The Night Before Passchendaele, 30 July 1917

The Third Battle of Ypres, more popularly known by one of the target villages as ‘Passchendaele’, would commence on 31 July 1917. 11 DLI Pioneers would operate in support of 20th Light Division infantry, with the sole aim of maintaining communications and transport across the Steenbeck, exposed under heavy fire and through quagmire conditions, towards the Pilckem Ridge. The Pioneers had already been heavily involved helping construct the vital artillery tracks that would allow forward movement of heavy guns and machine guns in support of the infantry.

Lt Colonel Hayes issued Company Orders as follows. Notably, ‘C’ Company was excluded from this work (they were doing railway construction work).

11th DLI, Operation Order 58, 30 July 1917

  1. The Battalion with Transport (less ‘C’ Coy & Coy Transport) will move to Canada Farm[1] Area on night 30/31 July.
  2. The Battalion will parade in ‘Battle Order’ without packs at 9.30 pm. During the march, an interval of 200 yds. will be kept between Coys. Transport will be in rear of last Coy.
  3. Water Bottles and Water Carts will be filled.
  4. Packs will be taken by Motor Lorry. These will be stacked by Coys at F.7.b.2.2 under the supervision of 2/Lieut. P V Kemp. One man per Coy will be left in charge; these 3 men will proceed by Lorry and unload the Packs at Canada Farm. (5 men HQ will load packs on lorry). Packs must be marked. Mess Tins must not go with Packs.
  5. A Billeting Party consisting of Lieut. WGL Sear & 1 NCO per Coy, HQ and Transport will parade at 1.30 pm and proceed to A. 18.b.0.8. (Sheet 28) and there report to Staff Captain 59th Brigade.
  6. Rations for consumption on 31st (less Breakfast ration) will be carried on the man.
  7. After arrival at Canada Farm all Companies must be prepared to move at 15 minutes notice.
  8. This afternoon the men are to rest & all possible rest is to be obtained at Canada Farm.
  9. Breakfasts will be issued at Canada Farm prior to moving off from there. Time not yet known: probable time of moving about 6am. This will be communicated to Coy Commanders as soon as it is known.
  10. Further orders will be issued later re move from Canada Farm. Acknowledge. Issued at 9.50 am.

 

[1] Canada Farm is now marked by a CWGC cemetery with 907 WW1 burials. There was a farmhouse on the spot, used as a dressing station. It is not far from Elverdinghe. There are no 11 DLI burials there. For the purpose of orders at the launch of the battle, it was also known as G Camp in the War Diary.

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Getting Ready for Another One

July 1917

At the beginning of the month 11 DLI Pioneers were at Domart, resting, training, drilling and otherwise refitting and getting ready for their next assignment. Reinforcements arrived – an officer and more than 70 men. Half a dozen men with an NCO went off to do haymaking for a local farmer, which must have made a pleasant change from the usual work. The leave quota was lifted to 46 men at a time.

At 8.15 am on the 20th July, the battalion met the train at Doullens, which they loaded completely in 65 minutes flat (A, B and D companies). C Company and the transport followed on a later train. By midnight the battalion was encamped at Proven (in the Ypres Sector), where they spent the rest of the month undergoing more drill, training and parades. There was a final parade and inspection ‘in battle order’ on 30 July at which point all leave had been suspended.

The CO had received instructions in Operation Order No. 58 for the battalion’s next major assignment, commencing the following day. Overnight, the battalion was moved to Canada Farm.

June 1917

The first day of summer 1917, 11 DLI Pioneers were stationed at Vaulx in the slowly moving Somme sector of the Front. The constant work of previous months continued apace, meticulously recorded in the Battalion War Diary. Acting Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Hayes returned to take command after sick leave. Everything that Pioneers could do was part of their employment: trench digging, dugouts including office accommodation, assembling artillery dumps, constructing Decauville railways.

It sounds exhausting and it was also dangerous – one of the areas being worked in was called Death Valley. There was an explosion at one of the dumps, wounding 13 men. Officers came and went, several of them due to sickness like Lts Cooper and Fleming. There was the ever-present danger of enemy shelling and fragments of shrapnel whizzing around.

News reached the battalion of action on the Ypres Front with the capture of Messines after the blowing of an enormous set of mines. It was the herald of things to come for the Pioneers, though at this stage they were still unaware. Work continued on Sydney Avenue. It may have sounded like some tree-lined boulevard in Australia, but was well within shot of the German long-range guns. Only on the last day of the month did the orders come to move out to Domart after a day’s rest and inspection.

May 1917: what the battalion could do

During May 11th DLI HQ was based at Ytres. They were under Divisional instructions to complete the wiring of the new Reserve Line under command of the Royal Engineers, although it was immediately postponed due to a lack of small screw pickets! A day later, work began. In one evening the battalion wired 1700 yards of the right sector and 650 yards of the left sector, with a 16-foot apron and loose wire.

The next evening work began on a new communications trench. It was to be six feet deep excluding parapets, two feet wide at the bottom with passing places, width at the bottom to be determined by the soil structure (chalk and clay), with drains towards the road. The trench was to be camouflaged. Despite periodic gas alarms, the trench was dug and camouflaged to a depth of 4 feet for 520 yards in one night. Everything, including another support line was completed by 20 May. Not bad, considering the battalion was at just over half strength at the time.

As the month progressed, so the battalion was moved forward to do the same sort of work all over again, more wiring, more communications trenches, plus roads and Decauville railways. It was virtually non-stop following the painstaking retreat of the German forces.

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.

The next objective in this sector was Metz-en-Couture. Being close to the front lines, the Pioneers were ordered to wear gas masks at all times – which must have made working particularly hard. It was hard enough anyhow – repairing roads, filling mine craters and shell holes, improving drainage ditches, clearing wreckage and clearing villages (what was left of them). It was tricky work, with booby traps to be looked out for. Finally, at the end of the month work was begun on constructing a new ‘line of resistance’ – essentially a series of reserve trenches.

The comings and goings of various officers are recorded by name. On 6 April, for example, ‘Lt Padley (recently commissioned from the ranks) proceeded on 10 days’ leave to England.’ This was Herbert Padley, formerly Pte 11368 York and Lancaster Regiment, commissioned into 11 th DLI as Lieutenant on 2 April 1917. He survived the war, applying for his medals in 1921. [Not confirmed, but this was probably Herbert Padley who in 1911, aged 21, lived with his parents in Shiregreen, Sheffield. He worked as a clerk and shorthand typist for a steel works.]

Proximity to the front line was illustrated on 15 April, when the Officers’ Mess Room and B Company Mess and Signal Office were blown up by enemy shelling. Four men were killed and four more wounded. The dead were Privates Joseph Lindsay, Richard Stott, John Graham and William Harold Short, all buried at Lebucquiere Communal Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.