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The Sporting Life

As early as the Napoleonic Wars, the British Army had recognised the value to moral of awarding medals for shooting competitions. By the Victorian period, it had a fully developed appreciation of the value of organised sporting activity both in improving the physical fitness of its men, and also in occupying their leisure time productively. In doing so it hoped to steer them away from that greatest of Victorian vices – alcohol.

Sport was also a great leveller in the British Army. Here, on the rugby field or in the boxing ring, the sporting traditions of the public school met those of the working class boys clubs. Between officers and men there was mutual respect, but absolutely no social contact. Only in competetive games did the son of an earl rub shoulders with a that of a miner on an equal footing. In this respect, sport built up an esprit de corps and fostered the sense of regimental pride – especially if the sportsmen in question were successful against those of other regiments.

The Leicestershire Regiment excelled at Boxing, Rugby, Association Football and Hockey, and its years of greatest prowess were probably those before the First World War. Leicester Football Club (the famous Leicester Tigers) was born out of a team of officers of the Leicestershire Regiment in the 1880s. Its colours (green, light grey, red and black) are also those of the regiment. In boxing the 2nd battalion produced a heavyweight champion of the British Army in ‘Togo’ Bolesworth. In Rugby the 1st battalion won the Army Cup in 1908, 1911 and 1912, whilst in football the 1st battalion won the Madras Gymkhana Cup in 1905.

In the interwar years the regimental rugby team was all-conquering, numbering internationals such as Tony Novis, who captained England, Joe Kendrew, and Peter Upcher. After the war Rugby was also popular, though the regiment never attained the same heights as in the 1930s.

Borneo

The Undeclared War

The Borneo conflict of the early 1960s was a full scale border war, to which for their own reasons, neither side would publicly admit. Whilst Britain prepared her colonies of Malaya, Brunei and others for independence as Malaysia, the Indonesian Army of President Sukarno was committed to destabilising the process through infilitration and terrorism.

The 1st battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment – described by one author as ‘an above average infantry battalion’ – was deployed to the region in 1963, relieving a Gurkha battalion and taking over positions in thick jungle, often many miles from civilisation. The battalion’s nominal frontline was longer than that then held by the entire BAOR in West Germany at the time. Another problem was that Gurkha foxholes were not deep enough for English soldiers – something which was soon rectified!

The battalion quickly began a hearts and minds campaign, winning over villagers with medical help, and providing reassurance against reprisal attacks, so that intelligence could be gathered. The campaign however was dominated by two raids against Indonesian positions, both of which were highly successful and both of which resulted in the award of the Military Cross to their respective commanders, Second Lieutenants Alan Thompson (above) and Mike Peele (below).

Above: A 2-inch mortar, part of the haul captured in the Peele raid

Thompson’s action took place on 1 January 1964 when he led a daring mission to destroy a heavy machinegun position at Ba Kelalan. Mike Peele’s raid occured later that same month, when local intelligence sources reported a large enemy presence near Long Pa Sia. Peele and his men immediately set off to reconnoitre and attack. After half a day’s travel they caught up with the enemy who were in the act of preparing a midday meal. A fierce gunbattle followed, with Peele literally charging into the enemy camp. A few stayed to fight, but most fled, leaving a considerable haul of weapons & ammunition.

Cyprus

Insurection in the Med

Following the decision to withdraw British forces from Egypt, Cyprus was chosen as the new location for British military headquarters in the Mediterranean. The British military build up coincided with a rise in nationalist feeling among the Greek Cypriot population, and a growing demand for ‘Enosis’ or union with Greece. Out of this grew EOKA, a terrorist organisation committed to driving the British out of Cyprus.

1st battalion Royal Leicesters arrive at Famagusta from the Sudan. L-R: WOII Sanderson, RSM Tommy Marston, WOII Reynolds

The 1st battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment was deployed directly from the Sudan in 1956, and its men were based at Famagusta, a medieval walled town. Their duties were twofold; firstly, internal security (IS) duties within the town, which included enforcing curfews and quelling riots, but also free ranging operations in the hills outside the town, combing villages for weapon dumps and arresting suspected terrorists.

The battalion was responsible for the security of Famagusta and a large section of the surrounding rural area, and were quartered in a camp consisting of a rambling collection of Nissen huts on the northern edge of the town. Companies were employed in supporting the civil police and maintaining law and order in their respective villages, whilst other detachments garrisoned rural police stations. In addition it began a ceaseless programme of patrols and searches over hills and fields, in remote villages and farmsteads, seeking caches of arms. Their enemy however wore no uniform and after striking at them vanished into the civilian population, and casualties quickly began to mount.

Lieut S.R.G.Walker was killed on 27 March 1956. WO2 R.A.Crissell, a veteran of the Korean War, was killed on 17 May. Pte K.M.Hebb was killed on 30 May when terrorists attacked a truck, throwing grenades. Another soldier of the Royal Leicesters died the following day from his injuries sustained in this attack. Added to this were many more wounded in shootings and bomb attacks.

In typical British fashion the ‘Tommies’ were reluctant at first to think the worst of the local population in whose midst they found themselves. However as casualties mounted, attitudes hardened, though to their credit the men were throughout thoroughly professional and were never goaded beyond the point of restraint to commit outrages or atrocities.

Once again the British army demonstrated its aptitude for this type of counter insurgency work, and by the late summer of 1956 it was evident that progress was being made. The blockade of Cyprus had choked off the supply of arms to the terrorists, whilst seizures of arms and the capture of a number of terrorist leaders had a marked effect on EOKA morale. In August 1958 EOKA declared a truce and progress was made towards a political settlement.

Somewhere in France

The Tigers were in the thick of the fighting in the Great War almost from the very start. Both regular battalions (1st & 2nd) were in France in 1914. The 2nd battalion fought at Neuve Chapelle and Loos before leaving for Mesopotamia. In early 1915 two Territorial battalions, 1st/4th and 1st/5th, joined the fray. Later that same year the Kitchener’s Army battalions (6th, 7th, 8th & 9th) reached the battlefields. In 1916 the 11th (North Midland Pioneer) battalion reached the front, along with the 2nd/4th and 2nd/5th battalions. The last active service battalion was the 14th battalion raised in 1918. Click on a link to discover more about some of these battalions and the battles in which they fought.

 

Armentieres
1st battalion
October 1914

Neuve Chapelle
2nd battalion
March 1915

Hohenzollern Redoubt
1st/4th battalion
October 1915

Bazentin Ridge
6th, 7th, 8th & 9th
battalions
July 1916

The World at War

In the Second World War, soldiers of the Leicestershire Regiment fought in every theatre of war, from the snows of Norway to the deserts of North Africa and the jungles of Burma. The first German tank to be destroyed by the British Army in the Second World War was claimed by the Leicestershire Regiment. It was also the only regiment to contribute two battalions to the famous Chindit force. This unparallelled record led in 1946 to His Majesty King George VI granting the new title Royal Leicestershire Regiment.

1st/5th battalion
The disastrous attempt to
 prevent the German
invasion
194
2nd/5th battalion
Defeat and withdrawal
from France
1940
1st battalion
With the ‘British Battalion’
in the defence of Malaya
1942
2nd & 7th battalions
Deep behind Japanese
lines in Burma
1944
1st battalion
Liberation of France
and Belgium
1944/45

Mesopotamia

The Land of the Two Rivers

Undoubtedly, the campaign in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was hardest and most prolonged of any fought by the Leicesters in the Great War. The 2nd battalion arrived there from France, as part of the Indian Corps in December 1915. Its role was to strengthen the British Army’s Tigris Corps, which was battling to reach Major General Townshend’s force at Kut-al-Armara, then besieged by a far stronger Turkish army. Time and again the Tigris Corps hurled itself against the Turkish positions, and time and again it was thrown back in disarray.

The Tigers fought four savage battles in 1916 against resolute and well dug-in Turkish opposition. On 7-8 January 1916 they attacked along the left bank of the Tigris, at Sheikh Saad. One who was there was a young soldier named Walter Elliott (left). He recorded: “The fire was terrific we advanced in short rushes hardly any cover & men were knocked out like ninepins.” The next day the attack was resumed: “went over top at 2.30pm fog had cleared & was very hot, advanced in short rushes, again under terrific fire from Turks … made bayonet charge & captured … about 600 Turks & Arabs and a few Germans.” The battle however had cost the Leicesters dear, and among the casualties was the commanding officer, Major E.F.S.Henderson.

On 13 January they attacked again, this time at the position known as the Wadi. Again the Leicesters were badly mauled. So short were they of officers that three Warrant Officers and one sergeant fought as acting Second Lieutenants at the Battle of the Wadi. Three of the four were killed that day.
On 8 March the battalion took part in the attack on the Dujaila Redoubt, and inspite of its successes was forced to abandon the position after 24 hours due to shortage of water. Finally, on 6 April 1916 the Kut relief force took its last throw of the dice – an allout assault on the Turkish position at Sannaiyat. Again, it was a bloody failure. The 2nd battalion Leicestershire Regiment was reduced to five officers and 200 other ranks. The Kut garrison surrendered at the end of April, the biggest disaster to befall a British army in more than a century.