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The Salient

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

The Salient
22nd June, 1915 - 1st Oct., 1915.

On the 22nd June, 1915, after resting for five days in the Huts, where General Ferguson, our Corps Commander, came to say good-bye, we marched at 9.0 p.m. to Ouderdom, while our place in the line was taken by the 50th Northumbrian Territorial Division, who had been very badly hammered, and were being sent for a rest to a quiet sector. At Ouderdom, which we reached about midnight, we discovered that our billets consisted of a farm house and a large field, not very cheering to those who had expected a village, or at least huts, but better than one or two units who had fields only, without the farm. It was our first experience in bivouacs, but fortunately a fine night, so we soon all crawled under waterproof sheets, and slept until daylight allowed us to arrange something more substantial. The next day, with the aid of a few "scrounged" top poles and some string, every man made himself some sort of weather-proof hutch, while the combined tent-valises of the officers were grouped together near the farm, which was used as mess and Quartermaster's Stores. Unfortunately, we had no sooner made ourselves really comfortable than the Staffordshires claimed the field as part of their area, and we had to move to a similar billeting area a few hundred yards outside Reninghelst where we stayed until the 28th. The weather remained hot and fine, except for two very heavy showers in the middle of one day, when most of the officers could be seen making furious efforts to dig drains round their bivouacs from inside, while the other ranks stood stark naked round the field and enjoyed the pleasures of a cold shower-bath. We spent our time training and providing working parties, one of which, consisting of 400 men under Capt. Jeffries, for work at Zillebeke, proved an even greater fiasco than its predecessor in May. For on this occasion, not only was the night very short, but the guides failed to find the work, and the party eventually returned to bivouacs, having done nothing except wander about the salient for three hours. Two days before we left Reninghelst the first reinforcements arrived for us, consisting of 12 returned casualties and 80 N.C.O.'s and men from England—a very welcome addition to our strength.

The time eventually arrived for us to go into the line, and on the 29th the officers went up by day to take over from the Sherwood Foresters, while the remainder of the Battalion followed as soon as it was dark. Mud roads and broad cross-country tracks brought us over the plain to the "Indian Transport Field," near Kruisstraat White Chateau, still standing untouched because, it was said, its peace-time owner was a Boche. Leaving the Chateau on our right, and passing Brigade Headquarters Chalet on our left, we kept to the road through Kruisstraat as far as the outskirts of Ypres, where a track to the right led us to Bridge 14 over the Ypres-Comines Canal. Thence, by field tracks, we crossed the Lille road a few yards north of Shrapnel Corner, and leaving on our left the long, low, red buildings of the "Ecole de Bienfaisance," reached Zillebeke Lake close to the white house at the N.W. corner. The lake is triangular and entirely artificial, being surrounded by a broad causeway, 6 feet high, with a pathway along the top. On the western edge the ground falls away, leaving a bank some twenty feet high, in which were built the "Lake Dug-outs,"—the home of one of the support battalions. From the corner house to the trenches there were two routes, one by the south side of the Lake, past Railway Dug-outs—cut into the embankment of the Comines Railway—and Manor Farm to Square Wood; the other, which we followed, along the North side of the Lake, where a trench cut into the causeway gave us cover from observation from "Hill 60." At Zillebeke we left the trench, and crossed the main road at the double, on account of a machine gun which the Boche kept at the "Hill 60" end of it, and kept moving until past the Church—another unpleasant locality. Thence a screened track led to Maple Copse, an isolated little wood with several dug-outs in it, and on to Sanctuary Wood, which we found 400 yards further East. Here in dug-outs lived the Supports, for whom at this time was no fighting accommodation except one or two absurdly miniature keeps. At the corner of the larger wood we passed the Ration Dump, and then, leaving this on our left, turned into Armagh Wood on our right.

From the southern end of Zillebeke village two roads ran to the front line. One, almost due South, kept close to the railway and was lost in the ruins of Zwartelen village on "Hill 60"; the other, turning East along a ridge, passed between Sanctuary and Armagh Woods, and crossed our front line between the "A" and "B" trenches, the left of our new sector. The ridge, called Observatory, on account of its numerous O.P.'s, was sacred to the Gunners, and no one was allowed to linger there, for fear of betraying these points of vantage. Beyond it was a valley, and beyond that again some high ground N.E. of the hill, afterwards known as Mountsorrel, on account of Colonel Martin's Headquarters, which were on it. The line ran over the top of this high ground, which was the meeting place of the old winter trenches (numbered 46 to 50) on the right, and, on the left the new trenches "A," "B," etc., built for our retirement during the 2nd Battle. The 5th Division held the old trenches, we relieved the Sherwood Foresters in the new "A1" to "A8," with three companies in the line and only one in support. The last was near Battalion Headquarters, called Uppingham in Colonel Jones' honor, which were in a bank about 200 yards behind the front line. Some of the dug-outs were actually in the bank, but the most extraordinary erection of all was the mess, a single sandbag thick house, built entirely above ground, and standing by itself, unprotected by any bank or fold in the ground, absolutely incapable, of course, of protecting its occupants from even an anti-aircraft "dud."

We soon discovered during our first tour the difference between the Salient and other sectors of the line, for, whereas at Kemmel we were rarely shelled more than once a day, and then only with a few small shells, now scarcely three hours went by without some part of the Battalion's front being bombarded, usually with whizz-bangs. The Ypres whizz-bang, too, was a thing one could not despise. The country round Klein Zillebeke was very close, and the Boche was able to keep his batteries only a few hundred yards behind his front line, with the result that the "Bang" generally arrived before the whizz. "A6" and "A7" suffered most, and on the 1st July Captain T.C.P. Beasley, commanding "C" Company, and Lieut. A.P. Marsh, of "B" Company, were both wounded, and had to be sent away to Hospital some hours later. The same night we gave up these undesirable trenches, together with "A5" and "A8" to the 4th Battalion, and took instead "49," "50" and the Support "51" from the Cheshires of the 5th Division. These trenches were about 200 yards from the enemy except at the junction of "49" and "50," where a small salient in his line brought him to within 80 yards. The sniping here was as deadly as at Kemmel, though round the corner in "A1" we could have danced on the parapet and attracted no attention. On the other hand "49" and "50" were comfortably built, whereas "A1" was shallow and narrow and half filled with tunnelers' sandbags, for it contained three long mine shafts, two of which were already under the German lines. "A2," "3" and "4" were the most peaceful of our sector, and the only disturbance here during the tour was when one of a small burst of crumps blew up our bomb store and blocked the trench for a time. This was on the 5th, and after it we were left in peace, until, relieved by the Staffordshires, we marched back to Ouderdom, feeling that we had escaped from our first tour in the ill-famed salient fairly cheaply. Even so, we had lost two officers and 24 O. Ranks wounded, and seven killed, a rate which, if kept up, would soon very seriously deplete our ranks.

General Map of Flanders
to illustrate Chapters II & III

On reaching Ouderdom, we found that some huts on the Vlamertinghe road had now been allotted us instead of our bivouac field, and as on the following day it rained hard, we were not sorry. Our satisfaction, however, was short-lived, for the hut roofs were of wood only, and leaked in so many places that many were absolutely uninhabitable and had to be abandoned. At the same time some short lengths of shelter trench which we had dug in case of shelling were completely filled with water, so that anyone desiring shelter must needs have a bath as well. This wet weather, coupled with a previous shortage of water in the trenches, and the generally unhealthy state of the salient, brought a considerable amount of sickness and slight dysentery, and although we did not send many to Hospital, the health of the Battalion on the whole was bad, and we seemed to have lost for the time our energy. Probably a fortnight in good surroundings would have cured us completely, and even after eight days at rest we were in a better state, but on the 13th we were once more ordered into the line and the good work was undone, for the sickness returned with increased vigor.

Between the Railway Cutting at "Hill 60" and the Comines Canal further south, the lines at this time were very close together, and at one point, called Bomb Corner, less than 50 yards separated our parapet from the Boche's. This sector, containing trenches "35" at Bomb Corner, "36" and "37" up to the Railway, was held by the 1st Norfolks of the 5th Division, who were finding their own reliefs, and, with one company resting at a time, had been more than two months in this same front line. On the 11th July the Boche blew a mine under trench "37" doing considerable damage to the parapet, and on the following night "36" was similarly treated, and a length of the trench blotted out. The night after this we came in to relieve the Norfolks, who not unnaturally were expecting "35" to share the same fate, and had consequently evacuated their front line for the night, while they sat in the second line and waited for it to go up in the air. Captain Jefferies with "D" Company took over "35," while the two damaged trenches were held by "B" Company (Capt. J.L. Griffiths). "A" and "C" held a keep near Verbranden Molen—an old mill about three hundred yards behind our front line—and Battalion Headquarters lived in some dug-outs in the woods behind "35." Behind this again, the solitary Blaupoort Farm provided R.A.P. and ration dump with a certain amount of cover, though the number of dud shells in the courtyard made it necessary to walk with extreme caution on a dark night. In spite of the numerous reports of listening-posts, who heard "rapping underground," we were not blown up during our four days in residence, and our chief worry was not mines, but again whiz-bangs. One battery was particularly offensive, and three times on the 15th Capt. Griffiths had his parapet blown away by salvoes of these very disagreeable little shells. One's parapet in this area was one's trench, for digging was impossible, and we lived behind a sort of glorified sandbag grouse butt, six feet thick at the base and two to three feet at the top, sometimes, but not always, bullet-proof.

One or two amusing stories are told about the infantry opposite "33," who were Saxons, and inclined to be friendly with the English. On one occasion the following message, tied to a stone, was thrown into our trench: "We are going to send a 40lb. bomb. We have got to do it, but don't want to. I will come this evening, and we will whistle first to warn you." All of this happened. A few days later they apparently mistrusted the German official news, for they sent a further message saying, "Send us an English newspaper that we may learn the verity."

The weather throughout the tour was bad, but on the night of 17th/18th, when we were relieved at midnight by the Sherwood Foresters, it became appalling. We were not yet due for a rest, having been only four days in the line, and our orders were to spend the night in bivouacs at Kruisstraat and return to trenches the following evening, taking over our old sector "50" to "A7." Weakened with sickness and soaked to the skin, we stumbled through black darkness along the track to Kruisstraat—three miles of slippery mud and water-logged shell holes—only to find that our bivouac field was flooded, and we must march back to Ouderdom and spend the night in the huts, five miles further west. We reached home as dawn was breaking, tired out and wet through, and lay down at once to snatch what sleep we could before moving off again at 6-30 p.m. But for many it was too much, and 150 men reported sick and were in such a weak condition that they were left behind at the huts, where later they were joined by some 40 more who had tried hard to reach trenches but had had to give up and fall out on the way. The rest of us, marching slowly and by short stages, did eventually relieve the Sherwood Foresters, but so tired as to be absolutely unfit for trenches. Fortunately for two days the weather was good and the Boche very quiet, there was time for all to get a thorough rest, and by the 20th we had very largely recovered our vigor—which was just as well, for it proved an exciting tour.

The excitement started about a mile away on our left, when, on the evening of the 19th, the next Division blew up an enormous mine at Hooge, and, with the aid of an intense artillery bombardment, attacked and captured part of the village, including the chateau stables. The enemy counter-attacked the following night, and, though he made no headway and was driven out with heavy loss, he none the less bombarded our new ground continuously and caused us many casualties. Accordingly, to make a counter attraction, the Tunneling Company working with us was asked to blow up part of the enemy's lines as soon as possible; the blow would be accompanied by an artillery "strafe" by us. There was at this time such a network of mine galleries in front of "A1," that Lieut. Tulloch, R.E., was afraid that the Boche would hear him loading one of the galleries, so, to take no risks, blew a preliminary camouflet on the evening of the 21st, destroying the enemy's nearest sap. This was successful, and the work of loading and tamping the mines started at once. 1500 lbs. of ammonal were packed at the end of a gallery underneath the German redoubt opposite "A1," while at the end of another short gallery a smaller mine was laid, in order to destroy as much as possible of his mine workings. The date chosen was the 23rd, the time 7 p.m.

At 6-55 p.m., having vacated "A1" for the time, we blew the smaller of the two mines—in order, it was said, to attract as many of the enemy as possible into his redoubt. To judge by the volume of rifle fire which came from his lines, this part of the program was successful, but we did not have long to think about it, for at 7 p.m. the 1500 lbs. went off, and Boche redoubt, sandbags, and occupants went into the air, together with some tons of the salient, much of which fell into our trenches. A minute later our Artillery opened their bombardment, and for the next half hour the enemy must have had a thoroughly bad time in every way. His retaliation was insignificant, and consisted of a very few little shells fired more or less at random—a disquieting feature to those of us who knew the Germans' love of an instant and heavy reply to our slightest offensive action. "Stand to," the usual time for the evening "hate," passed off very quietly, and, as we sat down to our evening meal, we began to wonder whether we were to have any reply at all. Meanwhile, three new officers arrived—2nd. Lieut. R.C. Lawton, of "A" Company, who had been prevented by sickness from coming abroad with us, and 2nd Lieuts. E.E. Wynne and N.C. Marriott, both of whom were sent to "B" Company, where they joined Capt. Griffiths at dinner. They were half way through their meal when, without the slightest warning, the ground heaved, pieces of the roof fell on the table, and they heard the ominous whirr of falling clods, which betokens a mine at close quarters.

Hohenzollern Memorial

Before the débris had stopped falling, Capt. Griffiths was out of his dug-out and scrambling along his half-filled trench, to find out what had happened. Reaching the right end of "50," he found his front line had been completely destroyed, and where his listening post had been, was now a large crater, into which the Boche was firing trench mortars, while heavy rifle fire came from his front line. Except for a few wounded men, he could see nothing of Serjt. Bunn and the garrison of the trench, most of whom he soon realized must have been buried, where the tip of the crater had engulfed what had been the front line. For about 80 yards no front line existed, nor had he sufficient men in the left of his trench to bring across to help the right, so, sending down a report of his condition, he started, with any orderlies and batmen he could collect, to rescue those of his Company who had been only partially buried. Meanwhile, help was coming from two quarters. On the right, Colonel Martin, of the 4th Battalion, also disturbed at dinner, was soon up in "49" trench, where he found that his left flank had also suffered from the explosion, but not so badly. His first thought was to form some continuous line of defense across the gap, if possible linking up with the crater at the same time, and, with this object in view he personally reconnoitered the ground and discovered a small disused trench running in front of "49" towards the crater. Quickly organizing parties of men, he sent them along this cut, first to continue it up to the crater, then with sandbags for the defense of the "lip." He himself superintended the work inside the crater, where he had a miraculous escape from a trench mortar, which wounded all standing round him. At the same time, R.S.M. Small, finding a dazed man of "B" Company wandering near Battalion Headquarters, heard what had happened, and without waiting for further orders sent off every available man he could find with shovels and sandbags to assist Capt. Griffiths. Half an hour later, Capt. Bland also arrived with two platoons of "C" Company, sent across from the left of our line, and by dawn with their help a trench had been cut through from "50" to "49." This, though not organized for defense, yet enabled one to pass through the damaged area. At the same time the miners started to make a small tunnel into the bottom of the crater, so that it would no longer be necessary to climb over the lip to reach the bomb post which was built inside.

The Water Tower and Railway Track, Vermelles

During the next day we were fortunately not much harassed by the enemy, and were consequently able to continue the repair work on "50." "B" Company had had 42 casualties from the mine itself, of whom eight were killed and seven, including Sergt. Bunn, were missing, while in the rest of the Battalion about 30 men were wounded, mostly by trench mortars or rifle fire when digging out "50" trench. At the time of the explosion the enemy had thrown several bombs at "A2," and it was thought for a time that he intended making an attack here, but rapid fire was opened by the garrison, and nothing followed. On the evening of the 24th we were due for relief, but, as "50" was still only partially cleared, and we had not yet traced all our missing, we stayed in for another 24 hours, during which time we thoroughly reorganized the sector, and were able to hand over a properly traversed fire trench to the Lincolnshires when they came in. Before we left we found Sergt. Bunn's body; he had been buried at his post, and was still holding in his hand the flare pistol which he was going to fire when the mine exploded. The men of the listening post were not found until some time later, for they had been thrown several hundred yards by the explosion.

On relief, we marched back to Ouderdom, taking with us the officers and men of the 17th Division, who had been attached for instruction during the last tour, and reached a bivouac field near the windmill at 4-30 a.m. Here we stayed 24 hours, and then moved into the "E" huts—an excellent camp, further E. along the Vlamertinghe road than that which we had previously occupied. We were due to remain here for six days, and accordingly started our usual training in bomb and bayonet fighting. Meanwhile, Lieut. Moore and the Battalion Tunnelers were once more hard at work helping the R.E. in "50" and "A1," and on the 30th July two of them, Serjt. J. Emmerson and Pte. H.G. Starbuck, working underground, came upon a German gallery. Without a moment's hesitation, Starbuck broke in and found that the charge was already laid, and wires could be seen leading back to the enemy's lines. If the Germans had heard him at work there was no doubt that they would blow their mine at once, but heedless of this danger, he stayed in the gallery until he had cut the leads, and so made it possible for the Engineers to remove the half ton of "Westphalite" which they found already in position, immediately under "49." For their daring work, the two miners were awarded the D.C.M., Starbuck getting his at once, Serjt. Emmerson in the next honors list. Two nights later the enemy suddenly opened rapid rifle fire opposite "49," which equally suddenly died away, and we like to think that some Boche officer had at the same time pressed the starting button to explode his "Westphalite," only to find that nothing happened.

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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