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.
According to the official histories, the Battle of the Somme ended on 18 November 1916, hence the centenary commemorative events last week. Whether the troops on the ground noticed anything very different is another question. There is no sign that there was anything especially different from one day to the next.
The War Diary for 11 DLI is a good illustration. Most of the month was spent providing the troops with a well-earned rest, integrating much needed reinforcements, getting them trained up and recovering battalion fitness. From 8-16 November, they were at Picquigny where they had the first real rest away from the firing lines. This small town lies just to the west of Amiens and today is extremely quiet and sleepy. The regular influx of 1000 or more squaddies, including the Australians who just preceded the Durham Pioneers, must have been quite a shock to the local community. The troops were kept busy with PT exercises and drill, as well as their own concert party.
After this short break, they were moved forward to Corbie, a rather larger town on the banks of the Somme to the east of Amiens. On 18 November, it poured down, so there was indoor work and lectures until 12.30 and then rest. Next day was a Sunday, so it was Church Parade and more rest. The rain continued as the men were marched on to the Citadel and then back to the lines at Montauban. They would have become familiar with what we nowadays ‘remember’ of the Somme and its rain and clinging mud, as the rest of the month was spent trying to make their camps habitable with better accommodation, drainage and constant cleaning. They were being moved from camp to camp as a clean-up squad for the benefit of other battalions, though three Companies each day were light railway building. The Diary for 29 November recorded: “New Camp taken over. 11 AM, Transport moved off to new Camp. Dug outs filthy. Road into Camp practically impassable to Transport.” The mud is not a myth.
Major Geoffrey Hayes, commanding 11 DLI Pioneers, apologised to 20 Division HQ for sending in the monthly diary a couple of days late on 2 October 1916: “I forward herewith War Diary for September 1916. The delay in sending this in is regretted but was unavoidable owing to continual moves and lack of office accommodation in the trench.” Even a cursory glance at his report shows just how true was his justification.
The first week incorporated the Battle of Guillemont, in which the battalion played a considerable role. After a short ‘rest’ involving copious amounts of drill and road-building, they were back in the line at Bernafay Wood and immediately employed digging more assembly trenches for another assault at Lesboeufs. They were back out to Méaulte, where they had barely cleaned out the filthy billets before they were sent up to a different part of the line in the Maltz Horn Valley to try to create shelters in the midst of heavy rain before more track-building and then marching across country back to Trônes Wood area and back into the trenches at Waterlot Farm. They were seldom more than a couple of days in any one place.
But enough of the battalion HQ whinge. Come the middle of the month the strength was down to 440 men organised in four companies, half the normal strength, and they continued to take casualties. For readers of my book, they will be familiar with the death of letter writer Private Robert David Bennett and the horrific accident taking the lives of three more men when one of them hit an unexploded shell as they cleared trenches. On a personal note, my grandfather, Corporal Thomas Bashforth was promoted to Sergeant in B Company on the last day of the month. None of their names appear in the diary, of course, unlike the arrivals of several new officers and some shuffling of their posts. That’s my whinge on behalf of the ‘Other Ranks’.
On 5 September 1916, 11 DLI were ‘resting’ in shell holes covered in tarpaulins and whatever other debris could be found by way of shelter. It was not much of a rest after several days of exhausting work. On 3 September ‘A’ Company with 59th Brigade and ‘D’ Company with the Irishmen of 47th Brigade made a finally successful attack on the German strongpoint at Guillemont, going in perilously close to a creeping bombardment to increase the level of surprise. The plan worked and the two companies from 11 DLI promptly set to making the trenches good for following troops while the infantrymen pressed on. They were quickly followed by reinforcements from B Company and C Company, who took over from the infantry to both consolidate and hold the line under the command of Major Lloyd. It was an astonishing feat that lasted more than 48 hours before they were relieved, short of water and supplies. Of all the times that 11 DLI went into action this was probably the clearest example of what it meant to be Pioneers – labour and infantry combined. At least 27 were dead and missing. Many more were wounded.
Recently in Norwich, where I live, there visited a commemorative display called ‘The Trench Experience’. It purported to be about the battle of the Somme. It was most remarkable for being completely Anglo-focussed. There was barely a mention of the involvement of the French forces and nothing at all about the consequences for French civilians caught up in the carnage. It was exactly the sort of thing that adds nothing to public understanding but merely exploits public interest in the crudest possible way.
Two things have been brought to my attention that I feel expose different sides of the story. Most readers of this blog will be more familiar with what is being shown on British TV. By far the best programme to appear in many a year has been the current series on BBC2 hosted and researched by the historian and battlefield archaeologist, Peter Barton. The series is called ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Despite his every effort to be balanced and professional, sticking closely to the evidence, you can see how he is frequently visibly upset and emotional about what he has discovered. Watch it! It is a horror story that sadly involved tens of thousands of victims, well beyond anything the most gruesome Hollywood movie might show. Only by understanding how the Germans responded to the Allied offensives can you really appreciate the disaster in its totality, its inhumanity and its ultimate stupidity (though Barton might not wish to use such a word).
The second came from a French friend in the form of a special supplement from the Courrier Picard covering the recent 1 July centenary commemorative events at Thiepval, Amiens, Albert and elsewhere. It is tucked away on a back page and refers to a new book by Philippe Nivet and Marjolaine Boutet: ‘The Forgotten Hecatomb’ (my clumsy and literal translation from the French). The article is an interview with Marjolaine Boutet. Those of you who have visited the Somme battlefield area will no doubt be familiar with the Historial at Peronne and its even-handed coverage of all nations involved including the civilian experience. This book is another contribution to that broader understanding of the whole experience and Marjolaine Boutet works at the Historial. It seeks to retrieve what she calls the common human experience of what happened and to overturn the odd way in which French people themselves seem to regard the Somme battles as being somehow not to do with them. As she says: there were at least 204 000 French soldiers killed or wounded. She goes on, speaking to a French audience: ‘When you walk in the Somme, each farm, each site of the sector has an history, a crater, some buried shells. And yet, it is not only the British who were there. That is a shame. These are places of memory. You should go there!’ She doesn’t quite say it, but the way in which Picardy has become a place of British pilgrimage and tourism has somehow overshadowed the French experience. Remember that next time you visit and also take another look at some of the photographs in Peter Barton’s TV series showing the scale of destruction of French farms, villages, towns, roads and infrastructure.
Finally, a tribute to my French friend, who is hosting a website looking at the 1918 Somme Battlefield area in the vicinity of where she lives and where my grandfather and several more men from 11 DLI served and died. You can find it via this link: https://somme18.com/
She too makes no distinctions between nations. This is part of a common, human experience we all share with regret and sorrow.
 Joint author of a brilliant book on tunnelling, among others.
As the grotesque slaughter began further along the line to the south-west, 11th DLI was stationed at Brandhoek. The war diary for the day reads:
“2nd Lt A.I. Ward and Sergt. McEvoy commence month’s course at 2nd Army School, WISQUES.”
It is a salutary thought as the centenary commemorations take part this year, that 100 years ago most of the British Army was not involved – though, for most, their time would come to be put through the mincer.
Readers of this blog will have their own thoughts on what they may or may not do as a personal contribution to this particular centenary commemoration, and that is how it should be. This writer has tended to avoid getting caught up in any of what is going on, as there is too much danger of it slipping into some form of glorification, however well disguised. There is no glory in war.
There has been one mainstream commemorative event that has meant a lot here in Norwich: Fierce Light, a collaboration between poets and film makers reflecting in their own distinctive ways back on those times. It included Jackie Jay, Bill Manhire, Paul Muldoon, Daljit Nagra and Yrsa Daley Ward and has resulted in slim volume. Equally moving (and shared at the same event) has been the similar contribution by Simon Armitage called ‘Still’, a mixture of poetry and images from the Imperial War Museum’s collection of aerial and other photographs of the time. He uses a translation from the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics, superficially a treatise on farming but ‘underscored with some of the tensions and anxieties of Virgil’s own era, including military conflict, politics and nationhood’ and focussed on the earth under our feet.
Those who have walked these old battlefields will quickly understand the allusion, but do read this work – it is uncanny and disturbing and very timely. This land was fought over for thousands of years. Do not imagine it could never happen again.
One hundred years ago, throughout May 1916, 11 DLI was stationed near Oudezeele in Flanders. From here groups of men were sent out on work parties around the Ypres sector. However, 11 DLI was tasked with the job of securing the trenches at the eponymous Burgomaster’s Farm (which really was the local burgomaster’s farm and he and his wife still lived there) and preparing a defence plan in the event that they came under attack from the enemy.
This was a reminder that Pioneers were paid extra because they did two jobs. They provided labour for the Division and anyone else running short of hands for urgent tasks such as 6th Division this month, or tunnelling companies and the Royal Engineers, in this case laying cables from Ypres to Poperinghe. More often than not it was ‘trench work’, usually listed by each trench’s name in the battalion diary, and in this case mostly on the eastern bank of the Yser Canal. But Pioneers were also infantry, trained and armed as such and often so used, particularly providing guard duties for Divisional HQ this month and, as in this case, manning reserve trenches or relieving front line troops.
Excuses to get out of this were few and far between. All through the month, officers were on a shuttle service of leave, their movements assiduously reported in the battalion war diary, or they were off doing training of some sort. The best excuse for the men was a ‘sickie’ and 17 of them were sent away for treatment for scabies. This was a common and nasty bacterial infection caused by tiny mites burrowing into the softer parts of the body and laying their eggs. It was often related to similar problems with lice and was extremely contagious. Definitely good for a few days off!