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Underground War not Satisfactory

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

Meanwhile the underground war was not as satisfactory as we should have liked, and the Boche undoubtedly had the upper hand in the mining. Our galleries were few and short, and in consequence useless for either offence or defense, while his were known to be near our trenches in several places. In one place between the right and centre companies the Lincolnshires had expected a "blow" at any moment, and evacuating their front line, had dug a new trench ten yards in rear of it. This seemed to have been sighted in such a haphazard sort of way that it was at once named the "Harry Tate" trench by some humorist, who pictured a Company Commander coming out and saying "What shall we do next? Let's dig a trench." And so they dug this one—quite useless, for it was bound to be engulfed by any mine which exploded under the front line. The Boche, however, thought more of the new trench than we did, and the day after it was built, bombarded it with heavy minenwerfer shells until it was unrecognizable.

In this state we found it when we came in for our second tour, "C" Company (Farmer) on the right and "A" Company (Ward Jackson) in the centre. Our first morning the Boche started just before midday, and for four hours rained heavy minenwerfer shells on these two Companies, and particularly on the new trench. Fortunately there was no one in this, and equally fortunately most of the shells fell between our front line and supports; there was a thick mist at the time, and it was almost impossible to judge their flight. Through it all Capt. Farmer walked calmly from post to post, cheering the garrison, and just before the end of the bombardment at 4-0 p.m., made his way down the small communication trench towards his support platoon. Thence he went to call on "B" Company, but was caught on the way back by a mortar, which he probably could not see coming in the mist (for no one was more accurate at judging their flight than he), and was killed instantly, being blown out of the trench and lost for several hours. Captain Farmer was perhaps the quietest, certainly the bravest, officer of his time, for he feared nothing, and nothing could shake his calm, while it was said of him that he was never angry and never despondent. When he was killed, "C" Company lost their leader, and every man his best friend, while the mess lost one who was the most cheerful comrade of every officer.

This bombardment left our front line in a terrible condition, and General Kemp decided to build a new main line of resistance 50 yards in rear, holding the front with odd posts only. Meanwhile the front parapet must be repaired, and the night was spent in doing this as far as we could—a hopeless task, for the following afternoon we were again hammered. This time "A" Company suffered most, and Corporal Williamson and one man were killed, Serjt. Staniforth and one other wounded, while the trench was blown in for several yards and a dug-out demolished. Dug-outs were few, and consisted only of little hutches formed by putting a sheet of iron over some slot. Even Company Headquarters of the centre Company had little more than this, though Battalion Headquarters and the other companies had a half-deep dug-out.

The bombardments now became daily, and all our efforts at retaliation either with artillery or trench mortars proved entirely ineffectual. There was nothing we could do except clear as many men as possible away from the danger area, and come back at dusk to rebuild our parapet. Towards the end of the tour the Boche started firing rifle grenades before each mortar, so that we should stoop to avoid the former and so miss seeing the flight of the latter. The tour ended with a four-inch fall of snow on the 26th, which melted almost at once and filled the trenches with water, which no amount of pumping would remedy. After relief we went to the "Talus des Zouaves" in Brigade support, except for "C" Company (Moore), which went to the Cabaret Rouge—now used as Brigade advanced Headquarters.

The East side of the valley, where the Support Battalion's dug-outs had been built, was immune from German shells owing to the steepness of the hill side, and here for six days we had comparative rest, except at nights, when we most of us went digging on the new line. The Battalion Grenadiers under Serjeant Goodman particularly enjoyed themselves, and their dug-out in the valley became a regular anarchists' arsenal. Fiendish missiles were made out of empty bottles stuffed with ammonal and other explosives, which they managed to obtain in large quantities from the French miners, while the strength of various poisons and gases was tested against the rats, against whose habitations they carried on an endless war. A catapult was erected for practice purposes, and our bombers became adepts in its use, knowing exactly how much fuse to attach to a T.N.T. filled glass beer bottle to make it burst two seconds after landing in the Boche trench. The valley was a little dangerous during practice hours, but nobody minded this so long as the enemy suffered in the end.

At the same time another innovation was introduced in the shape of the Stokes light trench mortar—a stove-pipe-like gun firing a cylindrical shell some 400 yards at the rate of 8 in the air at once. It was simply necessary to drop the shell into the gun, at the bottom of which was a striker, and the rest was automatic and almost noiseless, the shock of discharge being rather like a polite cough. Brigade Trench Mortar Companies were formed, in our case 2nd Lieuts. A.N. Bloor and W.R. Ashwell, with several other ranks, went to join the first company.

On the 2nd March, having received a draft of three N.C.O.'s and 106 men, we went once more to the line and took over from the 4th Lincolnshires. This time we were able to have two Companies in front, one in Boisselet trench, part of the new work, and one in reserve, a far more satisfactory distribution. The trenches were still in a very bad state, and it was found in many places quite impossible to dig new lines, because the ground had been so shaken by continuous bombardment for more than a year, that the soil would no longer bind, and the sides of any new trench collapsed almost as soon as they were dug. The tour was fairly quiet, though Boche snipers and artillery were more active than before, and we reached Camblain L'Abbé at the end of it without having suffered any repetition of the trench mortar bombardments.

Our six days' rest included two big working parties, two inspections, and one demonstration, to say nothing of such minor details as church parades, conferences, baths, and the usual overhauling of boots and clothing. The work consisted of clearing dug-outs in the Bois des Alleux, and only lasted two days, after which we polished ourselves for General Kemp, who inspected us in a field near Camblain, and said that he was much pleased indeed with our turnout. General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley was equally complimentary at the second inspection, and congratulated all ranks on their appearance and smartness, which, considering the state of the trenches, was very creditable. The demonstration was particularly interesting, and proved the futility of the famous German flame projector. As many men as possible were placed in a trench, while the demonstrator, standing at 30 feet away with the machine, turned on the flame. The wind was behind him, and the flame, with a tremendous roar, leapt out about 30 yards. But the noise was the worst part, for the burning liquid, vaporizing as it left the machine, became lighter than air, and in spite of all the efforts of the Demonstrator, could not be made to sink into the trench, whose occupants were untouched. The men were all rather amused at the whole performance and suggested that we should bring the machine into the line to warm them up on cold days.

On the 12th we marched once more to the line and relieved the 4th Lincolnshires, this time for a four-day tour. We found on arrival that the Boche a few hours previously had blown a large mine in the left sector, to be occupied by "D" Company (Shields), so that in addition to the work on the new trench, we had to supply many men for repairing this new damage—no light task, for many yards of our front trench had disappeared. To make work more difficult the Boche was continually throwing bombs and rifle grenades to try and catch our working parties, and it was only after two days' vigorous retaliation that we taught him that it was wiser to keep quiet. The leading spirit in this retaliation was Captain Shields himself, who would sit in his dug-out listening for a German bomb. If he heard one he would rush out, coat off and sleeves rolled up, and throw back as many Mills' bombs as he could lay hands on, a formidable attack, for he could throw a tremendous distance. 2nd Lieut. A.E. Brodribb was also a keen bomber who would stand at a post and send back bomb for bomb until he had the Boche beaten. Meanwhile the Battalion anarchists, though they had bad luck with the "West" spring gun, which got buried in the bombardment, were very successful in other ways. Serjeant Goodman, with his catapult, flinging home-made infernal machines, first from one post, then from another, must have been very annoying to the German sentries, while Cpl. Archer, firing salvoes of rifle grenades, eight at a time, always had a quietening effect on any Boche bomber who ventured to try his luck in this way. So far as bombs were concerned we had the upper hand, but the Boche could always start heavy shelling or mortaring, and against this we seemed to have no effective retaliation. He did particularly heavy damage with these one morning in this tour, a few hours after we had been visited by General Byng, the Corps Commander, who went round the front line. On this occasion we had two killed and six wounded by a direct hit on the trench, while the F.O.O., who was observing at the time, was also badly wounded.

Towards the end of the tour the situation became quieter and we went once more into the Talus to wait for relief by the 25th Division, whose advance parties had already visited the line, and who were expected in a few days. The Boyau d'Ersatz, re-named Ersatz Alley for the sake of simplicity, had lately been heavily shelled, and it was therefore decided to open up Boyau 1, 2, 3, as an alternative route to trenches, calling it "Wortley Avenue," in honor of the Major General. Parties from all companies worked day and night at this, soon making it passable, though it would always be dangerously exposed to view. Unfortunately "A" Company were shelled one day while at work, and we lost 2nd Lieut. Pickworth, who had to be sent to Hospital, and eventually to England, with a bad wound in the lungs.

Meanwhile offensive mining operations were being undertaken by both sides with increased activity. The British Tunnellers, who had relieved the French mining companies, found that in several places, unless they themselves blew big mines at once, the Boche would blow them instead, so blew big craters without delay. To this the Boche retaliated, and for the past week there had been an average of two mines a night on the Divisional front, most of them in the sector on our right. But on the night of the 20th our Brigade was also involved, and the 4th Lincolnshires lost most of their centre company in an explosion which demolished nearly 100 yards of their front line. The shock was terrific, and could be felt so violently even in our valley behind, that Captain Barton went to see what had happened. Some half-hour later, when the Lincolnshire C.O. went to the scene of the disaster, he found the "Doc" there by himself, digging out an injured man in the middle of the gap. No British troops had yet arrived, and his nearest neighbors were the Boche lobbing bombs from the other side of the new crater.

This latest blow shattered our front line so badly that it was quite unfit to hand over to a new Division, taking over this part of the line for the first time, and, as the Lincolnshires had not enough men to repair it themselves, we had to help them. On the 21st, therefore, when the rest of the Battalion was relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers and went back for the night to Camblain L'Abbé, "D" Company stayed behind in the Talus till dusk and then went up to work, spending the night under R.E. supervision, digging in the gap. A screen of bombers lay out on the crater lip, while the rest worked, through mud, water and pouring rain to try and produce some kind of fighting trench. As fast as they dug, their new work collapsed, but at last a cut was made, and by morning there was at least communication across the gap, though the trench was terribly shallow and gave no real protection. The following day, "D" Company on lorries, the rest of the Battalion by march route, we moved through Cambligneul and Aubigny to Penin-Doffine, where we were to billet for a rest. "B" and "C" Companies were with Brigade Headquarters and the Lincolnshires in Penin. The Headquarters and "D" Company had a large farm, and "A" Company billets in the hamlet of Doffine.

Here we stayed for a week. A Staff ride under the Brigadier formed the chief incident in our training, while our recreation was enlivened by an excellent Battalion Sports Meeting. Great keenness was shown in every event, and there were consequently some well-contested races:—"A" and "C" Companies divided the prizes between them. "A" Company won the long-distance bomb-throwing, tug-of-war, relay and stretcher-bearer races, "C" the accurate bomb-throwing, ¼-mile, sack and three-legged races. Brigade Headquarters came to watch, bringing their band with them, and the General gave away the prizes at the end of the day. The weather was good and we all spent a very pleasant afternoon.

The 27th April brought us orders to return again to the line, this time to work with the Tunnellers, French and English, in the neighbourhood of Neuville St. Vaast. The following day the C.O. and most of the Company Officers went to Mont St. Eloi to reconnoiter, returning in the evening. While getting into a car in St. Eloi Colonel Jones was slightly wounded in the left hand by a six-inch shell, which burst alongside the car. He was sent to Hospital, but returned to us ten days later. On the 29th we moved into Neuville St. Vaast, living in tunnels and dug-outs, and provided large working parties in the mines. Tactically we were at the disposal of the 25th Division, to whom we lent one or two Lewis Gun teams. The work consisted almost entirely of clearing sandbags from the mine-shafts and distributing them along our trenches, as far as possible out of sight. It was hard and dangerous work, as was proved by an accident which happened on the 7th May, the night before we were relieved. The enemy blew a counter-mine close to one of the saps where "D" Company were working, burying the French miners, and completely destroying the whole sap. Two of the four men at work were never seen again; the other two, bruised and shaken, managed to crawl half-naked out of the wreckage.

On the 9th May, after spending a night in tents at Mont St. Eloi, we went by motor bus through Avesnes-le-comte, Liencourt, Grand Rullecourt, to Lucheux, where we went into billets. We left at Vimy a party of 25 men under Lieut. A.M. Barrowcliffe, working with the R.E. (Tunnellers). Most of them gradually became sappers, and we saw very few of them ever again.

During these two last months there had been only one important change in the personnel. R.Q.M.S. Stimson, who had been at the Stores since the beginning of the war, and whose knowledge of French had been as invaluable to Captain Worley as his energy and skill with "mobilization store stables," returned to England. C.S.M. Gorse became R.Q.M.S., and in his place J. Hill became C.S.M. of "A" Company.

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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