The End of the Road

From 21-31 March 1918, 11 DLI was caught up in the events of the German Offensive, Operation Michael, also known from the Allied point of view as the March Retreat. The events are covered in my book, The 11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names, and have previously been covered on this blog under the heading ‘War Diary’, and I will not repeat them here.

At the end of these traumatic events, 11 DLI ceased to exist in the form in which it had been founded, though it was reconstituted with fresh recruits and transfers from other disbanded units, as well as recovered sick and wounded. There remained a core of the original Durham men who made it through the whole war, but they were a reducing minority.

During the Retreat, on 27 March 1918, in front of the village of Arvillers, my grandfather Sergeant Thomas Bashforth was fatally wounded. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial to the Missing of the Somme 1918, though I have long tried to locate an unknown grave that might be his.

In maintaining this weblog until the centenary of his death, I have fulfilled my own wish to honour him and his comrades in this way, and with the book. The two reasons I have outlined above are enough to justify my decision to ‘mothball’ the site. There will be no further posts in future, though I will remain open to questions and enquiries for as long as I physically can.

Therein lies the third and most compelling reason to stop now. I was diagnosed with inoperative pancreatic cancer in October 2017 after a long series of investigations. During the week of the centenary of the March Retreat, instead of being in France tracing the final days of my grandfather, I was in hospital recovering from a near fatal secondary cancer. As I recovered I followed the book day by day until 27 March, from which point I decided this is over now. Life has new and different priorities for me.

So, it is over and out to all the readers, other descendants of 11 DLI men, and people who have shown such an interest in the stories I have tried to recount of the men of 11 DLI and their families. I hope these few years of effort have done them justice.

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11 DLI Prepare for Battle: March 1918

Battalion HQ for 11 DLI Pioneers, was at Golancourt, several miles behind the front line near to the small town of Ham. The early days of the month were spent building a railway from Ham to Noyan, with virtually everyone involved in some way. In between there was musketry practice and training for Lewis gunners, lectures and gas demonstrations. This continued without stop until 20 March 1918. There is nothing in the war diary to give the slightest hint of what was about to break, but it is certain that senior officers were fully aware.

On the morning of 21 March 1918, HQ and D Companies were billeted at Golancourt, A Company was at Voyennes and B Company was in some quarries nearby. Readers can set this in the context of the previous post covering the situation of the Fifth Army.

Beware the Ides of March, 1918

According to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar was warned ‘to beware the Ides of March’ (which is the 15th of the month). By that date in 1918, the scene was already set for a colossal disaster on the Western Front, with the top man of the Fifth Army most at risk. It is worth considering the situation as it affected the Fifth Army and the Twentieth Light Division, the former spread out over 42 miles of front before St Quentin, from Gouzeaucourt in the north to Barisis beyond the Oise in the south. Much of this had formerly been in French hands.

General Sir Hubert Gough, in charge of the Fifth Army, has left a detailed if self-serving memoir of the situation and times[1]. While I am not a great fan of him as a man or as a general, I think his account has a great deal of truth in it, is well supported with documentation and cogently argued.

When he was able to explore the area in greatest detail from January 1918, Gough found that the trench system was generally in a very neglected state. He found the local peasants filling in trench lines at Villers-Bretonneux to revert to farming – a practice he had stopped and reversed, and which was to prove crucial a few months later. Most seriously, behind a reasonable front line, there was no second line and he had to construct from scratch a “Battle Zone consisting of front line, support and reserve trenches” with dugouts, communications trenches, roads and railways. He also had to create an equivalent Rear Zone, since he fully anticipated that the Germans would, at some time, launch a massive attack.

He was thwarted in much of what was needed to be done by GHQ. Desperately short of labour, it took until the middle of March before he had anything like the numbers of men required. The more he asked for resources, the more GHQ insisted he create defences and bridgeheads somewhere else than where this was most needed, without any more men or material. Haig insisted that the attack would be made on the French to the south and any action on the Fifth Army front would be no more than a feint – a position continued even after the first day of the attack. Gough had consulted with the French General who had previously held this part of the Front and he pointed out exactly where the weak points were that the Germans might and did exploit.

As well as having to re-organise his army with three instead of four battalions per Brigade, and other structural cutbacks, most of the drafts of men Gough received were the returning sick and wounded, rather than fresh troops. Gradually the intelligence grew to suggest an attack on 21 March, and on 19 March a German airman was captured who confirmed that. Gough also knew by then that the German General opposite him was Von Hutier, who had considerable experience from the Eastern Front and had already conducted blitzkrieg style attacks on Riga. Gough decided that he wanted to move his reserves closer to the Front, including 20 Division, which was 15 miles behind – permission refused. To rub salt in Gough’s growing wounds, several of his key Corps and Division Commanders were changed by GHQ in the last few days, including his top Intelligence and Administration (i.e. logistics) officers. Men with no experience were drafted in at the last minute.

On 19 March, after a long and helpful dry spell, it began to rain, creating the conditions for morning mists and fog. Ideal cover for an attack. Having visited all his Corps and Division Commanders, Gough took time out to attend horse riding competitions with 20 Division. That might sound odd, but Gough was keen to build morale in the face of what he knew was impending.

[1] General Sir Hubert Gough, The March Retreat, (Cassell & Co, London, 1934) – a reprint of a section of his earlier history of the Fifth Army.

Reorganisation and Removals

At the beginning of February 1918, the 11 DLI Pioneers were stationed at Zillebeke Bund and continuing to work on mule tracks across the blasted landscape around Passchendaele. On 8 February, the first signs of the army re-organisation became evident. There had been so many losses that various battalions were being disbanded and their men transferred to other battalions as reinforcements, but still leaving them below strength. 118 men arrived from 14 DLI along with 6 officers: Captain Endean and 2nd Lieutenants Martin, Duckett, Banks, Barrans and Tottle. Several of these names would become prominent the following month.

On 17 February, the battalion was relieved by the 9 North Staffordshire Regiment, sent back to Dickebusch and entrained to head south by stages. On 21 February, the first Companies arrived at Nesle. Handfuls of other men joined, along with 2 Lt T.W. Applegarth, the second Old Boy of Darlington Grammar School to join the battalion (the other was Banks). 2 Lt Bushell from York re-joined after attending Pioneer School at Rouen. The battalion was stationed in billets around Golancourt and a further re-organisation followed: C Company was disbanded, and its men shared among the remaining three companies. The whole structure of the army was being streamlined, but to save on manpower not to become necessarily more efficient and effective to do the job ahead of them. By the end of the month the battalion was working on the Ham-Noyens Railway.

Golancourt was in a reserve area of a line in front of German positions around St Quentin. Far from being the usual solid line of trenches, much of the front line was in the form of isolated strongpoints. Perhaps thought of as being a ‘quiet’ part of the Western Front, this was to prove a major weakness in the following month. General Gough, in charge of Fifth Army, wisely took the precaution of re-building old French trench systems well behind these lines to protect from any attack towards Amiens. 11 DLI now had 48 officers and 830 men.

Back to the Usual Grind: January 1918

New Year’s Day. What a year it would turn out to be. But, right now, it was back to the usual work that Pioneers were involved in. From a base at Dickebusch, the first week was mostly wiring the forward trenches – which meant working at night in chilly, horrible conditions. 11th DLI then relieved the 11th South Lancashire Pioneers at Zillebeke Bund. Apart from the Lewis gunners, engaged either in practice work or being used as Anti-Aircraft guns, the rest of the battalion was constructing tracks for mules and whatever else could conceivably move in the shell-torn landscape on the Ypres Front. ‘Perth Avenue’ and ‘Culley’s Trail’ get frequent mentions in this regard.

There was a gradual reduction in personnel. Some were no longer fit for work in the forward areas and were sent back to Base on medical grounds. A few men were wounded, sometimes by accident. While small numbers of ‘other ranks’ joined in dribs and drabs, 74 men were transferred to Rouen to join the Royal Engineers. By the end of the month the total strength of the battalion was down to 672 men excluding 41 officers.

Despite that, it was possible to send some men home on leave. Sergeant Thomas Bashforth left on 23 January and returned for 6 February. It was his second chance to go home to Darlington and an opportunity to see his new son, John Raymond, born the previous November, as well as his older son Thomas, whom he had only seen as a baby and toddler, and his daughter Ethel.

There is a story told about him, most probably exaggerated in the repeated telling and in the light of later events, but probably not without a grain of truth. While at or in the vicinity of Bank Top Station on his way back, he was supposed to have told his neighbour, Mrs Ingledew working as a porter at the station, that he was going to take his hook. Allegedly she persuaded him otherwise, but most likely he was just expressing out loud what he felt about going back yet again to who knows what. It was just the ongoing fatigue that many of the longer serving men were going through. The station was in line of sight to his little house at No 6 Bridge Terrace on the other side of the road. It was hard.

 

 

 

After Cambrai: December 1917

For the first couple of days in December, after helping to hold fast against the German counter-attack at Cambrai, 11th DLI were primarily engaged in consolidating what had been held, even advancing a little in places. All the time they were under heavy shelling, as the diary noted: ‘by our own guns captured by the enemy.’ ‘A’ Company moved back from Borderer Ridge to hold a trench in Lincoln Avenue, from which a small party under Lt HS Parkin bombed their way back into a section held by the Germans, a task completed by 11 Rifle Brigade when the Pioneers ran out of grenades. ‘B’ Company held a trench in front of La Vacquerie, from which they supplied 7 KOYLI with their rations. Next day they moved into the front line with ‘A’ company to close a gap. ‘C’ Company moved from the Brown Line into a trench in front of Villers Plouich, covering the valley, and then from trench to trench making small improvements as they went, finishing in the Hindenburg Communications Trench. They stayed there next day until moved back to the Brown Line.  ‘D’ Company were in the Hindenburg Trench from where they delivered rations to the infantry ahead, 7 KOYLI and 7 DCLI. Everyone got their own rations at 9pm on 1 December and the CO did his rounds of each Company in turn. On 2 December, all Companies moved back to the Brown Line where Colonel Hayes had established Battalion HQ. Over the two days, two men were killed and 33 wounded by the heavy shelling.

Over the next few days, the battalion was moved back via Fins, Sorel, Ecquemicourt and by buses to Wardrecques, where drill, training and baths were the order of the day. New officers arrived, including 2 Lts Galley, Alexander and English. By 16 December, the Pioneers were back on the Ypres Salient at Dickebusch and back to the usual routines of carrying materials to form dumps, wiring trenches and the like. Ironically, given recent losses, two groups of 50 men were transferred out to 2 DLI and 14 DLI, some of which would turn out to be quite temporary. The Battalion strength on the roll was 35 officers and 767 other ranks – 280 of the latter had been written off as sick, dead or wounded. The diary was signed off by Captain Pemberton, temporarily in charge of the battalion.

Cambrai Memorial at Louverval (Photo: Gaynor Greenwood)

The dead included Lts Inglis and Freeman (documents concerning the latter at Durham County Records Office). Thirteen men were killed along with Freeman during the German counter-attack on 30 November. The two men who died from shelling on 1 December were Privates Thomas Wilson and James Sidney Cole. Privates Horace Brown and William Longstaff died of wounds during the following week, as did Sergeant John Ormston and Lance Corporal Edward Simpson. Eight of those who died have no known grave and are listed on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval.

11 DLI at Cambrai 30 November 1917 (part 2)

HQ and ‘C’ Company were in Gouzeaucourt. Nothing very unusual was noticed except fairly heavy gun fire from about 6 AM onwards. About 8 AM, Gouzeaucourt was being shelled a certain amount, but it did not seem heavy enough to cause uneasiness. About 9.15 AM the CO noticed Garrison Artillery men and odd people rushing about excitedly and horses galloping in the direction of Fins. A rumour came down that the Germans had broken through. The Signalling Sergeant telephoned to Divisional HQ who reported everything OK. Just then heavy machine gun fire was heard close to Village and bullets were coming through. The CO then asked a Sergeant Major of the RA [Royal Artillery] what was the matter and he reported that the enemy was coming over in masses from the direction of VILLERS-GUISLAIN. Every man fell in at once, and the CO led them out in the direction of Hill 135 about 500 yards SW of Gouzeaucourt. The CO, who went up on the Hill then saw the Germans advancing in the most perfect order with absolutely no opposition of any kind. They were also sweeping the crest of Hill 135 with machine gun fire from QUENTIN RIDGE. The first waves of hostile infantry were then across the railway, and the others were in force on the QUENTIN RIDGE. There was a line of our infantry retiring South Westward on Chapel Hill being followed up by the German Infantry. The CO ordered platoon to fight the houses in the southern end of Gouzeaucourt to cover this left flank. Two platoons were placed along HEUDICOURT-GOUZEAUCOURT road in W6a to check the hostile advance from QUENTIN RIDGE, and the remaining platoon was sent over further to the right to about W5d central to protect the right flank which was open. The men were well led by Lt Bushell. About 3 sections of Royal Engineers under Major Robinson then came and were ordered two sections to reinforce the left flank and one section to fill in the gap between Hill 135 and the platoon on the right. There was great confusion, troops of all kinds pouring down the Fins road in a blind panic, also many standing about doing nothing. Major Robinson, whose men were ignorant of open warfare training handled his men with great coolness and courage. The machine gun fire was by now very heavy indeed and hostile machine guns were now enfilading from the south. The enemy’s infantry had broken through the village of Gouzeaucourt and were also firing from the houses. The platoon sent there had been unable to hold up the hostile advance, as the German Infantry was already in the houses when they got there and there was indescribable confusion. The CO ordered Sergeant Major McEvoy to take 20 men at once and place them in the old Brown Line south of the GOUZEAUCOURT-FINS road at about W4b.85 and to hold that to the last man. This party would also cover retirement of others. The remainder of the Company and the RE then got back to the Brown Line under heavy machine gun fire from GOUZEAUCOURT and Hill 135 and from the Ridge south of this.

There was a certain amount of confusion due to the surprise, heavy fire and lack of training, but the party reached the Brown Line and was rallied here astride the main road. Here every man was collected and put into the trench. Lt Symms of the 27th Siege Battery, RA, rendered splendid service in rallying men and in organising a defence. He had fought his Howitzers until the enemy was almost on him and then after rendering his guns useless, joined the mixed party of ‘C’ Company and RE. He was extremely cool throughout. The casualties under the circumstances were very light due to the bad shooting of the Germans. When the party formed up in the Brown Line the enemy seemed to come in very cautiously and pushed patrols out, which, when fired on, returned. He made a slight effort to reach the Brown Line south of the road, but this was easily repulsed. The CO sent an urgent message to SOREL for machine guns and ammunition; the Adjutant, Captain Tollitt, also went down to explain situation. At 12.10 PM, the CO and Lt Symms went along the Brown Line in the direction of Queen’s Cross, leaving Major Lloyd (who had sprained his ankle) in temporary charge near the main road. Lt Symms collected stragglers and placed them astride the METZ-GOUZEAUCOURT road. By this time the local rout showed signs of checking.

The 20th Hussars reinforced and occupied the Brown Line on the south of the existing Line. The party in the Brown Line was a mixed party of about 250 rifles. The CO of the 20th Hussars then came over and conferred with the CO of the Battalion and offered assistance with Hotchkiss guns. As the 2nd Coldstreams were now coming up in support, these were not needed. The 2nd Coldstreams in the early afternoon came through in the most perfect order and counter-attacked. The CO did not push the mixed party forward with the Guards as they would have hindered them more than helped them. About 16 men of ‘C’ Company on the right of the road attached themselves to the dismounted cavalry and advanced with them.

The lack of training was very noticeable though on the whole the men were willing and steady when collected by an officer. The shooting was wild in the extreme. If ‘C’ Company had had Lewis guns, the German casualties would have been very heavy. Lt Bushell commanding ‘C’ Company showed conspicuous coolness and courage throughout. Lt Freeman, who was killed early on, also showed great gallantry.

Casualties, ‘C’ Company and HQ:

1 officer killed

1 officer wounded (slightly)

6 OR killed

34 OR wounded

The RE lost more heavily in proportion to numbers engaged. The chaplain, the Rev HP Walton went out with ‘C’ Company and rendered excellent service to the wounded under heavy direct machine gun and rifle fire. He also collected stragglers and brought them back to the Brown Line. The Adjutant, who had returned to the Orderly Room after having been out on the Hill with the CO, managed to get the confidential papers and made his own escape, He was sent to SOREL for machine guns and reinforcements for the Brown Line and then returned.