Upon the outbreak of war in 1914 the 4th (Territorial) battalion of the Leicestershire regiment was split into a 1st/4th (consisting of those men willing to go overseas) and 2nd/4th, which was to remain in England and train recruits. The 1st/4th battalion crossed to France in March 1915, but its baptism of fire came in October of that year, when, together with the 1st/5th battalion it was given the task of attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This was a honeycomb of German trenches and strongpoints near Hulluch, in the French coalmining district of Lens. The appaling losses which the 1st/4th sustained – some 400 killed and wounded – were among the worst ever sustained by an infantry battalion in a single days fighting on the Western Front.
The 1st/4th was a battalion recruited from the hosiery factories and working class terraced streets of Leicester. Its members all knew one another – they played in the same football teams and they worked in the same factories. Their officers were the factory owners and their sons. The losses of 13 October 1915 would have been distastrous to any battalion, but to one with such close bonds of kinship as the 1st/4th they were devastating. Typical of this pattern was Lieutenant R.E.Faire (above), of Faire Brothers, who fell that day along with many of the men who worked for his family firm.
What had gone so disastrously wrong? Insufficient artillery bombardment, coupled with an inadequate preliminary gas attack, meant that many of the German defenders in the redoubt were still able to man their machine guns as the Leicesters climbed out of their trenches. Pte Charles Mortimer was among them, and later remembered the difficulty in running with full kit and gas hood on. He dropped into an abandoned trench to catch his breath, only to discover that it was already full of Tigers who were dead or dieing.
In the Spring of 1915 the British Expeditionary Force in France came under political pressure to do something to expel the the Germans from France, and the village of Neuve Chapelle was selected as the objective for this the first major British offensive of the war. Morale was extremely high, and great things were expected, even by the ordinary tommy. At Neuve Chapelle the British managed mainly through good luck to achieve surprise and local superiority, so that the first day of the battle, 10 March 1915 was one of considerable success. Over the following days however German resistance hardened and the hoped for breakthrough was not achieved.
One of the units chosen to spearhead the assualt was the Indian Corps with its mixture of Gurkha, Garwahli and British troops. Among its battalions was the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment. Along with their Indian comrades the Leicesters attacked the German position known as Port Arthur, near La Bombe crossroads.
In late 1914, following the Retreat from Mons and the Battles of the Marne and the Aisne, the German and Franco-British armies tried to outflank one another in the so-called ‘Race to the Sea’. A series of head-on clashes followed as the two mighty armies flung themselves at one another. The two most notable of these battles were at Armentieres, in October 1914, and further north at Ypres in October/November 1914. During the Battle of Armentieres the 1st battalion, which had only recently arrived in France, successfully held the line in the Bois Grenier – Rue du Bois sector, against repeated German assaults.
A rare photograph showing the view from front line positions near Armentieres. The ruined buildings provided cover for enemy soldiers, whilst the chimneys were used for observation and sniping
From the Bocage to Belgium
A new 1st battalion was created in 1944, to replace that which had been lost at Singapore. The war-raised 8th battalion was given a unique honour when at a moving ceremony, the colonel of the Regiment Sir Clive Liddell conferred upon it the new title of 1st battalion. On 6 July 1944 the battalion landed in France, determined to uphold the honour of its illustrious predicessor.
The battalion was soon in action at Cagny, south-east of Caen, where it faced one of Hitler’s crack SS Divisions. The summer weather was at its hottest, and as the battalion left this sector heading towards the River Seine they were harassed by flies as well as German sniper and mortar fire. They passed Calvados heading east towards Vimont, an enemy held village. On 14 August 1944 the village was cleared, and the advance continued. They crossed the River Touque in darkness, with the aid of cables slung across by the pioneers, and ejected the German garrison on the far bank.
On 24 August the advance resumed, across heavily wooded country ideal for snipers. Among those killed here was Major John ‘Dizzy’ Dain, who before the war had been a master at Uppingham School. He was sadly missed. The battalion’s next major objective was the port of Le Havre which was stubbornly holding out. Again a determined enemy made good use of cover – his Spandau machine guns were particularly effective, and the battalion was only able to move forward with the support of tanks.
Next came the drive into Belgium, and as the German Army was now in full retreat, the battalion (aboard a fleet of trucks) advanced a record 116 miles in one day. On 29 September 1944 the 1st Leicesters were ordered to attack the German position known as the Depot de Mendicite, a combined workhouse and prison which stood astride the main road at Merxplas. It was heavily fortified, and the presence of the inmates prevented a preparatory artillery barrage.
The Leicesters attacked under cover of darkness and ‘C’ Company managed to enter the compound. The fighting here was confused as Germans fired upon them from all sides, but the company commander Major Arthur Denaro (left) led his men forward until he was killed. Denaro’s actions that day were of the highest order, and many would argue, deserving of the Victoria Cross. However this was not to be.
The ‘Special Force’ was the brainchild of Major General Orde Wingate, one of the most unorthodox soldiers ever to serve in the British Army. Wingate realise that if the British were ever to defeat the Japanese in Burma they must abandon their reliance on defensive positions, railways & fixed supply lines and fight fire with fire.
He planned to use groups of men highly trained in jungle warfare, organised into independent columns, to operate behind Japanese lines. This force became known as the ‘Chindits’, after the Chinthe, a mythical Burmese creature which was said to inhabit dense jungle.
The Leicestershire Regiment was unique in that it contributed two battalions to the Special Force – the 2nd & 7th. Each battalion provided two columns, which were numbered at random to avoid giving away clues to the Japanese. The 2nd battalion provided 17 and 71 Columns, whilst the 7th battalion, a war-raised formation, provided 47 and 74 Columns.
After many months of intesive training in the jungles of central India, in which the men learned how to survive in the jungle, how to move silently, construct booby traps and demolish railway bridges, they were ready to go. Only those physically up to the challenge were selected. 17 and 71 Columns marched in to Burma from India, whilst 47 and 74 were flown into specially constructed landing strips deep in the jungle behind Japanese lines, and then began causing havoc.
Mules went in with the men and were the main means of transporting heavy items such as machine guns and mortars. They also carried the heavy radio sets which the Chindits used to call in a supply drop from the air. As the Chindits had no heavy weapons apart from the mortars, they instead relied on close support from the air, in the form of American Mustang fighter bombers.
Although there was much fighting, with ambush and counter ambush taking place, jungle conditions also accounted for many lives. Lieutenant Richard Perkins (left), of 74 Column remembered: “the deaths among my own platoon during the latter stages [of the campaign] were far more due to illness, malnutrition … malaria and scrub typhus. Many of my men died of that, far more than were lost in actual combat.”
In retrospect, far more important than any collateral damage which they may have inflicted on the Japanese was the effect which the Chindits had on morale. Prior to Wingate’s campaign, many British soldiers were frightened of the Japanese, indeed there was a reluctance to go into the front line. The Chindits showed that the Japanese were not supermen, and that they were far from invincible.