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Monchy Au Bois

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Monchy Au Bois
3rd July, 1916.29th Oct., 1916.

North of Gommecourt the enemy's line, after passing Pigeon wood, ran a few yards West of Essarts village along the high ground to within a short distance of Monchy au Bois, then, turning West, made a small salient round this village, which lay in a cup-like hollow. Between Essarts and Monchy, and on higher ground still, stood Le Quesnoy Farm, which, with some long tall hedges in the neighbourhood, provided the Boche with excellent and well concealed observation posts and battery positions. Behind Monchy itself, and again on high ground, was Adinfer wood, and near it Douchy village, both full of well concealed batteries, while the trees in Monchy itself gave the enemy plenty of cover for machine guns and trench mortars. Opposite this our line was almost entirely in the open. From Foncquevillers it ran due North to the Hannescamps-Monchy road, more than 1,000 yards from the enemy opposite Essarts and Le Quesnoy; then, crossing the ridge, dropped steeply to the Monchy cup, where, at the Bienvillers road, the lines were only 200 yards apart. The only buildings near the line were the two Monchy mills, North and South, both about 80 yards from the front line and both little more than a heap of bricks with an O.P. concealed in the middle. Just South of the Bienvillers road a small salient, some 180 yards across ran out towards the enemy's lines, overlooked from two sides, and always being battered out of recognition by trench mortars and bombs.

Red Mill, Lens, 1917. Bois de Riaumont from the Slag Heap.
Boot Trench in Foreground

The rest of our front line system was more or less ordinary—deep trenches with, at intervals, a ruined dug-out for Company Headquarters. Owing to the appalling weather all trenches were very wet, including the communication trenches, of which there were several—Chiswick Avenue opposite Essarts, Lulu Lane alongside the Hannescamps road, with Collingbourne Avenue branching off it, and, on the Monchy side, Shell Street in the middle, and Stoneygate Street alongside the Bienvillers road. The last had been so named by the Leicestershire "New Army" Brigade, who had originally built the trench. Hannescamps, a minute village, lay 1,000 yards from the line, partly hidden by a hollow, and, with an excellent bank full of dug-outs, was a home for Battalion Headquarters and one Company. Another Headquarters was in Shell Street, and the Support Battalion, with many batteries and others, lived in Bienvillers au Bois, about 1½ behind the line. Pommier, la Cauchie, and occasionally Humbercamps were rest billets still further back. Beyond them a large farm, la Bazéque, was the home of all the Brigade transport and Q.M. Stores. Such was the sector into which the Division went after Gommecourt to rest and gradually recuperate. Our Brigade had the Monchy front and the stretch with the wide No Man's Land opposite Essarts; we, as a Battalion, were sometimes North, sometimes South of the Hannescamps Road, the other Brigades were further North, in the Ransart, Bailleulval and Berles area. Here we stayed, with one rest later on, for eight months.

Hohenzollern Craters, 1917-1918

Soon after our arrival in Bienvillers, we were much surprised to see Colonel Toller again return to us. We thought that he really had got a permanent Command when he went to the Highlanders, but apparently a former Colonel returned a few days after he arrived there, and he was consequently sent back. However, there were now many vacancies in our Division, and Col. Toller was at once sent to command the 7th Sherwood Foresters, the Robin Hoods—an appointment which proved to be permanent, and which he held for the next two years. At the same time, Lieut. N.C. Marriott, wounded at Hohenzollern, returned to us, and soon afterwards 2nd Lieut. J.C. Barrett joined us from England, while we lost 2nd Lieut. G.E. Banwell, who was slightly wounded at Gommecourt, and, after several efforts to remain with his unit, had to go to Hospital with a badly poisoned foot. We also lost our Divisional Commander, Major General the Hon. E.J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., M.V.O., who went to England. Before he went, the following notice appeared in orders:—"On relinquishing the Command of the Division, General Stuart-Wortley wishes to thank all ranks, especially those who have been with the Division since mobilization, for their loyalty to him and unfailing spirit of devotion to duty. He trusts the friendship formed may be lasting, and wishes the Division good luck and God speed." To quote the Battalion War Diary—"The Major General has commanded the Division since 1914; universal regret is openly expressed at his departure."

The new Divisional Commander, Major General W. Thwaites, R.A., arrived soon afterwards, and soon made himself known to all units, introducing himself with a ceremonial inspection. Ours was at Bailleulmont, where we were billeted for a few days, and on the afternoon of the 13th we formed up 650 strong to receive him. After inspecting each man very carefully, the General addressed the Battalion, calling Col. Jones "Col. Holland," and us the 5th Leicesters, two mistakes which were never forgotten, though soon forgiven.

He congratulated us on our appearance, and said that he read determination in our faces, promising to know us better by seeing us in the trenches. We then marched past him and went home.

Our first few tours in this new sector might well be described as a nightmare of H2O and H2S. It rained very hard, and all the trenches at once became full of water—in some places so full that the garrison, as the weather was warm, discarded trousers and walked about with shirts tucked into sandbag bathing drawers. Some of the communication trenches were in a particularly bad condition, and worst of all was the very deep Berlin Trench running alongside the road from Bienvillers to Hannescamps. A sort of "Southend-pier" gridded walk had been built into one side of this about four feet from the floor of the trench, and in some places even this was covered, so that the water in the trench itself was nearly six feet deep. Pumps proved almost useless, and it was obvious that something drastic would have to be done if we were to remain in this part of the world for the winter.

The H2S was in cylinders. For some unknown reason the Special Brigade R.E., or "gas merchants" as they were more popularly called, considered the Monchy hollow a particularly suitable place for their poison attacks. The result was that we spent all our rest periods carrying very heavy cylinders into the line or out again, terribly clumsy, awkward and dangerous things to carry, while our trenches, already ruined by the weather, were still further damaged, under-cut and generally turned upside down to make room for these cylinders. Then again, the actual gas projection caused a most appalling amount of trouble. The wind had to be exactly West, for a touch of North or South would carry the poison over our miserable little salient, but at times the wind was due East, and on one occasion it remained obstinately in the wrong quarter for three weeks, while we lived in daily terror of some chance Boche shell hitting one of the cylinders. On several occasions we had to assist with smoke candles and smoke bombs, and this, too, caused us much worry. Perhaps at dusk the wind would be favorable, and orders would arrive that gas would be discharged at 11-34. At 11-34 we, having heard nothing to the contrary, would light our smoke machines, and find no gas turned on. At 12-55 we should get another message by some orderly to say "discharge postponed until 12-55"—then, of course, no time to warn anybody, and no smoke left.

The reason for this delay in the communication of orders was that our telephones were in a state of transition. We had discovered that the Boche with his listening sets could overhear all conversations carried on by the ordinary field telephone, and consequently it was absolutely forbidden to use this instrument, except in emergency, within 2,000 yards of the front line. A new instrument, the "Fullerphone," was being introduced which could not be overheard, but one could not use it for talking; all messages had to be "buzzed." Incidentally the "buzzing" process produced a continuous whining noise, and this, in a small Company Headquarter dug-out, was almost enough to drive the unhappy Company Commander off his head. The Fullerphone, too, was very scarce at first, so that almost all messages had to be sent by orderly, or runner as he now began to be called. This caused so much trouble that the next stage was the introduction of codes and code names. At first these were very simple, we were "John" after Col. Jones, the 5th Lincolnshires "Sand," from Sandall, etc., while "gas" became the innocent "Gertie," and to attack was "to tickle." One very famous message was sent when an expected gas attack had to be suddenly postponed—"John can sleep quiet to-night, Gertie will not tickle." Later we became "Sceptre," when all units in the Division were called after race-horses, and still later, when Brigade Headquarters became "Girl," we each had a lady's name; we were "Gertrude." It sounded somewhat curious to hear a Staff Captain who had lost his Brigadier ringing up a Battalion Headquarters to ask "have you seen a 'Girl' about anywhere?" The "Bab" code was also introduced, a three-figure code with innumerable permutations and combinations. The whole thing was very secret, and added much to the worries of the Company Commander, who not only had to be careful not to lose the code book, but had to remember, without writing it down, the Corps code letter and number for the week.

In the same way the Artillery had all manner of codes for every conceivable occasion. Various messages were devised and entered in the Defence Scheme for retaliation, S.O.S., raid purposes, etc., and woe betide the luckless F.O.O. or Infantryman who sent the wrong message. There were "concentrates" and "Test concentrates," and "attacks" and "Test attacks," and "S.O.S." and many others. If anything serious really happened, the lines were always broken at once, and there remained only the rockets and coloured lights. The S.O.S. signal was almost sacred, not to be used for a hostile raid, or when retaliation was needed, but only in the event of the enemy massing for a general attack. However, it was once used—in a rather curious little battle fought on the 4th August, 1916.

Our trench strength at the time was very weak, because two days later we were to raid the enemy's lines opposite Monchy salient, and the raiding party had been left out of the line at Pommier to practice. At 3-30 a.m. on the 4th the Boche, either annoyed at our wire-cutting, or to celebrate his favorite anniversary, the declaration of war, opened a heavy fire with guns, mortars, rifle grenades, colored lights and everything else imaginable. The noise was terrific, and the C.O. and Adjutant rushed to the Defense Scheme to find what was the correct message to send; most of the noise was at trench 86. They decided to tell the Gunners "assist L," but, between F.O.O. and signals, this reached the Artillery as "assist 86," which was meaningless, so they did nothing. Meanwhile, our Lewis Guns could be heard, so Col. Jones, unable to telephone to Companies whose lines were all cut, finally sent the S.O.S. The reply was prompt and terrific. There was plenty of ammunition, and all the gunners, wakened by the bombardment, were only too anxious to shoot, so that within a few minutes every weapon, from an 18 pounder to a 12" gun on railway mounting, was raining shells into Monchy and its surroundings. It was very effective, but none the less there had to be an enquiry into "who had dared to use the S.O.S.," and, when the facts were all brought to light, the F.O.O., Lieut. Cave, partly responsible for the initial mistake, earned the name of "S.O.S. Cave," which stuck to him till he left the Division.

The raid was not a great success. For several days "C" Company, who were chosen for the task, carried out continuous practices at Pommier, first under Capt. Mould, and later, when he had to go to Hospital with septic tonsilitis, under Capt. Shields. Capt. Moore was at the Army School at the time. The Infantry arrangements were made satisfactorily, but there was little or no opportunity for the Gunners to observe the result of their wire-cutting, with the result that, when the party went over on the evening of the 5th, they found no gaps. The raiding party advanced in four groups, each group with bombers, bayonet men, and sappers for demolition work, and each under an officer—2nd Lieuts. Steel, Barrett, Heffill and Morris. The party removed all marks of identification, but wore their collars turned up, and a small patch of white on the back of their collars for mutual recognition.

At 11-0 p.m. the party left our trenches and lay out in front of our wire, waiting for our bombardment, which 15 minutes later opened on the enemy's front line. The shooting was excellent, but the backward burst from our 6 inch Howitzers caused several casualties; amongst others 2nd Lieut. Steel was badly wounded in the leg. At Zero, 11-25 p.m., we advanced, but found no means of getting through the wire, while the Boche sent numbers of bombs and rifle grenades along the whole front. The party acted very coolly and searched carefully for gaps, but, finding none, threw their bombs and returned, guided to our lines by rockets and lanterns. Six men were missing. A curious thing happened when our search party, under L/Cpl. Archer, went out to look for them. A German machine gun, hearing the movement, opened fire, and, at the same moment, our "Flying Pig"—240 mm. trench mortar—which had jammed during the barrage, suddenly went off and dropped its shell exactly on the gun team. The following night Cobley's body, one of the raiders, was found in a shell-hole, and soon afterwards two others, Worth and Sommers, returned to our lines, having been lost the previous night. Barkby was found dead a day later, and Duckett's body was buried by a patrol which found it during the following tour. The sixth was Private "Arty" Carr, who returned unhurt at 11-0 p.m. on the 8th, after three days. During the raid he had left his party, and, while they worked to the left, looking for a gap, had gone to the right, where, outside the raid area, he found the wire thin. He had entered the German lines, had some exciting times with a post which he bombed, and then tried to get out, only to find that he had moved away from his original gap, and was now confronted by some very strong wire. He did not get through until dawn on the 6th, so then lay in a shell hole until dark, when he started to return. Tired and somewhat exhausted, he lost his way in the waste of shell holes and mortar craters round the Monchy Salient, and did not finally find our lines until the 8th.

General map to illustrate chapters VII, VIII &. IX.

Our total casualties were three killed and one officer and 15 wounded. To these must be added Captain Barton, who had a most unfortunate accident. Always wanting to be "up and doing," he watched the raid and helped the wounded, standing on our front line parapet, but, turning to re-enter the trench, slipped and bayoneted himself in the thigh. It was not a very serious wound, but would not heal, and he had to be sent to England. With him we lost another valuable officer, 2nd Lieut. Williams, who, while acting as bomb instructor at Brigade Headquarters, met with an accident, and was wounded in the head. Not long afterwards, Serjt. Goodman, our chief N.C.O. Instructor, who was wounded, and lost one of his legs and part of an arm as the result of a bombing accident at the Divisional School. During this first month our casualties, "holding the line," were very slight, though we lost three good N.C.O.'s through shell fire. Serjt. Shreeves, of "C" Company, died of wounds, Cpl. Ambrose, of "B" Company, was killed outright near Hannescamps, and later Serjt. W. Gartshore, of "C" Company.

Between raids and gas attacks we were kept hard at work repairing our trenches. General Kemp was a sapper before he became an Infantry Brigadier, and we were soon instructed in the mysteries of sump-holes, "berms" and "batters," interlocking trench floor boards, and the correct angles for the sloping sides of a trench, while anyone who dared to undercut a parapet for any purpose had better not be present the next time that the General appeared. As far as possible all the carpentry work was done by the Sappers out of trenches and sump-frames were sent up ready made, also small dug-outs in numbered parts, easily put together; all we had to do was to dig the necessary holes. At the same time some genius invented the "A" frame, a really wonderful labor saving device. Hitherto floorboards had been supported on piles and crossbars, while further and longer stakes were driven in to carry the revetment. The new frame shaped like a flat-topped letter "A," was put in the floor of the trench upside down. The legs held the revetment against the sides, the floorboards rested on the cross-piece, and the space between the cross-piece and the flat top formed a good drain. These were first used in communication trenches only, where the Monmouthshires were at work for us; later we used them in all trenches wherever possible.

Meanwhile, when not in trenches, we rested, first at Bienvillers and later at Pommier. Bienvillers had many good billets, but was too full of our heavy artillery to be pleasant, for the noise was often very disturbing. The enemy, too, used to shell the place, and 2nd Lieut. Shipston had a most remarkable escape one day when standing in front of a first floor window, shaving. A whizz-bang hit the window sill and carried itself, sill and many bricks, between his legs into the room; he himself was untouched. Another early morning bombardment found the Doctor in his bath. He left it hurriedly and hastened, dripping and unclothed, to the cellar, which he found already contained several officers and the ladies of his billet. But this stay in Bienvillers is most remembered on account of a slight fracas which occurred between Col. Jones and a visiting Army Sanitation Officer. A full account is given in two entries in the War Diary. The first, dated the 23rd July, says simply—"Major T——, Sanitation Officer, IIIrd. Army, came to look at billets. We received him coldly, and in consequence got a bad report, see later." The second entry, a week later, is dated 30th July. "The Sanitary report referred to came and we replied. The report detailed many ways in which we, as a Regiment, were living in dirt, and making no attempt to follow common-sense rules, or to improve our state. It stated that we had been in the village three days, and thus implied that there could be no excuse. Our reply asserted that the inaccuracy of the report made it worthless. That, though the Regiment had been there three days, the Army, which the gallant Major T. represented and worked for, had been in the village some months. That Major T.'s party had done nothing to put or keep the billets in order, to put up incinerators, or in any way to make suitable billets for soldiers resting from trench duty. It suggested that Major T. had neglected his duty, and thus was not in a position to judge a Regiment."

Pommier was much pleasanter, and was very seldom shelled. Brigade Headquarters lived there, and, with the aid of an energetic Mayor and our invaluable interpreter, M. Bonassieux, had done much to improve the billets. There were plenty of civilians who were good to us, though, to quote the War Diary again, 26th August, "A complaint was made by the Maire that certain of our officers were bathing in the open, and that this was not counted amongst the indecencies the French permitted." At about the same time, during one of our rest periods, we were inspected by General Thwaites—a full ceremonial inspection, the first of many of these much dreaded ordeals. Again it is impossible to improve on the account given by the War Diary. "At 2-30 we were drawn up in close column in Ceremonial—Companies sized. We received the new G.O.C. with several salutes, the last was probably the worst. The Battalion was then closely inspected, and a few names taken for unsteadiness, dirty buttons, badly fitted packs, and the like. A slight confusion between the terms packs and equipment led us to take off equipment, and we then formed up as a Battalion in Brigade. We saluted again, this time we had no bayonets, and then marched past by Companies and back in close column several times. Then, by a questionable, though not questioned, maneuver, we came back again and advanced in review order. The Brigade Band was in attendance and played the Brigade March in place of the Regimental March, because it did not know the latter. While still in Ceremonial order, we finished by doing Battalion drill, under the general idea 'keep moving.' We kept moving for two hours in all, and it was universally conceded that the men moved very well. One or two of the newly arrived officers were unequal to the occasion. It was a good day in the country, and, in the senior officers, stirred up pleasant memories of old peace time annual inspections." The exceeding fierceness of the General on this Inspection had an amusing sequel when, a week later, two of our soldiers were repairing a road outside the Brigade office. One regarded the other's work for a few minutes critically, and then exclaimed fiercely, "Very ragged, very ragged, do it again!" It is only fair to add, that, terrible as was the ordeal of a Divisional Inspection, the General kept his original promise, and spent many hours in the foremost trenches, "that he might know us well."

The evening of this same inspection was one of the few occasions on which Pommier was bombarded. A sudden two minutes' "hate" of about 40 shells, 4.2 and 5.9, wounded three men and killed both the C.O.'s horses, "Silvertail" and "Baby"; both came out with the Battalion. We still, however, had some good animals left, as was obvious at the Brigade Sports and Race meeting held on the 11th September at la Bazéque Farm. This was a most successful show, and the only pity was that we were in trenches at the time, and so could only send a limited number of all ranks to take part. The great event of the day was the steeplechase. The Staff Captain, Major J.E. Viccars, on "Solomon," led all the way, but was beaten in the last twenty yards by Major Newton, R.F.A. Lieut. L.H. Pearson was third on "Sunlock II.," the transport Serjeant's horse. It was a remarkable performance, for he only decided to ride at the last moment, and neither he nor horse had trained at all. The Battalion did well in other events, winning 1st and 2nd places in both obstacle and mule races, and providing the best cooker and best pack pony; the two last were a great credit to the Transport Section. One of the features of the day was the Bookies' G.S. wagon, where two officers disguised with top hats, yellow waistcoats and pyjamas, carried on a successful business as "turf accountants." At a VIIth. Corps meeting, held a fortnight later on the same course, we secured two places for the Battalion: Capt. Burnett came home 2nd in an open steeplechase, and Capt. Moore 3rd in one for Infantry officers only.

During September our Mess, already up to strength, was considerably increased by a large draft of Officers. First we were glad to see Major Griffiths back as Second in Command, though sorry for Captain John Burnett, who had to go back to Transport for the time. With Major Griffiths came 2nd Lieuts. J.R. Brooke, S. Corah, and W.I. Nelson, while within the same month, or shortly afterwards, 2nd. Lieuts. L.A. Nelson, J.H. Ball, P. Measures, T.L. Boynton, W.C. Walley, W. Lambert, M.F. Poynor, and J.A. Wortley all arrived. In October also Serjeant Beardmore, M.M., of "C" Company, who had latterly being doing exceptionally good work with the Battalion Scouts, was given his Commission in the Field, and reposted as a platoon Commander to the old Company. Capt. Barton's place as M.O. was taken by Captain T.D. Morgan, of the 2nd Field Ambulance. At the same time a stroke of bad luck robbed us of 2nd Lieut. Coles, who was badly wounded. During a raid of the 4th Lincolnshires in October it was our duty to cause a diversion by blowing up some tubes of ammonal in the Boche wire. The party, led by 2nd Lieut. Coles, was about to leave our trenches when a rifle grenade or "pine apple" bomb dropped in their midst and exploded one of the tubes, doing much damage.

During these long months of trench warfare a considerable advance was made in the work of the Intelligence department of the Infantry Battalion. A year ago one officer did duty for a whole Brigade, now each Battalion had its Intelligence officer, its scouts and observers, and its snipers, sometimes the last under a separate officer. The duties of the Intelligence section were many. They must see and report every little thing which happened in the enemy's lines, no small detail must be omitted. The number and colors of his signal lights on different occasions, the relative activity of his different batteries and their positions, the movement of his transport, the location of his mortars and machine guns, the trench relief's, all these must be watched. The immediate purpose was of course retaliation, counter battery work, the making of our bombardments more effective by picking out the tender spots in his lines, and generally harassing the enemy; but there was a further purpose. It was particularly necessary that the higher commands should be kept informed of all the big movements of troops, the state of the enemy's discipline, etc., and often some little incident seen in the front line would give the clue to one of these. Lieut. L.H. Pearson was at this time Intelligence officer, helped by Serjt. Beardmore, M.M., the humorous side to their work, and many amusing things were seen, or said to be seen, through the observers' telescopes. The old white-haired Boche, digging near Monchy, who looked so benign that no one would shoot him, became quite a famous character, until one day his real nature was revealed, for he shook his fist at one of our low-flying aeroplanes, and obviously uttered a string of curses, so one of the snipers shot him. Then again there was the lady of Douchy, who could be seen each evening coming out to hang up the washing; she was popularly known as Mary, and figured in the reports nearly every day.

With the observers worked the snipers. After nearly two years, telescopic sights at last appeared, and we tried to train the once despised "Bisley shot." They were very keen, and had much success, of which they were duly proud, as their individual reports showed. "We watched for ¾ of an hour until our vigilance was rewarded by seeing a Boche; he exposed half of himself above the parapet, I, Pte. ——, shot him," so said one report, the name has unfortunately been lost. Some snipers even kept a book of their "kills," with entries such as "June 1st, 9-30 a.m. Boche sentry looking over, shot in shoulder, had grey hair almost bald very red face and no hat." It was just the right spirit, and it had its results. Autumn, 1915, saw us hardly daring to look over the top for fear of being sniped; Autumn, 1916, saw us masters, doing just what we pleased, when we pleased.

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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