Prelude to Cambrai November 1917

There was a level of more than usual secrecy about military activities during November 1917. It applied equally to the work of 11th DLI Pioneers. Their location was recorded as W.3.c.5.7 – a map reference. While most companies were working on roads and communications trenches, one company was allocated to creating new accommodation at Q.30.d. Transport and communications seemed to be the order of the day – roads, railways, trenches.

Rumours would have done their rounds no doubt, as something was clearly afoot. Perhaps there was a hint when Captain C Palmer was transferred permanently to the Tank Corps and Captain WGL Sear took his place in charge of ‘A’ Company. The unusual task on 9 November of constructing ‘a model in connection with the coming operations’ might also have fed the rumours. That job lasted several days, so it was a complex affair. Then Captains Sear and Jee were called away to a Conference at Albert, where no doubt they began to get some of what lay behind the secrecy.

As the month progressed (more roads, tracks, shelters and communications trenches), the battalion was gradually moved forward to occupy the village of Gouzeaucourt and shelters in the area around. The shelters were as much to keep out prying eyes from the sky than protection. 20th Division began its attack on 20 November and 11 DLI followed up by digging forward communications trenches from the British lines. The Lewis guns moved from anti-aircraft duty to join the forward infantry brigades. Casualties began to mount: Lt WW Inglis was killed while others were wounded. The relentless work on roads continued until the end of the month.

There is little in the diary accounts to suggest what was happening at the Front. The 20th Division Infantry Brigades, supported by tanks, had captured the village of La Vacquerie and held a crossing on the St Quentin Canal. This was merely one sector on the right-hand side of a concentrated push through the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai. There was a six-mile advance, but only into an exposed salient. The Germans quickly organised their artillery to bombard the area and had already gathered twenty Divisions for counter-attacks, some deployed to slow the British advance almost immediately. The tanks had proved their worth by suppressing what the Germans had regarded as impregnable wire defences and by sheer surprise.

On 30 November, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies of 11 DLI were deployed in the Hindenburg Support Line, ‘A’ company was in shelters in a railway cutting at Villers Plouich, while HQ and ‘C’ Companies occupied shelters in a sunken road in Gouzeaucourt. Only from this day would the Pioneers demonstrate their true colours, well beyond what might be expected of ‘intelligent and organised labour’.


The War to End All Wars? October 1917

After being pulled back to refit in September, the following month found 11th DLI heading off to another front. They were transferred from the newly formed 5th Army to 3rd Army, at first by train to Bapaume, then on to Barastre and Ytres by route march. They took over a Pioneer Camp from the 12th Yorkshire Regiment and were immediately engaged constructing huts, making tramways and working in the forward trenches. There was some unusual movement of manpower. As new batches joined (for example 220 on 9 October), wholesale numbers were struck off (176 on the following day). It is not explained whether these were weeded out from the new recruits as unacceptable for Pioneer work, or whether such large numbers had been too badly mauled by their experiences in previous months.

The work on trench improvements was relentless all month: duckboards, revetting, boarding, building shelters, dugouts, communications trenches, forward trenches, day in day out.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty (or somewhere), the ‘powers-that-were’ had already started their plans for the post-war world, not that our Pioneers had any part in these discussions. That would not have been their place, would it? There was an interesting piece of correspondence from A.J. Balfour to Lord Rothschild, outlining British Government support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine on the understanding ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. This of course followed on from secret agreements the previous year between the French and British worked out by the diplomats Sykes and Picot, to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire between the British and French Empires. One hundred years later these are examples of how the ‘powers-that-were’ and now the ‘powers-that-be’ have ensured that our forebears in WW1 fought ‘the war to end all wars’! Never mind, lads, just keep digging.


September 1917: Days of Attrition

The Pioneers of 11th DLI continued in training and re-equipment at Seaton Camp in the early part of the month, though interspersed with laying rail track on the Pilckem Ridge, building dumps or laying trench railways. They probably played little or no part in 60th Brigade’s sports day on 8 September. Next day, they relieved the Welsh Division Pioneers on the Canal Bank and were immediately back to work as before: dugouts, bivouacs, railways, trench tramways. The Lewis gunners under Lt Atlay joined the infantry battalions to provide anti-aircraft cover on the Steenbeck and at Langemarck and were later involved assisting with infantry attacks on German trenches.

Casualties were few, but a regular form of attrition in the form of wounded and killed, particularly as the battalion was moved into the forward areas to wire the front-line trenches. At one point, D Company were supposed to help out on this work but their infantry guide lost his way – the photographs one sees of the blasted, muddy landscape illustrate how easy this could be, trying to cross from the Canal Bank into what was left of the terrain around Langemarck.

Finally, on 28 September, the battalion were relieved by the West Yorkshire Regiment and retired to Seaton Camp once again. All told, six officers and 53 other ranks were struck off the battalion strength as sick, wounded or dead. Twelve men were killed, and a couple more died of wounds a few days later. Casualties may have been numerically less than those for the infantry battalions, but what might seem a day’s labouring was always a risk to life and limb. However, the days in the Ypres Sector would soon end and a new adventure come into operation.


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.


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.




The Build-up to Langemarck, 8-15 August 1917

Prior to launching the final attack on Langemarck, 20th Light Division infantry manned the front lines directly in front of Au Bon Gîte, 300 yards on the eastern bank of the Steenbeck. To their left was the 29th Division and to their right was the 11th Division, both of whom had established some outposts on the eastern side of the stream. The 20th Division aimed to establish their own outposts.

11th Rifle Brigade were first up, sending over three patrols on 8 August – the road was blown up in front of one, a bridge blown up in front of another and only the third succeeded briefly for a day. Two companies of 10th King’s Royal Rifle Corps tried the same on 11 August, though with more men – only to be surprised by an oncoming enemy patrol.

On 14 August, two companies of 11th Rifle Brigade and all four companies of 10th Rifle Brigade tried again, led by Lt Colonel Troughton and supported by an artillery barrage. The costs were horrific on both battalions in losses of men and officers. They almost captured Au Bon Gîte and did suppress several other blockhouses. They now held the eastern bank of the Steenbeck to a depth of about 200 yards, fighting through the night into the early hours of 15 August. [Roughly along the 10-metre contour line beyond the Steenbeck towards Langemarck, marked in brown on the map below].

The larger attack was scheduled for 16 August – only a mile to go! How would the Division cope, now severely reduced? How would they keep supplies coming across the Steenbeck [seen below, after the battle with some of the crossing points in place].

This task would fall to the Royal Engineers field companies attached to the Division. Meanwhile, throughout all this, 11th DLI continued their work on roads, artillery dumps and railways: work of value to all the attacking forces in keeping supplies moving forward.




The Prelude to Langemarck 1917

Reading the 11 DLI Battalion War Diary for August 1917 for the days after the capture of Pilckem Ridge, it would be easy to imagine that it was some uninterrupted two-three weeks where the Pioneers repaired roads, built bridges over the canal and constructed artillery dumps (other than C Company, which specialised in railway work – possibly repairing the Ypres-Staden Railway as well as constructing new tracks). Essentially this was correct in a very functional sense, but buried within these matter of fact records were some telling remarks.

On 2 August, it was commented that ‘men now have a march of 14 miles daily and in addition have 6 hours work to do’. They were moving between work in and around the bank of the Yser Canal to and from Canada Camp to the west of Elverdinghe, several miles away. And it was raining cats and dogs most of the time. On 5 August, A, B and D Companies were road making in the area below Pilckem Ridge and it was commented that ‘Huddleston Road now passable up to Cactus Trench, here there was an impassable swamp’. Respite of a sort came when, on the night of 7-8 August, 11 DLI took over the camp on the Canal bank from the Pioneers of the Welsh Division, before starting more road and railway work as before but without the long trek. The same work continued uninterrupted, until 15 August, apart from a bombardment of gas shells at 11 pm on 14 August (yes, they were working at night as well).

Meanwhile, the rest of 20th Light Division was making preparations for an attack across the Steenbeck to capture Langemarck, though most of their early attempts were thwarted by the bad weather, which had allowed the Germans to consolidate their defences on the east bank of the stream.

The Objective and the Obstacles

As a starting point, the aim was to secure the ground to the east of the Steenbeck, which was heavily fortified with a complex of concrete blockhouses at the centre of which was one ironically named Au Bon Gîte.

Au Bon Gite, after the battle

There were several attempts from 11 August by units of 10 and 11 Rifle Brigade to seize this area, only partially successful and at enormous cost. The blockhouse at Au Bon Gîte was still not suppressed by 15 August, despite repeated attacks by 10 and 11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps. However, there was sufficient consolidation of positions on the east of the Steenbeck to permit the final attack on 16 August, as part of a broader assault along the British sector lines. There were two major questions. Were the infantry battalions of 20th Division still strong enough after the previous two weeks of attrition? Would the Pioneers of 11th DLI be able to keep the communications for both infantry and artillery up to scratch in the awful conditions visible in the photograph above?