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The Vimy Ridge

British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

The Vimy Ridge
6th Feb., 1916.9th May, 1916.

Our return train journey was uneventful until we reached Paris, where a German air raid started just as we arrived, and the train was compelled to stop. We had a beautiful view, and, as the French depended more on their own planes than on anti-aircraft guns, it was well worth watching. The French machines all carried small searchlights, and, in addition to these, the sky was light up with the larger searchlights from below, while the efforts of the Boche to avoid the lights, and the French to catch their opponents, produced some wonderful air-maneuvering, which ended in the retirement of the Boche. As soon as they had gone, our train went on, and we reached Pont Remy station outside Abbeville at 8-30 a.m. on the 30th—back once more in rain, snow, and mud.

We marched at once to Yaucourt Bussus, a small village with comfortable billets, which we occupied for nearly a fortnight, spending our time training and playing football. Meanwhile, as the Brigadier and the two Lincolnshire Battalions had not yet returned from Egypt, Col. Jones, taking with him 2nd Lieut. Williams as Staff Officer, went to command the half Brigade and lived with Captain Burnett at Ailly le haut Clocher, another small village, to which the Brigadier came on his return on the 11th. While the Colonel was away, Major Toller took command and Major T.C.P. Beasley acted as 2nd in Command. For the time no one seemed to have the slightest idea what was going to happen to the Division next.

On the 10th we marched to Gorenflos, and the following day were taken by lorries to billets in Candas, where, with an East wind, we could occasionally hear the distant sounds of gunfire for the first time for two months. Our new area we found was full of preparation for something; what the exact nature of this something might be we did not know. Several large railways and dumps were being built, new roads made, and here and there with great secrecy big concrete gun platforms were laid. Each day we sent large numbers to work, mostly on the railways, and once more we heard the words "Big Push." We were always living on the verge of the Big Push, and many times in 1915 had thought that it had started—at Neuve Chapelle, Givenchy, Loos—only to give up hope when these battles stagnated after a day or two. Now there were preparations going forward again, this time apparently on a much larger scale than we had ever seen before, so we felt justified once more in hoping for the great event. Curiously enough the possibilities of a Boche big push were never considered, and everyone of us was firmly convinced that, except perhaps for a blow at Ypres, offensive action on the part of the enemy was out of the question. This spirit animated all our work, which was consequently very different from our opponents. Our trenches always had a we-shall-not-stay-here-long air about them, his were built to resist to the last man. It was the same in training and in billets, we unconsciously considered ourselves an advancing army, and thereby, though we may not have realized it, we ourselves supplied the finest possible stimulant to our moral.

The IIIrd. Army (Gen. Allenby), to which we now belonged, introduced at this time the Army School—an important innovation, shortly taken up by all the other Armies. This School, first commanded by Col. Kentish—afterwards Commandant of the Senior Aldershot School—aimed at training junior officers to be Company Commanders, who owing to casualties were now hard to find. The course, which lasted five weeks, consisted of drill, tactical exercises, physical training, musketry, bayonet fighting and bombing, lectures on esprit de corps—in fact everything that a Company Commander should know, but many things that in trench warfare had been forgotten. The Instructors were always up-to-date, and the best use was at once made of any of the latest inventions, while the school also kept a very efficient "Liaison" between all parts of the Army. Students from one Division would exchange latest schemes, ruses, and devices with others from another part of the line, and so no valuable lessons were lost or known to a few only. Our first students to this school were Capt. Ward Jackson, who was in charge of "A" Company, and Capt. G.W. Allen, the latter for a special Adjutant's refresher course. After these, all the Company Commanders went in turn, first to Flixecourt, and later to Auxi le Chateau, whither the school moved in the early summer. There were similar courses for senior N.C.O.'s, which were of the utmost value.

Another important innovation at this time was the introduction of the Lewis light machine gun. The Maxim, and even the Vickers machine gun had been found for many reasons unsuitable for infantry work, being too heavy and cumbersome for rapid movement, too conspicuous for easy concealment. It was therefore decided to form Brigade Machine Gun Companies, who would be armed with Vickers guns, while Battalions would have Lewis guns only, on a scale of two per Company, for they were to be considered a company rather than a Battalion weapon. This light gun had no tripod, was air-cooled, and fired a pan instead of a belt of ammunition. It was as easy to carry as to conceal, and was in every way an enormous improvement on the "Vickers" from the infantry point of view. Training in the new weapon started at once, and as 2nd Lieut. Saunders and Serjt. Jacques were required for the Brigade Machine Gun Company, 2nd Lieut. Shipston was made Lewis Gun Officer, with Corporal Swift to help him, and these two trained as many men as possible with the two guns issued to us, so that when more arrived the teams would be ready for them. Captain Ellwood commanded the Brigade Machine Gunners, and in addition to our chief instructors, we also sent 2nd Lieut. Stentiford and 30 N.C.O.'s and men to start the Company. 2nd Lieut. Stentiford was a new subaltern officer who, with 2nd Lieuts. T.P. Creed and C.J. Morris, had arrived while the battalion was at Marseilles.

On the 16th February orders came that at an early date we should take over the line North of the River Ancre, opposite Beaumont Hamel, and the following day several lorry loads of officers reconnoitered the country round Forceville, Englebelmer and Mailly Maillet, where there were some rear defence lines. Maps of the front were issued, and we were about to arrange trench reconnaissance, when the orders were cancelled and we moved instead, on the 20th, to Bernaville, and joined the rest of the Brigade. The other Battalions and Brigade Headquarters were in the neighboring villages. At this time the people of Leicestershire were once more very good to us, and our War Diary contains a note that "This day the C.O. acknowledges with thanks the gifts of 30,000 cigarettes from our 2/5th Battalion, also a hand ambulance from Messrs. Symington and Co., Market Harborough." The last survived the rough usages of war for a very long time, and many a wounded man has been thankful for its springs and rubber tires.

The rest of the month was spent in doing a little training and a deal of road-clearing. It snowed very hard once or twice, and many of the roads became impossible for traffic, so each Battalion was allotted a road to keep clean, ours being the main road to Fienvillers, along which we spread ourselves armed with picks and shovels, while the village boys threw snowballs at us. The 5th Division were moving North at the time, and a whole day was spent by some of the Battalions dragging their transport up a steep hill, a task beyond the strength of the horses. Fortunately we were spared this, probably because we took care not to clear the road to Brigade Headquarters, and so were left untouched. During this very bad weather we lost 2nd Lieut. Brooke, who had to go to Hospital with nephritis.

On the 29th we moved to Doullens, where we spent an enjoyable week, and were introduced to yet another innovation. In August, 1915, the French had introduced a steel helmet for their machine gunners, finally extending the issue to all ranks. This had been found of the greatest value, and there had been at once a marked decrease in the percentage of head wounds. The British helmet now appeared, and was generally voted, as it first seemed, a hideous flat object, though some humorists admitted that it might have distinct possibilities as a washing basin. A few soldiers of the vainer sort thought they looked more "becoming" with a "tin-hat" over one eye, but the vast majority hated them, and it was with the greatest difficulty that those to whom they were issued, could be persuaded not to throw them away. This aversion, however, soon passed, and within a few months the infantryman standing under an aeroplane battle without his "tin-hat" felt distinctly naked.

It was now definitely decided that we were to relieve the French in the Neuville St. Vaast-Souchez Sector, both places where the French had had terrific fighting the previous year, and consequently a sector with a bad reputation. The roads were still in bad condition, and a char-a-banc, full of officers, who tried to reconnoiter reached no further than the French Brigade Headquarters and had to return. On the 6th March we marched to Magnicourt and two days later to Villers-au-bois, about three miles behind the line, going up to trenches on the 9th.

Early in 1915 the French line North of Arras had run through la Targette, Carency and over the East end of the Lorette heights to Aix Noulette. In May our allies made their first attack here and, driving the Boche from the heights, gained possession, after terrific fighting, of Ablain St. Nazaire, Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast. Later, in conjunction with our September attack at Loos, they had again advanced, and finally a brilliant assault by the Zouaves carried the line to the Vimy ridge and on to these heights, beyond which the roads to Lens and Douai lay open. The fighting for the summit had been severe, and in the end each side retained its grip on the hill top, the opposing trenches running 30 yards apart along the ridge. Active mining operations had started soon afterwards, and shortly before our arrival the French had been compelled to give up a considerable portion of their line, and so lose their hold on the summit. With it they lost also their view Eastwards, while the Boche, occupying their evacuated trenches, regained his view of the next ridge to the West.

This second ridge was more in the nature of a large plateau, stretching back to Villers-au-bois, and separated from the Vimy ridge by a narrow steep-sided valley—the "Talus des Zouaves," where the support Battalion lived in dug-outs. Crossing the plateau from North to South was the main Béthune, Souchez, Arras road, on which stood the remains of an old inn, the Cabaret Rouge, where some excellent deep dug-outs provided accommodation for the French Poste de Colonel and an Advanced Dressing Station. The plateau was two miles wide, and over the first half (up to "Point G") ran a long and very tiring duck-board track; beyond "Point G" were two communication trenches to the line. One, "Boyau 1, 2, 3," was seldom used, being in bad condition; the other, "Boyau d'Ersatz," was boarded and well cared for, and used by all. It ran via the Cabaret Rouge into the Talus des Zouaves, most of the way revetted with a wonderful "wedding arch" revetment, and thence to the front line, passing the left Poste de Commandant. The forward part of "Boyau 1, 2, 3," East of the "Talus," was called "Boyau Internationale," leading to "Boyau Vincent" and so to the front line past the right Poste de Commandant. Carency, Ablain and Souchez were houseless, Villers au bois was little better, and our rest billets were huts at Camblain L'Abbé, about four miles behind the line.

The Brigade took over the left sector of the Divisional front and we were allotted the left sub-sector, our right and left boundaries being the two Boyaus "Internationale" and "Ersatz." The whole relief was to be kept as secret as possible, and all reconnoitering and advance parties were given French helmets to wear in the line, so that the Boche might have no idea what was going to happen. It was a little disconcerting, therefore, when a French listening post, two days before the relief, reported that a Boche had suddenly looked into their post, and after saying "Les Anglais n'sont pas encore donc arrivés," equally suddenly disappeared. In spite of this we were not disturbed during the relief and by 10-30 p.m. on the 9th had taken the place of the 68th Regiment, who marched out at one end of the trench as we appeared at the other, having told us that we had come to a very quiet sector. The trenches were in fair condition, though very dirty, and we had a quiet night so began to hope that the sector might not be too terrible after all. The next day the French left the area, leaving behind them two companies of Engineers to carry on the mining operations on the Divisional front. In handing over their posts the French had said nothing about their countrymen whom they were leaving in the mines, and during the first night several of them, coming up from below and talking a strange language, narrowly escaped being killed for Boche.

The enemy opposite us were very quiet, and obviously knowing of the relief, were waiting to see what we should do. With the French there is no doubt that they had had a tacit understanding not to wage a vigorous war, though, while seeming inactive, they had all the time been undermining the French trenches. With us they were uncertain what to do, so for 24 hours did nothing except fire a few rifle shots, one of which came through the parapet and killed C.S.M. E. Thompson, of "B" Company. On the evening of the second day they went one step further, and threw a single grenade, received two in return, and remained quiet for the night. The next morning, the 11th, they threw six more, all short, and we replied with 10, five of which fell in their trench and apparently convinced them that we intended war; at any rate they made no more tentative efforts, but in the afternoon started more or less in earnest. At 4.45 p.m. they blew up a small mine opposite "A" Company, demolished a sap-head, and half buried the solitary occupant, who escaped with bruises only; after this they bombed, or tried to bomb us, until 8-0 p.m., while we replied at the rate of two to one. Unfortunately, the explosions caused a collapse in our parapet, about 10 yards of which fell down suddenly, and had to be re-built during the night.

The following night proved to be still more exciting. Soon after midnight a French sapper, narrowly escaping several sentries who thought he was a Boche, came running along the line excitedly waving his arms, and saying: "Mine, mine, faire sauter, demi-heure." No one knew what he meant, though we gathered a mine would probably go up somewhere in half-an-hour, whether ours or theirs we had not the least idea. Eventually he was led to Battalion Headquarters, where he explained that the French were going to blow a camouflet in half-an-hour. It was already nearly an hour since he first said this, and nothing had yet happened, so we hurriedly cleared a small portion of our front line and waited, while we sent for the Tunneling Officer. He arrived, and the "blow" was arranged for 5-0 a.m., at which hour there was a terrific explosion, a forty-foot crater was formed, and another ten yards of our parapet fell down. Such an explosion must have been caused by a much bigger charge than we had laid, so we probably included in our "blow" a Boche mine laid ready for us. We easily bombed off a party of his which tried to rush the crater, and spent the day re-building our fallen parapet.

Rations, ammunition and R.E. material in this sector were brought to the "Talus des Zouaves" on mule-drawn trucks along a narrow-gauge Railway from Mont St. Eloi. Here, at a big Corps R.E. Dump, the trucks were loaded every evening, the mule teams hooked in, and the party set off, much harassed at times by bullets and shells, and seldom reaching home without losing one, and often two animals. The Dump in the "Talus" also got shelled; but the steep banks made the danger light and not much damage was done in this way, though the Boche kept up a prolonged bombardment at it with 5.9's on the evening of the 14th. Except for this, the rest of the tour passed quietly, and on the following night the 4th Lincolnshires relieved us, and we went back to rest in Camblain L'Abbé huts, where we stayed for six days.

Our second tour started on the 21st, and from this day onwards until we finally left the sector, we had a bad time. Our first trouble was the weather. Alternate frosts and thaws, rain and snow, soon filled our trenches with mud and slush, into which parapets and parados either crumbled gradually or collapsed wholesale. No sooner could we repair one length, than another would give way, and through it all many posts had to live with water over their ankles and no proper drying accommodation. There had to be three companies in the line, so 24-hour relief's were impossible, and to increase our troubles our stay in a warm climate had made us less capable of standing the exposure to cold and wet, and there were many cases of trench fever, trench foot, and some pneumonia, while the health of all was considerably impaired. One of the most pitiful sights of the war was to see 20 of our men crawling on hands and knees to the Aid Post—their feet so bad that they could not walk.

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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