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Gommecourt Again

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Gommecourt Again
29th Oct., 1916.15th April, 1917.

Many Divisions were now taking part in the Somme battle for the second time, and as we suddenly left Pommier on the 29th October—our final destination unknown—we naturally thought it probable that we, too, should soon be once more in the thick of the fighting. However, our fears were groundless, and we moved due West, not South. Our first night we spent in Mondicourt, and then moved the next day in pouring rain to Halloy, where we stayed two days. On the 1st November we marched 14 miles through Doullens to Villers L'Hôpital, on the Auxi le Chateau road, where we found our new Padre waiting for us, the Rev. C.B.W. Buck. The march was good, and no one fell out until the last half mile, a steep hill into billets, which was too much for six men; as we had done no real marching for several months, this was very satisfactory. There was only one incident of interest on the way, a small collision between the heavily laden mess cart and the level crossing gates at Doullens, due to the anxiety of the lady gate-keeper to close the gates and let the Paris express through, a feat which she accomplished, despite all the efforts of our Transport, which was consequently cut in half. The following day it rained again, and we marched to Conteville, stayed a night, and went on to Millencourt the next morning. Here we found good billets and, as we were told we were likely to remain a month, fixed up a Battalion Mess in the Farm Chateau.

We were soon informed that we had not come to Millencourt to rest, but to carry out "intensive training" to fit us for offensive action. This meant very hard work all the morning, many afternoons, and two or three nights a week as well. The idea was to devote the first week to Platoon and Company work, the next to Battalion drill and training, and to finish our course with some big Brigade and Divisional days. The weather was not very good, but we managed to do many hours work, the usual physical training, bayonet fighting, steady drill, and extended order work, night compass work and lectures. The most exciting event was one of the night trainings, when Col. Jones combined cross country running with keeping direction in the dark. The running was very successful, but the runners failed to keep direction, and ran for many miles, getting in many cases completely lost; far into the night the plaintive notes of the recall bugle could be heard in the various villages of the neighbourhood.

Soon after our arrival a Divisional Sports Committee drew up a program for a meeting to be held at the end of our training, and to consist of football, boxing, and cross country running. Eliminating heats and events had to be decided beforehand, and, with Lieut. Heffill and Serjt. J. Wardle to look after the boxing, and Capt. Shields as "O.C. Football," we started training without delay. At the football we had our usual luck, for, after a good victory over the 4th Lincolnshires, we were once more beaten by our own 4th Battalion. The last game was very exciting, and feeling ran so high that the language on the touch line became terrible, and would have shocked even a Brigadier. The finals of the boxing and cross country running could not take place until later when we had left the area. On one or two of the spare afternoons we managed to get some Rugby football, and had some excellent games, during which we discovered that our Padre was a performer of considerable merit.

On the 22nd November we started back Eastwards, and, after a night at Prouville and two at Fortel, arrived in the pouring rain at Halloy, where we were told we should stay for about a week. We were put into the huts, which were unfinished and entirely unfit for habitation, while to make matters worse, the field in which they stood had become a sea of mud. After the good billets of Millencourt, this change for the worse produced the inevitable sickness, and, in addition to many N.C.O.'s and men who went away with fever and influenza, we lost for a short time Col. Jones, and several of the officers. Amongst them was 2nd Lieut. J.R. Brooke, who had long ago been warned against the danger of again getting nephritis, but in spite of this refused to stay away from the Battalion, and insisted on braving even the worst weather and the wettest trenches. About the same time, Captain Burnett went to England, going to Hospital from the Army School.

The week in these horrible surroundings was lengthened to a fortnight, and we were at last able to hold the finals of the cross country run. Many of the Battalion entered, and over two hundred came home in the time, a very good performance, though not good enough to win. The boxing tournament was held still later at St. Amand, and we sent two entries. In the heavy weights, Boobyer was beaten on points after a plucky fight, and in the feather weights, O'Shaugnessy knocked his opponent all over the place, and won in the second round.

On the 6th December we marched to the Souastre huts, where the Colonel returned to us, and we once more began to feel fit; the huts here were not palaces, but were far better than those we had left at Halloy. On the 11th we moved up through Bienvillers and went into our old trenches opposite Monchy. But the recent heavy rains had undone all the good that we had done in the early autumn, and they were now in a very bad state. On the right of the Hannescamps road they were particularly bad, and Liverpool Street, which ran from Lulu Lane to the front line, was almost impassable. There was the same terrible clinging mud, feet deep, that we had found at Richebourg a year before, and the old troubles of lost gum boots began again. Fortunately we were now prepared, and were able to combat the dangers of "trench foot." Each Company had its drying room—a dug-out occupied by the Stretcher bearers, and kept warm by an ever burning brazier. Here at least once in every 24 hours every man who could possibly have got wet feet, and every man wearing rubber boots, came, had his feet rubbed, and was given dry socks and boots, while at Headquarters and in Bienvillers were large drying rooms where the wet boots could be dealt with. In this way we were able to keep almost free from the complaint, and the few men whose feet did fail were all men who had had "trench feet" the previous winter, and were consequently always liable to it.

All this time it was not only wet, but cold, and after Christmas it became colder until the first week in January, when heavy snow fell. Thenceforward, until the middle of February, there was continuous frost with occasional heavy falls of snow, though generally the days and nights were fine and clear. For several feet down, the ground was frozen hard, and digging became absolutely impossible. There was now solid ice instead of water in the trenches, and the front line sentries found their task a particularly cold one. Fortunately by this time the trench cook-house was not only an established thing but had become a very successful affair, and four times a day hot meals were carried in tanks and food containers from Battalion Headquarters to the front line. For this purpose the rectangular tanks from the cooks' wagons were used, being carried by two men, on a wooden framework or stretcher. Along a road or up a well made communication trench this was a comparatively light task, but to carry a tank full of hot tea over slippery shell holes and through knee-deep mud was a difficult matter, and on more than one occasion a platoon lost its hot drink at night through the disappearance of the carriers into some shell hole. The wonderful thing was that both tea-less platoon and drenched carriers would laugh over it all.

Christmas Day was spent in trenches. We were relieved in the afternoon by the 4th Battalion, who had their festivities on Christmas eve, and went back to Souastre, where the following day we, too, had our dinner. Pigs had been bought and killed, and we all gorged ourselves on roast pork and plum pudding, washing them down with beer—a very satisfactory performance. There were also the usual games and Company dinners, and we all spent a very enjoyable few days. Later on we managed to arrange a Battalion concert which was a tremendous success, and voted by all a most excellent evening; the "star" turn was Colonel Jones, who gave a recitation.

The weather made raids and active operations impossible, and though we made all preparations for a rifle grenade demonstration to assist a Staffordshire raid on New Year's night, this had to be cancelled on account of the snow. Patrols, however, still continued to tour No Man's Land in the hopes of finding a stray Boche, or encountering a Boche patrol. In front of Essarts the lines were so far apart that there was plenty of room for a small pitched battle, and night after night Lieuts. Pearson, Creed, Poynor, and others visited such familiar haunts as the "Osier Bed," "Thistle Patch," "Lonely Tree," and other well-known places. The first to meet the enemy was Lieut. Pearson, who came upon a small party in the "Thistle Patch," who made off rapidly back to their lines. Our patrol used their rifles, but, though they hit one of the enemy, failed to take a prisoner, and for a week or two the Boche did not show himself. Then on the 10th January, 2nd Lieut. Creed, with a mixed party of scouts from all Companies, while reconnoitering the "Osier Bed" suddenly found that a party of the enemy was in their right rear and close to our wire, where four of them could be seen. Our patrol turned at once and ran straight at the four as fast as they could, coming, as they ran, under a heavy fire from a Boche covering party lying some 50 yards out. Pte. A. Garner was killed outright, but the remainder, led by 2nd Lieut. Creed and Pte. Frank Eastwood of "C" Company, rushed on and wounded and captured one of the four, who was found to be the officer. The remainder of the enemy took the alarm in time and made off. The officer proved to be an English-speaking subaltern of the 55th Regt.—our old opponents of Hohenzollern in October, 1915. He was led down to the Aid Post to have his wound dressed, much to the disgust of Captain Terry, the M.O., who would have liked to have killed him outright, though Serjeant Bent, the medical orderly, took compassion on his shivering prisoner and fed him on hot tea, and actually gave him a foot warmer!

This little affair caused the Boche extreme annoyance, and the following day he spent the morning shooting at Berlin Trench, the Bienvillers road and Bienvillers itself, round the Church. As we were relieved during the morning we had to march out through it all, and found it particularly unpleasant, especially when a shell hit the R.E. Dump, exploded an ammunition store, and sent the house at the Church corner several hundred feet into the air.

At this time there were again several changes in the personnel. Capt. G.W. Allen went to Brigade Headquarters and thence to the Corps School as an Instructor; Capt. J.D. Hills, who took his place, fell down and injured his knee so badly that it took him to England for six months; Capt. Knighton was made Town Major at St. Amand, and Captain Mould went to England. Capt. Wollaston rejoined us, bringing with him 2nd Lieut. Banwell and a new subaltern, 2nd Lieut. D. Campbell. 2nd Lieut. C.H. Morris acted as Adjutant. 2nd Lieut. J.R. Brooke paid one of his periodical visits to the R.A.M.C., driven thither by the M.O., who was afraid he would die on his hands, but returned to us again soon afterwards.

During the last fortnight of January we had several Units of the 58th (London) Division attached to us for instruction. They were one of the first "second-line" Territorial Divisions to reach France, and were followed by our own second-line, the 59th, who went for their initiation to the most Southern end of the British front, and we consequently did not see them. Nothing of any note happened during their stay, except a heavy gas shell bombardment on "D" Company's (Capt. Shields') trenches. The men were all warned in time and put on helmets, so that we had no casualties. The shells were almost noiseless, so that when the gas blew over the crest into "B" Company (Capt. Wollaston), who were in support, it was thought to be cloud gas and the Strombos horns were sounded. The flank Units sounded theirs, too, and Bienvillers took it up, much to the annoyance of the batteries and staffs who were thus unnecessarily disturbed, since the Strombos should never be used for gas shells only. It was a very natural mistake, but we were severely "strafed" by the authorities; however, as we had no casualties, and there had been many in other Units, we ended by being congratulated.

On the 14th February came the beginnings of the thaw, and with it the first rumours of a German withdrawal. Three days later the enemy shelled Foncquevillers heavily, apparently with a view to a raid, or possibly to deceive us into thinking that he did not mean to retire. Our guns replied, and the Right Half Battalion under Major Griffiths, who was already quartered in the village, stood to, but nothing happened. The remainder of the Battalion with the Headquarters was now in Bienvillers in Brigade reserve. The weather once more became frosty, and there was a thick mist almost every day. On the 23rd we relieved the 4th Battalion, and occupied some 2,500 yards of front line opposite Gommecourt, where the Huns shelled us at intervals all the next day, but did no damage. At midnight 24th/25th the Brigadier had reason to believe the Boche was going to leave his lines, and a strong patrol under Major Griffiths went out to reconnoiter. They cut many gaps in the wire, but found the German front line still held. At dawn it was very foggy, and there was some shouting heard in Gommecourt, which sounded like "Bonsoir," but at 7-10 a.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment which lasted 3½ hours. Shells of every kind were fired and our trenches hit in several places; one man was killed. The next night patrols were again out and, though it was found that the Boche had evacuated Gommecourt Park, he was still in the village, where the following morning dug-outs were seen to be on fire. Wire was cut and everything prepared for the advance.

However, the Boche still hung on to his line, and on the evening of the 26th and at dawn the following morning our patrols still found him there. 2nd Lieuts. Banwell and Beardmore and Serjt. Growdridge were constantly out, waiting for a chance to enter his lines, but the chance never came, and, on the 27th, we were relieved by the 4th Battalion, and returned to Souastre. That evening the Boche retired, and the 4th Battalion entered Gommecourt. At this point we lost Captain J.W. Tomson, who had been far from well for some time, and now went to England with fever. He had never missed a day's work for two years. Lieut. D.B. Petch took his place in command of "A" Company.

The German withdrawal was very slow, and we spent the next day having baths in Souastre. On the 1st March we moved into the new front line, round the East edge of Gommecourt, while the Boche was still holding Pigeon Wood. The enemy was very alert, as General H.M. Campbell, the C.R.A., discovered; he went into the wood, thinking it unoccupied, and was chased out by a fat Boche throwing "potato mashers." In the evening the Headquarters moved into a German dug-out, but the enemy still occupied the "Z." The front line between there and Gommecourt was filled with deep dug-outs, all connected underground, so the Boche occupied one end, while 2nd Lieuts. Banwell and Barrett sat in the other, of the same tunnel. There were many booby traps, such as loose boards exploding a bomb when trodden on; trip wires at the bottom of dug-out steps bringing down the roof, and other such infernal machines. We were warned of these, and had no casualties.

On the 2nd March we continued to press the enemy, having as our objective a circle 900 yards round Gommecourt Church. 2nd Lieut. Corah was slightly wounded by a sniper, and one or two men were hit with splinters of bomb, but there were no serious casualties. Our bombing parties were very vigorous, and in one case consumed the hot coffee and onions left by a party disturbed at breakfast. In this bombing work, Serjeants A. Passmore, Cave and Meakin, Cpl. Marshall, and L/Cpls. Dawes and A. Carr all distinguished themselves. Gommecourt wood was soon cleared, and by the evening we had gained the whole of the circular objective. The next morning early the 8th Sherwood Foresters came up to relieve us, but, though the other Companies were relieved, "A" Company (Petch) refused to be. They were busy chasing the Boche, and were quite annoyed when told that they must come away. Relieved, we marched back to Souastre.

We stayed at Souastre until the 11th March, and then moved up once more to the line, taking over 2,600 yards of frontage from the la Brayelle Road to the Hannescamps-Monchy Road. Our time in reserve had been spent almost entirely in lectures on the attack, and on lessons drawn from the enemy's recent withdrawal from Gommecourt, and we had more than once been congratulated on our patrol work, which was excellent throughout this time. Between Essarts and Monchy the Boche was still holding his original line, and though expected to retire at any time, he made no movement during the three days we stayed in the line. On the 13th we were ordered, during the afternoon, to make certain that the enemy were still present, so 2nd Lieut. T.H. Ball marched up the Essarts Road with two platoons, until fire was opened on them from more than one direction, and the strength of the enemy was apparent. That evening we were relieved by the Lothian and Border Horse, and marched on relief to Foncquevillers. The same night, just before midnight, the Staffordshires made an attack on Bucquoy Graben, a strong Boche trench, and the outskirts of Bucquoy village. It was very wet and dark, and the operation altogether most difficult, so that the Staffordshires, though they made a very gallant attack, lost heavily and gained little ground.

At dawn the following morning, 14th March, we were ordered to be ready to go and support the Staffordshires, but, after considerable uncertainty and waiting, this order was cancelled. Instead, a flagged plan of the Bucquoy trenches was made on the plain N.W. of our village, and here we practiced the attack. The weather was bad, but we managed to make all the necessary arrangements and do some attack drill. In the village we had a singular stroke of ill luck. One solitary German Howitzer shell dropped amongst a party of "D" Company, killing Pte. J.T. Allen, who had done good work in the bombing at Gommecourt, and wounding six others, one of whom, W. Clarke, died of wounds afterwards. The practiced attack, which should have taken place from Biez Wood on the 16th, never came off, for it was made unnecessary by the rapidity of the German retirement.

After this the weather improved, and it was bright and warm when, on the 17th, we moved during the afternoon into Gommecourt and came temporarily under orders of the 139th Brigade. The following day we moved again, this time to dug-outs and fields 500 yards North of Essarts, country which the enemy had now entirely evacuated. The villages and farms had all been very badly battered by our Artillery, and the Boche had found time to destroy almost everything before he went, except at Douchy, where there was some good dug-out timber. Needless to say, the famous Mary of that village was not to be found. The French were immensely pleased at regaining part of their lost territory, though it was a pathetic sight to see some of the old people coming to look at the piles of bricks which had once been their homes. Two ladies came to Gommecourt with a key, little thinking that so far from finding a lock they would find not even a door or door-way—there was not even a brick wall more than two feet high. Those officers who could get horses rode round to look at the country which for nine months we had been watching through telescopes, and the concrete emplacements of Monchy and Le Quesnoy Farm were all explored, while No Man's Land, the only place free from wire and shell holes, provided an excellent canter. The Companies were largely employed in road mending, filling up German mine craters, and making tracks across the trenches for our Artillery. The enemy seemed to be really on the move at last, and we were all looking forward to seeing some new country, but on the 20th the weather broke, there was another fall of snow, and we were not sorry to be ordered back to Souastre, where we went into the huts for two nights.

For the rest of March we were constantly on the move, mostly by march route. First, on the 22nd, we marched via Couin and Bus-les-Artois to Bertrancourt, where we found some huts and much mud. One very large "Nissen" hut provided an Officers' Mess, but was completely devoid of all furniture until the Colonel invented some wonderful hanging tables—table tops hung from the ceiling on telephone wires. Here we were joined by 2nd Lieuts. C.C. Craggs, S.R. Mee, and B.G. Bligh, all new-comers. 2nd Lieuts. R.C. Broughton and A. Ramsden had joined a week or two before, so we now had our full complement of Platoon Commanders. Soon afterwards, however, 2nd Lieut. and A/Adjt. C.H. Morris went to the Indian Army, and his place was taken by Lieut. L.H. Pearson. In Bertrancourt we found some German prisoners working, one of whom obviously received the latest news from London quicker than we did, for he told us that as the result of an air raid "London was in bits"! After one night here we marched via Acheux, Lealvillers and Arquèves to Raincheval, where we again stayed one night—a hard frost. The next day we moved on again, passing through Puchevillers, Rubempré and Pierregot to Rainnevillers. The march was made particularly uncomfortable by the number of different Units on the road, marching in all directions, and we had to keep big intervals between Companies.

Rainnevillers was only six kilometres from Amiens, and many officers availed themselves of this opportunity of visiting the town. The mysteries of Charlie's Bar, Godbert's, the Café du Cathédral, and other haunts were revealed for the first time, and proved so attractive that two senior officers made a very wet night the excuse for staying in a Hotel. They returned at dawn, but did not realize how early the Colonel rose, and met him at the breakfast table, to be congratulated on their (most unusual) earliness! We stayed here two days, and the G.O.C. came and presented medal ribbons to those who had been awarded decorations at Gommecourt. On the 26th March we "embussed" with the 4th Leicestershires, and were taken through Amiens to Dury, whence we marched a short distance to St. Fuscien, and went into billets. We were still near enough to Amiens for those who wished to "joy ride" into the town.

Two days later, on the 28th March, we marched to Saleux and entrained for the North. Passing through Doullens we arrived at Lillers early the next morning, and marched thence to Laires, twelve miles through the driving rain. We reached billets all wet through. "B" Company followed by a later train, and joined us in billets just after midnight.

We were now in the 2nd Corps, and, before we had time to look round our new billets, the Corps Commander, General Jacob, came and was introduced to all officers, speaking to us in the village school room. After that we looked round our new quarters and found them excellent, so settled down to have, if possible, an enjoyable rest. Marie, of the "Cheval Blanc," provided a room where officers might meet and drink beer, subalterns, of course, champagne, and her name must be added to the long list of Tina's, Bertha's, and others who all over France welcomed the British officer so cordially at their estaminets. Meanwhile, we spent our days training, and particular attention was paid to route marching, in which we were severely handicapped by the bad state of our boots. For some reason there was at the time a shortage of leather, so Serjeant Huddleston, our shoemaker, could do nothing to improve matters, and we had to make the best of a bad job. It was really remarkable on some of the longer marches how few men fell out considering that many had practically no soles to their boots. However, the pleasant billets at Laire amply repaid us for our other troubles, and we were all sorry when on the 13th April, 2nd Lieut. Brooke and the rest of us bade farewell to Marie and marched to Manqueville.

Here we continued training so far as the weather allowed, but a considerable amount of rain rather hampered us. On the 15th we lost Colonel Jones who went to England for three months' rest. With the exception of a few weeks in 1915 he had been with us since the beginning, and there was not an officer or man who did not regret his going. There was never a trench or post which he did not visit, no matter how exposed or how dangerous the approach to it. Moreover, he was never downhearted, and while he was in it, the Battalion Headquarters of the 5th Leicestershire Regiment was known throughout the Division as one of the most cheerful, if not the most cheerful, spot in France. Major Griffiths took temporary command until, on the 23rd, Major Trimble, M.C., of the E. Yorks. Regt. arrived from the 6th Division and took over from him.

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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