The Dead Donkeys: The Myth of the ‘Château Generals’ Part Two – The Western Front 1915

1915 would begin with the deaths of two generals that I introduced you to last post.  On 22nd February, Brigadier-General Sir John Edmond Gough V.C., Chief of Staff 1st Army, was killed by a German sniper on the Aubers Ridge, aged only 43; more about him when we visit his grave in Estaires Communal Cemetery in the not-so-distant future.

And in April, Lieutenant-General Samuel Holt Lomax, G.O.C. 1st Division, gravely wounded in the Hooge Chateau incident on 31st October 1914 (see last post again for details), would die of his injuries, after receiving palliative care in a London nursing home for the best part of five months.  He died on 10th April aged 59, and his ashes are buried in Aldershot Military Cemetery, Hampshire.

Two weeks later, on 26th April, Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell, G.O.C. 149th Brigade, 50th Division, was killed by a bullet in the head near St. Julien in the dark days following the first German gas attacks.  He was 53 and is buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery

Twenty four hours later and two miles nearer Ypres, Brigadier-General Julian Hasler, G.O.C. 11th Brigade, 4th Division, was killed by a shell at St. Jean on the night of 27th April, aged 46.  He is buried in White House Cemetery.

On 9th May Brigadier-General Arthur Willoughby George Lowry Cole, D.S.O., G.O.C. 25th Brigade, 8th Division, veteran of many pre-war campaigns and severely wounded in Northern Nigeria in 1900, was mortally wounded as he stood on a trench parapet attempting to rally retreating troops in the fields, perhaps those pictured here, near Fromelles, dying later the same day, aged 54.  He is buried in Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Fleurbaix.

Brigadier-General Richard Lucas Mullens (left), G.O.C. 2nd Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, gassed on 24th May during the final days of the Second Battle of Ypres, near Bellewaarde Lake.  He would return to command 1st Cavalry Division from October 1915.  A week later, down in the Pas-de-Calais, Brigadier-General George Colborne Nugent, G.O.C. 141st Brigade, 47th Division (right), was killed by a stray bullet near Béthune on 31st May, aged 51, and buried in Béthune Town Cemetery.

Brigadier-General Edward Northey, G.O.C. 15th Brigade, 5th Division, wounded in the thigh on the evening of 22nd June near Verbrandenmolen, south of Zillebeke, probably within a few hundred yards of this photograph.  He would return to fight in East Africa between 1916 & 1918.  The next month, on 16th July, Major-General Thomas Stanford Baldock, G.O.C. 49th Division, of whom I have no image, was severely wounded in the head by shrapnel near Brielen, subsequently retiring from the Army in 1916.

And then came Loos.

A brief explanation of some of the following photographs before we continue.  I have never yet had the opportunity to visit the Loos battlefield, despite passing through, or at least very close by, on several occasions.  The photos were snapped from car or coach, and do allow us, with the help of the above two trench maps (spliced together, both from December 1917, but I have no earlier ones, and if nothing else these maps do show that little changed in the two years after the battle), to pinpoint, with the help of the ubiquitous slag heaps (marked in blue, red and yellow), the part of the battlefield centring on the village of Loos itself, which you can see in the middle of the map (the much larger town of Lens bottom right).  I have added the British front line in the autumn of 1915 in dark blue, and the land gained during the battle and the new British front line in purple.  This is mining country, and as the slag heaps are now far larger than they once were, they provide excellent landmarks from which to work out the lie of the land.  The road from which all the photos, apart from the one immediately below, are taken, the main road north from Reims, through Arras, to Calais (the Autoroute des Anglais), is off the map to the left, the photos taken looking east across the land marked.

This photograph of the slag heap at Henin-Beaumont, about six miles to the east (off the map, this time to the right) of Lens, and doubtless used by the Germans as an observation point overlooking, as it does, the battlefield to the west, is one of the closest to the road as one passes by, and gives you a good idea of the size these things are today (note the occasional tree).  The insets show two views of the most famous of the slag heaps, the Double Crassier (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and nature reserve), marked in a nice cobalt blue on the map, the contemporary insets showing the Crassier in 1915 (top – note the figures in this shot and the artillery piece on the very top of the highest slag heap) and after the war (bottom).

On the night of 25th September, the opening day of the Battle of Loos, the Germans penetrated the British lines between 7th & 9th Divisions, trapping Brigadier-General Clarence Dalrymple Bruce, G.O.C. 27th Brigade, 9th Division, in a dugout, bombs thrown down the dugout stairs killing most of the men within and rendering the general and a couple of other survivors unconscious.  Bruce would become the first British General Officer to become a prisoner-of-war, which may be why an image of him has so far proved elusive.

The next day, 26th September, Brigadier-General Norman Tom Nickalls, G.O.C. 63rd Brigade, 21st Division, was reported as wounded and missing during the heavy fighting at Bois Hugo, a couple of miles beyond the Double Crassier (pictured).  He had been in the firing line himself, calmly urging his men to rebuff German counterattacks, and organizing his own attack, when he was shot.  His body was never recovered and his name can be found on the Loos Memorial to the Missing.  He was 51.

The slag heaps to the west of the village of Mazingarbe, directly ahead of us, are all marked on the map, the smaller (left) marked in yellow, and the larger (right) in red.  Beyond and just to the right of this second slag heap the twin peaks of the Double Crassier can just be seen on the horizon (the photo two back shows a similar view under grey skies).  On 27th September, 46 year old Major-General George Handcock Thesiger, G.O.C. 9th Division (left), was killed along with two of his staff officers near the Hohenzollern Redoubt to the north of the battlefield.  He has no known grave and is also remembered on the Loos Memorial.  To make matters worse, on the same day, Major-General Sir Thompson Capper D.S.O., G.O.C. 7th Division (centre), was shot in the back returning down a shallow trench in the captured German front line system, dying of his wound later that day at the C.C.S. in Lillers.  Capper had earlier been seen advancing with his troops, organizing and issuing orders to his men as they moved forward.  And Brigadier-General Cecil Edward Pereira, G.O.C. 85th Brigade, 28th Division (right), wounded in the trenches near Vermelles on 26th May, was wounded again on 27th September during the battle.  Pereira would return to command 1st Guards Brigade in 1916 and, later, 2nd Division.

One general captured, three killed, two of them major-generals, and one wounded, in just three days. This could not go on.

But it did.  Two generals would be wounded on 1st October as the Battle of Loos continued.  On the left, Brigadier-General Harry Benn Borradaile D.S.O., G.O.C. 36th Brigade, 12th Division, wounded, although not seriously, on the first day his brigade saw action, and ordered home soon after.  On the right, Brigadier-General James Hawkins-Whitshed Pollard, G.O.C. 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, wounded by a shell that hit his headquarters, killing some of his officers, although he would survive to return to command the following year.

Meanwhile, on the same day, 1st October, down on the Somme, Brigadier-General Godfrey Leicester Hibbert, G.O.C. 154th Brigade, 51st Division, was wounded at Aveluy (Aveluy Wood Cemetery pictured).  Hibbert would later command 77th Infantry Brigade in Salonika.

These first days of October could be said to be the tipping point.  Major-General Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing, C.R.A. 3rd Division, G.O.C. 12th Division, on the left, wounded in the leg in September 1914, was killed on 2nd October by a shell as he was returning from an inspection of the front line trenches near Mazingarbe (the background photo shows the northern, smaller, of the two Mazingarbe slag heaps, marked in yellow on the map).  He was 54 and is buried in Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery and Extension.  Then Brigadier-General Frank Wormald, G.O.C. 5th Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division (centre), was killed on 3rd October by shrapnel whilst inspecting the battlefield of Vermelles, aged 47.  He is buried in Nedonchel Churchyard.  It was at this point that High Command issued their ‘no staff officer was to go nearer to the trenches than a certain line’ edict that I mentioned last post.  The Battle of Loos ended on 8th October with little gain, as the map shows, and terrible losses – over 60,000 British casualties, 2000 of them officers, a total of almost 8,000 dead, and many of the surviving pre-war troops now put out of action – but one more general would be killed in action before the month was out.   On 24th October, Brigadier-General The Hon. John Frederick Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis D.S.O., G.O.C. 20th Brigade, 7th Division (right), was shot through the forehead by a German sniper in the trenches near Givenchy , aged only 37.  He is buried in Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy.

There were no more General Officer deaths on the Western Front in 1915, although the three men pictured above were all wounded before the end of the year.  Brigadier-General Geoffrey Percy Thynne Feilding D.S.O., G.O.C. 1st Guards Brigade, Guards Division (bottom left), was accidentally wounded in the leg at La Gorgue on 8th December.  He would later command the Guards Division.  Brigadier-General William Charles Giffard Heneker D.S.O., G.O.C. 54th Brigade, 18th Division (bottom right), was severely wounded in the left leg by long-range indirect machine gun fire near Meaulte on the Somme on 10th December, although he would recover to command a brigade of the Royal Naval Division later in the war.  And Brigadier-General Robert Black Fell, G.O.C. 51st Brigade, 17th Division (top), was slightly wounded, although he remained at duty, on 20th December.

I know what you’re thinking, if all that isn’t enough.  What about Gallipoli?

What about Gallipoli indeed.  Next post.

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12 Responses to The Dead Donkeys: The Myth of the ‘Château Generals’ Part Two – The Western Front 1915

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Great post again, thank you

    Next post ….. “General” Simpson and his donkey (sorry, couldn’t resist)

    • Magicfingers says:

      Everything but! The Gallipoli post will be coming over the weekend I expect, and it contains stuff that nobody has seen before! Just you wait.

  2. Morag Sutherland says:

    Many years ago we went to Estaires to pay our respects to William Murray who had been a sheep farmer in Patagonia. He us remembered in a plaque in Dornoch cathedral. I vividly remember seeing the General ‘s grave…and commenting on how few if these there are . Your posts are so informative.
    As always
    Thank you x

    • Magicfingers says:

      You are very welcome, Morag. I’m glad this is all of interest. The generals need their turn! And by the time the series finishes you will be staggered.

  3. Nick kilner says:

    I think the fact that two of the generals killed within 9 months of the start of the war had previously been awarded the V.C. speaks volumes about the bravery of the men we’re discussing. Remarkable.
    Btw, I’m more than happy to give you a tour of the areas I am familiar with on the Loo’s battlefield. I’d like to think I could do it justice.

    • Morag Sutherland says:

      Nick I was taken to the Double crevasse on a Libbys bus a few years ago on a trip with Des Brogan….were you our local guide by any chance?

      • Nick kilner says:

        Hi Morag
        No, i’m not a guide, though I do know the area reasonably well both above and below ground. I spent a number of years with a group working in the area around Hulluch, clearing a tunnel system beneath the Loos battlefield.

        • Morag Sutherland says:

          Nick the man who came with us was a local with be at maps and lots of knowledge but not a professional guide I don’t think but very professional in his knowledge of the area. Seaming views from the top of the crevasse

          • Nick kilner says:

            It’s a fascinating area to visit, and really something of a forgotten battlefield. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your visit. I certainly think there could be plenty of work for professional guides around Loos.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well that’s a bonus for the future. In writing, too (the ‘tour of areas I’m familiar with’ bit)! Right now, the first thing you could tell me is have I got anything (significantly) wrong in this post!!

  4. Nick kilner says:

    An excellent post my friend, and should time permit we could certainly wander in this direction at some future date. I was fortunate to be involved in the discovery and excavation of an unknown soldier from the South Staffs at the Hohenzollern redoubt back in 2016 who is now buried not far from ‘my boy Jack’ Kipling in St. Mary’s ADS. The cemetery is situated only a few hundred yards from the front line of the Loos battlefield. It would be my pleasure to introduce you to both.

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