On this day in 1915, the 21-year-old Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley is killed by a German sniper’s bullet during the Battle of Loos.
The son of a university professor in Aberdeen and a promising scholar himself, Sorley decided to spend a year studying in Germany in 1913 before continuing his studies at University College, Oxford, to which he had won a scholarship. When World War I broke out the following August, Sorley was interned for one night at Trier before being released and told to leave the country immediately. Upon his return to England, impatient to join the war effort, he enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Suffolk Regiment. Sent to the Western Front in May 1915 as a full lieutenant, Sorley saw action at Ploegsteert in Flanders and was promoted to captain that August.
The Battle of Loos, an ambitious attack masterminded by Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the 1st Army of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), went ahead on September 25, 1915, as half of a simultaneous Allied offensive by British and French forces designed to divert German resources and relieve the distress of Russian forces on the Eastern Front. As the British attacked at Loos, the French attacked the German lines at Champagne and at Vimy Ridge in the Arras region of France. Though the Allies enjoyed considerable numerical superiority, the Germans were able to successfully repel the attacks in both regions, and British death tolls at Loos exceeded those of any previous battle: Of the nearly 10,000 British soldiers who attacked, 385 officers and 7,861 enlisted men were killed.
Among them was Sorley, who was shot in the head by a German sniper on October 13. His body was never found. The 37 poems found in his soldier’s kit after his death and published posthumously included one entitled “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead,” which contained the following powerful lines evoking the war’s ever-mounting death toll: “…scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you/Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,/It is a spook. None wears the face you knew/Great death has made all this for evermore.”