A Short History of The Royal Leicestershire Regiment

PART II - THE FIRST WORLD WAR: 1914-1918

At the outbreak of the First World War the 1st Battalion was in Ireland and the 2nd Battalion in India.  Before the Armistice came four years later, the Regiment had expanded to nineteen battalions, of which the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th were Service battalions, all rendering devoted service to King and Country.  The inspiring cry of “Come on the Tigers” which had been heard so often on the field of sport, frequently heralded some desperate attack by one or other of the battalions of the Regiment against the strongest of the enemy’s defences.

The 1st Battalion was the first to go into action, and was continually fighting in the 6th Division throughout the critical days of the autumn of 1914.

The 2nd Battalion had in the meantime been brought from India to France as the British Battalion of the Garhwal Brigade of the 7th Indian Division. The early spring of 1915 saw a great hammer blow delivered by British troops on the German position at Neuve Chapelle.  The Garhwal Brigade’s Indian battalions were held up by uncut wire, but the 2nd Battalion led the brilliant attack on the right and smashed a way through or over all obstacles and quickly overwhelmed the enemy holding the trenches covering the village and woods at Neuve Chapelle.  It was a glorious episode and many were the gallant deeds performed that day by the “Tigers”, the most notable being that of Private William Buckingham who was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The 1st Battalion had been engaged in a similar attack in the north of the sector, designed to distract the enemy’s attention from the main attack.  The battle of Neuve Chapelle took a heavy toll of the Regiment, but added greatly to its reputation.  The 1st Battalion won added credit for a particularly fine advance in the 6th Division’s attack on the German position near Hooge, and held on bravely to the captured trenches.

By this time the first of the Territorial battalions of the Regiment had arrived in France.   The 4th and 5th Territorial Battalions proved themselves worthy members of the Regiment in the battle of Loos.  Their splendid work in the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt in October 1915, which had held up the advance, was one of the most brilliant exploits of the war and involved men almost entirely from the County and City of Leicester.

The 110th Infantry Brigade of the 37th Division was composed of the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th Service Battalions of the Regiment and they, too, did credit to the name they bore.  They won great glory by their brilliant attack on the Bazentin-Le Petit wood and village in the Battle of the Somme in mid-July 1916.  In the five months known as the First Battle of the Somme most of the battalions of the Regiment were also engaged, the 1st Battalion as part of the 16th Brigade lost heavily in the terrible assault on the Quadrilateral trenches on 16 September.

In the winter of 1915-1916 the 2nd Battalion, as part of the 7th Indian Division, was transferred to Mesopotamia.  It distinguished itself in the battles of Shaikh Saad, Kut-al-Amara, the various battles of Sannaiyat, and went on to the capture of Baghdad, when the Battalion had the honour of being the first troops to enter the city.  In the winter of 1917-1918 the Battalion moved to Palestine, and took part in the victorious advance that defeated and captured the Turkish Army in the late summer of 1918.

Meantime, in France and Flanders the Regiment had given a splendid account of itself. In a key battle at Polygon Wood near Ypres in October 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Bent was awarded a posthumous VC when in command of 9th Battalion.  In the last desperate attacks by the German armies launched in the spring of 1918, the “Tigers” fought with unsurpassed heroism.  The sterling courage of the 110th Brigade in the defence of Epehy in March 1918 was a fine example of British grit.  Exposed to the full blast of constant attacks delivered by three fresh German divisions, the stubborn soldiers of Leicestershire refused to budge, but met each attack with such devastating rifle and machine gun fire that, when night fell, the front of their position was marked by heaps of German dead.  Only at one point did the enemy succeed in piercing the line at Vancellette Farm, defended to the last man by the party of Leicester men who held it.  Then in the summer came the final British and French advances against which the German defences availed nothing.  Lieutenant John Barrett was awarded the VC while serving in the 1/5th Battalion at Pontruet in September.  The enemy’s prepared defences were in turn overwhelmed and the Regiment took a creditable share in the long advance which ended in victory.