Excuses for not working

One hundred years ago, throughout May 1916, 11 DLI was stationed near Oudezeele in Flanders. From here groups of men were sent out on work parties around the Ypres sector. However, 11 DLI was tasked with the job of securing the trenches at the eponymous Burgomaster’s Farm (which really was the local burgomaster’s farm and he and his wife still lived there) and preparing a defence plan in the event that they came under attack from the enemy.

This was a reminder that Pioneers were paid extra because they did two jobs. They provided labour for the Division and anyone else running short of hands for urgent tasks such as 6th Division this month, or tunnelling companies and the Royal Engineers, in this case laying cables from Ypres to Poperinghe. More often than not it was ‘trench work’, usually listed by each trench’s name in the battalion diary, and in this case mostly on the eastern bank of the Yser Canal. But Pioneers were also infantry, trained and armed as such and often so used, particularly providing guard duties for Divisional HQ this month and, as in this case, manning reserve trenches or relieving front line troops.

Excuses to get out of this were few and far between. All through the month, officers were on a shuttle service of leave, their movements assiduously reported in the battalion war diary, or they were off doing training of some sort. The best excuse for the men was a ‘sickie’ and 17 of them were sent away for treatment for scabies. This was a common and nasty bacterial infection caused by tiny mites burrowing into the softer parts of the body and laying their eggs. It was often related to similar problems with lice and was extremely contagious. Definitely good for a few days off!

Now that April’s here!

As the centenary ticks by, I keep looking at the battalion war diary for 11th DLI and reflecting on what they were up to, especially thinking about my grandfather, Corporal (as he was then) Thomas Bashforth, and any little notes that might involve him and his comrades in B Company.

April 1916 was a game of two halves. To begin with, the battalion were stationed in a chateau near Elverdinghe on the Ypres Front in Belgium. From here the men set out on various working parties in different parts of the lines, mostly on the Yser Canal Bank. B Company was no exception, working under the command of one or other of the Infantry Brigades from 20th Division. They even got a letter that month from the Commander of the Royal Engineers who supervised their work, ‘eulogising’ what they had done. Lt RLS Pemberton, who had been in charge of them for the past month was made up to Temporary Captain.

Any idea that being based in the grounds of a chateau might have been idyllic was constantly and rudely shattered by German artillery. Such a building would have been well within range and clearly mapped, making it an obvious target every couple of days or so. Several men from 11th DLI and the infantry regiments were wounded in the process. No doubt the second in command, Major Geoffrey Hayes (later to lead the battalion), was delighted to get away for a few days training with Staff.

The whole battalion got away in mid-month, for a break at Oodezeele for their Easter holidays. Not that that entailed much rest for anyone, officers or men. In truth the Division was merely allocated to ‘Corps Reserve’ for a few days. For the ranks that meant training from 8.30 am until after noon: bayonet practice, bombing practice and PT were favourites. Following this excitement, they could indulge what was left of their energy in sports and games – officers mostly on horseback. In preparation for church parades on Easter Day, they also had the pleasure of a route march in heavy rain. In the evenings, the junior officers and NCOs had the pleasure of a series of lectures. The one on ‘gas preventatives’ would have been more useful one imagines than the one on ‘Lessons from the South African War’.

Even this relief was short-lived: back to work straight after the Easter weekend and no Bank Holiday Monday. The Pioneers were set to work in various places behind the main lines, where they were inspected by the Divisional and Engineering commanders (not including the batch sent to join 177th Tunnelling Company). No doubt the various groups of men returning from sick leave with Entrenching Battalions were glad to be ‘home’.

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.

DLI Museum to Close

Despite a strong local campaign since the autumn of 2015, the DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will close in April of this year as a result of the decision of Durham County Council under the leadership of the Labour Party. Once upon a time that was the Party which would fight on behalf of working people and local communities against just the sort of austerities and cutbacks from which we have been suffering this past few years. Nowadays the Labour Party could not fight its way out of a paper bag, except perhaps a few individuals trying to preserve their sense of self-importance.

What can we do? The campaign ‘Save the DLI’ [http://savethedli.org.uk/] will no doubt still go on. But meanwhile it is planned to mothball the collection, to be stored in a former tobacco factory, on a short lease, in conditions that I doubt will meet official standards for conservation practice. Some time or never, depending on funds one presumes, there will be ‘travelling exhibitions’. More likely the collection will eventually be scattered and may even be sold off into private hands – where are the guarantees?

I would suggest that all of you out there whose families have donated personal items relating to your DLI ancestors, such as medals, certificates and bronze plaques – ask for them back. Point out that the Durham County Council by its decision had abrogated its responsibility for care, preservation and display of these precious family heirlooms entrusted to them. Demand your heirlooms back!

Whatever you do – don’t just sit back and do nothing. We are in the centenary years of the First World War when many of our families lost relatives: fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, as well as sisters and aunts. Stand up and be counted.

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.

Victims of a ‘Stunt’

During October 1915, 11 DLI was involved in a bizarre piece of trench theatre, with what can only be described as the most likely consequences. The Pioneers were having one of their regular training stints in the front line trenches. Some bright spark in the military hierarchy decided that it would be a good idea to provoke the Germans with a bit of a stunt. Bear in mind that on this stretch of the line the distance across No Man’s Land was not very far at all.

On 13 October (an unlucky day for some) the lads were issued with dummies on sticks that they proceeded to wave about above the parapet of the trench, drawing the inevitable interest of the enemy. Smoke was laid down to make it look as if this was part of an attack. Not surprising then that the German artillery immediately opened fire on the British trenches, the position of which was perfectly well known to them. Three men from 11 DLI died instantly and 14 were wounded, of whom one died the following day.

Sadly I don’t know much about the four fatalities, so if anyone out there has any information I would be glad to hear from them. The four men were:

Lance Corporal 18830 Gawin Cowell

Private 3/10374 William McGregor

Private 18685 George William Ledger: aged 30, husband of Mary Jane Ledger of 2 St Bede’s Row, Birtley

Lance Corporal 13002 George Pearson: aged 23, the husband of Gladys Pearson of 71 Westminster Street, Gateshead, originally from Carlisle

Even in 1915, surely there was a less idiotic and humanly expensive way of pinpointing the location of German artillery than that? In any case they probably moved position fairly regularly. The first three men are buried at Rue du Bacquerot No 1 Cemetery and the last one, who died the day after the event, at Sailly sur La Lys Canadian Cemetery.