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Gorre and Essars at Peace

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Gorre And Essars At Peace
12th April, 1918 - 10th Aug., 1918.

Bracquemont was sadly changed. Instead of the gay, almost fashionable suburb of Noeux les Mines, with numbers of people in the streets, it was now a wilderness of empty houses; the only sign of life, the piteous little groups of women and children waiting by the roadside for some French car to come and take them to a place of safety. The miners alone remained. Inspired by Clemenceau, who had visited the place a day or two before, they were working day and night, regardless of bombardments and nightly bombing raids. The furnaces at the Noeux Mines could be seen for miles round, and were a constant mark for every German gun and aeroplane, but still the plucky miners carried on their work, knowing that on them alone depended the coal supply of France. We were billeted in the Convent formerly occupied by the Casualty Clearing Station. The following morning the Drums gave a short concert in the Bandstand, and after dinner we were taken by lorries to Hersin Coupigny.

Hersin Coupigny was still fairly thickly populated, but the news from the Merville and Kemmel area where the enemy seemed to be making good progress, together with the arrival each evening of a few high-velocity shells, were fast driving the inhabitants to seek safety further West. We remained here until the 24th of April, the first few days in huts, the remainder in the Tile Factory. It was not an enjoyable rest—in fact it was no rest at all. All ranks were ready to move at short notice, and one expected almost hourly to be sent forward to fill some new gap in the line.

Pamphlets poured in—"How to fortify farmhouses for defense"—"Notes on recent German offensives"—Plans of rear defenses. Generals made speeches telling the troops to be brave, artillery officers reconnoitered new gun positions miles behind the lines, and the entire Labor Corps seemed to be digging "last ditches." It was all very depressing, and many men were heard to remark that they wished the Boche would attack, so that there might be an end of words, and a chance for a few deeds. No one doubted that the Division was perfectly capable of looking after itself and dealing with any German attack.

Then came Influenza, and with it the end of all chance of immediate action for the Battalion. Officers and men were attacked alike, and in a few days more than 250 were sent to Hospital. Fortunately a temporary place was fitted up at Bruay, and the majority of cases were dealt with there and not sent down the line, where they would have been irretrievably lost. The cause of the complaint will be for ever a mystery; its symptoms were temperature—weakness, fainting and loss of voice. Some blamed the gas, others the huts, and others the Bracquemont hospital buildings. The Medical Officer, wise man, would give no opinion. The weather was damp and raw and at times very cold. Consequently no one was very sorry when, on the 24th, the Brigade marched to Bruay. The Battalion and a 9" high velocity German shell arrived in Bruay about the same time and found the place deserted. Several houses had been hit, and the inhabitants had wisely decided to take no risks, so, with the exception of the colliers, had all gone. This made billeting very difficult. Buildings were all locked up and no one had the key. Eventually everybody was squashed into the Girls' School—the officers occupied one of the dormitories, and, though uncomfortable, all had at least shelter from the rain which fell in torrents. At intervals a tremendous roar followed by a crash announced the arrival of what became known as "another toute suiter"; fortunately no one was hurt. The following day the Brigade moved into Fouquières; the 4th Battalion occupied the old Hospital huts, and we shared the remainder of the village with the 5th Lincolnshire Regiment. Battalion Headquarters were in the Chateau, still occupied by the two ladies, now the only civilians left in the village. With the most wonderfully cheerful courage did these two remain, though their servants had gone, though food was almost unobtainable, and though there was seldom an hour without a shell falling in some part of the village or its surroundings. The Battalion was exceedingly lucky and escaped with practically no casualties; not so the 4th Battalion, which lost several men in the huts. Most of the influenza cases now returned, and we were once more strong enough to take the field. On the 26th we lost Captain and Quartermaster A.A. Worley who went to England never to return. For some time his health had been bad, but though unfit for duty he had refused to leave the Battalion until he had seen the stores properly organized for battle. Except for a short stay in England in 1917, he had been with us since the beginning. His one thought was always for the welfare of the Battalion, and no one ever gave more devoted service than he did. His place was taken in June by Captain and Quartermaster W.A. Nicholson, of the Essex Regiment. During the interval the duties were very ably carried out by R.Q.M.S. Gorse.

On the 24th of April the Sherwood Foresters and Staffords had taken over the line from Route "A" Keep to the Canal just South of Locon. Four days later we were ordered to relieve the Sherwood Foresters in the right half of the left sector. Various reconnoitering parties went up beforehand, and at dusk we moved off by platoons through Béthune and Essars. The former town had already suffered very badly. All roads through the centre were completely blocked, and troops had to find their way round its Western edge and past the Prison. Civilians had all been evacuated and the only permanent occupants were the Tunneling Company assisted by some French colliers. The route to trenches was the main road through Essars, and parts of this were constantly "harassed" by the enemy's artillery. The Battalion was particularly unfortunate on this first relief. Headquarter Officers were riding, and, in passing the column, had just come level with the head of "C" Company, when the enemy suddenly opened fire on the road with a field battery. Captain Banwell was thrown from his horse which was hit, and the remainder of the chargers immediately bolted across a field. The plunging animals and the shells (about 50 of which were fired in two minutes) threw the leading platoon of "C" Company into confusion, and, as the ditch at the side of the road gave no cover, the casualties were high; but for the coolness of the Platoon Commander, 2nd Lieut. H. Coxell, they would have been higher still. The rear platoon of "B" Company also suffered heavily. The shells were gas, and those men who were hit had small or no chance of putting on their masks. Captain Jack, the Medical Officer, was as usual wonderfully calm, and quite regardless of his own personal safety, succeeded in getting several men under the wall of a house, where he was able to dress their wounds. The remainder of the relief was carried out without molestation.

Our new sector was very different from anything we had previously seen. The front line—practically the outpost line—marked the limit of the German offensive in April; on the right was Route "A" Keep, one of the old 1915 strong points with two concrete machine-gun emplacements. It was now a mere heap of shattered trees, shattered trenches and the usual remains of many fights, for in 20 days it changed hands nine times. The Staffords captured it for the last time on the 29th of April, and from then onwards it remained British. The line then ran between Loisne Chateau and Raux Farm—our old Brigade Headquarters of 1915, now a German machine gun and trench mortar nest—to the S.W. outskirts of Le Touret and on to the canal at Mesplaux. Except for the old keeps at intervals, it consisted entirely of a few small holes dug more or less at random, with little or no wire in front. Behind this, along the whole Divisional front ran the Liverpool Line or Reserve Line, slightly deeper and better sighted than the frontline, and defended by the "Beuvry river," a small stream running between steep banks and reputed to be uncrossable by tanks. Gorre and Le Hamel villages came behind this line, and provided Battalion Headquarters with cellar accommodation, and the Support Battalions with billets of a sort.

Farms in the front line were not too plentiful, and Company Headquarters usually consisted of a hole 4ft. by 2ft. by 2ft. into which the Company Commander could just squeeze himself, and curl up his feet to avoid having them kicked and trodden on by the men passing along the ditch outside. Rations came to Gorre and Essars by rail and limber, and were carried forward by hand over the top to the front line. Except for occasional bursts of fire on certain roads and villages, particularly Essars and Gorre, the enemy was on the whole quiet. These were small gas bombardments, and one or two really bad days, but for the most part it was a quiet sector, except round Route A.

Behind the villages came the La Bassée Canal with all the bridges mined and demolition parties ready to blow them up in the event of a hostile attack. The idea of course was that they should be blown after the last Englishman N. of the Canal had either been killed or had crossed it. That the bridges would get demolished all right, none of us ever doubted for a moment; we were equally certain that this would take place on the first alarm of any attack, and those of us who happened to be on the North bank would thus be compelled to fight to the end or swim. Fortunately these warriors were never called on to perform.

Vaudricourt Park was the rest area. At first, bell tents and a few bivouacs were all the available cover, but in time, as corrugated iron could be sent down from old horse lines in the forward area, messhuts, cookhouses and canteens were built. There were no long spells of wet weather and when it was fine the Camp in the Park was delightful. It was never shelled and never bombed, and it is hard to imagine a better place. Verquin and Vaudricourt provided the necessary estaminets and the soldiers could obtain as much vin blanc (or "Jimmy Blink" as it was more popularly called) as they desired; while one Bertha made large sums of money by inserting a slip of lemon peel into a glass as cheap champagne and selling it to officers at an exorbitant price as a "champagne cocktail." The country round provided good ground for a sports meeting, in which "A" Company were victorious, while "D" Company managed to finish a close second in most events. Lieutenants Everitt and Quint and Private R.O. Start were the chief runners, but large numbers took part and tremendous keenness was displayed by all. There was cricket almost every day in the Park, and great enthusiasm was shown in the Battalion Championship, won by Headquarters.

From the beginning of May to the middle of August the Brigade never left these two sectors, Gorre and Essars, and during this time there was no change in the front line. It was seldom that anything happened of sufficient importance to find its way into the day's communiqué, but every tour was full of interesting incidents, all of which show how the warfare was rapidly changing.

Our first relief was remarkable for the fact that we took over at Battalion Headquarters two cows (and with them a daily supply of fresh milk), for whom L/Cpl. "Pat" Collins was self-appointed cowman—while the left Company found a plentiful supply of eggs. A stray mule was found wandering round the outposts on the "wrong" side of the Beuvry river, while in the farm actually in the front line we discovered still alive after 21 days without food—a cow and calf, two bullocks, an old white horse and a pig; they were in a terrible condition of starvation and had to be killed by the Intelligence Officer, 2nd Lieut. Hewson, who found it a most unpleasant task. There were of course many dogs—one, at a cottage in no man's land, being particularly unpleasant for patrolling. In addition to Lance-Corporal Collins' cows, two others and a goat were led out by Private Muggleton. The goat came to an untimely end, being done to death in Vaudricourt Park by its Company Commander, outside whose tent it was noisily bewailing its captivity.

In front of us, there was little or no wire, and our first encounter with the enemy was on the 6th of May when a Corporal and three men of "D" Company went out to wire their post and marched straight on to a patrol of about 15 enemy waiting for them. The enemy opened fire at close range and the wiring party threw down their wire and replied. Two of the party were hit in the first few seconds and a third—Private Smith—who had come to us from the 2nd/5th in January—was attacked by two Germans and carried off struggling. The Corporal fired at the enemy who then made off, leaving one dead man behind them. The Platoon Commander (2nd Lieut. W.M. Cole) came up and, after assisting the wounded back, set off to look for Smith. Except, however, for the dead man, nothing could be found of the enemy, and by dawn the search was given up as hopeless. The following night Smith returned. It appears that the enemy meeting more opposition than they expected, made off as soon as they had got their prisoner, and, as there were plenty of bullets about, the remainder of the patrol, leaving prisoner and escort to follow as best they could, hurried back to their lines. Smith watched his chance; suddenly stooping, he kicked one man amidships, seized his rifle, gave the other a jab with the bayonet, and ran for his life. He got away, but had to lie up until the next evening to get back. For this he was awarded the Military Medal.

The following tour, in the Gorre right sector, was very successful until the last two days when Battalion Headquarters received the just punishment for tempting fortune too far. Both 4th and 5th Battalions had their Headquarters in the cellar of Gorre Chateau—cramped and stuffy at any time, and in the hot weather unendurable. Our Headquarters, therefore, cleared out a room on the first floor for a mess—it had a carpet and other luxuries, and its only blemish was a shell-hole in the corner of the window. With great pride we invited Brigadiers and others to our new mess, until on the 17th of May the crash came. The enemy had fired several salvoes towards the Chateau during the afternoon, and at 8-15 p.m. he started in earnest. The wood, the Chateau and the corner by the Church were shelled unceasingly—first with 77 and 105 m.m. shells—later on with 5.9's. The mess was knocked in, the wood was filled with gas, the kitchen and signal office both had direct hits. The Transport had a terrible time on the road, and it was only the devoted work of the Transport Officer, 2nd Lieut. W.R. Todd, with his drivers, particularly Hill and Randall and the Provost Serjeant Bennett, which enabled rations to be taken up. An advance party of Stafford Officers got to the cellar and couldn't leave it for two hours, until finally Colonel Wood took them up the line himself, returning alone through the wood.

The Companies were comparatively immune except near the "Tuning Fork." General Thwaites was visiting the line at the time and had a narrow escape himself, while his A.D.C. was badly wounded. Towards morning the shelling somewhat subsided, but one very unlucky shot hit the cellar ventilator and filled it with gas. Then came the sun and with it the mustard; not very many mustard shells had been fired, but, as the day advanced, the heat kept drawing the gas out of the ground and the Chateau became a death trap. We all cleared out early and went into the fields, but even so it was too late; many men's clothes were tainted, and by 6-0 p.m. all the servants and more than half the other Headquarter details were blind and had to go. Serjeant Bent, of the Regimental Aid Post, and Allbright, the Orderly Room Clerk, were amongst those who went down. Our Medical Officer (Captain W.B. Jack), Intelligence Officer (2nd Lieut. J.A. Hewson) and Lieut. K. Ashdowne all went to Hospital, while the 4th Battalion lost all their Headquarter Officers. By night the Commanding Officer was unable to speak, the Adjutant half blind, and the Padre was doing everybody's job with his wonderful energy. It was a very sorrowful Battalion Headquarters that handed over to the Staffordshires and found its way slowly back to Vaudricourt.

Soon after that—on the 29th of May—"C" Company had another gas misfortune while in support in Gorre village. Their house was heavily shelled with mustard, and though all men were taken out as soon as possible 40% of the Company, together with 2nd Lieuts. H. Coxell and O. Darlington had to be evacuated. There was so much gas at this time that special compartments were set apart for gassed men and gassed clothing on the Fouquières-Le Quesnoy-Kantara Dump light railway.

Towards the end of the month the crops began to get very high, and by the first week in June hardly a day passed without some daylight patrol taking advantage of them. Captain Banwell first made the experiment. Accompanied by his runner, Smiles, he visited the "crashed" aeroplane just N. of the Rue du Bois and found a most elaborate German night post in a tree, with wires to machine gun posts. His example was followed on the 9th of June by 2nd Lieut. Cole, who went out one morning with Lance-Corporal Thurman and a party from "D" Company. They crawled through some wire and found themselves close to a German shell-hole post. 2nd Lieut. Cole himself reconnoitered this post, and finding the sentry dozing called up his Corporal. The latter hit the sentry on the head with his rifle "to attract his attention" (so read the patrol report), and leaning over the hole whispered "Ici yer ——er." The Boche, however, was too frightened to "ici" and looked like giving the alarm, so 2nd Lieut. Cole jumped down and fired his revolver to hurry him along. This caused a considerable disturbance. Two German Machine Gun posts only a few yards away joined in the fight and for a moment things looked bad for the patrol. The latter, finding they could not get a prisoner, made a note of his Regiment, shot him, and made off under a heavy fire from the machine gun posts. They all got away safely. The Corps Commander described 2nd Lieut. Cole's work as "a very fine piece of patrol work, and called for courage, initiative and cunning of a high degree." Ten days later—on the 10th of June—the enemy suddenly shelled the "Tuning Fork Switch" trench, and this very gallant young officer was badly wounded in the arm. He was taken down to the Casualty Clearing Station at once, but in spite of all the Doctors' efforts, blood poisoning set in, and on the 29th Lieut. Maurice Cole died. The same evening he was awarded the Military Cross for his patrol fight. He lies now in Pernes cemetery. No officer was ever more loved by his men, and justly so, for he was not only their leader in danger, but their first friend in difficulty. In the Mess "Bill" Cole was as popular as in the field. Patrolling was not confined to these two Companies, and many officers and men spent quite a large proportion of their time crawling through the corn. Chief among these were 2nd Lieuts. Asher, Argyle, Boarland, Christy, Davies, Serjeants T. Marston, M.M., Haines, Foster, M.S.M., P. Bowler, T. Tunks, T. Needham, Clamp and others.

With the hot weather the La Bassée Canal became a very useful asset, and not only were there constant bathing parties, but it was actually possible at the end of July to hold a swimming gala in the "Brewery Reach." There were several well contested races and diving competitions, uninterrupted by hostile aircraft, and a very pleasant afternoon (considering the Boche were less than a mile away) was spent in this way. The chief race was won by Signaller Stanton.

Towards the end of July, as there was no sign of the long expected German attack, preparations were made for the coming winter. Houses were reinforced, and had concrete houses built inside them, and some very comfortable Headquarters were built in this way. Perhaps the best of these was the Battalion Headquarters of the Route A sector—a cottage on the banks of the canal and screened from any observation by the woods. It had its own bathing place (where Serjt. Wilbur nearly got drowned) and its own private approach by the tow path—incidentally, of course, its own mosquitoes, but one got used to them in time.

On the 13th of July we lost Captain Banwell, who went into hospital for a few weeks with his fifth wound—an aeroplane bullet in the stomach. It was not at all a slight wound, but he managed to persuade the Pernes Doctors that it was, and so contrived not to be evacuated beyond the C.C.S. He eventually returned in August, and after a few days as A.D.C. to General Rowley, who was then Commanding the Division, went off on a month's leave to get fit.

On the 6th of August the Staff had reason to believe that the Boche might be contemplating a withdrawal that morning, and we were asked to make sure that we could still get in touch with the enemy. Accordingly, Lieut. Pearson, Lance-Corporal "Anty" Carr and Pte. Ferrin, all of "A" Company, crawled out at dawn towards the ruined houses and battery positions opposite Route A Keep. It was the anniversary of Carr's 1916 experience and before they went several of his friends jestingly warned him not to be captured this time. The patrol crawled via several dykes and got close to the house without disturbing anyone, until, to get a better view Lieut. Pearson knelt up to use glasses. A machine gun then opened fire on them at close range, so they returned. On the way back they were suddenly fired at by a post in their path—the occupants must have been asleep on the way out. Pte. Ferrin was hit and died almost at once, but the others tried to bomb the enemy out, and, finding they could not, decided to lie still until evening. However, the enemy proved more resolute than usual and soon surrounded and captured the whole party. The fight was seen by several of the front line posts and also by a patrol of "D" Company under 2nd Lieut. Christy. This latter was quite unable to give any help as it was itself having very great difficulty in getting away from two large Boche patrols who were trying to cut it off. A few days later, while we were in support at Le Quesnoy, the enemy started his withdrawal, and the Gorre-Essars front once more became a battle sector.

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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