The battle of Lens; the Battle of Loos

Last Thursday, 16 June, England played Wales at the Euros in a place called Lens, a small industrial town in north-east France. This had strange echoes of 26 June 1998, when England played Colombia in the World Cup, also in Lens.  

On both occasions, trouble had followed English fans all the way from the opening match in Marseilles. On both occasions, groups of close-cropped young men, clasping cans of lager, were roaming France. Provocative and provoked, they had come to support their country. In Britain, the fans had already been disowned. On both occasions, politicians who had sought their votes the previous year competed to give expression to their outrage. The chance of Britain hosting future tournaments was under threat. Lucrative sponsorship deals were at risk. Coca-Cola and Nike would not be pleased.

Did they but know it, and sadly they might not have, the English and Welsh fans were less than three miles from the place where, 101 years earlier, their forebears had been mown down in the Battle of Loos. Some of them might even have approached the town on the road from La Bassée, the road crossed by the 21st and 24th Divisions on the morning of 26 September 1915, en route for oblivion.

These earlier groups of close-cropped young men were not disowned by the politicians. On the contrary, they were embraced, those few left to embrace. Their patriotism was not xenophobia. Their aggression was not vandalism. Their high spirits were not loutishness. Their self-destructiveness was called discipline. They were not animals, but heroes. They were expendable just the same, though.

What do we expect? We raise generations of Brits to be proud of their country, to believe it is the greatest country in the world. We ask them to fight for their country, to suffer for their country, to die for their country. And they do. Time after time after time. Then, when that is not needed any more, we disown them and brush them off like dandruff from our sharp suits. Yesterday’s heroes are today’s hooligans. Perhaps we should bear in mind that they may need to become tomorrow’s heroes too.

In August 1998, I was standing on the hump of the Col de Grenay, on which had stood Lone Tree, an enormous flowering cherry tree that had blossomed in May 1915. Behind the Col were the lines in which the troops of the 21st and 24th Divisions were amassed on the night before the second day of the Battle of Loos. Lone Tree Ridge was to be the jumping off point for the following day’s massacre.

After the blossoms had fallen a young lieutenant in the Seaforths had led a night patrol there and, climbing to the upper branches, had attempted to fasten a Union Jack to the trunk. Unfortunately, although successful in this, he had been caught in a flare on the way down and machine-gunned. For several days his body had hung there. Two attempts to recover it on subsequent nights failed and finally divisional artillery were directed on to the tree in an attempt to bury him. As the days wore on all the branches had been blown off but the guns never scored a direct hit and the stump remained, standing some fifteen feet high. It flowered again in 1920.

There are few events in history that defeat all attempts at comprehension. If one has encountered evil writ small, one can imagine it writ large; the same with vanity, ambition, fear, incompetence, stupidity, courage, intelligence and any other human attribute. The famous and infamous of history are not qualitatively different from the rest of us. The course of history is not dictated by processes notably different from those by which you or I contemplate our career paths, decide whether and whom to marry, or devise pan-European mission statements for hamburger restaurants.

The Battle of Loos, and specifically the attack of the 21st and 24th Divisions on the second day of the battle, is an exception. It is impossible to read an account of the fighting and comprehend how anyone could have ordered that attack.

By late summer 1915 several attempts had been made to break through the German lines on the Western Front. Not a huge number – not by the standards of what was to follow – but enough to form a reasonable judgment of the tactics involved. The following description of the ‘battle’ fought between the villages of Loos and Hulluch between 11:00 and 14:30 on 26 September 1915 is a composite account formed from the diaries of German combatants:

Dense masses of the enemy, line after line, appeared over the ridge, some of their officers even mounted on horseback and advancing as if carrying out a field-day drill in peacetime. Our artillery and machine-guns riddled their ranks as they came on. Whole battalions were annihilated.

Ten columns of extended line could clearly be distinguished, offering such a target as had never been seen before, or even thought possible. Never had the machine-gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so effectively. The effect was devastating and [the enemy] could be seen falling literally in hundreds.

The strength of the 21st and 24th Divisions was nearly 10,000 men. Of this number, 8,246 were killed in three and a half hours. There were no German casualties. None.

The attack was conceived and ordered by General Haig. Ten weeks later, General Haig was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in France.

The slaughtered are buried in the main British cemetery at Loos (in the shadow of the A21 autoroute) and at St Mary’s ADS Cemetery on the road from Hulluch to Béthune. The latter also contains the grave of Rudyard Kipling’s only son, killed the following day.

The main fields of slaughter are now an airfield, from which sharp-suited businessmen fly to corporate events. The southern limit of the British advance is marked by the municipal crematorium. The site of Staupunkt 5, one of the machine-gun posts on the German lines, is indicated by a drive-in McDonalds. The cherry tree is no longer there.

The source for this account of the Battle of Loos is The Donkeys by Alan Clark, from which all the quotations have been taken. This book was the inspiration for the play and film ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’.

Alan Clark MP was the only politician to speak up for the English football fans in France in June 1998. Who will speak up for them today?