WESTERN EVENING NEWS NOVEMBER 13th 1915
TWO CAPTURED GERMAN GUNS ARRIVE AT EXETER
LORD FORTESCUE RELATES HOW THEY WERE WON
Exeter was yesterday the scene of an event which will stand out in its annals and in those of the Devon Regiment. Two German guns, emblems of the gallantry of the 8th and 9th Battalions of the county regiment in the advance against the German entrenched positions at Hulluch, were formally handed over by the military authorities to Lord Fortescue, as Lord Lieutenant of the county, and by his lordship to the Mayor of Exeter for exhibition in the city.
The ceremony, which was marked by a civic and military display, was made the occasion of a notable demonstration of the appreciation on the part of Exonians and Devonians of the courage and discipline shown by two battalions of the New Armies. The ceremony gained distinction, moreover, by the presence of officers and men who shared in the taking of the guns. Though wounded, they were sufficiently recovered to take part in the procession. Flags and bunting freely displayed, and rousing cheers as the procession passed from street to street, made up a notable demonstration. The joyous and triumphant note prevailed, but it was not untouched by pathos and sorrow here and there, where friends of some who have lost their lives for their country were reminded of the personal loss in the midst of public gratitude.
Gathering at the Station
Yesterday’s ceremony fell naturally into three scenes, the first being enacted in the open space in front of the L.S.W.R. station at Queen Street, the second the march through the streets of the city, and the third the depositing of the trophies in the Northernhay. In the station yard the war-stained guns were drawn up in the centre, horsed and manned by a detachment of the Royal Field Artillery under Maj. W.F. Blaker.
An escort was provided by C Company-Sergt-Major Tiernan and 28 men of the 8th Devons, and 9 men of the 9th Devons. Immediately behind the guns were Capt. G. D. Roberts, Lieut. E. T. MacMichael, Sec.-Lieut. E . M. Nixon, and Sec.-Lieut. F. W. Trott (8th Devons), Lieut. J. D. Upcott and Lieut. F. C. Worrall (9th Devons), and 10 men of the 8th and 9th Devons who also took part in the engagement, and had been brought from various hospitals in Devonshire for the ceremony.
Lord Fortescue and the principal military officers were mounted, and the square was lined by officers and men of the 3rd Devons, the R.F.A., the Royal Devon Yeomanry, and the Royal North Devon Yeomanry, a composite company of the Devon Territorial Force battalions, the Exeter Battalion Volunteer Training Corps (under Company-Commander Chick) and the Exeter Cathedral School Cadet Corps with their drum and fife band. The band of the 3rd Devons (under Bandmaster Cox) was also present.
WORTHY OF A MAGNIFICENT REGIMENT
Colonel Walsh, handing the guns into the keeping of the Lord-Lieutenant, said those German guns had been sent to him from the War-office at the request of Field Marshal Sir John French. They were captured by the men of the 8th and 9th Battalions of the magnificent regiment which represented the county of Devon at Hulluch on September 25th – 26th. The officers and men present actually took part in the capture of the guns. (Cheers). On that occasion many good and valiant deeds were done by the two battalions which had made them famous through the British Army. Many noble lives were lost, and he prayed that the relatives and friends of those noble men who had fallen might find some relief for their sorrow in the knowledge that they died magnificently to … … … the greater pleasure because the guns were won by a battalion of the Devon Regiment which Exeter regarded as peculiarly their own. Its name, “Buller’s Own”, was suggested at an Exeter meeting; the men came to Exeter for their preliminary training and their progress had been followed with keen interest. An added pleasure was also due to the fact that one of the gallant officers who took a share in the capture was an Exeter boy, educated at Exeter School. (Cheers).
Amid the cheers of the crowd who thronged the streets despite the unfavourable weather and who had an especially cordial greeting for the gallant wounded officers and men who took the place of honour in the procession, the guns were drawn through Queen-street, High-street, South-street, Coombe-street, West-street, Edmund-street, over Exe Bridge, and up Fore-street and High-street to the Northernhay. The procession was headed by the band of the 3rd Devons, and included all the troops enumerated above.
At the Northernhay the Mayor and Sheriff awaited the military procession. The two German guns were un-limbered outside the entrance to the gardens and were drawn by hand to a site opposite the memorial to Sir John Bucknill, who is regarded as the founder of the Volunteer Movement.
Here, at the call of Col. Walsh the whole of the assembled troops, the public, and several wounded soldiers from the local V. A. hospitals raised cheers for the gallant men of the 8th and 9th Devons. Cheers were then raised for the King, and the historic ceremony concluded with the playing of the National Anthem by the band of the 3rd Devons.
TOTNES MAN ON THE FIGHT
Pte. R. Dennis, 8th Devons, son of Mr. and Mrs H. Dennis, of the Club, Totnes, and who was formerly a postman at Totnes, in the course of a letter writes:
“We had a terrible time starting on the 25th September. We lost over 600 men and all the officers that went with us. I never felt more proud of Devonshire men than I do today. When we were all lined up waiting for the word to charge (of course we were in the first line of trenches all night, it was 6.20 when we got the order to charge), not a man failed. When we got over the parapet we were met with a terrible rifle and shell fire, gas, and barbed wire. The enemy seemed to know what we were going to do. My orders were to stick with the second in command, Maj. Carden. He also had an orderly, Pte. Batt. We had to go with him wherever he went. I regret to say Maj. Carden and Batt got killed near the wire, just past the gas. It was terrible just at this point; I am sorry to say scores got killed just here. I had to go on. I was very lucky. I got to the farthest point of the advance with the few that were left to our regiment, under Capt. Gwynn, who, I am sorry to say, got badly wounded soon afterwards. He has been awarded the D.S.O., which he thoroughly deserved. We were now left without any officers. We were only a few, so we got on very well. I was again very lucky. I got hit on the left side of my right knee. I only lost a little blood and a bit of my trousers. When we got back, about four days later, I got it bandaged.”
The Western Morning News, 5th April 1919
THE 8th DEVONS
THEIR MEMORABLE DEEDS AT LOOS
CAPTURE OF THE GUNS
FEATS WHICH WILL NEVER DIE
(By our special correspondent)
The 8th Battalion of the Devon Regiment – “Buller’s Own” – has done many memorable things in the war, but nothing they did attracted more attention than their capture of four German guns at Loos. The guns were afterwards placed on Northernhay, Exeter, and official recognition of the deeds of the regiment were published. There were, however, no details – just the ordinary bald statement of facts – and in this article I propose to tell for the first time how those guns were captured, and of the terrible price paid.
It must first be understood that the attack was made by the famous 7th Division, and in the 20th Brigade, which was included in this Division, were not only the 8th Devons, but also the 9th Battalion. It was, however, the 8th Battalion that led the attack, and on them fell the brunt of the work, the 9th Battalion being in support and giving help at a time when it was desperately needed.
The final objective was Lens, that great coal centre from which the Germans were getting so much strength, and the loss of which was so keenly felt by the French. Between our lines and the final objective lay the village of Hulluch. The country round was mostly flat, but there was a slight depression leading to the village, and it was here that there was a battery of guns, the very guns which were finally captured.
What They Meant to Do
It should be added that although the final objective was Lens, as stated, the Devons were not expected to do as much as that. What they hoped to do was to push along the road, and, after capturing the village of Hulluch, they were to cross the canal and hold the opposite bank. On the Sunday morning – the morning after – the idea was for another Division to come up and go through the 7th Division, continuing the attack. As will be seen later this was not to be. The High Command encountered very much stronger opposition than was anticipated.
This was the first big engagement which the newly-formed Battalion had been in, and it must be remembered that it took place before the days of the “creeping” barrage. It was in 1915. The 8th Devons took up their positions in the front line trenches during Friday night, September 24th. It was a miserable evening, rain fell incessantly – hardly conducive to the proper spirit for an attack. Yet these men were grim and determined, and thought nothing of the discomfort. All that night they were busy getting ready for the “stunt” which was timed to commence at 6.30 next morning.
Orders were given out to the N.C.O.s that the Devons were to keep to the left of the Hulluch road, while the 2nd Gordons, who were on their right, were to cross over to the other side of the road after the trenches had been passed. It was suggested to them that it was not likely to meet with any great opposition until they had passed the German third line trench but it was pointed out that somewhere along the road there was a spot that might cause trouble. The observers in the observation posts and in the air, had noted something, but they were unable to determine what it was. Subsequent events proved that their suspicions were well founded.
In the early hours of the morning – at 5.45 to be precise – our artillery put up what, in those days, was considered a very healthy bombardment, and this was directed with good effect on the German front line trench. Just before half past six the gas cylinders in our own front line were opened. Our own men were already in their “H.P.” helmets, and very soon a greenish yellow cloud was drifting ever so slowly towards the enemy. The weather was most unsuitable. Drizzling rain kept everybody thoroughly wet, breathing in those early-pattern gas helmets was difficult, and the wind was not strong enough to carry the cloud of gas towards the Germans sufficiently quickly. His warning gongs were beating, and he was opening up a terrible machine gun barrage quarter of an hour before the Devons clambered over the parapet.
Gas Attack Not a Success
It will be seen that the attack with gas was not the success that had been anticipated. It lacked the element of surprise as to the exact moment it was to be launched. A favourable wind was an important feature in the days when gas clouds were the vogue. In addition, it has to be remembered that this was the first time the Battalion had attacked in helmets.
At 6.30 to the minute the boys in the front line climbed over the top and commenced to advance in waves. The first Company to go over was “C” and this was followed by the other companies in the order: “A”, “D”, “B” and Headquarters. As soon as they showed their heads above the parapet, the German artillery, which had already been lively, opened up in all its fury. Undismayed, by short, sharp rushes the waves of Devons crept forward till they reached the dangerous point which had been indicated to them. On arrival it proved to be a very death trap.
The artillery, which had otherwise done its work well, had failed lamentably at this spot, for it had left the wire uncut in many places. No blame attaches to the gunner, however, for it must be remembered that even in these days the supply of high explosive was limited and had to be used sparingly, and it was only high explosive which was of any use in clearing the way for an attack. All around this uncut barbed wire was a big nest of machine guns which swept the surrounding area. Men fell quick and thickly, and the casualties were terrible. Among those killed within a few minutes of each other were Commanding Officer (Colonel Grant), the Second-in-Command (Major Carden) – a veteran officer over 60 years of age, and the Adjutant (Capt. A. Kekewich).
After the barbed wire had been cut, the Devons rushed the front line, but with the exception of dead and dying it was found that the enemy had only left a few men here to keep up a fire while they were getting ready to make a show in the second line of trenches. Here they had any number of machine guns, and kept up a truly awful fusillade with them. As soon as this was discovered – for the men were falling fast now, and very few officers remained – an order was given for the Devons to lie down in the open and keep up as hot a fire as was possible on the German trench. The whole of the Scouts platoon, with the exception of L/Cpl. MacMichael and one man was killed. Then the diminishing numbers gathered themselves for a rush, and with it the Germans bolted back through their communication trenches, while the Devons followed them across the top.
Here was another grim struggle, and all the time the Germans were exacting a heavy toll, heavier than we were etting, for they had the advantage of cover in the trenches, while ‘Buller’s Own’ had to go across the open, machine-guns sweeping round on the top. Heartened by the progress they had made, and by the sight of the village of Hulluch in front of them, they soon gave the enemy the order to quit from his third line, and were quickly chasing them down the slope into the village itself. In this depression they found a battery of four field-guns, with the gunners still standing at their posts and serving them.
Capture of the guns
The capture of the guns was a thrilling incident. Although their presence had been keenly felt, no one had seen them - no one could see them - until they were quite close. The gas was moving so slowly that the attackers were still fighting in it, and on the brow of this depression they suddenly came to the edge of the cloud. Weird, shadowy figures were working shoulder to shoulder, and when they came out into the clear day-light they lay flat on their stomachs for safety till enough of them should be collected to make another rush.
Almost as soon as they got clear of the gas they saw the guns. Northam raised a shout of triumph which was muffled by his helmet, and roared “Come on, boys!”. The men, heedless of what they were facing, rallied to his call and dashed down on the guns. The gunners were, on the orders of Lt. Trott – a gallant officer whose bandaged head and bloodstained face bore evidence of an earlier wound – taken prisoners and sent to the rear. Pte. Coombes, picking up a piece of chalk from the ground, wrote ‘8th Devons’ on each gun, and the remainder at full speed chased the Germans, who were scuttling into the village.
On the road, after sniping two Germans, Sgt. Northam was himself shot through the head. He had behaved splendidly throughout, and was a source of strength and inspiration to all around him. Away on the left terrible havoc was being wrought by the concentrated fire from the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a point which found a regular place in the official communiqués of the time.
The whole of Hulluch was reeking with gas, and from every dormer window machine-guns spurted death. Still they worked through the streets, and in one of the houses found four French women, who were sent back to our lines. The back of the town was packed with the enemy. They had expected the attack, and had made every preparation to resist it. So strong was their defence that within a very short time the Devons were only a handful of fifty men with Captain Gwynn and Lieut. Trott, and at a quarter to nine the order was given to retire from the town and dig in just outside.
Whilst they were falling back more men fell, Capt. Gwynn was wounded with a bomb, and Lieut. Trott took command. In order to be able to put up a better resistance he withdrew again slightly, and the men who were left, firing from their knees, put up a plucky resistance. Then Lieut. Trott was again wounded in the hand, and the charge fell on Company Sergt.-Major Bryant. By falling back the Devons had lost the guns they had captured and these were too good to lose, so, reinforced with some of the 9th Battalion who had come through and joined up with them, Sergt.-Major Bryant led them with such effect that they took two lines of enemy trench, again securing the guns and holding on.
What They Lost
For this he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Medaille Militaire. In the evening the Germans had made a determined counter-attack, but still the Devons held on and drove the enemy back. In the night the 9th Battalion took over the line, and many days later they were relieved by the Guards’ Division, who, despite repeated attempts, failed to take Hulluch.
The Devons lost heavily when in the village in the morning from the shelling of our own artillery. Signals were sent back, but the barrage was not raised, and this was largely responsible for the Devons retiring.
When they went into action the 8th Devons were 780 strong. The same night, after Sergt.-Major Bryant had been blown up by a shell, Sergt. Lee took over 35 men. Not an officer remained, and all the rest of the Battalion were casualties of one sort and another.
(There then followed a list of the Officer casualties, together with a list of citations.)
A commentary on the two newspaper accounts that appeared
in the Western Morning News on 13th November 1915
and the Western Times on 5th April 1919.
The report on the reception and installation of two of the Devons’ guns captured in Gun Trench at Loos by the 8th Devons on 25th September 1915, and later in the day recaptured by a mixed force of 8th and 9th Devons, made for inspiring and excellent propaganda at a time when the war was going exceedingly badly for the allies. The Gallipoli situation had deteriorated from hopeless tragedy to total stalemate, the campaigns of 1915 on the Western Front had resulted in nothing more than the horrific casualties that had finally destroyed the old regular army, decimated the Territorials and drawn in far earlier that was ever envisaged the first battalions of the New Army, already now involved in their second re-build. In this context the 8th and 9th Devons had suffered grievously: both battalions were destroyed at Loos, both had to be completely re-formed from the few recruits still coming forward - but by now many were from outside Devonshire – and shortly of course from the conscripted men in 1916.
So great had been the losses that in order to have representatives of the two battalions themselves at the presentation parade on 13th November 1915, the only officers and men available were walking wounded brought out from the VAD hospitals in Exeter. No able-bodied man could be spared by 20th Brigade for a home-leave to celebrate the taking of the guns. The seriousness of the situation would not, of course, be mentioned in the patriotic speeches that celebrated the occasion.
The story of how the Devons took a battery of German field-guns at Loos became enshrined in the collective memory of the history of the Great War in Devon, and, as is the way when stories are passed from hand to hand, they became embellished and not always with total accuracy. Men were still returning in the slow-moving demobilization process into 1919 (the 9th Battalion was only finally demobilized in June 1919, the 8th somewhat earlier in March just before the article on the guns appeared in the Western Times). Interest in the events of the war, the triumph of the final victory of the Allies and various attempts to find some compensation and justification to comfort the thousands of grieving mothers, fathers, children and relatives of the dead, the missing, and the grievously wounded, (including of course the setting up of the war memorials) was well under way. Various series of articles concerning the war’s ‘heroic deeds’ were regular items in the newspapers, of which this cutting in the Western Times of 5th April 1919 is an example.
Lord Fortescue, Lord-Lieutenant of the County had played a leading role on the home-front, and these two clippings were saved in his collection of papers, now preserved in the Barnstaple County Record Office. When a version of the story appeared in the Western Morning News on 5th April 1915, however, he was more skeptical of the exaggeration the story had undergone. The ‘glorious’ charge of the 8th Devons against the uncut wire and machine-guns of the first line of German defences at the Quarries and the Hohenzollern Redoubt was a fine example of the absolute futility of the primitive battle tactics that destroyed so many fine battalions on that terrible day, and the courage of the officers and men is of course beyond doubt. But having, much to their surprise, discovered the battery of German field-guns in ‘Gun Trench’ the 8th Devons was virtually spent. Itself sadly depleted, the 9th Battalion arrived in support and a small force pushed on to the Hulluch crossroads, some 300 yards from the first outskirts of the village, and certainly no further. Forced back to Gun Trench, even this position was very nearly lost, and was saved only by the extreme bravery of the remnants fighting hand-to-hand combat in a ghastly welter of blood and death. So where in the story, as reported in 1919, was the entry into the village, the four French women saved by the Devons, and contact with German snipers in the dormer-windows? All, sad to say, is untrue, however much it might have been believed at the time. The report might certainly have been an exaggeration or possibly a confusion between this sector of the front and that of the entry into Loos itself further south by the 15th Scottish Division that had broken through the German second line into virtually open country beyond. In any case, this part of the article is simply wrong and Hulluch village was never entered.
It is at this point we confront the major tragedy of Battle of Loos - the lack of immediate reserves in the later afternoon to exploit the one break-through. The German third line was largely unfinished, their troops were streaming back in confusion and for a moment the opportunity was offered for the cavalry to achieve what had been desperately hoped for in all the 1915 battles. But the opportunity was lost, the available reserves - two raw New Army Divisions, the 21st and 24th New Army Divisions, that had only just disembarked in France - had finally halted six and a half miles from the front and could not arrive, unfed and exhausted, before the following morning, while the cavalry were far back on roads jammed with supplies moving up and wounded being taken back. These mistakes in the overall planning of the battle were later used by Field-Marshall Haig, then 1 Corps Commander, to successfully maneuver Sir John French out of office.
The actual numbers of officers and men killed, wounded or missing in the 8th and 9th Battalions at Loos amounted to their virtual destruction, but the Western Times again exaggerated the situation, in the paragraph:
‘When they went into action the 8th Devons were 780 strong. The same night, after Sergt. Major Bryant had been blown up with a shell, Sgt. Lee took over 35 men. Not an officer remained, and all the rest of the Battalion were casualties of one sort or another.’
This information is not only misleading; it is totally false. When a battalion went into the line for an attack a significant number of officers and men, including senior NCOs, were retained in reserve to provide a nucleus for re-forming the battalion in case of overwhelming casualties. Attached to the two clippings Lord Fortescue has instead attempted to give the approximate figure of the losses as he understood them to be, figures which give a very different picture of the state of the battalions from the exaggerated newspaper report.
|8th Devons||Officers||Other ranks||9th Devons||Officers||Other ranks|
Lord Fortescue had been given the number of officers and men in the 8th Battalion on the morning of 25th September 1915 as 750. With a loss of 492, he calculated that this meant that by 30th September the 8th Battalion amounted to 258 officers and men.
Col. Atkinson’s account of the Devonshire Regiment in the Great War gives us the official figures for the losses at Loos. After repelling the German counter-attack on Gun Trench, The battalions withdrew to the old British lines on the right of the Hulluch Road. The 8th could now muster just under 150, the 9th over 200, but again of course at least part of the ‘battle surplus’ remained behind.
The final official casualty figures in Atkinson’s account were much higher than those first gathered by Lord Fortescue. In the final tally the 8th had 19 officers and 620 other ranks in their casualty lists, the 9th 15 officers and 461 other ranks. On 30th September the 8th’s fighting strength mustered 6 officers and 263 men, the 9th 12 officers and 325 men. In the end, of course, a battalion’s strength is not entirely a matter of numbers; the quality of the losses sustained is almost as important. In both the 8th and the 9th many of the officers and N.C.O.s who had borne the brunt of the work of raising and training the two New Army battalions had been lost at Loos, and with them so many of the keenest and fittest who had rushed to answer the call of Lord Kitchener, and who had been so desperate to get into the fighting in France.