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.

Joseph Wilson Ridley

I have just added Joseph Wilson Ridley to the A-Z Roll of Honour. He enlisted as Private 22535 and rose to the rank of Acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, surviving the war to return to his work as a warehouseman with the Co-operative Society in West Stanley, County Durham

A Terrible Beauty?

Easter has come a little early this year. One hundred years ago the Easter weekend culminated on Monday 24 April 1916. In Dublin on the steps of the GPO building, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation of the Irish Republic and the end of British rule in Ireland, heralding what we now know as the Easter Rising. It lasted a week until the rebels surrendered to overwhelming British military force assisted by a battleship in the Liffey. Hundreds were subjected to Field General Courts Martial, most were jailed, the leaders were executed, while some supporters and civilian sympathisers in the streets around were despatched under a ‘shoot to kill’ order.

At the same time, the men of 11 DLI were stationed near Oodezeele on the Ypres Front in Belgium. There had been church parades the day before but on Monday it was back to work, mostly behind the lines on roads and constructing new billets. The added attraction was a visit from top brass from 20th Divisional HQ come to inspect the Pioneers at their work. Otherwise the week that followed was a period of general rest and recuperation, interspersed with training and sports activities. 

So what is the connection between these two coterminous sets of events? It has to do with the reasons for fighting. The men of 11 DLI, along with the rest of the Army including several battalions of Irish volunteers, were ostensibly on the Western Front in defence of smaller nations such as ‘plucky little Belgium’ against imperialist German militarism. The personal reasons for the men involved could have been very complex, though this might well have been a part of their motivation.

The rebels of Sinn Fein were also asserting the rights of smaller nations in the face of (British) imperialism and military might. They were a little clearer as individuals, as they were following the clearly stated aims of the Proclamation: that the Republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens” and it would resolve “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the national equally”.

In terms of the wider context of the Great War, all parts of the British armed forces, wherever they were stationed (at sea, in western Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India, in Africa) including Ireland, they were in practice defending and maintaining the integrity of the British Empire and that would become even more clear three years later at Versailles. That was as true of the Irish divisions as 20th Light Division.

In the end the ordinary men did not, in either case, get what they might have thought was their due. When it came, Home Rule in Ireland fell a long way short of the ideals of the Proclamation. The miners and labourers of 11 DLI who survived what was to follow went home to face years of continued exploitation and, indeed, military repression when they struck to stop wage reductions.

Meanwhile, just two months on from Easter 1916, tens of thousands on all sides of the front met their deaths in the slaughter of the Somme.  While the poet WB Yeats could classify the Easter Rising as ‘a terrible beauty’, no such description has ever been applied to that.

Anywhere but Home for Xmas

The one thing always on a soldier’s mind when he is away from home is his next leave. It is never more true than in the approach to Christmas. It was on the mind of Private Robert Bennett in training at Woking in 1914: “I am saving my money to come home at Xmas, it costs 22/9 for us to Durham and the fare to Shotton will amount to about 25 shillings return.” He promised is little sister Kitty that he would bring her something special for writing to him. Instead they moved from Inkerman Barracks to Pirbright Camp, swapping huts for canvas. He was in “the last batch to go away but one” and had to content himself with the rumour that “we are going to get a good dinner on Xmas day”. In fact he would have to wait several more weeks.

It was even worse when the Battalion went overseas. Long before Xmas 1915 Robert was predicting that it would be at least three months before he got home leave. Writing again just before Xmas he was still predicting 9 or 12 weeks and intimating that the lads had been told the last posting day for Xmas was 17 December. On 1 Jan 1916 he returned his Xmas cards for the family to keep but “we had a good time at Xmas. We got tons of bacca and tabs sent out to us and a lot of Xmas pudding.” He never did make it home and he was dead before the next Xmas.

Two more men from 11 DLI were the occasion of domestic mourning around the 1915 festive season. Private 12115 John James Surrey was killed aged 24 just before New Year’s Eve and Lance Corporal 13797 John Henderson died of wounds on 19 December – no doubt the occasion of a badly timed letter from the War Office to his family. John Henderson was the husband of Julia and father of William and John, a hewer from Dudley in Northumberland. Ironically he had been on Xmas leave in 1914 and lost a day’s pay for arriving back at camp in Pirbright a day late. That was his last Xmas at home.

What will ‘the lads (and lasses)’ be doing this year?

A Case of Mistaken Identity

When my wife and I visited Bouchoir Cemetery back in 1999 searching for the last resting place of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, B Company, 11th DLI, we adopted the headstone of an unknown DLI soldier in a group of unknowns alongside Private John Kennedy (page 237 of the book). The body of Thomas Bashforth was never identified, but if he is buried in a cemetery anywhere it is most likely at Bouchoir, a mile or so from where he fell at Arvillers.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website now has much more information available for casualties, including report forms made by those involved after the War in creating the concentration cemeteries such as that at Bouchoir. I discovered this while checking some information for a descendant of a 7 DCLI man, Harold Masters (who is buried there). I have now been able to relate the map reference given in the concentration report for ‘my grave’ to the appropriate grid references on the trench map 66E NE[1], only to find that the location is near Mézieres, some distance away from Arvillers.

The battalion was involved with others from 20th Division in an attempt to retake the village on Good Friday, 29 March 1918. Whoever this man was must have been buried where he fell, somewhere in ‘Wheelbarrow Wood’ just to the north west of the village. It is possibly one of four men: Lt Frederick Arnott, or Privates Joseph Barnard, John O’Brien and Clifford Pollard. The two ‘unknown soldiers’ from my group were found in the same general vicinity but may have been from another regiment. Pte Kennedy was moved from what had probably been a field hospital burial ground near the village (he died on 25 March 1918, before the battles reached this spot).

So the search for the last resting place of Thomas Bashforth continues, though some judicious searching of the CWGC website might just come up with a grid reference for the ground in front of Arvillers. Meanwhile I will continue to hold the same headstone as a temporary marker – I am sure he is not far away!



[1] This is available on line from the National Library of Scotland, along with a good selection of other maps.