By 1915 more than a third of a million men had answered Lord Kitchener’s call to arms to defend their country.
The Kitchener Battalions of the New Army were nearing the end of their training and in May, 1915 the first of these, the 9th Scottish Division, the first to be formed, was sent to France.
In it’s ranks were literally hundreds of Midlothian men, volunteers to a man and keen to get into a fight. They arrived around May of 1915 and settled into life in trenches. Joining them later on were the men of the 15th Scottish Division who arrived in August of 1915. They were green and unused to combat, a factor that would cost them dear.
Tucked away up in North East France is the area around Lens and Loos, very similar in appearance to the mining villages of the Lothians with it’s pit heads, bings and miner’s rows. And it was at the small town of Loos that one of the bloodiest chapters in Scottish Military history occurred.
A major push was planned, with the attack going in on 25th September over what had been described as ‘most unfavourable ground’. Spearheading the attack would be the newly arrived volunteers, some barely off the boat in the case of 15th Scottish Division.
It was planned to make use of a new weapon at Loos, poison gas, first used by the Germans at Ypres but now used by all.
The Scots had been set tough objective, in the North 9th Scottish were to attack the Hohenzollern Redoubt, in the South 15th Scottish were to take Loos itself. The attack commenced just before 6am, shelling rose to a crescendo and Royal Engineers released the gas, in places the wind had dropped and the gas did not move, in others the wind changed to an Easterly blowing the gas back on the allies.
The Scots went over the top towards their objectives, success was varied, some reached the Redoubt, over 200 yards of open ground, others found the wire uncut and suffered hundreds of casualties, cut to ribbons where they could not go forward.
Germans in the numerous slag heaps fired into the front and sides of the Scots, despite the mounting casualties they pressed on regardless, on entering the trenches more misfortune struck them, their ‘bombs’ or grenades would not light rendering them useless, the Germans had no such trouble with their better designed weapons. Fighting went on at close quarters, often hand-to-hand in the trenches and in the streets of Loos. Units became intermingled and control broke down, one observer described the mass of men pouring towards Hill 70 as reminding of a crowd pouring out a football match, cheering and bunching together as they advanced. The Germans reeled backwards under the onslaught and it looked like defeat for them, however they rallied and began to pour withering fire down, sometimes from three different directions on the Scots. There was no cover, no escape, men tumbled and fell, some lay silent, others moaning in agony. Rescue for the wounded men was virtually impossible, their comrades were not to stop and help, but push on to their objectives.
The advance slowed to a standstill, men dug in were they could, sometimes in small groups, to stand and fight. By the time the sun had set on the 25th the enormity of the casualties taken was sinking in, some 8,000 men had been killed, over 4,000 of them were Scots.
In short it was Scotland’s blackest day on the Battlefield since Flodden centuries before. It was to be worst day in the war by far for Scotland, and sadly Midlothian was no exception to the grieving communities the length and breadth of the land.
Forty-two men from Midlothian lost their lives that day, almost all of them have no known grave, the majority commemorated on the Loos Memorial. They came from many regiments, The Royal Scots, The Seaforth Highlanders, The Cameron Highlanders, The Scottish Rifles, The Gordon Highlanders, The Black Watch and The Highland Light Infantry.
Amongst the fallen that day were local men like Piper George Alves, from Borthwick, a member of the Edinburgh City Police before joining the forces. He was last seen playing his company into action.
Sergeant Peter Baxter, 8th Seaforth Highlanders, a grocer from Roslin, was killed whilst leading his men forward.
Captain Alfred Bell, Royal Scots from Dalkeith, was killed at the head of his Company.
Pte Ernest Franklin, Seaforth Highlanders, from Penicuik, a devout Christian, his pocket book was found on the battlefield, it was the only tangible remains of him.
Lance Cpl George Ross, Gordon Highlanders, miner from Newtongrange and father of two wee girls, posted missing and never found. Added to Newtongrange War Memorial in 2014.
Besides the dead and the missing, many more men were wounded, some very seriously indeed.
Nowadays Loos warrants little more than a footnote in the history of the Great War. Given the scale of loss to us that day, it should be remembered always.