My 2 x great grandfather Albert Charles Bick was born on 3 September 1879 in Battersea, Surrey, the youngest of William Bick and Fanny Brereton’s eleven children.
William and Fanny moved to Battersea from Gloucestershire. The family also had connections in Hampshire and over several generations moved between these counties. William was a labourer so money for the family was always tight.
Albert started school at a young age, three. He attended Sleaford Street School, one of the new board schools created to give working class children an education.
After school, Albert found a job as a car man at the coal wharf, transporting coal on a horse and cart. He was still in this form of employment when he married Annie Noulton on 22 March 1902 in Lambeth, London. In thirteen years the couple had seven children.
In 1911, Albert was still a car man, now working at Doulton’s Pipe Works in Lambeth. The birth records of Albert and Annie’s children reveal that he worked as a car man throughout his married life. On 7 April 1911 there was a mass baptism when four Bick children from various strands of the family were baptised.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 Albert and Annie had six children with another on the way. During the summer of 1915, after the birth of his seventh child, Albert volunteered to serve in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. Why did he volunteer?
Albert’s brothers William, John and Frederick also volunteered, Frederick for the Red Cross. It would appear that the brothers volunteered together, and that it was a family decision. In 1911, the family baptised four children together, so obviously they were a tight-knit family. By this time, the war had been raging for a year so unlike the first wave of volunteers who set off with naive optimism, the Bicks volunteered in the knowledge that they were entering hell.
The hell Albert entered had a name, the Battle of Loos. He departed for France on 31 August 1915 and engaged in the battle less than a month later, on 25 September 1915.
The Battle of Loos was the biggest British attack of 1915, and the first time that the British used poisoned gas. The plan was for the French and British forces to break through the German defences in Artois and Champagne, and disrupt the pattern of trench warfare.
At a conference on 6 September 1915 British commander Douglas Haig suggested that the extensive use of chlorine gas might facilitate an advance as long as the French and British were able to keep the attack secret.
Royal Engineers dug under no-man’s-land and planted mines under the parapets of the German front line trenches, ready to be detonated at zero hour.
Insufficient ammunition hampered the initial bombardment. Also, the British commanders did not fully appreciate the defensive formation of the German machine guns.
Prior to the attack, the British released 140 long tons of chlorine gas. The wind favoured no side and the gas affected both British and German troops.
The gas masks were inefficient so many soldiers removed them to obtain clear vision and, ironically, to catch their breath. At 6.30 am on 25 September 1915 Albert engaged in battle, charging across open ground, the air full of gas and bullets.
In many places the British artillery had failed to cut the German barbed wire before the attack. Furthermore, the engineers manning the poison gas cylinders warned against their use, because of the unpredictability of the wind. However, they were overruled by General Sir Hubert Gough.
As the battle developed, the gas claimed more British than German casualties. Despite that disaster, the British did capture the village of Loos-en-Gohelle. Bad planning meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. A contemporary account stated, ‘From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.’
Major-General Richard Hilton, a Forward Observation Officer, said of the battle, ‘A great deal of nonsense has been written about Loos. The real tragedy of that battle was its nearness to complete success. Most of us who reached the crest of Hill 70, and survived, were firmly convinced that we had broken through on that Sunday, 26 September 1915. There seemed to be nothing ahead of us, but an unoccupied and incomplete trench system. The only two things that prevented our advancing into the suburbs of Lens were, firstly, the exhaustion of the “Jocks” themselves (for they had undergone a bellyfull of marching and fighting that day) and, secondly, the flanking fire of numerous German machine-guns, which swept that bare hill from some factory buildings in Cite St. Auguste to the south of us. All that we needed was more artillery ammunition to blast those clearly-located machine-guns, plus some fresh infantry to take over from the weary and depleted “Jocks.” But, alas, neither ammunition nor reinforcements were immediately available, and the great opportunity passed.’
Twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours. In total, the British suffered 48,367 casualties in the main attack and 10,880 more in the second attack, a total of 59,247 losses, a high percentage of the 285,107 British casualties on the Western Front in 1915. Though Haig and Gough were culpable for this disaster, they escaped much of the blame.
Albert Charles Bick died at Loos on 25 September 1915, whether through gas poisoning, a machine gun bullet or a mortar bomb is not known, for his body was not recovered. In the official files he is listed as ‘presumed dead’.
Annie received a widow’s pension. She did not remarry and died in 1963. Her eldest daughter and my direct ancestor, also Annie, survived her. As a child, I met daughter Annie several times during her later years, although I was too young to appreciate what the family had been through.
The poet Robert Graves featured in the Battle of Loos and wrote about his experiences in Goodbye to All That while the Loos Memorial commemorates over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the battle and have no known grave, including Albert Charles Bick.