Such was the slaughter on the Western Front in the First World War I have no doubt that this story is one that is replicated through most families that live in the British Isles.
My great grandfather Joseph Cave lived in the small village of Cosby in Leicestershire. He worked as a shoe hand to support his wife Jane ‘Jinnie’ and their three small children Irene, Rosalind (my grandmother) and Raymond. My Grandmother had only very vague memories of him as she was only four when he marched off to war, but remembered his red hair and moustache distinctly.
Joseph rejoined the Leicester Regiment in which he had previously served in the 3rd battalion. He attested and signed to serve overseas, as the 1/4th battalion was a territorial unit, on the 27th August 1914 aged 29. The battalion was incorporated into the North Midland Division and moved to Bishops Stortford in November 1914. On the 3rd March 1915 the Division embarked for France. On the 12th May the formations were retitled the 138th Brigade in the 46th (North Midlands) Division. Anything to keep the tidy military mind happy.
The 46th Division then went into action for the first time, in an attempt to capture a flat topped slag heap along with the grandly named Hohenzollern Redoubt that protected it, during the battle of Loos. On the 27th September the 9th Scottish Division tried and failed to take this strong point. During this action Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother to the late Queen Mother was killed trying to rally a mixed group of Cameron Highlanders and the Black Watch. The fighting was so intense that even Major-General Thesinger in overall command of the 9th was killed and his body not recovered.
Amazingly the high command thought that a new attack on both the slag heap and the redoubt should follow the same plan as the disastrous attempt by the 9th (Scottish) Division.
On the 13th October 1915 the attack was launched by a particularly useless release of gas, that blew back into the faces of the British forces, and alerted the dug in Germans of an impeding attack in broad daylight at 2pm. Artillery support was negligible. It was a going to be a classic blood and bone against machine gun action of the first world war.
The 1/5th North Staffs and half a battalion 1/5th South Staffs were to attack the trenches on the right, the other battalions the 1/5th Lincs and the 1/4th Leics would carry out a frontal attack on the Redoubt.
This was a clearly unrealistic and ambitious plan. The two Staffs battallions were cut to ribbons as they emerged from their trenches, few if any got as far as the German frontline. The 1/5th Linc and 1/4th Leics gained the front face of the Redoubt, but as they moved across open ground they were enfiladed by machine gun fire from some miners cottages, the slag heap and other strong points. As darkness closed in the German counter attack increased in strength and coordination, the situation was only stabilised by reinforcements from the reserve brigade of the Sherwood Foresters.
Militarily, the net result of my great grandfathers first and only action in the 46th Division was the gain of the west face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the loss of 180 officers and 3 583 men. According to to the official history of the war, most of these dead and wounded were incurred in the first ten minutes of the attacks. In summarising the outcome of the assaults across the wider front, it goes on to say that the ‘fighting on the 13th/14th October had not improved the general situation in anyway but the useless slaughter of infantry….’
Socially and geographically this single action lasting no more than a few hours cut a swathe through the menfolk of the Midlands counties from the coast of Lincolnshire to the borders of Wales.
The men lost equates to the same number killed and injured in Afghanistan since the British Army deployed there, in just over ten minutes.
Joseph died of his wounds on the 15th October in an aid station, it is a safe assumption that as he was evacuated, he did not get too far from his start line before getting cut down. He is buried in Choques Military Cemetary, Captain Bowes-Lyon and Maj General Thesiger have no known grave. Joseph’s brother Walter served in the 9th Battalion Leics and was killed in much the same manner at Arras in 1917. He also has no known grave.
There are two sequals to this bloody episode.
My grandmother married a survivor of this action, who considered himself fortunate to have got a ‘blighty one ‘ only losing two fingers and part of his thigh. They had a daughter after the war. As a child I was fascinated by his ability to fill and light his pipe just using the three fingers of one hand. He never spoke of that day to end of his days. Even after fifty years my great grandmother would well up at the mention of Joseph’s name. She never got to visit his grave, and all that was returned to her was his broken watch and a blood stained photo of her and the children taken from his top pocket.
The second is when when in 2005 the Commune in Auchy-Les-Mines decided that the remains of the redoubt should be reused as the municipal rubbish dump.When this news filtered back to Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire, the outcry after ninety years from thousands of families that had lost men at the redoubt, some of whom including the Queens uncle where now slowly being buried under mountains of refuse. The Daily Mail ran lurid stories of desecration that where largely anti french and untrue. The local press in the Regiments home counties, and the local MP’s including Leicester MP’s Keith Vaz and Patricia Hewitt show particular determination to resolve a problem that was causing distress to the families of those who took part in this action. The local press and TV in both France and England took strong interest and finally the Mayor of Auchy-Les- Mines signed a decree to halt the landfill site.
In and around Auchy-Les- Mines lie the remains of 20 000 British Soldiers ‘known only to God’. We cannot expect France to turn into a World War One Museum, but too much blood has been spilt in a pointless war, by the French, German and British people to realise that ninety years is but a short passage of time in the collective memory to say that the loss is still not raw.