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Cambrin Right

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Cambrin Right
1st Dec., 1917.12th April, 1918.

Colonel Currin, our new Commanding Officer, was a South African, a large man of enormous physical strength. He at once terrified us with his language, which can only be described as volcanic, and won our respect by his wonderful fearlessness. Of this last there was no question. In trenches, he would wander about, with his hands in his pockets, often with neither helmet nor gas-bag, and quite heedless of whether or no the enemy could see him. More than once he was shot at, and more than once he had a narrow escape at the hands of some hostile sniper, but this appeared to have no effect on him, and after such an escape he was just as reckless as before. He had withal a kind heart and a great sense of humor.

A few days before his arrival we had moved from Mazingarbe to Drouvin and Vaudricourt, and here we were now warned that on the 1st December General Thwaites would inspect the Brigade in review order. A rehearsal was carried out in a field near Noeux les Mines, a rehearsal so amusing in many ways, that the Colonel loved to tell the story of what he called his first experience with the 5th Battalion: "On approaching the parade ground I sent forward A——, who was acting Adjutant, to find where we were to fall in. My Adjutant was in Hospital as the result of falling off his horse. When I reached the field, I saw an officer galloping about waving his arms, but whether he was signaling to me, or trying to manage his horse I could not tell, so sent Burnett to find out. Burnett's horse promptly stumbled, fell and rolled on him, so I went myself and found the luckless A—— quite incapable of managing his pony. I told him to dismount, while I marched the Battalion into place, but subsequently found he had not done so because he couldn't! Eventually the Serjeant-Major seized him round the waist, someone else led the pony forward, and A——was left in the Serjeant-Major's arms and lowered to the ground. All this in front of the Brigade drawn up for a ceremonial parade!" The parade itself also had its amusing side, chiefly owing to the ignorance of certain Staff Officers on matters of drill. However, a friendly crump, arriving in the next field, put an end to the proceedings, and we marched home.

After all this bother the actual inspection was cancelled and we went into trenches again instead. Our sector this time was Cambrin, called after the village next North of Vermelles, and the sector immediately on the left of our last—St. Elie. On the morning of the 1st of December we marched to Annequin, on the Beuvry-La Bassée Road, and relieved some Loyal North Lancashires, Worcestershires and Portuguese in the Brigade support positions. The Headquarters and two Companies were in Annequin village, the other two Companies in two groups of dug-outs, "Maison Rouge" and "Factory," about 500 yards East of Cambrin. We only stayed here twenty-four hours and then went into the front line, "Cambrin Right" sub-sector.

Cambrin Right was very like St. Elie Left with the good points left out. The right Company had tunnels but they were not safe, though just as smelly as our old ones. It was the same on the left, while in the centre, there were deep enough tunnels, but they were unconnected with anything and unlit. The front line consisted mostly of craters, a large series of which occupied what had once been the Hohenzollern Redoubt. At intervals along the lips were odd posts, each at the end of a short trench leading back into Northampton trench or the tunnel system. The right group of tunnels, the Savile tunnel, started half-way up Savile Row, a communication trench which had originally run from the Reserve line to Northampton trench, but now stopped at the tunnel entrance. The centre group had no name, started from Northampton trench, and had no proper communication trench. The left group was the "Quarry" tunnel system, starting from the old quarry and running leftwards from the Northern edge of the Hohenzollern craters almost to our posts opposite Mad Point. The left Company had no posts actually on crater lips, though they had one or two craters in No Man's Land. "Quarry" Alley led to the "Quarry" and a newly dug trench ran from this to Northampton near the centre tunnels, but it was in bad condition and seldom used. As a rule, those who wished to visit the centre went through either Savile or Quarry tunnels to get there. One other trench led forward from the Reserve Line, Bart's Alley, but this ended in a large pile of sandbags and one of the Tunneling Company's private entrances to the mining galleries. Between the Reserve Line and Northampton a few ends of gas piping, sticking out of the ground, showed where our 1915 front line had been, from which we had attacked on the 13th October. The two flank Company Headquarters were in the tunnels, the centre Company in a deep dug-out in Northampton trench. The Reserve Company, with one platoon of each of the front line Companies, lived in the Reserve Line.

The Reserve Line was about the best trench in the sector. It was deep, well traversed, and had many good dug-outs. It also contained our cook-houses and dumps. The light railway from Vermelles, on which came rations and "R.E. material," ran along behind it, so that Company Quartermaster Serjeants could deliver their rations to the reserve platoon of their Company, and there was no fear of a carrying party from another Company "pinching" some of the rum. Westwards from this trench ran three communication trenches, all in good condition, Bart's Alley, Left Boyau and Quarry Alley, all leading to the Vermelles broad gauge railway line, whose hedges concealed Sussex trench. Here, in some very elegant, but not very shell-proof dug-outs, lived Battalion Headquarters. The officers' bedrooms, and the Mess were on one side, the offices on the other. Here, Corporal Lincoln and Pte. Allbright, the Orderly Room clerks, took it in turn to look after the papers, keep the fire alight and generally make a happy home out of a crazy shanty with a wobbly roof and a door facing the Boche. Many would have preferred to go elsewhere in case of shelling, but these two never left their papers, though more than once the roof came perilously near being whisked off by some whiz-bang. Philosopher James Lincoln was particularly imperturbable, as he sat surrounded by pipes and beautifully-sharpened pencils, discussing the weather and the crops with any who chanced to pass by.

Further down this same trench Serjeant Archer and "Buller" Clarke looked after the bombs, not quite such a popular weapon now-a-days, and the Pioneers under Serjeant Waterfield and L/Cpl. Wakefield had their home next door. Here also was Serjeant Wilbur and that very hard working body of men the Signallers, "strafed" by everybody when telephones went wrong, and seldom praised during months and months without a mishap. Then came Serjeant Major Lovett in a small dug-out by himself, and near him Serjeant Bennett and the Regimental Police; the latter in trenches became general handy men, carrying rations, acting as gas sentries, and doing all the odd jobs. Round the corner a large dug-out with two entrances provided the Canteen with a home large enough to contain, when it was procurable, a barrel or two of beer. L/Cpls. Hubbard and Collins and the runners lived wherever they could find an empty shelter, and as usual spent most of their time carrying messages or showing visitors round the lines.

There was one other trench, Railway Alley. This, like its namesake to "Hill 70," was of enormous length. It started at Cambrin, passed the Factory and Factory Dug-outs, and, following the Annequin-Haisnes Railway to its junction with the Vermelles Line, acted as dividing line between the two halves of the Brigade Sector. From the left Battalion Headquarters to the front line, an often much battered part of it, it belonged to the left sector. Our Headquarters had a private trench running to it, "Kensington Walk," deep and completely covered with brushwood by way of camouflage.

In the St. Elie sector we had been three months almost without an incident of any importance; we were only six weeks in Cambrin, and every tour contained some item of interest. We started disastrously. On the night after relief Lieut. Watherston was visiting "B" Company's posts in the centre sector, when a party of the enemy crept up to and suddenly rushed the Lewis Gun Section he had just visited. Lieut. Watherston turned back, drew his revolver, and rushed into the fight, but was himself shot through the head and killed instantaneously. He had fired three shots with his revolver, but was unable to stop the enemy who, having wounded the sentry and blown the N.C.O. off the firestep with a bomb, now escaped, taking the Lewis Gun with them. The N.C.O., Cpl. Watts, got up and gave chase, but lost touch with the enemy amongst the craters, and after being nearly killed himself had to return empty-handed. Our predecessors in the line seemed to have made no effort to wire this part of the line at all, presumably thinking the line of craters a sufficient protection. A few nights later 2nd Lieut. Boarland reconnoitered the whole area with a patrol, and found that not only had the Boche got a well-worn track across No Man's Land between two craters, but close to the raided post had fitted up a small dug-out with a blanket and a coat in it. This would, of course, have been impossible had the previous occupants of the line done any patrolling; we suffered through their gross negligence.

Towards the end of the same tour, the enemy made another very similar attempt against our extreme right pasts held by "A" Company. L/Cpl. Beale and Pte. Foster were with their gun on the parapet, when they were suddenly rushed by three or four of the enemy who had crept close up to them, and were on top of them before they could open fire. L/Cpl. Beale used his fists on a German who seized him round the throat, but was then shot in the chest and fell backwards on the rest of the section who were coming to help. The Germans tried to carry off the gun, but Foster put up a fight, and they dropped it just outside the trench. However, one of them managed to knock Foster on the head, and, before help could arrive, he was carried off as a prisoner. Once again we suffered through the carelessness of our predecessors, for in this case, too, there was no protective barbed wire. We spent every night of the tour wiring hard, but could not of course finish the whole sector in five days.

The tour also contained a very severe Artillery and Trench Mortar bombardment, which seriously damaged our left and centre trenches. But more serious than this was the loss to "B" Company of L/Cpl. J.T. Pawlett, one of the best Lewis Gun N.C.O.'s in the Battalion, who was mortally wounded during the shelling. A few days later we lost another excellent Lewis Gun N.C.O., L/Cpl. Stredder, of "D" Company, who went to England wounded, fortunately not very seriously.

The tour ended on the 8th, and for the next six days we remained in Brigade Support, Annequin, Maison Rouge, and Factory Dug-outs. Even here we were not left in peace, for on two occasions the enemy opened very heavy bombardments against the Cambrin sector. The second occasion, the night of the 12th/13th of December, this was so terrific, and so much gas was used, that we had to "stand to" at midnight, while many messages, "Poison Cambrin" etc., were flying about. The damage to trenches, and more particularly to the tunnels, caused by this bombardment was very great, as we soon learnt when, two nights later, we returned to the line. Savile tunnel was blown in in several places, and the Company Headquarters completely cut off and unusable. The tunnel entrances were shattered, and the whole system so badly damaged as to be almost useless except as dug-outs for the various posts. Quarry tunnel was not so badly damaged, but several of the left posts had been isolated by having the main connecting tunnel blown in behind them. Fortunately the front line trench on the left was still in existence, and could be used instead of the tunnels. Finally, Northampton trench was literally obliterated in the centre, and a famous "island" traverse, no small earth-work, so completely wiped out that we could never afterwards discover its exact whereabouts.

Once more we had bad luck at the start of the tour, for we had only been a few hours in the line when a shell on Quarry Alley caught a small party of men coming down. Signaller Newton and Stretcher Bearer Cooke were killed outright, and Serjeant Woolley, acting Serjeant Signaller while Serjeant Wilbur was away, was wounded and had to go to Hospital. In addition to the wiring we now had the tunnels to dig out, and there was so much work to do that we had to have assistance from Brigade; this took the form of a Brigade Wiring Platoon and a Company of Monmouthshires. On one occasion these two parties, both of course working "on top," saw fit to imagine each other were Boche, and a small fight ensued. Fortunately no one was injured, though one of the Monmouthshires was only saved from a bullet through the head by his steel helmet.

The rest of the tour passed off quickly, and the irrepressible Capt. Brooke and 2nd Lieut. Cole of "D" Company started once more wandering about No Man's Land and the enemy's lines. They did the most incredible things, and gained invaluable information about the enemy, though awkward questions were often asked about the name of the "one other rank" who, according to the patrol reports, accompanied 2nd Lieut. Cole on these expeditions.

Our Christmas "rest" was spent in Beuvry, and here we arrived on the 20th of December at the end of our second tour. Our first duty was to inspect a large draft of 140 N.C.O.'s and men who had come to us while we had been in the line. Most of them came from the 11th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Regiment, and were men of good physique, very well trained, and excellent alike at drill, work, games, and in the line. During the whole time we were in France we never had a better draft than this. Meanwhile, although the enemy were apparently willing to allow us a Christmas rest, and kindly refrained from bombarding our billets, the higher command were not so gracious, and we had much work to do. Ever since the defection of Russia, the Staff had realized the possibility of a German offensive on a large scale, and every effort was being made to organize our defenses. With this object, a new "village line" had been built, including Cambrin, Annequin, Vermelles and other villages, and this had now to be wired. Accordingly, on the night of the 22nd/23rd December, the whole Battalion marched up to this line by parties, and worked hard for several hours putting out a "double apron fence." So well had Major Zeller and his Engineers organized the work, and so well did the Battalion work, mainly thanks to the newly arrived Pioneers who were experts, that we did an incredible amount during the night, and received the congratulations of the G.O.C. on our efforts.

The actual Christmas festivities had to be held on Christmas Eve, as we were due to go into trenches on the morning of Boxing Day. Everything combined to make the day a great success. Plum puddings arrived from England, large pigs, which Major Burnett had been leading about on a string for some days, were turned into the most delicious pork, and there was plenty of beer. The Serjeants' Mess also had a very lively dinner in the evening, though one Company Quarter Master Serjeant spent much of his time dragging the Beuvry river for his Company Serjeant Major whom he had lost. This Warrant Officer was eventually discovered asleep in an old sentry box, with his false teeth clenched in his hand. The Germans, in spite of their boast, dropped in a message from an aeroplane, "to eat their Christmas dinners in Béthune," caused no disturbance, and did not show the slightest sign of being offensive. Christmas, 1917, was unique in one respect. We produced a Battalion Christmas Card for the first and last time during the war. It contained a picture, drawn by 2nd Lieut. Shilton, of a big-footed Englishman standing on a slag-heap, from which a Hun was flying as though kicked. It was very popular.

Boxing Day, for us "Relief Day," was bitterly cold, and an occasional blizzard made getting into trenches all the more difficult. The ground was covered with snow, and each night there was a bright moon, so that the snipers of both sides were on the watch day and night for the slightest movement. Our snipers claimed to hit several of the enemy during the tour, but we, too, had our losses. First, F. Eastwood, M.M., of "C" Company, a soldier who had scarcely missed a day since the beginning, was shot through the head and killed outside "C" Company Headquarters in Northampton trench. A few nights later, on the 30th December, Lieut. P. Measures, commanding "B" Company, was sniped while fixing a sniper's post in the front line, and also killed instantly. He had not been with us very long, but both he and Lieut. Watherston had proved themselves very keen subaltern officers, and both had been praised by the General for their work on patrol. Lieut. T.H. Ball temporarily took command of "B" Company.

Whenever work was possible—it was often too light even at night—we worked at two new trenches, "Cardiff" and "Currin," connecting Bart's Alley with Savile tunnel, as an alternative to Savile Row. These had been dug by the Monmouthshires, and now had to be wired, and here, also, we suffered at the hands of a German sniper. Serjeant W.E. Cave, a very fine N.C.O. of "A" Company, was killed with a wiring party, and one or two others had narrow escapes. The New Year, 1918, was ushered in with several bursts of machine gun fire at midnight, but nothing of importance occurred.

Our stay at Annequin was once again disturbed, this time more disastrously than before. A curious accident occurred on the 6th of January, when three of our aeroplanes collided and fell near the village. The enemy as usual opened fire at once with one or two batteries, and an unlucky shell fell amongst our Headquarter runners as they were leaving their billet. The two Corporals escaped, Collins with a slight wound and Hubbard untouched, but W. Raven, M.M., was killed outright, and A. Grogan, D.C.M., F. Smith, H. Eady, and H. Kirby, so badly wounded that they died soon afterwards. It is impossible to estimate the amount of work that these runners had done for the Battalion, not only as message carriers, but some of them as personal orderlies to the C.O. and other Headquarter Officers. In Lens they had proved themselves not only capable of wonderful endurance, but to be possessed of the greatest courage, fearing neither the enemy himself nor his barrages. To lose so many at one blow was indeed a severe loss for the Battalion. After this, there followed two comparatively quiet tours in trenches with the usual six days at Beuvry in between them. The enemy's snipers were mastered, and we suffered no more casualties at their hands, but our bad luck still pursued us, and on the 10th and 11th January the left of the Reserve Line was badly battered by trench mortars. The left half Battalion cook-house was blown in, and Serjeant Growdridge of "D" Company was killed, while several others were wounded. In Serjeant Growdridge, "D" Company lost a most capable platoon Serjeant, the leader of many a daring and successful patrol, and of the highest courage in battle. On the 20th of January we were relieved by the 11th Division, and, after spending one night in Beuvry, marched through Béthune to Busnettes, between Chocques and Lillers, for a long rest.

We stayed at Busnettes for three weeks, training and playing games, and doing our best to recover from the ill effects of tunnels and wet trenches. Our training was carried out on various areas round Chocques and Allouagne, and near the latter was a good rifle range, over which we practised for the Associated Rifle Association (A.R.A.) Competition. This competition was for a platoon, and included rifle and Lewis gun shooting and bayonet fighting, fire discipline and control, and the general principles of the advance. The platoon had to fire at various ranges, advancing from one to the other, and bayoneting sacks on the way. There were Battalion, Brigade, and Divisional Competitions, and to the Divisional winners the A.R.A. were to present silver medals. In the Battalion competition, No. 1 Platoon of "A" Company, under 2nd Lieut. Roberts and Serjeant H. Beardsmore, was victorious, but the other competitions could not be held until February, after our next move. Finally, this same platoon, beating the other Battalions in the Brigade, beat also the Staffordshires' and Sherwood Foresters' best platoons, and carried off the silver medals.

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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