On the track of the 110th Brigade in South Artois
Text, document and pictures of Annie Damiens and Emmanuel Riche.
Spécial thanks to Emmanuel Riche (Souvenir Français member) who gave us the approval to publish this tale.
In September 1915, in Southern Artois, the French troops, who had been there since October 1914, were partly relieved by the British army. The 110th Brigade of the 37th Division, called 'The Leicestershire Brigade', composed of 4 Leicestershire Regiment battalions (6th to 9th), settled in Berles-au-Bois and Bienvillers-au-Bois. In the meantime, its headquarters remained in Pommier. By turns, two of the battalions were in charge of the trenches in front of Monchy-au-Bois, which was a fortified village strongly held by the 73rd Hanover Fusiliers Regiment.
That is where the soldiers, who were mainly volunteers for the New British Army raised by Lord Kitchener, discovered during several months how hard trench warfare really was. They spent their time training, patrolling in the no man’s land, sending raids against the enemy and setting up positions. They also lived and shared good or bad moments with the village’s inhabitants, who remained there in spite of the dangerous closeness of the front. Several episodes in Artois left their mark on the Brigade: the loss of several officers and soldiers, the truce in December 1915 near the Monchy Mill, the tragic bombardment of February the 3rd, 1916 on the Berles-au-Bois village, and a few bravery shows in front of the enemy which were rewarded with investiture.
On the 1st of July 1916, as the Somme Offensive started, the 4 battalions of the 110th Brigade were gathered up and placed in reserve in Souastre and Humbercamps. The 1st Leicestershire Tigers episode in Artois ended then. They only came back in spring 1917 after the German retreat. At the beginning of July 1916, they integrated the 21st Division for good and took part in the Battle of Somme. The 14th of July of the same year was stood out with their first proper commitment to the village of Bazentin-le-Petit. The loss there was catastrophic as more than 1900 soldiers of the Brigade were killed, injured or even went missing.
Berles-au-Bois on English time
When they arrived in Berles-au-Bois, officers, Non- Commissioned Officers and soldiers from the 110th Brigade were immediately sent to Berles-au-Bois' farms and houses. For several months, these areas were peaceful places, sheltered from bad weather but certainly not from German shelling. Only the underground passages of the village could hold a complete battalion and really protect the troop.
Above ground, the soldiers could share hospitality offered by the Berles-au-Bois inhabitants and trade with them. The estaminets, whose open hours were controlled by military authorities, were busy places where people could meet and forget the bad moments of the day. There were sometimes disagreements between soldiers and civilians though. They gave the opportunity to Mr Damiens, Mayor of the village, and to the parish priest, to gather up complaints from the inhabitants and to deal with them with the British Officer who had been chosen as the 'Town Major'.
The German bombs often hit the village causing men loss. Civilians were not spared. Clodomir Demailly was killed on the 3rd of February 1916 during a bombardment which decimated a military Band which was playing in front of the troop. Later, in April 1916, Eustache Camus was killed as well, while being in his house which was hit by the explosion of a shell.
The only remains of the 110th Brigade after they left the village in July 1916, were cemeteries and a few graffiti here and there that the soldiers had drawn on the white stones walls.
Isaac Leonard 'Dick' Read (1895 – 1971)
'Dick' Read was born in Sussex in 1895. He was the eldest of four children, 3 boys and 1 girl. After graduating from the Eastbourne secondary school, he became an apprentice engineer at the Gimsons Factory, Leicester. Once the war was declared, factory’s pre-orders started to take a sharp decline as Germany was a very strong market. Dick’s apprenticeship was then jeopardized. During autumn 1914, 'Dick' Read enrolled himself in the new British Army in answer to the War Minister Lord Kitchener’s call, just like most of the young men around the same age. After several months of training in England, 'Dick' Read and his battalion were sent to the Western front. At the beginning of the war, he was a soldier in the 8th Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment, and at the end of the First World War, he was a subordinate officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment. All way through the war, he kept notes which he sometimes laced with drawings or watercolours.
His time in Berles-au-Bois between September 1915 and July 1916 left a deep impression on him as when he got back home after the war, he named his house 'Berles'.
His war memoirs, 'Of Those We Loved', were finally published in 1994, 23 years after he passed away. In 1997, his son, Chester Read, who went on a pilgrimage across Artois, came to Berles-au-Bois to donate a copy of the book.
Ernst Jünger, 73rd Fusiliers Regiment Officer
The 73rd Hanover Fusiliers Regiment held Monchy-au-Bois, a fortified village in front of the 110th Brigade. This unit was commanded by Colonel Von Oppen and it included Ernst Jünger, one of the most famous German officers of the First World War. After the war, this soldier wrote 'Storm of Steel', the best German account ever released about the First World War. Ernst Jünger wrote his war book telling about the events he and his companions went through day after day, either standing at ease in Douchy-les-Ayette or in the front line in Monchy-au-Bois. Indeed, he was one of the soldiers who took part in the Truce in December 1915 in front of the Monchy Mill. On that occasion, he met in No Man’s Land Captain Wratislaw from the 8th Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment. After a frank and friendly meeting which lasted a few minutes, the two men declared war again to one another and returned to their respective trenches.
Ernst Jünger and his regiment left Monchy-au-Bois during summer 1916 to join the terrible Somme Front, just like the 110th Brigade.
95 years ago, in September 1915, the first British troops relieved the French units in the South of Artois. Berles-au-Bois and its surroundings were then going to be set on English time for several everlasting months.
In July 1997, Chester Read, son of 'Dick' Read who was a Veteran of the Leicestershire Regiment, went to Berles-au-Bois during a pilgrimage across the old battlefields in the North of France. On this occasion, he gave to the village a copy of the book entitled 'Of those we loved' which had been written by his father and which was published many years after its author had passed away. By this gesture, Chester emphasized his father’s affection he always had for the village and its inhabitants.
Today, on the 25th of September 2010, it’s time for us to honour, as we are supposed to, 'Dick' Read and his friends from the Leicestershire Regiment with the inauguration of a square of remembrance, place of contemplation and memory for all generations.
For more information, contact the following telephon number in France :
06 64 82 13 32.