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Posts in Hairpin connected by Tunnels

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

The various posts in "Hairpin" were connected by an underground tunnel with four exits to the trench, while another with two exits did the same for Border Redoubt. From each of these, a 300-yard tunnel ran Westwards to what had been the old support line, where they were connected underground by another long passage—Feetham Tunnel. A branch of the Border tunnel led to "Rats' Creek." At various points along these tunnels exits were built up to fortified shell holes, occupied by Lewis gun teams; these were our only supports. Down below lived Company Headquarters, the garrison, one or two tunneling experts and the specialists, stokes mortars, machine gunners and others. It was a dreadful existence. The passages were damp and slippery, the walls covered in evil-looking red and yellow spongy fungus, the roof too low to allow one to walk upright, the ventilation practically non existent, the atmosphere, always bad, became in the early mornings intolerable, all combined to ruin the health of those who had to live there. But not only was one's health ruined, one's "nerves" were seriously impaired, and the tunnels had a bad effect on one's moral. Knowing we could always slip down a staircase to safety, we lost the art of walking on top, we fancied the dangers of the open air much greater than they really were, in every way we got into bad condition.

The entrance to this tunnel system was at the end of our only communication trench, Stansfield Road, a deep well-gridded trench running all the way from Vermelles. Battalion Headquarters lived in it, in a small deep dug-out, 200 yards from the tunnel entrance, and at its junction with the only real fire trench, O.B.1, the reserve line. In this trench the reserve Company lived in a group of dug-outs, near the Dump, called Exeter Castle. The left Company, with one platoon in Russian Sap and the remainder back in O.B.1, alone had no tunnels. But after our first few tours, the system was altered, and the support Company, living in tunnels, provided the Russian Sap garrison. Battalion Headquarters had a private tunnel, part of the mining system, leading to Feetham, which could be used in emergency, but as this was unlit, it was quicker to use the trench. The main tunnel system was lit, or rather supposed to be lit, with electric light. This often failed, and produced of course indescribable chaos.

Although the tunnels had all these disadvantages, it is only fair to say that they reduced our casualties enormously, for during the three months we lost only three officers slightly wounded and eighteen men; of these at least four were hit out on patrol. We also managed to live far more comfortably as regards food than we should otherwise have been able. Elaborate kitchens were built in Stansfield Road, and hot tea, soup, the inevitable stew, biscuit pudding, and other "luxuries," were carried up in hot food containers to the most forward posts. The only difficulty was with Russian Sap, for its approach, Gordon Alley, was in a bad state; but as the garrison was there at night only, they needed nothing more than "midnight tea," and this could be taken to them over the top.

A light railway ran all the way from Sailly Labourse to Vermelles, and thence to the various forward dumps, ours at Exeter Castle. Rations and R.E. material were loaded at Sailly, taken by train to the Mansion House Dump at Vermelles, and then by mule-drawn trucks to the front. The Exeter Dump was lively at times, especially when a machine gunner on Fosse 8 slag heap, popularly known as Ludendorf, was pointing his gun in that direction. But beyond a mule falling on its back into O.B.1, we had no serious troubles, and got our rations every night with great regularity.

The enemy were not very active, although they were reported to be the 6th Bavarians, "Prince Rupprecht's Specials." An occasional patrol was met, and our parties were sometimes bombed, but on the whole the Boche confined his energies to machine gun fire at night, scattered shelling at any time, and heavy trench mortaring, mostly by day. Fortunately there was not much mortaring at night, and what there was we managed to avoid by carefully watching the line of flight, as betrayed by the burning fuse. These heavy mortar shells with their terrific explosion and enormous crater were very terrifying, and few soldiers could face them with the indifference shown to other missiles. One exception was them with the utmost scorn, and used to fire "rapid" with a rifle at them, as they came through the air.

All this time the system of holding the Brigade sector was to have two Battalions in the line, one in Brigade support, and one resting at Fouquières. Thus, one rested every eighteen days for six days, while one's trench tour was broken by six days in the middle in Brigade support. This last meant Battalion Headquarters and two Companies in Philosophe, the remainder in Curly Crescent, a support trench several hundred yards behind O.B.1. Philosophe was a dirty place, but had the advantage of being much less shelled than the neighbouring Vermelles, and we were not much molested.

Fouquières was always pleasant. The Chateau and its tennis court and grounds made a delightful Battalion Headquarters, and the Companies had very comfortable billets in the village. We played plenty of football, and were within easy reach of Béthune, at this time a very fashionable town. The 25th Divisional Pierrots occupied the theatre which was packed nightly, and the Club, the "Union Jack" Shop, and other famous establishments, not to mention the "Oyster Shop," provided excellent fare at wonderfully exorbitant prices.

During these three months we received many new officers, some of them staying for a few days before passing on to Tank Corps, Flying Corps, or Machine Gun Corps, others proving themselves worthy of our best traditions. One party in particular, 2nd. Lieuts. F.G. Taylor, H.C. Davies, G.K. Dunlop, and W.R. Todd, provided four who came to stay, a very valuable asset, when so many merely looked in for tea and then went away. Others who came to fight were 2nd Lieuts. W. Norman, A.J. Mace, J.S. Argyle, C.D. Boarland, J.G. Christy, A. Asher, A.M. Edwards, and, later, Lieut. P. Measures, who had been with us in 1916 for a few weeks. Col. Trimble and Capt. Moore each had a month's leave, and Major Griffiths, after commanding during the Colonel's absence, went to Aldershot for a three months' course. Capt. Burnett became 2nd in Command with the acting rank of Major. Capt. Hills, the Adjutant, returned from England and resumed his duties, while Captain Wollaston took charge of "B" Company for a short time, and then went to the Army School, where he stayed as an Instructor and was lost to us. Captain Barrowcliffe came to us for a short time in command of "D" Company, but then went to the Army School, and handed the Company over to Lieut. Brooke, who had been granted an M.C. and three weeks' leave for his Hulluch patrols. 2nd Lieut. Campbell went to Hospital with the results of gas poisoning and had to go to England, whither also went 2nd Lieuts. Rawson and Gibson who were invalided. A great loss to us was our Doctor, Captain Morgan, who had been with us for many months and was now sent to Mesopotamia, and was replaced by a succession of stop-gaps until we finally got the invaluable W.B. Jack. There were changes, too, in the ranks. Most important was the departure of R.S.M. Small, D.C.M., our Serjeant Major since mobilization. He had been unwell for some time and at length had to go to Hospital and home to England. Debarred by his age from taking a Commission, for which he was so well suited, he had rendered three years' very faithful service to the Battalion, untiring alike in action and on the parade ground, and popular with all, officers, N.C.O.'s and men. He was succeeded by C.S.M. H.G. Lovett, formerly of "B" Company, and latterly serving with the 2nd/5th Battalion. At the same time, Serjt. N. Yeabsley, a very capable horseman and horse master, came to us from the 4th Battalion as Transport Serjeant.

This long tour of trench warfare was not entirely devoid of interest, and several little incidents occurred to break the monotony. The first was a big "strafe" on the 25th of August, when for some unknown reason the enemy shelled Stansfield Road very vigorously, and obtained a direct hit on "C" Company Headquarters. Lieuts. Banwell and Edge were occupying the dug-out at the time, and were both shaken, though the former as usual did not take long to recover. Lieut. Edge, however, was sent to the Stores for a time and for some months acted as Transport Officer. On another occasion, 2nd Lieut. Norman was firing rifle grenades from "Hairpin" craters, when he received one in reply, and had to go to England with one or two pieces in him.

Except for these two incidents, all other excitement occurred in No Man's Land, where we had patrols every night in the hopes of catching a Boche. The first to meet the enemy was 2nd Lieut. Mandy, who was almost surrounded by a large party of them just North of Northern crater. He managed to fight his way out, though for a time he lost one of his party, Pte. Brotheridge, who did some fighting on his own and returned to us at dawn. After a time, tired of finding no one, our patrols became more venturesome, and most nights entered the German lines at some point or other. "A" and "C" Companies worked mostly round the Hairpin craters, and Lieuts. Banwell and Russell, 2nd Lieuts. Dunlop and Norman, all explored the enemy's front line. On one occasion Capt. Petch himself accompanied Lieut. Russell and Serjeant Toon to look at the enemy, and for a change found his front line held. They were caught peering over the parapet, and got a warm reception. Both officers were slightly wounded and had to go to England. Meanwhile, Lieut. Banwell took command of "A" Company. He, too, on another occasion explored the same piece of trench and found it empty, nor could he attract any enemy, though he and his party shouted, whistled and made noises of every description.

Border Redoubt and Rats' Creek were the hunting ground of "B" and "D" Companies, and here Lieuts. Ball and Measures more than once nearly captured a Boche post. But the enemy was too alert, and slipped away always down some tunnel or deep dug-out. But the best patrolling was done from Russian Sap, by 2nd Lieut. Cole and his gang from "D" Company, including Serjt. Burbidge, Cpl. Foster, L/Cpl. Haynes, Ptes. Thurman, Oldham and others. They had very bad luck, for on two occasions they lay in wait for the enemy in his own front line and he never came, though he had occupied the post the previous night, and the party, wet through and frozen, had to return empty handed except for a bomb or two.

There was one other unusual occurrence before we left the St. Elie sector. We were visited one day by a local newspaper reporter, Mr. Wilkes of the "Leicester Mail," who came to see us in trenches, and was introduced to the tunnels and all the "grim horrors" of trench warfare. It seemed curious to see a civilian in a grey suit, adorned with a steel helmet and box respirator, wandering about the communication trenches.

On the 14th of November, while in Brigade Support at Philosophe, we were ordered to reconnoiter the "Hill 70" sector, with a view to taking over the line from the Sherwood Foresters. The same day we moved to some particularly cold and uncomfortable huts at Mazingarbe, going to the line the next night. Our route lay along the main Lens road past Fosse III. and Fosse VII., then by tracks past Privet Castle to Railway Alley. This endless communication trench led all the way past the famous Loos Crucifix, still standing, to what had been the front line before the Canadian attack. Thence various other alleys led to the front line. Our new sector was by no means luxurious. There was a front line trench and portions of a reserve line, all rather the worse for wear, while the communication trenches, "Hurrah" and "Humbug" Alleys, were unspeakably filthy. The whole area at the top of the hill was an appalling mess of tangled machinery from Puits 14 bis, battered trenches, the remains of two woods, Bois Hugo and Bois Razé, and shell holes of every size and shape. There was mud and wet chalk everywhere, and a very poor water supply for drinking purposes. What few dug-outs existed were the usual small German front line post's funk holes, and all faced the wrong way. It was a bad place. There was, however, one redeeming feature. From the hill we could see everything, Hulluch, Wingles, Vendin and Cité St. Auguste lay spread out before us; we could see the slightest movement. Behind the hill, Support Companies were out of sight, and those not actually in the front line could almost all wander about on top without fear of being seen. Furthermore, there were no tunnels. We spent all our time working, for there was much to be done. Our chief tasks were clearing out existing trenches and digging new communication trenches where they were wanted. Digging was both difficult, for the ground was sodden, and dangerous on account of the number of "dud" shells and bombs everywhere. Two men of "B" Company were injured by the explosion of a grenade which one of them struck with a shovel, and the next day Captain Moore had a miraculous escape. Clearing the trench outside his Company Headquarters, at the junction of "Horse" and "Hell" Alleys, he put his pick clean through a Mills bomb; fortunately it did not explode. Padre Buck also had a busy time, for there were many unburied dead still lying about. Hearing of one body some sixty yards out in No Man's Land, where it had been found by a patrol, the Padre went out with his orderly, Darby, to bury it. It was a misty morning, and they were unmolested until suddenly the mist lifted and they were seen. Darby was wounded in the head, and they were heavily fired on, but this did not worry the Padre, who brought his orderly back to our lines, and came in without a scratch.

We remained only seven days in this sector, and did not come into contact with the enemy at all at close quarters. A few bombs were thrown in the Bois Hugo trenches, and a raid by the 11th Division on our right caused a considerable amount of retaliation to fall on our heads, but on the whole the enemy was quiet, and we had practically no casualties. There was not time to learn the ground well enough to do any extensive patrolling, though Lieut. Watherstone earned the Divisional Commander's praise for a bold reconnaissance from the Bois Razé. The transport had as bad a time as anyone, bringing rations on the light railway through Loos, which was never a pleasant spot. Once again a mule succeeded in falling into a trench, and it took R.S.M. Lovett and a party of men more than an hour to extricate it.

The 4th Battalion took our places at the end of the tour, and we marched back to Mazingarbe. Our billets had been slightly improved, and Headquarters now had a house in the Boulevard, commonly called "Snobs' Alley." While here a new horse, a large chestnut, which arrived for the Padre, caused considerable commotion in the Regiment. First he bolted with the Padre half-way from Mazingarbe to Labourse, when he finally pulled him up and dismounted. He then refused to move at all, and went down on his knees to Padre Buck, who was most disconcerted, especially when the animal moaned as though truly penitent. The next day the Adjutant tried to ride him, and once more he bolted. This time his career was short, for horse and rider came down on the Mazingarbe cobbled high road, and the Adjutant had to go to Chocques hospital with a broken head, and was away for a week.

During his absence we lost Colonel Trimble, who, much against his will, was ordered to take command of his own Battalion, the 1st East Yorkshires. He had been with us for seven months, and we were all very fond of him and very sorry indeed when he had to go. Worse still, there seemed no chance of Col. Jones returning to us. For six weeks, September and October, he had been close to us in Noeux les Mines, attached to the 1st Battalion, and more than once had come over to see us, but now the 6th Division had moved away and we did not know their whereabouts. The matter was finally settled by the arrival of a new Commanding Officer in the same car which came to fetch Col. Trimble. Lieut. Colonel R.W. Currin, D.S.O., of the York and Lancaster Regiment, had come to take command.

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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