Private 17503 Alfred Gibson

I am pleased to have been able to update the entry for Private Gibson in the Roll of Honour. His was one of a set of service records I did not manage to retrieve, but have been found by Anita Carroll, who is researching a couple of war memorials in the area. Alfred was another one of the many miners who volunteered in August 1914, survived most of the war, only to be wounded and captured on 23 March 1918. Although he was treated in a German Field Hospital, he died from tetanus infection in his wounds on on 16 April and is buried in the Foreste Communal Cemetery nearby. He appears to have been a member of B Company and at least one of his periods of leave to England coincided with that of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, and I like to think that they knew each other and travelled together back in January 1917.

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Langemarck 16 August 1917

While the infantry battalions of 20th Light Division were involved in the taking and holding of the village of Langemarck, 11th DLI Pioneers continued, during and after the battle, to work as before. A, B and D Companies worked on roads and tracks over the Pilckem Ridge and into the Steenbeck valley area, C Company worked on laying railways (something they did well into September while the rest of the battalion was in rest). That illustrates a stark difference from the way the Pioneers were used in the attack on Guillemont a year before and shows the vital importance placed on keeping men, guns and materials moving through the swampy landscape. Nor was it without its dangers. Progressively, over the month four officers and 61 men were struck off as wounded or sick, and seven men were killed on the very day of the attack on Langemarck. The German artillery kept up a constant barrage of artillery and gas shells both on the attacking infantry and the supply lines.

On 16 August 1917, the day of the main attack, 11th DLI lost Privates 25775 Charles Buckle, 20757 Nathan Donkin, 15151 Robert Taylor, 21024 Henry Hodgson, 45678 Charles Hildreth, 15047 Arthur William Hunt and 16073 Joseph Alfred Tansey. All the bodies were recovered and lie buried at Bard Cottage Cemetery on the west bank of the Yser Canal next to the casualty station. Captain J Taylor and 17 other men were wounded at the same time. Under such heavy artillery bombardment, it took immense courage to keep working, unable to fire a shot in return. Private William Walker was awarded the Military Medal for his action in keeping his mates going.

Citation for Military Medal for William Walker

Losses for the infantry were, however, much worse than for the Pioneers. The Field Companies of the Royal Engineers laid canvas-covered bridges over the Steenbeck during the night. 11th Rifle Brigade advanced into shell holes under cover of darkness ready to suppress Au Bon Gîte, capturing an officer and 50 men. The remaining battalions could only advance in single files through the shell-holed, muddy landscape, mopping up pockets of the enemy in holes and blockhouses as they went. Several VCs and other bravery awards were won. Most of the objectives were achieved, but losses were so heavy that two battalions of the 38th Welsh Division were brought up as reinforcements to secure the gains overnight and into 17 August before the rest of their Division were brought forward to relieve the 20th Division, who moved back into the reserve area with 11th DLI based at Seaton Camp (apart from C Company, who were still building railways].

Casualty Report: Langemarck 6-19 August 1917

Unit Officers     Ranks    
  Killed Wounded Missing Killed Wounded Missing
20 Divisional HQ 1
Divisional Artillery 2 5 18 90
Divisional Engineers 5 2 35
59 Infantry Brigade
10 KRRC 2 4 20 66 84
11 KRRC 1 1 31 135 20
10 Rifle Brigade 7 9 1 15 152 26
11 Rifle Brigade 7 1 37 167 50
59 Machine Gun Cy 2 4 20
59 Trench Mortar By 1 3 15
59 Brigade Total 9 21 6 110 555 180
60 Infantry Brigade
6 Ox & Bucks LI 4 31 153 8
6 Kings Shropshire LI 5 39 168 6
12 KRRC 4 5 2 43 152 51
12 Rifle Brigade 1 11 31 165 10
60 Machine Gun Cy 6 26
60 Trench Mortar By 1
60 Brigade Total 5 26 2 150 664 75
61 Infantry Brigade
Brigade HQ 1
12 Kings Liverpool R 2 9 1 45 239 26
7 Somerset LI 2 12 47 206 21
7 Duke of Cornwall LI 2 4 24 151 16
7 KOYLI 3 8 1 27 238
61 Machine Gun Cy 2 5 43
61 Trench Mortar By 1 1 3 4
61 Brigade Total 10 37 2 151 881 63
11 DLI Pioneers 3 7 22
217 Machine Gun Cy 1 4 5 18 4
RAMC Field Ambulance 1 3 31
GRAND TOTAL 27 103 10 446 2296 322

The statistics above are what was reported in an appendix to the Narrative Report of the role of 20th Light Division in the capture of Langemarck, from start to finish of operations. They definitely deserved their Divisional Memorial in the village.

20 Division Memorial at Langemarck

Additional Note:

I have covered the battle of Langemarck in such detail (despite the essentially supportive role played by 11th DLI Pioneers) in order to correct what was a media misrepresentation as part of the commemorations in relation to Passchendaele around 31 July 2017.

There was BBC TV coverage of a ceremony at the Welsh Division Memorial at Langemarck and the impression was given that the 38th Division was largely responsible for the capture of Langemarck. This was not entirely the case. They were involved first as reserves to 20th Division, and then used to consolidate the hold on the village after the initial success, allowing the badly mauled 20th Division to go into reserve to refit.

There is also a memorial to the 20th Division at Langemarck (as there is at Guillemont) and I would like to highlight their central role. Of course, due to all the reorganisation of army regiments in recent decades, Light Infantry units have had their sense of identity severely eroded and do not have a ‘national identity’ to draw upon like the Welsh. Scores of regiments have become merely ‘The Rifles’, replacing units that have identities stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars.

 

 

The Build-up to Langemarck, 8-15 August 1917

Prior to launching the final attack on Langemarck, 20th Light Division infantry manned the front lines directly in front of Au Bon Gîte, 300 yards on the eastern bank of the Steenbeck. To their left was the 29th Division and to their right was the 11th Division, both of whom had established some outposts on the eastern side of the stream. The 20th Division aimed to establish their own outposts.

11th Rifle Brigade were first up, sending over three patrols on 8 August – the road was blown up in front of one, a bridge blown up in front of another and only the third succeeded briefly for a day. Two companies of 10th King’s Royal Rifle Corps tried the same on 11 August, though with more men – only to be surprised by an oncoming enemy patrol.

On 14 August, two companies of 11th Rifle Brigade and all four companies of 10th Rifle Brigade tried again, led by Lt Colonel Troughton and supported by an artillery barrage. The costs were horrific on both battalions in losses of men and officers. They almost captured Au Bon Gîte and did suppress several other blockhouses. They now held the eastern bank of the Steenbeck to a depth of about 200 yards, fighting through the night into the early hours of 15 August. [Roughly along the 10-metre contour line beyond the Steenbeck towards Langemarck, marked in brown on the map below].

The larger attack was scheduled for 16 August – only a mile to go! How would the Division cope, now severely reduced? How would they keep supplies coming across the Steenbeck [seen below, after the battle with some of the crossing points in place].

This task would fall to the Royal Engineers field companies attached to the Division. Meanwhile, throughout all this, 11th DLI continued their work on roads, artillery dumps and railways: work of value to all the attacking forces in keeping supplies moving forward.

 

 

The Prelude to Langemarck 1917

Reading the 11 DLI Battalion War Diary for August 1917 for the days after the capture of Pilckem Ridge, it would be easy to imagine that it was some uninterrupted two-three weeks where the Pioneers repaired roads, built bridges over the canal and constructed artillery dumps (other than C Company, which specialised in railway work – possibly repairing the Ypres-Staden Railway as well as constructing new tracks). Essentially this was correct in a very functional sense, but buried within these matter of fact records were some telling remarks.

On 2 August, it was commented that ‘men now have a march of 14 miles daily and in addition have 6 hours work to do’. They were moving between work in and around the bank of the Yser Canal to and from Canada Camp to the west of Elverdinghe, several miles away. And it was raining cats and dogs most of the time. On 5 August, A, B and D Companies were road making in the area below Pilckem Ridge and it was commented that ‘Huddleston Road now passable up to Cactus Trench, here there was an impassable swamp’. Respite of a sort came when, on the night of 7-8 August, 11 DLI took over the camp on the Canal bank from the Pioneers of the Welsh Division, before starting more road and railway work as before but without the long trek. The same work continued uninterrupted, until 15 August, apart from a bombardment of gas shells at 11 pm on 14 August (yes, they were working at night as well).

Meanwhile, the rest of 20th Light Division was making preparations for an attack across the Steenbeck to capture Langemarck, though most of their early attempts were thwarted by the bad weather, which had allowed the Germans to consolidate their defences on the east bank of the stream.

The Objective and the Obstacles

As a starting point, the aim was to secure the ground to the east of the Steenbeck, which was heavily fortified with a complex of concrete blockhouses at the centre of which was one ironically named Au Bon Gîte.

Au Bon Gite, after the battle

There were several attempts from 11 August by units of 10 and 11 Rifle Brigade to seize this area, only partially successful and at enormous cost. The blockhouse at Au Bon Gîte was still not suppressed by 15 August, despite repeated attacks by 10 and 11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps. However, there was sufficient consolidation of positions on the east of the Steenbeck to permit the final attack on 16 August, as part of a broader assault along the British sector lines. There were two major questions. Were the infantry battalions of 20th Division still strong enough after the previous two weeks of attrition? Would the Pioneers of 11th DLI be able to keep the communications for both infantry and artillery up to scratch in the awful conditions visible in the photograph above?

 

 

Langemarck 1917 – the context

Ypres was surrounded by a semi-circle of higher ground from Messines in the south to Pilckem further north. Part of the ridge from Messines to Hooge was captured during June.

The aim of the Third Ypres campaign was to take this higher ground and beyond. XIV Corps (of which 20th Division was a part) was initially challenged to take the Pilckem Ridge and the ground beyond as far as the Steenbeck. At the start, part of the British line lay along about a mile of the Yser Canal while south of the Ypres-Staden railway crossing the British occupied lines on the eastern side of the canal as far south as Wieltje. This area was the jumping off point for all units including 11th DLI on 31 July.

The 20th Division was based at Proven and 11th DLI was deployed at points south and west of Elverdinghe prior to moving into advance positions for 31 July. They would remain at these camps around Canada Farm for the first few days of the operations, travelling to and from their work places as much as 14 miles a day in appallingly wet and muddy conditions.

The first phase of the attacks on 31 July was led by the 38th (Welsh) Division and the Guards Division, supported by 20th Division Artillery and Machine Gun companies in laying down a moving barrage lifting at 100 yard intervals. The line of attack was in a north-easterly direction from the British trenches on the eastern side of the canal. 11th DLI was tasked with building artillery tracks to help the guns move forward as the battle progressed, with C Company constructing light railway tracks. 10th Rifle Brigade and 11th King’s Royal Rifle Corps did similar work with the 20th Division Engineers in support of 38th Division. The remainder of the 20th Division was in reserve until called forward to relieve the 38th Division on 6 August.

Once the Pilckem Ridge and the line of the Steenbeck was taken, the next objective would be Langemarck. The 20th Division HQ for that episode was at Dragon Camp, three miles east of Elverdinghe. This is not named on the contemporary maps, but was close to the bank of the Yser Canal, and 11th DLI were stationed on the western bank opposite Bard Cottage[1].

The front line at the end of operations extended for 1000 yards along the west bank of the Steenbeck, with the left flank where the stream was crossed by the Ypres-Staden railway.

[1] There is a CWGC Cemetery at this place, containing a number of 11 DLI burials. It was created behind a sheltering bank and includes burials from nearby Marengo Farm.

Rain, Mud and Fire: 31 July 1917

The 11 DLI Pioneers’ Battalion Diary for 31 July is economic in its description of the day, over several separate entries.

  • At 1.30 am, the men arrived at Canada Farm.
  • At 8 am, B and D Companies moved forward to work at the Canal Bank, joined by A Company at 2 pm.
  • By 4 pm they were road making from the Canal Bank to trenches captured from the enemy by 20th Division infantry.
  • At 4pm work stopped temporarily due to heavy rain, but 11 DLI remained on the work all night. Rations and water came up at 6 pm (the first meal since breakfast). While this was going on, the enemy targeted the east side of Pilckem Ridge with artillery fire, answered by Divisional artillery from 8.30 pm. A few gas shells landed.
  • The Pioneers did not return to camp until afternoon of the following day.

The Divisional History describes the scene in the afternoon as the rain came down: ‘The tracks forward were not yet completed; one road was passable, but only as far as the old German front line. As a result of our bombardment the ground was a mass of shell-holes, with pill-boxes blown upside down and debris scattered everywhere, difficult enough for infantry to move over and almost impossible for guns.’

The rain would continue for three more days.

The Night Before Passchendaele, 30 July 1917

The Third Battle of Ypres, more popularly known by one of the target villages as ‘Passchendaele’, would commence on 31 July 1917. 11 DLI Pioneers would operate in support of 20th Light Division infantry, with the sole aim of maintaining communications and transport across the Steenbeck, exposed under heavy fire and through quagmire conditions, towards the Pilckem Ridge. The Pioneers had already been heavily involved helping construct the vital artillery tracks that would allow forward movement of heavy guns and machine guns in support of the infantry.

Lt Colonel Hayes issued Company Orders as follows. Notably, ‘C’ Company was excluded from this work (they were doing railway construction work).

11th DLI, Operation Order 58, 30 July 1917

  1. The Battalion with Transport (less ‘C’ Coy & Coy Transport) will move to Canada Farm[1] Area on night 30/31 July.
  2. The Battalion will parade in ‘Battle Order’ without packs at 9.30 pm. During the march, an interval of 200 yds. will be kept between Coys. Transport will be in rear of last Coy.
  3. Water Bottles and Water Carts will be filled.
  4. Packs will be taken by Motor Lorry. These will be stacked by Coys at F.7.b.2.2 under the supervision of 2/Lieut. P V Kemp. One man per Coy will be left in charge; these 3 men will proceed by Lorry and unload the Packs at Canada Farm. (5 men HQ will load packs on lorry). Packs must be marked. Mess Tins must not go with Packs.
  5. A Billeting Party consisting of Lieut. WGL Sear & 1 NCO per Coy, HQ and Transport will parade at 1.30 pm and proceed to A. 18.b.0.8. (Sheet 28) and there report to Staff Captain 59th Brigade.
  6. Rations for consumption on 31st (less Breakfast ration) will be carried on the man.
  7. After arrival at Canada Farm all Companies must be prepared to move at 15 minutes notice.
  8. This afternoon the men are to rest & all possible rest is to be obtained at Canada Farm.
  9. Breakfasts will be issued at Canada Farm prior to moving off from there. Time not yet known: probable time of moving about 6am. This will be communicated to Coy Commanders as soon as it is known.
  10. Further orders will be issued later re move from Canada Farm. Acknowledge. Issued at 9.50 am.

 

[1] Canada Farm is now marked by a CWGC cemetery with 907 WW1 burials. There was a farmhouse on the spot, used as a dressing station. It is not far from Elverdinghe. There are no 11 DLI burials there. For the purpose of orders at the launch of the battle, it was also known as G Camp in the War Diary.