Friday, 2 October 2015

'The village of Loos was a mass of ruins, death and destruction'

Fred Silvester's cousin Maggie, in white 
This autumn's 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos has prompted much to be written about the offensive, the largest to be launched by the British on the Western Front in 1915. Known as 'The Big Push', it began on 25 September and the aim was to restore a war of movement to a conflict that had become mired in the trenches. The battle was fought in and around the town of Loos, in north-east France, and was part of a much larger Allied attack on German lines in the Artois and Champagne region.

This was the first time the British used poison gas (chlorine) against the enemy. It also saw the first mass engagement of Kitchener's New Army volunteers on the battlefront. But despite initial successes, troops soon became bogged down in attritional fighting and, when the offensive was finally called off in October, the British had suffered 50,000 casualties. German losses were estimated to be much lower, at just half of the British total.

Fighting at Loos, where the British first used poison gas
Those are the facts viewed from a historical perspective100 years later ... but what was it like for soldiers who were actually there, fighting on the ground? Lance Corporal Fred Silvester described it all to his cousin, Maggie, in a letter I discovered while researching my book Letters from the Trenches.

Fred was a shipping clerk from Herne Hill, London, who enlisted as a volunteer with the First Surrey Rifles when war broke out. Maggie lived in Wallasey, on Merseyside, and although no picture of Fred exists, a family photo still survives that shows his cousin as a girl (above).

Below is the letter she received from Fred, dated 21 October 1915:
 "After reading about the big advance and the capture of Loos, no doubt you wondered if our regiment took part in it, Yes we did. The Territorials [Fred's was a Territorial unit] led off the attack – our own division, namely the 47th  and three lines of German trenches were captured, also many prisoners and guns, before being held up. Our battalion did not go forward at first but gave covering fire to protect those going forward and draw the enemy fire on ourselves. We went into Loos two days after the advance to relieve some of the Guards and found the village a mass of ruins, death and destruction being everywhere. Of course the Germans shelled us very heavily and we had some lucky escapes – one big shell dropped about 10 yds from us and must have wiped out many but fortunately for us who were near it did not explode. This is quite a common occurrence with German shells now.
"Our battalion were relieved from the trenches last Saturday night for a 48 hours rest and on arriving at a billet found awaiting for me your splendid parcel which was very welcome, so please accept my very best thanks. We came up to the line again on Monday night and for certain reasons found that a new firing  had to be made in front of us and this of course had to be done under cover of darkness so the peppermints and lozenges came in very handy for the nights are very chilly and one cannot work continually, although willing, at such a violent exercise.
"When it came to our turn to be relieved we had been about 30 days in the trenches and part of this time the weather was very bad, raining continually and sometimes the water was up to our thighs in the communication trenches so you can guess we were glad to get out for a while.
"You ask me about my promotion. Yes it does entail more work and more responsibility for I am in charge of a section and have to see that they get their meals and be responsible for those men in their work. Winter I dread and now what it means is longer hours on duty for while it is dark everyone must be on  –  and bitter cold days, but still it's in all parts – this [is] great work and we must not grumble. Thank God it is not in our own country.
"Well Maggie I could write you a volume but you can guess there is very little time to spare for oneself in the trenches so you must forgive me for not writing more at present. I am pleased that you are all well and hope you will continue to enjoy good health. As for myself I am very well apart for a cold but that will soon [blow] itself away. Before closing many thanks once more to you all for the tuck-box."
Fred was killed at Vimy Ridge in May 1916, aged 25

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Adrian Lea

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