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British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

16th April, 1917 - 10th June, 1917.

On the 16th of April we learnt that we were once more to go to trenches, and the same day we moved to Annezin, just outside Béthune. The march will always be remembered on account of the tremendous energy displayed by Captain Shields, who was acting second in command. Just before the start he insisted on the reduction of all officers' kits to their authorized weight, thereby causing much consternation amongst those whose trench kits included gramophones, field boots, and other such articles of modern warfare. However, on arrival at Annezin all such worries were dispersed by the radiant smiles of the ladies at the C.O.'s billet, with whom all the Subaltern Officers, and one or two Captains at once fell in love.

Two days later Major Griffiths and some of the Company Officers went to reconnoiter the area round Bully Grenay and the western outskirts of Lens, which we were told would be our new area. The capture of Vimy by the Canadians a few days before, had made an advance on Lens more possible than it had ever been before, and there were many who thought that the Boche would be compelled to evacuate the town. But the Germans had not yet any intention of doing this. Though the Vimy heights were lost to them, they still held "Hill 70" on the North side, and due West of Lens, near the Souchez river, Fosse 3 and "Hill 65" were naturally strong positions. South of this again, and just the other side of the river, was another small rise, on which stood an electric generating station, another commanding position held by the enemy. Our line ran through the houses of Liévin, across the Lens road, round the Eastern edge of Cité St. Pierre, and through Cité St. Edouard to the slopes of "Hill 70."

The whole neighbourhood was covered with coal mines. Each had its machine buildings, its slag heap, and its rows of miners' cottages, called "Corons," all in perfectly straight lines. The mine complete was known as a "Cité," and a Cité in the case of a large mine, covered a considerable tract of country, and had several hundred cottages. As the mines increased in number or grew in size, these Cités became more and more numerous, until when war began the country was fast becoming one large town. The trenches ran from cellar to cellar, through houses, along roadsides, were very irregular, and mostly short, unconnected and isolated lengths. Streets were the only means of communication, and these could not be used except at night. We were at a great disadvantage in this area. The Boche had but lately occupied the line we were now holding; he knew its whereabouts exactly, knew every corner of it, and could observe it from his heights on both flanks. We on the other hand never quite knew where the Boche was living, had no observation of his front line, and were consequently unable to retaliate as effectively as we should have wished to his trench mortars.

On the 19th of April Lt. Col. J.B.O. Trimble, M.C., arrived and took command, and the same night we marched through Béthune and Noeux les Mines to the "Double Crassier"—a long double slag heap near Loos—where we lived for two days in cellars and dug-outs, in Brigade Reserve. The day after we arrived an attempt was made by the Division on our left to capture "Hill 70." It failed, and during the enemy's retaliatory bombardment our positions were heavily shelled, and five men wounded. The next night we moved back to Maroc and Bully Grenay, where we stayed until the 23rd, when we relieved the 4th Battalion in the front line.

Our new sector was one of the worst we ever held. The front line, "A" Company (Petch), consisted of "Cooper Trench"—an exposed salient in front of Cité St. Pierre, overlooked and shelled from every direction and absolutely unapproachable during daylight, except for those who were willing to crawl. "B" and "C" Companies (Wynne and Moore) were behind in cellars, and "D" (Shields) and Battalion Headquarters still further back in the Cité. On the left could be seen the low slag heap and railway line of St. Pierre coal mine, held by our 1st Battalion, under which the 6th Division a few days previously had lost an entire platoon buried in a collapsed dug-out.

The tour lasted six days, and at the end of the second "D" Company relieved "A" in Cooper trench. It was originally intended to relieve "D" in the same way two nights later, but this was impossible, because we had to take over a new sector of line on the right, where "B" Company now relieved the 4th Lincolnshires, astride the Cité St. Edouard road. The new sector was not so exposed to view, and consequently to shelling as Cooper trench, but had other disadvantages, chief among which was its peculiar shape. A sharp pointed salient ran out along the Cité St. Edouard road, while South of this the line bent back to the right until it reached the outskirts of St. Pierre.

The shelling was very hot throughout the tour, and, at night particularly, there was plenty of machine-gun fire up the streets, which made ration carrying a dangerous job. "D" Company suffered most in casualties, nearly all of which were caused by shell fire on Cooper Trench, where they were unlucky in losing, in addition to some twenty others, Serjeants Williams, Queenborough and Goode, all of whom were wounded. The other Companies had some ten casualties between them.

All this time the enemy were inclined to be nervous after our attack on "Hill 70," and almost every day the columns of smoke in Lens showed us where he was burning houses and stores in case he should be forced to retire. His Infantry remained comparatively inactive in the front line, and when one night 2nd Lieut. Banwell and his platoon of "C" Company raided Cité St. Edouard Church they found no enemy there.

One humorous episode is handed down concerning this otherwise rather grim tour. Battalion Headquarters lived in a very small cellar—mess and office below, clerks and signallers and runners on the stairs. The Boche, the previous occupants, had left a suspicious looking red and black object on one end of the table which we used for meals and work. This took up a large part of our very scanty room, so an R.E. Specialist was called in to examine it. He examined the object, at once condemned the cellar as dangerous, and advised our immediate departure. Cellars were hard to find, we consulted another specialist. His actions are best described in the words of one of those present: "He (R.E.) clears dug-out, or rather dug-out clears itself, and ties string gingerly to object; the string he leads upstairs and along a trench to what he considers is a safe distance. When all is ready the string is pulled. Nothing happens. Suspense—a long pause—two hours—several drinks—R.E. proceeds to examine result lying on floor—an improvised lantern used for photography!"

On the 29th, after a big gas bombardment against the enemy's positions in Cité St. Edouard and St. Theodore, we were relieved by the 4th Battalion, and went into the St. Pierre cellars—in Brigade support. The whole place was under direct observation, and movement by day was impossible, which made our existence very unpleasant. It was while here that we began to realize what a magnificent man was Padre Buck. Nothing worried him, and even Cooper trench formed part of his parish, to be visited each night. In St. Pierre he held a service every evening in one of the cellars, undeterred although on one occasion a shell burst in the doorway, scattering its bits inside, but doing no damage.

On the 3rd of May we again relieved the 4th Battalion and stayed for three days in the Cooper trench sector. We had a quieter time than before, and only lost one killed and nine wounded during the tour. Amongst the latter were L/Cpl. Waterfield and "Pat" Collins the runner, who were both hit by a shell, which burst on the orderly room. Our chief difficulty was the water supply. With the hot weather the demand for water increased, and it all had to be brought to the line in petrol cans. Fortunately the limbers could come as far as Battalion Headquarters, and cans had to be carried forward from there only; even this took many men, and our numbers were by no means large.

At the end of this tour, the Brigade went into Divisional reserve, and we, relieved by the Sherwood Foresters, went back to Fosse 10, near Petit Sains. Here we stayed for six days training, playing games, and, by way of work, wiring a new line of defence. During this time we lost several officers. Capt. Wollaston and Lieut. H.E. Chapman went to Hospital, Lieut. Petch, 2nd Lieuts Clay and Bligh had already gone, and 2nd Lieut. Hepworth left a few days later to join the Indian Army. Captain Shields went on leave and "D" Company was commanded by Captain John Burnett, who, on his return from England, had been sent to the 4th Battalion, but soon worked his way back to us.

It was now our turn to go to the right Brigade sector, previously held by the Staffordshires, and on the 12th May we marched up to Red Mill, between Angres and Liévin. It was a disastrous march, for we were heavily shelled, and lost L/Cpl. Startin and Pte. Norton killed, and three L/Cpls., Ellis, Richardson and Roper, wounded—four of these were "No. 1" Lewis Gunners. Once at Red Mill all was well, and for the next two days we had an enjoyable time. The Mill proved to be a large red-brick Chateau, now sadly knocked about, on the banks of the Souchez river. The weather was bright and warm, so a dam was built, and we soon had an excellent bathing pool, much patronized by all ranks. 2nd Lieut. J.C. Barrett was the star performer, and never left the water, so that those who had nothing better to do used to "go and see the Signalling Officer swim"—it was one of the recognized recreations of the place.

At night we provided carrying and wiring parties, all of which had to go through Liévin, a bad place for shells. The Church stood at a particularly hot corner, and here, on the 11th, 2nd Lieut. T.P. Creed, M.C., was wounded in the head and foot and had to be sent to England, a great loss to "D" Company. We had two killed and nine wounded about the same time, and lost amongst the wounded one of our old soldiers, O'Shaugnessy, the boxer.

On the 15th May we relieved our 4th Battalion in the right sub-sector, staying there for ten days, with a three days' holiday at Red Mill in the middle. We were very weak, and our strength in trenches was barely 450, for in addition to casualties we had to send many away on leave or to courses. Our new sector lay between the Souchez river and the Lens-Liévin road, while across the river were the Canadians. Opposite them and our right flank, was the ridge with the generating station, opposite our centre Fosse 3 and "Hill 65." Fosse 3 had a large group of mine buildings standing on a slag heap, which ran Southwards from "Hill 65," ending above the river with a thirty foot slope. The Western face was the same height, and at its foot on our side was a large lake. The Corons were on the slopes of the Hill and round its base on the Western side. Those at the bottom we held, but the enemy had those on the slopes, and one building in particular, the "L-shaped house," was very strongly fortified. The right Company had its outposts in the cellars and shell-holes round the N. and W. edges of the lake, the centre and left companies had cellars and trenches, through the Cités de Riaumont and du Bois de Liévin, down to the main Lens road. Left Company Headquarters had a beautiful chateau, with a fruit and asparagus garden, known after its first occupant as "John Burnett's Chateau." There were two communication trenches, one each side of the Riaumont Hill: "Assign" on the South, shallow and unsafe in daylight, and "Absalom" on the North. "Hill 65" dominated everything, and gave the Boche a tremendous advantage. We had the Riaumont hill, 500 yards West of our front line, and could use the Bois de Riaumont on its summit as an O.P., but this was always being shelled, and though the view was excellent, one was seldom left in peace long enough to enjoy it. Battalion Headquarters had a strong German concrete dug-out in Liévin, said to have been formerly occupied by Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria.

The enemy confined his activity to his artillery, which hammered our back areas, and his trench mortars, which constantly bombarded our outposts. A row of houses along an absolutely straight street forms a comparatively easy target, and a cellar is no protection against a 240 lbs. Minenwerfer shell. On one occasion the enemy, starting at one end, dropped a shell on every house in turn down one side, smashing each cellar; it was a nerve-racking performance for those who lived in one of the cellars and had to watch the shells coming nearer, knowing that to go into the street meant instant death at the hands of some sniper. The headquarters of No. 15 Platoon had a direct hit, but fortunately 2nd Lieuts. Brooke and Ramsden were both out crawling about somewhere, and the only damage was to their dinner. Every mortar, whose position was known, was given a name and marked on a map, so as to simplify quick retaliation. Captain Burnett spent much time at the telephone demanding the slaughter of "Bear," "Bat," "Pharaoh," "Philis," "Philistine," "Moses," "Aaron," etc. etc.

It was impossible to visit any of the outpost line by day, and those from Battalion Headquarters who wanted to do so had perforce to go at night. Nights were dark; the ground was covered with shell-holes, some of them of great size. Once Major Griffiths, going out with Grogan, his runner, suddenly disappeared from view in an enormous hole which had apparently amalgamated itself with some well or sewer. The Major was almost drowned, but came to the surface in time to hear Grogan say: "You haven't fallen in, have you, sir?" He was fished out and scraped down and went on his way to "John Burnett's Chateau," where he was given warmth and comfort, and whence he eventually returned to Liévin—taking care to rob the asparagus bed before leaving.

Towards the end of the tour the enemy attempted a small raid against our somewhat isolated right post, but was easily driven off by our Lewis guns, and made no other attempts. On the 25th of May the Sherwood Foresters took our place, and we marched out to Marqueffles Farm. The tour had cost us twenty-four casualties, three of whom were killed; we had some narrow escapes in the cellars, and were fortunate not to lose more. "D" Company had had a particularly bad time, and owe much to Serjeant Burbidge, who seemed in his element in the midst of terrific explosions and rocking cellars, and saved many casualties by his calmness.

Marqueffles Farm stands next to Marqueffles coal mine, at the foot of the Northern slopes of the Lorette ridge. The Companies were all billeted in the farm, and the officers in tents outside, while a home-made marquee formed an excellent mess. After our first difficulty, which was to find the place at all in the utter darkness of relief night, we spent a very happy twelve days in beautiful weather. After coal mines and squalid narrow streets, the woods of Lorette, the little village of Bouvigny, and the open country were delightful, for the scenery to the south was all very pleasing. Games of all descriptions were our program for the first two days, while our chief amusement was to watch the enemy's attempts to hit the observation balloon above us. His shells, fitted with clockwork fuzes, burst very high, and were quite harmless.

But our stay in Marqueffles was not merely a rest, we were there to practice for an attack to be made shortly on Fosse 3. A plan of the Fosse and its trenches was marked out, and each day the assaulting Companies, "B" and "C," practiced their attack over it, until each man knew his task exactly. In addition to this "C" Company were able to scale the Marqueffles slag-heap, and so prepare themselves for Fosse 3, whose 30 feet they would have to climb in the battle. General Kemp had had to go to Hospital with a poisoned foot and Colonel Thorpe, the Divisional Staff Officer, who took his place, came often to watch our practice, making on the last occasion a very encouraging, if somewhat bloodthirsty speech. Through it all we enjoyed ourselves immensely. For a change canteen stores were plentiful, and a generous supply of cigarettes, beer, and other luxuries, did much to raise our spirits. The officers, too, had many pleasant evenings, and, on more than one occasion, the night was disturbed by the old familiar strains of "Come Landlord fill the flowing Bowl," "John Peel," and other classical ditties.

On the 6th of June we moved up to Liévin and took over the line from the 5th Sherwood Foresters. For the first time the officers were clothed exactly as the men. "D" Co. (Burnett) was in front, "A" Co. (Broughton) in support, and "B" and "C" (Wynne and Moore) in the row of houses just west of Riaumont Hill. These had hardly settled down before a shell burst in the doorway of "C" Company Headquarters killing Serjeant Harper, the Lewis Gun N.C.O., and wounding six others, amongst them another Gunner, L/Cpl. Morris. At the same time 2nd Lieut. A.L. Macbeth had to go to Hospital with fever; Capt. Wynne was also far from well, but refused to leave his Company on the eve of the attack.

The final preparations were made on the night of the 7th/8th, when two parties went out to cut wire, 2nd Lieut. Banwell and 2nd Lieut. C.S. Allen. The first party found some thick wire, placed their ammonal tubes and successfully blew several gaps. The others, under 2nd Lieut. Allen, found no uncut wire, so brought their tubes back. Everything was ready by dawn on the 8th, and Zero was ordered for 8-30 p.m. the same day.

For several days the Monmouthshires had been at work deepening "Assign" trench, and had done much, but it was still shallow, and there is no doubt that as "B" and "C" Companies came up it between 5.0 and 6.0 p.m., they were seen from the top of "Hill 65." For as "B" Company passed the group of cottages South of Riaumont Hill, the Boche opened a heavy fire on the trench and dropped a shell right amongst the Company Headquarters. Capt. Wynne was untouched, but his Serjeant-Major, Gore, and his runner, Ghent, both first-class soldiers, were killed by his side. Assembly was complete by 6.0 p.m. and "B," "C," with "D" Co. in close support, waited for Zero in some short lengths of trench, dug amongst the houses at the East end of "Assign" trench. "A" Co., who were to carry ammunition and stores for the attackers, formed up near Battalion Headquarters, in the group of houses half way up the trench. Capt. Wynne, though worn out with fever, and hardly able to stand, still stuck to his Company.

Sketch Map To Illustrate Fighting At Lens -May, June 1917

At 8.30 p.m. the barrage opened, and the attack started. Almost the first shell exploded some ammunition dump on the far side of the slag heap, and the whole battle was lit up by the gigantic fire which followed. Against the red glow the black figures of "C" Company could be seen swarming up the slag-heap, clearing the two trenches, "Boot" and "Brick," on its summit, and sweeping on to clean out the dug-outs beyond. There were many Germans on and around the heap, and in a short time between 80 and 100 were killed, nearly all with the bayonet. Serjeant Needham stormed a trench mortar emplacement, himself accounting for most of the crew. Serjeant Roberts, formerly of the Transport, and with his Company for the first time, was much annoyed to find a bayonet through his arm, but did not stop until he had dealt with its owner and any of his friends he could find. Pte. Tookey and many others showed splendid dash, bombing dug-outs, bayonetting stray Huns, and occasionally taking a prisoner or two. But the central figure of the fight was 2nd Lieut. Banwell. Armed with a rifle and bayonet he simply ran amock and slaughtered some eight of the enemy by himself, while their leader he ran to the edge of the slag-heap and kicked over the side into the lake, where he broke his neck and was drowned. Altogether this Company took eight prisoners and destroyed three machine guns and two trench mortars.

Meanwhile the attack on the left had failed. At Zero Captain Wynne led "B" Company from their trenches and advanced towards the "L-shaped" building. They had hardly started before their ranks were swept from end to end with machine gun fire from the houses to their left and front. Capt. Wynne and 2nd Lieut. R.B. Farrer were killed, 2nd Lieut. W.I. Nelson was wounded, and the company had no officers left. Still, under the N.C.O.'s, they tried to push forward, only to meet with more losses. They were compelled to stop, and, under Serjeant Martin, the senior N.C.O. left, began to dig a line a few yards east of their starting trench. Serjeant Passmore, who was acting Serjt.-Major, Serjts. Kemp, Thorpe and Hibbert were all wounded, L/Cpl. Aris and nine others killed, and more than half the Company wounded. For some time Battalion Headquarters knew nothing of this disaster, and it was only when the Signaller L/Cpl. Woolley came back to report, that Col. Trimble heard what had happened. He at once ordered "D" Company to fill the gap, so as to protect the left flank of "C" Company, which he knew must be seriously exposed.

"A" Company, carrying ammunition, had also had their casualties, and 2nd Lieut. Broughton, after being hit more than once, eventually had to leave them. He had been personally organizing most of the parties, and during the battle was everywhere, quite regardless of danger. Consequently, when he went, "A" Company became scattered; parties which had delivered their ammunition did not know where to go; and some of them, a few under Serjeant Putt and Pte. Dakin, wandered into the slag-heap and took part in the battle, helping to kill some of the Boche there. "D" Company lost two killed and ten wounded, for their position, joining the two flanks, was exposed to a considerable amount of enfilade fire. As soon as they had cleared the summit of the slag-heap "C" Company started to consolidate "Boot" and "Brick" trenches, while the most forward of the attackers formed a protective screen. Their position was precarious. They were exposed to heavy fire from the generating station and "Hill 65," while unable to keep a watch on the low ground of the Souchez river valley or East of the slag-heap, where numbers of Boche could assemble unseen. The "L-shaped" building, too, was a thorn in their left flank. Still they were well established, when Col. Thorpe and Captain Wade, the Brigade Major, came round the line and looked at our new positions. They left the slag-heap just before dawn, and a few minutes later, when they were talking to Capt. Moore in his headquarters in the cottages below, a runner came in to announce a big Boche counter-attack. It was still too dark to see much, but our sentries could make out large numbers of men closing in on them from three sides, and fire was opened. The Boche dropped into shell holes, but continued his advance steadily, making use of all available cover. "C" Company, finding their rifles useless and very short of ammunition, waited until they came near enough to start bombing, and then gave them a volley of Mills grenades. But once again we were ruined by the inefficiency of those in rear; the bombs had no detonators. In a few minutes the Company would have been completely surrounded, so slowly and in good order they withdrew, first to the edge of the heap, and then down to the cottages at the bottom. One group of men stayed for an incredibly long time on a ledge partway down the face, but in the end they too had to come away. During the night the Company lost one killed and twenty-eight wounded, five of whom stayed at duty; two others were badly wounded during the counter-attack, were subsequently captured, and died as prisoners in Germany—Privates A. Beck and R. Collins. At the time, the withdrawal from the slag-heap seemed like a defeat, but, had we stayed, our casualties would have been far worse and the result the same; for with daylight, nothing could have lived on the heap, so long as the Generating Station and "Hill 65" remained in German hands.

The night after the battle we were relieved by the 5th Lincolnshires and marched out to Red Mill again for a few days' rest. We were congratulated by the General on the fight, and Captain Moore and "C" Company came in for special praise for their work with the bayonet. Capt. Wynne and 2nd Lieut. Farrer were buried in Bully Grenay, and Lieut. N.C. Marriott took over "B" Company. For the last twenty four hours it had been commanded by Lieut. Petch, who returned from Hospital in the middle of the battle. He now went to "A" Company again, and was promoted Captain. Lieut. Marriott got his Captaincy a few weeks later. Capt. Shields returned from leave and took command of "D" again, while Capt. Burnett went to Headquarters.

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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