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Hill 65

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

13th June, 1917.4th July, 1917.

Those who had hoped for a rest after the battle were disappointed, for, on the 13th of June, we once more went into the line opposite Fosse 3. The enemy seemed to have recovered from our attack on the 8th, and we spent a quiet five days, gaining no ground and suffering practically no casualties. Towards the end of the tour the Canadians gained a footing on the Southern corner of the slag-heap and established a post there, and at the same time took the whole of the Generating Station and the high ground round it. It seemed improbable that the Boche could hold Boot and Brick trenches much longer, so the General brought the 5th Lincolnshires into the line on the evening of the 18th to make a new attack on Fosse 3. This attack was to take the form of a large raid.

Leaving "A" Company (Petch) in close support in Cité des Garennes we went out to Red Mill while the attack took place, and the following day, the 19th, the Lincolnshires sent us down 24 prisoners to guard. Their raid had been a great success, they had cleared the slag-heap and the machine buildings and killed many Boche as well as taken prisoners. As a result of this the Lincolnshires were able to move into Boot and Brick for their outpost line, and here on the 20th we relieved them. Twice during the relief the S.O.S. Signal was fired by our posts in the front line on account of suspected counter-attacks, but our artillery replied so promptly and so efficiently that nothing materialized.

Our second night in the line was disastrous. During this fighting round Lens, any progress made was the result of minor operations, raids and even patrol fights, and there was seldom a large scale battle. It was naturally difficult to keep all units informed of the latest progress, and this difficulty was particularly great in our case, when trying to maintain liaison with the Canadians. The Souchez river was the boundary between the two corps, and made it impossible for us to visit their front line troops. We had therefore to rely on Division and Corps headquarters keeping each other posted as to the latest progress, and on more than one occasion this liaison broke down, and we suffered very heavily.

At dusk on the 21st we received a message, and at once warned all ranks, that the Special Brigade R.E. were going to carry out a gas bombardment of the mine buildings of Fosse 3. Projectors would be fired by a Company operating with the Canadian Corps, from whose front the buildings could be best attacked. The wind was satisfactory, and the buildings were at least 150 yards away from our nearest trenches, so there seemed no need of any special precautions. "C" Company, occupying Boot and Brick trenches, heard the familiar explosion as the projectors went off, and waited to hear them fall in the buildings. Instead, they fell in our trenches, several hundred of them; in a few seconds, and before any warning could be shouted, the trenches were full of phosgene, the deadliest of all gasses. Officers and men worked hard to rouse those resting, and, in particular, 2nd Lieut. Banwell taking no heed for his own safety, went everywhere, rousing, rescuing and helping the badly gassed. But it was too late, and all through the night and next morning casualties were being carried out to Liévin and down the line. 2nd Lieuts. Craggs and Macbeth both went to England, and, almost the last to leave the slag-heap, 2nd Lieut. Banwell. His great strength had enabled him to survive longer than the others, but no constitution could stand all that phosgene, and during the morning he suddenly fainted, and had to be carried down. By the time he reached Liévin he was almost dead, and the Doctors held out no hope of his recovery. However, fed on oxygen and champagne he lasted a week, and then, to everybody's surprise, began to recover. The greatest surprise of all was when this marvelous man refused to go to England, but preferred to remain in Hospital in France until fit enough to rejoin his own Battalion. With the exception of Capt. Moore, who was fortunately on leave at the time, "C" Company was wiped out and temporarily ceased to exist. Twenty-four died from the poison, and in all sixty-two others of the Company went to Hospital. Most of these found their way to England, though one or two, such as Serjt. Needham and L/Cpl. Tookey, both fighting men, preferred to remain and return to us. "D" Company also had their losses, and Serjeant Sullivan and nine others were gassed, ten others wounded. The rest of the Battalion escaped untouched.

The following night the 8th Sherwood Foresters came into the line, and we went back to Marqueffles Farm. Our losses had been heavy and so far we had had practically no reinforcements, so had to reorganise our three remaining Companies with three platoons each instead of four. We were also becoming short of officers, having lost eight and only received one reinforcement—Lieut. R.J.H.F. Watherstone, who came to us from England.

We spent two days resting and cleaning ourselves, and trying to recover from the effects of the battle, before starting on any more serious work. On the Sunday, at Church Parade, General Thwaites came and spoke to us, congratulating us once more on the 8th, and praising especially "C" Company for their bayonet work. He was very angry indeed about the gas disaster and explained the cause. It appeared that the Company carrying out the operation had never been informed of our occupation of the trenches on the slag heap, and that, when they said they were going to bombard the mine buildings, they meant the whole area, including these trenches, which they imagined were still held by the enemy.

The whole Division was now very weak, for the series of small battles during the past six weeks had been expensive. However, the higher authorities considered we were still fit for battle and decided to give us one more show, before sending us to some quiet trenches to recuperate. The objective this time was "Hill 65," "Adjunct," "Adjacent" and "Advance" trenches and the outskirts of the Cité du Moulin—the last of the Cités outside Lens itself. Three Battalions would attack, ourselves on the right, our 4th Battalion in the centre, and the 5th S. Staffordshires on the left. Practice started at once over a flagged course, and our new Brigadier, General F.G.M. Rowley, C.M.G., of the Middlesex Regiment, came to watch us at work. Our formation differed slightly from that used in previous fights, for we gave great prominence to the "Moppers." Several times lately the leading waves of an assault had gone straight to their final objective, consolidated, and then found themselves cut off by parties of the enemy, over whom they had passed during the advance. Now a line of "moppers" was detailed to follow ten yards behind each wave, with orders to mop up everything and leave no living Boche anywhere behind the assaulting troops. In our case "D" Company (Shields) would mop up, "A" and "B" (Petch and Marriott) would make the attack, while two Companies of the 4th Lincolnshires were detailed to assist us with carrying parties.

While we were practicing this, on the 25th the troops in the line made further progress, somewhat lightening our task, but not necessitating any alteration in our plans of attack. The battle was ordered for the 28th June, and the previous evening we moved up Assign trench to our assembly positions, Boot and Brick Trenches on the slag heap. We were to relieve partly Lincolnshires and partly Monmouthshires, and for some reason or other there was confusion among the guides. Those detailed for "A" Company wanted to lead them to the right instead of the left of the assaulting frontage, while "B" Company had "A's" guides. Fortunately Capt. Petch was able to catch his platoons in time, and, dismissing the guides, sent each to its correct position. Serjeant Putt, who had started first, he could not warn in time, but fortunately this N.C.O. knew enough of the plans to know that he was being led wrongly, and so retraced his steps and rejoined the rest of his Company on the slag-heap. "A" Company were in position by 10.0 p.m., but the other companies were seriously delayed and wandered about most of the night under guides, who took them the wrong way. To add to the confusion our liaison with the Canadians again broke down, and without any warning the Division on our right suddenly launched an attack. Barrages followed by both sides and the noise continued throughout the night. Long after the attack was over the noise went on, for every few minutes some post would get nervous and send up an S.O.S. signal, immediately calling down a barrage, to which the other side would reply in kind. All this took place on the other side of the Souchez river, but we came in for much shelling, and the relief was not finally complete until 5.0 a.m. At dawn we were all in position. "B" Company (Marriott) was on the right with a frontage from the Souchez river to the Southern edge of the mine buildings; "A" (Petch) was on the left, with the length of the buildings as their frontage; "D" (Shields) assembled under the slag-heap behind them. Zero was ordered for 7.20 p.m.

The original plan had been for the assaulting Companies to leave their assembly trenches a few minutes before Zero, and, moving forward carefully, to form up for the attack a few yards in front. At 7.0 p.m. it was still, of course, bright daylight; the enemy had two observation balloons up, and there were several aeroplanes about. It seemed that any such movement must be noticed. However, fate was on our side, and at 7.13 p.m. a rain storm burst over the country, completely obscuring the view, and by Zero the assaulting troops were lying out ready. They had not been seen.

At 7-20 p.m. the rain stopped, the barrage started, and we went forward. At the same time real and dummy gas attacks were made North of the Liévin-Lens road, and the enemy must have wondered very much where the main attack would be. The result was satisfactory; we met no real barrage and no very heavy machine gun fire, though there was a considerable amount of scattered shooting of both kinds. This did not delay our advance, though 2nd Lieut. Dawes was wounded and had to leave his Company. Our only difficulty was the mine building, through which "A" Company were supposed to advance; this was found to be impenetrable, and Captain Petch had to send half his Company through "B" Company's frontage, and half through the 4th Leicestershires, so as to avoid it. "Adjunct" and "Adjacent" trenches were reached practically without loss, but the enemy did not stay to receive us, and we found them empty. At 7.40 p.m. Yates, the "A" Company runner, reached headquarters with the news of the success of the battle.

"Adjacent" trench was organized as our new outpost line and several strong points were built along it. We also secured the Western end of "Almanac," a communication trench running N.E. alongside the railway. Halfway up this trench a deserted Boche machine gun post would have provided us with an excellent forward post, but unfortunately it was in our defensive barrage line and we were not allowed to occupy it. We had, therefore, to content ourselves with collecting the souvenirs, which included a telephone, and to come away. We had several casualties while consolidating, and lost another officer, 2nd Lieut. M.J.S. Dyson, who was slightly wounded by a stray shell. "B" Company lost Cpl. Baker wounded, and L/Cpl. Snow of "A" was also hit, in addition to two killed and twenty-five others wounded in the Battalion. The scattered shelling became somewhat more concentrated after our arrival, but did not stop our consolidation, which went forward rapidly with only one pause. About 8.0 p.m. there was a terrific rainstorm and everyone stopped work to put on waterproof sheets. The enemy must have done the same, and it was curious to notice how the battle stopped while everybody sheltered, for while the rain lasted there was complete silence, and neither side fired a shot.

Our task the next morning was to discover how far the Boche had retired. The Canadians South of the river had pushed on to the outskirts of Cité St. Antoine, almost in Lens itself, and, with "Hill 65" in our hands, the German positions in the Cité du Moulin were overlooked from everywhere. Patrols were sent forward to investigate, and 2nd Lieut. Brooke, with some of "D" Company, pushed forward up "Almanac" trench as far as the Arras road. Here they caught sight of a Boche patrol, which promptly fled as fast as possible. Except for this, the day passed quietly, as did the following morning.

The afternoon of the 30th, however, was far from quiet, and for several hours our new line was heavily shelled. In addition to the usual field batteries, there was one heavy gun which fired continuously on "A" Company's lines, obtaining a direct hit on Company Headquarters. Capt. Petch and 2nd Lieut. Campbell were both buried but not seriously hurt. Serjt. Ault, the acting Serjeant-Major, Wheeldon and Stevenson, the two runners, all three old soldiers of exceptional ability, were killed. Raven, another runner, was wounded, Downs had already been hit, and was again severely shaken, but both these stayed at duty, while they helped Lilley and Balderstone, who pluckily came along, to dig out those who were buried. In all twenty-eight were wounded, making our casualties for the battle three officers and ninety other ranks. That night the 4th Lincolnshires relieved us, and we went into Brigade reserve, two Companies in Cité des Garennes, the other in Liévin.

A few hours after relieving us the Lincolnshires made another attack, but failed to gain much ground, and met with considerable opposition from the neighbourhood of the Arras road. Their casualties were consequently heavy, and they asked to be relieved again the following night, so we were ordered to go up once more and take over their new line. Guides were to have met us at the "Broken bridge" near "Adjacent" trench, but only those for "A" and "B" Companies arrived, and for several hours Captain Shields waited with "D" Company, not knowing where to take his men. Apparently there had been some further operations, and the Lincolnshires had been shelled, in any case no guides appeared, and it was nearly dawn. At last, Capt. Shields, knowing that in a few minutes he would not have time to reach the front line, even if guides did arrive, gave the order to "about turn," and marched back. This caused considerable discussion at Battalion Headquarters, and Brigade finally decided that Col. Trimble should take over the line with two companies of the 4th Lincolnshires in front in the outpost line, two of our Companies in "Acorn" and "Adjunct," and one Company of ours under the slag-heap. We were all well dug in, and consequently did not lose very heavily when the following day, the 2nd of July, we were shelled continuously for several hours. Our telephone lines were almost all cut, so that messages had to be sent by the runners, whose task was far from pleasant on these occasions. Throughout these two months of fighting in Lens the runners, both Battalion and Company, had proved themselves to be very fine soldiers. We relied on them almost entirely in battle, for telephone wires never lasted long, and pigeons, once released, did not return. But the runners never failed, and what is more were always cheerful. Cheerfully they crawled along some exposed street, or dodged round houses in the Cité St. Pierre, cheerfully they faced "Assign" trench and Liévin corner, and equally cheerfully they crossed the slag-heap, often having to go actually through a barrage to reach their destination. Grogan, Collins, Sullivan, Raven, Kilcoyne and others, always ready and always willing, they would work till they dropped, and the Battalion owes much to their courage and endurance.

The 3rd of July passed quietly, and that night we were relieved by the 25th Canadians and marched to Aix Noulette, where we embussed and went to Monchy Breton for a rest.

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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