For much of this November (2007), there has been yet another bitter struggle over the fate of the infamous Hohenzollern Redoubt.
On one side, there has been Monsieur Eugene Bernus, the present-day owner of the site of the redoubt, supported by the mayor of nearby Auchy-les-Mines, Monsieur Jean Clarisse.
On the other side, there have been hundreds of angry people from across the Midlands, from Lincolnshire to Staffordshire, encouraged by their local newspapers and supported by their local Members of Parliament.
In 1915, the Hohenzollern Redoubt was considered by the British planners to be the strongest defensive-work on the whole of the front destined to be attacked on the first morning of The Battle of Loos. This formidable strongpoint jutted well out into a wide stretch of No-Man's Land, as it was designed to protect the real prize of the all-important, flat-topped slagheap, known to the British as 'The Dump'. Although only about twenty feet high, it afforded views in all directions - to whoever was in possession.
The unenviable task of capturing the redoubt and the slagheap was entrusted to the 26th Brigade of the untried 9th(Scottish)Division. Their commanding-officer, the relatively young 46 year-old Major-General Thesiger, had only taken over the division on September 9th.
Despite their inexperience, and disregarding the heavy defensive fire, the Scots stormed through the enemy front-line and, within one hour, they had taken charge of both positions. Machine-gun fire, especially from the flanks, had considerably reduced the ranks of the 26th Brigade and, although some units continued their advance for a further thousand yards and were eventually supported by men of the 27th Brigade, they then found that both flanks were completely open. So, as they were in serious danger of being cut off, the decision was made to return over the half-mile of open ground they had just advanced across and take up defensive positions in front of The Dump.
This gave the enemy chance to recover and, by midnight, just as the remnants of the 26th Brigade were being relieved by the 73rd Brigade of 24th Division, they were mounting a counter-attack in their desperation to regain the two lost features. This attack was repelled, with heavy losses, and the British defences, despite being under constant shellfire, held firm throughout the next day, but, in the early hours of the 27th, fresh German forces crept forward to within 100 yards of them. Then, at dawn, they launched a head-on attack, while groups of bombers, equipped with vastly superior grenades, started to work their way along the lost trench systems. The weary defenders were unable to withstand this combined assault and they were gradually forced to relinquish their positions and, inevitably, The Dump, before taking up fresh positions in the east face of the Redoubt.
It was at this stage that Captain Fergus-Bowes Lyon (pictured), brother of the future Queen Mother, led a detachment of approximately one hundred men from the 8th Black Watch and 5th Cameron Highlanders forward to rally the retiring men and to stabilise the situation.
The loss of The Dump also meant that the most advanced positions of the 9th Division were now untenable and these men were withdrawn across the open ground to take up defensive positions in the east face of the Redoubt itself, hotly pursued by the enemy. The attackers were eventually driven off and the line held but among the British dead was Captain Bowes-Lyon. The newly-appointed Major-General Thesiger, receiving worrying reports that his divisions hard-earned early gains were, one-by-one, being lost, decided to go forward to assess the situation for himself. However, soon after arriving at the east face of the Redoubt, the trench was hit by a shell which killed him and two of his staff officers. (Such was the desperate nature of the situation at that time that the body of this very senior officer was never recovered).
Major-General Bulfin, already commanding the 28th Division was instructed to also take charge of the 9th Division and, soon after, I. Corps Headquarters ordered him to counter-attack and re-take The Dump with the remainder of 26th Brigade, who had performed so admirably on the first day of the battle. Forced to attack from the original British frontline, in the face of heavy shell and machine-gun fire, those still standing could advance no further than the east face of the Redoubt.
Fighting continued to rage here for the next few days, with both sides making repeated attacks. The Germans gradually gained the upper hand, possibly because of their superior grenades, until, by October3rd, the east face, and then the rest of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, were recaptured. So, after eight days of fierce fighting, all that the British attackers had to show for it was one piece of trench attached to the Redoubt - plus thousands of casualties.
While losses continued to mount, as fighting persisted in the labyrinthine trench network created by the opposing lines being linked together, the Allied commanders were planning another major attack. This time the assault would extend from north of the Hohenzollern Redoubt to south of the village of Hulluch.
Delayed by a major German counter-attack on October 8th, the attack was to go ahead on the 13th. Responsibility for capturing the Hohenzollern and The Dump had now been passed to the newly-arrived 46th (North Midlands) Division. The commander of this Territorial Division was Major-General Stuart-Wortley who, on a first survey of his objectives, not surprisingly, demurred at the prospect of launching an overland assault in broad daylight. However, his recommendation that the attack should be made by bombing along the existing trench system was overruled.
Possibly because the initial phase of the Scottish attack on the 25th September had been so spectacularly successful, it was decided that the new assault should follow a similar plan. Presumably, little credence can have been given to the possibility that the Germans might just have improved their defences in the intervening 18 days. Looking from behind the British lines, it must have been obvious that, in the sprawling mass of The Dump, and in the neat rows of miners' cottages beside it, the defenders had the perfect weapon-platforms- all they needed was the weapons?.
As on the 25th, the attack was heralded by the release of gas and smoke, and just like on the 25th, it was virtually useless - apart from alerting the defenders. On the earlier occasion, the attack had been preceded by a bombardment from two 9.2 inch howitzers, but this time the artillery support was particularly feeble.
The plan called for 1/5th Battalion North Staffordshire, and half a battalion of 1/5th South Staffordshire, to attack the two major trenches on the right and, collecting the other two companies of the latter unit already in 'the British part' of the first trench, they were to by-pass The Dump and consolidate in the trench beyond it. On the left, another two battalions (1/5th Lincolnshire and 1/4th Leicestershire) would lead the attack on the front face of the Redoubt, which it would cross before by-passing The Dump to the north and aligning with the other two battalions on the other side.
This clearly unrealistically ambitious plan unfolded just as Major-General Stuart-Wortley must have feared. As the North Staffordshire men clambered from their trenches, they were greeted by a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire, but, despite this they formed up and advanced in good order. However, just like the South Staffordshire men beside them, very few reached even the first trench. Despite what they could see happening in front of them, the next line of men, which comprised half-battalions of 1/6th South Staffordshire, 1/6th North Staffordshire plus 1/2nd North Midland Field Company, R.E., pressed on courageously, only to meet with a similar fate. Mercifully, somebody decided that the four remaining companies would remain in their trenches, thus sparing them from the slaughter.
On their left, the other two leading battalions were more sheltered at first, and therefore started better, soon breaking through the front defences of the Redoubt. However, as soon as they moved into the open ground separating the two features, they were met by withering machine-gun fire from the miners' cottages, The Dump and other strong-points. Despite this, some men entered Fosse Trench which, because it ran north-south, meant that they were immediately enfiladed from the strong-points to the north and The Dump to the south. The two leading battalions were strongly supported by the 1/4th Lincolnshire, the 1/1st Monmouthshire and the 1/1st North Midlands Field Company, R.E., plus two companies of 1/5th Leicestershire, but the situation was literally hopeless. Those who were lucky enough to have survived the assault, found whatever shelter was available and, when darkness brought some respite, they withdrew to the Redoubt.
Due, no doubt, to a shortage of surviving officers, this collection of exhausted men from different parts of the Midlands at first lacked a coherent defence plan but, fortunately, Lieutenant-Colonel Evill took charge and organised them in time to repel the German defenders who were now starting to infiltrate the nearby trenches. Using every type of bomb they were able to find, they managed to keep the enemy at bay, but it was decided to evacuate the Redoubts east face, scene of the earlier deaths of Major-General Thesiger and Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, and dig another trench behind it, later to be known as 'The Chord'.
During that night, the German attacks became more co-ordinated, and began to threaten the British defences but, fortunately, reinforcements from the reserve brigade of Sherwood Foresters arrived in time to stabilise the situation.
Militarily, the net result of the 46th(North Midlands) Divisions first major action in France was the gain of the west face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt and a loss of 180 officers and 3,583 men. According to The Official History of the War, most of these were incurred in the first ten minutes of the attacks. In summarising the outcome of the assaults across the wider front, it goes on to say '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?.'
Socially and geographically, this attack had effectively cut a great swathe through the menfolk of the Midland counties, from the coast of Lincolnshire to the borders with Wales.
I first became aware of a problem at the Redoubt in late May of this year, whilst making a 'recce' for the forthcoming WFA Suffolk Branch tour, with Isabelle Pilarowski, from the Great War museum in Loos. For those unfamiliar with the area, the site of the redoubt is south-west of Auchy-les-Mines and is approached via a track running south-west from the southern corner of an estate of ex-coalminers' houses known as Cite Madagascar. To the left of this track is a farmyard guarded by a grizzly bear, masquerading as a dog, and here we met the farmer, Michel Dedourge, who kindly gave his permission for the Suffolk coach to be parked in his yard.
When I enquired about further access, he explained that, although the track was a public footpath, the land which included the site of the Redoubt was owned by another man. He went on to say that, despite his making repeated appeals to the mayor of Auchy, the land-owner was using the Redoubt as a landfill site. I said that many people in Britain would be very upset to hear this news and added that, among the Suffolk Tour party would be two senior officials of the Western Front Association, who I felt sure would want to discuss the matter with him.
Two weeks later, Michel Dedourge was duly introduced to Peter Simkins and Stuart Bufton, and a discussion was held regarding this threat to the Redoubt. This meeting was followed by another, that evening, with Jean-Luc Gloriant, a local Great War researcher with considerable knowledge of the wartime history of the area. Following these two meetings, Stuart made a telephone call to WFA Chairman, Bruce Simpson, so that the matter could be discussed, that weekend, at a National Committee Meeting.
Following that meeting, a letter was drafted to the mayor of Auchy reminding him of the great historical importance of the site and stressing that it was thought to still contain the bodies of British and German soldiers, as well as explosive materials. A brief report on this subject was later published in the October Bulletin, under 'Review of National Committee Meetings'.
Some time later, I heard that a group of people from the Leicester area were very concerned about the problem and, at the end of October, in Loos, they had met Isabelle and Jean-Luc Gloriant to discuss it. The mention in the Bulletin had also triggered some lively debate on The Great War Forum website, under 'Battlefields in Danger', particularly from WFA members living in the Midlands, some of whom had relatives who had fought and died at the Redoubt.
Written protests began in earnest on the Monday before Armistice Day, 8th November, with two articles in the Lincolnshire Echo, whose writers were aware that hundreds of Lincolnshire Regiment men had fallen in their attempts to capture the Hohenzollern Redoubt. National recognition was given to the problem on the following day when The Daily Mail published the story under the heading "Desecrated" using several explosive phrases like "Since the lorries and bulldozers moved in, it has been virtually impossible to walk across the land without stepping on fragments of bone, tattered shreds of uniforms or rusting military equipment." I can't pretend to have walked every inch of that land but I have to say that I have never come across any of these objects there. Despite this, and other similarly provocative claims, I don't believe the Mail published any more articles on the subject.
Fortunately, the local newspapers showed a little more determination, and at least six publications, covering the homeland of the Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire Regiments, reported the story in detail, some with front-page headlines and double-page spreads. Their readers immediately took up the fight, voicing their opinions, not just to he newspapers, but also to their local Members of Parliament, who were quick to take up the fight, with 'questions in the house' and letters to the appropriate overseas representatives. These included two well-known Leicester MPs, Patricia Hewitt and Keith Vaz, the latter showing particular determination in his efforts to resolve a problem which was causing a great deal of distress to his members.
Several Midlands newspapers took the fight back across the English Channel by printing a passionate, but polite, letter to the Mayor of Auchy, and then inviting their readers to cut this out, sign it and return it to the paper for onward delivery to the Mayor. This gentleman had already been inundated by telephone-calls, letters and emails from the Midlands, before receiving these letters which, from The Leicester Mercury alone, totalled approximately two thousand! This reaction both surprised and concerned the Mayor, who held two meetings in three days with Jean-Luc Gloriant and Isabelle, the second in the significant presence of Clive Alderton, British Consul-General in Lille. This was the same gentleman who had represented the Queen and the people of Great Britain so splendidly at the funeral of the two Cameron Highlanders in Loos, just three weeks before. He had impressed me then, and so I was not entirely surprised that, following the meeting, he visited the site to see the problem for himself, even when his Jaguar was deemed unsuitable for the task!
In addition to attending these very tense meetings, Isabelle had to deal with many calls from English newspapers - being quoted in several, but not always very accurately - and she also was interviewed by French and BBC Midlands television channels. This was in addition to trying to fulfil her obligations to visitors to her office and the museum in Loos, so it is no wonder that she found this week a particularly stressful one.
That weekend, a party of relatives of a soldier, who had died at Loos with the 1/4th Lincolns, visited the site to lay a wreath in the presence of the owner, Eugene Bernus. They understood from discussions with Monsieur Bernus that there would be no more landfill at the site. This was taken up on the following Monday, by The Lincolnshire Echo, under the triumphant headline 'Victory For Our Heroes', and repeated in The Leicester Mercury.
This mood of euphoria was to be short-lived, however, as The Staffordshire Sentinel reported a conversation with Monsieur Bernus on the Monday, in which he said that, while he was intending to cover the dumped rubble with earth and then plant trees, there was to be a second phase of excavation and landfill - although he did say that he would treat any bones he found with respect!
However, after Isabelle attended another meeting with the Mayor, this time also with two journalists from The Leicester Mercury, and further activity in Auchy, I received an email from Isabelle very late on the Thursday evening, to say that "apparently, the Mayor signed a decree to stop the rubble tip!" This time it was the turn of The Staffordshire Sentinel to celebrate, as they had obviously been made aware of this decision, and they announced the news under the headline "Joy And Relief For Soldiers' Families."
The English campaign to stop work at the Redoubt had attracted a great deal of attention from the French media, both newspaper and television. They were particularly interested to hear that the Queen Mother's brother, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon of the 8th Black Watch, had been killed at the Redoubt. As his body had not been recovered and identified, it was easy to assume that he was still there and, thus, to speculate that a French man was dumping rubbish on top of a member of the British Royal Family!
This royal interest was demonstrated, on the following Tuesday, by an email from Isabelle, urgently requesting a photo of Captain Bowes-Lyon. Apparently, this had been asked for by French Channel 2 television, who were sending a team to interview Isabelle about the controversy and, in particular, Bowes-Lyon. With the prompt assistance of the Black Watch Museum archives, the photo was in Loos within the hour and was being filmed soon after. As a location for her interview, Isabelle chose to take the TV crew to Dud Corner Cemetery, where over half of the nearly 2,000 gravestones have no name on them.
Isabelle then had to drive to Auchy for yet another meeting with the Mayor and the Town Council, where she was asked to help with translation. The purpose of this meeting was to receive Chris Heaton-Harris, MEP for the East Midlands, who, after some 'diplomatic sparring' with the Mayor, thanked him for bringing the dumping to a halt, and for respecting the memory of those men from his part of England who had fallen at the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The proceedings were recorded by the TV crew and their work was later transmitted on France2 News, which began by showing Isabelle standing in front of The Loos Memorial to the Missing. During this broadcast, she was able to point to the wall, on which were engraved the names of over 20,000 British soldiers who had died in the area, including the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and who have no known graves. She was also able to add that she had received many letters from England saying that the site should be protected, as it was so significant to them. The televised report closed with the Mayor shaking hands with Mr. Heaton-Harris and telling him that everything was alright now.
Surely, this was the end of the story?
Perhaps not! The Mayor had also mentioned at the meeting that he was waiting for a report from the D.R.A.C. or 'Direction regionale des affaires culturelles'. Their role is, I believe, to investigate claimed historic sites and decide whether they should be protected. Looking on their website, there is encouraging evidence of collaboration with British organisations so, hopefully, their opinion will not be too parochial. Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that the painful effects of that tragic day in October 1915 have not been completely assuaged by the passage of time.
Wherever the dead from the battle now lie, whether it be in the environs of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, or in one of the rarely-visited cemeteries nearby, they can rest assured that they have, quite clearly, quite definitely, not been forgotten.
Every single person who has actively participated in opposing the landfill at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, together with the many newspapers and government officials who have campaigned so vigorously, are worthy of high praise. In particular, I would like to mention Richard Lane, Historian of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and Chrissy Harris of the Leicester Mercury, for the East Midlands, Andrew Thornton who campaigned so effectively in the West Midlands, Jean-Luc Gloriant of the 'association sur les traces de la Grande Guerre' in Loos and, especially, our ever-loyal 'Honorary Briton', Isabelle Pilarowski, who can now get back to her 'regular job' at the Museum in Loos!References:
'History of The Great War - Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1915' (Part 2).
'Loos-Hohenzollern' by Andrew Rawson, part of the Battleground Europe series.