April 1917 Filling Holes in the Road

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.

Part way through April, they were given a new task – to start the preparation of a Line of Resistance to be known as the Brown Line. Full details, incomprehensible to a reader that doesn’t have the appropriate maps and coded reference points, are listed on the 30th. Work with wiring is to start the following day ‘at distances of 35 and 55 ft in front of the trench with gaps every 100 feet.’

Even More Hard Labour March 1917

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.

Hard Labour February 1917

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.

Hard Labour January 1917

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.

Much Needed Leave

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.

 

November 1916: End of the Somme?

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.

War Diary Whinge

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’.