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Changes in the Battalion

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

At this time there were several important changes in the Battalion. First, we were very glad indeed to see Captains Tomson and Petch back again with us, the former to command "B," the latter to "A" Company. At the same time, Capt. Barrowcliffe returned to the Royal Engineers. Lieuts. C.S. Allen and R.W. Edge went to England for six months, and 2nd Lieut. Todd became Transport Officer. We also received a large draft from the 2nd/5th Battalion. Finding that it was impossible to obtain sufficient recruits to supply all the Battalions formed at the beginning of the war, each Brigade was now reduced to three Battalions, and we lost from our Brigade the 4th Lincolnshires. In the 59th Division, the 2nd/5th Leicestershires were broken up and divided into drafts for the 4th Battalion and ourselves. Capts. J.A. Ball and W.H. Oliver, Lieuts. S.G.H. Steel and A.D. Pierrepont, 2nd Lieuts. A.B. Bedford, H. Coxell, K. Ashdowne, and, later, A.E. Hawley and Everett came to us, bringing with them 200 N.C.O.'s and men. Amongst the latter were several Serjeants, one of them, Serjeant T. Marston, M.M., destined to add further laurels to the honors he had already won with the 2nd/5th. There were also several "old hands" who returned to us, amongst them, Privates Garfield and Law of "D" Company, both original members of the 1914 Battalion. These reinforcements enabled us to form again four platoons per Company, and we became once more a full Battalion.

Another batch of reinforcements, which arrived at Busnettes, contained several drummers of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. We already had a few, and L/Cpl. Perry was given the rank of Serjeant Drummer and formed a Corps of Drums. With Drummer Price, an expert of many years' service with the side drum, and L/Cpl. Tyers, an old bandsman, to help him, he soon produced an excellent Corps, and all of them worked hard and keenly to make a good show. Within a week they played us on route marches and appeared at guard-mounting. Within two months they played at Mess, and the Fifes gave several very good concerts.

While in the Busnettes area, we were in Reserve for the 1st Army, and in case of attack were liable to be sent to support the Portuguese on the Neuve Chapelle-La Bassée front. In case of this, the C.O. and Adjutant spent a day reconnoitering the Locon, le Hamel, le Touret area and its keeps and strong points, many of which we afterwards occupied when the Portuguese had been driven out.

On the 8th of February, we moved to Fiefs through Lillers, and the following day marched to Reclinghem in the Bomy training area. The march took the form of a tactical field day, and we ended by taking up an outpost position on the river Lys at Reclinghem, where "B" and "D" Companies and Headquarters were billeted. The other two Companies were at Vincly, a little more than a mile further South. A fortnight later, to the great regret of all ranks, Colonel Currin had to leave us, after being only three months in command. During this time we had become very fond of him, and there is no doubt that his never-failing cheerfulness, his reckless courage, and the atmosphere of "the fighting spirit" which always accompanied him, did more than anything else could have done to raise our "fighting spirit" to a high pitch. His successor, Lieut. Col. G.B.G. Wood, D.S.O., of the Lancashire Fusiliers, had commanded the 2nd/5th Battalion until he was wounded, and now, returning to France, was sent to us as his Battalion had been broken up.

Towards the end of February, the Staff became more than ever convinced that the enemy intended making a big spring offensive, and our training was devoted almost entirely to counter-attack practice and the retaking a line of trenches which had been temporarily lost. We had several large field days near Bomy, with this as the general idea, and would have had several more had not the Division been suddenly recalled to the line. On the 1st March, in a snow storm, we marched to Ligny-les-Aire, and the next day moved on again to Ecquedecques, where we stayed three days. Our billets were fairly comfortable, but there were very few for the officers; this, however, was soon righted after the first night, when we discovered many officers' billets occupied by Serjeants of an A.S.C. Company who were permanent "garrison" of the village.

On the 5th of March we marched through Lillers and Béthune again to Beuvry and, after staying one night there, moved the following day to Annequin and Sailly Labourse, where we were responsible for the defense of the Annequin locality. The 1st Corps scheme of defense was a series of fortified localities, Philosophe, Cambrin, Annequin, Noyelles, and many others further West as far as Vaudricourt. Each locality had its trenches, dug-outs, stores of ammunition and rations, and was ready for defense at any moment. The German offensive was expected to start any day, and the "wind" was terribly "up." This, however, did not prevent the Infantry from amusing themselves whenever possible, and though the higher authorities may have been sleeping in their boots, we managed to get some football. General Rowley gave a cup for a Brigade Company Competition, and, while at Sailly, our "A" Company beat Brigade Headquarters in the "final," after which "Tinker" Evans, the captain of the team, received the cup from the Brigadier.

The following morning we went once more to the line, back into the familiar Cambrin right sector. Unfortunately there was now a change. The Engineers, in an endeavour to make Headquarters less elegant and more shell-proof, had thrown up so much white chalk, that they had attracted the attention of the German artillery, who had promptly shelled the place out of existence. The Headquarters now lived in the old left Headquarters under Railway Alley. We had only two Companies in the line, one in support, and one in Reserve near the Factory; we were thus organized "in depth" to meet the coming offensive.

The enemy's artillery had certainly become more active during our two months' absence, and he was now using far more gas shells than before. These were of three sorts: "Green Cross," the most deadly, was filled with phosgene; "Blue Cross," the least harmful, with arsenic; both these were very light gases and soon blew away. Far more dangerous were the "Yellow Cross," mustard shells, which now made their appearance in ever increasing numbers. The mustard hung round the shell holes and was not blown away; in cold weather it had no effect, but as soon as the sun came out it became exceedingly powerful. A mustard shell falling on frozen snow might have no effect until the thaw came several weeks later, when it would be just as powerful as if it had only just been fired. A very little of this gas was sufficient to cause temporary blindness and loss of voice, burns and bad blisters. Much of it was fatal. During this tour, however, we did not suffer any casualties, and nothing of any importance occurred until our last morning before relief, the 16th of March.

At about 1-0 a.m. on this morning, Privates Culpeck and Johnson were sentries together at one of "D" Company's Lewis gun posts. Hearing a noise in the wire, one of them challenged, and, receiving no answer, fired his Lewis gun. Two minutes later, two Boche, one an unwounded warrant officer, the other a wounded soldier, were being escorted down Railway Alley to Headquarters. Neither of the two prisoners would say much, but what they did say still further confirmed the opinion of the Staff that the attack was soon coming.

"Brigade Support" now consisted of the Headquarters and two Companies in Sailly Labourse, the remainder at Windy Corner near Factory Dug-outs. To this last area went Major Griffiths and the Right Half Battalion. They had an unpleasant time and were more than once heavily shelled, on one occasion having a narrow escape. The officers were sitting in a dug-out when an amour piercing field gun shell passed through the roof and out of the door, hurting no one. Major Griffiths and 2nd Lieut. Dunlop received slight scratches, as also did Adams, one of the batmen, but no serious damage was done. After four days of this, the 5th Lincolnshires relieved us, and we marched to Beuvry to be in Divisional Reserve. While here, the new Battalion distinguishing marks arrived from England, and were taken into use—a half-inch yellow ring, two inches in diameter—worn just under the shoulder on the sleeve. They were rather bright at first, and earned us the name (amongst other ruder epithets) of the "Corn-plasters."

On arrival at Beuvry we were told that the Major General would inspect us at Fouquières two days later, the 22nd of March. This was considerably more alarming than the prospect of the German offensive, and we at once started training, cleaning equipment, and revising our platoon organization. Meanwhile, the offensive did begin in the South, and the Boche on the morning of the 22nd actually launched a big raid against the Divisional front. However, the Inspection was not postponed, as we had hoped, and for several hours we performed at Fouquières. Our ceremonial was by no means bad, considering we had done none for months it was very good, but what most pleased General Thwaites was our organization. In vain he tried to find mistakes. Soldier after soldier was asked "Who is your Section Commander?" "Who takes charge if he is killed?" "When will it be your turn to take charge?" etc. etc., and soldier after soldier answered promptly and correctly. The result was a good word for all of us, and we went back to billets much relieved and feeling quite elated.

Meanwhile, the morning's raid had left a prisoner in our hands, and he had now caused about as much sensation as one man could, by stating quite definitely that the Boche would attack from the la Bassée Canal to "Hill 70" on the 25th of March with three Divisions. We went into the Cambrin sector again on the 24th, this time with three Companies in the line. News of the disaster to the 5th Army in the South had reached us, and what with Generals coming round to pay farewell visits, and conferences every few hours, everything was as depressing as possible. Curiously enough we were not depressed, and, though most of us regarded the attack as a certainty, the private soldiers were particularly more cheerful than usual. Late at night we were ordered to withdraw all except the tunnel sentries from the front line, so as to minimize the casualties during the enemy's preliminary bombardment, and to concentrate everything on the defense of the Reserve Line, which must be held at all costs. Some of the N.C.O.'s and men grumbled a little at what they called giving up the front line, more especially as patrols reported that the enemy was busy strengthening his wire, which did not seem the prelude to an attack. Finally, by 2-0 a.m. on the 25th all was ready. The Staff at Corps Headquarters, ten miles back, slept in their boots, all support and reserve Battalions moved to "battle" positions and stood to, we in the line behaved very much as usual. All waited for dawn.

Dawn came at last—the quietest since war began, not a shot was fired. Morning followed and high noon, still no movement; the Staff breathed a sigh of relief, the Infantry groused, and we occupied our front line, preparing to pass a normal night. However, this was not to be. We had scarcely posted our night sentries when at 8-30 p.m. came another message to say that the prisoner who had originally caused the alarm had remembered that the attack was for the 26th, not the 25th. All precautions were to be taken as for the previous night. With this arrived a long epistle from the Intelligence department, showing that various new dumps and camouflaged screens had been seen in the German lines, motor transport had been increased, etc. etc. etc.—all tending to confirm their wretched prisoner's statement. Once more we evacuated our front line, once more we waited and once more we were disappointed. The 26th was as quiet as the 25th, and, except for a humorous telephone message from "C" Company, which caused much laughter as far back as Divisional Headquarters, there was nothing to disturb the morning's peace.

The following evening the 11th Division took over our sector, and we marched out—the Headquarters and Left Half Battalion to Sailly, Right Half to Labourse. It was a cold and rather miserable night, for, owing to a sudden move of our Q.M. Stores to Noeux les Mines, we had no blankets. Meanwhile, all schools and classes were closed, and those students who had not been taken to stop the German advance on Amiens returned to us. The situation was serious, and another blow was expected at any moment in the neighbourhood of Vimy. The Canadian Corps was chosen to oppose this, and we were consequently ordered to relieve any units of that Corps still left on "Hill 70." But on the 28th March before relief had started the expected attack came—at Oppy. It was a miserable failure, we lost a few front line trenches, but our line stood firm; however, the Canadians were wanted in a hurry and we were sent up to relieve them at once. The other Battalions went into the front line, we relieved the 46th Canadians in support round Loos Crassier and Railway Alley. Relief was complete by 10-35 p.m., an almost incredible performance, considering that there had been no time for reconnaissance and practically no arrangements made for guides.

It had rained hard throughout the relief, but our first two days in the line were dry and warm, and we managed to dry our clothing and make ourselves fairly comfortable. The enemy after the failure at Oppy was very quiet on our front, though his documents captured in that battle showed that, had he succeeded in his first day's attempt, the second day was to include an attack on the Hulluch front. So the "state of readiness" in the Cambrin sector had not been entirely without justification. On the 31st the weather broke again, but this did not prevent the Padre holding his Easter services at each of the Company Headquarters. The following evening we relieved the 5th Lincolnshires in the "Hill 70" right sub-sector.

Our new sector was very much the same as the "Hill 70 left," which we had held in November. The reserve line was the main line of defense, and was in fairly good condition; the front line was shallow, wet, and dangerous. Opposite our right and centre was Cité St. Auguste, strongly held by the enemy; opposite the left, Bois "Dixhuit" and a broken down farm. There was one tunnel, "Hythe," leading from the reserve line to a railway cutting in the front line, but except in cases of extreme emergency this was not intended to be used by the Infantry. Battalion Headquarters occupied a small and evil smelling German dug-out on the reverse slope of the hill. Our tour lasted eight days, and almost every hour was eventful.

We started the tour with a gas bombardment soon after relief on "C" Company's support platoon, who occupied an old "pill-box" near Cité St. Pierre dynamite magazine. The gas appliances were defective at the dug-out entrance, and several men were slightly gassed. At 8-0 a.m. the following morning, the 11th Division on our left carried out a very successful raid. This did not in itself affect us very much, but a bomb-dropping aeronaut during the raid observed large bodies of troops massing near Meurchin, a large town behind Hulluch. Immediately the old alarm about a coming attack was renewed, and we once more were ordered to be in readiness. However, by evening as nothing had happened, we resumed normal conditions.

This same evening we were given an entirely new scheme of defense, consequent upon the failure of our trench system to stop the enemy's advance in the South. The front line was to be held by isolated observation posts only, and there was to be no garrison within effective trench mortar range of the enemy. We were to consider the Reserve or "Red" Line the line of defense, and this must be rebuilt if necessary, to ensure that it was everywhere out of reach of the enemy's minenwerfer. Our chief difficulty was to find accommodation for the front line troops as they were withdrawn; however, we cleared out old dug-outs, and, after a few days of terribly hard work, were able to comply with the order.

Meanwhile, the enemy's artillery became very active, and in addition to frequent gas bombardments of Loos and the Crassier, he harassed our transport very badly as they came along the main road. Some of this gas blew back over our lines, and for several hours we lived in an atmosphere of gas, scarcely noticeable, but none the less dangerous.

The 5th of April was particularly noisy. At 3-0 a.m. we discharged a large number of gas projectors on to Bois "Dixhuit" and Cité St. Auguste, to which the enemy replied by shelling our reserve line, fortunately doing no damage. In the evening, however, he replied in earnest, and, just after "C" Company had relieved "B" in the front line, he put down a "box barrage" round their posts. Colored lights were fired in all directions, the noise was terrific, and Captain Moore, expecting a raid, sent the "S.O.S." This was promptly answered, and within a few minutes the gunners were hammering away vigorously at the enemy's lines, until he stopped shooting. Our front line was damaged in many places, but by extraordinary good fortune we escaped without a casualty. During the day, however, "A" Company lost another very good N.C.O. in Serjeant Putt, who was wounded and had to go to Hospital.

Throughout the 6th the shelling of Loos continued, and the following morning, in retaliation to a heavy gas projection on our part, the enemy turned his attention again to our front line. This time we were less fortunate, and a Lewis gun post of "D" Company was wiped out by a direct hit: two of the gunners, C.H. Payne and T.P. Hardy, were killed. In the evening, in spite of a slight West wind, the enemy poured blue cross gas shells into Loos, and much of the gas again drifted back across the lines. During the night, Lieut. Banwell, exploring the enemy's lines, single-handed ran into three of the enemy, who were almost on top of him before he could use his weapons. However, he managed to make his way out, and returned to our lines, having lost nothing worse than a little breath.

On the 8th of April, the enemy's artillery was never silent. Mustard gas was fired into the plain East of Vermelles and Philosophe almost without intermission, while Mazingarbe and Les brebis were similarly bombarded, only with larger shells. 2nd Lieut. Todd and Serjeant Yeabsley were both gassed with the transport, the latter so badly that he was several weeks in Hospital. The following morning in a thick mist the enemy attacked the Portuguese and drove them from their trenches, pushing his advance Westwards towards Estaires and Locon. The mustard gas bombardment of the plain still continued, but the front lines were comparatively quiet. That night we were relieved by the 4th Battalion, and went once more into Brigade support. After relief, Capt. A.G. Moore, M.C., and forty-three other ranks were sent to Hospital with gas poisoning. This was not due to any one bombardment, but to the fact that for the past week "Hill 70" had hardly ever been entirely free from gas, and though never in very large quantities this had gradually taken effect. Capt. Moore was sent to England, where for some months he was seriously ill with gas poisoning, and never returned. He and Capt. Shields commanded Companies longer than any other officers in the Battalion. No amount of tedious trench warfare could shake their enthusiasm or damp their spirits, "soft jobs" and six months' rest were not for them; they simply stayed with their Companies until wounds took them to England—a really magnificent record.

For three days we remained in support, and the whole time the plain behind us was full of gas. The Artillery suffered most heavily, for they could not always wear their masks, and after the first 24 hours there was a continuous stream of blinded gunners helping each other back along the road to Philosophe—a terrible sight. We too had several casualties, for the platoons, on their way to bath at Les brebis, had to pass across the plain. At Philosophe we lost two mules, through a direct hit with a heavy shell, and the driver, H. Gamble, was very lucky to escape with nothing more than a bad wound. It was a miracle he was not killed. On the 12th the battle became quieter, and that night, relieved by the Canadians, who arrived very late owing to a railway accident, we marched out to Bracquemont. Before we went the Germans to the North had advanced so far that we could see their lights in our left rear. Béthune, too, was in flames, so we were not sorry to be leaving the sector. Most thankful of all were the transport drivers, for there are not many worse places than the Loos road, and few more desolate spots than Philosophe coal mine on a dark wet night, when the wind is making the loose sheets of iron rattle, and the horses have "got the wind up."

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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