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Early Experiences

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

26th Feb., 1915.16th June, 1915.

After spending the greater part of the day (the 26th February) lounging about the Hangars at Southampton, we at length embarked late in the afternoon—Headquarters and the right half battalion in S.S. Duchess of Argyle, left half, under Major Martin, in S.S. Atalanta. The transport, under Capt. Burnett, was due to sail later in S.S. Mazaran, since torpedoed in the Channel, but they embarked at the same time as the rest. Four other ships containing Divisional Headquarters and some of the Sherwood Foresters were to sail with us, and at 9 p.m., to the accompaniment of several sirens blowing "Farewell," we steamed out, S.S. Duchess of Argyle leading. The Captain of the ship asked us to post a signaler to read any signals, Serjt. Diggle was told to keep a look out and assist the official signaler, a sort of nondescript Swede or other neutral, like the rest of the crew. We soon sighted some war vessel, and asked if they had any orders, the reply being, according to Serjt. Diggle, "No go"—according to the Swede, "No no." The Captain preferred to believe the latter, and as there were no orders continued his course, though we could see the remainder of our little fleet turn round and sail back. The weather was appalling, the sea very rough, and long before we had reached half way we were all very ill. This was not surprising, as our transport was built for pleasure work on the Clyde, and, though fast, was never intended to face a Channel storm. Each time a wave crashed into the ship's side we imagined we had been torpedoed; in fact, it was one long night of concentrated misery.

We reached Le Havre in the early hours of the morning, and disembarked, feeling, and probably looking, very bedraggled. From the quay we crawled up a long and terribly steep hill to the rest camp—some lines of tents in a muddy field. Here, while we waited 24 hours for our left half Battalion, of whom we had no news, we were joined by our first interpreter, M. Furby. M. Furby was very anxious to please, but unfortunately failed to realize the terrible majesty of the Adjutant, a fact which caused his almost immediate relegation to the Q.M. Stores, where he always procured the best billets for Capt. Worley and himself. On the morning of the 28th we received an issue of sheepskin coats and extra socks, the latter a present from H.M. the Queen, and after dinners moved down to the Railway Station, where we found Major Martin and the left half. Their experiences in the Channel had been worse than ours. Most of them, wishing to sleep, had started to do so before the ship left Southampton on the 26th; they were almost all ill during the night, so were glad to find a harbor wall outside their port-holes the following morning, and at once went on deck "to look at France"—only to find they were back in Southampton. They stayed there all day, and eventually crossed the next night, arriving on the 28th, feeling as bad as we did, and having had all the horrors of two voyages.

We were kept waiting many hours on the platform, while the French Railway staff gradually built an enormous train, composed of those wonderful wagons labeled "hommes 36-40, chevaux en long 8," which we now saw for the first time. Hot in summer, cold in winter, always very hard and smelly, and full of refuse, they none the less answered their purpose, and a French troop train undoubtedly carries the maximum number of men in the minimum of accommodation. During this long wait we should all have starved had it not been for the kindness of an English lady, Mrs. Sidney Pitt, who, with other English ladies, served out an unlimited supply of tea and buns to all. Eventually at 5 p.m. our train was ready, and we entrained—all except two platoons, for whom there was no room. The transport was loaded on to flats which were hooked on behind our wagons, and we finally started up country at about 7 o'clock. The train moved slowly northwards all night, stopping for a few minutes at Rouen, and reaching Abbeville just as dawn broke at 7 a.m. Here, amidst a desolation of railway lines and tin sheds, we stayed for half an hour and stretched our cramped limbs, while six large cauldrons provided enough hot tea for all. From this point our progress became slower, and the waits between stations proportionally longer, until at last we reached a small village, where, according to our train orders, we should stop long enough to water horses. This we began to do, when suddenly, without any whistling or other warning, the train moved on, and Major Martin and Captain Burnett, who were with the horses, only just managed to catch the train, and had to travel the next stage on a flat with a limber. At St. Omer we were told where we should detrain, a fact hitherto concealed from us, and eventually at 2-35 p.m. in a blizzard and snow storm we reached Arneke, detrained at once, and marched about five miles to the little village of Hardifort, where we arrived in the dark.

We were, of course, entirely inexperienced at this time, and in the light of subsequent events, this, our first attempt at billeting, was a most ludicrous performance. The Battalion halted on the road in fours outside the village, at the entrance to which stood a group headed by the C.O. with a note-book; behind him was the Mayor—small, intoxicated and supremely happy, the Brigade Interpreter, M. Löst, with a list of billets, and the Adjutant, angry at having caught a corporal in the act of taking a sly drink. Around them was a group of some dozen small boys who were to act as guides. The Interpreter read out a name followed by a number of officers and men; the C.O. made a note of it and called up the next platoon; the Mayor shouted the name at the top of his voice, waved his arms, staggered, smacked a small boy, and again shouted, at which from three to five small boys would step out and offer to guide the platoon, each choosing a different direction. How we ever found our homes is still a mystery, and yet by 10 p.m. we were all comfortably settled in quarters. We were joined the next morning by the two remaining platoons, 2nd Lieuts. Mould and Farrer.

The billets were slightly re-arranged as soon as daylight enabled us to see where we were, and we soon settled down and made ourselves comfortable, being told that we should remain at Hardifort until the 4th March, when we should go into trenches for a week's instruction with some Regular Division. We had nothing much to do except recover from the effects of our journey, and this, with good billets and not too bad weather, we soon did. The remainder of our Brigade had not yet arrived, so we were attached temporarily to the Sherwood Foresters, whose 8th Battalion was also absent, and with them on the 4th moved off Eastwards, having the previous day received some preliminary instructions in trench warfare from General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, who spoke to all the officers.

Preceded by our billeting party, which left at 5 a.m., we marched from Hardifort at 9 a.m., and, passing through Terdeghen, reached the main road at St. Sylvestre Capel, and went along it to Caestre. On the way we met General Smith-Dorrien, our Army Commander, and while the Battalion halted he talked to all the officers, gave us some very valuable hints, and then watched the Battalion march past, having impressed us all with his wonderful kindness and charm of manner. At Caestre we found motor buses waiting for us, and we were glad to see them, for though no one had fallen out, we were somewhat tired after marching nine miles, carrying, in addition to full marching order, blankets, sheepskin coats and some extra warm clothing. The buses took us through Bailleul and Nieppe to Armentières, at that time a town infested with the most appalling stinks and very full of inhabitants, although the front line trenches ran through the eastern suburbs. Having "debussed," we marched to le Bizet, a little village a mile north of the town, and stayed there in billets for the night. During the evening we stood outside our billets, gazed at the continuous line of flares and listened to the rifle fire, imagining in our innocence that there must be a terrific battle with so many lights.

The next day our instruction started, and for four days we worked hard, trying to learn all we could about trench warfare from the 12th Brigade, to whom we were attached. While some went off to learn grenade throwing, a skilled science in those days when there was no Mills but only the "stick" grenades, others helped dig back lines of defense and learned the mysteries of reverting under the Engineers. Each platoon spent 24 hours in the line with a platoon either of the Essex Regt., King's Own or Lancashire Fusiliers, who were holding the sector from "Plugstreet" to Le Touquet Station. It was a quiet sector except for rifle fire at night, and it was very bad luck that during our first few hours in trenches we lost 2nd Lieut. G. Aked, who was killed by a stray bullet in the front line. There was some slight shelling of back areas with "Little Willies," German field gun shells, but these did no damage, and gave us in consequence a useful contempt for this kind of projectile. Trench mortars were not yet invented, and we were spared all heavy shells, so that, when on the 9th we left Armentières, we felt confident that trenches, though wet and uncomfortable, were not after all so very dreadful, and that, if at any time we should be asked to hold the line, we should acquit ourselves with credit.

Our next home was the dirty little village of Strazeele, which we reached by march route, and where we found Lieut. E.G. Langdale who rejoined us, having finished his disembarkation duties. Here we occupied five large farm houses, all very scattered and very smelly, the smelliest being Battalion Headquarters, called by Major Martin "La Ferme de L'Odeur affreuse." The Signaling officer attempted to link up the farms by telephone, but his lines, which consisted of the thin enameled wire issued at the time, were constantly broken by the farmers' manure carts, and the signalers will always remember the place with considerable disgust. One farmer was very pleased with himself, having rolled up some 200 yards of our line under the impression that all thin wire must be German. The rest of the Brigade had now arrived, and the other three Battalions were much annoyed to find that we were already experienced soldiers—a fact which we took care to point out to them on every possible occasion. Our only other amusement was the leg-pulling of some newspaper correspondents, who, as the result of an interview, made Major Martin a "quarry official," and Lieut. Vincent a poultry farmer of considerable repute!

On the 11th March we marched to Sailly sur la Lys, better known as "Sally on the loose," where with the Canadian Division we should be in reserve, though we did not know it, for the battle of Neuve Chapelle. The little town was crowded before even our billeting party arrived, and it was only by some most brazen billet stealing, which lost us for ever the friendship of the Divisional Cyclists, that we were able to find cover for all, while many of the Lincolnshires had to bivouac in the fields. Here we remained during the battle, but though the Canadians moved up to the line, we were not used, and spent our time standing by and listening to the gun fire. A 15" Howitzer, commanded by Admiral Bacon and manned by Marine Artillery, gave us something to look at, and it was indeed a remarkable sight to watch the houses in the neighbourhood gradually falling down as each shell went off. There was also an armored train which mounted three guns, and gave us much pleasure to watch, though whether it did any damage to the enemy we never discovered. Finally, on the 16th, having taken no part in the battle, we marched to some farms near Doulieu, and thence on the 19th to a new area near Bailleul, including the hamlets of Nooteboom, Steent-je (pronounced Stench), and Blanche Maison, where we stayed until the end of the month, while the rest of the Brigade went to Armentières for their tours of instruction.

Our new area contained some excellent farm houses, and we were very comfortably billeted though somewhat scattered. The time was mostly spent in training, which consisted then of trench digging and occasionally practicing a "trench to trench" attack, with the assistance of gunners and telephonists, about whose duties we had learnt almost nothing in England. General Smith Dorrien came to watch one of these practices, and, though he passed one or two criticisms, seemed very pleased with our efforts. We also carried out some extraordinarily dangerous experiments with bombs, under Captain Ellwood of the Lincolnshires and Lieut. A.G. de A. Moore, who was our first bomb officer. It was just about this time that the Staff came to the conclusion that something simpler in the way of grenades was required than the "Hales" and other long handled types, and to meet this demand someone had invented the "jam tin"—an ordinary small tin filled with a few nails and some explosive, into the top of which was wired a detonator and friction lighter. For practice purposes the explosive was left out, and the detonator wired into an empty tin. Each day lines of men could be seen about the country standing behind a hedge, over which they threw jam tins at imaginary trenches, the aim and object of all being to make the tin burst as soon as possible after hitting the ground. We were given five seconds fuses, and our orders were, "turn the handle, count four slowly, and then throw." Most soldiers wisely counted four fairly rapidly, but Pte. G. Kelly, of "D" Company, greatly distinguished himself by holding on well past "five," with the result that the infernal machine exploded within a yard of his head, fortunately doing no damage.

All this time we were about nine miles from the line, and were left in peace by the Boche, except for a single night visit from one of his aeroplanes, which dropped two bombs near Bailleul Station and woke us all up. We did not know what they were at the time, so were not as alarmed as we might otherwise have been. In fact "B" Company had a much more trying time when, a few nights later, one of the cows at their billet calved shortly after midnight. The sentry on duty woke Captain Griffiths, who in turn woke the farmer and tried to explain what had happened. All to no purpose, for the farmer was quite unable to understand, and in the end was only made to realize the gravity of the situation by the more general and less scientific explanation that "La vache est malade."

On the 1st April we received a warning order to the effect that the Division would take over shortly a sector of the line South of St. Eloi from the 28th Division, and two days later we marched through Bailleul to some huts on the Dranoutre-Locre road, where we relieved the Northumberland Fusiliers in Brigade support. The same evening the Company Commanders went with the C.O. and Adjutant to reconnoiter the sector of trenches we were to occupy. It rained hard all night, and was consequently pitch dark, so that the reconnoitering party could see very little and had a most unpleasant journey, returning to the huts at 2 o'clock the next morning (Easter Day), tired out and soaked to the skin. During the day the weather improved, and it was a fine night when at 10 p.m., the Battalion paraded and marched in fours though Dranoutre and along the road to within half a mile of Wulverghem. Here, at "Packhorse" Farm, we were met by guides of the Welsh Regiment (Col. Marden) and taken into the line.

Our first sector of trenches consisted of two disconnected lengths of front line, called trenches 14 and 15, behind each of which a few shelters, which were neither organized for defense nor even splinter-proof, were known as 14 S and 15 S—the S presumably meaning Support. On the left some 150 yards from the front line a little circular sandbag keep, about 40 yards in diameter and known as S.P. 1, formed a Company Headquarters and fortified post, while a series of holes covered by sheets of iron and called E4 dug-outs provided some more accommodation—of a very inferior order, since the slightest movement by day drew fire from the snipers' posts on "Hill 76." As this hill, Spanbroek Molen on the map, which lies between Wulverghem and Wytschaete was held by the Boche, our trenches which were on its slopes were overlooked, and we had to be most careful not to expose ourselves anywhere near the front line, for to do so meant immediate death at the hands of his snipers, who were far more accurate than any others we have met since. To add to our difficulties our trench parapets, which owing to the wet were entirely above ground, were composed only of sandbags, and were in many places not bullet proof. There were large numbers of small farm houses all over the country (surrounded by their five-months' dead live stock), and as the war had not yet been in progress many months these houses were still recognizable as such. Those actually in the line were roofless, but the others, wonderfully preserved, were inhabited by support Companies, who, thanks to the inactivity of the enemy's artillery, were able to live in peace though under direct observation. In our present sector we found six such farms; "Cookers," the most famous, stood 500 yards behind S.P. 1, and was the centre of attraction for most of the bullets at night. It contained a Company Headquarters, signal office, and the platoon on the ground floor, and one platoon in the attic! Behind this, and partly screened from view, were "Frenchman's" occupied by Battalion Headquarters, "Pond" where half the Reserve Company lived, and "Packhorse" containing the other half Reserve and Regimental Aid Post. This last was also the burying ground for the sector, and rendezvous for transport and working parties. Two other farms—"Cob" and "T"—lay on the Wulverghem Road and were not used until our second tour, when Battalion Headquarters moved into "Cob" as being pleasanter than "Frenchman's," and "Pond" also had to be evacuated, as the Lincolnshires had had heavy casualties there.

The enemy opposite to us, popularly supposed to be Bavarians, seemed content to leave everything by day to his snipers. These certainly were exceptionally good, as we learnt by bitter experience. By night there was greater activity, and rifle bullets fell thickly round Cookers Farm and the surrounding country. There were also fixed rifles at intervals along the enemy's lines aimed at our communication tracks, and these, fired frequently during the early part of the night, made life very unpleasant for the carrying parties. There were no communication trenches and no light railways, so that all stores and rations, which could be taken by limbers as far as Packhorse Farm only, had to be carried by hand to the front line. This was done by platoons of the support and reserve companies who had frequently to make two or three journeys during the night, along the slippery track past Pond Farm and Cookers Corner—the last a famous and much loathed spot. There were grids to walk on, but these more resembled greasy poles, for the slabs had been placed longitudinally on cross runners, and many of us used to slide off the end into some swampy hole. One of "B" Company's officers was a particular adept at this, and fell into some hole or other almost every night. These parties often managed to add to our general excitement by discovering some real or supposed spy along their route, and on one occasion there was quite a small stir round Cookers Farm by "something which moved, was fired at, and dropped into a trench with a splash, making its escape." A subsequent telephone conversation between "Cracker" Bass and his friend Stokes revealed the truth that the "something" was "a ——y great cat with white eyes."

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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