ON a dirt track leading towards fields from the French village of Auchy-Les-Mines is a lone memorial to the men of the 46th North Midland Division who became casualties near this spot in the First World War.
The memorial commemorates a heroic yet largely forgotten chapter of Britain’s, and Burton’s, history of the conflict.
On the afternoon of October 13, 1915, Burton men of the Sixth North Staffordshire battalion went ‘over the top’ into a maelstrom of shrapnel and small-arms fire to attack a German strongpoint known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
The division suffered 3,763 casualties including 63 men from Burton who were killed.
It was the ill-fated final episode in the relatively unknown British offensive which is now known as the Battle of Loos.
The less well-known actions of the First World War have always griped my fascination. So I was determined to visit this almost forgotten field of France on my recent sojourn to the Western Front.
On the more popular First World War battlefields, such as the Somme and in Ypres, Belgium, signs point out Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on almost every junction.
But apart from a less than obvious sign for the memorial there is little to betray that this isolated corner of France was once a battlefield.
It was only on the second lap of a nearby housing estate, built during Auchy’s reconstruction in the 1920s, that I thought I could be in the right spot.
Parking on the edge of the estate, next to a farm building I followed the dirt track. The memorial was 100 yards further along and the redoubt another 200 yards on.
Today, the redoubt is nothing more than an arc of land overgrown with shrubs and brambles overlooked by power lines.
Due a slight rise in the ground, it gives unobstructed and commanding views over the flat fields west of the village.
It was for this reason that in 1915, the German army transformed this section of front line into a fortress with thick belts of barbed wire, deep dugouts and machine gun posts.
The redoubt formed a salient which jutted out about 200 yards in front of the main German front line into no-mans-land and allowed almost perfect observation of the British trenches which lay between 300 and 400 yards beyond.
The objective of the Sixth North Staffords that day was not the redoubt itself, that task was left to the division’s Leicestershire and Lincolnshire battalions.
Instead, they were to provide the third wave of troops attacking a deep and equally well defended section of trench known as Big Willy which connected the redoubt with the main German front line.
After capturing Big Willy, the Sixth North Staffords were meant to push on into Auchy where they would take the mining buildings called Fosse Eight and the fortified cottages in the village known as corons.
The infantry were to attack following a bombardment of artillery and gas as well as a smokescreen, which, it was hoped, would have silenced the German defenders.
But the bombardment was ineffective and some gas canisters burst in the British trenches drenching the troops in concentrated chlorine.
When the first waves went in at 2pm they were met with fierce German machine gun and artillery fire. Few British men made it as far as the German wire.
With the attack faltering, it was time for the men in the Sixth North Staffords to join the assault.
Specifically it was A and B companies – which both had drill halls in Burton High Street – that were thrown into the fray.
As they clambered out of the trenches withering German fire cut the men down – some after only going a few yards - as they tried to advance across the open ground.
Private Holden, of A company later wrote that the attack was the ‘the most awful sight’ he had ever seen and that hundreds were killed before the German wire was reached.
Within minutes, the Sixth North Staffords had lost the majority of the 17 officers and 298 men who would become casualties that day.
By 4pm, the attack had failed. The majority of the redoubt remained in German hands; hundreds of men lay dead in front of the German wire while thousands more were injured.
Those who could be buried were placed in makeshift graves and some were later moved to the now immaculately maintained St Mary’s ADS Cemetery, in nearby Haisnes.
But the vast majority remain where they fell with nothing to mark their final resting place.
Their names are inscribed on the Loos Memorial at the Dud Corner Cemetery near Loos.
The viewing platform there offers a panorama of the entire Loos battlefield; the water tower at Auchy is just visible in the distance.
After the attack, the Mayor of Burton wrote to fellow Burtonian Lieutenant Colonel Ratcliffe, commander of the Sixth North Staffords, to express his ‘pride and sorrow’ at the attack.
Lt Col Ratcliffe replied saying the ‘splendid battalion’ did all it could in the face of strong German resistance.
With the two sides once again in stalemate, the British and Germans resorted to mine warfare in an attempt to gain the upper hand.
Galleries would be driven underneath the front lines near the redoubt; they would be packed with explosives and then detonated.
In the undergrowth which straddles the dirt track, looming underneath the foliage are large craters - up to 20 feet deep – which act as a lasting reminder to this type of warfare.
The Battle of Loos and the Hohenzollern Redoubt have been almost totally forgotten in Britain; eclipsed by the first day of the Battle of the Somme which proved to be Britain’s costliest day in history when it suffered 57,000 casualties.
But for Burton, the attack on October 13 proved to be one of the town’s costliest days in the war.
After I left the dirt track and returned to my car I stop at Quarry Cemetery, a secluded spot just a stones throw from the redoubt in which 130 Commonwealth soldiers are buried in what used to be a chalk pit just behind the British front lines.
It includes a memorial for men believed to be buried in the cemetery but whose exact location is unknown.
Engraved on it are the words: “Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out”.
It’s as fitting as it is poignant.