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British Isles Genealogy | Fifth Leicestershire

1st Oct., 1915.15th Oct., 1915

We journeyed southwards in three parts. Battalion Headquarters and the four Companies went first, reached Fouquereuil Station near Béthune after a six hours' run, and marched at once to Bellerive near Gonnehem. Here, at noon the following day—the 3rd October—they were joined by Lieut. Wollaston with the machine guns and ammunition limbers which had entrained at Godewaersvelde and travelled all night, and at 4.30 p.m., by Capt. John Burnett with the rest of the Transport. The latter had come by road, spending one night in bivouacs at Vieux Berquin on the way. This move brought us into the First Army under Sir Douglas Haig, who took an early opportunity of being introduced to all Commanding Officers and Adjutants in the Division, coming to Brigade Headquarters at Gonnehem on the afternoon of the 3rd, where Col. Jones and Lieut. G.W. Allen went to a conference. Lieut. Allen had become Adjutant when Capt. Griffiths was wounded, and Capt. Langdale was wanted for command of "B" Company. Our other Company Commanders remained unchanged except that Major Bland returned from England and took charge of "D."

The billets at Bellerive, consisting of large, clean farmhouses, were very comfortable, but we were not destined to stay there long, and on the 6th marched through Chocques to Hesdigneul, where there was less accommodation. The following day there was a conference at Brigade Headquarters, and we learnt our fate. On the 25th September, the opening day of the Loos battle, the left of the British attack had been directed against "Fosse 8"—a coal mine with its machine buildings, miners' cottages and large low slag dump—protected by a system of trenches known as the "Hohenzollern Redoubt," standing on a small rise 1,000 yards west of the mine. This had all been captured by the 9th Division, but owing to counter-attacks from Auchy and Haisnes, had had to be abandoned, and the enemy had once more occupied the Redoubt. A second attempt, made a few days later by the 28th Division, had been disastrous, for we had had heavy casualties, and gained practically no ground, and except on the right, where we had occupied part of "Big Willie" trench, the Redoubt was still intact. Another attempt was now to be made at an early date, and, while 12th and 1st Divisions attacked to the South, the North Midland was to sweep over the Redoubt and capture Fosse 8, consolidating a new line on the East side of it.

Apart from the Fosse itself, where the fortifications and their strength were practically unknown, the Redoubt alone was a very strong point. It formed a salient in the enemy's line and both the Northern area, "Little Willie," and the southern "Big Willie," were deep, well-fortified trenches, with several machine gun positions. Behind these, ran from N.E. and S.E. into the 2nd line of the Redoubt, two more deep trenches, "N. Face" and "S. Face," thought to be used for communication purposes only, and leading back to "Fosse" and "Dump" trenches nearer the slag-heap. The last two were said to be shallow and unoccupied. In addition to these defenses, the redoubt and its approach from our line were well covered by machine gun posts, for, on the North, "Mad Point" overlooked our present front line and No Man's Land, while "Madagascar" Cottages and the slag-heap commanded all the rest of the country. The scheme for the battle was that the Staffordshires on the right and our Brigade with the Monmouthshires on the left would make the assault, the Sherwood Foresters remain in reserve. Before the attack there would be an intense artillery bombardment, which would effectually deal with "Mad Point" and other strongholds. In our Brigade, General Kemp decided to attack with two Battalions side by side in front, 4th Leicestershires and 5th Lincolnshires, followed by 4th Lincolnshires and Monmouthshires, each extended along the whole Brigade frontage, while, except for one or two carrying parties, he would keep us as his own reserve. The date for the battle had not been fixed, but it would probably be the 10th.

Reconnaissance's started at once, and on the 8th Col. Jones and all Company Commanders and 2nds in Command went by motor 'bus to Vermelles, and reconnoitered our trenches, held at the time by the Guards Division. Our first three lines, where the assembly would take place the night before the battle, were all carefully reconnoitered as well as the "Up" and "Down" communication trenches—Barts Alley, Central, Water and Left Boyaus. These were simply cut into the chalk and had not been boarded, so, with the slightest rain, became hopelessly slippery, while to make walking worse a drain generally ran down the centre of the trench, too narrow to walk in and too broad to allow one to walk with one foot each side. From the front line we were able to see the edge of the Redoubt, Mad Point, and the mine with its buildings and Slag-heap. The last dominated everything, and could be seen from everywhere. It was not very encouraging to see the numbers of our dead from the previous two attacks, still lying out in No Man's Land, whence it had not yet been possible to carry them in. The party reached home soon after 5 p.m., and a few minutes later a heavy bombardment in the direction of Vermelles was followed by an order to "stand to," which we did until midnight, when all was quiet again, and we were allowed to go to bed.

The following day the remainder of the officers and a party of selected N.C.O.'s went again to the line to reconnoiter. While they were away we heard the meaning of the previous night's noise. The Boche had attacked our posts in "Big Willie" held by a Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and after a long fight had been driven back with heavy losses, leaving many dead behind them. Both sides had used no other weapon than the bomb, and our success was attributed to our new Mills grenade, which could be thrown further and was easier to handle than the German stick bomb, and the Coldstreams were said to have thrown more than 5,000 of these during the fight. This little encounter had two results. First, it definitely postponed our attack to the 13th; secondly, it brought the Mills grenade into so much prominence that we were ordered to practice with that and that only, and to ensure that during the next three days every man threw them frequently. At the same time we were definitely promised that no other grenade would be issued during our coming battle.

As it was not intended that we should go into trenches until the night before the assault, only very few of the N.C.O.'s and none of the men would have any opportunity of previously studying the ground. In order, therefore, that all might be made familiar with the general appearance and proportionate distances of the various objectives, a small scale model of the Redoubt and Fosse 8 was built opposite Divisional Headquarters at Gosnay, and Sunday afternoon was spent in studying this and explaining full details to all concerned. In the evening the Corps Commander, General Haking, spoke to all officers of the Division in the Chateau courtyard, and told us some further details of the attack. We were to be supported by the largest artillery concentration ever made by the British during the war up to that time, and there would be 400 guns covering the Divisional front. Under their fire we need have no fear that any machine guns could possibly be left in "Mad Point," "Madagascar," or any of the other points due for bombardment. At the same time he told us that if the wind were in the right direction we should be further assisted by the "auxiliary." In this case there would be an hour's bombardment, followed by an hour's "auxiliary," during which time the guns would have to be silent because High Explosive was apt to disperse chlorine gas. At the end of the second hour we should advance and find the occupants all dead. Attacks at dawn and dusk had become very common lately and seemed to be expected by the Boche; we would therefore attack at 2 p.m.
During the next two days we spent most of our time throwing Mills grenades, and certainly found them a very handy weapon, which could be thrown much further than our previous patterns. We also had to make several eleventh hour changes in personnel, Major Bland and Lieut. Allen were both compelled by sickness to go to Hospital—the former to England. It was exceptionally bad luck for both, to endure the routine of six months' trenches and training and then have to leave their unit on the eve of its first great fight, in which both these officers were so keen to take part. In their places Lieut. Hills was appointed to "D" Company, but as he was taken by General Kemp for Intelligence Work, 2nd Lieut. G.B. Williams took command. No one was appointed Adjutant, and Colonel Jones decided that as officers were scarce he and Major Toller would between them share the work at Battalion Headquarters. Two new officers also arrived and were posted, 2nd Lieut. G.T. Shipston to "C" and 2nd Lieut. L. Trevor Jones to "D" Company.

On the 12th, after some last words of advice from Colonel Jones, who addressed the Battalion, we set off to march to trenches, wearing what afterwards became known as "Fighting Order," with great coats rolled and strapped to our backs. The Brigade band accompanied us through Verquin, and a Staffordshire band played us into Sailly Labourse, where General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley watched us turn on to the main road. There was an hour's halt for teas between here and Noyelles, and finally at 10-5 p.m. we marched into Vermelles. The next eight hours were bad, for it took eight hours to reach our assembly position, the third line—eight hours standing in hopelessly congested communication trenches, waiting to move forward. For men heavily laden—each carried six sandbags and every third man a shovel—this delay was very tiring, for it meant continuous standing with no room to rest, and resulted in our arriving in the line tired out, to find that it was already time to have breakfasts. The Reserve Line was full of troops, but it was found possible to give all a hot breakfast, and many managed to snatch a couple of hours' sleep before the bombardment opened at 12 noon.

Compared with the bombardments of the Somme and the later battles, our bombardment was small, but it seemed to us at the time terrific, and it was very encouraging to see direct hits on the mine workings and the various trenches. The enemy retaliated mostly on communication trenches, using some very heavy shells, but not doing a great deal of damage. At 1 p.m. chlorine gas was discharged from cylinders packed in our front line, and at the same time a quantity of smoke bombs and mortar shells were fired towards the Redoubt by parties of our Divisional Artillery who were not covering us in the battle. The enemy at once altered his retaliation targets, and opened a heavy fire on our front line, trying to burst the gas cylinders, and succeeding in filling the trench with gas in three places by so doing. At 1-50 p.m. the gas and smoke was gradually diminished and allowed to disperse, and, ten minutes later, wearing gas helmets rolled on their heads, the leading waves moved out to the assault.

The start was disastrous. Colonel Martin and his Adjutant were both wounded, Colonel Sandall was wounded and his Adjutant killed in the first few minutes, and the machine gun fire along the whole of our front was terrific. Still, the nature of the ground afforded them some protection and they pushed forward, losing heavily at every step, until they had crossed the first line of the Redoubt. The 4th Lincolnshires and Monmouthshires followed, and we moved up towards the front line so as to be ready if required, and at the same time a party of our Signallers went forward to lay a line to the newly captured position. L.-Corpl. Fisher himself took the cable and, regardless of the machine gun fire, calmly reeled out his line across No Man's Land, passed through the enemy's wire and reached the Redoubt. Communication was established, and we were able to learn that all waves had crossed the first German line and were going forward against considerable opposition. Meanwhile, on the right the Staffordshires had fared far worse even than our Brigade. Starting from their second line, they were more exposed to machine gun fire from all sides, and very few reached even their own front line, whilst row upon row were wiped out in their gallant effort to advance.

In case of failure and the consequent necessity of holding our original front line against strong counter attacks, it had been arranged that our machine guns should take up permanent positions in this line. This was done, and Lieut. Wollaston was supervising the work of his teams and improving their positions when he saw that a considerable number of men were coming back from the Redoubt. Their officers and N.C.O.'s killed, they themselves, worn out by the exertions of the past 24 hours, half gassed by the chlorine which still hung about the shell holes, shot at by machine guns from every quarter, had been broken by bombing attacks from every trench they attacked and now, having thrown all their bombs, were coming back. The situation was critical, and Lieut. Wollaston, deciding to leave his guns now that they were in good positions, made his way along the trench and tried to rally the stragglers. Many were too badly shaken to go forward again, but some answered his call and collecting some more grenades the little party started back towards the Redoubt. Lieut. Wollaston was knocked down and wounded in the back by a shell, but still went forward, and, reaching the first German line, turned left towards "Little Willie," which the Boche was still holding in force. At the same time General Kemp ordered two of our Companies to be sent up to assist, and Colonel Jones sent word to "B" and "A" to move up. One message from the Redoubt which reached Colonel Jones at this time said "Please send bombs and officers."

Captain Langdale decided to advance in line, and leaving their trenches the four platoons started off in that formation. The platoon commanders became casualties in the first few yards, 2nd Lieut. Marriott being wounded and the two others gassed, and by the time they reached our front line the Company Commander was leading them himself. Walking along with his pipe in his mouth, Captain Langdale might have been at a Field Day, as he calmly signaled his right platoon to keep up in line, with "keep it up, Oakham," as they crossed our trench. The line was kept, and so perfectly that many of the stragglers who had come back turned and went forward again with them. But once more as they were reaching the German front line came that deadly machine gun fire, and their gallant Commander was one of the first to fall, killed with a bullet in the head. C.S.M. Lovett was badly wounded at the same time, Serjt. Franks killed, and the Company, now leaderless, was broken into isolated parties fighting with bombs in the various trenches.

"A" Company followed. Keeping his platoons more together and on a smaller frontage, Captain Hastings decided to attempt a bayonet attack against the German opposition on the left of the Redoubt, and himself led his men up to the attack. Again Platoon Commanders were the first to fall, and as they climbed out of our trenches, 2nd Lieut. Lawton was mortally wounded in the stomach and 2nd Lieut. Petch badly shot through the arm. However, this did not delay the attack, and the Company, crossing the German front line, quickened their pace and made for the junctions of "Little Willie" and "N. Face." Once more bombs and machine guns were too hot for them, and first Capt. Hastings, then 2nd Lieut. Moss were killed near the German second line, leaving the Company in the hands of 2nd Lieut. Tomson and C.S.M. Gorse, who at once organized the platoons for the defense of the second line, realizing that it was useless to try to advance further. 2nd Lieut. Petch, in spite of his wound, remained several hours with his platoon, but eventually had to leave them. The ground was covered with the dead and wounded of the other Battalions, Fosse and Dump trenches were filled with Germans and machine guns, "S. Face" and both "Willies" were full of bombers, and worst of all the machine guns of Mad Point, Madagascar and the Slag-heap had apparently escaped untouched. There was only one thing left to do, and that to hold what we had got against these bombing attacks, and consolidate our new position without delay.

Meanwhile, in addition to our two Companies, there were several other parties and units fighting in various parts of the Redoubt, and of these Colonel Evill, of the Monmouthshires, himself on the spot, took command, sending down for more men and more bombs. Of these little parties the most successful was that under Lieut. Wollaston, who, although wounded, led a bombing attack into "Little Willie," and pushed on so resolutely that he gained some eighty yards of trench before being compelled to withdraw owing to lack of bombs and ammunition. Unfortunately there was no other party near to help him, or "Little Willie" would probably have been ours. On the right, Lieut. Madge, of the Lincolnshires, held on for an incredibly long time with only a few machine gunners far in advance of anyone else, only coming back after 5 p.m., when he found that part of the captured ground had been evacuated by us. Here, too, Lieut. Morgan, of the Staffordshire Brigade R.F.A., was killed leading his gunners forward to help the infantry who were in difficulties. Some of "D" Company were also in action at this time. Thirteen and Fourteen Platoons set off, as originally ordered, under Royal Engineer officers, to put out barbed wire in front of the Redoubt, but as they reached our front line were heavily shelled and lost touch with the Engineers, many of whom were killed. 2nd Lieut. Stoneham had already been badly wounded, and Lieut. Williams, with a blood-stained bandage tying up a wounded ear, was with his other half Company, so the two platoons were left without officers. Serjt W.G. Phipps, who was leading, knew nothing about the wiring orders, having been told simply to follow the R.E., so he ordered his platoon to collect all the bombs they could find and make for the Redoubt. Serjt. G. Billings with 14 followed, and the half Company entered the fight soon after "A" Company. Their fate was the same. Serjt. Billings, with Corporals A. Freeman and T.W. Squires, were all killed trying to use their bayonets against "N. Face," and the rest were scattered and joined the various bomb parties. F. Whitbread and A.B. Law found themselves in "Little Willie," and helped rush the enemy along it, only to be forced back each time through lack of bombs. Whitbread was particularly brave later, when he went alone over the top to find out the situation on their flank. One other officer was conspicuous, in the Redoubt, in our trenches, everywhere in fact where he could be of use—Captain Ellwood, in charge of machine guns and forward bomb stores, was absolutely indefatigable, and quiet and fearless performed miracles of energy and endurance.

At 3 p.m., the German bombing attacks increased in vigor, and this time a large part of our garrison of the German second line trench gave way and came back to the original front line of the Redoubt—some even to our front line. Who gave the order for this withdrawal was never discovered, but there was undoubtedly an order "Retire" passed along the line, possibly started by the Boche himself. Such a message coming to tired and leaderless men was sure to have a disastrous effect, and in a few minutes we had given up all except Point 60, a trench junction at the N. end of "Big Willie," and the front line of the Redoubt. In this last there were still plenty of men, and these, led by a few resolute officers and N.C.O.'s such as 2nd Lieut. Tomson, C.S.M. Gorse, and others, were prepared to hold it against all attacks. The original parados was cut into fire steps, bomb blocks were built in "Little Willie" and "North Face," and the garrison generally reorganized. Messages were sent for more bombs, and these were carried up in bags and boxes from Brewery Keep, Vermelles to the old front line, and thence across No Man's Land by parties of "C" and "D" Company.

General map of Arras-Bethune area

While this took place in the Redoubt, Colonel Jones occupied the old front line with "C" Company (Lieuts. Farmer and Shields), and elements of "D" Company occupying the bays which were free from gas. The trench had been badly battered by shells at mid-day, and there were many killed and wounded still in it, amongst the latter being Colonel Martin, of the 4th Battalion, who garrisoned about 100 yards by himself. Shot through the knee and in great pain, he refused to go down, but sat at the top of "Barts Alley" receiving reports, sending information to Brigade, and directing as far as possible the remnants of his Battalion. For twenty-one hours he remained, calm and collected as ever, and only consented to be carried out when sure that all his Battalion had left the Redoubt. Meanwhile further to the left along the same trench, Colonel Jones made it his business to keep the Redoubt supplied with bombs. He was here, there, and everywhere, directing parties, finding bomb stores, helping, encouraging, and giving a new lease of life to all he met. Many brave deeds were done by N.C.O.'s and men and never heard of, but one stands out remembered by all who were there. L.-Corpl. Clayson, of "D" Company, during the time that his platoon was in this trench, spent all his time out in the old No Man's Land, under heavy machine gun fire, carrying in the wounded, many of whom would have perished but for his bravery.

With darkness came orders that the Sherwood Foresters would take over the line from us, but long before they could arrive our Companies in the Redoubt were being very hard pressed, and scarcely held their own. The German bombers never for a moment ceased their attack, and for some time our bombers held them with difficulty. Then came the cruelest blow of fortune, for many of the bags and boxes of bombs sent up during the afternoon were found to contain bombs without detonators, many others were filled with types of grenades we had never seen. In spite of this there was one officer who always managed to find the wherewithal to reply to the German attacks. Escaping death by a miracle, for his great height made him very conspicuous, 2nd Lieut. Tomson stood for hours at one of the bombing blocks, smoking cigarettes and throwing bombs. With him was Pte. P. Bowler, who proved absolutely tireless, while in another part of the line Pte. W.H. Hallam and one or two others carried out a successful bombing exploit on their own, driving back the enemy far enough to allow a substantial block to be built in a vital place. To add to the horrors of the situation, the garrison had ever in their ears the cries of the many wounded, who lay around calling for Stretcher Bearers or for water, and to whom they could give no help. The Bearers had worked all day magnificently, but there is a limit to human endurance, and they could carry no more. Even so, when no one else was strong enough, Captain Barton was out in front of the Redoubt, regardless of bombs, and thinking only of the wounded, many of whom he helped to our lines, while to others, too badly hit to move, he gave water or morphia. Hour after hour he worked on alone, and no one will ever know how many lives he saved that night.

Soon after 6 p.m., the Sherwood Foresters started to arrive and gradually worked their way up towards the Redoubt, a long slow business, for the communication trenches were all choked and no one was very certain of the route. One large party arriving at midnight happened to meet Colonel Jones, who advised them to try going over the top, and actually gave them their direction by the stars. So accurate were his instructions that the party arrived exactly at the Redoubt—incidentally at a moment when the Germans were launching a counter attack over the open. Such an attack might well have been disastrous, but the Boche, seeing the Sherwood Foresters and over-estimating their strength, retired hurriedly. By dawn the Sherwood Foresters had taken over the whole Redoubt, though many of our "A" and "B" Companies were not relieved and stayed there until the following night. Our task now was the defence of the original British front line, for which Colonel Jones was made responsible, and which we garrisoned with "C" (Farmer) right, "D" (Williams) centre, and "A" and "B" (Tomson) left. Major Toller, several times knocked down by shells and suffering from concussion, Lieut. Wollaston wounded, and 2nd Lieut. Wynne gassed, had all been sent down, and 2nd Lieut. Williams followed some hours later. Our only other officer, Lieut. R. Ward Jackson, was in charge of the Grenadiers, and spent his time in the Redoubt organizing bomb attacks and posts and trench blocks, himself throwing many bombs, and in a very quiet way doing a very great deal.

Twice during the night General Kemp visited the line, and went round the Redoubt before it was handed over to the Sherwood Foresters. He wanted very much to do more for the wounded, but the Stretcher Bearers were worked out, and though volunteers worked hard and rescued many, there were still numbers who had to be left until the following night. Rations were brought by the Company Q.M. Serjeants under Capt. Worley to the Quarry—a few hundred yards behind the left of our old front line—and waited there until parties could be sent for them, a matter of several hours. However, they were distributed at dawn, when they were very welcome, for many had been nearly twenty-four hours without food. 2nd Lieut. Tomson was one of these, remarking, as C.S.M. Gorse gave him some rum, that he had had nothing since the attack but "two biscuits and over 300 cigarettes!"

Throughout the following day we remained in our old front line, listening to the continuous bombing attacks in the Redoubt, and giving what assistance we could with carrying parties. The morning was very misty, and in expectation of a counter attack we were ordered to keep double sentries, so that the trench was more than usually full of men, when the enemy suddenly bombarded it with heavy shells. There were several direct hits, and the trench was blown in in many places, while one shell fell into the middle of a machine gun team. Serjt. W. Hall, of "D" Company, L/Corpl. A.F. Brodribb, and Pte. Bartlam were all killed, and the rest of the team were badly shaken, until C.S.M. Gorse and Corpl. B. Staniforth came along and helped to reorganize the post with a few new men. The trench contained no real cover, and the bombardment lasted for about half an hour; a severe ordeal for men who had already had a stiff fight followed by a night of bombing. Many of the telephone lines were broken, and L.-Corpl. Fisher, who had done such gallant work the previous day, was killed entering our trench just after he had re-opened communication. In the afternoon we were again bombarded, this time with lachrymatory as well as H.E. shells, but our casualties were not so heavy, though the trench was again demolished in several places. Finally at 11-30 p.m. the Sherwood Foresters started to relieve us. They arrived in small parties, and some did not appear until dawn the following day, so that relief was not complete until 8 a.m. We then went back to Lancashire trench between the Railway and Vermelles, where we slept for several hours.

At 2 p.m., motor 'buses arrived to take the Brigade back to Hesdigneul, and made several journeys, but had not room for all the Battalion, so 70 set off to march under Major Toller, who had returned to us in Lancashire trench. It proved to be a dark night, and the party lost their way slightly in Verquigneul, but finally arrived singing (led by C.S.M. Gorse) at Hesdigneul, and reached their billets about midnight.

In so far that Fosse 8 still remained in the hands of the enemy, the battle was a failure, but in capturing the Redoubt the Brigade had prevented it being a complete failure. Though we only held the German front line and one small point in advance of it, we made it impossible for the enemy to hold any of the Redoubt himself, and so robbed him of his commanding position on the high ground. Our casualties had been heavy, and the two attacking Battalions had only one officer left between them, while we in reserve had lost four officers and 22 men killed, six officers and 132 men wounded and 13 men missing. Two officers and 22 men had been gassed, but presently returned to us. The causes of our failure were mainly two. First, the failure of the Artillery to wipe out "Mad Point" and Madagascar and their machine guns; secondly, the gas. This last was undoubtedly a mistake. It caused us several casualties; it made it necessary for the attackers to wear rolled up gas masks which impeded them, it stopped our H.E. bombardment an hour before the assault and so enabled German machine gunners to come back to their guns, and above all it had a bad effect on us, for we knew its deadly effects, and many a man swallowing a mouthful or smelling it became frightened of the consequences and was useless for further fighting. There was also the mistake of leaving Fosse and Dump trenches untouched by the bombardment, because they were reported weeks before to be shallow and unoccupied; as it happened we found them full of men. Finally, there were the bombs. We had been promised Mills only, and yet found many other types during the battle. Possibly a shortage of Mills might account for this, but there can be no possible excuse for sending grenades into a fight without detonators, and no punishment could be too harsh for the officer who was responsible for this.

Honours and Rewards were not given in those days as they were later, and many a brave deed went unrecognized. There were only nine D.C.M.'s in the Division, and of these the Brigade won seven, to which we contributed one, Hallam, the grenadier. Of the officers, Capt. Barton, Lieut. Wollaston, and 2nd Lieut. Williams received the Military Cross, and the Colonel's name appeared in the next list for a C.M.G. It was not until long afterwards that those who had been with him began to talk of the splendid deeds of 2nd Lieut. Tomson throughout the day and night of the 13th, and he was never one to talk about himself. Had anyone in authority known at the time he, too, would have had some decoration.

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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