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.
In May the remnants of 11th DLI left Grenas to arrive at Pas en Artois on Saturday, 10 May. Five more men had gone off to Rouen on 5 May to join 63 POW Company (and another on 26 May), while on 9 May Captain GP Baines and five more men left for the demobilisation centre at Candas. They hadn’t quite finished with Grenas however – there was still plenty of clearing up to do, especially the enjoyable task of filling in the latrines. Hopefully some of those involved in that were among the 20 men who were accompanied by an officer for a day’s outing in Amiens on 16 May. Otherwise, after settling in at Pas it was more cleaning of equipment and especially the wagons parked at Mondecourt with the Divisional transport.
June 3 was given over as a holiday in celebration of King George V’s birthday. On Whit Monday, another holiday, 2nd Lt G Phillips and 28 remaining men set off for the demobilisation centre, leaving only a Unit Guard detail, who were sent off next day to guard the battalion equipment at Mondecourt. The last cadre was getting ready to head back for the UK, with material being marked up for its destination as ‘Aintree NC’. All was ready for leaving on 16 June but for a derailment at Mondecourt, so they finally set off on 18 June. Shuttled between Le Havre and Harfleur, the men and equipment finally embarked on 23 June, arriving in Southampton the next day. Lt Col Carlisle was able to sign off his last monthly battalion war diary. Apart from the laying up of colours in Durham Cathedral, the 11th Durham Light Infantry (Pioneers) was no more – except in memories.
11th DLI began the month of April 1919 with a nominal strength of 13 officers and 128 men, and a ration strength actually at Grenas camp of only 7 officers and 84 men. Mostly the men were involved in salvage work of one sort or another, interspersed with inspections and drill. On 4 April, five of the remaining officers and one other man left for demobilisation. The officers were Captain J Liddell, Lieutenants FG Andrew and AC Lynch, and 2nd Lieutenants CH Bonson and RB Masham. Of these only Captain Liddell was an old hand, having joined the battalion on 20 September 1916 as a 2nd Lieutenant.
One day the men would be lifting and salvaging railway track; another day they would be clearing camp buildings or readying them for the numerous inspections. If the weather got bad things were so lacking in urgency that work was cancelled such as on 12 April. That would never have happened in war time conditions. There were sports competitions in progress and the battalion team beat that from 11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps on 15 April and went on to win the finals of the Divisional sports on 23 April. On 19 April, Lt JH Anderson and 43 men set off to join 63rd Prisoner of War Company at Rouen, while 9 men were transferred temporarily to the Ordnance Depot at Calais to join the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Two men went back to the UK for re-engagement leave as they had decided to join up as regulars. Huts were being boarded up and the camp progressively cleared, with remaining kit being overhauled.
At the end of the month the nominal strength was only 8 officers and 57 men, with a ration strength of 4 officers and 33 other ranks actually in camp. One of the four officers was still Lt Colonel Carlisle, the CO.
Throughout March 1919, 11th DLI was stationed at Grenas. The war diary for the month demonstrated very clearly the way the battalion had been depleted and the limited work that could now be done. The greatest part of their activity was ‘adjusting billets’, storing Government furniture and checking equipment – all followed by numerous inspections, almost on a daily basis. Activity was interspersed with voluntary church services on Sundays, and occasional fatigue duties, mainly repair work on huts and salvage duty. Once a week small batches were sent away to the Demobilisation Centre – nine men on the 7th, 12 on the 14th, six on the 28th. One man attested for the Regular Army on 30th March. On the last day of the month, attention was turned to the wagons, getting them fit for duty. Ration strength at the end of the month was down to seven officers (including Lt Colonel Carlisle) and a mere 84 men.
The purpose of all the ceremonial parade practice became evident in February. There was a last dress rehearsal on 2 February in front of the CO (though another 15 men also left for demobilisation) before the Battalion was presented with its official colours the next day by Major General Douglas Smith, the 20th Division Commander. During the rest of the week there were days of Company Training, mixed with lectures from Major HC Boxer. Lt CC Page and 19 other ranks left for demobilisation on 6 February, followed on 8 February by Captain R Jee and Lt DJ Rees. During the second week the battalion was engaged in filling trenches around Mondicourt and both clearing up old camps while erecting new huts. Several more officers left, including Major Boxer (11 Feb) and Lt Myles Cooper (14 Feb). Lt AH Lewis and 5 other ranks left on 13 February. The same work continued during the third work, alongside salvage work.
Another feature of this period was the willingness of men to sign up for the Regular Army. On 27 February 163 men, with officers including Lt E Fleming, 2 Lts OG Day, WH Charnley, FE Upton, ER Harbron, BC Barrans, JH Dodds, MM Harrington, RE Forster and MA Latham, were transferred to join 20th Battalion the Durham Light Infantry in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. Others were not so keen and 31 other ranks left for demobilisation on 28 February. Although 9 other ranks had actually joined during the month, by the end the ration strength was down to 8 officers and 127 men. The scene was set for the gradual disembodiment of the battalion over the following four months. Meanwhile, men still on the nominal strength but on leave in England or detached to 3 DLI, were still dying, among them Private George Elsy in March, some like him from Spanish Flu. Also among their number was Lt DJ Rees mentioned above), in July 1919 having returned to the UK in the February.
The final few months for 11 DLI on the Western Front were spent in the same area around Grenas. Though the battalion was being wound down, there was continuous coming and going of recruits and officers. Some attention was being paid to the idea of the men returning home and finding work, as was evident by the presence of an Education Officer giving training in clerical work such as shorthand and book-keeping. Otherwise it was mainly a mixture of work on detachment, constructing new stables or working at Hurtebise Farm under Royal Engineers (presumably clearing the land of expired ordnance and other war detritus). In between was a great deal of drill, parade ground work of a ceremonial nature and the like. There were plenty of classes, a recreation Nissen hut was built, and various platoons were sent off on ‘Divisional Wood Fatigues’ at Pas. The month ended with a battalion Ceremonial Parade. Activity and smartness seem to have been the watch words.
Among the ‘goings’ were Major JG Taylor (MC) and 4 other ranks (5 Jan), Captain A Floyd and 2nd Lt RH King (MC) and 23 other ranks (15 Jan), Major RLS Pemberton (MC), 2 Lt TT Firth and 25 other ranks (18 Jan), 2 Lt AH Ainsworth and 26 other ranks (20 Jan), 2 Lt (RE) C Smith and 24 other ranks (21 Jan), 2 Lt W Lazenby and 23 other ranks (22 Jan), 2 Lt J Martin and 26 other ranks (26 Jan), 2 Lt SH Davis and 40 other ranks (27 Jan), and Lt BH Wood and 24 other ranks (28 Jan). Ration strength at the end of the month was 25 officers and 294 other ranks, though 23 of the latter joined during the month!
On 1 December, 11th DLI was stationed at Cambrai and immediately 182 miners were sent back to England. The next day the rest of the battalion moved on by bus and lorry to Thiévres, where they were based for the rest of the week. This was part of a step by step move via Halloy to Grenas, where the battalion would be based for some time. At each step, a couple of days at a time, one Company went on ahead to inspect and clean up the billets, while the other Companies were on work details, joining later.
Once at Grenas, much of the work was on improving the billets, erecting new huts and making new horse lines and tidying up the HQ accommodation at Pas. On 20 December, 50 more miners were despatched back to England while 100 men set about making a Recreation Ground. Another 25 miners set off back to England on Xmas Eve, 24 December. All that is said for Christmas Day is that there were Church Parades for the Anglican and Catholic men. For much of the remainder of the month, though some work was done, bad weather prevented much in the way of outdoor labour. By the end of the month, numbers had become much reduced to 679 other ranks on the roll call, though there were still 43 officers. In reality, the ration strength was 34 officers and 533 men. Demobilisation was progressing slowly but steadily, with miners the chosen ones.
As was customary, there was little mention of specific names other than the occasional reference to an officer. Second Lieutenant AH Lewis joined on 5 December with two more men. Lieutenant CC Page went to Lille on 15 December to attend a Chemistry course! On 31 December, three more miners went home while Lt E Fleming joined the battalion.