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St. Elie Left

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

St. Elie Left
4th July, 1917.23rd Nov., 1917.

We stayed for three weeks at Monchy Breton and enjoyed ourselves immensely, with good weather, good billets and plenty of games. The Headquarters lived and messed at M. le Curé's, where they consumed a disgraceful amount of strawberries and cream, while the other officers under Captain Burnett messed together in another house. But the chief feature of this period of rest was the Divisional Rifle meeting, a regular Bisley meeting, which took place at the end of it. It was a triumph for the 5th Leicestershires, for we carried off amongst other trophies the G.O.C.'s Cup. R.S.M. Small, D.C.M., had one "first" and two "seconds," Corporal F.H.J. Spencer, M.M., one "first" and one "second," in the individual competitions, while Serjt. Clancy and Pte. F. Bindley won the assault course and individual "pools." On the second day "A" and "B" Companies each got third place in the Company Assault Course and Snap-shooting Competitions, and "C" was second in the Company "Knock-out" and third in the "running man" competitions. In this last Pte. Pepper won third place in the pool. Finally our officers' team won the revolver shoot. The rifle shooting throughout both days was of a very high order, but the same cannot be said for the revolver work, and we only won this last competition by being not quite so terribly bad as anybody else.

On the 20th of July we received orders to go into action again—this time to a quiet sector near Hulluch—and the following day we moved to Vaudricourt. The C.O. and most of the officers went by motor-'bus through to Philosophe to reconnoiter the new line; the rest of the Battalion set out under Captain Burnett to march. The previous evening had been spent in celebrating our rifle-shooting victories and we felt like anything rather than marching twenty miles under a blazing July sun. Those who took part in it will never forget that march; it was worse than "Luton to Ware" in 1914. Packs seemed heavier than ever before, the hill at Houdain was too much for many, and the beer and white wine of the previous evening proved stronger than march discipline, and many fell out. We finally crawled into Vaudricourt at 4-0 p.m.—tired out.

The following evening our Transport lines and Quartermaster's Stores moved to Labourse and we went into the line, relieving the 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment in the Hulluch right sector. For six days we lived in tunnels, with a front line which consisted of odd isolated posts at the end of each passage. The old front line trench seemed to have disappeared entirely. We were not much worried by the enemy, in fact, except for one trench mortar near Hulluch, called the "Goose," he kept very quiet. At the end of the tour we were relieved by the 4th Battalion and went into billets at Noeux les Mines.

Noeux was not shelled during our stay, so we had a peaceful time, though one officer was somewhat troubled on waking the first morning to find attached to his house the following notice: "This Cross Roads is Registered. No Parties to Halt Here." We did not stay long, however, for on the 30th July we were suddenly ordered to move to Fouquières to prepare for a coming raid, and marched there during the afternoon, Battalion Headquarters to the Chateau, Companies to the village. For some reason best known to himself the billeting officer had billeted all officers with the wrong companies, but this was soon rectified, and we were very comfortable.

Our coming raid was to be carried out against the enemy's trenches West of Hulluch on a frontage of 300 yards. The sector chosen was bounded on the North by Hendon and on the South by Hicks Alley, while Herring Alley was in the centre. There were three German lines, and on the left a small extra line between the first and second, which we named Hinckley Trench. The scheme was for two Companies to take and hold the German third line, one Company to mop up behind them, and the fourth Company to follow with some Engineers to demolish dug-outs. One of the forward Companies would have to send a special party to deal with the "Goose" trench mortar. All wire cutting would be done by the Artillery, who were allowed a fortnight for it, so that they might not excite the enemy too much by heavy shooting. During this time we were to detail an officer to stay in the line, watch the shooting, and patrol the gaps at night. We would also practice the attack over a flagged course.

The flagged course was set out very elaborately at Hesdigneul, and not only was each trench shown, but small notice boards denoted the position of every supposed machine gun, trench mortar, or deep dug-out. Practices took place first by day and finally by night, for the raid was to be a night attack, and various lamp signals were arranged to assist the withdrawal. The position of Hulluch village was indicated on the practice ground by a large notice board—Hulluch—which probably gave any spies there might be in Hesdigneul a very fair idea of what was intended.

Meanwhile, we received various reinforcements. Lieut. G.E. Russell returned, 2nd Lieut. W.M. Cole came from the Artists' Rifles, 2nd Lieuts. R.W. Edge, T.R.L. Gibson, R.B. Rawson, C.P. Shilton, R.W. Sanders, L.W. Mandy, and J.S. Plumer came to us for the first time from England. At the same time a large party of men, arriving at Monchy Breton, had enabled us to reconstitute "C" Company, so that we now had four Companies of three platoons each, and enough officers for two Battalions. Lieut. Pearson went to Hospital and thence to England, and Capt. Wollaston acted Adjutant. The Company Commanders were unchanged.

For the second week of our fortnight we slightly relaxed the vigor of our practices, and devoted more time to musketry, bombing, and training the demolition parties for their work. The officers to take part in the raid were also chosen, and various tasks allotted to the others. Capt. Shields with 2nd Lieut. Cole and "D" Company would make the right attack; Capt. Petch with 2nd Lieut. Gibson and "A" Company, the left. "B" Company (Capt. Marriott and 2nd Lieut. C.S. Allen) would be the supports, and the two demolition parties would be found by "C" Company under 2nd Lieuts. Lowe and Edge. 2nd Lieut. Plumer was detailed to take a party of "D" Company to destroy the "Goose." Lieut. G.E. Russell was "O.C. Searchlight," and various other officers were chosen to count the raiding party when they returned.

Meanwhile, up in trenches the most wonderful work was being done by 2nd Lieut. Brooke and six other ranks of "D" Company—L/Cpl. Clapham, Ptes. Haines, Hanford, Johnson, Mason, and Rolls. This was the party left in the line with the Staffordshires to observe the wire cutting and patrol the gaps. At first, 2nd Lieut. Brooke spent his days with the F.O.O. and confined his patrolling to the hours of darkness, but later he was out in front both day and night. On two occasions he came into contact with the enemy. First, on his very first patrol, he had just reached the enemy's wire, and was trying to find a way through, when the enemy opened a heavy fire at close range. L/Cpl. Clapham was killed, shot through the head, and it was only with the utmost difficulty that the rest of the party escaped with their lives. The second encounter was in daylight. The Staffordshires had reported that they believed the German front line to be unoccupied, so on the 13th August, in the middle of the afternoon, 2nd Lieut. Brooke crossed No Man's Land, passed through the wire and entered the Boche front line. He was just exploring it when a very surprised German came round a corner and saw him. 2nd Lieut. Brooke at once left the trench and took shelter as quickly as possible in a shell hole outside. A perfect shower of bombs and rifle grenades were thrown after him, but he was untouched, and regained our lines without a scratch.

On the 14th August, after a very happy fortnight at Fouquières, we moved to the huts at Noyelles, where the special stores for the coming raid were issued. At the same time all pay books, badges, identity discs and personal kits were handed in, and to each man was issued a small round cardboard disc with a number on it. The following morning we paraded at 10 a.m., and marched through Vermelles to Lone Trench and Tenth Avenue, where we were to wait until it was time to assemble. On the way, "B" Company had a serious disaster. A shell, intended for one of our batteries West of Vermelles, fell on the Company as they were passing the Mansion House Dump. They were marching in fours and had practically a whole platoon wiped out, for eleven were killed and fourteen wounded. Amongst the killed was Freddie Chambers, self-appointed Company humorist, and one of the best known and most cheerful soldiers in the Battalion.

Our Patrol party was waiting for us in Lone Trench, but their report was far from satisfactory. 2nd Lieut. Brooke declared that there were by no means enough gaps, in fact none at all on the left, and Colonel Trimble asked for the raid to be postponed. Meanwhile, 2nd Lieut. Brooke went off to the front line, where he finally was able to convince the Divisional Intelligence Officer that there were not sufficient gaps, and at the last moment, as the Companies were preparing to move to their assembly positions, the raid was postponed for 24 hours. Accordingly we spent the night in our somewhat cramped surroundings in Lone Trench, and the following day the Artillery continued to cut the wire, this time with better success.

One of the original objects of the raid had been to detract attention from a Canadian attack on "Hill 70" to be made at the same time. This attack we watched from the back of Lone trench, and later in the day were able to give material assistance. The German counter attack came from behind Hulluch, near Wingles, and the troops for it assembled and started their attack in view of our posts. Captain Ellwood and his machine gunners at once got to work and did terrific execution, being chiefly responsible for the failure of the enemy's efforts, and enabling the Canadians to hold the Hill.

So successful was the wire cutting on the 16th, that our patrol reported all ready for the raid, and accordingly we moved at dusk to our assembly positions. One alteration in the plan of attack had to be made at the last minute. It had originally been intended that the attacking platoons, after passing in file through our wire, should spread out in No Man's Land into lines. As the German wire was only cut into gaps and not obliterated, it was now decided that platoons should keep in file until through that belt also, and spread out on entering the front line. Bridges were placed over our front line, all faces were blackened, and by 10-30 p.m. all were ready for Zero, which was to be 10-58 p.m.

The barrage started promptly, and the advance began. The enemy's wire was a little thick on both flanks, but all passed through fairly easily and entered the front line, where, as arranged, each man shouted to show he had arrived. Two enemy were found and killed, but much of the trench was full of wire. The attackers passed on rapidly to the second and third lines, finding the wire thicker in front of each line, but finally reaching their objective and building bombing blocks. It was a dark night, and to avoid losing touch, Captains Petch and Shields had arranged to call each other's names as they went forward. Suddenly Captain Shield's voice stopped with one last cry, and Captain Petch hurrying to the spot found he had been hit by a shell and terribly wounded in both legs. However, his Company reached the third line, and the party under 2nd Lieut. Plumer set out to destroy the Goose.

Meanwhile, the mopping up and demolition continued behind the attack. Several Germans were found and killed in the second line, but on the whole very few enemy were seen, somehow they had managed to escape. Probably there were many tunnels, and in the dark it was quite impossible to tell what was a tunnel entrance and what merely a dug-out. Many of the latter were destroyed by "C" Company, though they lost 2nd Lieut. Lowe, who was slightly wounded, through being too keen to watch the effect of one of his own Mills bombs. Corporal Tunks and Pte. Baker did particularly good work with these demolition parties.

Back at Battalion Headquarters was a listening set, and this managed to overhear the German Company Commander's telephone report to his headquarters. "We are being attacked, ... front line penetrated, ... second line wrecked ... third line entered ... send up two sections." The two sections came in two parts. A strong bombing attack was made up Hicks Alley which was held by our bombing party at the newly built block; at the same time our left was attacked over the open. "A" Company were ready for them, and Lilley, the Lewis Gunner, soon accounted for many and broke up the attack. "D" Company also had some fighting, in which both 2nd Lieut. Cole and Serjeant Growdridge distinguished themselves.

The time finally came for the withdrawal, and the special flare lights were fired. Unfortunately they failed to light, and messages had to be sent at once to the raid area. The enemy were held off while the withdrawal was carried out, and by 2-0 a.m. the 17th the majority of the raiding party had returned. Captain Shields was carried in by C.S.M. Passmore, who very gallantly stayed out some time after the others were all back, but nothing could be found of Capt. Marriott or 2nd Lieut. Plumer and the "Goose" party. Capt. Marriott had been last seen in the second German line, but he had been missed in the withdrawal, and was never seen again. We brought no prisoners and no identifications, though one man brought back a rifle and another some papers from a dug-out. Several of the enemy had undoubtedly been killed, but no one had thought to cut off shoulder straps or search for pay books. At 3-0 a.m. we returned to Noyelles, where we spent the day cleaning and repairing our clothing.

The raid had not been a success. We lost Captain Marriott, 2nd Lieut. Plumer, and seven men missing, whom we never heard of again. Three more men were known to be killed, and three others were afterwards reported prisoners, while no less than fifty-one were wounded. Capt. Shields, the most cheerful, strenuous, and popular of Company Commanders, would never fight again. He reached Chocques hospital with one leg almost blown off and the other badly shattered, and the Doctors decided to amputate the one at once. It is still recorded as a unique feat, that throughout the operation neither the patient's pulse nor temperature altered, thanks to his wonderful constitution. The other leg soon healed, and within a few months he was hopping over fences in England in the best of spirits. "B" Company had lost their second Company Commander in two months. Like his friend Capt. Wynne, Captain Marriott had soon won his way to the hearts of his Company, with whom he rose from Platoon Commander, while in the Mess he was one of the merriest of companions and the friend of all.

There is no doubt that the enemy had been prepared for us. The rapidity with which his barrage started, the partly wired trenches, empty dug-outs and absence of garrison all pointed to this. He probably waited for us at his tunnel entrances, and hurried away as soon as we arrived; the few we found were those who had been too slow in getting away. As far as we ourselves were concerned, we only made one mistake—failing to bring back any identification. Apart from this all ranks had worked well, and we were congratulated by General Thwaites on our efforts.

Five days after the raid we relieved the 4th Leicestershires in a new trench sector, the "St. Elie left," and for nearly three months the Brigade remained in this same part of the line. The sector had its name from a much battered coal mine, the Cité St. Elie, which stood just inside the German lines opposite. About five hundred yards on our right, the Vermelles-Hulluch road crossed No Man's Land, while a similar distance on our left, Fosse 8 and its slag heaps formed the chief feature. All through 1916 active mining operations had been carried out along the whole front, and though there was now a deadlock underground, the craters still remained a bone of contention; each side tried to retain its hold on the near lip. Our right Company held a line of six of these craters, joined together, called "Hairpin" on account of their shape on the aeroplane photographs. The centre Company held another group called Border Redoubt, consisting amongst other things of two enormous craters, the Northern and Southern. Between these two groups lay "Rats' Creek," a short length of trench, 200 yards from the enemy, and without a crater. The left Company held another isolated post—"Russian Sap"—500 yards from the centre and not connected with it by any usable trench. The old front line between Border and Hairpin, via Rats' Creek, a distance of 400 yards, could be used by liaison patrols at night, but was impossible by day.

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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