“The 8th Lincolns paid a terrible price for the errors made by High Command.”
By Nigel Atter
BY THE END of 1914, the Western Front had consolidated into 400 miles of continuous trenches stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The Allies hoped to end the stalemate in 1915 and drive the Germans from French soil. But to do so would require a new army. Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, set out to raise and train this massive new volunteer army. He put out a call to Britons to enlist — civilians from all walks of life answered. In all, 2.5 million men left their jobs in offices, factories and farmers’ fields and flocked to the colours. New regiments sprang up across the country and quickly filled with eager recruits.
One such unit was the 8th Lincolnshire Regiment, 63 Brigade, part of 21st Division. Originally established in September of 1914, the men of the 8th Lincolns came from the ranks of agricultural and industrial labourers. Their officers were a mix of novices with no military experience or old ‘dug outs’ who were way past their prime.
Like so many other units formed in the war’s first year, the 8th Lincolns’ training was rudimentary. Lacking both equipment and skilful commanders, they initially could manage little more than long route marches. Their khaki uniforms and leather webbing weren’t even issued until the spring of 1915. It wasn’t until July 1915 that their s obsolete rifles and bayonets were finally replaced with modern equipment.
The battalion would get its first taste of real combat in September of 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Contemporary historiography has been harsh on volunteer battalions like the 8th Lincolns. Many remember Kitchener’s Mob, as the new British army was dubbed, as “a disaster waiting to happen.” Others have charged that they were “routed” and, perhaps worst of all, that they “bolted” from the field of battle. Not the 8th Lincolns.
To be sure, much of the battalion was pushed back during Loos, but they soon rallied and launched another attack. And at least one company held its position, fought the Germans off and provided a valuable screen to the men that did retire only to advance again.
Allied commanders had high hopes for the Loos offensive — the operation was expected to break the year-long stalemate on the Western Front. Launched to support a larger French push to the south at Artois, the combined British and French attacks aimed to assist the Russians in the east who were struggling in the face of combined German and Austro-Hungarian forces.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the plan. Initially, Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British First Army, thought the ground at Loos most unfavourable for an attack. However, with the use of poisonous gas he still planned for a decisive breakthrough.
Amid the preparations for the push as Loos, the 8th Lincolns left for war service in France.
Sir John French, commander of all British troops in France, decided to use the completely raw and untested, 24th and 21st Divisions, of which the 8th Lincolns were a part, because they had not yet become accustomed to trench warfare. They would not be ‘sticky’ like the more seasoned troops (an expression used to describe battle-weary units that tended to hang back during an assault). Plus, the new men were promised that the enemy was going to have been shattered by an enormous artillery barrage that was to precede the assault. The attacking infantry would simply chase the battered Germans from their trenches.
After four gruelling night marches towards the front, the 8th Lincolns arrived at its position, five to eight miles behind the British lines. There they waited for their first taste of combat, which they were to get once the assault was under way.
On Sept. 25, first wave of the British offensive climbed out of their trenches and swept over parts of the German line, advancing behind a cloud of chlorine gas. The 15th (Scottish) Division did particularly well capturing Loos and charging headlong towards Hill 70. It was there that their advance came to a sudden halt in the face of stiffening enemy resistance.
By 10:30 a.m., five hours into the operation, fresh reserves were rushed forward to press the attack. The men of the 8th Lincolns were excited to finally be getting into the action. They sang as they made their way to the front.
Within minutes of setting out for the battle though, things began to go wrong. Poor traffic control left the Lincolns and others inching forward on roads that were choked with wounded and enemy prisoners. A shortage of maps caused further confusion. After missing breakfast, hunger and thirst quickly sapped the men’s spirits. A sudden downpour soaked the officers and men to the skin.
By the time the lead elements reached the wood at Bois Hugo it was midnight. Exhausted and hungry , the attackers were greeted at their objective by enemy machine gun and rifle fire. The men of the 8th Lincolns took cover in hastily dug shallow trenches, but without picks, shovels, sandbags or barbed wire, they were unable to improve their defences much. Despite the heavy enemy resistance, word was passed that the advance would resume at 11 a.m.
In the meantime, the Germans had rushed up as many of their reserves as possible. The enemy positions opposite the 63rd Brigade were being steadily reinforced. Their positions included concrete machine gun bunkers and barbed wire over a metre high and six metres deep, all of which had remained untouched by the British barrages. Crucial to the reserves’ advance was the capture of the nearby Hill 70. Without this high ground in friendly hands, the entire assault would be subject to German enfilade fire. An attack at 9 a.m. to take the hill failed, partly due to robust German defences, but also because Allied artillery had mistakenly bombarded the attacking British troops.
Despite this, the 11 a.m. assault proceeded as scheduled. But as the 63rd Brigade readied itself to charge, the Germans counterattacked. The 8th Lincolns bore the brunt of it. As the fighting raged, a lieutenant-colonel with the battalion, Harold Walter, led a charge against the enemy and was shot down, mortally wounded. A lieutenant named Falkner stepped over his body and blazed away at the Germans to keep them off. He too was shot and killed. Next, a captain by the name of McNaught-Davis tried to break up the attack with a trio of bayonet charges. They all failed. He too was seriously wounded from a bullet to the head. The Lincolns to the north of Bois Hugo held fast and fought with steadfastness and obstinacy. Running short of ammunition they took the cartridges from their dead and dying comrades and fought on.
In the meantime, the advance of the reserves went ahead. All were shot to pieces in front of the German wire. Still unbelievable acts of gallantry were recorded. A sergeant by the name of Saunders won a Victoria Cross for valour in the attack.
By early evening, the 8th Lincolns position was growing increasingly perilous. Exhausted, with their numbers dwindling, their officers wounded or dead, and almost completely out of ammunition, the surviving Lincoln men found themselves surrounded by the Germans.
At 6 p.m. in the evening their fight was over – so much for running away!
During their first ever action, the Lincolns’ strength had been reduced from 28 officers and 993 soldiers to just six officers and 522 men. Of those who lost their lives only 10 have a known grave.
The 8th Lincolns paid a terrible price for the errors made by High Command. On Sept. 29, what remained of the battalion left Vermelles for Linghem.
Nigel Atter is the author of In the Shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the Battle of Loos. His great grandfather served with the 8th Lincolnshire Regiment, 63 Brigade, part of 21st Division and Nigel is an expert on the unit’s contribution to the 1915 battle.