The Regiments In The Great War 1914-18
By John Downham
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, on 28th June 1914, was the final spark which ignited long-simmering grievances and rivalries between the powers of Europe and led to that costly and traumatic conflict known as the Great War, or (after 1939-45) the First World War.
By early August diplomacy had broken down and the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were mobilising, opposed by those of Britain, France and Russia. The Central Powers were later joined by the Ottoman(Turkish) empire, and the Allies by Italy. Since these great empires extended well beyond the bounds of Europe, the war at once became truly global.
The European nations immediately mobilised their massive armies and set in train their long-prepared operational plans. The German time-table required an overwhelming attack on France, involving the violation of Belgian neutrality, before turning to deal with Russia. Although Britain was a naval ‘super-power’, Germany took little account of her small army.
On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany to fulfil treaty obligations to Belgium, to preserve her own security and to preserve the balance of power in Europe.
1914 -THE OLD CONTEMPTIBLES
By European standards the peacetime British Army was very small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in quality. Its Regular soldiers were long-service professionals, confident in their marksmanship and discipline, and intensely proud of their Regiments. In comparison with the largely conscript continental armies, the British Expeditionary Force(BEF) of 1914 was indeed ‘a rapier among scythes’. The original force consisted of seven divisions and included three Regular battalions of the Regiment:
1st Bn East Lancashire Regiment – 11th Brigade, 4th Division
2nd Bn South Lancashire Regiment – 7th Brigade, 3rd Division
1st Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment – 2nd Brigade, 1st Division
On account of the German Emperor’s sneering dismissal of the BEF as ‘the contemptible little British Army’ the survivors of that gallant band proudly annexed the title by which they will be known for all time, the ‘Old Contemptibles’.
THE RETREAT FROM MONS
Mons Within three weeks of mobilisation the BEF had concentrated on the Franco-Belgian border and was moving forward, on the left flank of the French armies, to meet the German advance. Near Mons, on 23rd August 1914, the BEF was struck by the full weight of the German offensive. The accurate and disciplined fire of the 2nd South Lancashires, in front of Frameries, took a heavy toll of the massed German infantry, but eventually the battalion was ordered to retire. Though outflanked and outnumbered, the old 82nd withdrew in contact ‘in perfect order as if on parade’.
Le Cateau The BEF now fell back to conform with their French allies, the South Lancashires fighting another successful rearguard action at Solesmes. Another stand was made at Le Cateau on 26th August, where the 1st East Lancashires made a stubborn defence in front of the village of Ligny and the depleted South Lancashires grimly held their position in the centre of the British line, near Caudry, until both battalions were ordered to break contact and join the general retirement.
The Marne The famous fighting retreat continued until 5th September, when the BEF was south-east of Paris. The following morning the British army advanced as part of the Allied counter-stroke known as the Battle of the Marne. All three Lancashire battalions took part in this fighting, which shattered German hopes of early victory but cost both the East Lancashires and the Loyals their Commanding Officers. On September 10th the 1st East Lancashires was the first British unit across the River Marne at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre.
DEADLOCK ON THE AISNE
The Aisne The Allied advance continued, but when the BEF crossed the Aisne and assaulted the heights of the Chemin des Dames they found the Germans entrenched and, after confused fighting, the characteristic deadlock of trench warfare set in.
Troyon On 13th September 1st Loyal North Lancashires lost fourteen officers and over five hundred other ranks in its first major engagement of the war, attacking up the Troyon spur to capture a sugar factory. A Regimental memorial at Troyon commemorates their sacrifice.
THE RACE TO THE SEA
Both sides now extended their flanks north in a race to the sea, and the BEF was moved from the Aisne front to Flanders. Here all three battalions were involved in intense combat through October and November as the Germans made desperate and repeated attempts to break through to the Channel ports.
La Bassée From 12th to 29th October 2nd South Lancashires experienced severe fighting and heavy casualties at the Battle of La Bassée, losing seven oficers and over two hundred men on the 21st alone, but despite determined German attacks the battered line never broke.
Le Gheer On 21st October, in a dashing counter-attack, 1st East Lancashires captured the village of Le Gheer, near Ploegsteert Wood, and held that position against constant attacks until it left for Ypres in April 1915. It was there that, on 1st/2nd November Drummer John Bent won the Regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the war.
First Ypres 1st Loyal North Lancashires were engaged in the epic First Battle of Ypres from 23rd October, when they made a most gallant and successful bayonet charge at the Kortekeer Cabaret, and through the desperate crisis of the battle around Gheluvelt on October 31st, remaining in action until 14th November. 2nd South Lancashires also joined in the Ypres fighting, withstanding repeated attacks at Nonne Boschen 11th-13th November. The battle swayed back and forth as fresh German divisions were committed and, with ever-decreasing numbers, the British Regular Army fought almost literally to the death, constantly attacking, withdrawing and counter-attacking. The line held, but at terrible cost, both Lancashire battalions being reduced to barely company strength.
Givenchy The Loyal North Lancashires had hardly recovered from their cruel losses at Ypres when, on 21st December, they were called on to assist the Indian Corps by retaking some captured trenches. The trenches were recaptured, but battalion casualties amounted to six officers and over four hundred men.
1915 – THE NEW ARMIES
‘Your Country Needs You’ The First Battle of Ypres was the graveyard of much of the pre-war professional Army, but by the winter of 1914/15 the surviving ‘Old Contemptibles’ were being reinforced by Regular battalions returning from imperial garrisons and by the Territorial Army. The 2nd East Lancashires arrived from South Africa in November 1914 and, early in 1915, the 1/4th and 1/5th South Lancashires and 1/4th Loyal North Lancashires were also in Flanders.
The Kitchener Battalions In Lancashire patriotic volunteers flocked to enlist. Soon after the outbreak of war the existing 4th and 5th battalions of each regiment were duplicated by the creation of ‘second line’ TA battalions, and additional Service battalions of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ were raised and trained. By mid-1915 the first of these battalions were operational. By the end of the war the three regiments had between them raised sixty battalions in Lancashire, of whom 37 saw active service overseas.
BARBED WIRE AND MACHINE GUNS
The Regular battalions passed the winter of 1914/15 in shallow, muddy trenches, enduring great hardship and a steady drain of casualties with characteristic stoicism and humour. With the coming of spring, both sides attempted offensive action:
Neuve Chapelle From 10 to 13 March the 2nd East Lancashires took part in heavy fighting during a limited British offensive which captured the village of Neuve Chapelle, suffering 287 casualties in their first European battle for a hundred years.
Second Ypres The 1st East Lancashires and the 2nd, 4th and 5th South Lancashires all took part in heavy fighting in the course of the Second Battle of Ypres, which opened on 22nd April with a German offensive using poison gas for the first time. For the next month the four battalions struggled desperately to defend the Ypres Salient, wearing improvised cloth masks soaked with urine as partial protection from the choking gas. Fighting was particularly severe around Shell Trap Farm, where the 1st East Lancashires were supported by the 4th and 5th South Lancashires – the Warrington and St Helens Territorials.
Aubers Ridge On 9th May the 2nd East Lancashires and 1st Loyals took part in the assault on Aubers Ridge which failed bloodily against strong German defences and well-sited machine guns. The British bombardment, though ineffective against the enemy trenches, inflicted heavy losses on the East Lancashires, who had 449 casualties that day, while the Loyals’ losses amounted to 243.
Festubert In an heroic attack on 15th June the Preston Territorials, the 4th Loyal North Lancashires, lost 431 men killed, wounded and missing in their first general action.
Bellewaarde On 16th June the Warrington Territorials fought their first major engagement when they carried advanced trenches near Hooge on the Bellewaarde Ridge, and later beat off the enemy’s counter-attack. The anniversary of this fight, which cost 276 casualties, was afterwards commemorated annually by the 4th South Lancashires with a ceremonial parade. On 25th September the 2nd South Lancashires made another brave but costly attack in the same area, losing heavily to the lethal combination of machine guns and barbed wire.
Loos The final British offensive of 1915 also started on 25th September and 1st Loyal North Lancashires made a gallant but unsuccessful assault in the face of uncut German wire, machine guns and gas. When, after a second attempt, the survivors rallied in the trenches, only three officers and 159 other ranks remained on their feet, sixteen officers and 489 men having fallen. It was in the aftermath of this attack that Private Henry Kenny earned the Victoria Cross.
The Service Battalions During the latter half of 1915 Lancashire units of the ‘New Army’ began to arrive on the Western Front, including the three 7th Battalions (all in the same brigade), the three 8th Battalions, the three 9th Battalions, 11th South Lancashires and 10th Loyal North Lancashires. Over the next few months they were initiated into the arduous routines of trench warfare. On 26th November Private William Young of the 8th East Lancashires won the Victoria Cross for rescuing his sergeant, who was lying wounded between the lines, while on 21st May 1916 Lieutenant Richard Jones of 8th Loyal North Lancashires earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for his gallant defence of Broadmarsh Crater on Vimy Ridge.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
1 July – 18 November 1916
Fighting of an even more intense character and larger scale opened on 1st July 1916 when, in order to take pressure off the French, the British Army began that immense and costly succession of attacks known collectively as the Battle of The Somme.
The battle was fought in France, astride the River Somme, in a rolling, open countryside of chalk slopes, spurs and valleys studded with small villages and woods. The terrain is well-suited to defence, and on the high ground the Germans had prepared three lines of trench systems, sited in depth, whose defenders were protected by barbed wire entanglements and deep dug-outs.
After eighteen months of frustrating, static trench warfare, throughout the Army hopes ran high that 1st July 1916 would bring decisive victory. The shortages of artillery ammunition and trained manpower which had severely limited British capabilities were now over, for industry was at last geared up for mass production of munitions and the ‘New Army’ divisions had been in the field for some months. Expectations were particularly great among the enthusiastic volunteers of the ‘Kitchener’ battalions.
Over half a million men and 1537 guns were allocated for the British offensive.The main attack was to be launched on a frontage of 14 miles from Serre in the north to Montauban in the south, with the axis of advance along the old Roman road from Albert to Bapaume. The infantry assault was to be preceded by a massive and sustained artillery bombardment which, it was confidently predicted, would smash the German defences and cut the wire.
Eighteen battalions of our Regimental forebears fought in this epic four and a half month struggle, which has ever since remained an emotive and tragic symbol of gallantry, endurance and sacrifice, earning two Victoria Crosses, eleven hard-won Battle Honours, and numerous other awards for bravery.
‘The First Day on the Somme’
At 0730 hours on 1st July 1916 the artillery lifted and the British infantry, including the 1st and 11th East Lancashires, advanced in extended lines towards the German trenches. For a few moments there was silence, and then suddenly machine guns opened up from behind largely unbroken wire and cut down the attackers in swathes. The casualties, some 57,470 men, were the worst ever suffered by the British Army on a single day.
On the far left of the British attack the 11th East Lancashires ( the famous ‘Accrington Pals’) assaulted the village of Serre, while a mile to their south the 1st Battalion ( the old 30th Foot) attacked to the north of Beaumont Hamel. Despite rapidly mounting casualties, the East Lancashires moved steadily forward, as if on parade, until they melted away under the fire. Small parties of both battalions entered the German trenches, but they were never seen again.
Within a few hours The East Lancashire Regiment suffered more casualties than on any other day in its long history. Out of 700 officers and men of the 1st Battalion who went into action, only 237 were present to answer their names when the roll was called, while the 11th Battalion lost 594 killed, wounded and missing out of the 720 in the attack. This memorable devotion to duty is commemorated in the Regiment annually to this day, most notably by a Service in Blackburn Cathedral.
Albert-The Break-in Battle
La Boiselle This village, on the Albert-Bapaume road astride the main thrust of the British offensive, was eventally cleared on 4th July by the ‘New Army’ 19th Division after severe close-quarter fighting with bomb, bayonet and Lewis gun. The 7th Battalions of the East Lancashires, South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires, all in the same brigade of that division, took part in the fight around La Boiselle where, on 5th July, a posthumous Victoria Cross was earned by Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson of the Loyal North Lancashires.
Thiepval Some two miles north of La Boiselle, on 3rd July, the 2nd South Lancashires attacked the strongly fortified Thiepval Spur, the highest point of the German defences, losing 14 officers and over three hundred other ranks. Despite repeated assaults on this dominating feature, including attacks by 8th Loyals on 24th and 26th August, and by 2nd and 8th South Lancashires on 3rd September, the trench systems around Thiepval remained in German hands until late September.
Ovillers-La-Boiselle On the next spur north of La Boiselle, the fortified village of Ovillers was the centre of fierce and protracted fighting from 7th to 15th July in which the 2nd and 8th South Lancashires and 8th and 9th Loyal North Lancashires, all in the 25th Division, played a prominent role in capturing the ruins from the Prussian Guards.
Attacks on the German Second Line
South of the Albert-Bapaume road the initial British attack had met with greater success, in particular on the extreme right of the British advance where 30th Division, supported by the 11th South Lancashires ( known as the ‘St Helens Pioneers’), penetrated the German defences at Montauban. This created the Fricourt Salient, which over the next few weeks was progressively enlarged by a series of costly local attacks against the German second line of defence, which ran along the ridges from Thiepval to Pozieres, on the Bapaume road, and then through Bazentin and Delville Wood to Guillemont .
On 7th July the 2nd East Lancashires attacked Contalmaison, on 14th-15th the 8th East Lancashires and the 1st and 10th Loyals were in action around Pozieres, where the former suffered 374 casualties, while on the 23rd the 1st Loyal North Lancashires and the three 7th Battalions saw heavy fighting on Bazentin Ridge.
Guillemont On the right flank, the 55th Division (West Lancashire Territorials), including the 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions of the South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires, made a gallant but unsuccessful attack on Guillemont on 7th August, when Second Lieutenant Gabriel Coury of the 1/4th South Lancashires earned a Victoria Cross for acts of gallantry which included bringing in a wounded Commanding Officer over ground swept by machine gun fire. Two days later in the same area the 1/5th South Lancashires lost ten officers and 204 other ranks to artillery and machine gun fire in a failed attack afterwards commemorated each year by the St Helens Territorials. The Division was back in the line early in September and took part in heavy fighting between the notorious Delville Wood and Ginchy.
The Final Phase
On 15th September a renewed British offensive was launched to clear the last German strongpoints on the high ground and to break out towards Bapaume. This attack was supported by the first ever appearance of tanks, two of which were dug out of the mud by the 1/4th South Lancashires during the action known as Flers-Courcelette.
Meanwhile, 2nd and 8th South Lancashires and 8th and 9th Loyals were involved in operations to clear the northern end of the Thiepval Ridge, in particular successfully storming the Stuff and Regina trenches there on 21st October in the battle of the Ancre Heights. On the 18th October the 1st East Lancashires, who had only recently returned to the Somme, attacked at Le Transloy through “a vast lake of mud, pitted with shell-holes”, losing all the officers, warrant officers and senior NCOs of the assaulting companies and a total of 362 other ranks, while on the 23rd the 2nd East Lancashires captured and held German positions near Guedecourt.
Further north, near Beaumont Hamel, 8th East Lancashires and 10th Loyal North Lancashires attacked side by side on the 15th November in the battle of the Ancre, but failed with severe casualties. The final act of the Somme offensive opened on 18th November, when the three 7th Battalions assaulted the village of Grandcourt in appalling weather. Winter now brought an end to this terrible battle, in which the men of the New Army had most worthily maintained the reputation of the Lancashire regiments for invincible determination, cheerfulness and gallantry.
Operational Deployments Overseas 1914 – 1918
|France and Flanders||1st & 2nd East Lancashires, 2nd South Lancashires, 1st & 2nd Loyal North Lancashires|
|East Africa 1914 – 16||2nd Loyal North Lancashires|
|Palestine 1917-18||2nd Loyal North Lancashires|
|India||1st South Lancashires|
Territorial Army Battalions
|France and Flanders||1/4th, 2/4th, 1/5th & 2/5th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires, 4/5th & 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires|
|Gallipoli 1915||1/4th & 1/5th East Lancashires|
|Macedonia 1917||1/12th Loyal North Lancashires|
|Egypt 1914-17||1/4th & 1/5th East Lancashires|
|Palestine 1917-18||1/12th Loyal North Lancashires|
|France and Flanders||7th, 8th & 9th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires, 10th Loyal North Lancashires, 11th East Lancashires & South Lancashires, 13th East Lancashires & 15th Loyal North Lancashires|
|Gallipoli 1915||6th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires|
|Egypt 1916||6th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires, 11th East Lancashires|
|Mesopotamia 1916-18||6th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires|
|Macedonia 1915-18||9th East Lancashires & South Lancashires|
In October 1914 Turkey, whose empire then stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans, joined the Central Powers. 1/4th and 1/5th East Lancashires were already in Egypt guarding the Suez Canal when in May 1915 they were ordered to the Gallipoli Peninsula. In July the 6th Battalions of the East Lancashires, South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires also landed at Cape Helles. The Allies were trying to force the Dardanelles but, as on the Western Front, at once become involved in trench warfare made additionally difficult by Turkish possession of the commanding hights.
In June the East Lancashire Territorials played a gallant part in desperate fighting around Krithia. The three 6th Battalions landed at Suvla in August to open a second beachead on the peninsula and it was here that, on the 8th, in their first major battle the 6th South Lancashires, with 1/6th Gurkhas, captured Hill ‘Q’ on the crest-line of the vital Sari Bair ridge. This success, which could have resulted in victory on Gallipoli, was not exploited or even supported and eventual retirement was inevitable. Fierce fighting followed in which the three 6th Battalions were overwhelmed and almost wiped out, losing in all 41 officers and around one thousand five hundred men.
The survivors of the 6th Battalions then held a sector of the Suvla front in appalling weather until they were evacuated at the end of the year, among the last to leave being a detachment of the South Lancashires commanded by Captain Clement Attlee, the future Prime Minister. The East Lancashire Territorials left Helles a few days later, but not before a posthumous Victoria Cross was earned, on 23rd December, by 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Smith of the 1/5th.
EGYPT AND PALESTINE
Defence of Suez The Suez Canal was a vital strategic link with the British Empire in the East and, being vulnerable to Turkish attack from Sinai, was a high priority for reinforcement. Early arrivals, in September 1914, were 1/4th and 1/5th East Lancashires, the Blackburn and Burnley Territorials of what became 42nd East Lancashire Division. They left Egypt in May 1915 for the Gallipoli campaign but returned the following January, together with the 11th East Lancashires (from England) and the three 6th Battalions. All six battalions were assigned to the Suez Canal Defence Zone, but in February the three 6th Battalions sailed for the Persian Gulf and the 11th for France. The East Lancashire Territorials remained and took part in the desert campaign which, in August 1916, defeated the advancing Turks at Romani. By January 1917 the two battalions had advanced across Sinai to El Arish on the Gulf of Aquaba, and it was from there that they were ordered to France.
Palestine In June 1917 the 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires were among the reinforcements for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force which had by then pushed the Turks back to Gaza in Palestine. Its new commander, Allenby, had been ordered to expel the Turks from Palestine and capture Jerusalem. The 2nd Loyal North Lancashires also joined this force, having spent a year in Egypt to recover from their campaign in East Africa. Both Battalions took part in the Allenby’s successful advance, earning six Battle Honours including Gaza, Jaffa and Jerusalem before they departed for France in April 1918.
In November 1915 the 22nd Division, including the 9th East Lancashires and South Lancashires, was despatched from France to Salonika in Macedonia, where an Anglo-French force was assembling to assist the Serbs in resisting Germany’s Bulgarian allies. Later, the much-travelled 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires were also in Macedonia from January to June 1917.
Compared to other theatres of war, stalemate characterised this arduous campaign in mountainous Balkan terrain, with offensive operations largely confined to raids and patrolling. In December 1915 the 9th East Lancashires were in action at Kosturino and, on 13th-14th September 1916, the same battalion saw more serious fighting at Macukovo. All three battalions took part in the first Doiran offensive, April-May 1917.
For the best part of two years the battalions took their turn in trenches overlooked by the immensely strong fortified heights of Pip Ridge and Grand Couronne. These were their objectives when the second battle of Doiran was launched in September 1918. The South Lancashires attacked Pip Ridge on the 18th with ‘consumate gallantry and self-sacrifice’ but, despite initial success, were compelled to withdraw after several hours of fierce fighting with two thirds casualties. The following day the East Lancashires made an equally heroic solitary assault, enfiladed by machine guns on both flanks. Their sacrifice was not entirely in vain, for three days later the enemy abandoned their positions and on 29th September Bulgaria was the first of all the Central Powers to unconditionally surrender.
2nd Loyal North Lancashires mobilised at Bangalore in India and was the only British unit in an Indian Army expedition against German East Africa (now Tanzania). In November 1914 this force attempted to capture the port of Tanga, but though the Loyal North Lancashires fought their way into the town they were not well supported by unsteady Indian troops and were eventually obliged to withdraw. An ignominious re-embarkation concluded this sorry debacle.
For the next two years the Loyal North Lancashires fought a small-scale bush war on the frontier between Kenya and German East Africa. As the only regular British battalion in theatre, the 2nd Loyals were the backbone of the defence and, in addition to its usual infantry role, the battalion manned an improvised artillery battery and found mounted infantry and machine gun companies. The Loyals fought in many minor actions, including skirmishes around Lake Victoria and the operations which led to the capture, in March 1916, of the Kilimanjaro area. But tropical diseases took a heavy toll of the battalion and in December 1916 it was transferred to the healthier climate of Egypt.
Tigris. In February 1916 the 6th Battalions of the East Lancashires, South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires, veterans of Gallipoli, were sent to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where an Anglo-Indian force was besieged by the Turks at Kut-al-Amara. The relief force made some progress up the River Tigris, capturing Turkish defensive lines at Hanna and Falahiya, but repeated and desperate assaults on very strong positions at Sanna-i-Yat failed with heavy casualties and Kut fell at the end of April. A Victoria Cross was awarded to the Reverend Addison, Chaplain to 6th Loyal North Lancashires.
Kut-al-Amara. A renewed British offensive astride the Tigris was launched in December 1916, and the three 6th Battalions were heavily involved in fierce fighting to clear successive Turkish positions, including the Dahra and Shumran Bends. At the latter, on 25th February 1917, a Victoria Cross was won by Private John Readitt of the South Lancashires.
Baghdad. The Lancashire battalions then earned immortal honour for their gallant assault crossing of the River Diyala, 7th-10th March, which led to the fall of Baghdad. Captain Oswald Reid of 6th Loyal North Lancashires earned a Victoria Cross on this occasion for the stand he made when isolated on the far bank for thirty hours.
Adhaim. The advance continued to the River Adhaim where, on 17th/18th April, all three battalions took part in a brilliantly-executed silent night attack, during which the Lancashire troops were ferried across the river and scaled cliffs to surprise the Turkish pickets and then routed the main enemy force. This success was followed by an action at Dahuba on the 24th April and a fierce fight at Band-i-Adhaim on the 30th, when the Turks were again defeated. The three 6th Battalions subsequently took part in many successful minor actions to clear the Jabal Hamrin, and remained in Mesopotamia until the Turkish surrender.
FRANCE AND FLANDERS 1917
The year 1917 saw Regimental strength on the Western Front reach a peak of 27 battalions. It also saw our allies in profound difficulties, with mutinies in the French armies and revolution in Russia. To distract attention from these events the British Army bore the brunt of the campaign and mounted a series of offensives.
Arras On 9th April 1917 the British spring offensive was launched at Arras, penetrating successive German trench systems on Vimy Ridge and astride the River Scarpe with dramatic initial gains in ground and prisoners. As usual, it proved difficult to turn this success into a break-through and the offensive dragged on until the end of May with little more to show than a mounting casualty bill. Six Lancashire battalions took part in the offensive – 8th East Lancashires and 10th Loyal North Lancashires advanced up the Arras-Cambrai road and then saw heavy fighting around Gavrelle, where 1st East Lancashires were also engaged, while 11th South Lancashires supported the attack further south. In May the 11th East Lancashires joined the battle and subsequently, on 28th June, they took part in the successful assault on Oppy.
Messines Seven Lancashire battalions were involved in the carefully-prepared victory of Messines. The battle opened early on the morning of 7th June when eighteen British mines were exploded beneath the Messines Ridge and the attacking troops advanced up the slopes behind a creeping barrage. On the first day of the offensive 19th Division made a successful attack north of Wytschaete in which the 7th Battalions of the East Lancashires, South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires captured and held all their objectives with few casualties. The plan went equally well further south along the ridge where 8th South Lancashires and 8th and 9th Loyal North Lancashires, all in 25th Division, also took their objectives with comparatively little loss. 2nd South Lancashires were in reserve during the capture of the ridge, but on 14th June the Battalion made a further advance to capture the Ferme de la Croix, in the course of which Private William Ratcliffe earned a Victoria Cross for charging alone to capture a German machine-gun. No fewer than 33 other gallantry medals were won on that day by the South Lancashires.
THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES
Six weeks after the capture of Messines the main British offensive of 1917 opened in Flanders.This battle, better known as ‘Passchendaele’ after its truly terrible final phase, was launched on 31st July in torrential rain which turned much of the battlefield, its drainage system destroyed by artillery, into a deadly swamp.The German defence was based on machine-guns, sited in depth in strongpoints and concrete pill-boxes, with reserves concentrated for prompt counter-attack. To compound the horror, this battle saw the first use of mustard gas. The offensive went on for three dreadful months and involved 26 battalions of our Regimental predecessors.
Initially the British attack, with massive artillery support, made some progress. In the centre the South Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire TA battalions of 55th Division captured all their objectives, but had to yield some of their gains in the face of heavy counter-attacks. Some two miles to their south 2nd East Lancashires, of 8th Division, took their objectives on Westhoek Ridge and beat off three counter-attacks, while further south again 8th East Lancashires and 10th Loyal North Lancashires of 37th Division and the three 7th Battalions in 19th Division mounted diversionary attacks. The following day 2nd and 8th South Lancashires, both in 75th Brigade of 25th Division, relieved 8th Division on Westhoek Ridge. Waist-deep in mud and pounded by artillery, the endurance of the two battalions over the next fortnight was truly heroic.
On 20th-22nd September 55th Division attacked again over the same ground as before. Resistance was fierce, but 1/5th South Lancashires captured the vital Hill 37 and stubbornly held it against determined counter-attacks. Then on 4th October the 1st East Lancashires suffered severe losses in an attack near Poelcapelle.
In the final phase of the offensive, the assault on the Passchendaele Ridge, two second-line Lancashire TA divisions were committed. 66th Division, including 2/4th and 2/5th East Lancashires, attacked at dawn on 9th October after a nightmare eleven hour approach march, floundered a few hundred yards into the morass of the aptly-named Waterfields at the cost of almost seven hundred casualties, and in appalling conditions held their gains against repeated counter-attacks. Then on 26th October 2/4th, 2/5th and 4/5th Loyal North Lancashires, all in 170 Brigade of 57th Division, made a most gallant attack through mud so pervasive that the men had to trust to their bayonets when assaulting the German machine-guns. Between them the three battalions suffered 935 casualties in this, their first major battle.
With the capture of Passchendaele the offensive ground to a halt. Casualties on both sides were appalling: 162,769 British and some 255,000 Germans. Measured in terms of attrition, 3rd Ypres was a British victory, won by superior artillery firepower and the dogged endurance of the Infantry, but the horror of that blood-soaked swamp has endured as a folk memory to rival the Somme
Cambrai The Lancashire battalions were not engaged in the Cambrai offensive, which saw the historic first use of massed tanks, but in the foggy dawn of 30th November the 55th Division took the full weight of a massed German counter-attack near Villers-Guislain. 1/5th South Lancashires found themseves outflanked and surrounded by overwhelming numbers. After a fierce fight the battalion was literally wiped out. In obedience to the order to ‘Stand or fall at your posts’ not a man returned. On their right 1/5th Loyal North Lancashires made a gallant stand but at terrible cost, 434 casualties, while 1/4th Loyal North Lancashires, who were in reserve, saved the situation with a magnificent immediate counter-attack. The Lancashire Territorials had once again distinguished themselves
1918 – THE YEAR OF VICTORY
Reduction of Battalions The terrible Infantry losses in the attritional battles of 1916 and 1917 were not fully replaced, for Prime Minister Lloyd George, fearful of further costly offensives, deliberately held back manpower in Britain. Consequently, early in 1918 there was a wholesale reduction of British units on the Western Front to keep others up to strength. Ten Lancashire battalions were disbanded: 2/4th East Lancashires, 2/5th South Lancashires, 4/5th Loyal North Lancashires, 10th Loyal North Lancashires and the 7th and 8th battalions of all three regiments. In April and May three more battalions, 4th East Lancashires, 2/5th East Lancashires and 11th South Lancashires, were reduced to training cadres, though the South Lancashires were later re-formed. Following this forced consolidation, by the Spring of 1918 the BEF was dangerously over-stretched.
GERMAN OFFENSIVES – MARCH-MAY 1918
‘The Kaiser Battles’
Meanwhile the collapse of Russia following the Bolshevik revolution had enabled Germany to transfer seasoned divisions from their Eastern Front to France and Flanders. Their aim was to deliver knock-out blows to Britain and France in turn before United States troops could appear in strength on the Western Front. Thirteen Lancashire battalions took part in the severe fighting to halt these German assaults.
The March Offensive (Battle of the Somme 1918)
In the foggy dawn of 21st March 1918 the Germans launched 65 divisions on a narrow front against the British Third and Fifth Armies and, using overwhelming artillery firepower, gas and novel infiltration tactics, penetrated thinly-held Fifth Army positions on the Somme, causing widespread disruption and heavy casualties. A large part of this front had recently been taken over from the French, and the Fifth Army, critically short of manpower, had been quite unable to prepare depth positions in the Battle and Rear Zones. The result was a confused mobile battle in which the British front buckled and was borne back by weight of numbers, fighting a series of bitterly contested rearguard actions, but did not break. This offensive lasted three weeks, during which the Germans penetrated up to forty miles towards Amiens but failed to achieve their strategic objective.
The full weight of the German assault fell on the 66th Division, who held a sector east of Peronne. The 4th East Lancashires, in the front line, were attacked from the rear and overwhelmed, while 2/5th East Lancashires suffered 763 casualties in a long fighting withdrawal. Remarkably, the survivors marched off singing. The 4th Battalion was reduced to one officer and about twenty men.
The 11th South Lancashires, in 30th Division, were in front of St Quentin when the storm broke, and were ordered to fall back on Ham, where it was intended to hold the line of the Somme Canal. This line was breached, and on the 24th March at Eppeville Corporal Davies earned a Victoria Cross when he kept his Lewis gun in action to the last, causing the enemy many casualties and checking their advance while his doubly-outflanked company withdrew through a deep stream choked with barbed wire.
The 2nd East Lancashires joined the battle on the 23rd when they occupied the west bank of the River Somme near Bethencourt, but the river was forded by the enemy and the outflanked battalion lost heavily as they withdrew; despite this, they fought on, with at least one action a day over the next nine days, including successful counter-attacks at Rosieres on the 26th and at Thiennes on the 31st.
The 25th Division was deployed astride the Cambrai-Bapaume road in support of forward divisions, and from there over six successive days the 2nd South Lancashires and 9th Loyal North Lancashires fought a series of rearguard actions back to the 1916 Somme battlefields around Puisieux and Gommecourt before they were relieved, having suffered 373 and 363 casualties respectively.
A few miles to the north, 1st East Lancashires were in reserve when the front line around Bullecourt was broken, and on the 21st and 22nd they fought a successful defensive action near St Leger before being relieved. Behind them, the 42nd Division had rushed forward from GHQ reserve to occupy blocking positions on the northern flank of the German breakthrough, south of Arras where on 26th March the 1/5th East Lancashires inflicted heavy losses on the enemy in the open at Gomiecourt.
Further north again, the 11th East Lancashires, with the rest of 31st Division, were also rushed up from reserve and took up positions near Hamelincourt. Over the next eight days the Division resisted five German divisions and broke the back of their offensive in that area. The 11th East Lancashires earned particular distinction near Ayette on 27th March in a day of desperate close-quarter fighting in which the Germans stormed the ‘Pals’ position again and again with heavy losses on both sides, including 350 of the ‘Accrington Pals’ killed, wounded or missing. A posthumous Victoria Cross was earned by Second Lieutenant Basil Horsfall who, despite a serious head wound, twice counter-attacked the enemy with the remnants of his platoon, each time regaining his position.
The April Offensive (Battle of the Lys)
The next phase of the German offensive started on 9th April with an attack further north near the River Lys, where the main weight of the assault fell on a Portuguese division, which collapsed. The enemy poured into the gap, attacking the exposed flanks and rear areas of divisions to the north and south. The situation was critical, prompting Field Marshal Haig on 11th April to issue a stark Order of the Day:
‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.’
Again the Germans made gains, but after a great effort they were held short of their Hazebrouck objective. Nine battalions of our Lancashire predecessors were involved in stemming this offensive.
The 31st Division, including 11th East Lancashires raced north to fill the gap behind the Portuguese sector, and fought the enemy to a standstill in three days of incessant fighting to defend Hazebrouck. The 11th Battalion played a notable part in this successful defensive battle, in particular by a stubborn stand on 13th April when they held their ground in the face of three direct assaults at the cost of another 240 casualties.
Givenchy The 55th Division, which included the 1/4th and 5th South Lancashires and the 1/4th Loyal North Lancashires, was in the line between Givenchy and Festubert when the Portuguese to their north collapsed, but the West Lancashire men held their positions on the southern flank of the assault with splendid valour and tenacity and refused to give ground. In this, their most famous action, the 55th Division fully sustained their hard-won reputation as an elite division. It was perhaps the finest Territorial Division action of the war. Nearby, the 1st Loyals were involved towards the end of the offensive when on 18th April they counter-attacked to restore the 1st Division main line.
On the northern flank of the breakthrough the 34th Division, including 1st East Lancashires, was outflanked by the Portuguese collapse and fell back through Armentières to occupy a succession of blocking positions around Bailleul. A brigade of the 25th Division, including 9th Loyals, moved south to assist the 34th and 40th Divisions, and the Loyals counter-attacked at Croix du Bac on April 10th, near Bailleul on the 13th and at Kemmel on the 25th. A few miles to the east, the 2nd South Lancashires were in action on the 10th at Ploegsteert, and next day also moved south to beat off two attacks at Neuve Eglise. On the 12th, and again on the 13th, the Battalion was forced back to the Ravelsberg where, after another day’s severe fighting the survivors were relieved on the night of the 14th. Losses in the April offensive were again terrible: 662 for the 2nd South Lancashires and 821 for 9th Loyals; but, remarkably, morale remained high.
Villers-Bretonneux Whilst the main action of the April offensive took place on the Lys, further south the Germans made a renewed attempt to reach Amiens. At dawn on 24th April the 2nd East Lancashires were occupying trenches in front of Villers-Bretonneux when they were overwhelmed and forced back by a heavy bombardment and infantry assault supported by tanks, gas and liquid fire. The survivors held the rear of the village throughout the day, preventing a further enemy advance, and that evening the village was recovered by two Australian and two British brigades. The East Lancashires were relieved on the 29th.
The Aisne 1918
On the 27th May the Germans mounted a third offensive, this time in a French sector near the River Aisne. This sector was by chance held by the battered British IX Corps which, in need of a rest, had been allocated to a supposedly quiet area. The British troops involved included 2nd East Lancashires, in the 8th Division, and the 2nd South Lancashires and 9th Loyal North Lancashires, in the 25th Division. All three were in reserve when the forward areas were pounded by the largest concentration of artillery yet assembled. The main line of defense was quickly breached and overwhelmed and the reserves were committed piecemeal in desperate and confused fighting against odds of at least four to one. Unit cohesion was soon shattered, but the troops fought on in isolated company groups and mixed detachments, retiring in close contact until the tide was turned and, after eight days heavy fighting, the German advance was once more ground to a halt.
The three Lancashire battalions on the Aisne had fought through all three of the ‘Kaiser Battles’ and had suffered accordingly: the total losses of 1st East Lancashires between March 23rd and June 1st 1918 amounted to 63 officers and 1,254 other ranks, double the original fighting strength, the 9th Loyals casualties were no fewer than 1,200, and 2nd South Lancashires too was reduced to a cadre.
Marshal Foch’s counter-stroke on the Aisne was launched on July 18th, and the 2nd Loyal North Lancashires, newly arrived from the Middle East, was committed to battle on the 22nd with the 34th Division, under command of the French 10th Army. Over the next ten days they advanced against fierce opposition south of Soissons, suffering 443 casualties.
ADVANCE TO VICTORY
‘The Hundred Days’ August-November 1918
By late July the force of the final German offensive was spent, and the Allied armies were regaining the initiative. By that time the 2nd and 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires had arrived from Palestine and two new battalions, the 13th East Lancashires and the 15th Loyal North Lancashires, had been raised. Eighteen battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashires would take part in the final Allied advance on the Western Front, and it is of note that these comprised five Regular battalions, nine battalions of Territorials and just four Service battalions, two of them newly formed.
On 28th June the 11th East Lancashires took part in a local offensive at La Becque near the Nieppe Forest, using speed and surprise to advance to a depth of nearly 2,000 yards, taking twelve machine-guns, three mortars and two pieces of artillery and defeating a counter-attack. Casualties totalled 247, but when they were relieved after 48 hours of heavy fighting the ‘Pals’ received many compliments for their gallant conduct. The 1st and 13th East Lancashires were in the same area, where in mid-August the 1st Battalion took part in a series of minor operations around Neuf Berquin. All three battalions remained in the Nieppe area until the end of September.
Meanwhile, on 8th August, Ludendorff’s ‘Black Day of the German Army, an Allied offensive achieved complete surprise and made considerable gains. There then followed a series of rapid blows, which were delivered on different sectors of the front by various Allied armies, so preventing the enemy from switching their reserves to counterattack. By mid-September the Germans were back on the Hindenburg Line, and by the end of the month even that had broken.
On 24th August 1918 the 55th Division, with 1st/4th and 1st/5th South Lancashires, and the 1st/4th Loyal North Lancashires, mounted a successful surprise assault on the Givenchy Craters. This was the prelude to a continuous series of attacks, and by the Armistice the West Lancashire Territorial Division had reached the Tournai area, having advanced 50 miles in 80 days. The much-travelled 1st/12th Loyal North Lancashires also reached Tournai at that time.
Also on 24th August, on the 1916 Somme battlefields the Burnley Territorials of 5th East Lancashires, in 42nd Division, pressed the enemy back over the Ancre to take Miraumont and some five hundred prisoners. The 5th East Lancashires again distinguished themselves at Riencourt, near Bapaume on 28th-31st August, and on 27th-29th September they stormed through the vaunted Hindenburg Line.
The 1st Loyal North Lancashires played a major part in the capture of the Hindenburg Line. On 18th September they fought a preliminary operation near St Quentin, and on the 29th they took part in the main assault, clearing a maze of trenches in severe fighting around the St Quentin Canal over the next two days, then beating off a counter-attack at Sequehart. They next took part in the advance to the Sambre-et-Oise Canal, in the course of which they captured the Bellevue Ridge and secured Andigny-les-Fermes on 17th October before taking part in the successful assault crossing of the Canal on 4th November. The re-formed 11th South Lancashires were also in action on the Sambre-et-Oise Canal that day, leading to the liberation of Landrecies.
A few miles to the north, on 20th October the 5th East Lancashires mounted a remarkably successful night attack at Briastre, breaching six lines of defence and capturing some three hundred of the Kaiser’s Guard. The battalion’s final operation was an advance through the Foret de Mormal on 6th-8th November to take Hautmont on the outskirts of Maubeuge.
The 57th Division, with the 2nd/4th South Lancashires, and the 2nd/4th, 1st/5th and 3rd/5th Loyal North Lancashires, took part in the battle of the Scarpe 29th-30th August, and the assault on the Drocourt-Queant Line, the northern extension of the Hindenburg Line, where on 2nd September the South Lancashires took 56 machine guns and 400 prisoners, and then made opposed crossings the Canal du Nord and Canal de l’Escaut to capture Cambrai on 9th October before moving north to occupy Lille.
Further north again, three Lancashire battalions took part in the recapture of the Messines Ridge and Ploegsteert. The attack was launched on 28th September, and early the following morning 2nd Loyal North Lancashires took the village of Wytschaete from the rear. The 2nd South Lancashires continued the advance that day, capturing twenty artillery pieces, ten machine guns and two mortars. Just to the south, 11th East Lancashires were in action around Ploegsteert, where on 28th September, in what proved to be their last major attack, the ‘Accrington Pals’ cleared German strongholds to the north of Ploegsteert Wood and took 17 machine-guns, a field gun, an anti-tank gun and many prisoners at the cost of another 353 casualties. The newly-formed 15th Loyal North Lancashires, a pioneer battalion, was in support of operations in this area.
The advance in the north continued and gathered pace. On 16th October the 11th East Lancashires and 2nd Loyal North Lancashires made an almost unopposed crossing of the River Lys. Next day the ‘Accrington Pals’ crossed the Deule in single file over the wreckage of a bridge, and on 18th October they liberated the large towns of Turcoing and Wattrelos. Marching on through Courtrai to the River Schelde, which they crossed without opposition on 9th November, the ‘Pals’ were near Grammont on the Dendre, some twenty miles from Brussels, when the Armistice brought hostilities to an end.
The 2nd South Lancashires also closed up to the Schelde, and after hard-fought river crossing operations on 22nd-24th October and 7th-8th November, they continued to pursue the enemy until halted at Flobecque by 11th November.
The 2nd East Lancashires joined in the general advance at Gavrelle on 8th October, and on the 11th they breached the Drocourt-Queant Line and pursued the enemy for five miles to the outskirts of Douai, which they took the following morning. The Battalion’s advance thereafter was marked by long marches and frequent skirmishes to clear pockets of enemy, and the Armistice found the 2nd East Lancashires just nine miles from Mons. Their 1st Battalion, meanwhile, had advanced to the south of Valenciennes and finished the war less than twelve miles from where they had first withstood the German onslaught at Le Cateau in August 1914.
September and October had been marked by a general Allied advance across the Western Front which resulted in Germany suing for peace. An Armistice came into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when all troops were ordered to stand fast.
Demobilisation soon began, but several Lancashire battalions joined the British Army of Occupation in Germany, based around Cologne. These included the 1st Loyal North Lancashires, who crossed the German frontier on 16th December with drums beating and Colours flying, and the 2nd and 1st/12th Loyal North Lancashires. Further east, 9th South Lancashires occupied Chanak in the Dardanelles.
We Will Remember Them
In the course of the Great War, 61 battalions of the Regiment were raised, of which 37 saw active service overseas. In all, 112 Battle Honours were earned, together with twelve Victoria Crosses. Nearly twenty thousand officers and men laid down their lives, and the close association that was forged in those years between the Regiment and the people of Lancashire can never be expunged.