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Fresnoy and Riquerval Woods

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

5th Oct., 1918 - 11th Oct., 1918

One night was all we spent in Etricourt, bitterly cold but quiet and unmolested by the enemy. The following day, the 5th of September, was bright and warm, so we at once set about improving our surroundings, started to bring some of our stores from Magny La Fosse, and were just beginning to think we might make the place fairly comfortable, when orders came for another move. There was going to be another battle, and, though we were not taking part, our area was wanted for a Support Division, so we were to go back across the Canal, and take over some shelters in the old front line trench on the Ridge. This sounded rather cold, but at all events we were going backwards to that long expected rest; not too soon, for at midday an observation balloon made its appearance, and its section chose Etricourt for their home, with the result of course of annoying the Boche to such an extent that he fired some shells over the village. At 5-0 p.m. we fell in and marched by Riquerval Bridge over the Canal and up to the Ridge, passing the Brigadier on the main road by the Canal, and found the Brigade we were to relieve, sitting very comfortably in their shelters and huts. Unfortunately they had no intention of moving until the following morning. It was now 6-30 p.m. and would soon be dark, so we were faced with two alternatives—one to sit on the road, send for the Staff, and wail loudly, the other to help ourselves.

The other two Battalions chose the former; we, being now very old soldiers, chose the latter. An open patch of ground with some good large shell holes was before us, we had a tool cart with us, and here and there might be seen a sheet or two of corrugated iron. Long before it was dark a thin curl of smoke coming out of the ground, a snatch of song, or someone grousing in a loud voice, were the only indications that there were four Companies of Infantry living there. The officers were a little less fortunate; knowing that there were bell tents coming on the limbers, they waited for them. At last they came, and very good tents, too, but someone had forgotten to bring the poles. In spite of this, we were soon all under cover, and in Headquarter Mess were actually having a hot dinner when the Staff arrived and informed the other two Battalions that they would now (in the dark) have to make the best of whatever cover they could find.

The following morning our tent poles arrived, and, having planted the red, white and black flag outside the C.O.'s, tent and mounted guard, we felt quite respectable again. By the afternoon we had so far increased in pride that the Drums not only blew "Retreat," but gave us an excellent concert while the guards were changed. We expected every hour or so to get orders to go back to some place of greater comfort for our rest, but thought it best to take no risks, and, on the morning of the 7th, gave everybody a hot bath. Two wagon covers and a cooker on the Canal worked wonders in this way. This day we lost two more officers—2nd Lieut. Whetton went on leave, and Lieut. Steel had to go to Hospital as the wound in his leg would not heal. "B" Company, being little larger than an ordinary Platoon, Lieut. Hawley was transferred to "D," and 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove commanded "B." Captain Banwell had 2nd Lieut. Griffiths in "C" Company, and 2nd Lieuts. Edwards and Dennis were still with "A." There were no other Company officers, as 2nd Lieut. Argyle was kept at Headquarters for Intelligence work. Fortunately 2nd Lieut. Todd still remained to look after the Transport, which throughout the fighting had been excellent, and Capt. Nicholson, though suffering from "flu," stuck nobly to his work and looked after our comfort at the Stores.

Just after 10 o'clock on the 7th, orders came from Brigade for a move on the following day—forward, not further back, and once more our hopes of the promised rest were dashed. This time the attack was going to be made by the other Divisions, and the 46th was to move at Zero to some assembly areas round Magny La Fosse, and wait there in case the enemy were sufficiently "broken" to allow of a general advance. Zero was five minutes past five—a most uncomfortable hour for a move, especially as breakfasts had to be eaten beforehand. Almost everybody was in bed before orders came, but there were some who had no sleep that night: the Orderly Room producing operation orders, the Quartermaster's department (whose wagons arrived at 3-0 a.m.!), and the cooks getting breakfasts ready, were the most unlucky, but so well did all ranks and all departments do their work, that at 5-0 a.m. the Battalion fell in ready to move. Packs had been stacked, ammunition and bombs distributed, most important of all, we had had a good breakfast. There is no doubt that our discipline and spirit were never better than during those strenuous weeks.

Seldom has more bad language been heard than on that early morning march down to the Canal again. It was half dark and there were Units assembling and marching in every direction. Eventually, finding we should be late at the starting point if we waited for the Regiment which should have been ahead of us, we decided to go on at once, and set off down the rough and slippery track to Riquerval Bridge. All went moderately well until a "C" Company limber stuck. Before it could be drawn clear, a Company of another Regiment marched up and round it, entirely preventing our efforts to free it. Curses were loud on both sides, but nothing could equal the flow of language that the two Company Commanders flung at each other over the heads of their perspiring Companies.

Eventually the limber was on the road again, and we reached the Bridge, near which the Boche every few minutes dropped a shell. This fact, coupled with a long line of Artillery horses going to "water," and the Brigadier trying to get his Brigade across the Canal, produced an effect which completely eclipsed the limber scene. However, as we crossed, the Boche stopped shelling, daylight came and we found the road good, though traffic made the rate of march very slow. The blaspheming consequently subsided, and, finding a field track going in the right direction, we continued our march at a fine pace until we reached our assembly position—an open stretch of ground on the South side of the Magny-Joncourt Road. Along this road were batteries of heavy guns, standing almost wheel to wheel and firing rapidly, so, in view of possible retaliation, the Companies were scattered over various little groups of trenches in the neighbourhood. The cookers came up and we prepared to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, while we once more had the pleasure of watching the Cavalry waiting to be used, and once more saw them go slowly back.

In the afternoon we moved into the next valley Eastwards, so as to be nearer the "line" if wanted; there was also better and less scattered accommodation. Gun pits, dug-outs and the inevitable grassy bank provided all we wanted, and when, an hour later, some few gas shells fell in the valley, we were all snugly under cover. All that is to say except the cookers and with them Serjeant Thomson and his cooks; these were in a shallow sunken road, and had a shell within a few yards of them, fortunately doing no damage. Thinking it best to take all the rest we could, we had the evening meal early, and long before it was dark most of the Battalion were asleep. The Commanding-Officer himself retired before 9-30 p.m., and was consequently fast asleep when, soon after 10-0 p.m., a runner appeared with the usual "B.G.C. will see all Commanding Officers at once." The rendezvous this time was Preselles, some two miles away across country. It was a dark night, but with the aid of a compass he found his way there all right and received orders from General Rowley for an immediate move. The Brigade was to relieve a Brigade of the 6th Division in the right British sector next the French; the Battalion would relieve the West Yorks R. in the right sub-sector. The following morning the Brigade would move forward into Mericourt which was supposed to have been evacuated by the enemy; we were to be "squeezed out" by the 5th Line. R. and French joining hands across our front, and would come into support. Guides would meet us for the relief at Preselles at midnight, October 8th/9th.

The Commanding Officer at once hurried back to the Battalion and verbally issued relief orders while the Companies were falling in. In a little more than half an hour all were ready to move, and Companies marched independently to Preselles, where, under cover of the hill side, the Battalion assembled soon after midnight. There were no guides, so, after waiting some time in vain, the C.O. once more went to Brigade Headquarters and asked for instructions. He was given a map reference—supposed to be that of the Battalion Headquarters of the West Yorks., and once more the Battalion moved off. In single file, with no intervals between platoons for fear of losing touch, and a very uncertain knowledge of the position of the enemy, we marched slowly across country towards where we hoped to find Battalion Headquarters. Reaching the famous sunken road of the battle of the 3rd, we halted while a search was made; we had come to the place referred to on the map, there was nothing there. Fortunately, just as we were wondering what on earth to do, two W. Yorks. guides appeared, led us to their Battalion Headquarters, and soon afterwards the Companies disappeared Eastwards.

Battalion Headquarters was in a small cellar under an isolated house just outside Sequehart on the Preselles Road. It was a most extraordinary relief in many ways, and perhaps the most extraordinary part was the scene in that Headquarters. There were four of us with the M.O., five West Yorks., a French Interpreter, a Padre, and an indescribable heap of runners and signalers, to say nothing of batmen, in a cellar which might have held four people comfortably. On one of the beds in the corner lay an officer. Noticing that he was not wearing W. Yorks badges, we asked who he was. They did not know, he had been there since they came in and had never moved; "perhaps he was gassed or dead," they remarked casually. This was typical of how we all felt, much too tired to worry over other people's troubles. As it happened he was not dead, and, though to this day we have never discovered who he was, he eventually disappeared—going out to look for his own Regiment. For some hours we sat in the most terrible atmosphere waiting for the relief to be finished, and at last, just as dawn was breaking, as three Companies had reported that they were in position, we agreed to take over the line, and the W. Yorks. marched out—to take part in some other battle further North. As soon as they had gone, the C.O., with a map in one hand and a slice of bread and jam in the other, went up to look at our front line and see whether the Boche had really left Mericourt.

The Battalion sector was astride the Sequehart-Mericourt Road which ran due East along the valley South of Mannequin Ridge. Sequehart village and the valley were both full of mist and gas which hung about in patches, and made walking very unpleasant. There were many German dead round the village and in the concrete emplacements of the Fonsomme line, and the fighting in this part must have been heavy. Keeping to the main road, the C.O. found "B" Company at a small cross-roads about one mile East of Sequehart; "A" Company, according to the West Yorkshires, should also have been here, but as this was the Company which had not yet reported "relief complete," he was not surprised when he could not find them. At the next cross-roads, half a mile short of Mericourt, were "C" and "D" Companies on the right and left respectively of the road. Small patrols had already been out towards the village and had not found any enemy, and both Companies were now engaged in finding the Units on their flanks. On the left a post of the Lincolnshires was soon found, and on the right the French were only a few yards away. The liaison here was perfect. After an exchange of courtesies by the Company Commanders, the flank posts fraternized vigorously, and the Frenchmen, by producing some "Jimmy Blink," cemented the Entente Cordiale. They were in great spirits, and since dawn had been formed up with bayonets fixed, waiting to make an attack; "Zero" hour had not been told them, but that did not worry them in the least. To improve the co-operation between us, the French sent a platoon under a Subaltern officer to work with us.

By 6-30 a.m. the mist had lifted enough for us to see Mericourt village plainly, and a strong patrol under 2nd Lieut. Griffiths was sent out to reconnoiter it. They met with no opposition. A few minutes later, a mounted Officer of the Staffordshires, without stopping at our front line to ask about the situation, rode into the village. We were all much too interested in watching to see what became of him, to think of warning him that the Boche might still be there. Soon afterwards, as there was still no sign of the enemy, "C" Company moved into and occupied the East side of the village, and "B" and "D" Companies moved on to the West edge. Messages were sent back to tell Brigade that we held Mericourt, and to bring the Headquarters up there—at present they were about three miles back. From "C" Company's position on the high ground East of the village we looked across a large valley, at the North end of which could be seen Fresnoy le Grand; along the bottom ran the main Fresnoy-St. Quentin Railway, and on the other side a collection of small copses was marked on the map as Bois D'Etaves. Nowhere was there the slightest sign of the enemy. In view of the fact that we were particularly ordered to be in Support if an advance was made, the C.O. would not push on further without orders from the Brigadier. Meanwhile, he went off to look for the missing "A" Company, leaving the three Companies, "B," "C" and "D," holding the village and watching the valley.

At 7-30 the leading platoon of the 5th Linc. Regt. came up on our left, and about an hour later the French started their advance, and, passing Mericourt on the South side, deployed down the slopes towards the Railway line.

As soon as General Rowley heard that Mericourt was in our hands, he rode up to the village and reconnoitered the valley and Fresnoy himself from "C" Company's high ground. Seeing that the French were meeting nothing more than machine gun fire, and were apparently making good progress, he ordered Captain Banwell to move at once into Fresnoy; there was no one else available at the moment, so we ceased to be in Support. The main road had been blown up in two places, but there were no other obstacles, and the Company reached the town without difficulty. The machine gun fire had been very heavy from the Bois D'Etaves on their right and from the Railway embankment, but they had had no casualties, and passed rapidly along the streets, finding no enemy, but meeting to their surprise several civilians, who, overjoyed at their "deliverance," were doing all they could with cups of coffee to welcome their rescuers.

For four years these unhappy people had lived under the heel of the German, and the rotting carcasses of six-months' dead horses which littered the street showed what life they had lived during that time. They had been taught to hate the English, whom they only knew as night-bombers, and yet, when the Boche was being hunted out and offered to take all civilians back to safety in motor lorries, 300 men, women and children, headed by the Deputy Mayor, heroically refused to leave their town, preferring, as they said, to risk the bombardment and the "brutal English" than to remain one day longer in slavery.

At 9-0 o'clock, other Units made their appearance in Fresnoy, and the 5th Lincolnshires, with two Company Headquarters in the Quarry just outside the S.W. corner of the town, pushed some platoons through towards the Eastern edge—on the right of our "C" Company. Capt. Nichols of this Battalion had his Company round the large house used by the Germans as a Hospital, but, except for this, no one seemed inclined to push forward in any strength. At 11-0 a.m. the Brigadier moved his Headquarters into Mericourt, and the Boche, presumably thinking the village was now as full as it was likely to be during the day, shelled it vigorously with gas and High Explosive. He paid particular attention to our ridge of observation, and, having pounded us off this, proceeded to hammer the other end of the village, whither we had moved for greater comfort. At the same time several salvoes were fired into Fresnoy. Soon afterwards a message from Captain Banwell told us that, with the exception of the Railway and Station, the whole town was in our hands. He had tried hard to reach the Railway Embankment from his side of the town, but the machine gun fire was very hot, the ground absolutely open, and after losing Gosden, a Lewis Gunner, killed, and one or two men wounded, had decided to wait for some Artillery. Meanwhile, the French had reached the Railway further South, so the C.O. sent Lieut. Hawley with half "D" Company to try and take the Station from this side. He moved off to do so at midday, leaving C.S.M. Cooper to command the other half Company. "A" Company (Edwards) now arrived, and, with "B" Company (Cosgrove), dug themselves into a bank on the South side of Mericourt village.

Lieut. Hawley and his party made their way rapidly down to the Quarry, and keeping just inside the Southern outskirts of the town, soon found the French left flank, from which they were able to reconnoiter the Railway Station. This last seemed to be the only place where the enemy was still offering any resistance, and there were apparently three machine guns somewhere near the Base of a large factory chimney in the Station yard. Lieut. Hawley divided his party into two, and while he himself gradually worked his way direct, the other party under Serjt. Marston, M.M., armed with as many bombs as they could carry, rapidly made their way round towards the enemy's rear. The Boche apparently thought he would soon be turned out, and some twenty of them, hurried along by one of our Lewis Guns, managed to escape before we arrived. However, they did not all get away, and when Serjt Marston lobbed his bombs on to them from behind and the others came up in front, they found five Germans still sitting there with their gun. These were promptly captured and sent down, and the town was now entirely in our hands.

Between 5-0 and 6-0 p.m. we received orders that the 5th Lincolnshires would take over the whole of the Railway, and that we were to come back into Mericourt and rest as much as possible. At the same time the enemy started to bombard Fresnoy with every available gun and howitzer. For an hour gas and high explosive shells fell in every corner of the town and its immediate surroundings. Capt. Banwell, who was returning to his Company from Headquarters, and the C.O., who was trying to find "D" Company, both had a very unpleasant time. One runner with the orders for the relief did manage to reach "D" Company without being hit, and soon after 8-30 p.m. they moved out from Fresnoy and dug into a bank just outside Mericourt. "C" Company, however, no one was able to find; it was a dark night and consequently very difficult to keep one's direction amongst the little streets and sunken lanes in the Northern end of the town, where they had taken up their position. The C.O. himself spent a large part of the night looking for them without success,  but one of the messages, which he left at every post and Headquarters he called at, eventually found its way to Capt. Banwell, and between midnight and 1 a.m. on the 10th "C" Company at last came out and occupied a bank near "D" Company. Most of us had not had any sleep since we left our "shell-holes" Camp at dawn on the 8th—some of us none since the 7th, and when we finally lay down, tired out, we slept far into the next day.

Soon after midday on the 10th Major R.S. Dyer Bennet reported for duty and took over command of the Battalion, Capt. Hills resumed his former duties of Adjutant, and for the next few weeks we had no Second in Command. At the same time orders came that the Brigade would continue its advance on the "leap-frog" principle. Each Battalion would be given a definite objective for the whole of the Brigade frontage, the rear Battalion passing on to the next line as soon as each objective was gained. We were now rear Battalion, and moved after dinners to the Railway Cutting just outside Fresnoy on the Bohain line, where, while we waited for further orders, we had teas and distributed rations for the following day. The Lewis Gun limbers and cookers were now allotted to Companies, and the remainder of the 1st Line Transport occupied a field close to us. 2nd Lieut. Dunlop, D.C.M., and 2nd Lieut. Taylor returned from leave and went to "D" and "C" Companies respectively. Lieut. Ashdowne again became Intelligence Officer and 2nd Lieut. Argyle returned to "B" Company. Each Company had now two officers and "C" Company had three. Soon after six o'clock we had orders to move at dusk to the line of the Aisonville-Bohain road, now held by the 4th Battalion, and push forward from there to the edge of the Bois de Riquerval. At the same time a patrol of Corps Cyclists was being sent along the main road towards Regnicourt, and if they reported that the enemy had evacuated this village, our orders were to advance during the night to a line running Southwards from there, through the Bois, to gain touch with the French at Retheuil Farm. At a Company Commanders' Conference, held as soon as these orders were received, Major Dyer Bennet decided that if Regnicourt was clear of the enemy, "C" and "D" Companies should advance up the main road as far as the village, and, on reaching it, turn Southwards into the Bois, spreading out along the line of our objective. "A" Company, keeping touch with the French, were to advance up the "ride" on the Southern boundary of the Brigade, while "B" Company, followed by Headquarters, would go straight through the wood in the centre. We would all form up in the present positions of the 4th Leicestershire and start our advance without a barrage at 2-0 a.m.—the 11th of October.

Lieut. J.C. Barrett, V.C.
Photo by Swaine

As soon as it was dark we moved off with our Lewis Gun limbers and medical cart, keeping as far as possible to cross-country tracks and avoiding all main roads. There was some gas hanging round the Bois D'Etaves, but we were not worried by this, and soon reached the Seboncourt-Bohain Road, held by the 5th Lincolnshires. From here onwards the route was not so easy to find, but we managed to take our limbers to within a few hundred yards of the 4th Battalion Headquarters and here, after distributing Lewis Guns and Ammunition to Platoons, the Companies were met by guides and moved forward to their assembly positions. Meanwhile Battalion Headquarters moved into the farm house already occupied by the 4th Battalion. In the cellar we found, in addition to the usual Headquarter Officers, a French Interpreter, and part of a French Liaison platoon, no air, very little light, but plenty of tobacco smoke. Soon after we arrived a message from Brigade told us that the Cyclists had met with no enemy as far as Regnicourt, but had found a patrol of about twenty in that village and had been fired on by them. We were discussing this, when suddenly there was a scuffling overhead and we were told that there was "something ticking somewhere," and that everyone had left the house. The cellar occupants were not slow to follow, and thinking of time-bombs and infernal machines managed to empty the cellar in a record time. We settled down uncomfortably under a hedge, and prepared to read and write orders with a concealed electric torch—the maximum of discomfort. However, we did not have to stay there long, as a runner came to tell us that the origin of the "ticking" had now been discovered, and, as it was nothing more formidable than the recently wound up dining room clock, we returned to the cellar. Major Dyer Bennet, arguing that, if the Cyclists could get as far as Regnicourt, we should reach our objective without difficulty, decided that the attack should be carried out as arranged, and, sending the Adjutant to find the 6th Division, moved up himself to the Aisonville Road, leaving only the Aid Post and some Signalers and servants at the Farm.

The Cadre at Loughborough, June, 1919

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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