Five soldiers connected to my family were killed or died of wounds sustained in one battle in Northern France in the Great War. The youngest was 19. The oldest 38. All serving in the Devonshire Regiment, they lost their lives during or after the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
Teenager Albert Roberts, of Witheridge, had been in France for just 60 days when he fought in his first and last battle, at Loos.
A private in the 8th Devons, he and his fellow soldiers were about to face ‘hell on earth’ in an attack on heavily fortified enemy trenches.
Albert must have wondered how he would survive a dash across No Man’s Land littered with miles of razor wire.
Or how he would live through a barrage of machine gun and rifle fire from formidable German defences.
Or how he would see his way forward with the British forces using a chemical weapon for the first time at Loos – deadly chlorine gas.
For he would have to don a crude, uncomfortable, but potentially life-saving gas mask for that fateful infantry charge.
As ‘Zero Hour’ arrived and the attack whistles blew, Albert’s battalion suffered heavy losses as they struggled to get past the razor wire in No Man’s Land.
Officers and men were brutally cut down by artillery and machine gun fire.
Undaunted, they courageously continued to charge forward in a deadly hailstorm of bullets and shells.
They ventured hundreds of yards into enemy territory, capturing three German trenches and a whole battery of field guns.
But their attack ground to a halt as they faced being completely wiped out on the battlefield.
Nineteen officers and 620 NCOs and men of the 8th Devons were killed, wounded or listed as missing at Loos.
Albert was among those seriously wounded.
He was rescued from the battlefield and taken by field ambulance to a casualty clearing station before being transferred to an Army base hospital at Wimereux, near Boulogne.
Albert never recovered from his wounds.
He died at No 14 General Hospital (in Wimereux, France) on October 3, 1915, three days before his 20th birthday.
He was one of five men connected to my family who were killed – or died of wounds – in the Battle of Loos.
They included three of Albert’s cousins:
- 20-year-old Private William Henry Hitchcock, of Thelbridge, who was killed on the first day of the battle, September 25.
- William’s 38-year-old uncle, James Sharland, of Cruwys Morchard, a lance-corporal in the 8th Devons, also killed that day.
- Henry Roberts Earl, 23, of Cove, near Tiverton, a lance-corporal in the 9th Devons, who was killed between September 25 and 30.
The fifth to die was 31-year-old Philip Gard, of Witheridge, who was connected to my mother’s family.
A private in the 8th Devons, he was killed on September 25. He went to war just four months after marrying in Exeter.
On August 26, 1915, just a month before his death, The Western Times published a letter Philip sent to Mr W C Carter, of Witheridge.
‘We have got a good regiment and they are nearly all Devon boys in it,’ wrote Philip.
‘We are the real old stuff, and are going to help to keep up the name of the Devons, and to keep also the old flag flying. We are the boys to do it!
‘If those young chaps of Witheridge only knew what it was like out here, they would soon join. It is out here they are wanted to help us to finish this war.’
THE FULL STORY OF THE FIVE WHO DIED AT LOOS IS REVEALED IN THE A-Z OF SOLDIERS FROM MY FAMILY WHO DIED AT WAR
Albert Roberts, who was just 19 when he died at Loos.
James Sharland, who was 38 when he died on September 25, 1915.
The War Memorial at Thelbridge on which William Henry Hitchcock is commemorated.
British Infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos. A Public Domain image taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Battalion, The London Regiment). Photogaph HU 63277B from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 9306-11).