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Flanders Mud to the Mediterranean

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

15th Oct., 1915.28th Jan., 1916.

The whole Brigade was left very weak after the battle, and there was a serious shortage of officers. As in this respect we, as a Battalion, had suffered least, we had to supply the needs of other units, and Major Toller went to command the 4th Battalion, taking with him 2nd Lieut. Trevor Jones, as they had no subaltern officers. At the same time 2nd Lieut. H.E. Chapman was sent to help the 5th Lincolnshires, and Capt. Burnett and Lieut. Ward Jackson went to Brigade Headquarters to look after Transport and Bombs, while their duties in the Battalion were performed by Serjt. Brodribb and Serjt. Goodman. We could not afford a machine gun officer, so Serjt. Jacques was made responsible for the guns until an officer reinforcement should arrive. "A," "B" and "D" Companies were commanded by Lieuts. Tomson, Wynne, and Shields, and, as Lieut. Allen was still in hospital, Lieut. Hills acted as Adjutant. The officers all messed together at first, and tried to maintain the old cheerful spirit of the Battalion mess—a little difficult after losing in one day more than three-quarters of the mess.

On Sunday, General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley came to talk to the Battalion after Church parade, and congratulated us on the fighting, saying that, considering the odds against us, he thought we had done very well indeed. He then went round the ranks talking to some of the men who had taken part in the battle, and was very amused by some of the answers he received to his questions. One soldier, asked what he had done in the fight, replied that he had "blown half a Boche officer's leg off with a bomb." The General thought this excellent, but wanted to know why he had chosen half an officer only, and not a whole one.

We stayed ten days at Hesdigneul, and then moved to Drouvin and Vaudricourt, where the billets were better, and we were able to have a Battalion officers' mess. During this time, many reinforcement officers arrived and two large drafts of other ranks. Two of our original officers returned—Capt. Beasley, who now took command of "B" Company, and Lieut. Knighton, who returned to "D" as 2nd in Command. The remainder were new to us, and were posted as follows: "A" Company—2nd Lieuts. M.A. Hepworth, C.H. Pickworth, and G. Russell; "B" Company—2nd Lieuts. J.W. Brittain and, when they returned, the two officers lent to other Battalions; "C" Company—Capt. S.J. Fowler, 2nd Lieuts. A.M. Barrowcliffe and A.L. Macbeth; "D" Company—2nd Lieuts. A.H. Dawes, H.W. Oliver, and J.R. Brooke. 2nd Lieut. C.L. Saunders became Machine Gun Officer. With these additions we were able to start training again, and devoted our time to route marching, bayonet fighting, and, most of all, bomb throwing. At no time during the war was more reliance placed on bombs, and scheme after scheme was invented for "bombing attacks up a trench," to such an extent that the platoon organization was now re-modeled with the one idea of forming bomb parties. The rifle seemed to be temporarily forgotten.

On the 28th October, as many Units as possible of the 1st Army were inspected by H.M. The King. Our Brigade formed a composite Battalion commanded by Col. Jones, and, with the rest of the Division, and representatives of other Divisions, was drawn up along the Hesdigneul-Labuissière Road. His Majesty rode past us from Labuissière and, after taking the salute, came down the hill again in his car with the Prince of Wales. He acknowledged our cheers with a smile, and it was not until afterwards that we learnt of his accident soon after passing us, and knew the pain he was suffering during his drive back, pain which he had so admirably concealed.

After the inspection we sent a large party, six officers and 230 N.C.O.'s and men, to Sailly Labourse, to carry gas cylinders and other material to trenches, but except for this we were spared all fatigues during our period of rest. A week later we marched through Béthune and Robecq to Calonne sur la Lys, a little village outside Merville, where we remained another week before going to the line. Lieut. Allen rejoined us and became Adjutant; Lieut. Hills, after a few days with "A" Company, went to Brigade Headquarters as a Staff Learner. At the same time, Major Toller returned to the Battalion as 2nd in Command. After commanding the 4th Battalion until a new Colonel arrived for them, he had been posted to the 5th Lincolnshires, and for a time it looked as though he would be permanently given command. However, bad luck pursued him, and, as two new Colonels arrived for that Battalion the same day, he again lost his Command. Considering that he had commanded us for three months during the summer with great success, and was easily senior Major in the Brigade, it was exceptionally bad luck that he had to wait another eight months before finally getting his Battalion.

On the 10th November, we were told that we should once more take over a part of the line, and the following morning we marched to Lacouture and went into billets for one night. "B" Co. (Beasley) went on at once and spent the night in support positions near the Rue du Bois between Festubert and Neuve Chapelle. The rest of us moved up the next day and took over our new line from the Sherwood Foresters the same night. Battalion Headquarters lived in a little cottage, "No. 1" Albert Road, two Companies occupied a large farm house in the same neighbourhood fitted up as a rest house, one Company lived in a series of curiously named keeps—"Haystack," "Z Orchard," "Path," and "Dead Cow," and one Company only was in the front line.

The Brigade now held the line from "Kinkroo," a corruption of La Quinque Rue, crossing to the "Boar's Head," and of this we held the stretch opposite the two farms in No Man's Land, Fme du Bois and Fme Cour d'Avoué. The latter, surrounded by a moat, had an evil reputation, and was said to have been the death-trap of many patrols, which had gone there and never been seen since. The trenches had been dug in the summer when the country was dry, with no regard to the fact that in winter the water level rises to within two inches of the surface of the ground. In consequence, the trenches were full of mud and water, and most of the bivouacs and shelters were afloat. The mud was the worst, for although only two feet deep, yet it was of the clinging variety, and made walking impossible, so much so, that many a man has found it impossible to withdraw his foot, has had to leave his gum-boot behind, go on in his socks, and come back later with a shovel to rescue his boot. The water was deeper and often came over one's gum-boots and up to one's waist, but at least it was possible to walk slowly through it without fear of getting stuck. To add to the discomfort of the garrison, the weather was bitterly cold and often very wet, and though no Company remained more than 24 hours in the front line, yet that was long enough for many to become chilled and so start the terrible "trench foot."

"Trench foot," as it was called, was one of the most terrible afflictions of winter trenches. After standing for a long period in water or mud, or with wet rubber boots, the feet became gradually numbed and the circulation ceased, while as the numbed area increased a dull aching pain spread over the whole foot. Exercise to restore the circulation would have prevented this, but for men who were compelled to spend the entire day in one fire bay, exercise was impossible, and by evening the numbness had almost always started. As soon, therefore, as a Company came from the front line, it marched to the rest house. Here, every man was given a hot drink, his wet boots and socks were taken away, his feet rubbed by the Stretcher Bearers until the circulation was restored, and then with dry socks and dry boots he remained for the next 24 hours in the warmer atmosphere of the rest house. Should action not be taken in time, and a man be left for 48 hours with wet boots and socks, the rest house treatment was insufficient, and he had to be sent to Hospital, where, if gangrene had not set in, he could still be cured. Many in the early days did not realize its dangers, for once gangrene starts, the foot has to be amputated.

The enemy's trenches were probably as bad as our own, and he only manned his front line at night, leaving a few snipers to hold it by day. These were active for the first hour or two after morning "stand to," but then had breakfast and apparently slept for the rest of the day, at all events they troubled us no more. This was a distinct advantage, for it enabled communication to be kept between posts and from front to rear, without the orderly having either to swim up a communication trench or run a serious risk of being sniped. One, Kelly, a famous "D" Company character, tried to walk too soon one morning to fetch his rum ration and was hit in the knee, much to his annoyance; but on the whole there were very few casualties. By night, too, there was not much firing, probably because both sides were hard at work taking up rations, relieving front line posts, or trying to get dry with the aid of a walk "on top." In our case, with 24 hour reliefs, there were no ration parties, because each Company as it went to the line took its rations and fuel with it.

Our only communication trench was "Cadbury's," which started near "Chocolat Menier," corner of the Rue du Bois, so called after an advertisement for this chocolate fastened to the side of a house. It was even more water logged than the front line, and consequently, except when the ice was thick enough to walk on, was seldom used. With a little care it was possible to reach the front line even by day without the help of a trench at all, and Lieut. Saunders always used to visit his machine guns in this way, making the journey both ways over the top every day that we held the sector, and never once being shot at.

The Rue du Bois we used as little as possible, for every other house was an O.P., and the gunners preferred us at a distance. The "Ritz," "Carlton," "Trocadero," and "Princes" all gave one an excellent view of the enemy's front line, and, knowing this, the Boche concentrated most of the little artillery he used on this neighbourhood. There was seldom any heavy shelling, mostly field artillery only, and this of a poor order, for not only were there many "duds" in every shoot, but also the gunners seemed to lack imagination. So regular were they in their choice of targets, times of shooting, and number of rounds fired, that, after being in the line one or two days, Col. Jones had discovered their system, and knew to a minute where the next shell would fall. His calculations were very accurate, and he was able to take what seemed to uninitiated Staff Officers big risks, knowing that the shelling would stop before he reached the place being shelled.

Amongst the new subaltern officers was one unlike any we had seen before—2nd Lieut. J.R. Brooke. He loved patrolling for its own sake, and during his first few days in the line explored everything he could find including the German wire and trenches. From this time onwards he spent more of his days crawling about on his stomach than sitting like a respectable soldier in a trench, and even when years later he became a Company Commander it was found impossible to break him of the habit. Captains were forbidden to go on patrol, but this did not matter to him, he would take a subaltern with him and make the latter write the report, calling it 2nd Lieut. —— and one other Rank. One would expect such a man to be large, strong, and of a fierce countenance; 2nd Lieut. Brooke was small, of delicate health, and looked as though his proper vacation in life was to hand cups of tea to fair ladies at a village tea fight.

It seemed probable that we should have to remain in this sector for the whole winter, and our first thought was, therefore, how to make the trenches somewhat more habitable. It was obvious that digging was out of the question, and that nothing less than a large breastwork, built entirely above ground, would be of any use. General Kemp visited the lines several times before finally deciding on his plan, and then sighted two works, the front a few yards behind our present front line, the second just behind what was called the "old British Line," now used for our supports. It was a gigantic task, and the work was very slow, even though every available man worked all night. The inside of the breastwork was to be revetted with frames of woodwork and expanded metal, and, in order that the parapet might be really bullet proof, the soil for it had to be dug from a "borrow pit" several yards in front. The soil was sticky and would not leave the shovel, which added terribly to the work; for each man had literally to dig a shovel full, walk five or six yards and deposit it against the revetting frames. Fortunately for us the Boche did not seem to object to our work, in any case he left us in peace each night.
While this was in progress, an effort was also made to try and drain the area. In many places water was lying, held up by sandbag walls and old trenches, actually above the ground level, and it was hoped that by cleaning ditches and arranging a general drainage scheme for the whole area, this surplus water might be drained off, and, in time, the whole water level lowered. Lieut. A.G. Moore, M.C., who returned from England at this time, was made "O.C. Drainage," and set to work at once with what men he could collect, but so big were the parties working on the breastworks each night, that only a very few could be spared for this other work, and not very much could be done.

Soon after Lieut. Moore, 2nd. Lieut. G.B. Williams also returned to us, and became Battalion Intelligence Officer, a post now started for the first time. At the same time four new officers arrived—2nd Lieuts. G. Selwyn and W. Ashwell to "A" Company, 2nd Lieut. A.N. Bloor to "B," and 2nd Lieut. V.J. Jones to "D." C.S.M. Gilding and Serjt. Brodribb both left us to be trained as officers, and their places were taken by C.Q.M.S. Johnson who became C.S.M. of "C" Company, and Corpl. Roberts who took charge of the Transport. The latter was still under the special care of Capt. Burnett, although he had all the Transport of the Brigade to look after.

Our first tour ended on the 25th, when, after 12 days' mud and frost, we were relieved by the 4th Lincolnshires, and came back to billets in the Rue des Chavattes, not far from Lacouture, where Stores and Transport remained throughout this time. Our casualties had not been very heavy, and we lost more through the weather conditions than at the hands of the enemy, for Capt. Fowler and several N.C.O.'s and men, unable to stand the exposure, had to be sent to Hospital. Our billeting area included several keeps or strong points—L'Epinette, le Touret, and others—for which we found caretakers, little thinking, as we stocked them with reserve rations, that the Boche would eventually eat our "Bully," and it would fall to our lot in three years time to drive him from these very positions. The day after relief, the Brigadier went on leave, and Col. Jones took his place at Brigade Headquarters—"Cense du Raux" Farm—somewhat to the annoyance of one or two of the other Commanding Officers, who, though junior to the Colonel, were all "Regular Time-serving Soldiers."

Up to this time our covering Artillery had belonged to another (New Army) Division, but now our own Gunners took over the line, making it more than ever certain that we were to spend the whole winter in these abominable trenches. We were very glad to see our own Artillery again, for, though their predecessors had done quite well, we always preferred our own, even in the days of 15 pounders and 5 inch howitzers. Not only were they more accurate than other people, but they were also more helpful, and were obviously intent on serving us Infantry, not, as some others, on carrying on a small war of their own. Besides, we knew the F.O.O.'s so well and looked forward to seeing them in the Mess, where, between occasional squabbles about real or imaginary short shooting, they were the most cheerful companions. Lieuts. Wright, Morris-Eyton, Watson of the 1st Staffs., Morgan, Anson of the 4th, and Lyttelton, Morris, and Dixie of the 2nd Lincolnshires, were the most frequent visitors for the "pip squeaks," while Lieuts. Newton, Cattle, and F. Joyce performed the same duties for the Derby Howitzers. They always took care to maintain their superiority over the mere foot soldier by a judicious use of long technical words which they produced one at a time. At Kemmel they were always "registering"; at Ypres, as we, too, had learnt the meaning of "register" and even dared to use the word ourselves, they introduced "bracketing," and as this became too common, "calibrating" and so on; the more famous of recent years being "datum point" and M.P.I, (mean point of impact). Occasionally our officers used to visit the Batteries, in order to learn how a gun was fired—an opportunity for any F.O.O. to wreak vengeance on some innocent Infantry Subaltern, who had dared to suggest that he had been shooting short. The Infantryman would be led down to the gun pit, and told to stand with one leg on each side of the trail, "so that he could watch the shell leave the gun"; some Gunner would then pull a string and the poor spectator, besides being nearly deaf, would see some hideous recoiling portion shoot straight at his stomach, stop within an eighth of an inch of his belt buckle, and slide slowly back—a ghastly ordeal.

On the night of the 2nd December, we went once more to the line and relieved the 4th Lincolnshires in our old sector, which we found very much as we had left it, perhaps a little wetter, as it had been raining. For this tour we slightly altered our dispositions, and instead of each of the four Companies taking a tour in the front line, two Companies only would do so for this tour, the other two doing the same the following tour. It was hoped that in this way the garrison would take more interest in improving their surroundings if they knew they would return to the same place every other day. Under the old system, no one took much interest in a trench which he only occupied for 24 hours, and would not see again for four days. We did not, however, have a chance of testing this new arrangement, for at 3-45 the following morning, orders came that the Division would be relieved the following night, and was under orders to go to the East. As soon as it was dark, the 19th Division took our place in the line, and we marched back for the night to the Rue des Chavattes, whence, after ridding ourselves of gum-boots, sheepskin coats, and extra blankets, we marched the following day by Locon, Lestrem and Merville to Caudescure, a little village on the edge of Nieppe Forest.

We found fairly good billets here, though they were too scattered to allow of a Battalion Mess, and we spent a very enjoyable fortnight training, playing football, and listening to rumors about our destination. The most persistent of the last was Egypt, based in the first instance on a telephone conversation between a Corps and Divisional Signaler, overhead by a telephonist at Brigade, in which the Corps Signaler told his friend that he had seen a paper in one of the offices which said that we were to go to Egypt. On the other hand, Lieut. X of the Lincolnshires had a brother in the Flying Corps, who had ridden on a lorry with an A.S.C. Serjeant from G.H.Q., and had been told that all the Territorial Divisions in India were being relieved by Divisions from France. Against this was Captain Z's batman, who had a friend in the Staffordshires who was batman to an officer who had a cousin in the War Office, and he said we were going to the Dardenelles. On the top of all these came General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley to inspect us, and, incidentally, to tell us that he himself had not the slightest idea where we were going.

On the 19th we moved to the little hamlet of Tannay, still on the edge of the woods, between Haverskerque and Thiennes. As we paraded in the morning there were many who said they could smell gas, but as the wind was N.E. and the line very far away, we thought they must be mistaken. However, the next day the official communiqué told us of a big gas attack at Ypres on the 9th and 49th Divisions, and though Ypres was 18 miles away, it must have been this that could be smelt. In these new billets we spent Christmas—the first Christmas in France for us, and managed with the aid of plum puddings and other luxuries sent out to us by the good people at home, to enjoy ourselves immensely. Not only were many good things to eat sent us, but we also received some very welcome gifts of tobacco, cigarettes, books and stationery from the "Leicester Daily Post and Mercury" funds. Both these papers have been most faithful throughout the war, never failing to send us "themselves," and often adding boxes of comforts for all. Our celebrations included a Brigade Football Cup competition, for which we entered a hot side, including many of our old players—"Banger" Neal, "Mush" Taylor, Toon, Archer, Skelly, Fish, Serjt. Allan, Kirchin and others. We met the 5th Lincolnshires in the semi-finals and beat them 2—1, and then turned our attention to their 4th Battalion, who after beating our 4th Battalion, our old rivals, met us in the final and went down 1—0. The final was a keen, hard game, played well to the finish, and we deserved our win. The trophy—a clock, mounted into a French "75" shell—was taken back to Leicestershire by Capt. Farmer when he next went on leave.

On the 27th we again moved, this time to some farms round Widdebroucq, just west of Aire, to be nearer our entraining station Berguette, which with Lillers had already been reconnoitred. As Captains Hills and Ward Jackson had already gone forward with an advance party to Marseilles, it began to look as though we really should go East before the end of the war—a fact which some of us were beginning to doubt. Training still continued each day, special attention being paid to open warfare tactics, which fortunately included more musketry and less bombing, and we also carried out a number of route marches and field days. Scouts, having become obsolete, were resurrected, and Field Service Regulations rescued from the dim recesses of valises. It was a pleasant change after the previous nine months' trench work.

At last, on the 6th January, we marched to Berguette station and boarded a long train of cattle trucks, leaving at 4.40 p.m. The first part of the journey was uninteresting, but after passing Paris, the train seemed happier, went quite fast at times, and did not stop so long between stations. The weather on the 8th was lovely, and the third day's traveling under a hot sun was delicious; doors were pushed back, and those for whom there was no room on the foot-boards, sat on the carriage roofs. Finally, at 1.0 a.m. on the 9th, the train reached Marseilles, and we marched out to a camp on the west side of the town, in a suburb called Santi, where there were tents for all, and a large room for an officers' mess. Here we remained 14 days in the most excellent surroundings, and with heavenly weather.

The Staffordshires and Lincolnshires had already sailed for Egypt when we arrived, and a few days later another ship carried some Padres and other officers of the Division to the same destination. For the rest of us there were for the moment no transports, so we had to wait—not a very terrible task, when our most strenuous exercise was sea-bathing or playing water polo, and our recreation consisted of walking into the town, to which an almost unlimited number of passes were given. Here, it must be admitted, there was often too much to eat and far too much to drink, and the attractions were so great that everybody waited for the last possible tram back to camp, with the result that this vehicle arrived with human forms clinging to every corner of the sides, ends and roof—a most extraordinary sight. On one occasion two well-known soldiers who had dined too well and not too wisely, stood solemnly at the side of the road holding up their hands to a tram to stop, when a party of lively French scavengers turned the hosepipe on to them, and they had to be rescued from the gutter, where they lay with the water running in at their collars and out at their ankles. The officers, too, had many popular resorts, such as Therese's Bar and the Bodega for cocktails, the Novelty for dinner, and a host of entertainments to follow, ranging from the opera, which was first-class, for the serious, through the "Alcazar" and "Palais de Crystal" for the frivolous, to the picture palaces for the utterly depraved.

On the 20th we learnt that our Transport was now ready for us, and the following morning we marched to the docks and embarked in H.M.T. "Andania," late Cunard, which can only be described as a floating palace, fitted with every modern luxury. We were all rather glad to be leaving Marseilles, for it was an expensive place, and many of the officers were beginning to be a little apprehensive about the lengths to which Mr. Cox would let them go. However, all would now be right, because once in the desert we should draw extra pay and find no Bodegas. We were to sail on the morning of the 22nd, and soon after dawn orders arrived—to disembark! Sadly we left our palace and walked back to Santi Camp—now hateful to look upon, as we realized that within a few days we should be back once more in the mud, rain, cold and snow of Flanders. The reason for the sudden change, for taking half the Division to Egypt for a fortnight only, was never told us, but probably it was owing to the successful evacuation of the Dardanelles. Had this been a failure, had we been compelled to surrender large numbers to save the rest, the Turks would have been free to attack Egypt, which had at that time a small garrison only. As it was the Division from Gallipoli went to Egypt, and we were not wanted.

On the 27th Pte. Gregory, who died as the result of a tram accident, was given a full military funeral, and the following day at 4.30 a.m. we left Marseilles for the North.

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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