After Cambrai: December 1917

For the first couple of days in December, after helping to hold fast against the German counter-attack at Cambrai, 11th DLI were primarily engaged in consolidating what had been held, even advancing a little in places. All the time they were under heavy shelling, as the diary noted: ‘by our own guns captured by the enemy.’ ‘A’ Company moved back from Borderer Ridge to hold a trench in Lincoln Avenue, from which a small party under Lt HS Parkin bombed their way back into a section held by the Germans, a task completed by 11 Rifle Brigade when the Pioneers ran out of grenades. ‘B’ Company held a trench in front of La Vacquerie, from which they supplied 7 KOYLI with their rations. Next day they moved into the front line with ‘A’ company to close a gap. ‘C’ Company moved from the Brown Line into a trench in front of Villers Plouich, covering the valley, and then from trench to trench making small improvements as they went, finishing in the Hindenburg Communications Trench. They stayed there next day until moved back to the Brown Line.  ‘D’ Company were in the Hindenburg Trench from where they delivered rations to the infantry ahead, 7 KOYLI and 7 DCLI. Everyone got their own rations at 9pm on 1 December and the CO did his rounds of each Company in turn. On 2 December, all Companies moved back to the Brown Line where Colonel Hayes had established Battalion HQ. Over the two days, two men were killed and 33 wounded by the heavy shelling.

Over the next few days, the battalion was moved back via Fins, Sorel, Ecquemicourt and by buses to Wardrecques, where drill, training and baths were the order of the day. New officers arrived, including 2 Lts Galley, Alexander and English. By 16 December, the Pioneers were back on the Ypres Salient at Dickebusch and back to the usual routines of carrying materials to form dumps, wiring trenches and the like. Ironically, given recent losses, two groups of 50 men were transferred out to 2 DLI and 14 DLI, some of which would turn out to be quite temporary. The Battalion strength on the roll was 35 officers and 767 other ranks – 280 of the latter had been written off as sick, dead or wounded. The diary was signed off by Captain Pemberton, temporarily in charge of the battalion.

Cambrai Memorial at Louverval (Photo: Gaynor Greenwood)

The dead included Lts Inglis and Freeman (documents concerning the latter at Durham County Records Office). Thirteen men were killed along with Freeman during the German counter-attack on 30 November. The two men who died from shelling on 1 December were Privates Thomas Wilson and James Sidney Cole. Privates Horace Brown and William Longstaff died of wounds during the following week, as did Sergeant John Ormston and Lance Corporal Edward Simpson. Eight of those who died have no known grave and are listed on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval.

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11 DLI at Cambrai 30 November 1917 (part 2)

HQ and ‘C’ Company were in Gouzeaucourt. Nothing very unusual was noticed except fairly heavy gun fire from about 6 AM onwards. About 8 AM, Gouzeaucourt was being shelled a certain amount, but it did not seem heavy enough to cause uneasiness. About 9.15 AM the CO noticed Garrison Artillery men and odd people rushing about excitedly and horses galloping in the direction of Fins. A rumour came down that the Germans had broken through. The Signalling Sergeant telephoned to Divisional HQ who reported everything OK. Just then heavy machine gun fire was heard close to Village and bullets were coming through. The CO then asked a Sergeant Major of the RA [Royal Artillery] what was the matter and he reported that the enemy was coming over in masses from the direction of VILLERS-GUISLAIN. Every man fell in at once, and the CO led them out in the direction of Hill 135 about 500 yards SW of Gouzeaucourt. The CO, who went up on the Hill then saw the Germans advancing in the most perfect order with absolutely no opposition of any kind. They were also sweeping the crest of Hill 135 with machine gun fire from QUENTIN RIDGE. The first waves of hostile infantry were then across the railway, and the others were in force on the QUENTIN RIDGE. There was a line of our infantry retiring South Westward on Chapel Hill being followed up by the German Infantry. The CO ordered platoon to fight the houses in the southern end of Gouzeaucourt to cover this left flank. Two platoons were placed along HEUDICOURT-GOUZEAUCOURT road in W6a to check the hostile advance from QUENTIN RIDGE, and the remaining platoon was sent over further to the right to about W5d central to protect the right flank which was open. The men were well led by Lt Bushell. About 3 sections of Royal Engineers under Major Robinson then came and were ordered two sections to reinforce the left flank and one section to fill in the gap between Hill 135 and the platoon on the right. There was great confusion, troops of all kinds pouring down the Fins road in a blind panic, also many standing about doing nothing. Major Robinson, whose men were ignorant of open warfare training handled his men with great coolness and courage. The machine gun fire was by now very heavy indeed and hostile machine guns were now enfilading from the south. The enemy’s infantry had broken through the village of Gouzeaucourt and were also firing from the houses. The platoon sent there had been unable to hold up the hostile advance, as the German Infantry was already in the houses when they got there and there was indescribable confusion. The CO ordered Sergeant Major McEvoy to take 20 men at once and place them in the old Brown Line south of the GOUZEAUCOURT-FINS road at about W4b.85 and to hold that to the last man. This party would also cover retirement of others. The remainder of the Company and the RE then got back to the Brown Line under heavy machine gun fire from GOUZEAUCOURT and Hill 135 and from the Ridge south of this.

There was a certain amount of confusion due to the surprise, heavy fire and lack of training, but the party reached the Brown Line and was rallied here astride the main road. Here every man was collected and put into the trench. Lt Symms of the 27th Siege Battery, RA, rendered splendid service in rallying men and in organising a defence. He had fought his Howitzers until the enemy was almost on him and then after rendering his guns useless, joined the mixed party of ‘C’ Company and RE. He was extremely cool throughout. The casualties under the circumstances were very light due to the bad shooting of the Germans. When the party formed up in the Brown Line the enemy seemed to come in very cautiously and pushed patrols out, which, when fired on, returned. He made a slight effort to reach the Brown Line south of the road, but this was easily repulsed. The CO sent an urgent message to SOREL for machine guns and ammunition; the Adjutant, Captain Tollitt, also went down to explain situation. At 12.10 PM, the CO and Lt Symms went along the Brown Line in the direction of Queen’s Cross, leaving Major Lloyd (who had sprained his ankle) in temporary charge near the main road. Lt Symms collected stragglers and placed them astride the METZ-GOUZEAUCOURT road. By this time the local rout showed signs of checking.

The 20th Hussars reinforced and occupied the Brown Line on the south of the existing Line. The party in the Brown Line was a mixed party of about 250 rifles. The CO of the 20th Hussars then came over and conferred with the CO of the Battalion and offered assistance with Hotchkiss guns. As the 2nd Coldstreams were now coming up in support, these were not needed. The 2nd Coldstreams in the early afternoon came through in the most perfect order and counter-attacked. The CO did not push the mixed party forward with the Guards as they would have hindered them more than helped them. About 16 men of ‘C’ Company on the right of the road attached themselves to the dismounted cavalry and advanced with them.

The lack of training was very noticeable though on the whole the men were willing and steady when collected by an officer. The shooting was wild in the extreme. If ‘C’ Company had had Lewis guns, the German casualties would have been very heavy. Lt Bushell commanding ‘C’ Company showed conspicuous coolness and courage throughout. Lt Freeman, who was killed early on, also showed great gallantry.

Casualties, ‘C’ Company and HQ:

1 officer killed

1 officer wounded (slightly)

6 OR killed

34 OR wounded

The RE lost more heavily in proportion to numbers engaged. The chaplain, the Rev HP Walton went out with ‘C’ Company and rendered excellent service to the wounded under heavy direct machine gun and rifle fire. He also collected stragglers and brought them back to the Brown Line. The Adjutant, who had returned to the Orderly Room after having been out on the Hill with the CO, managed to get the confidential papers and made his own escape, He was sent to SOREL for machine guns and reinforcements for the Brown Line and then returned.

11 DLI at Cambrai 30 November 1917 (part 1)

On the night of 29-30 November 1917, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies were out on overnight work road building. As they returned in the morning, they became heavily embroiled in dealing with the German counter-attack after the initial success of the Cambrai offensive. What follows is the account that found its way into the Battalion War Diary, more or less word for word. I have not commented on it, as it speaks for itself. Suffice to say that it is a measured and apparently objective description of the role played by Lt Colonel Hayes and his company commanders and their sense of initiative in confusing circumstances when the men would have been tired. There are a large number of map references, so if the reader has access to a contemporary trench map they will be able to pin point where each Company was. I have divided the account into two parts, the first covering the working parties and the second covering Hayes and the HQ with ’C’ Company.

 

30/11/1917

On the 30th, the Battalion was situated as follows: ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies in the Hindenburg support line near R.4.a.26.; ‘A’ Company in shelters in the Railway Cutting at VILLERS PLOUICH; HQ and ‘C’ Company in shelters in sunken road in Gouzeaucourt in Q.16.a.

‘B’ Company were out on the night 29/30 digging trench at cemetery strong point NW of Rue des Vignes. Whilst returning to trenches in R4 a heavy hostile barrage dropped about.

AM: about 6.45 AM it was reported to the company commander Captain Jee that large bodies of men were retiring in a disorderly manner. Captain Jee stood to at once, and two platoons took up a defensive position at R4a33 in the sunken road. Two platoons at R3a.6.0, in support to front two platoons, and to bar the enemy from working up MARCOING VALLEY. Captain Jee reported to Brigadier General Banbury, 61st Infantry Brigade, who ordered him to hold the trench leaving sunken road at R4.a.3.6 with two platoons. The remaining two were to stay where they were. This position lasted till 5.30 PM, during which time fire was opened on several occasions on the enemy. Hostile aeroplanes were very harassing during this period. At 5.30 PM the Company then joined ‘D’ Company in the trench at R.9.b.5.8. Casualties: 1 officer wounded (severely), 3 OR killed and 6 OR wounded.

‘D’ Company under Captain Pemberton were in trench at R9.b.5.8. After the hostile bombardment had been on for some time, Captain Pemberton observed men coming back from the front line who said that the Germans had broken through. The company stood to and took up a position in the Hindenburg Line about R.9.d facing NE. The company commander then received a message from Major Morgan Owen, 11th Rifle Brigade, addressed to 7th DCLI asking for reinforcements on his left, so Captain Pemberton at once advanced to the trench running from R3d.9.1 to R10a.35 and established touch with the 11th Rifle Brigade on his right. He then reported personally to Brigadier General Banbury who ordered him to get in touch with 7th KOYLI in front and to withdraw the remainder of his company in support. Captain Pemberton went along the front line from the 11th Rifle Brigade to the 7th KOYLI and established touch and gradually withdrew ‘D’ Company as 7th KOYLI took over more line. This was complete by 5.30 PM.

‘A’ Company under Captain Sear MC, which was working on roads, was on the VILLERS-PLOUICH TO MARCOING road when they warned that the enemy had broken through. The company returned to VILLERS-PLOUICH and Captain Sear reported to Divisional HQ, from whom he received instructions to take up a position on BORDERER RIDGE to prevent enemy from approaching VILLERS-PLOUICH from the direction of GOUZEAUCOURT. The company dug in under light shell and machine gun fire. The OC got in touch with Battalion HQ during the course of the afternoon. The company remained here the night of the 30th Nov/1st Dec. Touch was obtained with ‘A’ Company and Borderer Ridge about 3 PM. The CO was then informed by Captain Sear that Divisional HQ had remained at their HQ near VILLERS-PLOUICH. Casualties: 2 OR wounded.

Prelude to Cambrai November 1917

There was a level of more than usual secrecy about military activities during November 1917. It applied equally to the work of 11th DLI Pioneers. Their location was recorded as W.3.c.5.7 – a map reference. While most companies were working on roads and communications trenches, one company was allocated to creating new accommodation at Q.30.d. Transport and communications seemed to be the order of the day – roads, railways, trenches.

Rumours would have done their rounds no doubt, as something was clearly afoot. Perhaps there was a hint when Captain C Palmer was transferred permanently to the Tank Corps and Captain WGL Sear took his place in charge of ‘A’ Company. The unusual task on 9 November of constructing ‘a model in connection with the coming operations’ might also have fed the rumours. That job lasted several days, so it was a complex affair. Then Captains Sear and Jee were called away to a Conference at Albert, where no doubt they began to get some of what lay behind the secrecy.

As the month progressed (more roads, tracks, shelters and communications trenches), the battalion was gradually moved forward to occupy the village of Gouzeaucourt and shelters in the area around. The shelters were as much to keep out prying eyes from the sky than protection. 20th Division began its attack on 20 November and 11 DLI followed up by digging forward communications trenches from the British lines. The Lewis guns moved from anti-aircraft duty to join the forward infantry brigades. Casualties began to mount: Lt WW Inglis was killed while others were wounded. The relentless work on roads continued until the end of the month.

There is little in the diary accounts to suggest what was happening at the Front. The 20th Division Infantry Brigades, supported by tanks, had captured the village of La Vacquerie and held a crossing on the St Quentin Canal. This was merely one sector on the right-hand side of a concentrated push through the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai. There was a six-mile advance, but only into an exposed salient. The Germans quickly organised their artillery to bombard the area and had already gathered twenty Divisions for counter-attacks, some deployed to slow the British advance almost immediately. The tanks had proved their worth by suppressing what the Germans had regarded as impregnable wire defences and by sheer surprise.

On 30 November, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies of 11 DLI were deployed in the Hindenburg Support Line, ‘A’ company was in shelters in a railway cutting at Villers Plouich, while HQ and ‘C’ Companies occupied shelters in a sunken road in Gouzeaucourt. Only from this day would the Pioneers demonstrate their true colours, well beyond what might be expected of ‘intelligent and organised labour’.

The War to End All Wars? October 1917

After being pulled back to refit in September, the following month found 11th DLI heading off to another front. They were transferred from the newly formed 5th Army to 3rd Army, at first by train to Bapaume, then on to Barastre and Ytres by route march. They took over a Pioneer Camp from the 12th Yorkshire Regiment and were immediately engaged constructing huts, making tramways and working in the forward trenches. There was some unusual movement of manpower. As new batches joined (for example 220 on 9 October), wholesale numbers were struck off (176 on the following day). It is not explained whether these were weeded out from the new recruits as unacceptable for Pioneer work, or whether such large numbers had been too badly mauled by their experiences in previous months.

The work on trench improvements was relentless all month: duckboards, revetting, boarding, building shelters, dugouts, communications trenches, forward trenches, day in day out.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty (or somewhere), the ‘powers-that-were’ had already started their plans for the post-war world, not that our Pioneers had any part in these discussions. That would not have been their place, would it? There was an interesting piece of correspondence from A.J. Balfour to Lord Rothschild, outlining British Government support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine on the understanding ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. This of course followed on from secret agreements the previous year between the French and British worked out by the diplomats Sykes and Picot, to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire between the British and French Empires. One hundred years later these are examples of how the ‘powers-that-were’ and now the ‘powers-that-be’ have ensured that our forebears in WW1 fought ‘the war to end all wars’! Never mind, lads, just keep digging.

 

September 1917: Days of Attrition

The Pioneers of 11th DLI continued in training and re-equipment at Seaton Camp in the early part of the month, though interspersed with laying rail track on the Pilckem Ridge, building dumps or laying trench railways. They probably played little or no part in 60th Brigade’s sports day on 8 September. Next day, they relieved the Welsh Division Pioneers on the Canal Bank and were immediately back to work as before: dugouts, bivouacs, railways, trench tramways. The Lewis gunners under Lt Atlay joined the infantry battalions to provide anti-aircraft cover on the Steenbeck and at Langemarck and were later involved assisting with infantry attacks on German trenches.

Casualties were few, but a regular form of attrition in the form of wounded and killed, particularly as the battalion was moved into the forward areas to wire the front-line trenches. At one point, D Company were supposed to help out on this work but their infantry guide lost his way – the photographs one sees of the blasted, muddy landscape illustrate how easy this could be, trying to cross from the Canal Bank into what was left of the terrain around Langemarck.

Finally, on 28 September, the battalion were relieved by the West Yorkshire Regiment and retired to Seaton Camp once again. All told, six officers and 53 other ranks were struck off the battalion strength as sick, wounded or dead. Twelve men were killed, and a couple more died of wounds a few days later. Casualties may have been numerically less than those for the infantry battalions, but what might seem a day’s labouring was always a risk to life and limb. However, the days in the Ypres Sector would soon end and a new adventure come into operation.

Langemarck 16 August 1917

While the infantry battalions of 20th Light Division were involved in the taking and holding of the village of Langemarck, 11th DLI Pioneers continued, during and after the battle, to work as before. A, B and D Companies worked on roads and tracks over the Pilckem Ridge and into the Steenbeck valley area, C Company worked on laying railways (something they did well into September while the rest of the battalion was in rest). That illustrates a stark difference from the way the Pioneers were used in the attack on Guillemont a year before and shows the vital importance placed on keeping men, guns and materials moving through the swampy landscape. Nor was it without its dangers. Progressively, over the month four officers and 61 men were struck off as wounded or sick, and seven men were killed on the very day of the attack on Langemarck. The German artillery kept up a constant barrage of artillery and gas shells both on the attacking infantry and the supply lines.

On 16 August 1917, the day of the main attack, 11th DLI lost Privates 25775 Charles Buckle, 20757 Nathan Donkin, 15151 Robert Taylor, 21024 Henry Hodgson, 45678 Charles Hildreth, 15047 Arthur William Hunt and 16073 Joseph Alfred Tansey. All the bodies were recovered and lie buried at Bard Cottage Cemetery on the west bank of the Yser Canal next to the casualty station. Captain J Taylor and 17 other men were wounded at the same time. Under such heavy artillery bombardment, it took immense courage to keep working, unable to fire a shot in return. Private William Walker was awarded the Military Medal for his action in keeping his mates going.

Citation for Military Medal for William Walker

Losses for the infantry were, however, much worse than for the Pioneers. The Field Companies of the Royal Engineers laid canvas-covered bridges over the Steenbeck during the night. 11th Rifle Brigade advanced into shell holes under cover of darkness ready to suppress Au Bon Gîte, capturing an officer and 50 men. The remaining battalions could only advance in single files through the shell-holed, muddy landscape, mopping up pockets of the enemy in holes and blockhouses as they went. Several VCs and other bravery awards were won. Most of the objectives were achieved, but losses were so heavy that two battalions of the 38th Welsh Division were brought up as reinforcements to secure the gains overnight and into 17 August before the rest of their Division were brought forward to relieve the 20th Division, who moved back into the reserve area with 11th DLI based at Seaton Camp (apart from C Company, who were still building railways].

Casualty Report: Langemarck 6-19 August 1917

Unit Officers     Ranks    
  Killed Wounded Missing Killed Wounded Missing
20 Divisional HQ 1
Divisional Artillery 2 5 18 90
Divisional Engineers 5 2 35
59 Infantry Brigade
10 KRRC 2 4 20 66 84
11 KRRC 1 1 31 135 20
10 Rifle Brigade 7 9 1 15 152 26
11 Rifle Brigade 7 1 37 167 50
59 Machine Gun Cy 2 4 20
59 Trench Mortar By 1 3 15
59 Brigade Total 9 21 6 110 555 180
60 Infantry Brigade
6 Ox & Bucks LI 4 31 153 8
6 Kings Shropshire LI 5 39 168 6
12 KRRC 4 5 2 43 152 51
12 Rifle Brigade 1 11 31 165 10
60 Machine Gun Cy 6 26
60 Trench Mortar By 1
60 Brigade Total 5 26 2 150 664 75
61 Infantry Brigade
Brigade HQ 1
12 Kings Liverpool R 2 9 1 45 239 26
7 Somerset LI 2 12 47 206 21
7 Duke of Cornwall LI 2 4 24 151 16
7 KOYLI 3 8 1 27 238
61 Machine Gun Cy 2 5 43
61 Trench Mortar By 1 1 3 4
61 Brigade Total 10 37 2 151 881 63
11 DLI Pioneers 3 7 22
217 Machine Gun Cy 1 4 5 18 4
RAMC Field Ambulance 1 3 31
GRAND TOTAL 27 103 10 446 2296 322

The statistics above are what was reported in an appendix to the Narrative Report of the role of 20th Light Division in the capture of Langemarck, from start to finish of operations. They definitely deserved their Divisional Memorial in the village.

20 Division Memorial at Langemarck

Additional Note:

I have covered the battle of Langemarck in such detail (despite the essentially supportive role played by 11th DLI Pioneers) in order to correct what was a media misrepresentation as part of the commemorations in relation to Passchendaele around 31 July 2017.

There was BBC TV coverage of a ceremony at the Welsh Division Memorial at Langemarck and the impression was given that the 38th Division was largely responsible for the capture of Langemarck. This was not entirely the case. They were involved first as reserves to 20th Division, and then used to consolidate the hold on the village after the initial success, allowing the badly mauled 20th Division to go into reserve to refit.

There is also a memorial to the 20th Division at Langemarck (as there is at Guillemont) and I would like to highlight their central role. Of course, due to all the reorganisation of army regiments in recent decades, Light Infantry units have had their sense of identity severely eroded and do not have a ‘national identity’ to draw upon like the Welsh. Scores of regiments have become merely ‘The Rifles’, replacing units that have identities stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars.