Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Pilgrimage to Loos

I was late getting to Loos. Ninety odd years late. I wore my kilt for the occasion; it seemed appropriate. In fact, more than just appropriate, necessary, almost a debt of honour. I had carried the kilt in my suitcase all over France just for this one day.
The war cemetery (left) is surrounded by a high stone wall; the massed ranks of well-tended graves within representing only a few of those who died on the field of battle all around. Many still lie where they fell, their bodies never recovered from the mud of no-man’s land, which nowadays is simply flat and featureless arable countryside; fields just like any other fields. There is nothing but the memorial to tell the visitor otherwise.
Around the inside of the perimeter wall are engraved in column after column, regiment by regiment, the names of the dead. I went looking for the Highland Light Infantry. Eventually my wife called me over to a section of the wall on the side nearest the village. “They’re over here,” she said, “and there’s a lot of them.” We tried to count, but the names went on for so long that in the end we were reduced to counting one column and multiplying by the number of columns.
On the morning of the 25th of September 1915, for all practical purposes three battalions of the Highland Light Infantry ceased to exist. Of approximately 2,000 HLI engaged on the Loos front, over 1,500 died. My grandfather, so proudly photographed in his kilt and Glengarry before he left home, went over the top with all the rest. This is his story as it was handed down to me. Other family members remember it somewhat differently, but the basic message is the same.
It was before the days of conscription, and even so as a steel worker with a reserved occupation my grandfather would not have been called up. Why was he there? Because he and a friend had just been walking down the street one day, minding their own business, when two young women called out contemptuously, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the front? Are you cowards or something?” In a fury of embarrassment the two of them turned round there and then and walked straight to the recruiting office.
Like so many of his comrades in arms, my grandfather’s advance towards the German trenches got no further than no-man’s land. Unlike most of them however, he was not killed outright by the bullet that struck him. Bleeding from a desperate leg wound, he dragged himself across the ruined field into the nearest shell hole and there collapsed, out of the immediate line of fire but also far from safety or medical attention.
I do not know how long he lay there. Sometime later, the shooting eased, and eventually stretcher bearers were able to make their way on to the battlefield. The first stretcher party to catch sight of my grandfather was British. Seeing the state of his wounds, they passed by and left him. It was always a family tradition to resent this, and it was not until a few years ago, when I read a book by William Sinclair of Kirkintilloch, one of the maligned stretcher bearers, that I finally understood their behaviour.
The mud at Loos was so deep that they could hardly make forward progress; if they fell off the duck boards they could drown; the struggling stretcher parties were under fire from the Germans for much of their tortuous route from the field hospital to no-man’s land. They knew they could only make a few trips under these conditions, and they had to make hard-headed decisions about which of the wounded were likely to live long enough to make it back to the hospital. There were so many corpses lying out on the field; there was no point in risking more lives to recover someone whose name would soon be just another to be added to the butcher’s bill.
Later another stretcher party passed by the shell hole in which my grandfather lay. These men were speaking German. Seeing my grandfather, a medical orderly climbed down into the shell hole and staunched further loss of blood with a tourniquet. In English he then explained, “We shall not take you prisoner. Your own side will come for you now.” From that day onwards my grandfather always said that he owed his life to the man he called “the German doctor.”
The third stretcher party to find my grandfather was another British one. They picked him up and bravely carried him back through the sea of mud along that awful route to the field hospital. He was to lose the leg, but he survived, and eventually he even returned to that back-breaking work in the steel mill.
All this took place a little more than five years before my mother was born. My life, for what it is worth, and what little good I may have been able to do for my fellow man, I owe to the humanity of an enemy; a man who looked through the fog of slaughter in that most terrible of conflicts and saw, lying in that shell hole, not an enemy soldier but a wounded man.
When I hear xenophobia expressed today, I want to take the speakers with me to Loos and show them the waste brought about by rival nationalisms. I want them to climb with me up the little tower that overlooks the cemetery, and show them my grandfather’s friends, still drawn up in the dressed ranks which they first formed a century ago. As I stood on top of that tower in my kilt, looking out over the now tranquil landscape and trying to see it with my grandfather’s eyes, a white van passed by on the road. The driver tooted his horn and waved a salute. In Loos they still remember.
My grandfather was heartbroken when war broke out again in 1939. “I thought,” he said, “we fought the last one to put an end to all this.” He died not long afterwards. He was less than fifty years old.
Grandad, I was late getting to Loos, but when I finally got there, I think that I understood.