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End of June 1915

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Towards the end of June, there appeared in the German official communiqué a statement that the French had been using liquid fire in the Champagne fighting, and those who had studied the Boche methods recognized this as a warning that he intended to make use of it himself at an early date. The prophets were right, and at dawn on the 30th July the enemy, anxious to recapture Hooge, attacked the 14th Division who were holding the village, preceding the attack with streams of liquid fire, under which the garrison either succumbed or were driven out. At the same time an intense bombardment was opened, and we, whose rest was not due to end until the following day, were ordered to stand by ready to move at 30 minutes' notice. As we waited we wondered whether the 3rd Battle of Ypres had begun, there certainly seemed to be enough noise. By mid-day, however, we had not been used, and as no news of the battle reached us we were preparing to settle down again for another day of peace, when at 2-30 p.m. orders came for us to go to Kruisstraat at once. We marched by Companies, and on arrival bivouacked in a field close to the Indian Transport Lines, where we met several Battalions of the 3rd Division on their way up to Hooge, though they were unable to tell us anything definite about what had happened. The wildest rumors were heard everywhere, that the Germans had used burning oil, vitriol, and almost every other acid ever invented, that the salient was broken, that our Division had been surrounded. One thing was certain—that at 4 p.m. the gunfire had almost ceased, and there was no sign of any German near Ypres.

As soon as it was dark we left Kruisstraat and marched by Bridge 14 and Zillebeke to Maple Copse, where we were told to bivouac for the night, still being ready to move at very short notice if required. Here we found a Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, from whom we were at last able to learn the truth of the morning's battle. It appeared that at dawn the enemy, carrying flame projectors, had crept close up to the front line trenches in Hooge, and suddenly lighting these machines had sent a spray of burning vaporised oil over the trench. The garrison, 14th Division, were surprised, many of them burnt, and all thrown into confusion, during which the Boche attacked in considerable force, drove them out and broke in as far as Zouave Wood. The left of the Sherwood Foresters had been attacked, but stood firm, even though the Germans in Zouave Wood were almost behind them, until General Shipley ordered the flank to be dropped back to conform with the new line. A counter-attack was delivered during the day by two Battalions of the Rifle Brigade, who, relieved the night before, had marched eight miles out to rest and eight miles back again at once, and were hopelessly tired before they started. In spite of this, they made a gallant effort, and were wiped out almost to a man in Zouave Wood. At the time of the morning attack the Germans could if they liked have walked on into Ypres, for they had broken into the salient, and there was no other organized line of defense between them and the town. Fortunately they did not realize this, or, as is more probable, they never imagined that their flame attack would prove so successful. Still, they might make a further effort at any moment, and it was to meet this that we had been moved into Maple Copse.

All through the night and the following day there were continual short artillery bombardments by both sides, and on four occasions the Copse was shelled with salvoes of shrapnel in rapid succession. As not more than half of us had any sort of dug-outs, and the remainder had to rely mainly on tree trunks for protection, our casualties were fairly heavy, and in a short time we had lost 23 wounded, including H. West, the mess cook, L. Corpl. J.H. Cramp, and several other notabilities. We might, during the day, have built ourselves some sort of cover, but every available man had to be sent carrying bombs, ammunition, and trench mortars for the Sherwood Foresters, whose left flank was constantly in touch with the enemy. One of these carrying parties found by "D" Company had the misfortune to be led by a guide, who lost his way, into the corner of Zouave Wood, and in a few minutes six of them were wounded by a machine gun which opened fire on them at twenty yards' range; they were carried out by the rest of the party, who escaped under cover of the brushwood, but one, Carroll, died a few days later. By the evening of the 31st the situation was more satisfactory, and a new front line trench had been organized west of the wood, linking up with the Sherwood Foresters, who now no longer required carrying parties. Meanwhile, it was discovered that from his newly captured position, the Boche completely overlooked the track from Zillebeke to Maple Copse, and accordingly we were ordered to start at once to dig a communication trench alongside the track. All that night, the next day, Bank Holiday, and the following night, we worked till we could hardly hold our shovels, and by the time we stopped, at dawn on the 3rd, there was a trench the whole way—not very deep in places and not perhaps very scientifically dug, but still enough to give cover. As soon as work was over we returned to the copse and slept, for at dusk that night we were to go once more to the line and relieve the Lincolnshires in "50" to "A7." Maple Copse had cost us altogether 35 killed and wounded.

We found the trenches very much as we had left them except that "A1" had been battered into an almost unrecognizable condition by the enemy's latest trench weapon, the heavy Minenwerfer. Unlike the "Rum Jar" or "Cannister," which was a home-made article consisting of any old tin filled with explosive, this new bomb was shaped like a shell, fitted with a copper driving band and fired from a rifled mortar. It weighed over 200 lbs., was either two feet two inches or three feet six inches long and nine inches in diameter, and produced on exploding a crater as big as a small mine. It could fortunately be seen in the air, and the position of the mortar was roughly known, so we posted a sentry whose duty was to listen for the report of discharge, sight the bomb, and cry at the top of his voice "Sausage left" or "Sausage right." Our Artillery had tried hard to destroy the mortar, but it apparently had a small railway to itself, and moved away as soon as we opened fire. For retaliation we had nothing except rifle grenades, which were like flea-bites to an elephant, or the Howitzers, who had to be called on the telephone, all of which took time.

The rest of the line was fairly quiet except for a few small "sausages" on trench "50," and our chief concern was now the shortage of men. In those days a trench was not considered adequately garrisoned unless there were at least three men in every fire bay, so that although we had many more men to the yard than we have many times had since, we imagined, when we found it necessary to have one or two empty fire bays, that we were impossibly weak. So much was this the case, that, on the night of the 4th August, C.Q.M. Serjeants Gorse and Gilding were ordered to bring all available men from the stores at Poperinghe to help hold the line—a most unpleasant journey because the Boche, always fond of celebrating anniversaries, commemorated the declaration of war with a "strafe" of special magnitude. As most of this came between Ypres and Zillebeke, the two Quartermaster Serjeants had a harassing time, and did not reach their bivouacs in Poperinghe until 5-15 the following morning. All through the tour the pounding of "A1" continued, while our only effort at retaliation was a 60lb. mortar which the Royal Garrison Artillery placed in rear of "50" trench. This one day fired six rounds, the last of which fell in the German front line, and for nearly twenty-four hours we were left in peace, while a "switch" line was built across the back of "A1" salient. All hope of ever recovering the old "A1" was given up.

Meanwhile, the Division on our left was not being idle. For the past week our Artillery in the salient had fired a half-hour bombardment every morning at 2-45, and on the 9th this was repeated as usual. The Boche had become used to it, and retired to his dug-outs, where he was found a few minutes later by the 6th Division, who had relieved the 14th, and were now trying to recapture all the lost ground. The surprise was perfect, and the enemy, never for a moment expecting an attack at that hour, were killed in large numbers before they could even "stand-to." During the battle 200 of the 4th Lincolnshires occupied our support trenches, in case of any trouble on our front, and in the evening the rest of the Battalion arrived and took over the line, while we replaced them in Brigade Support—Battalion Headquarters, "B" and "C" Companies in the "Lake" dug-outs, "A" and "D" Companies in the Barracks of Ypres.[Pg 58]
During the next six days we were worked harder than we had been worked before, digging, carrying, and trench reveting. Fortunately both halves of the Battalion had fairly comfortable quarters to which to return after work was over, though those in Ypres lived a somewhat noisy life. The barracks were close to the centre of the town, and each day the Boche fired his 17in. Howitzer from dawn to dusk, mostly at the Cathedral and Cloth Hall, with occasional pauses to shoot at the Ecole de Bienfaisance, just outside the Menin gate. The shell, arriving with great regularity every 15 minutes, was generally known as the "Ypres express," for it arrived with the most terrifying roar, buried itself deep in the ground before exploding, and then made an enormous crater. As it burst, not only did every house shake, but the whole street seemed to lift a few feet in the air and settle down again. In the barracks we had bricks and falling debris from the Cloth Hall, but nothing more, and these slight disadvantages were easily outweighed by the comfort in which we lived. Every man had a bed, and, as the barracks' water supply was still in working order, we all had baths. A piano was borrowed from the Artillery, and provided us with an excellent concert, which was held in one of the larger rooms, and helped us to forget the war for a time, in spite of a 40-foot crater in the Barrack Square, and the ever-present possibility that another would arrive. Incidentally, the piano became later a cause of much trouble to us, for the police refused to allow us to move it through the streets without a permit from the Town Major; the Town Major would have nothing to do with the matter, having only just arrived in place of his predecessor, who had given us permission to have the piano, and had then been wounded (Town Majors never lasted long in Ypres); and the Gendarmerie would not accept responsibility, so in the end we had to leave it in the barracks. The other two companies, though not so comfortably housed, none the less had an enjoyable time by the lake side, chasing the wild fowl, and watching the shelling of Ypres.

Just at this time several changes took place in the personnel of the Brigade and the Battalion. First, Brig.-Gen. G.C. Kemp, R.E., late C.R.E., 6th Division, was appointed our Brigade Commander in place of General Clifford, who left us to take up an appointment in England, having been exactly six months in command. Capt. Bromfield, our Adjutant, whose health had been bad for the past month, was finally compelled to go to Hospital, whence he was shortly afterwards transferred to England. As his assistant, Lieut. Vincent was also away sick, Lieut. Langdale was appointed Adjutant, while 2nd Lieut. C.H.F. Wollaston took the place of Lieut. A.T. Sharpe as machine gun officer, the latter having left sick to Hospital at the end of July. Lieut. Moore sprained his ankle, and 2nd Lieut. R.C.L. Mould went down with fever, both being sent home, and with them went 2nd Lieut. L.H. Pearson, who had severe concussion, as the result of being knocked down by a Minenwerfer bomb. Capt. Bland became 2nd in command with the rank of Major, and Captain R. Hastings and Lieut. R.D. Farmer were now commanding "A" and "C" Companies. Capt. M. Barton, our original medical officer, had come out in June and relieved Lieut. Manfield, who had been temporarily taking his place. We had also one reinforcement—2nd Lieut. G.B. Williams, posted to "D" Company, who the following tour lost 2nd Lieut. C.R. Knighton who sprained his knee. At the same time Serjt. A. Garratt, of "A" Company, became C.S.M. of "D" in place of C.S.M. J. Cooper, who was sent home with fever.

On the 16th August we went once more to the line for a six-day tour, which proved to be the first in which our artillery began to show a distinct superiority to the enemy's, not only in accuracy but in weight of shell. Several 8" and 9.2" Howitzers appeared in the Salient and, on the evening of the 18th, we carried out an organized bombardment of the lines opposite "50" trench, paying special attention to the neighbourhood of the Minenwerfer. The accuracy of these large Howitzers was surprising, and they obtained several direct hits on the Boche front line, the resulting display of flying sandbags and trench timbers being watched with the utmost pleasure by almost every man in the Battalion. The enemy retaliated with salvoes of whiz-bangs on "50," and a few on "A6" and "A7," but did not carry out any extensive bombardment, though, when relieved by the Lincolnshires on the 22nd, we had had upwards of 45 casualties. Among the killed was L/Cpl. Biddles of "A" Company, who had risked death many times on patrol, only to be hit when sitting quietly in a trench eating his breakfast. This N.C.O., old enough to have his son serving in the company with him, was never happier than when wandering about in No Man's Land, either by day or night, and from the first to the last day of every tour he spent his time either patrolling, or preparing for his next patrol. Early in the morning of the 23rd we reached once more the huts at Ouderdom, having at last had the sense to have the limbers to meet us at Kruisstraat to carry packs, which at this time we always took into the line with us. We had been away from even hut civilization for twenty-four days—quite long enough when those days have to be spent in the mud, noise and discomfort of the Salient.

Our rest, while fortunately comparatively free of working parties, contained two features of interest, an inspection by our new Brigadier, and an officers' cricket match against the 16th Lancers. For the first we were able, with the aid of a recently-arrived draft of 100 men, to parade moderately strong, and Gen. Kemp was well satisfied with our "turn-out." It was, however, to be regretted that the only soldier to whom he spoke happened to be a blacksmith, for which trade we had the previous day sent to Brigade Headquarters a "nil" return. The cricket match was a great success, and thanks to some excellent batting by Lieut. Langdale, we came away victorious. The light training which we carried out each day now included a very considerable amount of bomb throwing, and it seemed as though the bomb was to be made the chief weapon of the infantry soldier, instead of the rifle and bayonet, which always has been, and always will be, a far better weapon than any bomb. However, the new act had to be learnt, and a Battalion bomb squad was soon formed under 2nd Lieut. R. Ward Jackson, whose chief assistants were L/Cpl. R.H. Goodman, Ptes. W.H. Hallam, P. Bowler, E.M. Hewson, A. Archer, F. Whitbread, J.W. Percival and others, many of whom afterwards became N.C.O.'s. Every officer and man had to throw a live grenade, and, as there were eight or nine different kinds, he also had to have some mechanical knowledge, while the instructor had to know considerably more about explosives than a sapper.

The excitement of our next tour started before we reached Kruisstraat. All day long (the 28th August) a single 9.2" Howitzer had been firing behind a farm house on the track to the Indian Transport Field, and, as we marched past the position by platoons, all of us interested in watching the loading process, it suddenly blew up, sending breach-block, sheets of cast iron and enormous fragments of base plate and carriage several hundred yards through the air. We ran at once to the nearest cover, but three men were hit by falling fragments, and we were lucky not to lose more, for several of us, including 2nd Lieut. J.W. Tomson, had narrow escapes. We eventually reached the line, and relieved the Lincolnshires in Trenches "49" to "A3." The 3rd Division had now taken "A4" to "A7." Three days later 2nd Lieuts. H. Moss, N.C. Stoneham and C.B. Clay joined us, and were posted to "A," "D" and "B" Companies respectively. At the same time 2nd Lieut. J.D. Hills was appointed Brigade Intelligence Officer, a new post just introduced by General Kemp.

We suffered the usual scattered shelling and trench mortaring during the first half of the tour, to which our Artillery could only reply lightly because they were saving ammunition for an organized bombardment further North. However, no serious damage was done, so this did not matter. The bombardment took place at dawn on the 1st September, and in reply the Germans, instead of shelling the left as was expected, concentrated all their efforts on the "50," "A1" corner, starting with salvoes of whiz-bangs, and finishing with a heavy shoot, 8", 5.9" and shrapnel, from 10.45 to mid-day. Our Artillery replied at once, but nothing would stop the Boche, who had the most extraordinary good fortune in hitting our dug-outs, causing many casualties. 2nd Lieut. Clay, not yet 24 hours in trenches, was among the first to be wounded, and soon afterwards Serjt. B. Smith, of "B" Company, received a bad wound, to which he succumbed a few hours later. In "A" Company, except for C.S.M. Gorse's and the Signallers', every dug-out was hit, and C.E. Scott and F.W. Pringle, the two officers' batmen, were killed, while A.H. Cassell was badly wounded. The officers themselves had two miraculous escapes. First, 2nd Lieuts. Tomson and Moss were sitting in their dug-out, when a 5.9" dud passed straight through the roof and on into the ground almost grazing 2nd Lieut. Tomson's side. These two then went round to wake Capt. Hastings, who was resting in another dug-out, and the three had only just left, when this too was blown in, burying Capt. Hastings' Sam Browne belt and all his papers. Many brave deeds were done during the shelling, two of which stand out. T. Whitbread, of "A" Company, hearing of the burying of the two officers' servants, rushed to the spot, and, regardless of the shells which were falling all round, started to dig them out, scraping the earth away with his hands, until joined by Sergeants Gore and Baxter, who came up with shovels. The other, whose work cannot be passed over, was our M.O., Captain Barton. Always calm and collected, yet always first on the spot if any were wounded, he seemed to be in his element during a bombardment, and this day was no exception. He was everywhere, tying up wounds, helping the Stretcher Bearers, encouraging everyone he met, and many a soldier owed his life to the ever-present "Doc."

On the 2nd September we were relieved by the Lincolnshires again, and once more became Brigade reserve for six days—six of the most unpleasant days we spent in the Salient. First the Railway dug-outs, to which Battalion Headquarters and half the Battalion should have gone, had been so badly shelled while the Lincolnshires were there that only one company was allowed to go, while the remainder were sent to bivouac at Kruisstraat. The fine weather came to an end the same day, and it rained hard all the time, which would have been bad enough in bivouacs, and was worse for us who had to spend most of our day on some working-party, either dug-outs, or trying to drain some hopelessly water-logged communication trench, such as the one from Manor Farm to Square Wood. Altogether we had a poor time, and were quite glad on the 8th to return to trenches, where we were joined two days later by Lieut.-Col. C.H. Jones, who had returned from England and took over command. He had had the greatest difficulty in returning to France, and it was only when he had applied to the War Office for command of a Brigade in Gallipoli that the authorities at last took notice of him and sent him back to us. On his arrival Major Toller resumed his duties of 2nd in command; Major Bland was at the time in England sick.

The arrival of an officer reinforcement was always the signal for a Boche strafe, and the return of the Colonel they celebrated with a two days' "hate" instead of one. "A1" and "50" and their supports suffered most, and much damage to trenches was done by heavy Minenwerfer, 8" and 5.9" shells. Towards evening the situation became quieter, but just before 10 o'clock the Boche exploded a camouflet against one of our "A1" mine galleries, and killed three Tunnellers, whose bodies we could not rescue owing to the gasses in the mine, which remained there for more than twenty-four hours. The next day the bombardment of "50" and "50S" continued, and amongst other casualties, which were heavy, Capt. J.L. Griffiths and 2nd Lieut. R.B. Farrer of "B" Company were both hit and had to be evacuated, the one with 13, the other 35 small fragments of shell in him. The enemy had now become so persistent that we asked for help from our heavy artillery, and the following day—our last in the line—we carried out several organized bombardments of important enemy centers, such as "Hill 60," to which he replied with a few more large "crumps" on "50" support and was then silent. In the evening the Lincolnshires took our place, and, having lost 11 killed and 39 wounded in 6 days, we marched back to rest at Dickebusch huts.

For some considerable time there had been many rumors about a coming autumn offensive on our part, and on the 22nd September, having returned to trenches two days previously, we received our first orders about it. We were told nothing very definite except that the 3rd and 14th Divisions would attack at Hooge, while we made a vigorous demonstration to draw retaliation from their front to ourselves, and that there would also be attacks on other parts of the British front. We were to make a feint gas attack by throwing smoke-bombs and lighting straw in front of our parapet, to frighten the Boche into expecting an attack along the "Hill 60"—Sanctuary Wood front. Capt. Burnett and his transport were, therefore, ordered to bring up wagon-loads of straw, much to their annoyance, for they already had a bad journey every night with the rations, and extra horses meant extra anxiety. It was seldom that the transport reached Armagh Wood without being shelled on an ordinary night, and whenever there was fighting in any part of the Salient, the area round Maple Copse became so hot that they had to watch for an opportunity and gallop through. In spite of this they never failed us, and rations always arrived, even in the worst of times.

On the 23rd there were two preliminary bombardments, one short but very heavy at Hooge, the other lasting most of the morning on "Hill 60"—a bluff. During the night it rained and the arrival of our straw was consequently postponed until the following night, which proved to be little better. The wagons were late and there was not much time to complete our task; however, all worked their utmost, and by 1.0 a.m. on the 25th a line of damp straw had been spread along our wire in front of "50." Unfortunately, the Battalion on our right were unable to put their straw in position in time, but as the Brigade beyond them had theirs, we thought this would not make any difference to the operation. Just before daylight a general order from G.H.Q. arrived, starting with the words, "At Dawn, on the 25th September, the British Armies will take the offensive on the Western Front." We felt that the time had now come when the war was going to be won and the Boche driven out of France, and some of us were a little sorry that our part was to consist of nothing more than setting fire to some damp straw.

At 3.50 a.m. Hooge battle started with an intense artillery bombardment from every gun in the salient, and it was an inspiring sight to stand on the ridge behind "50" trench and watch, through the half-light, the line of flashes to the west, an occasional glare showing us the towers of Ypres over the trees. The Germans replied at once on "A1" trench, but finding that we remained quiet, their batteries soon ceased fire and opened instead on Sanctuary Wood and Hooge. This was expected, for it was not in the initial attack, but during the consolidation that the 3rd Division wanted to draw the enemy's fire. At a few minutes before six our time had come, smoke bombs were thrown, and, though the wind was against us, Col. Jones, feeling that we must make the biggest possible display, ordered the straw to be lit. This promptly drew fire, and in five minutes there was not one single gun on our side of the Salient still firing at Hooge, they had all turned on us. At first sight of the smoke several machine guns had opened fire opposite "50" and "49," but these died away almost at once as the Boche, thoroughly frightened at the prospect of gas, evacuated his trenches. Half-an-hour later he actually bombarded his own lines on the Northern slopes of "Hill 60" with 11" shells, presumably imagining that we had occupied them. The bluff was complete.

But such a success cannot be purchased without loss, and our losses had been heavy. The Staffordshires had not lit their straw because of the wind, so that the enemy's retaliation, which should have been spread along the whole front from "A1" to "Hill 60" was concentrated entirely on our three trenches "40," "50" and "A1." "C" Company (Lt. R.D. Farmer) in "50" suffered most. Choked and blinded by the smoke from the straw, which blew back and filled the trench, their parapet blown away by salvo after salvo of small shells, their supports battered with 8" and heavy mortars, with no cover against the unceasing rain of shells from front and left, they had to bear it all in silence, unable to hit back. Serjts. J.G. Burnham and J. Birkin were killed, and with them 10 others of the battalion, while 30 more were wounded. Once more the "Doc." and his stretcher-bearers were everywhere, and many who might otherwise have bled to death, owed their lives to this marvelous man, who wandered round and dressed their wounds wherever the shelling was hottest. At the first opening of the battle our telephone lines to the Artillery were broken, and for some time we could get no support, but the Derby Howitzers and one of the Lincolnshire batteries fired a number of rounds for us, and later, thanks to the efforts of Lieut. C. Morgan, R.F.A., the F.O.O., we were able to call on Major Meynell's Staffordshire battery as well. By 7.15 a.m. all was once more quiet, and we spent the rest of the day evacuating our casualties, and trying to clear away some of the litter of straw from our trenches.

The following day passed quietly, and in the evening, relieved by the Lincolnshires, we marched out of trenches. Ten minutes later the enemy blew up trench "47" and opened heavy rifle fire on all sides of the salient. The Battalion was marching by companies, and "A" and "D" had just reached Manor Farm when the noise began, and bullets fell all round them. Capt. Jefferies, who was leading, was hit almost at once and fell mortally wounded, never again recovering consciousness, and several others became casualties before the party could reach cover on the far side of the Farm. "B" and "C" were still in Armagh Wood, so Colonel Jones at once decided to man the new breastwork between it and Square Wood, and there they remained until the situation became once more quiet. Finally, at midnight, we moved into our Brigade Support positions, Headquarters and "B" Company in Railway Dug-outs, "C" Company in Deeping Dug-outs near the Lake, and the others in Kruisstraat bivouacs. Even now we were not allowed to live in peace, for the following morning, at 11.0 a.m., the enemy bombarded Railway Dug-outs for two hours, firing 90 8" shells, and (so says the War Diary) "plenty of shrapnel." No one was hit, though Col. Jones' dug-out and the Orderly Room were destroyed, and the bomb store, which was hit and set on fire, was only saved from destruction by the efforts of C.S.M. Lovett, who with Pte. Love and one or two others, fetched water from the pond and put out the fire. From 6.30 to 7.30 p.m. the dug-outs were again bombarded and a few more destroyed, so that we were not sorry when, on the 1st October the Wiltshire Regiment came to relieve us, and we marched back to bivouacs at Ouderdom.

On the 2nd, after a farewell address to the officers by the Corps Commander, the Battalion marched during the morning to Abeele, where at 3.30 p.m. we entrained for the South and said good-bye to the "Salient" for ever. We were not sorry to go, even though there were rumors of a coming battle, and our future destination was unknown.

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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