Today is the 97th Anniversary of the Battle of Loos and this image connections us with the tragedy of that day – the human cost in lives as the soldiers of both sides fell in their thousands on 25th September 1915. But this image is not of a soldier or a warrior, but of a little girl. Written on it is the legend ‘Returned From France after Battle of Loos’. A postcard photograph, it was taken in Reading – where I bought it when I lived there in the early 1990s. The Royal Berkshire Regiment, the local unit to Reading, had several battalions involved in the fighting at Loos and it likely was the daughter of one of their men who went over the top that day. What happened to him? How did he become separated from this image? One veteran I interviewed recalled seeing postcards like this blowing around the battlefield, scattered from the pockets of men killed and wounded. Some soldiers picked them up, knowing how such treasures would be missed, and sent them back to local newspapers who printed them after big battles like Loos. Whether this one was ever reunited with its owner or whether this young girl grew up without a father we will never know – but it remains a powerful image and a link to the tragedy the Great War caused.
The Battle of Loos, which took place 97 years ago today, was the first time the British Army used poison gas on the Western Front: to spearhead an attack on the lines that was a joint effort with the French Army who were also attacking simultaneously at Vimy Ridge and in the Champagne.
This image from a contemporary magazine shows Scottish troops being piped into action as they go Over The Top at Loos on the first day of the battle. Loos was very much a Scottish battle with some of the first wartime volunteers from the 9th (Scottish) and 15th (Scottish) Division taking part. Regimental pipers in Scottish regiments played a key role in keeping the morale of the men up as they went into battle and Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers was awarded a Victoria Cross at Loos for bravery as a piper.
The gas used as Loos meant that British soldiers had to go over in their gas masks – at this stage the P Helmet, a hood like device seen being worn in this image. On parts of the British front gas blew back on the attacking troops, causing more casualties to British units than the enemy.
This week is the 97th Anniversary of the Battle of Loos, not only the first major British offensive on the Western Front but the first British use of gas and the first time on the Western Front entire formations of Kitchener’s Army men – the willing volunteers of 1914 – fought in a major battle. All this week Great War Photos will feature images connected with the battle.
We start with this group photograph of men of the Coldstream Guards in August 1915. Taken only a few weeks before the Battle of Loos it shows men of a Guards training platoon at their end of their course awaiting posting to the front. Up until this time the different battalions of the Guards had been posted across the British Expeditionary Force but a decision had been made to bring them all together under a unified command into what became the Guards Division. The units of the division – many of whom had been in action continuously since Mons in 1914 – were brought together that summer and assembled for the next offensive; although they would not play their part in the vanguard of the Battle of Loos but in fighting for locations like the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
Weeks of physical drill, bayonet practice, shooting on the range and training in all the new accoutrements of trench warfare had steeled these men in this photograph for the front. Within a month they were at the base being posted as re-enforcements to the Coldstream battalions in the Guards Division and then thrown straight into battle at Loos. As Guardsmen they gained a high reputation, which would see their regiment and the Guards Division at the forefront of engagements until the end of the conflict.
One of the lesser know units of the Indian Army was the Bikaner Camel Corps. Formed before the Great War these men used camels as their mounts, not horses and as such could not be sent to France in 1914. Instead they were posted to somewhat warmer battlefields and played a key role in the defence of the Suez Canal in 1915 when they routed Turkish troops in one of the few camel cavalry charges of the war. The unit later fought in Palestine and some of its personnel became part of the Imperial Camel Corps formed later in the conflict.
More than 220,000 British, Commonwealth and French troops were casualties at Gallipoli; Turkish casualties were at least a quarter of a million, although some estimates put the true figure at many more than that. The British buried their dead but many bodies remained unburied at the time of the evacuation in 1916. When British parties returned in 1919 they found several cemeteries desecrated, and in the majority of cases the final resting place of British and Commonwealth dead could not be ascertained.
This image dates from 1919/20 and shows a ‘collection of bones & skulls’ – whether these are British and Commonwealth, French or Turkish, is impossible to say but they show the huge problem facing the burial parties that returned after the war and in this ANZAC week the image offers us a sobering insight into the sacrifice made in Turkey – by all sides – in 1915.
This image came from a small collection taken by a soldier of the Army Service Corps in France in 1915 with a Kodak pocket camera. Most of the photographs show the vehicles in his unit but this one is captioned ‘Highland troops’. As such they are likely to be from a unit in the 51st (Highland) Division.
The men featured in the photograph are wearing the leather 1914 Pattern equipment; with the huge influx of volunteers in 1914 the army could not equip every soldier with the standard 1908 Pattern webbing so a leather set was produced instead; many units wore it in France well into the end of 1916; it was not popular with the troops as it did not balance the load well and gave soldier’s back-ache. I can remember many veterans I interviewed in the 1980s saying they would ditch it at the first opportunity for webbing.
The men in the photo also appear to be going into action as cotton bandoliers of .303 ammunition can be seen; normally only carried to the front line at the time of an impending attack. The 51st (Highland) Division took part in several major engagements on the Western Front in 1915, most notably at Festubert and Givenchy, before they moved down to the Somme in the summer of 1915 and took over the sector at La Boisselle from the French Army.
These images come from an album compiled by an officer of the 1/5th Battalion Royal Scots who survived the war. He fought with this unit as part of the 29th Division in Gallipoli, the 1/5th being one of a number of Territorial units attached to what was a regular division. Against orders the officer had packed a camera into his kit and took a number of shots of life at both Cape Helles and ANZAC where the battalion fought, as well as during training in Egypt.
It is hard to believe when looking at the photo above that this is an officer of the battalion; to say he is dressed casually is an understatement but it gives a good insight into how the heat and conditions at Gallipoli forced the British soldiers who fought there to have a complete rethink. Behind him is the dugout occupied by the officers of his company.
Below another officer of the battalion talks to Indian labourers attached to the unit to carry out labouring tasks close to the battlefield; this may have been anything from carrying up ammunition, food or water, to assisting in trench and dugout construction or repair.
There were no official photographers at Gallipoli so we rely on illicit collections like these for our visual insights into the campaign; given the number of such albums known to exist, this officer of the Royal Scots was far from unique but his photos are perhaps the only pictorial record of the Royal Scots in the Gallipoli campaign.
Following on from the first of the images from the Kensingtons published yesterday, today we have two images showing the reality of living in the trench system they were shown digging in the previous image. Above is a 1915-style dugout being used by men of the 13th London Regiment whose trenches these were. It shows how basic such constructions were in early 1915. Inside the men have an array of comforts – many ordinary soldiers in this battalion were from well off London families and one wonders how many treats from top London stores are among them! – and they are pretty informally dressed; the man on the right has Wellington boots on and they are all wearing Gor Blimey hats. A bucket with punched out holes serves as a make-shift brazier.
Below is a close up another dugout again showing its flimsy construction, with one wall being a propped up piece of wobbly tin or ‘elephant iron’ as it was known at the time. The Balaclava helmet being worn by the man in the dugout is a good example of another piece of cold-weather gear worn by troops at this time; many of these came from home knitted by mothers, wives or sisters.