The ruins of Oppy, captured by a German photographer in May 1917. © IWM (Q 88006)
The night of the 3rd was lit by a bright moon and, as the troops assembled, British artillery unwisely bombarded the enemy trenches which brought immediate retaliation from their German counterparts. The assembly area in which the British troops were gathering came under heavy fire during this return fire. The shelling increased as zero hour, 03:45, approached. Once the attack commenced Oppy once again was found to be too strongly defended. On the British left B Battalion came under a strong counter attack and also most of the men were forced to ground by heavy fire. The company made up of men of the King's Regiment managed to make some advance but the intense fire brought upon the Staffords and Essex meant that they could lend no support to the Kingsmen and this attack failed also.
James Leach was one of the men of the South Staffs who had been killed. It wasn't until mid June that his 'sister' Mary, now living in Lees as Mrs Hall, received the official notification that he was dead. James left his belongings to Mary who remained in Lees and died there in 1932 aged only 47.
The men of the 2nd South Staffs listed as having been killed that day fighting with 'B' Battalion were:
ASHBY EDGAR 20 Private 9466 from Burton
ASHWORTH ALBERT Private 32449 born Accrington.lived Earby,Yorks
CLARKE RICHARD Private 29867 from Walsall
DAVIES EDMUND 36 Private 6236 from Stourbridge
FEWTRELL SAMUEL Private 26767 from Wolverhampton
FRANCE CORNELIUS 20 Private 9612 from Dudley,served as Francis Neil
HANDLEY STEPHEN Private 32404 from Sedbergh
JONES KENNETH Captain
LYDALL WILLIAM Serjeant 9558 from Brownhills,Staffs
MILDOON JOHN Private 18778 from Willenhall,Staffs
PRIEST ALFRED Private 32119 from West Bromwich
RILEY THOMAS Private 31717 from Nottinghamshire
ROBINSON SYDNEY 27 Corporal 40408 from Leicester
STOTT GILBERT 26 Private 31977 from Todmorden
WALKER FREDERICK Serjeant 9389 from Walsall
WALKER JOHN Private 20485 from Wolverhampton
Date of Death:03/05/1917
Regiment:South Staffordshire Regiment
Panel Ref:Bay 6
James Taylor Leach was born on May 9th 1888 at 59 Pollard Street, Oldham. His mother was Betsy Leach, his father is unknown but given James' middle name there is perhaps there a clue as to his surname. James was to be brought up by his grandparents - James and Alice. At the time of the 1891 census young James was living at 24 Sampson Street in Oldham with his grandparents (Betsy was no longer living there) and his aunts and uncles - Rebecca, Thomas, Alice, Sarah, James and Mary.James was the youngest in the household but was only three years younger than his aunt Mary. By the 1911 census, still in Oldham, James and his grandmother Alice were living alone together with James employed as a blowing room hand in one of the local cotton mills. His grandfather James had died in 1902. Within a week of the census James' grandmother Alice died, she was buried at Greenacres Cemetery alongside her husband.
Between then and the outbreak of war James had moved to Royton and was lodging at 60 Turf Lane. He worked as a cardroom jobber at Shiloh Mill and was later described by the Oldham Chronicle as having been prominent in local junior football circles.
James enlisted in Royton in early 1916 and although it's not known exactly when he was sent out for active service it's likely to have been in early 1917 when he joined the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. This Battalion, a pre war regular army unit, had been out on the western front since August 1914.
Comparing James' service number to those of others of the Battalion killed in action in February 1917 it is likely that he was with them when they launched an attack in the Ancre area on the 17th of that month, they were swept by a hail of fire and 69 men were killed. James and his comrades were later to follow the German's retreat to their pre prepared defences at the Hindenburg Line. On April 18th they moved into forward trenches about six miles north east of Arras and opposite the Hindenburg Line at Oppy. They were welcomed by four days of continuous shelling by the Germans.
April 28th saw a British attack on Oppy Wood and village, the wood adjoining the village on it's western side. The Battalion was split up with a strong company attached to the 13th Battalion Essex Regiment and another to a unit of the Middlesex Regiment. The other two, weaker, companies were used as carrying parties to the two units. The attackers had to cover 1200 yards and was launched at 04:25 after an artillery barrage. They advanced through the wood against very sharp machine gun fire as far as Oppy where they were greeted by strong German counterattacks from the right and rear and were forced back to their starting line which then came under a barrage from the enemy's artillery. The 2nd South Staffs casualties numbered over 200.
During the next few days the men of the 2nd South Staffs were merged with the 1st King's and 13th Essex into a full strength Battalion, 'B' Battalion. This composite force was thrown back into the fight on May 3rd, troops from a different Division were tasked with attacking Oppy with B Battalion advancing on their left.