Jacqueline Heron Wray
Updated: May 31, 2022
I am writing a novel set in Crosshouse during WW1 and WW2.
While researching WW1 for the book, the Battle of Loos caught my attention.
A video called ‘Stand To, Crosshouse Loos’, is posted on YouTube by Living Tradition. The video is accompanied by Bob Fox singing ‘Stand To’ It is highly emotive. I watched with tears streaming down my face.
Dr. Derek Patrick of St Andrews University said that ‘the disproportionate number of Scots who went over the top at 06:30 on September 25th, 1915, ensured Loos would be remembered as a Scottish battle’ I wish we had been taught about it in school. I studied WW1 history at Higher level at school, but I do not remember The Battle of Loos being mentioned.
I understand the men who fought and survived WWI did not talk about it. They did not want to re-live or disclose the horror. They did not want to talk about the slaughter and carnage. Then in 1963, some of the men did speak about it to the BBC for the first time ever.
I am grateful that they did and that their stories have been told and will not be forgotten. Even in my own family, it was not talked about.
I have also written a short piece about WW1 which I will post separately. It is an extremely simplified version of events, which will hopefully help to explain why WW1 started. A simple overview for the piece I am posting now, which is presumptuously what a soldier might have been thinking on the 25th of September 1915.
Out of almost 10,000 British soldiers, 8,246 were killed or wounded in three hours during the Battle of Loos.
Today is the 25th of September 1915, my whole being is totally preoccupied and exhausted merely by willing myself to hack it, to survive, to do what is expected of me, and to do it well.
Last night was long, cold, and busy as usual.
‘Stand-to arms’ lasted until it got dark, and then we cracked on with duties and jobs too dangerous to attempt in daylight, we often work through the night until dawn and the morning stand-to.
We repaired parapets, spied on the Hun's defenses, moved guns into position, got supplies, improved, and repaired trenches, the list is endless.
There were daily detailed ammunition, ration, and water parties. Groups of us were sent to get supplies from the wagon lines. Can you believe the water was often fetched in old petrol cans? Our tea tasted horrible, but och, it was warm and wet, and we were glad of it most of the time. Nothing could beat our snifter of rum in the mornings. It fair warmed us up and steadied the nerves. The horses, donkeys, and mules, big gentle beasts, plodded through the mud carrying the bulk of the supplies. I often wondered if they knew what was going on and if they were as scared as I? We had dogs and cats trained as ratters, they tended to be cheeky devils and they fairly entertained us at times. Some of the dogs we had helped us to lay cables for the telephones and power, we even had canaries who detected the poison gas. Dogs and pigeons carried messages too. We really depended on them. We could not have done what we had to do without every one of them.
The wiring parties always worked all night, repairing or rebuilding our own wire barricades as well as using sappers to cut through Gerry’s making it easier for us to break through when the time came to attack. Slithering on our bellies through the mud, our faces camouflaged with dirt trying not to make a sound, heading out to cut away at their barbed-wire barriers. Some of us were instructed to head towards the saphead listening posts. It was strange listening to the brusque unfamiliar German accents, wondering what they were saying. Were they talking about us? Were they feeling the same as we were feeling, frightened alone, and far from home?
Aye, the trenches came alive at night. Gerry sent up flares which lit up the sky with a peculiar powdery green light and then fired machine guns out over no man’s land at any sign of movement. All we could do was to stay very still under the greenish haze, hunker down and hope for the best.
We did the same to them mind you.
During the day it was different. Loads of us complained of boredom, aye, boredom, can you believe it? Not one soul could be seen above the trench. Nothing to see in no man’s land during daylight hours. We checked our guns, our equipment, and uniforms, we ate, we talked we looked forward to letters from home. We tried to ignore the flies, the mud, and the noises to catch forty winks, yearning for sweet dreams however short-lived.
The Officers and NCOs carried out regular inspections, not just checking our feet for signs of trench foot, which was rife, I have seen men’s feet looking like huge ripe juicy red tomatoes once their boots came off, I remember last winter many of the lads' lost toes, even feet because of frostbite and gangrene.
We must wear our uniforms properly, no slacking, and rightly so in my opinion, standards and discipline must be maintained. Without standards, regulations, and rules we will fall apart. We do have an incentive to comply, that is to avoid being assigned the title of sanitary personnel. Sanitary personnel are responsible for clearing out and maintaining the latrines. I wouldnae wish that on ma worst enemy…well unless he was a Gerry of course.
We are rotated from the front every week thank God. We spend no more than six days, sometimes only four, in the fire trench, which, being our first line of resistance, is full-on and the most dangerous. Behind that trench is the support trench, and behind that is the reserve trench. All three trenches are connected by communication trenches, crisscrossing so that we never need to poke our heads above the parapet. The support trench is where the kitchens and dressing stations are. In the dressing station, our wounds get cleaned and dressed, but they often get infected and suppurated. Festering stinking wounds, dribbling with green pus. The flies love it, but if we are severely injured, we get taken to a casualty clearing station by ambulance.
When our turn comes to go back behind the line, we are thankful to have survived another stint at the front. Knowing that back there, we can sleep, have a wash, get clean clothes, and sleep a bit more, it is like paradise compared to the front.
We are usually knee-deep in mud, deeper than our knees in places if there were no duckboards. The sludge beneath our feet is a curious thick blend of yellowish chalky clay, rat excrement, dirt, and God only knows what else. I hate that mud as much as the rats seemed to revel in it as they dart about in it, their bellies fat from feasting on human flesh. There are flies everywhere, did I mention that? swarms of them, as well as fleas and lice.
Some of the Tommies and Jocks (that is what we are called) say that they enjoy military life. They like the camaraderie, the beer, the cigarette, and the rum rations. They even enjoy the meals, mostly of tins of bully(corned) beef and horrible loathsome hard biscuits, but they are regular I suppose. Those little hard bastards broke the teeth of many a lad but are not so bad if you grind them up and mix them with a bit of jam if you can get any.
It is grand getting letters and parcels from home. Socks, scarves, chocolate, jam, cakes, and other goodies. When we are billeted, we can go to the estaminets which are all over the place, they are like cafes set up in the local people’s front rooms where we can buy local food if there is any or a dram for a halfpenny, have a laugh and try to forget where we are and who we are missing.
Little do we know that in the not-too-distant future we will need to make do with pea soup with a few lumps of horse meat added to it and bread made from dried turnips.
When we go over the top, we have our iron rations. Tins containing tea, sugar, meat, cheese, and those bloody biscuits, enough to last us a day or so in case we get stranded out there with no means of communication.
I remember one young lad when he experienced life on the front line for the first time.
Shocked, he cried out… ‘Is it always like this?’
‘Only on Saturday nights’ was the reply he got. Aye, we had to keep some sort of sense of humour, didn’t we? That lad looked as if he was only fifteen. Lots of us lied about our age just to sign up and volunteer.
Last week, the Army Chaplain said in his service that’ by next Sunday many of you will have ceased to exist’ Cheery, eh? But straight to the point, I will give him that. He certainly gave us something to think about. The officers know that this is not going to be an easy battle, well not for us anyway. For a start, we are going to use gas for the first time, Gerry beat us to it last April at Ypres, causing an uproar. The Hun was called evil, and underhand, for using it, but now our cylinders are at the ready along the length of the trench, sauce for the goose…sauce for the gander as the saying goes.
Looking out towards no man's land we can see Tower Bridge, well that is what we call it. A landmark which we have tried, in vain, to destroy because we ken fine that Gerry can see us from up there, views of our front line and beyond. Our artillery has tried to blast through the 100-foot-deep coils of barbed wire on the German lines, but the soldiers firing the guns lacked the experience to cut through it completely. On top of that, the Huns have prime positions on top of the slag heaps which are dotted about, they remind me of the coal mines in Ayrshire. We know the officers are expecting the worst. We can see it in their faces. There were fourteen motor ambulances and seventeen ambulance trains at the ready.
We dinae hate the enemy, we know they are young, frightened lads just like us. Mental really when you think about it, pure and utter madness.
We had a violent thunderstorm the night before last which has not helped our situation one bit, torrential rain, soaking into our permanently damp greatcoats, the hems soaked up the clay and rainwater and clung to us, making them so heavy that movement and sleep are almost impossible.
This morning, some of us seem to be sleeping standing up, others are tucked into any available nook or cranny. I hear someone in the latrine vomiting as if he will turn himself inside out. The sight and smell of sheer terror are unmistakable surrounding us like an invisible cloak. Fear is seeping into every orifice, every pore, every nerve.
‘The Big Push’ they are calling it. I just hope I can push hard enough. We must make our way towards Loos and capture the trenches that Gerry has been holding for a long time. Hopefully not for much longer if we have our way. We are going to release gas and smoke intermittently. We do not have enough gas, so we are hoping to fool Gerry into wearing his gas mask by releasing smoke in the hope that he won’t know the difference. The masks are vile things to wear, really disorientating, I couldn't see or hear properly when I was wearing mine. Some Captain has nicknamed it ‘the googly-eyed bugger with the tit’, very apt and descriptive if you ask me. Frightsome-looking things, but they save our lives.
At midnight last night, we were told that wind conditions are favourable and that the attack will go ahead as planned, so here we are.
The lads who are going to release the gas are wearing armbands. The bands will prove they are not shirkers. Why? Shirkers are shot. We have been told plainly that once zero hour comes and we go over the top, anyone trying to retreat will be shot.
I glance along the trench towards my brother standing on the fire step, his eyes catch mine and the horror of what is about to happen is etched into his face, that familiar face which today is almost unrecognisable as my fun-loving wee brother, the lad I have shared my life with. Will we also be sharing our last hours on earth together here at Loos? Our Mothers face flashes into my mind’s eye. For a fleeting moment I wonder what she has been doing, has she been knitting more socks for us? Would she receive a letter in the coming weeks informing her that her sons are not coming home? I hope at least one of us will survive for her sake. An image of my Father returning from the Boer war in 1902 also flashes into my head. I recall the sheer elation of seeing him again, my dad, the war hero. Will I be a war hero? What is a hero anyway?
Some of us are crying, some praying, many gazing at photos of loved ones knowing that it might well be the last time they will see their faces.
I recollect the look of love and surprise on my wife’s sweet face when she opened the door and saw me standing on the doorstep. My leave had been arranged at such short notice that I didn’t have time to write to her, to let her know that I was coming home. What a sight I must have been, mud and clay clinging to my uniform, lousy, rancid, and stinking to high heaven. She didn’t seem to mind though.
She filled the tin bath for me, stoking up the fire in the range to get enough warm water ready for a good soak, blethering the whole time, asking questions ten to the dozen. Her laughter and chatter enveloped me and made me feel safe and loved. The pleasure I felt in that bath in front of the fire, the feeling of clean warm water lapping over my legs and red swollen feet is almost indescribable. I enjoyed the sensation of warm water trickling down my face as she poured it over my head from a large enamel jug. I will never forget that bath.
She even managed to clean up my uniform quite a bit, how she managed it I dinae ken.
I had six days' leave in total, but two of those had been spent traveling. I mostly slept while I was home. I thoroughly enjoyed home cooking, hot food, fresh milk and butter, and tea that did not taste like petrol. To lie in a clean fresh bed, with a soft pillow, and with no fear, no shells guns, or rats was like a dream come true. A braw dream from which I did not want to wake up.
I can hear the whistle blowing, this is it, in a strange way I am relieved, the waiting and wondering have been agony. I am lucky enough to have a ladder, some of the boys will need to scramble up and over the parapets as best as they can. It is confusing and chaotic. With the sound of artillery, explosions, shouting, and machine guns, the wind has changed direction, we are being gassed with our own stuff. It is hell on earth, unbelievable chaos. The lad beside me has had half his head blown off. Many of the boys have already removed their masks not realising that the gas meant for Gerry is now assaulting us with its deadly noxious fumes. An obviously unprejudiced wind wafting our own stuff right back at us. Lads were coughing, vomiting, all the while getting shot and blown to bits. Carnage. Slaughter and confusion.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, I hear the strains of the regimental march ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’. The instantly recognisable and uplifting sound of the bagpipes that has kept us marching even when we were dog tired and weary when our feet were throbbing with pain when we thought we could not take another step. The tune filled my ears, bringing with it a sense of purpose and clarity to my jumbled brain. As if by magic, we are united once more, marching to ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’ together towards the enemy, even though just seconds beforehand, every basic instinct in our bodies had been telling us not to.
(Long afterward I was to learn that ‘The Piper of Loos’ as he became known, was Daniel Laidlaw of the 7th Battalion of The Kings Own Scottish Borderers.) The piper's lieutenant saw that the battalion was struggling and being immobilised by the heavy artillery and gas and called out ‘For God's sake, Laidlaw, pipe them together ‘Daniel did as he was told ( and even carried on piping even after he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg and ankle.)
We got to Loos well ahead of the reserves who had been kept too far back. The hand-to-hand fighting started. We desperately needed more men. Gerry was on top of the slag heaps taking his pick, mowing us down swiftly and easily. Eventually, the 21st London Division arrived, but the Tommies were exhausted, they had marched all day and night to reach the front only to be sent straight into battle poor devils.
No man’s land was ironically strewn with men. Disemboweled men. Bits of men. Bodies were hanging from the barbed wire. Blood, so much blood, body parts of what just hours and minutes before had been sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. Talking, laughing, praying, and weeping beings who had battled forwards and towards what so many knew was certain death in the name of serving King and Country.
I knew that those of us fortunate enough to survive this massacre could expect to spend countless nights clearing the bodies. Dragging what had been our friends or what was left of them into shell holes, laying a light covering of earth on top of them, removing identity discs and any belongings ready to send home to loved ones. Recording each name vigilantly and with reverence.
I wonder when and how it will end. I Pray that this will be the war to end all wars, and wonder if my Father prayed for the same?
Dedicated to the men of Crosshouse, Ayrshire, who lost their lives at the Battle of Loos, 1915.
Jacqueline Heron Wray, March 2021.
“I saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat.”
“The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.”
British Captain Leeham
Voices of World War One, BBC Documentaries, Dan Snow.
The Long Long Trail.co.uk, Chris Baker
Loos 1915 Podcast, Dr Nick Lloyd
Loos 1915, The Unwanted Battle, Gordon Corrigan
The Trench Warfare Department, 1914-15, The Western Front Association
Battle of Loos, Landscape and Gas, Professor Peter Doyle
15th Scottish Division at The Battle of Loos 1915, Stuart Roxburgh (You Tube)
Stand To Crosshouse-Loos, 1915 (You Tube)