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Crossing the Canal

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Crossing The Canal
25th Sept., 1918 - 4th Oct., 1918.

The two days following this action were spent in refitting and re-organizing what was left of the Battalion. All available officers from the "battle details" were ordered to join us, and Captains Petch and Banwell resumed command of their Companies, while Lieuts. Hawley and Corah took over "B" and "D." Major Burnett also came up and, though we were still in trenches and holes in the ground, managed to produce hot baths for everybody. The line was very quiet, the weather warm, we needed a rest, and for two days we had it. The Brigade was to be relieved by the Staffordshires on the evening of the 27th, and our first orders were to go into various trenches and dug-outs round Grand Priel Farm. These orders, however, were cancelled before relief, and we were allotted instead a quarry and some trenches just North of le Verguier.

Up to the evening of the 26th all had been very quiet and there was not the slightest sign that any active operations were intended. However on this evening, the Transport drivers, bringing up rations, told us that all the roads behind the lines were thick with guns, lorries and wagons, all moving up. At the same time Colonel Griffiths returned from a Conference, with some orders so secret that they were told to no one. The following day we saw that during the night many new batteries had taken up positions on the Ascension Ridge, guns had been carefully camouflaged, men hidden away in copses, and all was still very quiet. The same day, officers of another division came up reconnoitering—all with considerable secrecy—though one was seen to be carrying a map with a red line on it, somewhere four miles East of the St. Quentin Canal. The following night more batteries silently took up their positions; large bomb, water and ammunition dumps were made wherever a house or copse would screen them from the enemy's aircraft, everything was being prepared for some gigantic enterprise. As we went out to le Verguier, we passed some of the Staffordshires going to the front line. It was a very dark night, but we could see that they were carrying more than usual and that their equipment looked very bulky. They were wearing life belts.

The secret could now be kept no longer, and as soon as possible orders were made known to all. They were brief: "The 46th Division will on a certain date, as part of a major operation, cross the St. Quentin Canal, capture the Hindenburg Line, and advance to a position on the high ground East of Magny la Fosse and Lehaucourt (2 miles E. of the Canal)."

The St. Quentin Canal, or Canal du Nord, as it is called further North, runs for the most part North and South. At Bellicourt, opposite the Americans, 1,000 yards North of our sector, it enters a tunnel and is for a considerable distance underground. At Bellenglise, opposite the right of our Divisional sector, it takes a sharp turn to the East, and runs, past Lehaucourt and le Tronquoy, for 2½ miles before again turning South. The main Hindenburg Line followed the line of the Canal, just East of it. The Americans would attack the line above the tunnel, and North of them British Divisions would continue the advance far to the North. The 46th Division would attack with its right on Bellenglise, and a gap of 1,000 yards from its left to the Americans. South of us no attack would be necessary; for, once across the Canal, our right flank would be defended all the way to le Tronquoy by the Canal itself and this portion of the Hindenburg Line, which we should "roll up" from the flank. Tanks could not cross the Canal except over the tunnel at Bellicourt. Consequently the IXth Tank Battalion, allotted to our Division for the attack, would advance with the Americans, and, once in Bellicourt, turn south and join us to assist in the advance to the village objectives and the heights. To the Staffordshire Brigade was alloted the crossing of the Canal and the taking of the Hindenburg Line. Then, after a pause to allow the Tanks to come round, the Sherwood Foresters on the right and our Brigade on the left would sweep on, still under a barrage, to the final objective. We should have to deal with Magny village, the Right Brigade with Bellenglise and Lehaucourt. On the final objective there would be another pause, then, if all had gone well, the 32nd Division would come through to the "Red" Line of exploitation—another two miles still further East. Maps were issued with the objective of each unit shown in color. The Staffordshires had the "Blue," which was the Hindenburg Line, and the "Brown" further E. to hold till we came up; the 4th Leicestershires had the "Yellow," which included Knobkerry Ridge, the 5th Lincolnshires the "Dotted Blue"—just beyond Magny village; we had the last of all, the "Green" line, including a sunken cross-roads, an old mill on some very high ground, and a small copse called Fosse Wood. It was argued that by this time either the attack would have failed and we should not be wanted, or, if successful, there could not be very much resistance; we were very weak after Pontruet, and this was considered the easiest task. The day chosen was September 29th—the time, dawn.

Outside le Verguier there runs a muddy lane with an old quarry beside it. In this quarry, in an evil-smelling but very deep dug-out lived Battalion Headquarters; everybody else occupied trenches in the fields round about. On the opposite side of the lane was a battery of 9.2's, firing almost continuously day and night, making it almost impossible to reach the Headquarters, and quite impossible to ride down the lane. Altogether our surroundings were unpleasant. The enemy soon made them worse, for about an hour before dawn on the 28th he suddenly put over a few small shells, apparently high explosive, round "B" Company's trenches, while one or two also fell round "C" and "A" Companies. Finally he pitched three clean into the quarry, and the sentry wake up to the fact that they were not only high explosive, but contained a very fair percentage of mustard gas. It was about an hour before the discovery was made and still longer before all troops were moved away. "C" Company wisely took no risks and were soon across the road, and "A" and "D" were practically unaffected. "B" Company, however, were not warned, and it was nearly two hours after the first shell had come before they were finally moved grumbling to another area. Apparently no one was gassed, but we knew mustard only too well and feared very much what the enemy would bring forth. However, at 9-0 a.m. it came on to pour with rain, and we got more hopeful.

At 11 o'clock Col. Griffiths, taking the Adjutant and Company Commanders with him, set off to a Conference with the Tank officers at Brigade Headquarters. The enemy were shelling le Verguier, the 9.2's were firing vigorously, it was pouring with rain, and the horses were very nervous. The ride was consequently exciting. Led as usual by "Sunloch," the party galloped past the 9.2's and halted at the entrance to the village to try and "time" the Boche shells. One came, they dashed in, turned the corner and just got clear in time; the next shell skimmed over the last groom's head and wounded a German prisoner.

Our conference with the Tank officers caused a slight alteration in Colonel Griffiths' plan of attack. He had intended to advance with two companies in front and two in support, but finding that a three company frontage was more suitable for Tank co-operation, this was adopted—"A" Company (Petch) to be on the right, "C" Company (Banwell) to be in the centre, and "D" Company (Corah) on the left. "B" Company (Hawley) would be in support. The front line Company Commanders arranged rendezvous with their Tank Commanders, and we rode back.

By evening our worst fears had been realized, and forty-five of "B" Company had to be sent to Hospital, too blind from the mustard gas to be of any use. C.S.M. Wardle and about five men from each of the other Companies had also to go, while Headquarters lost Mess Corporal J. Buswell. As we had lost L/Cpl. Bourne a few days before, this left us rather helpless, and, but for our energetic Padre-Mess-President, should probably have starved. We had one consolation. Towards evening on the 28th the rain stopped, the weather brightened, and there seemed to be every prospect of a fine Sunday. Bombs, flares and extra rations were distributed at dusk, and we turned in for the night during which, except for a few aeroplane bombs, the evening left us in peace.

At 5-0 a.m., Sunday, the 29th of September, the barrage started. There was the usual thick morning mist, and even at 7-0 a.m. we were unable to see more than a few yards in any direction. Even gun flashes could not be seen, and the only intimation we had of the progress of the fight, was the continuous "chug-chug-chug," of the tanks, moving along the valley North of us, completely out of sight. As we were not due to move until 9-0 a.m. we spent the time having breakfasts and reorganizing the remains of "B" Company. Lieut. Hawley, with the aid of the recently returned C.S.M. J.B. Weir, D.C.M., formed one large platoon with as many Lewis Guns as possible. Between 7-0 and 8-0 a.m. the mist lifted once for a few seconds only, and, looking Northwards we could see the top of the next ridge. Along the skyline as far as the eye could see from West to East stretched a long column of horses, guns and wagons—moving forward. Below them, in the shadow, moved a long procession of Tanks. Then the mist closed down and we saw no more.

As soon as breakfasts were finished, picked N.C.O.'s and men were sent forward to get in touch with the rest of the Brigade and reconnoiter roads forward to the Canal. At 7-45 a.m. came a message from Brigade Headquarters, to say that, as the mist was worse further East, we had better start moving at once. Parade was accordingly ordered for 8-30 a.m., instead of 9-0 a.m., and we tried to form up in a field near the quarry. The mist was so thick one could not see from one end of a Company to the other, and it was nearly nine o'clock before Capt. Jack and his orderlies with their medical box appeared in the field, and we were ready to move off. Even so, we had to leave the mess staff behind, but the Padre promised to bring them along.

At 9-0 a.m. we moved off in single file, Col. Griffiths leading, and the Companies following in the order "A," "C," "D," Battalion Headquarters, and "B." It was terribly difficult to keep touch, as, with many oaths, we stumbled over ditches and holes until we reached the lane from le Verguier to Grand Priel. Here we picked up the Headquarter horses, and also were much cheered by some wounded soldiers, who told us the Boche was running away for all he was worth. Unfortunately our column was cut in half by some artillery coming down the line, who passed between "D" Company and Headquarters. Alongside us, moving on the same track, were the other Sherwood Foresters, also bound for the "Green Line"; their "all up" was passed to the head of our column, and the Colonel, thinking we were intact, moved on. At Ascension Farm, the Adjutant was sent in to report to Brigade Headquarters and the Colonel struck off into the mist, marching entirely by compass bearing. Periodically he and Captain Petch stopped to check their direction and then moved slowly on again; there was some barbed wire and the horses were sent back. Eventually, after crossing the old front line and going half way down the next slope the Colonel halted, and allowing the Companies to form up by platoons, waited until it was time to go on. He judged that he should be somewhere near the original starting line of the Staffordshires. "C" and "D" Companies came up but there was no Battalion Headquarters and no "B" Company—incidentally no Adjutant. The latter, coming out from Brigade Headquarters, found that the Battalion had gone and tried to ride after them. He merely succeeded in getting into a wire entanglement and having no groom had to leave his mare. With Lieut. Ashdowne, the Intelligence Officer, and Scout-Corporal Gilbert—the only ones left of Battalion Headquarters—he went on, hoping to catch up the Battalion before they reached the Canal. Fortunately at 10-45 the mist blew right away, and the sudden daylight which followed showed him where the Battalion lay; it also showed the Staffordshire's starting tape only 60 yards from where the Colonel had halted.

Until 11-20 we sat in the sun and waited in the hopes that some of the missing people might join us. We held a short Conference, and the Colonel decided that if there was any more fog or difficulty of any sort, Company Commanders should make their way at once to their places in the "dotted blue" line. Scouts were sent out to reconnoiter Canal crossings, and as soon as the barrage started for the 4th Battalion's advance, we moved forward in rear of the 5th Lincolnshires. There was some scattered shelling, but our formation—lines of platoons in fours—was found very suitable. On reaching the Canal the two right Companies crossed by the remains of an old dam, the left by Riquerval Bridge, and all formed up in the ruins of the famous Hindenburg Line on the far side. It had been terribly battered, and here and there the remains of its occupants showed how deadly our barrage, and how fierce the assault of the Staffordshires had been. As we reached the Canal a single Tank was seen coming down from the North, another followed and then others; "our" Battalion had crossed successfully at Bellicourt, so the battle must be going well.

After a short pause, the advance up towards Knobkerry Ridge started. As we crossed Springbok Valley we could see the 4th Battalion consolidating their newly-won positions on the top, and there was little opposition from this quarter. On our right, however, there seemed to be a stiff fight going on in Bellenglise, and several dropping shots from machine guns fell round us. We deployed into the "blob" formation, before ascending the ridge, and for the next half-mile our advance was worthy of a plate in Field Service Regulations. In front the Colonel, with his eye on Magny village, kept the direction right. Behind him the three Companies deployed, their "distance" and "interval" perfect, and working so well together that if one was checked for a time, the others saw it at once and conformed. Behind the centre a small red cross flag and the "red, white and black" marked the position of the Regimental Aid Post and Battalion Headquarters. The latter's flag was already becoming famous; it was the one with which "A" Company had tried to signal from Pontruet. A few yards short of the summit of the Ridge we halted and lay down again while the 5th Lincolnshires did their advance. While we were here, the Tanks came up, and so excellent had been the liaison, that from the Tank which stopped behind "A" and "C" Companies stepped the officer with whom they had arranged details the day before.

At about 1 o'clock we moved on again—our centre through Magny la Fosse and our Flank Companies on each side of it. The fight in Bellenglise seemed to be over, and for the moment things were very quiet. Swarms of prisoners, waving their arms, were seen coming from various trenches and the village; no one was looking after them, we were all much too keen on getting forward. Here and there, when a few Boches showed signs of getting into a trench instead of keeping to the open, some soldier would administer a friendly jab with the bayonet to show them what was expected of them. The Tanks came along behind us, meaning to form up in Magny woods, and wait there till we went on. As the Lincolnshires got their objective without trouble, we moved close up to them and once more lay down to wait for 1-40 p.m., the time for our own barrage and advance.

Unfortunately, though screened from the East, the corner of Magny Woods, was visible from the South. Across the Canal on the high ground, some German gunner must have seen the Tanks assembling, and, finding no attack was coming his way, started to shoot at point blank range at our right flank. The right and centre became very unpleasant, and there was a veritable barrage round "A" Company. Through it, very hot and very angry at being shelled, suddenly appeared Padre Buck, a heavy pack of food on his back, and behind him the Regimental Serjeant-Major and the missing Headquarters. He had found them near Ascension Farm and knowing enough of the plan of attack, had "sweated" them along as hard as he could. It is impossible to imagine what we should have done without runners, signalers or batmen, to say nothing of the food. As we were now only 600 yards from our final objective the Padre and Captain Jack went off to find a Regimental Aid Post and finally settled in a small dug-out in a sunken road just outside the village.

At 1-40 p.m. our barrage started and our advance began; our shelling was slightly ragged in one or two places, but for the most part it was very accurate—wonderfully so, as guns were firing at extreme range. On the right "A" Company working along, and on both sides of an old trench, reached their objective without difficulty except for the shelling which, aimed at the Tanks, was falling all round the Company. Captain Petch, after L/Cpl. Downs and others had removed some twenty-one Boches from a hole under the road, made his Headquarters there, went round his outposts, and sent patrols out to his right flank, where the Sherwood Foresters, delayed in Bellenglise, had not yet reached Lehaucourt. They soon came up, however, and our right flank was secured. In the centre "C" Company had even more shells and did not have the satisfaction of evicting any Boches. They reached their objective and put outposts round the Mill and along a sunken road to connect with "A" Company. The protective barrage was still in front of them, and through it, in the direction of Levergies, could be seen several German batteries limbering up. One was quite close. This was too much for C.S.M. Angrave and Serjeant Tunks, who collected some twenty men and, regardless of the barrage, took advantage of the cover of a sunken road running East, and pushed forward. They could not cross the open, but, using their rifles, drove off the gunners and killed the horses, so that the battery remained in our hands. This very enterprising party then went on under Serjeant Tunks and had a look at Levergies, finally returning after it was dark.

Behind "C" Company, the Colonel and Adjutant after lying for some time in a small hole, and wondering whether they would be rolled on by one of our Tanks, or hit by the shells aimed at it, finally planted their flag outside a little dug-out on the N.E. corner of Magny Woods. However, the Colonel would not rest here, but was off again at once to see how we had fared. He first met Captain Banwell looking for a "success rocket"; this sounded satisfactory, and, as about the same time, Lieut. Hawley appeared with "B" Company, and we once more had a "reserve," all looked well. On the left—"D" Company (Corah), after chalking their names on a battery of deserted whiz-bangs, collected a Boche officer and some 50 men from a 4.2 gun battery without any trouble; hurrying on, they found some 20 others trying to blow up a 5.9 Howitzer in Fosse Wood, demonstrated that this could not be allowed and took them all prisoners; then, without further opposition, they dug in round the E. side of the wood and continued the line Northwards to the Divisional boundary. After visiting these, the Colonel went off to look at the left flank, and here, except for an Australian Machine Gun Section under a Serjeant there was no one. The Americans were not up to their objective, they had not even taken Etricourt, and for nearly a mile back our left was "in the air." Worse still, the Australian Serjeant had just been ordered to withdraw; the Colonel pointed out the situation, and the Serjeant, dying for an excuse to stay where he could see enemy to shoot at, called back his men and said "he'd stay as long as we wanted him." It was not very satisfactory, but we could do nothing else except pray hard for the arrival of the 32nd Division. When the Colonel arrived back at Battalion Headquarters we thought at first that our casualties had been very light indeed, but it was not long before we got some bad news. On our right flank the Tanks had suffered heavily at the hands of the German gunners on the Le Tronquoy high ground, and one of them, disabled and on fire, was a mark for several German batteries. Some of the crew managed to escape, but others, too badly wounded, were left inside; one crawled to our Aid Post. Padre Buck heard of this and at once went off to the rescue. The shelling was very heavy, and he was hit almost at once and wounded in many places. He was carried back to the Aid Post, but died soon afterwards, conscious to the last, but not in great pain. The Padre had been with us two years, and during all that time, there was never a trench or outpost that he had not visited, no matter how dangerous or exposed. In addition to his Chaplain's duties, he had been O.C. Games, Recreation Room and often Mess President—a thorough sportsman and a brave soldier, we felt his loss keenly.

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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