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British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

10th May, 1916.3rd July, 1916.

The next ten days, spent in Lucheux, were as pleasant as any in the war. After the mud, cold and damp of Vimy, we could well appreciate the spring weather, the good billets and the excellent country in which we now found ourselves. Lucheux, a very old French village with its castle and gateway, stands on the edge of a still older forest a few miles North of Doullens, and the majority of the inhabitants, under the guidance of a very energetic Mayor, did all they could to make us comfortable. Work was not too hard, and our chief labor was making wattle revetments in the forest—a good task for a hot day—and practicing musketry on a home-made rifle range outside the village. The mounted officers were particularly fortunate, for the forest was full of tracks and rides, and each morning soon after dawn the more energetic could be seen cantering under the dripping trees in the early morning May mists—bare headed and in shirt sleeves.

Meanwhile the arrival of some new officers filled the gaps in the Mess caused by Vimy. First Colonel Jones returned, with the piece of shrapnel still in his hand, but otherwise very fit. Soon afterwards two new officers, 2nd Lieutenants H.A. Lowe and G.E. Banwell, joined us, and at the same time Capt. R.C. L. Mould and Lieut. D.B. Fetch returned from England. Several large drafts of N.C.O.'s and men arrived, many of them old hands, who had been wounded, some of them more than once, although as we know well there were many soldiers in England who had never yet seen a day's fighting.

Just at this time another important change was made in our training. For many months now we had been taught the bomb to the exclusion of almost every other weapon, now at last the bayonet was returning to its former position of importance. The great exponent of the art of bayonet fighting was a Major Campbell, of the Army Gymnastic Staff, whose lectures were already well known at the Army Schools, and who was now sent round the country to talk to all Battalions. He had devised an entirely new scheme of bayonet instruction on very simple yet practical lines, doing away with many of the old drill-book "points and parries," and training arm and rifle to act with the eye, not on a word of command. His powers as a lecturer were as great as his keenness for his subject, and for two hours he held the attention of a hall full of all ranks, speaking so vividly that not one of us but came away feeling that we were good enough to fight six Boche, given a bayonet. He was particularly insistent on not driving the bayonet home too far, and we shall always remember his "throat two inches is enough, kidneys only four inches, just in and out." His system has now been adopted throughout the British Army, and all 1917 recruits were trained in it, but to us it came none too soon, for we were fast forgetting that we ever had such a weapon as a bayonet.

On the 20th May our work in the forest came to an end and, as the Brigade was wanted for fatigues nearer the line, we moved by Pommera and Pas to Souastre, a village about three miles from the front trenches. The Sherwood Foresters were at present holding the Divisional front, and our chief task in the new area was digging cable trenches from back Headquarter positions to forward batteries and observation posts, building and stocking ammunition and bomb stores, and assisting in the construction of numerous gun pits. In fact, we were once more preparing as fast as possible for a "big push," though at the moment it was not quite certain who was going to do the pushing; rumor allotted this task to the 46th Division. The work was very hard, for digging a deep narrow trench, or loading flints at Warlincourt quarries are no light tasks, and the weather made conditions even more difficult than they might otherwise have been. One day it was so hot as to make continuous work for more than a few hours impossible, while the next, there would be three or four torrential rain storms, filling all the trenches, and turning the cross-country tracks to avenues of mud.

However, in spite of our work, we managed to have some football, and the Divisional Commander once more presented a cup. We started well, beating the 5th Lincolnshires in the second round, but then found ourselves opposed to our old rivals, the 4th Battalion, for the Brigade finals. The game caused the keenest excitement, and with the score at two goals all, the enthusiasm through the second half was immense. Unfortunately, there is a fate against our defeating the 4th Battalion, and, just before the end, our opponents managed to score the winning goal.

Lens from the Air
(showing Fosse III and Hols de Riaument)
Sketch map of Gommecourt to illustrate the attack of the 1st July 1916. German trenches in RED
Lt.-Col. J.B.O. Trimble, D.S.O., M.C., with the Officers, Marqueffles Farm, June, 1917.

On the 24th May the heavy rain had made the trenches so wet that the garrison was unable to keep them clear, and in consequence we had to send a large working party up the line to help the Sherwood Foresters. The line, which we now saw for the first time, ran from about half a mile North of Hébuterne, just East of Foncquevillers, and northwards towards Monchy-au-bois, held by the enemy. Foncquevillers was the centre of the position, and opposite it lay Gommecourt, a small village and Chateau, with a wood on one flank and the Chateau park on the other—a strong position strongly held. Further North, Pigeon Wood and a little salient of trenches called the "Z" were opposite the left of our Divisional front, while in the middle of No Man's Land, which averaged about 400 yards wide, stood the ruins of Gommecourt Sucrerie, twenty yards from the main Foncquevillers-Gommecourt Road.

Our trenches were in a somewhat curious condition. During the winter the Division occupying this sector had found that they were too weak to hold the whole trench, so had selected certain positions which they had strongly fortified and wired, and then filled the remainder of the trench with loose wire. The bad weather soon caused the disused sections of the trench to collapse, fixing the loose wire very firmly on either side. From a purely defensive point of view there was no harm in this, but any attacking force would need the whole trench for assembly purposes and to "jump off," and the work of clearing the long wired-up sections was very hard indeed. The posts themselves were well dug and well sighted, there were one or two good communication trenches, and Foncquevillers, still well preserved in spite of its proximity to the Boche, provided excellent homes for Battalion Headquarters, support Companies, and even baths and canteen. The enemy, except for some "rum jars" and heavy trench mortars from Gommecourt, was fairly quiet on the whole front, and, except when trousers had to be discarded to allow of wading in the front line, the trenches were by no means uncomfortable.

For the rest of May we stayed at Souastre, occasionally visiting the line with working parties, or on tours of inspection, but for the most part working in the Foncquevillers plain, where battery positions without number were being built. By the end of the month we learnt the meaning of all these preparations. Gommecourt was to be attacked in the near future in conjunction with other greater attacks further South. The Staffords and the Sherwood Foresters were going to do the attack with their right on the Sucrerie, their left on the "Z," while the 56th Division on our right would attack the village from the S.E. The Park, most of the village, and the Chateau would thus not be directly attacked, but it was hoped that the two Divisions would meet on the East side, and so cut off large numbers of Germans in the isolated area. Our Brigade was to be in reserve. Meanwhile, a large full-sized model of the German lines was dug near Lucheux forest, where the attacking Brigades started practicing at once. Incidentally the model took many acres of arable land, and, though it was very well paid for, the French grumbled loudly, and the 46th Division was known in Lucheux as "les autres Boches."

On the evening of the 4th June we moved up through Foncquevillers, and relieved the 5th Sherwood Foresters in the right sector, opposite Gommecourt Park. A road and bank, running parallel with the front line, and about 100 yards behind it, provided Battalion Headquarters. Behind this again, the "Bluff," a steep bank, gave the support Company a good home. Here we remained until the 21st, with a two-days' holiday at Humbercamps in the middle, a holiday spent in digging cable trenches and carrying trench mortars and ammunition. It was a long time to remain in the line, but one Company lived always in a large house in Foncquevillers, where they were very comfortable, and could get baths and other luxuries.

The enemy was not very active, and our most important task was now to prevent him from guessing our intentions. This soon became impossible, for, in addition to the ever increasing Artillery, the new cable trenches, and the Lucheux model, we started to dig a new line of trenches some 100 yards in front of our front line, along the attack sector. We, being opposite the Park, did not have to do this, but the Division on our right and the rest of our Brigade on the left were both out digging every night. After the first night it became exceedingly dangerous, for the Boche, knowing exactly where we were working, kept up a steady bombardment on the right with trench mortars, and, on the left, swept the ground continuously with accurate machine gun fire. We were ordered to keep all hostile patrols out of No Man's Land, and consequently our parties were out most of the night. The Boche, however, showed no inclination to do the same, and, even though we fixed up an insulting notice board in front of his wire, never put in an appearance. Incidentally the back of the board was covered with luminous paint, and a Lewis gun was trained on it, so that any interference would have been promptly dealt with.

Before we left the sector we were reinforced by a draft of eight subaltern officers—2nd Lieuts. A. Emmerson, F.W.A. Salmon, W.H. Reynolds, A.S. Heffill, A.W.C. Zelley, M.J.S. Dyson, W.K. Callard, and S.G.H. Street, while at the same time we lost 2nd Lieut. Brittain, who went to Hospital and thence to England.

After practising their attack several times, the Staffordshires found that they had more tasks to fulfill than they could accomplish. Accordingly they asked for help, and were allotted one Battalion from our Brigade, for which duty we, having suffered least at Hohenzollern, were chosen. We were to advance as a ninth wave behind the attackers, carrying stores and ammunition; while one Company was to dig a trench joining the Sucrerie to the German front line—a communication trench for use after the fight. As soon as we left trenches and reached a hut camp at Warlincourt we, too, started practicing for the battle, which, we were told, would take place at dawn on the 29th June.

Any account of our doings during this month would be incomplete without a reference to our one relaxation. The Divisional Concert Party, started in 1915, had more or less ceased to exist, but in Souastre in a large barn, the 56th Divisional troupe, the "Bow Bells," performed nightly to crowded houses. Many of us found time to go more than once, and will always remember with pleasure the songs, dances, and sketches, the drummer-ballet-dancer, and the catching melodies of "O Roger Rum" and other nonsense.

Meanwhile, feverish preparations were being made for the coming battle, while the weather was as bad as possible. There never was a wetter June, and the new assembly trenches, the recently cleared or newly dug communication trenches, Derby Dyke, Nottingham, Stafford, Lincoln and Leicester Lanes, Roberts Avenue and "Crawl Boys Lane," and the cable trenches were always full of water. Work on the gun pits was seriously delayed, and many batteries had to move in before their pits were complete. Fortunately the enemy's artillery was not too active, and Foncquevillers was almost left alone, though he did one day bombard the Church. No damage was done, except that afterwards the one remaining face of the clock stated the time as 2-15 instead of 11-45, as for the past many months. The village was full of stores and explosives, and almost every cellar held a bomb or ammunition reserve, while the Church crypt was filled with Mills and Stokes mortars under the care of Serjeant Goodman.

On the 24th June our Artillery registration started, and, with early morning bombardments and sudden harassing shoots at night, we made a considerable noise—"the sullen puffs of high explosives bursting in battalions," as Beach Thomas wrote in the "Daily Mail"—and clearly showed the Boche that we meant business. This apparently was the intention of the Staff, for, as the main attack was to be South of us, it was the object of the IIIrd. Army to attract as many enemy as possible on this the extreme flank of the attack. So successful were we, that we did actually frighten the enemy into reinforcing the Gommecourt area with an extra Division—unfortunate for us who were to attack the place, but doubtless of value to the 4th Army, who would thus have one Division less against them, Gommecourt was naturally strong, and this addition to the garrison made it doubly so, while the Artillery found it very difficult to destroy the wire which was thick along the whole front. The trees in the wood were all wired, and there were strong belts in front of every trench, so that our field guns and trench mortars were kept hard at work almost all day every day in their efforts to cut sufficient gaps for us. The enemy's guns replied by registering our communication trenches, and then remained silent.

The camp at Warlincourt was uncomfortable, and had no officers' mess, a luxury which we much needed. However, Color-Serjeant Collins displayed his usual skill, and, while Major Toller fixed up a home-made marquee of wagon sheets and odd tarpaulins, he managed to carry on the cooking almost in the open. In spite of the rain which came through the roof and under the sides we had some excellent evenings, and managed to enjoy ourselves. Our work was mostly training, which now included rapid wiring. In this we held a competition, finally won by "B" Company, who put out a "double apron" French wire fence 20 yards long in just over four minutes—a good performance, though the other Companies declared that this fence would not have stopped a rabbit, to say nothing of a Boche. Meanwhile, Major Toller suddenly received orders to report to the 51st Division to command a battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and, much to his disgust, had to leave us just before the fight. In any case he would have been out of the fight, for the authorities had at last realized the madness of sending a whole Battalion into action, and to avoid a repetition of the post-Hohenzollern difficulties, every Battalion was ordered to leave behind, at Souastre, the 2nd in Command and a proportion of officers, N.C.O.'s and specialists. These, known as the "Battle Details," were subsequently increased in number, and later a G.H.Q. publication fixed exactly who would and who would not accompany a battalion into battle. As Major Beasley had left us at Vimy and not returned, Capt. Shields became 2nd in Command and had to stay behind, a cruel blow to him, for he was essentially a fighting man. His Company, "D," was taken by Lieut. J.W. Tomson of "A" Company. Capt. Ward Jackson had "A," Capt. Knighton "B," and Capt. Moore "C." R.S.M. R.E. Small was accidentally wounded during revolver practice, and during the few weeks that he was away his place was taken by C.S.M. J. Weir.

During the last two days before the battle the weather became worse, and the rain fell in torrents. Ours was a comparatively dry sector of the line, and yet our trenches were full of water, so that the country in the neighbourhood of the Somme valley became impossible. So bad was it that at the last moment the whole offensive was postponed until 48 hours later—the 1st July. The attacking Brigades had already occupied their front line and assembly positions before the new canceling order arrived, and the Staff had now to decide whether to leave them for 48 hours in these hopelessly wet trenches, or take them back to rest—the latter course would necessitate two marches, in and out, in two days. The matter was settled by the Corps Commander, who wished to see another practice attack over the Lucheux trenches, so the 4th Leicestershires and 4th Lincolnshires held the line while Staffords and Sherwood Foresters marched back. It was a long way, nearly eleven miles, from Foncquevillers to Lucheux, and by the time they returned to trenches on the 30th they were all very tired. However, every man knew exactly what to do, where to go and when; the most minute details had been worked out, and even individuals as well as sections and platoons had been given definite tasks, so there was every prospect of a successful fight the next day. It was true the wire was in several places uncut, but still there were plenty of gaps, and this should be no obstacle.

Soon after midnight 30th June/1st July all the attacking troops were in position, and we moved up to Midland Trench, an assembly trench running North and South about 700 yards West of Foncquevillers Church. "A" Company (Ward Jackson) and "D" Company (Tomson) were in cellars and dug-outs in the village, since they would be wanted first. There were many communication trenches along the front, up which we should advance, for at the last moment all were made "up" trenches until after the attack; originally some were "up" and some "down." This eleventh hour alteration caused considerable confusion later. Meanwhile, throughout the night our gunners fired continuously on the Boche trenches, villages, and particularly roads and railways, for we wished, if possible, to stop all rations and ammunition from the Gommecourt garrison.

Dawn came at last—a fine day. At 6-24 our barrage started, far more intense than anything we had used during the previous days, so that the Boche may have guessed what was going to happen. Smoke shells were mixed with the H.E., and at 7-30 a smoke trench mortar screen was put down, and the Infantry advanced. Four waves crossed No Man's Land, and then the smoke blew away and the whole of our attack was revealed. On the right the Staffords, passing the Sucrerie, found the German wire still strong, and had to struggle through where they could, only to find many enemy with their machine guns undamaged by our bombardment. On the left the 5th and 7th Sherwood Foresters entered the Wood and pressed on, leaving the first enemy lines to the rear waves. But the smoke had gone and these rear waves had no protection. As the fifth line left our trenches it was met with machine gun fire from the North, from the "Z" and from the front line, over which the Sherwood Foresters had passed. None the less the wave struggled on, until artillery was added to machine guns, field guns from Monchy enfiladed No Man's Land, every German battery sent its shells into the carrying parties, and the attack was stopped. The two leading Staffordshire Battalions, except for a few who reached the enemy's lines, were held up on his wire or near the Sucrerie, where many fell. The two leading Sherwood Foresters had crossed No Man's Land almost unscathed, had entered the German lines complete, and were never seen again. Commanding Officers, Battalion Headquarters and their Companies were lost. The other four Battalions, after losing their leading wave, remained in our front trenches and sent back messages for more smoke, while here and there gallant efforts were made by platoons and sections to take help into the wood.

Meanwhile, Capt. Ward Jackson with his Company Serjeant Major—J.R. Hill—and two platoons (Hepworth and Salmon) went forward with the leading parties to dig their trench from the Sucrerie. In spite of the heavy fire, and the losses of the attacking Brigades, they started work and actually marked out their trench. But their task was impossible. Capt. Ward Jackson, hit in the back and shoulder and very badly wounded, was only saved by Serjt. Major Hill, who pluckily carried him out of the fight; and, seeing that the attack had failed, 2nd Lieut. Hepworth ordered the party back to our lines, where they found the rest of the Battalion in the support line and communication trenches, waiting for the Staffordshires to move forward.

The situation was now critical. So far as we knew, the attack of the 56th Division on our right had been successful, yet, if we did not meet them by 2 p.m. on the far side of Gommecourt, not only would the operation be a failure, but there was every probability of their being cut off by the Germans in Gommecourt Park. An attempt was therefore made to re-organize at once for another attack, but this was found impossible. Our lines, hopelessly sticky from the bad weather, were now congested with dead and wounded; the communication trenches were jammed with stretcher cases and parties coming in, the "up" and "down" rules were not observed, and, above all, the enemy's artillery enfiladed the front line from the North, the communications from the East. The Division on our left did nothing by way of counter battery work, and we were left to face their opposing artillery as well as our own. There was also another serious difficulty to re-organization. The men were too well trained in their particular duties. A private soldier who has been told every day for a month that his one duty will be to carry a box of bombs to point Q, cannot readily forget that, and take an efficient part in an ordinary unrehearsed attack. This, the Staff soon discovered, and, to give time for all arrangements to be made, a new attack was ordered for 3-30 p.m. with artillery and, if possible, a smoke screen.

Meanwhile, the enemy's artillery was still active, and we suffered. 2nd Lieut. Callard, a most promising junior officer, was killed, and with him C.S.M. F. Johnson of "C" Company. 2nd Lieuts. Russell and Creed were both wounded, and six men killed and several wounded at the same time, nearly all by shells in the communication trenches.

At 3-30 p.m. our Artillery opened once more and our Companies started forward, only to find that the Staffordshires made no move. It was not surprising. Many of them had not yet heard the time for the new attack, many were too tired to be much use, no one was really ready though some few tried to leave our lines. Such an assault was bound to fail, and fortunately Col. Jones, who was on the spot and just about to start with Capt. Allen, received the order to cancel the attack. It would have been a useless waste of lives, for no good could have come of such a half-hearted effort. Half-an-hour later the Staffordshires were ordered to withdraw and the 5th Leicestershires to take over the front line, while the 5th Lincolnshires came in on our left and relieved the Sherwood Foresters.

All hope of trying to help the Division on our right had to be abandoned. They had reached the enemy's third line and captured several prisoners in the morning; some of them actually reached the meeting place, but they, too, had to face two sectors of opposing artillery, for the attack on Serre on their right had failed, and their carrying parties and all supports for the leading units were hopelessly enfiladed from the South. Their losses were very heavy, and in the evening, when it became obvious that we could never help them, they left the enemy's lines and returned to their own trenches. But there was still hope of saving some of the missing Sherwood Foresters. They were known to have reached the wood, for their lights had been seen by our contact patrol aeroplane. Unfortunately at mid-day this aeroplane ran into the cable of the kite balloon, and both were out of action for some hours—a most unlucky accident. In case some of these Sherwood Foresters might be still alive, the 5th Lincolnshires made another advance at midnight—only a few minutes after arriving in the line—but found the enemy present in strength, and lost heavily before they could regain our lines.

The rest of the night and all the following day were spent in collecting the wounded and dead from our lines, from the newly dug and now water-logged assembly trench in front, and from No Man's Land. Once more Capt. Barton displayed the most wonderful courage, rescuing three men from a shell hole, in broad daylight, less than 200 yards from the German lines, and spending the whole day wandering about from one part to another, quite regardless of the danger so long as he could find a wounded man to help. The next day was spent in the same way, and by the evening the trenches had been considerably tidied up, when, at 9 p.m. we were relieved by the London Regt. (Rangers), and marched back to Bienvillers au Bois, leaving some guides behind to help the newcomers. These last two days cost us several casualties, amongst them Serjt. R.E. Foster, who was badly wounded by a shell.

After the battle, General Snow, the Corps Commander, sent round the following message:—"The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate the troops of the 46th Division for the manner in which they fought and endured during the fighting on the 1st July. Many gallant acts, both by units and individuals, are to hand. Although Gommecourt has not fallen into our hands, the purpose of the attack, which was mainly to contain and kill Germans, was accomplished." To this was added: "The Major General Commanding wishes all ranks to understand thoroughly that our recent attack on the Gommecourt salient in concert with the 50th Division embraced two purposes: (a) The capture of the position; (b) The retaining of considerable numbers of German troops in our immediate front in order to prevent them taking part in resisting the advance of our troops in the South. Although the first purpose was not achieved, the second was fulfilled, and there is no doubt that our action on the first materially assisted our troops in the 4th Army and contributed to their success. The above to be read to all troops on parade."

In spite of this somewhat comforting message, our action on the 1st was a failure. This cannot be denied. The retaining enemy's troops on our front was done by our Artillery and other preparation, and the extra German Division was lured into the line opposite us at least three days before the battle. Our assault made not the slightest difference to this. Our object on the 1st was to capture Gommecourt, and this we failed to do. It is comparatively easy to criticize after the event and find mistakes, but there were one or two obvious reasons for the failure which were apparent to all. The rapid dispersal of the smoke barrage, the terrible enfilade bombardment from the left consequent on the inactivity of the Division on our left, the failure of our Artillery to smash up German posts, and in some cases German wire, and, perhaps the fact that our preparations were so obvious that the Boche was waiting for us. But in the face of all this, fresh troops in ideal conditions might have succeeded. Ours were tired after their journey to Lucheux and back, had had to live several nights in hopelessly foul and water-logged trenches, and, so far from fresh, were almost worn before they started to attack.

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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