Battle of Loos

A STRETCHER-BEARER AT LOOS

[Continuing the Allied advance in France, the British forces on September 25th, 1915, captured the western outskirts of Hulloch and the village of Loos, and secured an advantage near Hooge. At the same time the French took Souchez and the rest of the region known as the “Labyrinth,” and broke through the German line in Champagne. The fighting at this period was exceptionally severe, and was acknowledged by the bestowal of many honours, amongst them the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal to Private Harold Edwards, 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, whose story this is. In the official description of the award to Private Edwards, “for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty,” it was stated that “he gave a fine exhibition of the highest courage and disregard of personal danger.”]

It  was at a place called Hulloch that we battled it out—but it was Loos, all the same. All my fighting and what I saw of it was done in the Loos district. Our division was at Fromelles, Aubers, Givenchy and Festubert, and a lot of minor events, and I came through these engagements very luckily. Our first battle, however, was Neuve Chapelle, though we did not do any actual fighting there. We were in reserve; but from what I learned later this was worse than the fighting-line, because we seemed to get all the shell fire. It was not till the battle of Loos came along that I was unlucky and got “clicked.”

I wanted to be a soldier, and the very day we declared war on Germany I enlisted in the South Staffordshire Regiment, the old 38th. I was trained hard for a few months; but that was easy work, because I had been employed in a Staffordshire forge. Then, before the Christmas of 1914 I was sent to France, and got a spell of trench work until March, when, on the 10th, the British captured Neuve Chapelle.

[To face p. 196.

ZIG-ZAG TRENCHES CAPTURED FROM THE GERMANS.

It is not easy to say what stands out most clearly in my mind of those early operations, because what I chiefly remember is Loos; but I know that we were terribly troubled in the trenches and round about them by rats. These horrible things swarmed—they breed like rabbits, or worse—and they went for anything that was going. They were huge, fierce brutes, and I know of more than one case of a sentry on a lonely post who in the night-time got a bad scare because he thought the Germans were on him, when as a matter of fact it was nothing worse than an enormous rat which was out foraging and made a jump at his face.

More than six months passed between the battle of Neuve Chapelle and the battle of Loos. Of course an ordinary soldier doesn't know much of what is happening, and he doesn't pretend to—he has his own business to mind; but we knew for several days ahead that something was coming off, judging by the amount of stuff that went up. What do I mean by stuff? Well, the shells, principally. They were preparing the way, and were smashing up the whole of the countryside. It was really terrible to see what havoc was done by the German shells at Vermelles—streets were blown to bits, churches and houses were just made into rubbish heaps, and as for men, especially Germans, they didn't count. It isn't easy to make anybody understand what happened; but perhaps the easiest way is to imagine your own house and street and the country near it turned from a smiling, prosperous place into a heap of dreary and desolate ruins.

In that battle of Loos we were thrown up against all the latest and most devilish tricks of German warfare, including gas. There was poison-gas and smoke-gas, terrible artillery, awful rifle-fire, and of course the rifle and bayonet. You seemed to be up against every sort of devilry, including the Germans. I suppose you can't expect anything else from them, being what they are.

We were in reserve trenches on September 24th, and on the night of that same day we went up to the firing-line.

It was a miserable night, with drizzling rain all the time. We started at ten o'clock, creeping and crawling through a long communication trench. We did not finish this advance job till two o'clock next morning, and then we sat in the trench and waited for the dawn to break. It was a solemn business, squatting there in the cold drizzle, talking in low tones, and wondering which of us would go down.

It was a lovely morn that broke, and glad we were to see it. Then, at about a quarter past five, the band began to play. And what a time it was, to be sure! It was a terrible bombardment, with the whole countryside shaking and shivering with the crashing of the guns, and your head felt like bursting with the din.

We had to stand this horrible racket for some time. I don't know how long, but it seemed a fair stretch; then the word came to mount the parapet of the trench. It was a high parapet, and ladders were needed to get over it. There were plenty of ladders to each parapet, and as the order was one man to a ladder, no time was lost in getting out of the trench and on to the open ground over which the advance was made to the German trenches.

As soon as the men who were making the attack got over the parapet, the stretcher-bearers went after them with the stretchers. My chum with my stretcher was Private Pymm.

The men of our battalion had their smoke-helmets on, and they looked like devils. And that was a proper thing to look, for they went straight into a hellish fire—no other word will describe the storm of shells and bullets that met them. It seemed impossible for any one to live in it, yet our men went forward, and being a stretcher-bearer I had a wonderful view of them.

As soon as we got over the parapet the men began to fall, and we began to bandage them up. What we had to deal with were mostly “blighty” wounds, as we called them—just one through the thigh, or a flesh wound. We did the best we could for them; and we had soon tackled a few. Then we went on and tackled a few more. We had dropped our stretcher and were hurrying about, each of us doing the best he could.

I had got about ten yards ahead of Pymm, when I heard him shout; but there was such a terrible commotion that I could not make out what he said. We were at that time on the open ground, and it was bad to hear the cries of the poor fellows who were shouting for stretcher-bearers. I was that busy I forgot about Pymm, and supposed that he, like myself, was dressing and bandaging.

People at home in England, with things going on pretty much as usual in spite of the war, don't realise what cries for help from the wounded mean; but they are very terrible and pitiful, and I shall never forget them. But there is one fine thing about it—you never think of yourself, and the idea of danger doesn't bother you, especially when you're in the thick of it.

At this time the attack on the German trenches was very fierce, and there was a tremendous fire which seemed to sweep everything and everywhere. There did not seem to be a chance of escaping, and sure enough I got caught. I was hit, and I felt it; but I did not know how I was wounded, and I didn't care about it—I was too full of what was happening. And the wounded were crying for help; so I carried on.

I let myself gaze at the sights in front of me. I don't suppose that I gazed for more than a few seconds; but a lot took place in that short space of time, especially where I was.

I was not more than forty or fifty yards away from some barbed wire entanglements in front of me. These had not been properly cleared away, so it meant that our chaps had to rush them as best they could on their way to the German trenches. The wire-cutters dashed up and cut away at the stuff, and the other chaps rushed on with the bayonet. This seemed to me to go on for just a few seconds; but I may be wrong. At any rate, even in that short time, a terrible lot of chaps went down. I did not notice what the wire-cutters really did; but they must have used their wire-cutters well. At any rate, our chaps got through and made the Germans run.

Well, I watched all this for a bit, then I heard the cries again, and all I thought about then was to try and do something for the poor chaps who were wounded and were so much worse off than I was.

One of our men had gone down, and I hurried up to him and dressed and bandaged him as best I could. He ought to have gone to the dressing-station, but instead of that he rejoined his regiment and kept in the fighting-line for four days more; then, as he wasn't fit to do any active duty, he was sent away. I learned afterwards that this was Company-Sergeant-Major L. Ford, of my battalion, who has got the D.C.M.[1]

[1] This award was gazetted at the same time as the announcement of the D.C.M. for Private Edwards. It was “For conspicuous gallantry from September 25th to 29th, near Hulloch. Although severely wounded on the head in the early part of the operations, Company-Sergeant-Major Ford continued to advance and give encouragement to his men until he fell. His example and devotion to duty were of the highest possible value to all ranks. He had already been recommended for his gallant conduct at Festubert.”

While I was busy on this job, several men offered to help me and to attend to my own wound; but I told them that I could manage all right, and wasn't in need of doctoring.

I was in full view of the Germans, but I didn't bother my head about that. I saw, lying in the open, a soldier who was wounded and wanted help, and I started off for him. I walked—I don't remember that I dodged or ducked much, because I wasn't caring. I remember that one of my officers shouted to me to hurry up and get out of it and seek some sort of cover. I shouted back that I was all right and that I didn't mind it. The funny thing is, that officers were so anxious about their men, and never seemed to give a thought to themselves.

I never reached the wounded man, for as I was staggering across the open towards him—I was beginning to feel the effects of my wound—I felt a sharp pain somewhere, and I gradually sank down to the ground and lay there. I did not know at the time what sort of a wound it was, or where; but I knew that it was a bullet, and that I had got a second good 'un which had nearly put me to sleep.

A black cloud seemed to come over me and I went into sweet slumber. I must have slept a long time, for when I awoke I could see only a few soldiers knocking about; but I could hear them still fighting it out. I can't tell what exactly took place behind the mine which was called Tower Bridge or at the quarries, because I was wounded before I reached the German line. What I am talking about relates to the things that happened on the open ground around me when I was wounded, and what I saw in my own neighbourhood at other times. You can't do more than that.

I had a few hours' sleep; then two soldiers came along and I awoke. I asked them to stick me up on my props and give me a lift; but they were wounded, too. However, they did the best they could, and put me up, and I staggered about six yards. Then I fell again, and I remember no more until I heard a fellow shouting, “Here's Edwards, sergeant!” Then somebody said, “Yes—and poor Pymm's lower down here.” They were our own stretcher-bearers.

Then, for the first time, I knew that Pymm had fallen. He had gone down, mortally wounded, when I heard him shout. When I learned this it was well on into the afternoon, eight or ten hours after the fight began; and all that time I had had nothing to drink.

There were plenty of the trench ladders lying about, and one of these was got, and I was put on it by my chums and carried to a trench at the back, to the medical officer. Water was either not obtainable or they would not give it to me—I dare say that was it, because later I had empyema—so the medical officer gave me an acid drop; and I made the best of it.

When I reached the trench it started to rain, and I got soaked, for the soil was chalk stuff and the water could not get through. So I had to lie in the water for some hours, and it was not until next morning that I got to the first-aid dressing-station. I was two days more before I got down to the Canadian Hospital, where, afterwards, the medical officer, Captain Parnis, who had been kindness itself to me, told me that I had been recommended for the D.C.M.

By this time I knew that I had been shot through the lungs, and that the wound was dangerous. It was a very narrow squeak; but a miss is as good as a mile, though in my case it meant a long spell in hospital. But everything that it was possible to do for us was done, and outside people also are very kind; they write to you and come and see you, and they send you things—sometimes tracts, which you don't want. My picture was given in the papers and kind things were written about me, and the idea got about that I was a mere youngster. I dare say that was the reason why some children sent me a Christmas-box—thinking, perhaps, that I was their own age. They sent me half a dozen cigars—real cigars; a little wooden horse, and a “platter” dog, as we call that sort of crockery in Staffordshire, filled with chocolates. I valued the children's gift all the more because I am  young—just out of my teens; I was in them when I enlisted—so I have a lot in my favour, and hope soon to be quite well again.

Here's a letter from one of the officers of my regiment—he wrote to my dad, too—saying how proud they are because I've got the D.C.M.

Well, I do feel proud, too, naturally; but it came as a great surprise to me, for never did I think of such a thing; and when people speak to me about it, I simply say, “I only did my duty, as others have done.”