D. Collison-Morley was killed soon after leaving our trenches at the head of his battalion, and the 19th was put under the orders of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Hubback, of the 20th Battalion, who so had charge of the whole front line of the 141st Brigade.

Soon after nine o’clock all objectives had been captured by the Division except the western end of a narrow spinney which ran south-west from the Chalk-pit, which the 20th Battalion had taken. This contained a network of trenches, and its very plucky defenders held us up for the next forty-eight hours.

The remainder of September 25th was spent in consolidating. Local counter-attacks were met and beaten off on the Double Crassier, in the spinney, and on the south-east edge of Loos, largely by the concentration of artillery fire previously arranged in anticipation of this counter-attack.

During the night the Pioneers linked the southern point of the captured trenches with our old line, thus completing the defensive flank which it had been the task of the 47th Division to secure. Units of the Division had sent back as prisoners 8 officers and 302 other ranks, and had captured 3 field-guns. For the measure of success attained our casualties had been light, amounting to about 1,500 all ranks.

The 47th Division was one of the more successful units in the attack on 25 September. In other areas the gas blew back into the faces of the British troops without hampering the defending Germans.

A few notes on people mentioned in the text:

  • The football kicked into action is said, by Ed Harris in his book on the subject, to have been blown up and kicked by Private Frederick Edwards, a 21 year old from Chelsea serving in the London Irish Rifles.
  • Frederick Leopold Pusch was the son of a Russian-born banker; he was born in Islington and educated at Harrow. He was awarded his DSO by the King in March 1916 (as you can see in this newsreel, 6 minutes into the video) after having transferred to the Irish Guards. He was killed in action on 27 June 1916, aged 20 – his brother Ernest died a few weeks later.
  • Major Casson was 42 year old William Casson, originally from Port Madoc, Carnarvonshire. In 1911 he was the chief assistant engineer for London Central Railway (i.e. the Central Line) and living in Notting Hill; in 1914 he had married Annie Gertrude Allsop.

At the time of the battle of Loos, the Division was made up of the following units (list from 1914-1918.net): 140th (4th London) Brigade

  • 1/15th Bn, the London Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles)
  • 1/6th Bn, the London Regiment (Rifles)
  • 1/7th Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/8th Bn, the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)

141st (5th London) Brigade

  • 1/17th Bn, the London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles)
  • 1/18th Bn, the London Regiment (London Irish Rifles)
  • 1/19th Bn, the London Regiment (St Pancras)
  • 1/20th Bn, the London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich)

142nd (6th London) Brigade

  • 1/21st Bn, the London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles)
  • 1/22nd Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)
  • 1/23rd Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/24th Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)

Divisional Troops

  • 1/4th Bn, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Pioneers)

Divisional Mounted Troops

  • C Sqn, the 1st King Edward’s Horse
  • 2nd London Divisional Cyclist Company

Divisional Artillery

  • V London Brigade, RFA (made up of batteries from Kennington and Paddington)
  • VI London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Brixton)
  • VII London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Fulham and Shepherds Bush)
  • VIII London (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA (batteries from Clifton and Gloucester)
  • 47th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA

Royal Engineers

  • 517th (3rd London) Field Company
  • 518th (4th London) Field Company
  • 520th (2/3rd London) Company
  • 47th Divisional Signals Company

Royal Army Medical Corps

  • 4th London Field Ambulance
  • 5th London Field Ambulance
  • 6th London Field Ambulance
  • 47th Sanitary Section

Other Divisional Troops

  • 47th Divisional Train ASC
  • 2nd London Mobile Veterinary Section AVC
  • 47th Divisional Ambulance Workshop

London soldiers played a full part in this first British offensive (which in fact was part of a bigger French assault in the Champagne region). Indeed the 47th Division did better than most other British divisions on the day; despite the official history’s assurances about light casualties, its attack was still costly.

Sources:

 
1 Comment

Posted by on 25 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

Tags: ,