The 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the Hohenzollern Redoubt
Few places on the Western Front held such a reputation as the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Attacked by the 9th (Scottish) Division at the start of the Battle of Loos on 25 September, the redoubt, jutting out into No Man’s Land was fiercely defended. It is perhaps most well known as the scene of the disastrous 46th (North Midland) Division’s attack on 13 October 1915. The losses to the 46th Division of 3,763 officers and men that day are greater than sustained in their failed attack at Gommecourt on the First Day of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Following the failure of this attack the line stabilised and the Hohenzollern Redoubt soon developed into a vicious mining sector as tunnelling operations reduced the landscape to a sea of huge mine craters.
The Battle of Loos
However, it is one event between the Scots’ initial attack and the 13 October endeavour that is the subject of this article. The Scots’ success in penetrating the German positions had been bought at a heavy price. Troops of the 26th Brigade had taken the Redoubt and pushed north to Fosse 8 and the Dump. German counter-attacks reversed these gain, pushing the Scots back to the eastern face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt by the end of following day. Severely depleted from their action, the Scots handed over their tenuous gains to the 28th Division, the positions being taken by units of the 85th Brigade.
Fierce fighting continued for the next three days with German counter-attacks slowly and painfully retaking trenches. At the end of 30 September the British occupied the West Face of the Redoubt and Big Willie Trench. The Germans controlled most of Little Willie Trench, threatening the north flank of the Redoubt. On the night of 30 September/1 October 84th Brigade relieved 85th Brigade. German observation of this relief from the heights of the Dump was total and the new British occupants were subjected immediately to strong bombing attacks. The British held on – but only just.
That night, they would attack to improve their hold on the German trenches. The plan was risky, involving no artillery bombardment. The attacking force captured parts of Little Willie Trench but could advance no further. German retaliation was swift; artillery subjected the Redoubt and Little Willie to regular and heavy trench mortar fire. A German bombing attack retook Little Willie Trench, followed by the loss of the Chord and West Face. Other than a small section of Big Willie Trench, the British were for the most part back in their original lines. The blood-soaked redoubt would have to be assaulted again.
The 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry into the line
The 1st Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (83rd Brigade, 28th Division) had fought with great aplomb at Second Ypres. Prior to the Battle of Loos the battalion had been holding trenches on Messines Ridge. Their move south, via Bailleul and Outtersteene brought them to Noyelles les Vermelles on the afternoon of 27 September. The following afternoon they occupied reserve trenches on the Vermelles road as a bombardment was expected. After 90 minutes in position they returned to their billets in Noyelles.
On the morning of 29 September the Battalion moved forward. B & C Companies occupied Sussex Trench whilst Battalion HQ and the remainder of the unit stayed in the Lancashire lines. In the afternoon B & D moved up to the line, D Company in the firing line in BIG WILLIE trench with B Company in support. Later that afternoon, the remainder of the Battalion moved up to the reserve trenches.
Having taken twelve casualties the battalion were relieved the following day. They proceeded to the old British front line north of the Hulluch road, arriving there at 2.15am on 1 October. Three and a half hours later the Battalion were ordered to move up and occupy the old German front line trenches. Later that day they were relieved by 2nd Highland Light Infantry and proceeded to billets at Annequin. On the morning of 3 October the Battalion marched to Vermelles and then into trenches opposite the redoubt to relieve the 6th Welsh (84th Brigade).
That night the C.O., Lt-Colonel C.R.I. Brooke DSO and Major Mallinson DSO went to Brigade HQ. An attack was to be made at 4.45am on 4 October by three battalions; the 1st KOYLI and 2nd East Yorkshires would attack the redoubt frontally, leaving the 2nd King’s Own to capture and consolidate Big Willie Trench. The optimistic plan depended on darkness providing the assaulting parties with the necessary element of surprise. Even then, the British would be advancing into a tumbled maze of trenches. The assaulting troops had no idea what they would be facing; there had been no time to reconnoitre the position.
At 4.15am the first two waves of the 1st KOYLI were in position thirty yards in front of their trench. Fifteen minutes later a third wave followed. The 2nd East Yorkshires deployed similarly. Battalion war diaries mention a distinct lack of artillery fire. Whatever shelling there was had no discernible effect on the German trenches. The Battalion War Diary for 4 October records the attack thus:
A & D Coys ordered to attack HOHENZOLLERN REDOUBT
4.45am – A & D attacked and were met with very heavy machine gun and rifle fire. There was no artillery bombardment. The distance to the German line was about 200 yards and the men got half way across. By then they were practically wiped out.
These few lines make grimly predictable reading. Traversing 200 yards of open ground swept by machine-gun fire proved impossible. The war diary records the following casualties:
2/Lt A.H. Martindale 1st KOYLI killed
2/Lt C.L. Pearson 1st KOYLI wounded
2/Lt F.W. Graham 4th DLI, attached 1st KOYLI missing
2/Lt P.J.C. Simpson 3rd KOYLI, attached 1st KOYLI missing
Other Ranks – killed 10, wounded 65, missing 101
It concludes by noting ‘There is no doubt that most of the missing were killed. A few wounded were got in during the night 4th/5th.’ Losses to the East Yorkshires and 2nd King’s Own were equally heavy. The attack stood no chance of success. Following their mauling the Battalion were relieved by the 1st Coldstream Guards the next day. This move signalled the relief of the 28th Division by the Guards Division. In a week the Division had suffered over 3,200 casualties. There is no after action report in the 1st KOYLI diary but the summary given by Lt-Colonel Blake, 2nd East Yorkshires whose men attacked alongside the 1st KOYLI is damning, attributing the failure of the attack to the following causes:
(i) No Artillery bombardment
(ii) Complete lack of element of surprise. The Germans were well prepared, and had not been in the slightest shaken by the desultory shelling that had taken place throughout the day.
(iii) The Germans had been digging in during the day previous, and had thoroughly improved their trenches.
(iv) The relief the day before did not finish until 7pm. Company officers had only very indistinct idea of the trenches they were occupying, and none at all of the positions they were to attack.
So, when next at Vermelles, Auchy and the site of the Hohenzollern Redoubt give some thought not only to the Scots who attacked on 25 September 1915 and the North Midlanders (with two divisional memorials – one at Vermelles and one close to the redoubt) who fell is such number on 13 October but also to the men of the neglected 28th Division.
Following their exploits at Loos the 28th Division was moved to the Salonika front, sailing from Marseilles on 26 October 1915. Recommended reading includes Andrew Rawson’s ‘Loos 1915: The Northern Battle and Hohenzollern Redoubt (Battleground Europe)’
In memory of 21865 Private George William Williams, 1st KOYLI. Killed 4 October 1915, buried Arras Road Cemetery, Roclincourt.