Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle of Loos, 21st Division at Hill 70
Rough Map of Area

Loos

21st Division

As previously stated the 21st Division was part of the third wave of New Army organisations (K3) authorised in September 1914.

Most of the battalions were from the north of England and all suffered from the same problem — a lack of trained officers. A feature of these civilian battalions was that they were often formed by groups of people coming from a similar background or employment, giving rise to the notion of the pals battalions. In the early days this also tended to mean that people were given rank according to their civilian status as opposed to their military capacity and fitness to lead men.

The Division only received its rifles in June 1915 and two months later they were inspected by their creator, Lord Kitchener. Within weeks the men were posted to France assured that they would only be used in a situation where the enemy was already beaten.

 

62nd Brigade

The Brigade under Brigadier General Ernest Wilkinson was the first to be sent forward — towards Hill 70, in support of the 15th (Scottish) Division. The actual situation on the ground was vague in the extreme.

…we do not know what has happened on Hill 70. You must go and find out : if the Germans hold it, attack them ; if our people are there, support them ; if no one is there, dig in.

At 1500 hours (on 25th September still) the 8th Bn East Yorkshire Regiment and 10th Bn Green Howards set out for Hill 70. Their maps were inadequate for the task and as they marched down the Béthune – Lens Road they had no real idea as to the direction they should be going.

Instead of turning in towards Loos for directions the two battalions continued along the main road towards Chalk Pit Copse. Here they ran into the 1/20th Bn London Regiment (47th Division) who tried to prevent them from continuing beyond the front line.

The two battalions had already come under shrapnel fire on the way up (which had destroyed the transport section) and were now sent reeling by machine gun fire from the southern half of the copse. Retreating to the Londoners the two battalions were gainfully employed holding the front; digging trenches and hunting down any straggling Germans still lurking about Loos village.

Whilst this was happening General Wilkinson had arrived at Loos village with his other two battalions the 12th and 13th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers. These were sent forward to relieve those units that had not already been so. A company of the 12th Bn went out to the Scots’ defensive trench at Hill 70 where they were mistaken for a full relief by the 9th Black Watch and 10th Gordons who had been in the thick of the fighting for much of the day. By 2300 hours the Scots and withdrawn.

The experience of the 13th Bn was similar. They reached the area of Chalet Wood and were met by the 12th Bn HLI who placed three of the companies in close support to the front line and the fourth up to the extreme left of the line at the wood itself. Once again the arrival of a fresh Brigade led the Scots to believe that they were being retired and they fell back.

Fortunately the only counter attacks through the night fell on the 45th Brigade at the Loos end of the line — the most heavily defended section — for much of the night the remainder was held by the two inexperienced companies of Fusiliers.

 

26th September 1915

As far as General Haig was concerned, the German front between Cité St Auguste and Haisnes was weakly held and a push by the 21st and 24th Divisions south of Hulluch would break it. Orders were issued from First Army and in the very early hours of the 26th (A Sunday) Generals Rawlinson (IV Corps) and Haking (XI Corps) met to prepare their attack.

62nd Brigade, 21st Division

It was evident that crossing the Lens – La Bassée Road would not be possible whilst the Germans remained in possession of the Hill 70 Redoubt. That, therefore, would be assaulted at 0900 hours and the main attack would follow at 1100 hours.

An artillery bombardment on the redoubt was scheduled for 0800 hours and the Scots of 45th Brigade were told to vacate their positions during it. Unfortunately not all the Scots received the message in time and the artillery were firing blind onto the mist shrouded hill.

As though some conspiracy of nature was acting against them, the mist lifted at 0900 hours as the Scots left their makeshift trench and climbed the slope. Coming under heavy fire from their flanks and the German artillery in Lens they gained the redoubt and killed or drove out the two hundred strong garrison (IR 178). It was as far as they could go and their numbers slowly withered away forcing the survivors to fall back.

It was now the turn of the 10th Bn Green Howards and the 12th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers of 62nd Brigade. The Official History states in a footnote :

It has been authoritatively stated that there was only one officer of all the four thousand officers and men of the 62nd Brigade who had any previous experience of war.

The officers, exposed to fire whilst encouraging their men forward, were soon brought down and the attack faltered and fell back.

Private Robert Dunsire of the 13th Bn Royal Scots crawled out under the waves of bullets and brought in two wounded men. For his act of extreme bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross — a recognition that he would not live to see. He was mortally wounded by a shell near Hulluch on the 30th January 1916. He is buried in Mazingarbe Communal Cemetery.

Realising that the British were retreating the Germans crept back into the redoubt.

It would remain in their hands for another twenty-three months. On the 15th August 1917 the Canadian Corps would drive the defenders off the ridge in the first battle led by Sir Arthur Currie.