The first day of summer 1917, 11 DLI Pioneers were stationed at Vaulx in the slowly moving Somme sector of the Front. The constant work of previous months continued apace, meticulously recorded in the Battalion War Diary. Acting Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Hayes returned to take command after sick leave. Everything that Pioneers could do was part of their employment: trench digging, dugouts including office accommodation, assembling artillery dumps, constructing Decauville railways.
It sounds exhausting and it was also dangerous – one of the areas being worked in was called Death Valley. There was an explosion at one of the dumps, wounding 13 men. Officers came and went, several of them due to sickness like Lts Cooper and Fleming. There was the ever-present danger of enemy shelling and fragments of shrapnel whizzing around.
News reached the battalion of action on the Ypres Front with the capture of Messines after the blowing of an enormous set of mines. It was the herald of things to come for the Pioneers, though at this stage they were still unaware. Work continued on Sydney Avenue. It may have sounded like some tree-lined boulevard in Australia, but was well within shot of the German long-range guns. Only on the last day of the month did the orders come to move out to Domart after a day’s rest and inspection.
During May 11th DLI HQ was based at Ytres. They were under Divisional instructions to complete the wiring of the new Reserve Line under command of the Royal Engineers, although it was immediately postponed due to a lack of small screw pickets! A day later, work began. In one evening the battalion wired 1700 yards of the right sector and 650 yards of the left sector, with a 16-foot apron and loose wire.
The next evening work began on a new communications trench. It was to be six feet deep excluding parapets, two feet wide at the bottom with passing places, width at the bottom to be determined by the soil structure (chalk and clay), with drains towards the road. The trench was to be camouflaged. Despite periodic gas alarms, the trench was dug and camouflaged to a depth of 4 feet for 520 yards in one night. Everything, including another support line was completed by 20 May. Not bad, considering the battalion was at just over half strength at the time.
As the month progressed, so the battalion was moved forward to do the same sort of work all over again, more wiring, more communications trenches, plus roads and Decauville railways. It was virtually non-stop following the painstaking retreat of the German forces.
During the ‘cruellest month’, to quote the poet, 11 DLI spent much of the time filling holes. Based around Bus, Ytres, Le Transloy and Metz, there was much work to be done making damaged roads passable as the Germans slowly retreated under successive attacks. It was part of a cleverly scheduled retreat using attrition and booby traps while a new defensive line was built – the Hindenburg Line. As they retreated, the Germans exploded mines under the roads and it was this constant need to keep roads passable that occupied the Pioneers for most of the month.
The next objective in this sector was Metz-en-Couture. Being close to the front lines, the Pioneers were ordered to wear gas masks at all times – which must have made working particularly hard. It was hard enough anyhow – repairing roads, filling mine craters and shell holes, improving drainage ditches, clearing wreckage and clearing villages (what was left of them). It was tricky work, with booby traps to be looked out for. Finally, at the end of the month work was begun on constructing a new ‘line of resistance’ – essentially a series of reserve trenches.
The comings and goings of various officers are recorded by name. On 6 April, for example, ‘Lt Padley (recently commissioned from the ranks) proceeded on 10 days’ leave to England.’ This was Herbert Padley, formerly Pte 11368 York and Lancaster Regiment, commissioned into 11 th DLI as Lieutenant on 2 April 1917. He survived the war, applying for his medals in 1921. [Not confirmed, but this was probably Herbert Padley who in 1911, aged 21, lived with his parents in Shiregreen, Sheffield. He worked as a clerk and shorthand typist for a steel works.]
Proximity to the front line was illustrated on 15 April, when the Officers’ Mess Room and B Company Mess and Signal Office were blown up by enemy shelling. Four men were killed and four more wounded. The dead were Privates Joseph Lindsay, Richard Stott, John Graham and William Harold Short, all buried at Lebucquiere Communal Cemetery.
Worth mentioning one or two officers during this month. 2nd Lt Devey had been away for several weeks since the end of January, having had his leave extended. He was now struck off the battalion strength, declared ‘medically unfit’. 2nd Lt Lascelles, who had been with the battalion for a couple of months took 20 men on a digging party – only to have the work cancelled owing to ‘bright moonlight’. It is always worth remembering that much of the labour at the Front was done during the hours of darkness, adding to the general exhaustion. Instead, they were deployed to bring up Lewis Gun ammunition – so, no night off. [Lascelles would later in the War earn the Victoria Cross, but not with 11 DLI).
Just as well that on 27 March 1917 there arrived “Reinforcement 50 ORs. One of the best drafts received – good, strong, hardy-looking men – all from Durham. Otherwise it was a month of trench wiring, road building, and laying of Decauville narrow gauge tracks and constantly being shifted from one place to another in the general area around Guillemont and Montauban. Once again, the diary for the month has attached a series of reports detailing all the various roads worked on and what was achieved – an exemplary record of just what a Pioneer Battalion was called on to provide. There are also Operational Orders detailing the exact movements.
After a short rest, the battalion was moved forward to Montauban and began work on Hogsback Trench and Sunken Road. The war diary gave a full résumé of the work done during the following fortnight. It is worth noting what was achieved.
Nine saps were made to create dugouts with entrances 5ft by 3ft on a 1 in 2 gradient to a depth of 35ft – sufficient depth from which to create galleries off. 140 yards of double track duck walk was laid along Sunken Road leading to these dugouts. Four camouflage screens were erected across the road and the dugouts similarly screened. Improvements were made to the Ginchy Aid Post, but work was held up by shortage of materials and a Stand To order. A shelter was built for 25 men along the Sunken Road. Four deep dugouts were built respectively 8ft, 9ft, 26ft and 16ft long on a 1 in 1 slope (!) Wire was laid along the Intermediate Line with four knife rests for gaps and a further 10 yards repaired. Two of the old German saps were recovered and put back to use. Six more shelters for the men were erected along the Sunken Road for protection from splinters.
None of this was without its casualties. Two men from C Company were killed in a train accident on 14 February. The only one I have definitely identified on this date was Private 16241 John Salkeld Long from Gateshead, killed in action. The only other, dated the day before was Private 25211 James Connfey (aka Carthy) aged 38 from Sunderland, died of wounds. Both are buried at Boisguillaume Cemetery. Others suffered wounds, injuries or died during the same period.
A look at the war diary for February is well worth inspection, as it has several copies of Battalion Orders attached. The diary is available to download from the National Archives website.
New Year’s Day found the 11 DLI ‘at rest’ at Ville and the adjutant on sick leave. Not for long. The various Companies were split up to work at different sectors of the Front around Wedge Wood and Combles – B Company at the latter. Most of the work was repairing, improving and revetting trenches. Dumps were created, trees felled, new trenches were dug. The relentless labour was broken for some as groups of men were sent home on leave. New officers and men kept arriving to make up for the losses in 1916. The war diary for the month was full of every last details of what was achieved. On 20 January two officers and 17 men went on leave, among them Sergeant Thomas Bashforth. He returned from Darlington at the end of the month and nine months later a third child, John Raymond Bashforth was born on Guy Fawkes Day – my Dad. By the end of January, the battalion began another short rest at Méaulte.
Although the majority of the men from 11 DLI were working flat out during the month of January 1917, at least there was the opportunity for some to go home on leave. December had been a ghastly experience, much of the time clearing the battlefield of German corpses and creating a mass burial. I can’t be certain, but this may have been the beginning of what is now the German cemetery at Fricourt where there is a pit containing more than 17000 unidentified bodies, as well as rows and rows of grave markers. Pause to remember that most of these guys were conscripts. It would be good to start 2017 with some shared compassion for families devastated in Germany, Austria and other parts of central Europe.
Things had been so bad that several officers, including the Adjutant, had been away sick, as well as large numbers of the other ranks. Leave was overdue. 2nd Lt Kemp took 19 men away on 4 January. 2nd Lt Dennis took another 19 on 10 January. 2nd Lts Devey and Philip took 17 men with them on 20 January. Various officers individually came and went. This was at a time when numbers were depleted. Fortunately, the battalion also benefited from the arrival of an excellent draft of 82 NCOs and men, all well trained. Half a dozen new officers arrived.
Among those going home on leave was Sergeant Thomas Bashforth of B Company, my grandfather, who was in the third group, returning at the end of the month. Nine months after his trip back to Darlington, my Dad was born. Happy homecoming!
The war diary is unusually detailed for the month and provides information on how the Companies were allocated out to different tasks – almost all work on improving, revetting and wiring of trenches and creating drains, with each trench named; but there was felling, sawing and stacking of wood, building of huts – the whole gamut of Pioneer work. There was even a mysteriously mentioned ‘special task’ with the Royal Engineers that was suspended due to heavy snow, but no description of what it was. The lads would be glad when they arrived at Méaulte at the end of the month for a rest.