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The Leicestershire Regiment in the Great War, 1914-1918

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“We marched towards Dublin to encounter the rebels, who were fortified in public buildings and empty houses. Of course, being in houses, they had the advantage over us in the open street. However, discipline and order prevailed. We advanced stage by stage to the principal house where they were ensconced, while small parties of rebels were surprising us with fire from houses on either side of the street.

Our bombers distinguished themselves particularly, advancing in a charge upon the building, and in the face of a terrific fire, bombing the place till it was in flames. After that the rebels retreated…Our company spent the night by a stone wall down a Dublin side-lane, on look-out…”

If returning the fire of fellow Britons was bad, the aftermath was worse. With Dublin under martial law, senior officers of the Leicesters were called upon to administer justice and Brigadier General Blackader in particular found himself carrying out what he clearly regarded as the melancholy and upsetting duty of presiding over the courts-martial of some of the rising’s ringleaders, with little choice but to return a verdict of guilty and pronounce a sentence of death.

Ireland proved a momentary distraction. On the Western Front the German assault on Verdun was slowly achieving its aim of destroying the French Army, while Russia teetered on the brink of collapse. It proved necessary to bring forward plans for Britain’s ‘Big Push’, throwing the fresh new armies created by Lord Kitchener in 1914 into battle.

For the Leicesters, the Battle of the Somme was to begin with a distraction. Once again the Territorials were to be hurled against a German strongpoint at Gommecourt. Although not on the Somme at all, the attack at Gommecourt was a diversion – to draw away reinforcements from the true objectives further south.

The result, alas, was catastrophic. The attack ran into devastating enfilade fire from two strongpoints which jutted out from the German lines. Worse still, enemy shellfire cut off reinforcements and supplies and so devastated already blocked support trenches that many troops took to the ground above rather than hinder stretcher-bearers going the other way.

Lieutenant Aubrey Moore of the 1/5th Leicesters recalled the scene: “I never before or after saw such appalling slaughter. Needless to say we only reached No Man’s Land…The idea was that we and the 56th Division would attack the village of Gommecourt from two sides and pinch out the pronounced salient round the west side of the village. Excellent idea – on paper. For some reason nobody ever knew, the 37th division on our left made no feint or demonstration of any kind. As soon as the Boche realised this all those guns and machine guns were turned on us…Of course all the front attacking troops were caught in this crossfire. That was why the slaughter was so heavy. But for this we might have reached our objective. Certainly casualties would not have been so heavy.”

Fortunately, Colonel Herbert Jones, commanding the Leicesters and (thanks to his seniority and casualties amongst other senior officers) the Brigade, had the courage to call a halt to the attack. As a Meltonian with the 1/5th Battalion remarked: “What a bloody mess. Trenches clogged with men. It was hopeless but we are ready to go. Colonel Jones gets new orders, cancel the attack. Saved; the mass slaughter will not happen today…”

Further south on the Somme, sixty thousand of Kitchener’s New armies were paying a heavy price for over confidence and confusion. The 46th Division, with the Leicestershire Territorials, was withdrawn from Gommecourt, bruised and battered, to hold a quiet sector of the front-line around Monchy-au-Bois, where they might rest and gradually recuperate. Despite the congratulations of their Corps Commander, Lt. General D’Oyly Snow “for the manner in which they fought and endured”, the division was to sense a bitter and unjustified taint of failure and accusations of a “lack of offensive spirit” for many months.

On the Somme, the offensive continued. The attention was now on the southern part of the Somme valley, where the greatest gains had been made. Finally, the Service Battalions of the Leicestershire Regiment were to see action. These were the men who had answered Kitchener’s call in 1914 and had been formed into a New Army, distinct from the Regulars and the Territorials, yet preserving the traditions and badges of their parent regiments. What they may have lacked in experience, the Service Battalions made up in spirit.

The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Battalions of the Leicestershire Regiment moved forward through Mametz Wood in preparation for the assault on Bazentin Ridge; the next German line of defence. Their attack, on 14th July 1916, was to punch a hole through the German second line of defence, seizing Bazentin Wood and the villages along Bazentin Ridge. Cavalry was in attendance to exploit the breakthrough.

The attack broke all the rules. It was to be made at night, the first assault waves would assemble in no-man’s land (not the British trenches) and the initial artillery bombardment would be brief but devastating and then shift to keep pace with the attack, always preceding the advancing waves of Tigers. The neighbouring French commander, Maurice Balfourier, scornfully dismissed the imaginative yet risky plan as “an attack for Amateurs by Amateurs”.

The Leicesters’ attack was observed by two ‘outsiders’. Giles Eyre, from the King’s Royal Rifles, attached to the 8th Leicesters, watched the bombardment – which had perhaps three times the firepower of that which opened the offensive:

“Everybody became keyed up, and excitement pervaded the ranks. The Leicesters kept jabbering and fiddling about, jumping on the fire-steps looking over at that awful flail of fire that raked the German lines like a searing lash, slashing and whipping at their defences…I heard…the shrill blasting of whistles…as with a roaring cheer the lines of attacking infantry crossed the parapets and swarmed towards the wrecked German line…I found myself moving at a loping run beside my two chums, dodging round shell-holes and the usual muck and rubbish of no-man’s land, and all about me in the growing light lines of men moving forward with their bayoneted rifles at the high port. We moved forward in perfect safety for the first fifty yards or so and then a sputtering tac-tac-tac began to break out from the German line. By some super-human miracle its survivors were getting some machine-guns into action.”

The other ‘outsider’ was Lieutenant Borelli, commanding a German machine gun company – on the receiving end of the attack!

“Just before 4.00 a.m. I realised that the enemy was lifting his fire rather more to our rear. The sentry fired a flare and…bawled, ‘Get out, here come the British!’ Everyone took up position in the shell craters. The enemy had advanced to within twenty to thirty metres of our position…The enemy assaulted in about six waves. These were not dressed lines of infantry; rather they were concentrated groups of soldiers. My machine gun crews suffered heavy casualties because the British, who were sheltering in the craters directly to our front, could not be brought under fire and so were able to throw grenades with impunity into the area of the machine guns.”

Nothing could stop the ‘Tigers’. They plunged into Bazentin Wood, over-running three lines of German trenches and capturing the village of Bazentin-le-Petit and with it, the complete headquarters of a Bavarian infantry regiment. As Lieutenant A. C. N. de Lisle, of the 9th Battalion remarked: These fell into our hands, one after the other…it was all climbing, jumping, scrambling and sprawling. whatever the method of going, they got there – trust the [Tigers] for that!”