A Sad Loss at Loos

I received some interesting information yesterday regarding the brother of my paternal grandmother. This man, John Neal, was part of a family tree recently researched by my mother and going as far back as his namesake, another John Neal(e) born in 1654. The John Neal that caught my attention had apparently died on 25th September 1915, as Lance Corporal J T Neal of the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment.

I did a little on-line research and noticed that the date of his death coincided with the first day of the Battle of Loos. Further research confirmed that the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment was indeed part of the attacking force (see below) and I assumed that he was one of the casualties of this battle.

LCPL Neal

You will notice that he was part of the Indian Corps, Meerut Division, “The Garwal Brigade” serving alongside Gurkhas and the commander was a Brigadier General Blackader. Leicester has a long shared history with India, the city today being home to a large Indian population. The regiment’s nickname “The Tigers” is a reference to the considerable time it spent in India. It seems that this connection continued into the First World War. The Garwhal Rifles, the 8th and 9th Gurkhas all remain Indian army regiments to this day.

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British machine gunners in action at Loos, 1915.

The Battle of Loos (pronounced loss in French) was a terrible slaughter for the British army. The French pronunciation of “Loss” here seems somehow grotesquely appropriate to anglophones for this dreadfully wasteful encounter of human life. The battle was notable for being the first time that the British deployed poison gas. It was also a test of Kitchener’s new volunteer army (“Lord Kitchener Needs You”) and I suspect that my relative John Neal could have been one such volunteer.

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Ghostly figures of British infantry advance through a gas cloud at Loos, 1915. Photograph believed to have been taken by a soldier.

However, I then discovered that the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment was actually involved not in the main battle that day on the 25th September, but took part in a diversionary attack at Pietre in support of Loos, instead. The British Commander in Chief, Sir John French said of this action:

“The Indian Corps attacked the Moulin du Pietre… These attacks started at daybreak and were at first successful all along the line. Later in the day the enemy brought up strong reserves, and after hard fighting and variable fortunes the troops engaged in this part of the line reoccupied their original trenches at nightfall. They succeeded admirably, however, in fulfilling the role allotted to them, and in holding large numbers of the enemy away from the main attack.”

So, I therefore assume that my ancestor was killed at some point during the day’s fighting at Pietre, drawing German troops away from the main action at Loos. Ironically, even the slaughter at Loos itself was only really another supporting action to the large French attack in the 3rd Battle of Artois. Such was the scale of the mass killing on the Western Front.

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The Guards Cemetery, France, where my ancestor is buried, very near to the Great Cross visible in the background.

Lance Corporal Neal’s is buried in the Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy in northern France. This cemetery is on a site once used at the front as a dressing station and HQ by the army (near to a crossroads known to the British as Windy Corner).

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Written in red pen on the interment sheet, 2 / Leicestershire Regt, No.8666 Neal, Pte J. He lies next to a Lt of the Royal Irish Rifles who was apparently belatedly identified.
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Plot IX, Row G. No. 5. – right in front of the Great Cross.

Like many soldiers, his body was exhumed from elsewhere and moved to be consolidated with others in the Windy Corner cemetery early in 1920. When he was taken from the original location, the means of identity was listed as being a ‘disc’. It sounds like his identification was fortunate as most others appearing on the same reburial form, and therefore alongside him in the cemetery, were listed simply as being “unknown soldiers”.

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It seems quite a pleasant spot, John Neal’s grave, surrounded by fields and trees. It would be nice and very appropriate to visit one day, I think.

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