Driver George Gough
18 October 1893 − 9 December 1915
Researched and written by Georgina Purcell and Chris Graddon
George Gough, the third and youngest son of John and Eliza Gough, was born in Norton Canes, Staffordshire, on 18 October 1893 and was baptised on 16 November 1893 at the Norton Canes Parish Church of St James the Great. For Victorian times, George came from a relatively small family, his paternal grandfather, John Gough, having only 3 children with his first wife Mary, and none with his second wife Rachel Collins, whilst George’s maternal grandparents Henry and Ann Howdle had only 5 children.
The 1901 census shows George living on Hednesford Road in Norton Canes with his mother Eliza, and brothers William Henry and John Gough. George’s father, John, who was a colliery banksman, had died on 21 September 1899 from the chronic wasting disease tuberculosis.
By 1911, George was 17 and working in the local coal mines as a ropeman. George’s brothers also worked in the mines, his eldest brother William Henry as a pony driver, whilst John, George’s elder by 2½ years, was a screen labourer.
So few employment records exist for the mining industry that it is impossible to say whether the three brothers worked together in the same mine, though it is known that George worked at the Conduit Colliery, No. 3 Colliery, Norton Canes.
There were six colliery companies operating mines in the parish of Norton Canes. The Conduit Colliery Company had several collieries in the Norton Canes/Brownhills area, the main two being the No.3 and No.4 collieries. The Conduit Colliery had two main shafts, one close beside the south side of the A5, south of Norton village, and another situated in the eastern part of the village. In 1896, it employed a workforce of 1100, of whom 836 worked underground. By 1923, that workforce had risen to 1463, with 1081 below ground. The No.3 colliery closed in 1962
As a ropeman, George would have been responsible for looking after all the different kinds of ropes used in a colliery. The most important of these were the winding ropes that pulled the cages up and down the shaft, as well as those used underground for haulage. The job of looking after the ropes was highly skilled and trainees had a four or five year apprenticeship. For strength, most colliery ropes were made of wire and they had to be properly looked after to avoid accidents. Part of the ropeman’s job was to examine the ropes for worn or broken wires, damage or distortion, and to make certain the rope was well greased. Records were kept and regular checks were made for each rope. Splicing - joining together two different ropes in such a way that the join is as strong as the rest of the rope - was a very skilful part of the ropeman’s job.
The Territorial Force came into being on 1 April 1908. Recruitment was difficult initially, and in the run up to the First World War, because respectable working-class families did not like having a son who had “gone for a soldier”. Serving on a part-time basis had limited appeal at that time, and sections of the Regular Army opposed the establishment of the Territorials. At the outbreak of the Great War fewer than 300,000 men, less than 1% of the male population, were members of the Territorial Force.
The “County Associations” which administered the new units of the Territorial Force had financial and civil control of the units under their jurisdiction. They were also responsible for promoting the Territorial Force at a local level, but it was still left to the regular Army to organise training for the new force.
As it attempted to recruit men, Staffordshire’s Territorial Force Association received significant support from a number of local employers, with individual business owners offering to raise units from within their own employees. In particular, the 2nd North Midland Field Company owed its existence to Captain W.B. Harrison, the owner of The Cannock Chase Colliery Company, who not only offered to raise the new unit from amongst his employees but also offered the Territorial Force Association the use of his family’s ancestral home, Norton Hall in Norton Canes, as its Drill Hall. This unit, officially called “The 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers” was known locally as “Harrison’s Engineers” and the “Norton Territorials”.
Captain Harrison, who was then about 70 years of age, left the responsibility for raising the unit to his son, W.E. Harrison, who was given the rank of Major. Recruitment began in 1908, and among the first men to join the Company were miners employed at the family’s Cathedral and Grove Pits in Brownhills. As an incentive, Harrison used the novel technique of insisting that any man seeking work at one of his collieries would only be employed on condition that he enlisted in the Territorials. On the death of his father in 1912, Major William E. Harrison was appointed to command the 2nd North Midland Division of the Royal Engineers and was given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Recruiting men to replace those who decided not to re-engage was a major issue for the units of the Territorial Force, a problem that was exacerbated in Staffordshire as the majority of rank and file recruits came from industrial working class backgrounds. Working class men tended to marry young and then found that serving with the Territorials interfered with their family commitments. Regular drill practices and attending the annual camp were a burden both on their time and on their pockets, one that many could not afford. However, the men of the 2nd North Midland Field Company were not only paid for their service, which came in handy when times were hard, but were also paid while they were at camp, which was unusual as not many employers did this.
The practice of employing men at Harrison pits only if they joined the Territorials was only used in the early days of the Company. After that, the company was recruited by word of mouth and by workmates joining together. As a result, they felt pride in their unit. Its activities were a focus for the people of Brownhills before the war and whist drives, musical evenings and dances were held in Brownhills and at Norton Hall to raise funds. The 2nd North Midland Field Company held regular sports days at the Hussey Arms in Brownhills which the local villagers attended, and in 1912 the unit’s tug-of-war team reached the Army Championship Final and competed at the Army and Navy Tournament at Olympia, where they achieved second place. So, the members of 2nd North Midland Field Company were not unwilling conscripts, on the contrary it became a unit which the local area was proud of, as was shown by the scenes outside Norton Hall when the Company left to march to their mobilisation station at Burton on 10 August 1914.
When war was declared against Germany on 4 August 1914, the units of the regular army were despatched to France as the British Expeditionary Force and the troops of the Territorial Force were mobilised. Many of them had only recently arrived at their annual camp for a fortnight’s training when they received orders to return to their home bases. The Norton Territorials were recalled after just one day in their training camp at St Asaph in North Wales and their early return from camp generated a great deal of excited interest amongst the civilian population. They arrived back at Brownhills Railway Station in the early hours of 4 August 1914 and then marched along Watling Street (now the A5), with the band playing, arriving at Norton Canes at 5 a.m. where the Railway Tavern served them beer. The men did not have to wait long for further orders. At 7 o’clock that evening, every drill hall in the county received a telegram from the War Office instructing them to mobilise. The Territorial Force Embodiment Notice ordered them to report to Norton Hall by 9 a.m. on 5 August, where they paraded and were then given a sum of money in order to purchase socks, shirts and underwear, which were not then provided by the Army Supplies Department. Their immediate tasks were to place armed guards on Norton Drill Hall, to prepare the harnesses and equipment ready for movement, and to requisition a full complement of horses from local businesses in the area. The horses were needed for the mounted section and for transporting the Unit’s field telegraph and pontoon bridges.
According to an article in the Cannock Advertiser, the unit paraded in full strength on Sunday 10 August at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes having received their movement orders. The band was there and an inspiring service took place, the church being packed with people that had come to say farewell to the Company. On the morning of Wednesday 13 August, amid cheers and good wishes from their families and friends, the men left “to go to war”. Meanwhile 30 ladies from the village formed a working party to make and send garments to soldiers wounded in the war.
However, the Norton Territorials were not yet ready for the rigours of warfare so, in accordance with the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, they were compelled to undergo six months of intensive training at home before they could be posted to France. They arrived at Luton late on 16 August and stayed there, under canvas, until 16 November. Two men enlisted into the 2nd North Midland Field Company in late September 1914 while the unit was stationed at the parish of Limbury just outside Luton. One lived close by but the other came from much further afield; it is not clear why they decided to join but sadly both were destined to lose their lives with the Company in 1915.
Men who joined the Territorials were under no legal obligation to serve abroad, indeed many opted to stay at home instead, to work on the land or in the factories and the mines. If they did consent to serve overseas Territorials signed the "Imperial Service Obligation" and they were then issued with the "Imperial Service Badge", which was worn over the right breast pocket when in uniform. At the start of the war, only around 18,000 members of the Territorial Force had volunteered to serve overseas. In early October 1914, when the 2nd North Midland Field Company was stationed at Luton, 123 men had volunteered for overseas service compared to 57 who had not, although some of those 57 are known to have served overseas subsequently.
It is not known when Driver George Gough joined the 2nd North Midland Field Company but he was among those who volunteered to serve abroad.
Some Territorial Force field companies were assigned early in the war to serve with regular army divisions. This was the case with the 2nd North Midland Field Company which was assigned to the North Midland Division in August 1914.
On 15 August 1914 orders were issued separating the "Foreign Service" or "First Line" - which comprised those men who had undertaken to serve overseas - from the "Home Service" or "Second Line", the intention being to form the latter into reserve units. At Luton, the home men were sent to East coast sites and replaced by more volunteers from Staffordshire.
In November 1914 a county-wide appeal was made on behalf of the 2nd North Midland Field Company for “both sappers (carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, saddlers and miners) and drivers for the mounted section”. Previously it had relied on recruits from the mining communities that surrounded its drill hall at Norton Canes, As a result, by the time the 1st /2nd North Midland Field Company embarked for service in France in March 1915, the strength of the unit not only included men from its usual recruiting area of the Cannock Chase coalfields, but also soldiers from Smethwick and North Staffordshire.
On 16 November, the Company marched from Luton to Ware in Hertfordshire, where they were billeted for two days in a malting house, and from there they went to Bishop’s Stortford where they stayed until 23 November. Their journey took them next via Dunmow to Braintree in Essex and from there they travelled by train to Windsor on 30 November.
For 2 weeks they stayed at Englefield Green, about 5 miles south of Windsor, where they practised bridging the Thames in the grounds of a Jacobean manor house named “The Dell” that had been the home, prior to his death in 1910, ofthe banker Baron Sir John Henry Schroder. On 14 December, the Company again boarded the train, this time for the village of Gosfield about 5 miles north of Braintree, and here they stayed over Christmas and New Year before taking the train to the rest camp at Southampton.
In February 1915 the North Midland Division received definite orders to proceed to France to join the British Expeditionary Force. They had received orders to prepare for such a journey throughout their time in Luton and Essex, but all the previous movement orders had been rescinded.
On 19 February, in bitterly cold weather, the entire North Midland Division paraded for King George V at Great Hallingbury Park near Bishop's Stortford. The inspection had an added significance as the North Midland Division was the first complete Territorial Force Division to be ordered to move to France. They boarded S.S.Architect on 26 February 1915 and set sail on 28 February for France, landing at Le Havre on 1 March.
By March 1915 the majority of the First-Line Territorial units from Staffordshire had arrived in France. Although they were by no means the first Territorials to land on the continent, the North Midland Division was the first complete Territorial Force formation to be committed to the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. On 12 May 1915 the North Midland Division was retitled 46th (North Midland) Division.
One North Midland Division brigade was in reserve at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 March 1915) and, in a despatch dated 5th April 1915, Sir John French commented: "In former despatches I have been able to comment very favourably upon the conduct and bearing of the Territorial Forces throughout the operations in which they have been. As time goes on, and I see more and more of their work, whether in the trenches or engaged in more active operations, I am still further impressed with their value. Several battalions were engaged in the most critical moments of the heavy fighting which occurred in the middle of March, and they acquitted themselves with the utmost credit. I have every hope that their employment in the larger units will prove as successful as in the smaller. These opinions are fully borne out by the result of the close inspection which I have recently made of the North Midland Division.”
This generous appreciation gave great encouragement not only to those already serving with the Force in France, but also to those at home who were either preparing to go to war themselves or who were working for the Territorial Force at home.
In order to prepare the new arrivals for conditions in the front line, the Territorials of the Staffordshire Brigade were sent forward to join the 6th Division in the trenches in front of Armentieres. The attachment lasted for five days from 20 March. This period of “trench instruction” was a vital part of acclimatisation for the officers and men of the Brigade in the routines associated with occupying a section of the front. Companies were deployed alongside regular troops and were given training in situ on the many tasks they would be required to perform, for example digging and repairing trenches and carrying out wiring and listening patrols in “No-Man’s Land”.
In early April 1915 the North Midland Division, fresh from their brief period of "trench instruction", marched from Ballieul into Belgium. From then until the end of June - for the first time as a complete formation - the North Midland Division was deployed in the front line, facing the Germans entrenched on the Messines Ridge. They took over the trenches between Kemmel and Wulverghem in an area that had been the scene of heavy fighting during October and November 1914. The 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, were placed under the command of the Staffordshire Brigade which was allotted the southern portion of the North Midland Division's area of responsibility, in front of the village of Wulverghem, covering a front of approximately 2,000 yards. The Staffordshire Brigade billets in the rear area were near the village of Neuve Eglise.
The Messines Ridge, which overlooked the British front line, had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and as a result the Germans were able to use their artillery regularly and to great effect. The British positions were dug into a smaller ridge in front of Wulverghem. The Wulverghem sector was considered to be relatively quiet and the best place for inexperienced troops to acclimatise to the routine of trench warfare. The perception of this area as being moderately passive does seem to be borne out in some of the letters written by soldiers serving there:
"Where we are it's just on a ridge and you can see for miles around. The country begins to look beautiful bar the houses and churches which are in ruins and we can see more with our powerful glasses. It was that quiet at times you wouldn't think there was a war on..."
However, the weather was particularly bad as one Signals Officer recounted:
"The weather has been abominable, high winds with plenty of rain; and the trenches are very muddy and full of water. One has to use gum boots all the time, which makes one's feet swell quite two sizes larger, and also makes them very soft."
The trenches at this time consisted of a single line of breastworks and ditches which were not yet connected. When the Staffordshire Brigade took over the sector, no second-line or communications trenches existed, so relieving units had to advance over open ground to reach the front line. Contemporary observers reported that the odour of rotting vegetation was very strong in the front-line trenches, as they were in fields where the crops had not been harvested.
The rudimentary nature of the trenches made life very uncomfortable for the Staffordshire Brigade in the first weeks of their occupation. Work parties were constantly required to both maintain the trenches and try to improve them, including the construction of belts of barbed wire in front of them. This work was often carried out at night under enemy rifle fire.
There is no doubt that some Staffordshire Territorials found active service a mentally trying experience:
“Nearly everybody is complaining of nerves – a lot are being sent to hospital”.
One private described his experiences in a letter home to his family:
“It has come our turn for the trenches again …… the march we had in the dark was terrible, moving from one barn to another closer to the line. We were absolutely under fire all the way, not knowing one second to another whether we would be shot, as bullets were whizzing high and low between us - the hottest time we've had yet. When we landed safely in our barn we heard news of our mates being wounded. There doesn't have to be a fingertip shown over the parapet but that there is two or three bullets at it. You see, there is not much chance if you pop your head up. It means Red Cross at once…"
Mining operations had commenced shortly before the Staffordshire Brigade's arrival in the Wulverghem sector but more troops were needed to assist the sappers. The Staffordshire Territorials formed a Brigade Mining Section and potential recruits were not difficult to find as many of the men serving with the Brigade had been miners in peace time. The Brigade Mining Section was involved in defensive mining operations only, primarily counter-mining and exploding charges under the German tunnels to bring about their collapse.
Although Wulverghem was considered a quiet sector, the Staffordshire units were still subjected to regular sniping and shelling and as a consequence they suffered a steady stream of casualties who were treated in Regimental Aid Posts that were set up in farm buildings close to the front line. Once a wounded soldier had been attended to by the Medical Officer he would either return to duty or, in more serious cases, the stretcher bearers would carry him into Wulverghem where he would be evacuated to Ballieul by either a horse-drawn or motor ambulance. Once at Ballieul, the casualty would then be admitted to one of several Advanced Dressing Stations. After further treatment, the wounded man would be sent to hospital in France or returned by Hospital Ship to the United Kingdom.
Inevitably, there were also fatalities. Men who were killed in the firing line, or died of their wounds at the Regimental Aid Post, were buried close by. Lance-Corporal Albert Morris of 1/2nd North Midland Field Company was an early fatality and was buried in the cemetery at St Quentin Cabaret. He was a miner from Heath Hayes, near Cannock, had served with the unit since 1909 and in 1911 had won the Company Cup for marksmanship. He died on 27th April and Lieutenant Patrick Welchman, his Section commander, paid this tribute in a letter to his father:
“It is with the very deepest regret that I have to tell you that your son was killed at about noon today. He was struck by a bullet in the back while he was in charge of a party of men. I cannot tell you how much he will be missed. He was always so careful and ready to do anything for anybody, and I always felt I could count on him to carry through any difficult work. Several times he has gone quite calmly on with his work under continuous fire. He was one of my pluckiest and promising N.C.O.s. I wish to say how deeply I sympathise with you in your great loss, but it is one of those sorrows in which no-one else can possibly help you. The only consolation to you, and it should be a big one, is that he died doing his country's work at the time of her greatest need. I was with him when he was hit, and I don't think that he suffered very much.”
A new weapon made its appearance on the battlefield on 22 April when the Germans made their first gas attack to the north of the North Midland Division in the Ypres Salient, commencing the Second Battle of Ypres. The wind carried the chlorine gas several miles south, causing some soldiers in Neuve Eglise to experience sore throats and irritation to the eyes. While the battle continued in the north, the Staffordshire Brigade were issued with rudimentary anti-gas pads, cotton wool wrapped in gauze and soaked in chemicals.
On the evening of 8th May, there was a gas alert in the sector occupied by the North Midland Division. It proved to be a false alarm, the result of a sentry mistaking the odour of a decomposing cow for chlorine gas, but for the men in the line that evening the threat of being gassed was real enough.
Towards the end of May, the Staffordshire Brigade - which had been re-designated as the 137th (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade - assumed the role of trainers, spending two weeks going into line with companies from Kitchener's "New Army", passing on the expertise they had developed in the art of trench warfare.
Infantry working parties carried out improvements and repairs on a regular basis in both the front line and the rear areas. Sappers from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company supervised these tasks, a situation that rankled because of the higher rates of pay enjoyed by the men of the Royal Engineers, as a contemporary rhyme suggested:
“God made the bees,
The bees make the honey,
The Staffords do the work
And the R.E.s get the money.
Aside the periods of shelling and sniping, life in the line was often tedious. The daily routine began and ended with "Stand-To", troops fixing bayonets prepared for any attack the Germans may make at dawn or as dusk settled over the fields. The rest of the day was spent digging and repairing the trenches, eating what food they could get, trying to catch up on sleep and dealing with body lice, the bane of the soldiers' existence.
When not engaged on working parties, "rest" for the troops often meant a daily round of inspections, route marches and other duties. However, they did have some time to relax and music concerts were arranged. The Army also promoted sport to foster unit pride and maintain morale. To this end, inter-unit football matches were organised between troops that were out of the front-line.
One such match ended in a 3 − 0 win for the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company over the Staffordshire Brigade Band and was the subject of a letter, written on behalf of "The Cannock and Wyrley Boys", that was printed in the "Cannock Advertiser" on 8th May.
The period spent out of the line also provided the opportunity for the men of the Brigade to write home. All letters sent from France and Belgium were censored and sensitive information, such as place names and movements, were erased. Many letters were published in the regional press to provide news of the local Territorials.
As well as recording their experiences in the front line, their letters often contained requests for comforts to be sent from home to ease their hardships.
"When you send over again you might send me a towel and some emery cloth. You need not send any more cigarettes, we have hundreds of them sent to us and get plenty of time to smoke them, and we have plenty of rum, but we cannot get any beer where we are. Never seen any for 8 days. Almost forgot how it tastes.
In June 1915, the 46th (North Midland) Division was ordered north to the Ypres Salient. The Staffordshire Brigades' ten-week occupation of the Wulverghem sector was at an end but several of their comrades remained behind in the nearby cemeteries. They reached the Hill 60 Sector of the Ypres Salient in the middle of July 1915 and found the action there far more intense.
“It is fighting up here, and our other place was quite a holiday compared to this”.
Until the September opening of the Battle of Loos there was no general change in the situation on the Western Front. It was a period of static warfare, the Army suffering average losses of 300 men a day from sniping and shellfire, while they gradually improved and reinforced the trenches. Both sides increased their underground mine warfare which was a major concern for the infantry in the front line positions.
At 7 p.m. on 19 July 1915, the 175th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers exploded a large mine under a German trench position, making a crater 20 feet deep and 120 feet wide. German retaliation came on 30 July 1915 in the Hooge sector, which was being held by the 41st Brigade of 14th Division, having just taken over the area a week before. At 3.15 a.m., and without any warning, jets of flame shot across from the German trenches. This was the first time in warfare that liquid fire flamethrowers had been used by the German Army against the British. A torrent of fire fell on the 41st Brigade and its support positions. The ramparts of Ypres and the exits from the town were also shelled. The Germans achieved complete surprise and there was intense hand to hand fighting in some of the trenches. Eventually virtually all of the positions held by the 41st Brigade were lost. The 42nd Brigade on the left was not attacked, but on the right the 46th (North Midland) Division, which found itself involved in the first "Flammenwerfer" attack, stood its ground, held on and repelled the enemy.
Reinforcements were rushed to the area and a new line was formed. At 11.30 a.m. orders were issued for a counterattack by the 41st and 42nd Brigades. The attack by the 41st failed, with no man approaching closer than 150 yards of the new German positions, but the 42nd fared better and recovered some of the lost lines. Although another flamethrower attack was repulsed during the night, heavy German shellfire prevented further efforts by the 14th Division to retrieve the lost ground the following day.
On the road between Vermelles and Hulluch stands a stone cross commemorating a military action that is largely forgotten today. The memorial is that of the 46th (North Midland) Division and commemorates the sacrifice made by those men on the afternoon of 13 October 1915 during the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a German fortification on the Western Front near to Auchy-les-Mines in France. This action took place during the final stages of the Battle of Loos (25 September – 13 October), where the losses experienced by the units of the 46th (North Midland) Division were comparable to those suffered during the first day of the Somme.
The Battle of Loos, which began on 25 September 1915, was the British contribution to a major Allied offensive that was described at the time as the “Big Push”. While the French were to focus their efforts on the heights of Vimy Ridge, the British were to advance into the coal basin below, in the Loos-Hulluch sector on Gohelle Plain. To this end, General Haig fielded six divisions. However, the British artillery had insufficient supplies of shells and Haig’s troops were exhausted from the fighting in the Spring of that year. The British may have outnumbered the German troops 7 to 1 but the enemy held stronger positions and were better prepared.
Little was achieved by the 4-day artillery bombardment that preceded the battle. Before sending in the infantry on the morning of 25 September 1915, the British released 140 tons of chlorine gas; it was the first time they had deployed poison gas, the Germans having already used it at Ypres in April 1915. It was expected that this would have a devastating effect on the Germans at Loos as they were equipped with only rudimentary gas masks. However, the wind changed direction and blew the chlorine back into the British trenches where the gas masks were equally inadequate; seven men died and 2,632 more were so debilitated by the gas that they had to be withdrawn from the attack. Initially, the chlorine did cause panic among the Germans and close to 600 of their soldiers were gassed. Despite the setbacks caused by the wind, some 75,000 British infantrymen poured from the trenches when the order came to advance.
On the first day of the battle there was great success in the southern area of the fighting. Under cover of smokescreens, the British took the village of Loos and Hill 70, then began to press on towards Lens. However, communication problems, a shortage of munitions and the late arrival of reinforcements combined to stall the advance, a delay that allowed the Germans to retake Hill 70. Further to the north the British faced the formidable defences of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a vast complex of trenches, underground shelters and machine gun nests. Nevertheless, they managed to take part of the German front line in front of the redoubt. The German machine guns were particularly deadly for the British, killing 8,500 men in a single day, the greatest single loss of life recorded since the beginning of the war.
In the afternoon of the second day, 26 September, the British launched another attack, this time without a preliminary artillery bombardment. However, by then enemy reinforcements had arrived in force and thousands of British infantry men were slaughtered, mowed down by the German machine guns. British attempts to continue the advance were repulsed and the British Army began to abandon the positions it had won the previous day. There was a lull in the fighting on 28 September, the British having retreated to their starting positions. However, the fighting continued for several days around the Hohenzollern Redoubt and, on 13 October, a second offensive came to an equally disastrous end: in ten minutes the 46th Division lost 180 officers and 3,583 men as they attempted to take the Redoubt. Overall during the Battle of Loos there were 48,367 British casualties in the main attack, 10,880 more in the subsidiary attack, a total of 59,247 losses out of a total of 285,107 British casualties on the Western Front throughout the whole of 1915. German losses were estimated at about 26,000.
As the Battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915, several divisions along the front held by the British Army were ordered to make diversionary attacks in an attempt to prevent the movement of German reserves. At the time, to the north of the British line, the 46th (North Midland) Division were holding the sector around Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient under the command of Major General Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. On 25 September, the Divisional Artillery bombarded German trenches in the area while the 3rd Division made an attack at Hooge:
"A terrible bombardment started all along our line. The Belgian battery behind us fired over 24 shells a minute. It was a fine sight watching the guns blazing away, the flashes illuminating the ruined villages in the darkness of the night."
At the time, to the north of the British line, the 46th (North Midland) Division were holding the sector around Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient under the command of Major General Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. A few days later the 46th (North Midland) Division received orders to move south to participate in the Battle of Loos. Before they were relieved at Hill 60, several senior staff officers visited the units to wish them good luck on their journey south. The 46th (North Midland) Division would now be under the command of the 11th Army Corps. The main body of troops marched to railway stations some way behind the lines and boarded trains. The Transport Sections made their way by road. Between the 2nd and 3rd October the Staffords detrained, with other units, at Fouquereuil, near Bethune, in preparation for their deployment. The (North Midland) Division was now under the command of the 11th Army Corps. The 1/2nd North Midland Field Company was located at Fouquieres.
Soon after their arrival in the area, senior officers from the 46th (North Midland) Division attended meetings at their Brigade Headquarters where they were informed that their objective was to attack and capture both the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the area immediately behind it. It was a formidable fortification and, being on a slight slope, the Redoubt gave the Germans the double advantage of excellent observation and clear fields of fire.
The Redoubt protruded into No Man's Land and was linked to the German front line by two trenches, Big Willie and Little Willie; these were deep, well-fortified and contained several machine-guns. Big Willie trench was partially occupied by the British, with only a trench block separating the two sides. Two communication trenches, North Face and South Face, led to Fosse and Dump trenches, which were built in the shadow of a large slagheap known as the Dump. At the base of the slagheap was a mine, Fosse 8. There were also key German defensive strong points at the Fosse 8 engine house as well as at the ruined miners’ houses "Madagascar" cottages. The No-Man's Land between the British and German trenches was exposed to machine gun and rifle fire from these points as well as from the Redoubt itself. The position had been captured by the 9th (Scottish) Division on 25 September, the first day of the Battle of Loos, but had been recaptured by the Germans shortly afterwards. The 28th Division’s attempt to recapture the Redoubt had failed, so now the task fell to the North Midlanders.
A group of officers from the 1/6th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment visited the front line on 7th and 8th October to survey their objective for themselves using trench periscopes. The trenches, which had been badly damaged during the earlier fighting, were cut into chalky ground and the wet conditions made them very slippery.
On the afternoon of 8 October, the Germans attacked the British-held sections of Big Willie trench. The 46th (North Midland) Division was immediately placed on standby to move up to the line in case there was a German breakthrough. Holding the position at the time, the 3rd Grenadier Guards were pressed hard, with two companies all but surrounded. The 3rd Coldstream Guards launched a counter-attack and the Germans were eventually beaten back but a large portion of Big Willie had been taken by the Germans. This forced the staff at 46th Division Headquarters to alter their plans for the assault, in particular where that assault would commence. While those plans were being redrawn, the troops undertook route marches and physical training near their billets, plus machine gun practice and training in throwing hand grenades. Hand grenades had become important in the close-quarter battles that took place in the trenches and the recently introduced Mills Bomb was considered to be the best available. The 46th (North Midland) Division were issued with this type of grenade and practised by carrying out attacks on dummy trenches that had been constructed by the Divisional Engineers near Fouquieres. As well as digging the practice trenches, the Royal Engineers of 46th (North Midland) Division also went into the front line to carry out repairs and improvements there.
A model of the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the surrounding area was constructed in a field outside Divisional Headquarters at Gosnay and all ranks were encouraged to visit the model to familiarise themselves with the area prior to the attack.
When they had the opportunity, most soldiers wrote letters home and, for many, their thoughts were focused on the impending attack:
“I am writing with very mixed feelings. I cannot say what may happen but whatever comes I shall not budge. If I do not return from the attack think of me as doing my duty - not a slacker.”
Divisional Headquarters issued Operational Orders on 10 October. The original plan had been to deploy the 137th Infantry Brigade in the forward line to the east of Big Willie. However, the complicated layout of the trenches and the fighting that had taken place on 8 October made that impossible. Major General Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, General Officer Commanding the 46th (North Midland) Division, had suggested a bombing attack but he was overruled and ordered by his Corps commander, General Richard Haking, to launch a frontal attack. The 137th (Staffordshire) and 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Infantry Brigades were chosen to carry out the attack. Stuart-Wortley had also been in favour of mounting a sequential attack on the trenches around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, capturing and securing one position at a time before moving forward to take another. Once again, 11th Army Corps Headquarters overruled his suggestion. The 46th (North Midland) Division's assault was to be launched from the old front line, the position where 9th Division had made their assault on 25 September. On their right, the 137th Infantry Brigade was to link up with 12th (Eastern) Division who were detailed to capture the neighbouring Quarries position.
On the evening of 10 October, the commander of the 11th Army Corps addressed the officers of the 46th (North Midland) Division in the courtyard of the chateau at Gosnay. In his speech, which was intended to reassure and encourage them, he told them to expect little resistance from the German machine gun positions around Hohenzollern Redoubt; he added that gas would almost certainly be used in support of the British attack, provided the wind was in the right direction. He also told the assembled group that the Division's attack would be supported by the largest concentration of artillery fire yet committed by the British Army.
In addition to three heavy artillery groups under the command of the 11th Army Corps, there was one group of Divisional Artillery which was directed by the 28th Division and included the 46th (North Midland) Division's artillery. The 22nd Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery was to provide direct support for the 137th Infantry Brigade. The artillery, including detachments from the 1st North Midland Field Brigade, were also to provide a smoke screen in front of the trenches to allow the infantry to form up under cover before they made their advance.
The Divisional Engineers were also committed to the operation. The 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, under Major Christopher Hatton, was ordered to provide two sections that would be attached to the forward companies of the 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords, whilst two sections of the 1/1st North Midland Field Company were to support the 138th Brigade. These sections were to form trench-blocking parties and were also to assist in consolidating the captured ground with barbed wire entanglements.
On the morning of 12th October, the Staffords paraded ready to enter the battle. Each man was issued with three days' rations, 220 rounds of ammunition and three empty sandbags. In addition to this, each man had to carry two "smoke helmets". Operational Orders stipulated that, prior to the release of gas in the front line, all troops were to wear their "Hypo" helmets, a primitive hood-shaped gas mask worn over the head, made of cotton impregnated with chemicals that reduced the effects of chlorine gas, with a fragile rectangular celluloid window that enabled the soldier to see. The troops had also recently been issued with the more advanced "Phenate" helmet, officially called the “Tube Helmet”, which was to be kept in a satchel as a spare. The men also carried their greatcoats on their back instead of packs. It would take the Staffords until the next morning to reach the forward trenches where they were to launch their assault, which was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.
Above left: Hypo helmet
Above right: Phenate helmet
Below: British machine-gunners wearing phenate
The 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment and 1/5th North Staffordshire Regiment were to form the first line of attack for the 137th Infantry Brigade, with the 1/6th South Staffords and the 1/6th North Staffords in support. The 1/5th North Staffords would be positioned on the left and would advance closest to the Redoubt. Major-General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley delayed the attack by the 137th Infantry Brigade by five minutes to allow the 138th Infantry Brigade to attack the West Face of Hohenzollern Redoubt; he hoped that would distract the defenders’ attention and provide an advantage for the frontal assault by the 137th Infantry Brigade, which was now to begin at five minutes past two.
Two sections each from the 1/1st and 1/2nd North Midland Field Companies had already moved forward into the front line, in preparation for the arrival of the main body from the 46th (North Midland) Division. The 1/1st North Midland Field Company lost four men killed and one wounded while they were carrying out work in the trenches that the men from the 138th Infantry Brigade were to occupy. Dumps of supplies – ammunition, grenades, barbed wire and tools – had already been established to the rear of the front line and, during the night, parties of Royal Engineers went over the parapet of the British front line to cut gaps in the barbed wire ready for the infantry advance.
It was a torturously slow journey to the “jumping off point” and the battalions were forced to halt several times as they struggled up the congested trenches to the forward positions where they were to start their attack. Indeed, it took the Staffords until the morning of the 13th October to reach the assembly trenches; there they took over responsibility for the line from the Guards Brigade. The assembly trenches were now crowded with troops and strict orders were issued to keep out of sight so as not to alert the Germans. There were no dugouts in which the men could shelter, and the trenches themselves had been badly damaged during the earlier fighting.
The 187th Special Company, Royal Engineers – a unit that had been formed for the specific purpose of conducting chemical warfare – brought the cylinders of chlorine up to the forward positions ready for the gas attack that would precede the assault by the 46th (North Midland) Division. The direction of the wind was also noted, a gentle breeze blowing from the south-west, and this was closely monitored prior to the scheduled time for the gas attack.
The British artillery bombardment commenced at mid-day; it was impressive but, sadly, it was ineffective. The key positions in front of the 137th Brigade – Big Willie, Dump Trench and the South Face of the Redoubt – were subjected to a heavy barrage but the machine gun emplacements located there were not destroyed, nor were those in the fortified ruins of the buildings around the Dump. Half an hour into the British bombardment, the German artillery began a counter-barrage.
The British artillery continued with their bombardment and at 1.00 p.m. the Divisional Artillery commenced firing the rounds for the smoke screen in front of the forward trenches. The 187th Special Company sappers also began to release the chlorine gas. The infantry in the trenches pulled their gas masks down over their heads and tucked them into the collars of their tunics. The yellowish-green cloud began to rise and drift towards the German lines but, despite favourable winds, much of the gas settled in shell craters and did little more than warn the Germans that an attack was coming.
The 11th Army Corps commander had been confident that there would be little enemy resistance but it soon became evident to the men waiting to attack that the artillery bombardment had failed to eliminate the German machine guns and these now began to rake the parapets of the British trenches.
“We thought that there wouldn't be a German left alive. But would you believe it, about five minutes before we charged they opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, simply sweeping our parapets.”
As "zero hour" crept ever closer, the officers moved along the assembly trenches, encouraging their men and checking that they were ready to attack. Scaling ladders were placed against the sandbagged walls of the trenches and bayonets were fixed. Nervous eyes looked at their watches, counting down the minutes and seconds until the officers blew their whistles to signal for the troops to climb over the parapet.
At 2.00 p.m., the leading battalions of the 138th Brigade began their assault on the west face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. At the same time, the bombing parties, together with the first wave of assault infantry from the 1/5th North Staffords, scaled the trench ladders and climbed over the parapet. They moved through the gaps that had been cut in the barbed wire in front of their trenches and then out into “No Man's Land”, where the officers ordered them to lie down. At 2.05 p.m., the order to advance was given, the men shouting "Potters For Ever!" as they scrambled up to begin the attack. The line then attempted to move forward in rushes but, as they did so, a hail of machine gun and rifle fire swept through the ranks. Only a handful of men were able to carry on forward and this small group ran towards a communication trench and jumped over it, before again lying down on the other side. No other troops could be seen in the vicinity, so they raced forward to another trench and jumped down into it. This communications trench, which had been dug by the 9th Division during their brief occupation of Hohenzollern Redoubt, contained several men from the bombing parties of the South and North Staffords who were engaged in the attack on Big Willie, to which their trench was connected.
The second wave of 1/5th North Staffords followed the initial assault after a few moments and the first thing that met their eyes were the dead and wounded from the first wave. The advance of the second wave met a similar barrage of German fire and suffered the same fate as the first, the remnants reaching no further than the communications trench, where they remained.
Two companies of the 1/5th South Staffords, together with bombing parties from the battalion, were located in the communications trench to the east of Big Willie. The two companies had orders that they were to wait for the first line of the 1/5th North Staffords to reach their position then advance forward with them. The commander of C Company observed that the advance by the 1/5th North Staffords had been checked, so ordered his men to remain in the trench, but the officer commanding B Company was unable to see the developing situation and therefore endeavoured to carry out his orders. B Company climbed out from the trench and lay in front of it. Several men were hit by machine-gun fire from the Redoubt as they moved out into the open through the gaps in the barbed wire, and the German artillery began to shell the trench. Having suffered heavy casualties in their exposed position, the survivors were compelled to scramble back into the communications trench.
The second attack wave of the 1/5th South Staffords was positioned in the old British front line between Hulluch Alley and Border Alley. At 2.10 p.m., they attempted to cross over towards Big Willie to link up with the remainder of their battalion. None of the officers and only a handful of men managed to reach their comrades in the forward trench, most of the survivors retiring back to the trenches from where the attack had begun.
It was now the turn of the third assault wave, men from the 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords. These troops were also to suffer heavy casualties from artillery and machine gun fire as they tried to move forward on ground that was devoid of cover. However, about seventy men from the two forward companies of the 1/6th South Staffords did manage to link up with the remnants of the 1/5th South Staffords.
Although a few men from the forward companies had managed to reach the communications trench connected to Big Willie, the majority of the survivors were compelled to return to the trenches from where the attack had started.
Two sections from the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company had also advanced with the third attack wave of the 137th Brigade. They were meant to be carrying out engineering tasks and consolidating captured positions but these sappers now found themselves mixed up in the chaotic conditions:
“When one of our chaps got hit, me and another chap bandaged him up as well as we could under rifle fire and shells, and we carried him into a trench, where he died. Just then a little bit of shrapnel hit me in the head, and then a shell came and knocked the parapet over me and scarred my face.”
The troops in the 137th Brigade's fourth assault wave – men from the 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords – were ordered to move from their assembly trench to the front line, as originally planned. Unfortunately, the communication trenches were already clogged with the dead and wounded from the previous attacks so the men were compelled to advance across the open, suffering heavy casualties in their attempt to reach the forward trenches. On arriving at the front line, which they found in a state of utter confusion, the remaining troops of the fourth wave were ordered to remain in that position to defend it against German counter-attacks.
The Brigade's eight bombing parties were heavily committed throughout the attack and consequently suffered heavy casualties. No. 5 Bombing Party of the 1/6th North Staffords began their attack up Big Willie at 2 o'clock and – in an attempt to link up with the 138th Brigade – managed to advance approximately thirty yards up that trench. The party got as far as a second trench block but, facing a fierce German counter-attack and with casualties starting to mount up, the survivors were forced to withdraw back to the barricade from where they had started
A second attempt to advance up Big Willie was then made by a bombing party from the 1/5th South Staffords. At about 2.30 p.m., the Germans mounted a counter-attack against the trench block in Big Willie and C Company of the 1/5th South Staffords was involved in a ferocious struggle to hold their position, both sides using bayonets and throwing grenades. Faced with this determined defence, and having taken several casualties, the Germans were forced to fall back. The second trench block was reached eventually, and the 1/5th South Staffords began to consolidate, frantically pulling down the trench’s battered parapet to improve their barricade. A bombing party from the 1/6th South Staffords also reached Big Willie and stoutly defended their position until virtually all of them became casualties. After a brief lull, and with no Allied support arriving, the Germans took the initiative in Big Willie at about 4 p.m., attacking now from three directions.
While the actions in Big Willie were taking place, carrying parties tried to bring up additional supplies of small arms ammunition and grenades, but were hampered by the narrow communication trenches being clogged with casualties. There was a shortage of Mills Bombs at the supply dumps and a wide variety of alternatives – rifle grenades and bombs without detonators or fuses – were sent up to the units of the 46th Division. Most of these proved to be of little use.
The fighting on the front attacked by the 137th Brigade had virtually ceased by 4 o'clock as both sides opted for an artillery duel over the area. The 137th Brigade had been decimated within the first ten minutes of the assault, and the remnants of the Staffordshire battalions had failed to make any significant progress against the defenders of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The ground in front of the first line trenches was littered with dead, dying and wounded men and several soldiers tried to rescue their wounded comrades.
"It was a case of several men throwing their lives away trying to save the wounded. But it was murder to go."
The walking wounded were able to make their own way to the first aid post in Bart's Alley, but those who were more seriously injured had to wait in agony until they could be taken to the Collecting Station.
“I walked along the trench. I witnessed a terrible sight of men killed and wounded and no stretcher bearers to be found. Men were in awful pain. Them that could not walk had to lie in the trench in awful pain for twelve to eighteen hours or more.”
Dusk had now begun to descend over the battlefield. Sadly, for some of the wounded their rescue arrived too late.
Staffordshire men were also involved in the attack that the 138th Brigade made on the West Face of the Redoubt. A detachment drawn from 1/3rd North Midland Field Brigade had been operating one of the 95mm mortars that had been laying down smoke cover for the advancing infantry of the 1/5th Lincolns. Seeing that the infantry had suffered heavy casualties, the gunners were led forward in support, several becoming casualties themselves.
The 138th Brigade's attack did meet with some success and managed to gain a foothold in the Redoubt. However, their position became vulnerable as the Staffords failed to make any significant progress in their assault on the Redoubt, and heavy fighting continued there for the next two days. At 4.45 p.m., two sections from the 1/1st North Midland Field Company climbed over the parapet with the 1/1st Monmouths. Their task was to consolidate the positions taken by the 138th Brigade but the sections came under machine gun fire as they crossed the open ground and two officers were killed along with one sapper; a further four men were wounded before the sections reached the infantry at the Redoubt, and two men from the Company suffered gas poisoning. At 7.00 p.m., the remainder of the Company began to dig a link trench to connect the assault trenches to the West Face of the Redoubt. A telephone cable was then laid along the trench, allowing communication to be established with the troops who had made it to the Redoubt.
Working under the command of Divisional Headquarters, men from the 2/1st North Midland Field Company were given the task of using a wagon-mounted searchlight to illuminate German counter-attacks. Having manhandled the wagon into position, the operating detachment was in position by 4.00 p.m. and awaited further orders. These came an hour later and from 5.05 p.m. the searchlight was switched on at five-minute intervals, each time for a minute's duration. Inevitably, the beam drew heavy machine gun fire from the Germans. The rest of the Company formed working parties, carrying petrol cans filled with drinking water up to the firing line; records show that the sappers took some 40 gallons of water to the men in the front line.
During that first night of 13/14 October, a platoon from the 1/6th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment helped to bring in wounded men from No Man’s land. Captain Patrick Welchman of the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company later received the Military Cross for rescuing wounded men lying out in front of the trenches. His citation reads:
"Throughout the night and during the morning mist he worked continuously under difficult and dangerous circumstances, collecting and bringing in wounded from in front of our trenches. This is not the first time that Captain Welchman's name has been brought to notice for similar gallantry."
Some remnants from the 137th Brigade were in the communications trench near Big Willie and were forced to spend the night there under trench mortar and machine-gun fire. The remainder of the Brigade remained in the first-line trench – where they had begun their attack – throughout the night and the following day. Meanwhile, efforts were made to reorganise defensive positions in anticipation of a German counter-attack.
"It was an awful night, foggy and damp. The enemy tried a counter-attack but were repulsed. At daybreak they continued to shell us. All day long we stuck to the trench expecting a counter-attack, but it was an artillery duel all day long."
On the morning of 14th October, the 137th Brigade was informed that the 3rd Guards Division would relieve them that night, however this did not happen until the following morning. As the men of the Guards Division filed into the trenches, the shattered remnants of 137th Brigade withdrew.
"I shall never forget that Saturday morning when we left the trenches. The spectacle presented was that of a true battlefield. In a tangle of torn barbed wire were to be seen the scattered bodies of the slain - many of them being held up more or less in an upright position."
The surviving men of the 1/6th North Staffords reached Vermelles later the same day and were transported to billets near Sailly-Labourse by London Omnibus.
“They took us to a place the other side of Vermelles. We halted and had breakfast in a farmyard. Here we were visited by the General and the Prince of Wales. He said he was proud of us. We had done all that was expected of us.”
According to the Official History of the War: Military Operations in France and Flanders – 1915, Volume Two (HMSO, 1928), page 388:
“The fighting on the 13th-14th October had not improved the general situation in any way and had brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry.”
The 137th Brigade captured none of its objectives. A combination of concentrated artillery and machine gun fire halted its attack almost as soon as it began. The 138th Brigade did manage to take and secure part of the Redoubt but this limited success was achieved at a very high cost.
Several factors contributed to the failure of the attack by the 137th Brigade. The artillery bombardment did not remove German resistance in the sector, in particular the machine gun emplacements located in the Redoubt and in the ruins around the Fosse 8 mine. The short supply of grenades was also a significant factor in the failure to hold those sections of the German line that were captured. The grenade was considered the best weapon for use in close-quarter fighting, particularly when attacking along trenches or defending gains against counter-attacks. Although assurances had been given that the Division's bombing parties would be fully equipped with Mills bombs, these were in short supply, so other types of grenade – often without detonators – were sent up to the forward troops. As a result, when German bombing attacks overwhelmed 138th Brigade defences, the men were compelled to withdraw from those sections of the Redoubt that had been captured. The 137th Brigade also suffered from a shortage of grenades, but the major reason why it failed to secure its objectives was the high number of casualties suffered by its bombers, that and the lack of reinforcements to consolidate the gains that were made in Big Willie.
Major General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley must surely have reflected that the attack would have been more successful if his preferred choice of a sequential attack – capturing and consolidating each objective, trench by trench – had not been rejected by superior officers. Instead, the troops were ordered to charge in short bursts across ground that was devoid of cover, in wave after wave; this had proved extremely costly, especially as their objectives were hundreds of yards away.
Whatever the reasons for the failure of the attack, the Staffordshire Brigade certainly experienced devastating losses in this assault, its first major action. When the remnants of the battalions returned to their billets behind the lines, the grim task began of compiling the casualty reports.
“It was a sad duty to perform when the battalion mustered for roll-call next day and we missed the lads who had been such good comrades for many months.”
As a whole, the 46th Division reported 180 officers and 3,583 other ranks killed, wounded or missing in the period 13 – 15 October. The 1/5th North Staffords, which recruited from the Potteries, suffered the heaviest casualties of all the units in the 46th Division. About 700 of its officers and men entered the line on the night of 12 October. Barely 200 marched out of the trenches when the battalion was relieved. The toll was also heavy among the units of the Division that recruited in Staffordshire. The 1/2nd North Midland Field Company had two sections supporting the 137th Brigade during the assault and suffered casualties of two officers and 27 other ranks killed, wounded or missing. The attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt was to prove the bloodiest action that the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company was to experience during the entire war.
The slow process of rebuilding the shattered battalions began within days of the Brigade's relief. Several survivors were promoted to take the places of senior ranks and large numbers were sent from the third-line battalions based in England to replace the casualties.
On 16 October, General Haig, the commander of the 1st Army, visited the units of the 137th Brigade at their billets. Indeed, in the days that followed the attack, the survivors saw a succession of Staff Officers offering both praise and sympathy, including Major General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley:
"The General Officer Commanding addressed the men, and in a few simple words expressed his appreciation of the splendid way in which every man had faced the rain of bullets and said he was very proud to be in command of such a body of men. He expressed his regret for the gallant men who had fallen, and said they must remember that it was inevitable in this war. Every man must keep smiling, as we were going to win."
On Sunday 17 October the units attended Church Parade where they remembered their fallen comrades.
On Sunday 17 October the units attended Church Parade where they solemnly remembered their fallen comrades. Many soldiers took on the harrowing task of informing the family about the loss of a comrade who had been killed in the attack. The writers would often soften the circumstances of the man's death to shield the family from the brutal reality.
Meanwhile, those who had been wounded during the assault were evacuated. Several men died on reaching the Advanced Dressing Station and more died after reaching Casualty Clearing Stations further down the chain.
Sadly, for some of the Staffords, the wounds proved fatal. A total of 43 officers and men serving with units recruited from Staffordshire were to succumb to their injuries at hospitals in France and England. One of these was 1279 Driver George Gough of the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, who had been shot in the right shoulder, the bullet severing his spinal column, paralysing him from the waist down. He was evacuated to England but died on 9th December in the military hospital at Gosforth.
The casualties suffered by the infantry were devastating to the communities from which they had been recruited. Several towns in Staffordshire had a large number of casualties as a result of the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt and families were plunged into grief, across the county, from the Black Country in the south to the Potteries in the north, regardless of class and social position.
As the flood of letters began to reach Staffordshire from France, it became evident that the County’s Territorial units had experienced shattering losses. The first reports of the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt appeared in the local press only eight days after the Brigade had been relieved and, all over the county, pages reacted to accounts of the battle.
“A profound impression has been created in North Staffordshire this week by the news of the heavy casualties among the officers and men of the 1st − 5th North Staffordshire Territorial Regiment ……… the whole of the county shares in both sorrow and glory on the occasion, for other regiments of the Division also shared in the success that was achieved and in the losses sustained.”
Lord Dartmouth, the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire and President of the County Territorial Force Association, wrote regarding the report received from the General Officer commanding the 46th (North Midland) Division:
“The long list of casualties has brought sorrow and mourning to many homes; indeed, the weight of mourning hangs heavy over us all today, but behind it and beyond it stands out the splendid example of courage, sacrifice, and duty, which has been described by those most capable as worthy of the best traditions of the British Army. As a county, then, while we grieve with you in your losses, we rejoice in you in having earned the highest compliments open to a British soldier.”
However, news of casualties was only reaching Staffordshire slowly, and the fate of several men was not known. Anxious families besieged the newspaper offices in an attempt to find out what had become of their loved ones. Other families placed appeals in their local newspaper in an attempt to find out what had happened. A few soldiers came home on leave after the action and were questioned by relatives and friends of the missing.
At a council meeting held on 10th November 1915 the newly elected Mayor of Walsall paid tribute to the men of the town who had been killed or wounded during the attack, his son, a Second Lieutenant serving with the 1/5th South Staffords, one of the wounded.
“It is fifteen months since the men of the 5th South Staffords marched away from our town into a future which must have seemed new and strange. Eight months have passed since they crossed to France and began that period of arduous and devoted service, which culminated on October 13th in one of the greatest battles of this war. These soldiers expect no compliments; they ask for no recognition. It is enough for them to have done, as they have done a thousand times over, their simple duty……
For eight months these men have borne the burden of trench warfare under the guns of the most formidable enemy England has known, under conditions the severity of which it is impossible for us to even imagine. They have borne it with splendid courage and patient endurance. And when the supreme test, as some regard it, came, an attack across the open ground upon fortifications strengthened by science and all that human ingenuity could devise, they welcomed the order, and, in the words of their General, they behaved with distinguished gallantry worthy of the best traditions of the British Army…...
Most of the men who have fallen were young men. They went out in the pride and vigour of life, rightly and bravely hoping that upon the open book of life they would write a pure and noble record. They have written such a record, and though it is not of life but of death, it is one which will endure……”
Few of the men killed on 13th October have known graves, including approximately 400 men of 137th Brigade. For the most part, their bodies were found after the war and re-interred, unidentified, in cemeteries close to the battlefield. The majority of the men who died of their wounds were buried in France in cemeteries used by the Casualty Clearing Stations and Hospitals.
The names of over 20,000 servicemen with no known grave who fell in the area from the first day of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915 to the Armistice on 11 November 1918 are inscribed on the 139 stone panels of the Loos Memorial to the Missing that are attached to the side and rear walls of Dud Corner Cemetery, Loos-en-Gohelle, Pas de Calais, France.
The South Staffordshire soldiers are commemorated on Panels 73 to 76, close to the Cross of Sacrifice, and the North Staffords on Panels 103 to 105. The dead of the Divisional Field Companies of Royal Engineers are recorded on Panels 4 and 5.
Five men died after being evacuated to hospitals in the United Kingdom including, from 46th (North Midland) Divisional Engineers, 1279 Driver George Gough of the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers. He had been shot in the right shoulder and the bullet had severed his spinal column, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. He had been evacuated to England but had died in St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth (Northumberland No. 1 War Hospital) on 9th December. It is not known if his widowed mother Eliza was able to visit her son before he passed away. George Gough was buried with full military honours in the churchyard of St James the Great Parish Church in Norton Canes. The entire village was present at his funeral and a firing party from the 10th Leicesters, based at the nearby Rugeley Camp, fired a salute over his grave. A contingent of Royal Engineers was also present.
Official Number: 1279
Unit: 1st/2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers
Details: Died of wounds 9th December 1915
Son of John and Eliza Gough
Grave location: At the north end of the cemetery
Cemetery: St James The Great's Parish Church, Norton Canes, Staffordshire, England
The courage shown by the men who took part in the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt has continued to resonate across Staffordshire, the Black Country and the Potteries, as these newspaper articles show.
George Gough’s Family
George Gough came from a small family. He was the third and youngest son of John Gough and Eliza Howdle, who had married on 11 April 1887 at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes, Staffordshire. George’s father, John, was born in Chasetown about 1864 and was baptised in Christ Church, Burntwood, on 16 October 1864. He worked as a labourer and colliery banksman but died early, at the age of 35, on 21 September 1899 and was buried 5 days later at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes. The cause of death, which was recorded on the death certificate as phthisis exhaustion (the chronic wasting disease tuberculosis), was most likely the result of working in the mines. However, as his will shows, John Gough was able to leave Eliza and the 3 children reasonably well provided for when he died.
The 1891 census shows John and Eliza Gough living on Burntwood Road, Norton Canes, with their eldest son William Henry and their newly born second son John who was then just 7 weeks old. By the time of the 1901 census, Eliza Gough - now widowed - had moved to Hednesford Road, Norton Canes, with her three sons who were then aged 12, 10 and 7. The 1911 census shows the family living at High Town, Norton Canes, with all three of Eliza’s sons working in the mines. The 1911 census also shows that John and Eliza Gough had four children altogether but that one did not survive; the name of this fourth child is not known.
George Gough’s mother, Eliza Howdle, was born in Lichfield on 20 August 1860, the second of five children of Henry Howdle and Ann Bullock. She died in the Cannock area on 8 October 1918. Eliza’s father Henry Howdle was born in Willenhall, Staffordshire, on 13 December 1832 and worked as a coal miner and well sinker. He married Ann Bullock at Christ Church, Lichfield, early in 1860 and died in Lichfield in January 1903. Eliza’s mother, Ann, was born in Lichfield about 1841 and died early in 1911.
George Gough’s paternal grandfather, John Gough, was born about 1824 in the Brereton area of Staffordshire. The family - Edward Gough, his wife Ellen and 7 children (6 sons and 1 daughter) were living in the Rugeley area at the time of the 1841 census. Edward Gough and Ellen Brooks had married on 9 August 1819 at St Michael’s Church in Lichfield. By the 1851 census, John Gough - like his father - was working as a coal miner in the Bloxwich area of Walsall, but his mother Ellen had died by then, in Walsall, in 1849. John Gough was married to Mary Smith on 4 September 1854 at the parish church of St James the Great in Norton Canes. She was roughly 12 years younger than John and was born in Brownhills about 1836. In 1861 they were living on Watling Street (now the A5), on the present-day border between Walsall and Hammerwich, John still working as a miner. By the time of the 1871 census, John Gough was a grocer and beer seller at Five Ways, Heath Hayes, where he and his family were living. John and Mary had 3 children, their eldest son John, the father of George Gough, born about 1864, a daughter Betsy who was born and died in 1866, and another daughter, Ada, who was born about 1867 and lived until 1921. John Gough’s wife Mary died in 1876, and John - probably with a view to seeing to the future well-being of his children - was married for the second time in January 1879 at Wolverhampton. For John’s second wife, Rachel Collins, it was her second marriage also, having had at least 9 children with her first husband William Jones. Sadly, John Gough did not survive long after his marriage to Rachel; he died on 26 May 1880 and was buried on 31 May 1880 at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes.
George Gough had two brothers. The eldest, William Henry Gough, was born in Norton Canes on 1 January 1889 and was baptised at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes on 27 January the same year. He worked as a pony driver in the coal mines and married Elizabeth Handford on 31 March 1919 at the Church of St James in Brownhills.
Elizabeth Handford, who was born in Brownhills on 8 May 1896, was unmarried at the time of her wedding to William Henry Gough. She already had a daughter, born in 1915, who lived until 1981. Together, William Henry Gough and Elizabeth Handford had two more children, a son, George William Gough, who was born on 29 August 1920 and died on 1 February 2001, and a daughter, Doris Eliza Gough, who was born on 10 May 1922 but died at the age of 3 from measles and gastritis on 12 August 1925. William Henry Gough died on 28 February 1923 but his widow, Elizabeth, went on to have another son, Dennis, born on 23 May 1926, and to marry for a second time in 1930 to Patrick Finn with whom she had 3 more children.George Gough’s second brother, John, was born on 13 February 1891 and was baptised at the Parish Church of St James the Great in Norton Canes on 8 March the same year. John never married and lived the latter part of his life in Brownhills, with William Henry Gough’s son George William Gough and his family, until his death at the age of 80 in 1971.
At the time of the 1911 census, all three brothers - William Henry, John and George Gough - were working in the local coal mines, John as a screen labourer (screen trapper), which involved passing coal over the screens and into the wagons, cleaning away dirt, stone, slate, etc. Screen labourers were paid in proportion to the quantity of dirt they removed from the coal. Sadly, there are no known photographs of the three brothers.
Reference, item and source
1. Photograph of Driver George Gough’s Grave at the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire © Mrs Julie Graddon
2. Photograph of Driver George Gough’s Grave at the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire © Mrs Julie Graddon
3. Copy of George Gough’s birth certificate © General Register Office
4. The baptism register for the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire showing George Gough’s baptism © Lichfield Record Office
5. 1901 Census for George Gough’s family © Ancestry
6. 1911 Census for George Gough’s family © Genes Reunited
7. Newspaper cutting from the Lichfield Mercury, dated 18 September 1914, listing employees of the Conduit Colliery on active service © Lichfield Record Office
8. Conduit Colliery, No. 3 Colliery, Norton Canes © Museum of Cannock Chase
9. Miners pictured at Conduit Colliery, Norton Canes © Museum of Cannock Chase
10. Royal Engineers North Midland Recruitment Poster 1890 © The Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive
11. Photograph of Norton Drill Hall © Mr Bob Leighton and the Bridgtown and District Local History Society
12. Imperial Service Obligation (signed by Sergeant Andrew Yuille on 18 September 1914) © The Long, Long Trail website
13. Photograph of the Imperial Service Badge © Barnes Family Badge and Medal Collection website
14. The drivers of the 1/2nd North Midland Field Company at their training camp in Wales in 1912 © photograph album compiled by Captain Lakeland (held in trust by Bob Leighton and the Bridgtown and District Local History Society)
15. Newspaper cutting from the Lichfield Mercury, dated November 20th 1914, about Lieutenant-Colonel W.E. Harrison and the 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers © Lichfield Record Office
16. Photograph of S.S.Architect © Clydebuilt Ships Database website
17. Trench 8, Wulverghem-Messines Road, April 1915 © Hellfire Corner website
18. First World War German flamethrower © AllPosters.com website
19. The memorial to the 46th (North Midland) Division at Vermelles © The Long, Long Trail website
20. Photograph of Hohenzollern Redoubt © Imperial War Museum (Q64051)
21. Map showing the trenches close to Hohenzollern Redoubt © Pierre’s Photo Impressions of the Western Front 1914-1918 website
22. Map showing the deployment of forces at Hohenzollern Redoubt © webmatters.net website
23. Hypo anti-gas helmet © Imperial War Museum
24. Phenate anti-gas helmet © The Illustrated London News (11 December 1915)
25. Photograph of a British machine-gun crew wearing phenate ant-gas helmets © Imperial War Museum
26. Photograph showing the British attack on Hohenzollern Redoubt during the battle of Loos © www.historyofwar.org website
27. Photograph of the 46th (North Midland) Division attacking Hohenzollern Redoubt during the Battle of Loos © Catalogue number Q 29001 (Royal Engineers Collection) Imperial War Museum
28. Wounded British troops returning through Vermelles after the attack on Hohenzollern Redoubt, 13th October 1915 © Imperial War Museum
29. Report in the 23 October 1915 Cannock Advertiser of the injury sustained by Driver George Gough and his repatriation to hospital in England © Cannock Advertiser
30. Photograph of St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth, known as Northumberland No.1 War Hospital between 1914 and 1921 © Newcastle Libraries
31. Photograph of Loos Memorial to the Missing, Dud Corner Cemetery, Loos-en-Gohelle, Pas de Calais, France © British War Graves website
32. Remembrance and Memorial Card from the funeral of Driver George Gough © photograph album compiled by Captain Lakeland (held in trust by Bob Leighton and the Bridgtown and District Local History Society)
33. Report in the 18 December 1915 Cannock Advertiser of the funeral on Wednesday 15 December 1915 in Norton Canes of Driver George Gough © Cannock Advertiser
34. Photograph of Driver George Gough’s Grave at the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire © Mrs Julie Graddon
35. Photograph of Driver George Gough’s Grave at the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire © Mrs Julie Graddon
36. Photograph of Driver George Gough’s Grave at the Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire © Mrs Julie Graddon
37. Memorial Window © Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire
38. Memorial Window © Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshire
39. Memorial Plaque © Parish Church of St James the Great, Norton Canes, Staffordshir
40. Memorial Plaque © Trinity Methodist Church, Norton Canes, Staffordshire
41. Photograph of Norton Canes Boys’ School Roll of Honour © BFHG
42. Names on Norton Canes Boys’ School Roll of Honour © BFHG
43. George Gough’s medal card © Ancestry
44. 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal © Ghillie Mòr website
45. Article published in the Walsall Observer 13 October 1917 © Walsall Observer
46. Article published in the Evening Sentinel 13 October 1970 © Evening Sentinel
47. Poem “The Charge of the Terrier Brigade written by Sapper J Dutton © Cannock Advertiser and BBC Staffordshire History website (Hohenzollern Redoubt Poem)
48. The 1st South Staffords Attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt (painting by Francis ("Frank") Owen Salisbury in Walsall Town Hall commemorating the part played by local servicemen at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 © Walsall Town Hall
49. Extract from the 1899 probate record for John Gough (father of George Gough) © Ancestry
50. Extract from the 1880 probate record for John Gough (grandfather of George Gough) © Ancestry
51. Details of the 1880 will of John Gough (grandfather of George Gough) © Lichfield Record Office
52. Certificate in memory of George Gough © Commonwealth War Graves Commission
In completing this biography, credit and thanks must also be given to the following websites which have provided invaluable information regarding the story of George Gough and the pals and comrades with whom he served and gave his life.