Private 17503 Alfred Gibson

I am pleased to have been able to update the entry for Private Gibson in the Roll of Honour. His was one of a set of service records I did not manage to retrieve, but have been found by Anita Carroll, who is researching a couple of war memorials in the area. Alfred was another one of the many miners who volunteered in August 1914, survived most of the war, only to be wounded and captured on 23 March 1918. Although he was treated in a German Field Hospital, he died from tetanus infection in his wounds on on 16 April and is buried in the Foreste Communal Cemetery nearby. He appears to have been a member of B Company and at least one of his periods of leave to England coincided with that of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, and I like to think that they knew each other and travelled together back in January 1917.

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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.

 

 

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.