December 1918

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.

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November 1918

For the first few days of November 11th DLI were constantly on the move as part of the steady forward progress of the Allied forces. Based at Cambrai on 1 November, there was an arms inspection. Captain Baines MC rejoined the battalion from a Pioneer course at Rouen on the 3rd and the battalion began its first move, a route march to Rieux. Next day they marched on to Montrecourt, where they were joined by Captain Tollitt, the adjutant, back from leave. There was a couple of days to rest and have feet inspected by Company commanders, before they moved on to Sepmeries on 7 November. Next day it was on to Jenlain and the day after on to St Waast. On 10 November most were resting while D Company worked on road repairs.

At 8 am on 11 November the battalion was wired to stand fast at 1100 am wherever they had reached. In practice they kept going on to Feignies, arriving at 1700 hours. Lt Myles Cooper rejoined the battalion from a course on the same day. There is no mention of any celebrations, though one can be sure there was a collective sigh of relief that the worst was over and the possibility of going home would arise at some time soon.

However, on 12 November everyone was hard at it repairing roads, and that was to be more or less the norm for the rest of the month. It was work as usual: road repairs, railway laying, salvage of stores, making fascines, filling craters, kit inspections and the like. The battalion remained on the move: Feignies, Le Pissotiau, Maresches, St Aubert and finally back to Cambrai where the month had started. Several new officers continued to arrive, and among them was Lt RH King who had won the MC during the March Retreat returning to the battalion. At last on 30 November orders were received to select 200 miners to be sent for medical inspection to check their fitness to be returned to England to take up their old jobs. At the end of the month there were notionally 40 officers and 940 men on the strength, though 9 of the officers and 100 other ranks were temporarily off the ration books. The war as such was over. Demobilisation had begun.

October 1918

Since August 1918 there had been a steady shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, as the Allies began to successfully push forward and put the German Army into a gradual retreat. Towards the end of September 1918, troops from 20th Division made their first contribution when 7th DCLI were involved in the capture of enemy trenches south-west of Acheville. The following week, the beginning of October, the whole 20th Division front moved forward in a steady series of attacks. Captain Pemberton returned to 11th DLI from a Catering course with the rank of Major on 7 October, just as the battalion moved out of the line for three weeks of training near Monchy Breton. As the month went on there was a drip feed of new recruits, both other ranks and officers. The latter included 2/Lts R.B. Marsham, R.E. Forster, R. C. Robinson, Lt C.C. Page, while 2/Lt G. F. Martin rejoined from Pioneer course.

The training included infantry experience in attacking strongpoints, which indicated an expectation that the Pioneers would be playing as much of an attacking role as a supporting one, that is, taking up their alternative role as infantry rather than as Pioneers. There was specialised training regularly for Lewis Gunners, Signallers and Stretcher Bearers. Each Company in turn was given training in attacks, even the transport section getting practice on the use of pontoon bridges.

On 30 October, without much forewarning, the Division was despatched via Fremicourt to Cambrai as part of General Byng’s Third Army. It was an area with which they had been previously familiar a year before and where the Division, including the Pioneers of 11th DLI, had acquitted themselves well in trying circumstances. Things would be very different this time.

May to September 1918

Virtually the whole of the summer of 1918, 11 DLI served purely in its primary Pioneer role as specialised labour for the 20th Light Division. The battalion left Frevillers on 2 May 1918 and proceeded via Canada Camp at Chateau de la Haie to the unusually named Ratata Camp at Carency. The battalion HQ remained there for the next five months supporting the 20th Light Division in the Lens-Avion sector.

Essentially the daily routine was filled either with trench work (most of the time) or providing support for gas attacks. For example on 23 May, three Companies were employed pushing gas cylinders to the front line and bringing back the empties along rail tracks. Four days later, the Germans retaliated with a gas attack on 11 DLI at night – bearing in mind that they would be out working on trenches at the time. Two of the casualties among nine officers affected who had survived the ravages of the retreat during March: Lt A Philip and Captain Percy Vickerman Kemp. Kemp died in hospital at Etaples on 31 May 1918. There were 122 casualties among the other ranks, several of whom also died. This pointless tit for tat continued for the rest of the summer – 19 men being badly gassed on 3 July.

There was some to and fro among the officers. During July 2nd Lt HJE Whitfield left to join the Royal Air Force, Captain WFE Badcock transferred to 6 DLI, and Lt GR Burnett and Captain JG Taylor took their places. In August it was all change at the top when Lt Colonel Boulton was replaced by Lt Col TH Carlisle as commanding officer. Carlisle remained for the rest of the deployment. Incongruous though it may seem, on 31 July the battalion held a Transport Horse Show. Otherwise it was the tedious round of trench work, gas attacks and sporadic shelling, with a slow attrition on the health and strength of the men. Some forty or so of the miners were attached to 185th Tunnelling Company at the end of August in charge of 2nd Lt WH Charnley.

April 1918

On 1 April 1918, 11 DLI was pulled out of the line and sent to Quevauvillers, just south of Amiens, in order to regroup and refit. They rested there for five days, while they were joined by 470 men, plus Lts A Floyd and M Cooper. The first thing everyone was doing, of course, was lots of drill, since many of the new recruits were young conscripts after basic training. To drill that into them, there then followed several days of marching: on 7 April to Lincheux; on 10 March to Huppy, where they were joined by another 108 men; then on to Rieux for further training.

There was a major sort out. 191 men were sent back to Base at Etaples, either because they were unfit through what the battalion had experienced, or because they were deemed unsuitable for a Pioneer battalion. Another 14 officers at 2nd Lt rank also joined. On 17 April, Lt Colonel Hayes himself went back to Base, reporting sick with continued problems from having been gassed during March. Lt Col RE Boulton assumed command, transferring from 1 King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

On 18 April, the battalion marched on to Frevillers and spent the rest of the month in training, attending lectures, doing drill and physical exercises. Captain Pemberton, who had been second in command to Hayes, was transferred to XVIII Corps staff as Education Officer and his place was taken by Captain HF Ling of 4th Suffolk Regiment. By the end of the month the battalion had virtually a full complement of men: 41 officers and 806 men on the battalion roll.

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.

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.