The 8th Buffs at Loos
26th September 1915
Frederick Charles Romer was born in 1854 and was the son of Charles and Hannah Romer. In 1878 he had married Marie Kate Leaf and had one son Malcolm. Sadly Marie died in 1908. Frederick had served in the Lancashire Fusiliers prior to WWI and had seen action in the Boer War. When war came Frederick was 64 but was offered the choice of raising one of the three service battalions of the Buffs, he chose to raise the 8th Battalion.
As noted in one of my August blogs the 8th Buffs went to France on 31st August 1915, my Great Grandfather, Private G/5203 Frank Smith amongst them. They had spent their entire time in France at a camp until they were called forward to move to the front.
The 8th Buff’s war diary is very detailed in where they route marched.
‘21.9.15: Preparation for march. Left MANNINGHEM 6.30 p.m. via St MICHEL, BELLVUE, RIMEUX, DENNEBROEUCQ, NOUVEAUVILLE, about 14 miles, arrived about 2.30 a.m.’
‘22.9.15: Rested, marched 6.15 p.m. via PONCHE, BASSE-BOULOGNE, AIRE, LA HAMEL, ISBERQUES, MOLINGHAM station to GUARBECQUE, arrived about 2.20. Heavy march about 18 miles. Men marched very well, several men…help but all managed to get to billets except one picked up by ambulance, good billets, very nice night to march moonlight and clear road. Buffs led Brigade.’
On the 23rd September 1915 they rested up in billets in Guarbecque. On the 24th September 1915 they marched to Bethune. Here they received orders that they were going into action for the first time. By this time they had marched around 32 miles and had had very little food, although they were luckier than other units who had to rely on their emergency rations when their field kitchens failed to find them. They were headed for Loos and this battle had started on 25th September 1915.
On the eve of their baptism of fire Colonel Romer had the battalion form up and he spoke to the men, the war diary recorded what he said.
‘25.9.15: The Battalion formed up this morning and Colonel Romer said the following words. ‘Men I am not going to say very much to you this morning, only to ask you to remember that you are the Buffs’. We then moved forward, approaching the firing line via VERMELLES.’
At 11:00hrs, on the 26th, both the 21st and 24th Divisions attacked the German lines to the north of Hill 70 which was a massive German strong point. It was a direct result of an attempt to capture further German ground that had not fell at the start of the battle on 25th September.
The war diary for the 8th could only record this.
‘At 10.30 a.m. verbal orders arrived to prepare for an attack at 11 o’clock a.m. Almost at once the enemy commenced a heavy bombardment of our trenches. At 11 a.m. an attack across open country commenced, the objective being a German position about a mile away. Artillery formation was adopted on leaving the trenches, but long distance rifle fire caused us to extend our lines almost immediately. The Buffs were supporting the West Kents. The advance was carried forward rapidly and by 11.30 a.m. the leading lines of the Buffs had arrived within 25 yards of the German barbed wire. No gaps could be observed in the wire entanglements. During the advance a heavy fire from machine guns on both flanks was encountered. At 1155 a.m. an order came down the line from the right to withdraw. The enemy’s fire especially from our left flank became heavier and very considerable losses occurred. The Buffs were relieved during the night 26/27th 1915. Rested in a field close by SAILLY LA BOURSE.’
The Historical Record of the Buffs had this to say about the ill fated attack by the 8th Buffs.
‘It was 11.55 that an order came to withdraw, and from that moment the hostile fire, especially from the left flank, becoming hotter than ever and, of course, the casualties heavier… Colonel Romer was early shot in the shoulder, but continued in his place, showing an example to all, till he was killed by a bullet through his heart.’
In that advance the war diary records that they lost 24 officers and 530 other ranks in an action that took two hours and the battalion was led out by a junior officer, Lieutenant James Vaughan. Lieutenant Vaughan won a well deserved Military Cross for this, his citation, listed in the London Gazette on 23rd November 1915, stating,
Temporary Second Lieutenant James Vaughan, 8th Battalion, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment).
For conspicuous gallantry and ability near Hulluch on 26th September 1915. When all his senior Officers had become casualties he took command of his battalion, and brought it out of action safely and in good order.
Once it had been officially tallied the total number of officers and men killed on this day totalled 178. Amazingly Frank Smith survived this.
The 24th Division did not see any offensive action for the rest of 1915, having lost 8,000 officers and men at Loos. They spent most of their time around La Panne in France and then the Ypres Salient in Flanders. Eventually they would end up going in and out of the line around Ploegsteert Wood, which had earned the nickname ‘Plugstreet’ by the troops who first took up residence there. I will return to their story next year in June and August.
So why did I give this blog the title ‘The White-Haired Colonel on the Wire’? Well that is because of a German account of the aftermath of the battle.
A description of the desolate scene was given by Leutnant Aschenbach, observation officer of the 6th Battery of the German 233 Feld-Artillerie-Regiment. On 25th September, luckily for him, he was on a day off and was at rest in a village behind the front line. By the end of 26th September he was in a forward observation post about 1 kilometre north of the wood of Bois Hugo. He said he crawled into No-Mans-Land that evening and was confronted with a shocking sight of about 500 British dead piled up in one small area in front of the German wire. He implied they had simply been mown down. He found several dead officers including a white-haired colonel on the wire. He praised the courage of the British commanding officers to have been in the thick of the fight and was deeply moved that so many brave men had lost their lives.
It is possible that the white-haired colonel, whom Aschenbach remembered so vividly, could have been Colonel Frederick Charles Romer.
Colonel Romer has no known grave and is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.