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British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

14th Sept., 1918 - 25th Sept., 1918.

Our journey Southwards was uncomfortable and uneventful. The only remarkable feature was the acrobatic skill displayed by the mess staff, transferring meals from the kitchen-cattle-truck to the officers mess-cattle-truck. Even at the usual speed of a French troop train, it is no easy task to drop off the train with a pile of plates in one hand, a dish of potatoes in the other, walk fast enough to catch up the carriage in front, and finally, in spite of signal wires, sleepers and other pitfalls, deliver all safely at the "Mess." Yet this was done not once but often. We spent the whole day in the train passing St. Pol, Amiens, and Corbie, and finally towards evening reached Ribemont, where we found our billeting party waiting for us. Billets consisted of some distant dug-outs across a swampy moor, and the recent rains had made what few tracks there were too slippery for the horses. It was all very unpleasant, and we spent a cold and cheerless night. "A" Company, which had remained at Chocques doing loading duties, did not arrive until midnight—very wet and tired.

The next day was bright and warm, and we soon discovered that the two villages, Treux and Buire would hold Headquarters and half the Battalion, so moved into them without delay and evacuated all except the more sumptuous and easily approached dug-outs. We were now fairly comfortable, and our only grouse was the absence of any canteen or even French civilians for miles and miles, and the consequent lack of tobacco, beer and other little luxuries.

Our move had brought us into General Rawlinson's Fourth Army, and, as we were apparently not needed at once for a battle, we started vigorous training. Route marches, and even "field-firing" practices were carried out, and there was one big Divisional Field day, which ended triumphantly with the Brigade and Battalion Staffs picking mushrooms on the final objective. Meanwhile the Second in Command's Department under Major Burnett fixed up baths and other comforts for us and, by the 18th of September, we were really very comfortable. This same day we were ordered to move at short notice.

Motor lorries took us on to the main Amiens road at Corbie, and turning East along it we jolted and bumped and splashed our way through Brie-sur-Somme to Tertry. The country—what we could see of it in the dark—seemed to consist of a barren waste of shell holes with here and there a shattered tree or the remains of some burnt-out Tank standing forlornly near some dark and stagnant swamp. Villages were practically non-existent, and Tertry was no exception, but we soon settled down under waterproof sheets, corrugated iron and a few old bricks. The transport under Major Burnett and Serjt. Yeabsley came all the way by road, and arrived some hours later; but much of our stores had to be left behind with two storemen in Buire. Many efforts were made during the following months to retrieve these stores, but it was not until after the armistice that we were finally successful.

We were now IXth. Corps, and found our neighbors were old friends from the Béthune area—the 1st and 6th Divisions. The Transport lines and "battle details" of the 1st and 11th Battalions of the Regiment were quite close to us, and we paid several calls. On the 20th, Captains Tomson and Banwell returned from leave, much to the delight of their Companies, for the following day we went into trenches, relieving the 14th and 45th Australians in the Hindenburg Outpost line, that they had so brilliantly captured a few days before. We were in Brigade support along Ascension Ridge, called after a farm of that name, and the other two Battalions held the line in front of us.

In their attack, the Australians had pushed forward further than anyone else, while the English troops on their right, after some very hard fighting, had been held up by the village of Pontruet. Consequently there was a sharp bend in the line, and the Australian right flank, though on high ground, was somewhat exposed. The line ran roughly as follows:

The enemy still held posts on the ridge close to the Australian front line, and were known to have several posts in Forgan's trench, which was the Southward continuation of our front line across the valley. Pontruet was overlooked from everywhere, and constantly bombarded by our Artillery, so it did not seem likely that it held many Boche. The Sherwood Foresters held the right of the Divisional line and joined with the 1st Division on the high ground South of the village. There was no sign of any intended operation, and it certainly looked as if we could not move until the troops on our right had advanced. Accordingly on the 22nd the Adjutant rode back to Brie to go on leave. Capt. Banwell, really a "battle detail," went up to assist the Headquarters, while the other "details"—Major Burnett, Captain Petch, Lieut. Pierrepont, 2nd Lieuts. Edwardes, Griffiths, Taylor, C.S.M.'s Cooper and Martin—remained with the Q.M. Stores.

No sooner had the Adjutant gone, than orders came for a battle. At dawn on the 24th the Division on our right was going to advance, and the 46th Division, by way of assisting them, was to capture Pontruet and hold Forgan's trench as a final objective. The 138th Brigade were chosen for this fight, and General Rowley decided to use one Battalion only—ourselves. We were to attack the village from the rear, by advancing into the valley from the North and then turning West, while one Company turning East would capture and hold Forgan's. There was little time for preparation, so Colonel Griffiths called a Company Commanders' meeting, reconnoitered the village from above, and decided on his plan of attack. At the same time a runner was sent after the Adjutant, and found him just boarding the leave train. It was a near thing, but not for anything would he have missed the next few weeks.

The Colonel's plan was as follows:—To assemble the Battalion in lines of platoons in fours facing South, just behind the right of our front line. "A" would be on the right, "D" on the left. At Zero all would move forward with a barrage, keeping about 50 yards distance and interval between platoons. All would cross the Bellenglise road and finally, when the leading platoons were level with the farther, i.e., South, edge of Pontruet, "A" and "B" would turn to the right, sweep through and reform on the West side of it. "D" would turn left and capture Forgan's trench, having a platoon of "C" Company to help them. The rest of "C" would assist which ever party seemed to be in difficulties. The Headquarters would move to the high ground, whence the fight would be visible, and there was every hope of opening signal communication with the attacking Companies. Artillery arrangements were made accordingly, and bombardments ordered for the supposed posts in Forgan's. Unfortunately, much against our wishes, and in opposition to the Brigadier's scheme, a heavy smoke barrage was to be placed on the Western edge of the village. A West wind would make this a thick blanket and seriously hinder our advance, and West winds are very common; however, we could not alter this part of the scheme. The Sherwood Foresters were ordered to assist by pushing up to the village after we had captured it. Zero would be 5-0 a.m. on the 24th of September.

As soon as it was dark on the 23rd, Captain Banwell taped out a "jumping off" line for the leading platoons. There was some unpleasant shelling at the time, but he completed his task successfully, and also taped out the route to this assembly position. At midnight, relieved by the 6th South Staffordshires (Lister), we marched off after an issue of hot tea and rum to the assembly ground, leaving great coats behind and wearing fighting order. On arrival we found that the Lincolnshires had been raided in their North end of Forgan's trench a short time before, and, as there might still be some of the enemy near the trench, "D" Company were ordered to form up in it, instead of on the top. It was not a dark night, and had we been seen assembling all would have been lost. There was some scattered shelling, and Lieut. Brodribb, commanding "A" Company, was wounded in the leg. He had it dressed at the R.A.P., and, finding he could still walk, rejoined his Company before the advance began. In absolute silence we lay in shell holes waiting for Zero. A mist had started to blow up from the valley, and the Battalion was almost invisible. Here and there a few heads, the muzzle of a Lewis gun, the end of a stretcher might be seen just above the ground, and occasionally one could see the tall figure of Capt. Tomson, imperturbable as ever, walking quietly round his Company with a word of encouragement for all. As the time went on, the mist became thicker and thicker, and by 4-50 a.m. platoons and Companies were unable to see each other. The shelling had ceased, it was very quiet.

Punctually at 5-0 a.m. the barrage opened, and the advance started. The timing of the Artillery was perfect and, with the road to guide them, "A" Company on the right swept across the Bellenglise road, keeping close to the barrage. By 5-14 a.m. No. 1 Platoon (Quint), which was leading, was ready for the right turn. The rest of this Company followed, and, though No. 4 Platoon (Dennis) slightly lost direction for a time, they soon regained their place, so that the whole Company was ready to turn together. It was still half dark, and, as we had feared, the smoke barrage blew across and shrouded us in a thick blanket of fog. During their advance, "A" Company had found the machine gun and rifle fire very hot from their left flank, apparently from Forgan's trench, and had already lost Serjt. P. Bowler, who was killed outright. They had met no enemy outside the village, and could not see more than a few yards through the smoke. The other Companies were out of sight.

Turning into Pontruet, "A" Company found it full of the enemy. Odd lengths of trenches here and there, cellars in every direction were filled with bombers and machine gun teams, some facing West, others, who had realized our intentions, facing East. Led by Lieut. Brodribb and their platoon commanders, "A" Company dashed in with the bayonet. Here and there a bomb was thrown down a cellar, or a Lewis gun turned against some party which resisted, but for the most part the bayonet was the weapon of the day. The enemy were scattered, a few tried to fight, but large numbers were killed trying to escape, while 120 were captured, and 50 more driven into the Sherwood Foresters' lines. The work on the North side was the easiest. Here, small parties led by 2nd Lieut. Dennis, who was slightly wounded, C.S.M. Wardle, Serjt. Toon, and others carried all before them, cleared the lower road and the cemetery, and formed up outside the N.W. corner, where they were joined by their Company Commander.

Diagram (not to scale) to illustrate positions of Companies at 5.14 A.M. Sept 24th 1918 during attack on Pontruet.

In the centre there was more fighting, and while L/Cpls. Downs and Starbuck and Pte. Meakin led their parties through with tremendous dash, one Lewis Gun section under Dakin, a "No. 1" Lewis Gunner, found itself held up by a strong German post. The "No. 2" was killed, and Dakin himself was shot through both thighs almost at once, so that there was no one left to work the gun. However, Hyden, an untrained soldier, came forward and fired the gun, while Dakin, bleeding freely and with both thighs broken, lay beside him and corrected stoppages, until he succumbed to his injuries.

The Company's heaviest losses were on the Southern or upper side of the village. For, in the S.W. corner, the Germans had two lengths of well defended trench, supported by a block house, and against these 2nd. Lieuts. Aster and Quint and Corporal Tyers led their men. The two officers were killed almost together at the second trench, but the Corporal broke clean through, only to be shot through the head when almost outside the village. Seven others of this same gallant party were killed at this corner, and the remainder, unable to deal with the blockhouse, fought their way through to the main part of the Company.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Battalion had been far less fortunate, and, with no road to guide them, had been baffled by the fog. 2nd Lieut. Lewin and Serjt. Harrison with a small party of "B" Company crossed the valley and, turning right, followed No. 1 Platoon into the Southern half of the village. They were too small a body to clear the blockhouse corner, and first Serjt. Harrison, then 2nd Lieut. Levin were killed as they gallantly tried to get forward. Two others of their men were hit, and the rest were scattered.

One platoon of "B" Company remained intact. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove, finding he could not keep direction and advance at the required pace, dropped behind. Stopping every few yards to take a compass bearing, this officer finally brought his platoon to its allotted turning point and entered the village. Following the lower road, the platoon split into two halves and "mopped up" anything left by "A" Company, making sure that the whole of this side of the village was absolutely clear of the enemy. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove with his two sections joined Lieut. Brodribb outside the village. Corporal Barber with his Lewis gun section took up a position inside near the Cemetery.

The rest of "B" Company and the left half Battalion fared badly. Forgan's trench, supposed to be held by a few odd posts, was strongly manned from end to end. It was wired in front and lateral belts had been placed at frequent intervals across it. It would have been a stiff task for a Company to take it with a direct frontal attack; to "work up" it was impossible. None the less, "D" Company (Brooke) did their utmost. Led by their Company Commander in person, the Company left the trench at Zero and started to work along it. There was wire everywhere, and the going was very bad on top, so that many men of the rear platoons dropped back into the trench and made their way along it—a fatal mistake. On nearing the Bellenglise road this Company was met with a perfect hurricane of machine gun bullets from three guns in a nest near the road. Captain Brooke was hit but continued to lead his men, and, ably backed by Serjt. Darby, made a gallant attempt to rush the position. The men still in the trench could give no assistance, and though two prisoners were taken the rush failed, and the German machine guns remained unharmed. Captain Brooke was twice hit again and with 2nd Lieuts. Sloper and Buckley, who were both wounded, had to leave the fight. Serjt. Darby and L/Cpl. Smith had been killed close to the enemy's guns, Serjeant Sullivan was wounded, and for the moment the Company was leaderless. Lieut. Corah came up to take command, but by the time he reached the head of the Company it was too late to act, and Forgan's trench remained full of the enemy.

The occupants of Forgan's, mostly machine gunners, appear to have realized almost at once the direction of our attack, and opened a hot fire on our left flank as we crossed the Bellenglise road and set off across the valley. "A" Company felt this severely, but far more severe were the losses of "C" Company and those platoons of "B" which did not make their turn into the village. These were nearer to Forgan's trench, and both lost heavily. The mist and smoke were very thick, connecting files were useless, and the various officers, collecting what men they could find, made their way as far as possible in the right direction. Lieut. Hawley with the bulk of "C" Company found a few of the enemy still in the Eastern end of Pontruet, turned them out, and occupied a trench along the edge of the village, facing East. Further South along this same trench another party of "C" under Lieut. Steel made use of a small road bridge, and took up a position facing the same way. The rest of the Company followed Lieut. Barrett and Serjt. Spencer and reached the far side of the valley, being joined on the way by some of "B" Company. A few yards up the bank on the Southern side, Lieut. Barrett found to his surprise a trench across his route. The fog was still thick, and this puzzled him—it had been newly dug during the night—but, as it was full of Germans, he rushed it, got inside, and turned towards Forgan's. He was hit doing so. Reaching Forgan's, this party, in which Serjeant Spencer was conspicuous, quickly disposed of three German machine gun posts and their teams, but were then themselves fired at and bombed from several directions. Undeterred, Lieut. Barrett, though again wounded, drew his revolver and with it held up one bombing party, while Serjeant Spencer dealt with another. A bomb burst close to Lieut. Barrett's pistol arm and put it out of action, and by this time he was becoming exhausted. Calling his N.C.O.'s together, he explained what had happened and gave them careful directions as to how to get out, himself quite calm the whole time. Acting on his instructions, those of the party who were left cut their way out; Lieut. Barrett, refusing help, started to crawl through the wire, and was again wounded. He eventually reached the R.A.P. literally covered with wounds. Contrary to the Doctor's expectations, however, he not only lived to receive his Victoria Cross, but soon made a complete recovery.

At the same time, Captain Tomson, finding his Company now consisted only of his signalers, runners, and batmen, and unable to find out where the rest had gone, determined to try and rush the machine guns which were keeping up such a steady fire close to his left flank. His little party forced their way through some wire and found themselves opposed by three guns. With a shout of "Come along Tigers, show them what you can do," Captain Tomson led them straight at the enemy. Two of the gun teams were overcome, but the third could not be reached, and fired at them point blank. L/Cpl. Signaler J. Smith was wounded and fell, Captain Tomson, bending down to tie him up, was shot through the head. Only two men got away, leaving their leader, now dead, in a small shelter outside the trench. Smith, mortally wounded, refused to be taken away, saying "Leave me with Captain Tomson, I shall be all right"—and there he died next to his Company Commander. So perished the kindest hearted and bravest gentleman that ever commanded a Company in the Regiment. Calm, cheerful, with a friendly word for all, Captain Tomson was the father of his men, and a warm friend to his brother officers and N.C.O.'s.

By 6-30 a.m. it was daylight, but the fog and smoke still lay like a thick blanket along the valley, hiding the village and all that was going on there. It was not until 7-45 a.m. that the wind blew this away, and we were at last able to see how we had fared. The village, with the exception of the blockhouse corner, was in our hands. "C" Company were holding more than half its Eastern side, while "A" and part of "B" had reformed after the attack and were dug in just outside the N.W. corner. The only troops actually in Pontruet were those with Corpl. Barber at the Cemetery. The road leading West from the village was thronged with prisoners and stretcher bearers making their way towards the large crater on the main road, used as a Company Headquarters by the Sherwood Foresters. Captain Jack had established his Aid Post at the bottom of the little valley running down to the road, and here, helped by the never-tiring Padre Buck, was busily employed with our wounded.

In Forgan's trench there was a deadlock. Across the valley and on the Southern slopes it was still full of the enemy, who had many machine guns. Daylight made an attack over the open by "D" Company impossible, for as soon as anyone was seen to leave our lines he was at once fired upon. Every effort was made with bombs and rifle grenades to dislodge the German machine gunners from their posts on the main road, but, though Serjts. Marston and Haynes and L/Cpl. Thurman did their utmost, no progress could be made. Here, therefore, "D" Company had to stay throughout the day, almost powerless to help, except by harassing the enemy with stokes mortars from the high ground. With daylight, the enemy also had complete command of the Eastern edge of Pontruet, and Lieuts. Hawley and Steel had to lie very quiet; the slightest movement attracted the attention of the snipers in Forgan's.

At 8-0 a.m. the battle was practically at a standstill, and the C.O. sent the Adjutant forward to see what could be done to improve our position. The enemy's artillery was now fairly quiet, and, except for the one machine gun post near the blockhouse, there seemed to be no Germans in Pontruet. "A" and "B" Companies had exhausted all their grenades and Lewis gun ammunition in their efforts to capture this one post, but had failed, and our only hope was now that a 1st Divisional Tank would do it for us. This Tank was seen coming up from the West, and, to attract its attention, we waved our helmets on our rifles. It turned towards us, but suddenly broke down, and soon afterwards was put completely out of action.

At the same time, efforts were made to signal to Battalion Headquarters for ammunition, but the signal apparatus had all been destroyed in the fight. The only flag available was one of the "red, white and black" Regimental flags, which the Adjutant happened to have in his pocket, and though this was vigorously waved, it could not be seen. A runner had to be sent instead.

Meanwhile, though we had practically cleared the village of the enemy, we were not, as far as we knew at the Western end of it, holding it very strongly. The only post known to "A" Company was Corporal Barber's at the Cemetery. "C" Company were supposed to be "somewhere at the other end," but no one quite knew where. However, with Corporal Barber was a "C" Company soldier—Coles—who undertook to find his way back to his Company. Our idea was to form a line through the village at once, and, when ammunition arrived, push the line through to the far side. Coles found "C" Company, but so hot was the sniping from Forgan's, that any idea of moving men in that direction had to be abandoned, at any rate until darkness. Coles himself was unable to return, so that the exact position of "C" Company was never known at Headquarters.

On the return of the Adjutant, Battalion Headquarters moved up to the valley next the R.A.P. At the same time a large supply of ammunition and bombs was brought up as far as the crater. Colonel Griffiths himself set off to visit "A" Company, but he had not gone many yards along the road before he was heavily sniped by the enemy machine gunners. The latter had established several posts on the high ground S.E. of Pontruet, and were now making the road impassable. For a long time the Colonel, making use of shell holes, tried to make his way to the village, but every time he was "spotted" and finally he had to return. Ammunition carrying parties lost very heavily and never got near our companies; the village seemed to be completely cut off from us. To add to our discomfort the enemy's artillery was again active and gas shells were fired wherever movement was seen. The Headquarters and the R.A.P. were frequently bombarded. At the same time the enemy's infantry started to dribble back by Forgan's and the new trench, into the S.W. corner of the village, probably to counter-attack. Observers saw this movement from the Tumulus Ridge, and, as soon as Corpl. Barber's post could be withdrawn, the suspected area was heavily shelled by our gunners, and no attack developed.

During the afternoon, the Headquarters, finding that in their new position they were in touch with neither Brigade Headquarters nor their Companies, moved back to the hill-top. Captain Jack and the Padre remained with the R.A.P., though their valley was almost continuously shelled, and never entirely free from gas. The devoted work these two did that day is beyond description and too great for praise.

At 4-0 p.m., as our position was materially unchanged, we received orders for a fresh advance, to be made in conjunction with one Company of the 6th Sherwood Foresters. Our objective was to be a line along the Southern edge of the village, to link up with "C" Company, or at least to extend to where we imagined "C" Company to be. Captain Pink, of the Sherwood Foresters, commanded the Company which was to help us, and no one could have worked harder than he did to make our advance a success, but the uncertainty of "C" Company's exact position, and the impossibility of sending them any orders, made our task very difficult. Late in the afternoon we at last got news of Lieut. Steel. In spite of shells and machine-gun bullets, a runner came along the main road from St. Hélène to the crater. This runner, Private F. Lane, had had to crawl 250 yards across the open under direct observation, had had to kill two Germans before he could get clear of the village, and had then run the gauntlet of shells and bullets along the road—all this alone. Not content with having delivered his message, he refused to rest, and, though exhausted, made his way back by the same way that he had come. We now knew where Lieut. Steel was under the bridge, but still we knew nothing of the main part of "C" Company.

At 7-30 p.m., as it was getting dusk, the combined advance started without a barrage. It was a big frontage for so small a force and parties lost touch with each other amongst the ruins. "A" Company's left kept close to the Sherwood Foresters, but the outer flanks of both were "in the air," for "C" Company could not be found. It was dark when the South side of the village was reached, and it was found terribly difficult to keep direction amongst the ruins and trenches. A Lewis Gun Section, under C.S.M. Wardle, disposed of the only party of the enemy who were encountered, but the post near the Blockhouse could not be found. Finally at 9-0 p.m. the Sherwood Foresters fell back to Fourmi trench near the main road, and 2nd Lieut. Dennis, now commanding "A" Company, ordered his platoons to return to their former positions. We had accomplished nothing.

The original plan had been that we should be relieved as soon as it was dark, but our present line was so uncertain that the relieving Battalion refused to take it over as we had it. The men were tired out, and it was impossible to expect them to make another attempt to form a line round the village. "C" Company were found, but too far North to link up with the others. Eventually, at 2-0 a.m. on the 25th, we were ordered to withdraw all our Companies and evacuate the village. This we did by 4-0 a.m. What was left of the Battalion then marched back to where we had left our greatcoats, while the Sherwood Foresters took over the line north and west of Pontruet. The Adjutant saw the last parties out of the village, and the Colonel, though tired out, insisted on going round the lines and visiting each platoon as it came in.

The following day we received this message from General Boyd:

"Please congratulate Lieut.-Colonel Griffiths and the 1/5th Bn. Leicestershire Regiment on the good fight they put up yesterday, and tell them I am quite satisfied. They captured many prisoners and accounted for numbers of the enemy. Owing to unexpected reinforcements they attacked an enemy twice as strong as themselves, and moreover in a strong position. Although we did not reach our objective, the enemy was prevented from reinforcing the troops opposed to the Division on our right."

(sd.) G.F. BOYD, Major-General.

We had lost one Company Commander and three subalterns killed, one Company Commander and six subalterns wounded. Of the rank and file, thirty were killed, of whom three were Serjeants, one hundred were wounded, and eight were missing. But we had proved that five platoons could clear a village held by three Battalions (so said one of the prisoners) of the enemy; we had shown that when N.C.O.'s became casualties, private soldiers were ready to assume command and become leaders, and, most important of all, the battle had proved to each individual soldier that if he went with his bayonet he was irresistible.

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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