31 March 1918

Easter Day witnessed a similar pattern of events to the day before. The lines came under heavy artillery bombardment. Both flanks were turned so the Division fell back to just south of the river Luce by late afternoon.

Captain Pemberton organised 11 DLI on a hill south-east of Thennes. The Germans attacked almost immediately, but were repulsed. The remnants of 6 KSLI and 11 DLI joined cavalry in a counter-attack and by 8 pm, aided by artillery fire from the divisional command post on higher ground at Domart, they had secured the flanks. Captain Endean was wounded by a shell splinter in the upper thigh, inches from the spine. Sergeant Thomas Bonney was killed and is buried at Moreuil Communal Cemetery. Lance Corporal John Yates was also killed and is commemorated at Pozières.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hayes arrived back during the morning and to find what was left of his battalion. Unable to contact Pemberton, Hayes chose not to interfere with his command and instead took over a mixed party of men from other 20th Division units, remaining with them until they were relieved a couple of days later. The final remnants of 11 DLI were pulled out of the line the next day.

Advertisements

30 March 1918

On Saturday, 30 March, further retirement was forced and 20th Division established a new line on the Démuin – Moreuil road with 60th Brigade to the right, 59th in the centre and 61st to the left. After a quiet night, the Durhams (with 60th Brigade) were alerted that the Germans were in Moreuil Wood and shifted their formation to create a defensive line in that direction. The situation remained precarious, men being seen retiring to their left and the French pulling back on their right. Continuous attacks were held up throughout the day, but at 4 pm the thin defences of the 60th Brigade were penetrated. A cavalry attack with artillery support succesfully recovered the position.

Two DLI men were killed (Tom Evans buried at Fouqeuscourt and John Willingham buried at Hangard), while Lance Sergeant W. Johnston died of wounds at a rear dressing station and is buried at Namps-au-val.

 

29 March 1918

The 20th Division was transferred to the command of Lieutenant General Watts and XIX Corps to reinforce their right flank. They occupied a defensive line in between the villages of Mézières and Démuin, with 59th Brigade on the right up to the main Amiens road, the 61st on the left and the 60th (including 11 DLI) in reserve west of the road from Démuin to Moreuil. The French held Mézières itself. The reserve positions came under heavy artillery fire, which killed Lieutenant-Colonel Welch of 6 KSLI.

During the morning of Good Friday, 29 March, the Germans drove the French out of Mézières. At 3.15 pm, 11 DLI was ordered to take part in the recapture of the village. Their ranks consisted of ten officers and about 130 men. The men of 12 KRRC and 12 RB attacked the village from the southwest, while 11 DLI and 11 RB worked through the wood on the northwest, with a company from 2nd Scottish Rifles on their right. There was little in the way of artillery support.

At 4 pm, they launched their attack out of the wood that had been their overnight bivouac. Emerging from the trees, the Durhams faced a dash across open ground directly into trench mortar and machine gun fire. Nevertheless Captain Pemberton managed to reach the village with about twenty men, and remained there in an attempt to hold the village until only two men were left, before pulling back. Similarly, 2nd Lieutenant King reached the village with a Lewis gun, but by then all his men had been hit and they were forced to retire. Both officers were awarded the MC for their actions. A third group got into the village square and put three German trench mortars out of action. Despite the brave efforts by all the units involved, none were able to hold the village. Finding themselves trapped from behind by concealed parties of the enemy, they were forced to fight their way back to their original lines. The survivors were ordered back to take up a defensive line between Thennes and Hourges.

Inevitably the losses were heavy, in terms of those killed, wounded and captured. The battalion now consisted of a mere four officers and thirty-four men. Four of those killed are commemorated at Pozières: 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Arnott, and Privates Joseph Barnard, John O’Brien and Clifford Pollard. Sergeant J. M. Craggs is buried at Mézières. Private Victor Anderson died of wounds from a previous day and is buried at Namps-au-val. Lieutenant Bushell, 2nd Lieutenant Ellwood and 2nd Lieutenant Applegarth were taken prisoner. Applegarth had been shot in the chest and died from a tetanus infection on 8 April in a German Field Hospital near Beaufort-on-Somme. His remains were exhumed after the war and buried at Caix, north east of Moreuil, not far from where he fought his last battle.

On repatriation after the war, both Bushell and Ellwood were interviewed to provide accounts of their capture. Bushell (originally from B Company) had command of one officer and twenty-five men. They had worked their way through a dense copse, but as they emerged came under such heavy fire that they had to lie down. The other officer was missing and several of the men were out of action. Bushell kept the others down in the hope of being able to make another advance when the enfilade fire died down. As they were only about fifty yards from the German machine guns and in plain view, neither advance nor retreat were options. When the firing did cease, it was because the Germans had worked their way round into the copse behind. Bushell had little option but to surrender.

Ellwood was in charge of what was referred to as D Company, consisting of himself, two officers and about thirty men, of whom some twenty-five were recently acquired reinforcements and new to action. His party worked their way through the wood into heavy machine gun fire, coming from the houses directly opposite. He was hit and concussed. As with Bushell, he found himself surrounded by Germans who had worked their way round behind and he and his two surviving men were forced to surrender. Lt Col Hayes wrote later to reassure the family that there was hope that their missing son would be found: ‘I am writing to you about your son, The only news that I can give you is not good. He fell badly hit and fell into German hands, consequently is reported wounded and missing. He was on my headquarter’s staff as Lewis gun officer and was not only a fine subaltern, but a personal friend, and as a friend I refuse to believe the worst till I get proof of it.’ He continued in much the same vein, praising Ellwood’s coolness under fire and qualities as a friend and comrade: ‘All we know is that he got up under terrific machine gun fire and walked forward and said “Come on you fellows” and then he fell hit in the body.’ Hayes was relying on second hand testimony or imagination, as he had been away recovering from the effects of gas poisoning and did not arrive back to the battalion until the morning of 31 March.

 

28 March 1918

Wednesday had witnessed a dogged attempt to keep the remnants of the battalion together in an exposed position, under heavy fire from ahead and with their flanks exposed. The Durhams were exhausted, but not defeated. As the following days would prove, they remained able to play their part in finally bringing the German advance to a grinding halt and deny them their objective, the city of Amiens only a few miles away.

On Thursday 28 March, the Division was due to be relieved by French forces. Before dawn, the 59th and 61st Brigades marched out along the Amiens road to a wood south-east of Démuin, which they reached at mid-day. However, at 8 am, before the 60th Brigade, including 11 DLI, could be replaced, they came under a heavy barrage, followed by a fierce attack on their whole line. The advanced platoon of 11 DLI was heavily shelled and its Lewis guns put out of action. The enemy were massing in woods on the right flank and the Durhams turned their defences to meet the threat. In danger of being surrounded, the Brigade was ordered to retire, which they did under heavy shell and machine-gun fire. The mixed unit of 12 RB and Trench Mortar men were pushed to the right to plug any gap and help cover the retirement. The Brigadier General commended the courage of the Durhams in their efforts to hold back the German attack.

By 3 pm, the DLI were at Fresnoy, from where they marched further to the rear to occupy a wood north-west of Mézières. They stayed there all night, sheltering from the rain. Captain Sear had been hit by machine gun fire, a bullet perforating the left lung close to the heart and coming out through his left shoulder blade. Coughing up blood, he was moved back to hospital at Rouen. Coincidentally, Captain R. L. S. Pemberton returned to the battalion at the same time and took command. Pemberton had been on extended leave since 19 February and had missed the terrors of the previous days. He was fresh and ready for action and had already experienced leadership in the conditions of a defensive retreat, winning the MC at Cambrai.

Five deaths from this day are commemorated at Pozières: Arthur Busby, Thomas Hall, Reuben Harland, Allan Hill and John Lowerson. Private W. Amour died in hospital at Rouen from wounds received earlier in the retreat and is buried in the St Sever Cemetery Extension.

In Memoriam: Thomas Bashforth

Thomas Bashforth was born 11 October 1888 at 8 Cranbourne Street, Workington. He was the illegitimate son of Ellen Bashforth, who was aged 17. The birth father is believed to have been called Kelly. Ellen married John McGlasson in Wigan in 1892 and Thomas was brought up as one of the new McGlasson family.

In 1911 Thomas was working in Darlington as a plasterer and met Florence Wood. They married the following year. When war broke out in August 1914, Thomas was one of those caught up in the enlistment fervour engineered by Lord Kitchener. He signed up following a public meeting in Darlington on 31 August 1914.

AF01

While training with 16 Durham Light Infantry he rose to the rank of Corporal, before being assigned overseas to 11 DLI in August 1915. He remained with 11 DLI for the rest of his army service, being promoted to Sergeant in 1916. He was killed in action outside the village of Arvillers on Wednesday, 27 March 1918. He left a widow and three children: Ethel, Thomas and John Raymond. The last of these was born while he was away in France in 1917.

Among the stories told about Thomas was one concerning his final leave in January 1918. As he went to the railway station he was thinking about what he had been through and what might await him on his return to the Front. The exact details may have been embroidered in the constant re-telling, but it appears he spoke to his neighbour, Mrs Ingledew, who was working as a porter on the station. He spoke of ‘taking his hook’ rather than going back, but Mrs Ingledew counselled against it. There were enough stories going round as to what happened to the families of men who deserted. It may only have been thinking out loud, but it has the ring of some sort of truth considering how long Thomas had served and what he had been through. Worse was to come and maybe the story has been embellished because of what happened.

Thomas was wounded during the actions at Arvillers on 27 March 1918. One of his comrades, a man called Towers, tried to carry him back to the village for treatment. They were hit again, the bullet passing through Thomas, killing him, and lodging in Towers’s back. It is a story we would not know about, but for a chance encounter around 1935. Thomas’s youngest son was an apprentice painter and decorator and was employed on a job to do with the Towers family. The man Towers caught Ray’s name and told him of what had happened and how the bullet was still lodged in his back.

I have often wondered about who exactly this man was and whether or not any of his family were still in Darlington. I tracked it down to one of three brothers: Isaac, Alec and Robert Towers (the last of whom died in the Middle East serving with the Railway Operating Division). By a process of elimination and a chance encounter on-line through the Ancestry website, I can be as certain as possible that it was Alec Towers.

Alec Towers enlisted in Darlington on the same day as Thomas Bashforth and also rose to the rank of Sergeant in 11 DLI, regimental number 18572. He was awarded the Silver War Badge for a serious wound and was discharged 17 December 1918 aged 25. Alec Towers married Mary A Morris in early 1919 in Durham. He died in Durham in 1966. They appear to have had three daughters, Vera, Margaret and Audrey, all born in Durham or Chester le Street between 1920 and 1924. Alec does not seem to have lived near Darlington after 1919. However, his mother continued to live at the family home at 52 Falmer Road in Darlington until her death in 1935 aged 66. Dad was probably helping to redecorate the house.

There was one more strange coincidence regarding Thomas’s death. On exactly the same day, near Arras, at the opposite end of the front along which the German offensive had been launched, Private 39621 George Robert Howe of the West Yorkshire Regiment was also killed in action. He was Thomas’s brother-in-law. George was the husband of Thomas’s half-sister, Maggie McGlasson and father of three children: Maggie, Polly and Nell.

So this ‘in memoriam’ has a wider brief than my grandfather alone. As well as remembering him, his widow and their children, I bring to mind the wider McGlasson family and their relatives and descendants, as well as the Towers family. So many losses – more than I have recounted here. So many thoughts and coincidences, echoed in families everywhere.

The road from Erches

The photograph on the title banner of this website was taken in September 1999. It provides an idea of what the landscape might have looked like for the men of 11 DLI on 27 March 1918. Behind the viewfinder is the village of Arvillers while the road ahead leads towards the village of Erches. Off to the right, somewhere in that field, were the roughly dug, shallow trenches and funk holes made by 11 DLI.

On that Spring morning it was probably foggy and cold, as it had been for the past week. There would have been explosions from artillery, the sound of machine gun fire and rifle shots. The land is flat, with little or no cover. What cover there was happened to the advantage of any approaching enemy – a line of trees up ahead, an ominous dip on the right towards the River Avre containing who knew what.

In September 1999, it was afternoon, silent and sunny. Across the field to our right were two or three farm workers deep in conversation. We were thinking of my grandfather, just as I am as I write this piece on the anniversary of his death. In the pit of the stomach, we experienced the strange sensation – there was no place to hide. It was the end of the road.

 

27 March 1918

By early Wednesday morning, 60th Brigade held the right at Arvillers, 59th Brigade held the centre at Folies and the 61st were on the left at Beaufort. The Divisional Reinforcement Battalion remained at Le Quesnel. Now effectively part of 60th Brigade, 11 DLI held a line of trenches south and east of Arvillers, which they had dug the previous day, and formed the extreme right of the British forces second line. To their left were 12 KRRC, then 6 KSLI, with 12 RB holding the village behind, assisted by 60th Trench Mortar Battalion who were now equipped with rifles. The main French forces were a long way to the right, covering the valley of the River Avre in a wooded dip out of sight of 11 DLI, at least 1200 yards away.

A few miles ahead of the 20th Division, the Germans launched artillery attacks on Erches to the front and Bouchoir to the left. Erches was captured by 10.40 and Bouchoir by 12.30. The 20th Division helped pull together the groups of men streaming back along the main Amiens road and re-organised the defences across it to hold the German advance. The Germans were advancing to right, left and in front and 11 DLI was in danger of being over-run. Men from 12 RB were sent out from the village to extend the line to the right of the DLI and plug the gap between them and the French, though the distance involved rendered the task hopeless.

During these actions, an advanced post of 11 DLI came under intense fire. The entries in the battalion war diary for 27-28 March overlap and are rather confused. More clarity can be obtained from the war diary of 12 RB, who had a clear view from the village. As the DLI came under fire, there was commotion around their positions and it appeared that they were about to abandon their posts. Men of 12 RB were about to be sent to reinforce them, but before they did so the problem was resolved and the DLI settled again.

At some point during this day my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, was killed and most probably in this incident. Many years after the war, my father was decorating a house in Darlington owned by a former soldier called Towers. Towers recognized his name and recounted how my grandfather had been wounded, and he had tried to carry him back to the village over his shoulders. However a second bullet killed my grandfather, passing through and becoming lodged in Towers’s back where it remained for the rest of his life. This chance encounter seems to fit the incident described in the diary of 12 RB. Sergeant Bashforth’s body was not identified after the war, probably one of many roughly tumbled into trenches and ditches, as makeshift graves. He is commemorated on the memorial at Pozières. Close by, at Bouchoir, there is a British concentration cemetery, which could conceivably contain his remains.

By the end of the day chances of survival were running out. The battalion as a whole did not amount to much more than a full company strength, around 200 men. There was yet more action, more courageous effort still to come before 11 DLI was finally pulled from the line. Of the deaths that day five are commemorated at Pozières: Frederick Atkinson, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, Lance Corporal James Brown (C Company), Fred Schofield and Robert Snowball. Private Snowball had, ironically, been charged with absence earlier in the month and sentenced to eighty-four days FP1, a sentence he never served. Private Bertie Handisides from West Hartlepool is buried at Caix. Private George Redpath died in the rear at Namps-au-val, from wounds received on an earlier day.