It was February and raining when they found him, covered in a century-old cloak of earth and chalk. In the dirt near his bones, attached to a shred of uniform, they found a brass shoulder title, green with age and a little twisted.
One word could be seen clearly…Leicester.
Seven months later and a story which began 101 years ago, when a young man left home never to return, is about to end with a moving military funeral, the first for a Leicester since the Graves Registration Unit found our boys’ bodies in the 1920s.
This summer, the Durand Group’s subterranean battlefield explorers continued their digging at the tunnel entrance of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near Lens. They found another two skeletons. One was so close to our Leicester as to suggest he was also with the Leicestershire Regiment. The second skeleton was the remains of a German soldier, his rosary still in his hand.
These men perished here during the Battle of Loos, Britain’s biggest action on the Western Front that year. It was a time when the Hohenzollern Redoubt was reputably the strongest point of the German line. For a year the Germans had riven it with tunnels and turned it into a formidable defensive position. The Germans, forever one step ahead, used the mines’ headstocks as lookout posts.
During the battle, the Leicesters’ objective was to claim the heavily armed redoubt and reach the next village. The 9th (Scottish) Division had won and lost the position and an attempt by the 28th Division to recapture it had also failed.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, October 13, 1915, it was the turn of the Territorials of the 46th North Midland Division – the 4th and 5th Leicesters were to have their first taste of the frontline.
The idea to attack sat badly with Commander in Chief Field Marshall Sir John French and Commander of the British Army Sir Douglas Haig. Neither wanted to commit to a military action in an open and flat coal mining landscape.
IV Corps Commander Sir Henry Rawlinson also needed convincing.
“My new front is as flat as the palm of my hand,” he said. “Hardly any cover anywhere. Easy enough to hold defensively but very difficult to attack. It will cost us dearly and we shall not get very far.”
It was to be General Joffre, the French Commander in Chief and Lord Kitchener, the British Minister for War, who had the final say.
At midday, we launched an artillery bombardment, at 1pm poisonous gas and smoke were released. The wind, as it is wont, changed course and laid low some of our Machine Gun Section.
At the stroke of 2pm, 650 of our men in the 4th battalion went over the top. In this first wave 2,500 Midlanders went racing towards the German trenches.
As one officer remarked in the Leicester Daily Post: “They went over as if it was a drill night on Victoria Park.”
Bleakly, the men, many just teenagers, ran into a blizzard of machine gun and rifle fire.
Minutes later the soldiers of the 5th battalion dashed up the trench ladders to join them.
In the first 10 minutes, hundreds fell. Many, lying injured, shouted to the others to keep pushing forward. It was a vision of immense bravery, but also of wordless, relentless butchery.
“They just mowed them down,” says regimental historian Richard Lane. “It was the first major attack the 46th Division had made and for many of them it was the first and last.
“They got into the redoubt and battling away down the trenches hand to hand,” adds Richard, “the Germans counter-attacked very quickly and drove them back.
“There were 200 of the 4th Leicesters fighting in the German trenches and then two companies from the 5th get called in – about 300 men were sent in as reinforcements.”
It had been an incredible surge forward. These young men, who’d cut their teeth in fields and factories, had gone charging into a rain of hot metal closely observed by the Guards Division, some of whom called it the finest charge they had ever witnessed.
Their initial success, however, did not last – our men were sent to claim a fortified hell without the tools for the job.
Ammunition ran out, many grenades did not work, nests of soldiers were stranded in No Man’s Land, injured men cried out for help, and the stretcher bearers did not stop as day turned into night or when night turned into day. War diaries record the ghastly din of our volunteer soldiers, lying wounded on the battlefield, crying out for help.
By the time the Leicesters had roll call, 480 men in the 4th battalion had been killed or injured, the 5th had suffered 50 casualties. The attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt became known as Leicester’s Darkest Hour and it affected all social backgrounds.
Captain Rawdon-Hastings, aged 25 and second in command of his company, was killed leading a bayonet charge. His mother, her ladyship Maud Hastings of Ashby Hall, was in mourning along with the rest of Leicestershire.
Back in Leicester, a hastily arranged church service attracted thousands of numb and bewildered mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
One survivor of the battle was C Hargrave, a lance corporal with the 4th Leicesters.
“It was an awful sight to see the poor chaps being mown down by the German machine guns, and still we kept advancing until we got that much thinned out that we made a dash for the German communication trench, and then advanced up that until we could not get any further.”
Harold Kirk, also of the 4th Leicesters, said: “We reached the German second and third line trenches. We then tried to advance further. We saw it useless to go on, so we dropped on the ground and waited ‘til the next line of men reached us…we were ordered to dig ourselves in. So we started, and from 2.10 to 6.15 we worked hard, and kept up a heavy rifle fire as well. Fellows were getting hit, and being so closely packed together, and with our wounded and killed, we could not turn around. Captain Faire was killed about a yard from me.”
The British bombardment before the push had achieved little impact.
“They [the Germans] scooped out a hillock [to form the redoubt],” explains ex-serviceman Ray Cunningham, in France on behalf of the Royal Tigers’ Association. “As soon as our artillery started the Germans went underground.”
A number of those who were fatally wounded were buried in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery in Haisnes. Among the brave of the 48th Division and other soldiers, it holds the graves of George Harrison’s grandfather and the son of Rudyard Kipling. Our two Leicesters will soon be joining the 1,810 ranks buried here.
What we know about the Leicester discovered in February comes from research undertaken by the Durand Group. Our soldier was found with a sandbag full of grenades, chargers and a huge quantity of .303 ammunition. They also found his webbing and coins.
“We think he was a carrier, reinforcing ammunition for soldiers going forward,” adds Richard Lane. “They found a canvas bag full of grenades. Grenades without detonators – it’s in Captain John D Hill’s book – that’s what cost us the battle.”
Our soldier was found under a thin layer of chalk and 10 metres from the lip of a shell hole, the chalk most likely ejected from the crater, covering him where he fell. There was no obvious cause of death; all his bones were intact. A circle of barbed wire was found around his waist and lower legs.
Durand’s impressive research suggests he was most likely one of 19 private soldiers in the 5th battalion.
Our two boys, lost for more than a century, are likely among the following names: Harry Allum, George Herbert Baguley, Frederick Bartlam, Charles Edward Betts, James Henry Biddles, George Edward Fletcher, Lewis Gadd, George Thomas Gadsby, Alfred Bernard Halliday, George Henney, John Monk, Ernest Newton, John Thomas Walpole, George Arthur Waterfield, Albert Watterson, George Wheat, Herbert Whetton, James Henry Wileman and Frank William Woolhouse.
Mark Khan, a former serviceman and the excavation site’s team leader, explains how they found the soldiers.
“We’re working in the Loos salient which has the largest set of tunnels, they’re huge. It’s almost unbelievable how big these tunnels are. Above ground the battle sites have all been disturbed. Underground, nothing has changed a real lot.”
The subterranean battlefields, says Mark, lie intact beneath our feet, and because they’re weathered, through 100 years of rain, they come with the added dangers of cave-ins, or huge holes suddenly appearing, or also the potential for exploding munitions. German ordinance blew up in a field in Arras recently and there was a spontaneous explosion at Vimy.
At first, at the Hohenzollern, which is in shelling distance of the cemetery in Haisnes, Mark thought he’d just found fabric.
“I thought it was a rolled up poncho,” he says, “but it turned out to be other fragments that needed investigating. We could see bone fragments and webbing, buckles, poncho. We called the French police and they turned up, and we found a shoulder bone. They were happy for us to complete our investigation.”
And while the Durand members escaped without physical injury, there is, says Mark, an emotional cost to their work.
“I’m very mindful of what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s very important to remember those who allow us to do what we do today. It was very important to get this guy out so he was no longer missing.
“This guy was very personal, to be honest,” admits Mark, “I felt like I knew him. It’s a very definite feeling.”
The evening before the funeral we all have a get together at Bistrot du Boucher in Arras; it involves our contingent from Leicestershire and the Royal Tigers’ Association, the Durand Group, the MOD, Captain Reece Little from the Royal Anglian Regiment and top brass from the British military in Paris. Also here is the French farmer, and his family, the ones whose land claims the remains of the Hohenzollern, and who have been obliging the work of the Durand Group.
While seated at dinner Durand’s tunnelling engineer Bruce Simpson reveals a little about the Gendarme who came to collect the skeleton of our Leicester.
“The guy will rest in my car,” the officer tells them, “I will have to remember not to let my dog in the car or he will be after a bone.”
They also contacted the German authorities. A man in a car came to meet them.
“The guy turned up, tipped all the bones in a bag and shut the door,” says Bruce.
“Will you let us know when they guy will be interned?” he asked the man. He didn’t get a response.
At the meal, we get talking to Dan Hill, a full time military historian. It was Dan who discovered that between five and 10 Leicesters were found from 1921 to 1928 by the Graves Registration Unit.
“They had a pretty horrific job,” he says. “Their job was to clear battlefields and pick up dead bodies, where they could find them, to use what they could to identify them. A scrap of uniform, a badge, a shoulder title of the Leicestershire Regiment.
“He [our soldier] was found,” adds Dan, “with two gas masks still around his waist. The bottomline, in a roundabout way, is this guy’s home [he will receive a funeral], and that’s the main thing.
“There’s a great phrase that sticks in my memory,” says Dan, when it comes to the young men who volunteered for WW1. “‘I joined for my country, I joined for my friends.'”
Dan adds that the First World War has a reputation for being an unstoppable killing field – but, he says, it’s not completely true.
“Only one in six frontline soldiers are killed,” he says, “two in six wounded, 0.5 taken POW.”
Wounded, however, can be a mysterious term – you can be wounded but missing limbs. You can be wounded to the point you later die from your injuries – and many did. There was little in the way of remedial care during and after WW1, although Leicester itself was home to the 5th Northern General Hospital. It treated soldiers on what is now the campus of the University of Leicester. Many men got as far as Welford Cemetery over the road from the hospital.
It’s overcast on the day of the funeral on Thursday, September 29. The sky and open horizon is a blanket of grey. At St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery, around 40 people cluster around an open grave containing two beech coffins. Many of the Durand Group are here, so too local dignitaries, the French farmer, whose farm has the redoubt, British military officials from Paris, and a good number are here from Leicestershire, including Captain Bob Allen, former chairman of the Royal Tigers’ Association.
Beverley Simon, from the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, has organised today’s service. Every other week the former Wren is in France overseeing the human cost of both world wars. It’s hard, she explains, when you can’t identify a serviceman. “It feels,” she says, “as if you’ve failed them.”
Reverend Roy Burley, chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, leads the service. Colour sergeant Martin Gardner, from Coventry, plays The Last Post on a coronet.
The grave is awash with floral bouquets and wreaths. Captain Bob Allen gives me the honour of laying a wreath for our boys. I imagine them, so young, in such barbaric circumstances, their lives taken in payment for a war that should never have been. A generation later, the men who survived this war, would watch anxiously as their children were once again called to arms across the Channel.
Among the people at the graveside is Arnaud Durier, a French member of the Durand Group.
“I think it is very important for us [British and French] to work side by side because we want that to work for the memory of Commonwealth soldiers.
“They gave their lives for my country so, for me, it’s very important to give them a place in the cemetery. I think it’s very important to remember they gave their lives for us. All of us feel we fought very hard, we have to keep memory and honour for these soldiers.”
Today, France and Belgium hold the lost remains of 350,000 British servicemen, says Richard Lane, as we leave the cemetery.
“It’s right that we’ve buried our soldier, most likely two soldiers,” he adds, “but it’s still worth remembering there are 220 men of the 4th and 5th battalions who died at Hohenzollern who are still unaccounted for.”
- I’d like to say a huge thanks to the Durand Group – who are all volunteers – for the recovery of our boys. Keep up your incredible work. www.durandgroup.co.uk
A less newsy article on our trip to France will follow soon, as will more images.