LAST YEAR I spent Remembrance Day in the French village of Loos, a century after the bloody battle that carries its name.
On the 25 September 1915 at 06.30, British soldiers clambered from their trenches and began to walk toward the enemy line. The plan was to use chlorine gas to confuse and disarm the enemy, 140 tonnes in fact. However, the best laid plans of mice and men… a change in wind direction and the downdraft caused by German shelling blew the gas back into the British trenches.
In the trench of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, as the chlorine smog gathered, the morale of the men began to falter. The commanding officer, recognising the danger, shouted to the regimental piper, ‘For God’s sake, Laidlaw, pipe them together!’
Piper Daniel Laidlaw climbed out of the trench, dusted off his pipes, and began to play. He would win the Victoria Cross that day. His citation takes up the story: ‘During the worst of the bombardment, Piper Laidlaw […] with absolute coolness and disregard of danger, mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played the company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes until he was wounded.’
A German machine gunner recorded in his diary the events of the day: ‘We were very surprised to see them walking. We had never seen that before. The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim. We just fired into them.
Of the 10,000 men who went over the top, 8,000 were casualties by noon. The British did break through the German line that day but a shortage of men and shells meant that the breach could not be held. Three days later the British returned to their own trenches. The battle ended where it had begun. There were 59,247 British casualties in total.
Many of the soldiers who went over the top that morning rest, row on row, in the cemeteries that encircle the village. As the hour of remembrance approached I was in the Cemetery at Dud Corner. Two thousand souls lie buried there, soldiers of the Black Watch, the Seaforths, Camerons, Gordons amongst them. Some gravestones bear the badge of the regiment. Others the simple inscription, ‘A soldier of the Great War, known unto God’. Those for whom there is no grave are listed on the imposing walls of the cemetery. There are 20,000 names. They rest where they fell.
It was Rudyard Kipling who suggested the phrase ‘known unto God’. He lost his son at Loos. Kipling had pulled strings to secure his short-sighted son a commission in the Irish Guards. His death moved Kipling to take an active role in the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, the group which still tends the graves today. In the chaotic aftermath of the battle, solders were buried where they fell. After the war they were reunited with their comrades. Today along what was the west front, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends 314,176 graves.
My host that Remembrance Day was the Mayor of Loos. The major commemoration had been on the centenary day of the battle. So that November it was just me, my team and the townsfolk of Loos. We joined the town council in the square in the half light and from there we set off in a convoy of cars. Throughout the morning we visited the cemeteries that circle the town. At each we would park the car on a grassy verge and walk to a small, peaceful cemetery. Some were surrounded by fields. One was by a school. At another we stopped where two Canadian soldiers had fallen. Both had been awarded the Victoria Cross.
At each stop the local fire brigade band, tubas, trombones and all, would play a tribute, and wreathes would be laid. We would then all stand in silence for a moment. And then we would drive on. We stopped more often than I had wreathes to lay.
When our duty of remembrance was done we returned to the fire station for croissants, coffee, eau de vie and speeches. Toasts were drunk (there is nothing like neat liquor in the morning) and we chatted. Some of the folks had been taking part in the act of remembrance for half a century. Many had relatives who served in the war. Others spoke of a later war and the resistance. Several wore lapel badges with the tricolour and the saltire entwined. As I learned that day, this would be the last time the fire brigade would participate. Cuts were coming and a reorganisation was on the horizon. The fire brigade had taken part in proceedings since1946.
As an aside the Mayor of Loos remarked that each year soldier’s remains were still unearthed. All were re-interred without ceremony, all except the British soldiers. The Mayor was much taken by the fact that on each occasion, the British army would send an honour guard to salute the soldier as he was laid to rest. He thought this was right and proper. So do I.
As the hour of remembrance my team returned to Dud’s Corner. At the eleventh hour each member had found a part of the cemetery in which to stand alone. There was no instruction or compulsion to do so. It felt right. Around us rested soldiers of a bygone age, several of our own age, all of whom had answered the call.
In a later war Scots poet Hamish Henderson describes a visit the grave of an enemy combatant. His verse, which seems apt, closes:
Don’t be late on parade when the Lord calls ‘Close Order’.
Keep waiting for the angels. Keep listening for Reveille.
Photo: Ian Duncan touring the war graves and memorial at Loos