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Aisonville Road Ran Due North and South

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

The Aisonville Road ran almost due N. and South along a valley; between it and the edge of the Bois de Riquerval was open ground for about 300 yards sloping gently up to the wood. A small cottage marked the start of "A" Company's "ride," and the stretch of road immediately N. of this was deeply sunken. Here "A" Company formed up and tried to find the French who were considerably further South than we expected. Incidentally they were not as far forward as we were, and the Boche enfiladed the road about midnight with a whizz-bang battery from the South. "B" Company formed up in an isolated copse about 100 yards East of the road into which the 4th Battalion had made their way during the afternoon. The left half Battalion remained along the road bank and in a dry ditch 50 yards W. of it, near to the junction with the Regnicourt Road up which they were to advance. There was one solitary house, protected by the hillside, which provided Company Headquarters with a certain amount of cover. The night was dark and the enemy, except for the whiz-bangs on "A" Company, very quiet.

Soon after midnight the Adjutant returned from the 6th Division. He had found that the 1st Leicestershires were on their right flank, and that they were going to continue their advance at 5-15 a.m. on the 11th. Major Dyer Bennet therefore decided to postpone our attack until that hour, so that we might all go forward together. In any case it seemed likely that this would be a better plan, as it would be daylight soon after the advance started; and, on so wide a frontage, it would have been almost impossible to maintain direction in the woods by night, especially without a moon. At 5 o'clock we were all formed up along the road, Battalion Headquarters close to "A" Company, and at 5-15 a.m. in absolute silence and without a barrage we started to climb the rise towards the edge of the wood.

The left half Battalion along the Regnicourt Road made most progress without meeting any opposition. "D" Company leading, they advanced by platoons on both sides of the road, keeping touch with the 1st Battalion on their left, and had gone nearly a mile before they were checked by machine-gun fire ahead of them. Half-way from their starting point to Regnicourt stood a little group of houses at the top of a small hill, and from here, as well as from the thick scrub and undergrowth which covered the country on both sides, the enemy's machine gunners had a good target. Thinking that this was probably some small post left behind by the Boche as he retired, and knowing that the cyclists had been through the previous night, Lieut. Hawley decided to attack at once, and "D" Company, making use of all the cover they could find, worked their way up the hill and soon captured the house. One German came out into the road with his machine gun and started to fire at them point blank, but the leading Platoon got their Lewis Gun into action, and, knocking out the Boche, captured the gun. The two leading Platoons of "D" Company had deployed, and, with 2nd Lieut. Dunlop on the left of the road and the others on the right, tried to continue their advance. Seen from below, the group of houses had seemed to be on the top of the hill, but beyond them the road, after a slight dip, rose again to a ridge 300 yards further East, and here the enemy were in considerable force. Several gallant attempts to advance were frustrated by very heavy machine gun fire, and having lost Serjts. Bradshaw and Dimmocks killed, and several others wounded, the Company was compelled to remain lying flat just beyond the houses. One little party had taken cover in the ditch along the roadside and were seen by the German machine gunner. The ditch became a death trap. Hodges and Longden, the runners, and Maw, the Signaler, were killed, and Hall, another runner, badly wounded; Serjt. Foster and L/Cpl. Osborne, both of whom had done particularly good work, were wounded, and the casualties were very heavy indeed. In half-an-hour this Company lost 10 killed 14 wounded and one prisoner. It was obvious that the Cyclists had never been further than these houses, which they must have mistaken for Regnicourt, and their report was consequently worthless.

Capt. Banwell now arrived with two platoons of "C" Company, and thinking it possible that the Companies on the right might not have got as far even as "D" Company, decided to protect the right flank from any possible counter-attack. He sent off Serjt. Tunks and No. 11 Platoon to prolong "D" Company's line to the right; they did this and managed to advance a few yards further before being compelled to dig in and keep very flat by the enemy's machine guns. A few minutes later 2nd Lieut. Griffiths followed with his platoon, to work Southwards into the woods to try and find the centre Company, or at least discover how they were situated. They managed to advance about 400 yards before they too met with fierce opposition, and had three men cut off and captured by a strong party of Boche concealed in the undergrowth. Eventually, unable to find any trace of "B" Company, 2nd Lieut. Griffiths decided to "dig in" where he was, and by doing so extended "C" Company's line still further to the right, bending back slightly to protect the flank. At 8-0 a.m. the 1st Battalion on the left had reached the same line and were similarly held up. Capt. Banwell therefore reported to Headquarters that further advance without artillery support was impossible, and that "C" and "D" Companies were holding a line running Southwards for 400 yards from the group of houses, into the Bois de Riquerval, and would wait there for instructions.

Meanwhile the centre and right had fared even worse. In the centre "B" Company, formed up originally in an isolated copse, moved forward at 5-15 a.m. in two parties towards the main part of the wood. The left hand party under 2nd Lieut. Argyle had plenty of cover for the first half-mile and pushed on rapidly, until, coming over a small crest into the open, they too met with heavy machine-gun fire. After several ineffectual efforts to advance, they dug themselves in and remained there for the rest of the day, replying to the Boche fire with their Lewis Guns, but with no visible effect. (It was afterwards discovered that this party were less than 100 yards behind 2nd Lieut. Griffiths' platoon, unable to see each other owing to a "fold" in the ground.) The other half Company under 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove started their advance across an absolutely open patch of ground, sloping gently downwards towards the centre of the woods. They had gone a few yards when the daylight showed their position to the Boche, and for the next half-hour they suffered heavily. Lying on the forward slope, with no cover, they saw 50 yards away on their right two small but deep trenches. One man tried to run there and was hit a few yards from them; another had better luck and got there safely, through a perfect stream of bullets from three guns. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove himself was badly wounded and had to be carried out, so also was Serjt. Muggleston. The others, some crawling and some running, gradually collected in the two trenches and remained there for the rest of the day.

On the extreme right "A" Company (Edwards) made no headway at all. Between the road and the edge of the wood was about 150 yards of open ground, across which ran a Z-shaped hedge, while, at the point where the "ride" entered the wood, stood a Chateau and a large black hut commanding all the country round. Daylight came soon after they left the road and with it a burst of heavy machine-gun fire from the Chateau at close range, which split the Company into three parts. Headquarters and one platoon found some cover round the little house on the corner where they started; near them in a bank was 2nd Lieut. Dennis with his platoon, while the remainder, under Cpls. Thompson and Shilton, were in the Z-shaped hedge, unable to show themselves without being fired at. On their right the French had captured Retheuil and Forte Farms.

At 5-20 a.m., Major Dyer Bennet, finding it impossible to see anything of "A" and "B" Companies, decided to advance his Headquarters, keeping as far as possible to the centre of the Brigade frontage. Accompanied by the Adjutant, R.S.M., a few runners, and the French Interpreter, he set off for the edge of the wood, which was reached without loss; but the enemy's machine guns at the Chateau, 200 yards away on the right, and slightly below us, plainly told us that "A" Company had not gone forward. A similar distance away on the left, concealed by a wall and the corner of the wood, another gun was firing across at "B" Company, who could be seen on the opposite hillside trying to reach the cover of their two trenches. The Headquarter party was too small to be able to help, so while the Adjutant went back to try and find some reinforcements, the Interpreter, Henri Letu, made a most gallant reconnaissance into the woods to see if he could gather any information. The "reinforcements" consisted of a platoon of French soldiers, a Lewis Gun team of the 4th Battalion and two signalers. At the same time the M.O. and Intelligence Officer (Lieut. Ashdowne) arrived, and the latter, taking two men with him, soon drove out the enemy from the "corner wall" post on the left. The Battalion Headquarter flag was hung out in a conspicuous tree, signal communication was opened with the original Headquarter Farmhouse, and at about 8 o'clock the party was still further reinforced by the arrival of Cpl. Thompson and No. 1 Platoon of "A" Company, whom the Adjutant had discovered under the "Z" shaped hedge. All these movements had to be carried out with great care, as any visible activity at once drew fire from the Chateau.

This Chateau Major Dyer Bennet now decided to attack, and soon after 9.0 a.m. a party consisting of No. 1 Platoon and some Frenchmen set off under the Adjutant to do so. Cpl. Shilton and a few men were sent through some gardens to engage the enemy on their right flank; the Lewis gun, under Cpl. Thompson, went through the woods to try and attack the buildings from the rear; the Frenchmen advancing still further into the woods, protected the left flank. Cpl. Thompson's party were soon engaged. They had pushed forward rapidly for about 50 yards when suddenly Pte. Underwood, who was leading, jumped behind a tree and fired. Nine Boches seemed to come out of the ground almost at our feet, and for a few minutes there was some lively fighting around the trees. The Germans managed to kill Pte. Blythe, a very old soldier of the Battalion, and then made off, leaving one wounded man behind them. This little fight had given the alarm to the party in the Chateau, and though Cpl. Thompson pushed forward with great courage it was too late to catch them, and we entered the house and grounds without further opposition. The fall of the Chateau enabled the remainder of "A" Company to advance and occupy the edge of the wood, which they at once did, putting out several posts round the buildings. The Adjutant's party then returned to Battalion Headquarters which had been left very weak during the attack. Soon afterwards, as the situation now seemed fairly satisfactory the wounded prisoner was sent down under the 4th Leic. Lewis Gun Section, who were no longer required.

At 10-0 a.m. we were just considering the possibility of pushing forward still further when a sudden burst of machine gun fire, sweeping low over our positions, drove us to cover. The French had apparently been counter-attacked out of Retheuil and Forte Farms and the Boche from these new positions overlooked us completely. Under cover of this fire a strong hostile counter-attack was launched against the Chateau, and "A" Company were once more driven back to the road, leaving several men prisoners behind them. But the road too was now overlooked and, though sunken, was no protection, so that, unable to stay in it, they moved to a small bank on the W. side of it and dug in there. 2nd Lieut. Edwards was wounded and sent down, and the Company was commanded by 2nd Lieut. Dennis. At Headquarters, L/Cpl. Exton, who had just arrived with a message from "B" Company, was killed and a stretcher-bearer badly wounded. Capt. Jack, the M.O. went off to tend the latter, and was himself badly hit in the body; another stretcher-bearer was hit trying to get to him, and for a short time he had to be left. A few minutes later the enemy's fire slackened; the M.O. was carried away, and, though he lived to reach the Ambulance, died there in the evening. Captain Jack had been with us just a year, and we felt very keenly the loss of his cheerful presence at Battalion Headquarters, for he was one of those men who were never depressed, and even in the worst of places and at the worst of times used to keep us happy.

The Adjutant now went back again to the old Farm House to see if he could find out what had happened to the other two Companies. The 4th Leicestershires had been relieved, and the 5th South Staffordshires had taken over the Farm and were now preparing to relieve us in the line if possible. Captain Salter was there from Brigade Headquarters and undertook to send relief orders to the Left half Battalion, whose position was now known.

Meanwhile the South Staffordshires moved up to the copse whence "B" Company had started, and a Company occupied the line along the bottom of the "Z" hedge to the "wall and corner" position—i.e., about 200 yards behind the line held by Battalion Headquarters and "A" Company. The relief of the Left half Battalion, though difficult, was carried out in daylight, and was complete by 11-30 a.m., largely owing to the energy of the Staffordshire Company Commanders. Crossing the crest by the group of houses was by no means an easy matter, and both relievers and relieved had to crawl through the scrub, in which 2nd Lieut. F.G. Taylor of "C" Company did particularly good work, while for "D" Company C.S.M. Cooper worked magnificently. Three Platoon Serjeants had become casualties and this Warrant Officer did all their work himself, rendering invaluable assistance to his Company Commander.

The relief of Battalion Headquarters and the Right half Battalion was impossible during daylight, and the G.O.C. 137th Infantry Brigade took over the command of the line as soon as our "C" and "D" Companies were relieved, while the rest of our Brigade moved back into billets at Fresnoy le Grand; we were to follow when relieved. Meanwhile, arrangements were being made for some Artillery and Tank support, and it was proposed to try a further advance during the afternoon. At the same time the Chateau was recaptured from us, the position on the edge of the wood had become so badly enfiladed that the Headquarters moved out and started to dig a new line in the open, where, as the Staffordshires were holding the "wall and corner" position, we were fairly safe. About mid-day, however, as the enemy had become quieter, we returned once more to the edge of the wood. It was never very comfortable in this isolated position, but Lieut. Ashdowne and R.S.M. Lovett showed the most wonderful coolness, and were continually out looking for new positions or watching the flanks. At 2-0 p.m. the Staffordshires received orders that they would have the help of two Tanks for their attack, which would start at 4-0 p.m. from the isolated copse. At about 3-0 p.m. the enemy again started to enfilade our wood position so badly, that for the last time we decided to leave it and came back to our line in the open, which we deepened as quickly as possible; it was hard work as the men had to dig with their entrenching tools as they lay flat. We had not, however, been long in this position before the Staffordshires behind us withdrew to form up for the attack, and, though the party at the "Z" hedge remained, the other party left the "wall and corner" unprotected. Meanwhile, thinking that, if not relieved soon, we should be surrounded from the right flank, Major Dyer Bennet went back to reconnoiter some deep short lengths of trenches about 100 yards in rear, deciding that if the attack did not prove successful he would bring Battalion Headquarters back into them.

At 4-0 p.m. there was no sign of the attack. Instead, a German machine gun crew returned to the now empty "wall and corner" position and started to enfilade our left flank, making the hill side almost uncrossable. The C.O. decided to withdraw at once, and at 4-30 p.m. the runner, Blindley, set off with the message. It was a hazardous journey, but he succeeded in crawling to within a few yards of the end man and passed a message along. Steadied by the R.S.M., the party started one by one to withdraw, while the enemy kept up a heavy fire at them. For a moment it looked as though it would be impossible to get back, but Pte. Caunter—Lewis Gunner of No. 1 Platoon—calmly mounted his gun and "traversed" the whole edge of the wood. The Boche were silenced for the moment, and the party, making a rush at the same time, managed to reach the trenches in safety. Last of all Caunter calmly picked up his gun and came away himself, fired at, but never hit. Half-an-hour later two tanks appeared, and keeping on the West side of the Aisonville Road, climbed the rise towards Retheuil Farm. Whether the enemy imagined a general attack was coming, or merely wanted to make the road dangerous, is not known, but at 5-0 p.m. he started to bombard the area at the foot of the "Z" shaped hedge, where a Company of Staffordshires, our Battalion Headquarters, and our "A" Company were all gathered, and for nearly an hour gas and H.E. shells of every caliber fell all round. There was little or no cover, and had the shells been all H.E. the casualties would have been tremendous. As it was we escaped lightly, but the valley became full of gas and we could see nothing. The position was bad, so Major Dyer Bennet ordered a general withdrawal to a line along high ground on both sides of the Aisonville-road—the remains of "B" Company under Lieut. Ashdowne to the left and "A" Company to the right. Here we once more dug a line of pits, and by 7-30 p.m. had our new position in fighting condition, while a succession of explosions, coming from two blazing heaps near Retheuil Farm, showed how the Tanks had fared. The whole of these operations had been most difficult and, in addition to those who had been conspicuous in the attack on the Chateau in the morning, many other N.C.O.'s and men showed the utmost courage and coolness. A/C.S.M. Smith, of "A" Company, and Serjts. Wilbur and Swift and Cpl. Hubbard of Battalion Headquarters, worked particularly well.

At 8-0 p.m. we were relieved by the 5th South Staffordshires and, after placing Lewis Guns on the limbers, which had been waiting all day for us behind the farm, went to Fresnoy. It can hardly be called a march, and few of us remember much about it. Those on horses slept, those on foot walked in their sleep and woke up whenever there was a halt, because they hit their heads against the haversacks of the men in front. Soon after 11-0 p.m., tired out, we reached Fresnoy and dropped down in the billets the Right half Battalion had found for us, murmuring as we did so—"Now we shall have our rest."

The Fifth Leicestershire

The Fifth Leicestershire
A record of the 1/5th Battalion the Leicestershire Regiment, T.F., during the War, 1914-1919

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