Digging for Victory

The ‘Dignity’ of Digging and Tactical Lessons from the Somme

55th Division had three infantry brigades, each of four battalions, 164, 165 and 166 Brigade.

 KORLR: King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)

 KLR: King’s (Liverpool Regiment)

LF: Lancashire Fusiliers  

SLR: The South Lancashire Regiment

LNLR: Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

1/4 KORLR is therefore 1/4th Battalion, King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) - 1000 men at full strength.

[1/4th is said as ‘First Fourth’].

Following the bitter experience of generally unsuccessful attacks on Guillemont in the Somme campaign during early August 1916, the 55th (West Lancashire) Division of the Territorial Force withdrew to the rear to absorb lessons learned from its experiences. In September it returned to an area just north of Guillemont (which had only just been captured by the 16th (Irish) Division). There were two more periods of serious fighting for the 55th Division in September before the division moved north to Ypres where many of its Territorial battalions had served in 1914/15.

Almost immediately after the unsuccessful attacks on Guillemont village (8/9th August 1916), the 55th (West Lancashire) Division made one further effort before withdrawing for reorganisation and ‘rest’. On 12th August, 1/9th KLR backed by 1/5th KLR attacked south of Guillemont (on the right of the division’s area) supporting a French attack. The Germans met them in the open, resulting in severe hand-to-hand fighting (a relatively rare occurrence). Although 1/9th KLR were successful, the French failed, leaving the King’s exposed to enfilade fire (i.e. from the side). They were forced to withdraw but not before they noticed the rather different style of French tactics:

At Zero the French attacked on the right of Cochrane Alley, advancing at a run in small groups of eight to twelve men, and they got a good distance without casualties. Then one by one the French began to fall. … None came back and it is thought almost every man perished. Meanwhile the two companies of the [1/9th KLR] attacked in waves on the left of Cochrane Alley (The 9th King’s in France).

British tactics were to change quite rapidly, partly through learning from the French and partly through self-appraisal after the mainly disastrous 1st July. General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, wrote on 2nd July that ‘The British have not yet got the way’. The BEF printed its first tactical review within three weeks of the start of the Somme battles and examined such things as mopping-up after attack, use of the rifle rather than reliance on the bomb [grenade], use of infantry skirmishers, machine guns to create barrages and use of the portable Lewis gun in close support as well as artillery developments such as a scientific creeping barrage. This would lay foundation for radical reorganisation of infantry minor tactics in Spring 1917 with the emphasis on platoon fire and manoeuvre (rather than company-level) with junior officers and NCOs taking much more initiative.

Colleting DuckboardsThe 55th Division then went into a rear area west of Abbeville where, apart from reinforcement and reorganisation of individual battalions, efforts were made to draw on the division’s own experiences and those of the rest of the BEF. At the front, during the first half of August, they had dug 13,000 yards of new trenches and strengthened another 3000 yards. Major-General Hugh Jeudwine, the divisional commander, went to great lengths to explain to troops, face-to-face, the importance of digging in the current form of warfare and that ‘work with the spade was as important as that with the rifle, bomb and bayonet’. 

On 2nd September 1916, the adjutant of 1/10th KLR described a brigade training scheme to practice night digging of strongpoints:

The Major-General required some night digging practised and also relief of trenches. [Also] trench discipline for benefit of new draft and new officers. … 1/5 KORLR and 1/5 LNLR to leave the camp at 5:30 pm and go to some practice trenches … commence digging strong points etc. At 9:30 pm our Battalion and 1/5 SLR would … march to trenches and carry out a proper relief … of these two Battalions, occupy the trenches, make strong points and generally do all that Trench Warfare requires. (Personal notebook)

Additionally, the GOC spoke directly to the men of working parties during operations to explain that ‘the work done during the night [with the spade] was every bit as much a fight as an actual bayonet assault with a rifle’. In his training memorandum of January 1917, he wrote that ‘throughout the training, the importance and dignity of spade work will be insisted upon.’ Individual strongpoints were the key to developing ideas of defence and consolidation.

Area around Deville Wood

The area around Delville Wood where the 55th Division operated 9th September 1916.

British held trenches are shown in blue.

When the division returned to the Somme early in September 1916, two infantry brigades (165th and 166th) went into the front line reinforced by the divisional pioneer battalion (1/4 SLR) and one of the divisional Royal Engineer Field Companies (419th, previously 1/1st West Lancs RE). They occupied an area about 1500 metres north of Guillemont, north east of the infamous Delville Wood and along its top and eastern edges. A few days later 164th Brigade (also reinforced by a pioneer company of 1/4 SLR and 422 Field Company, previously 2/2nd West Lancs RE) occupied the line from Delville Wood towards Ginchy.

On 9th September 1916, the 55th Division attacked northwards and eastwards with 16th (Irish) Division on its right and 1st Division to the left. Following a nine-hour barrage by heavy and field artillery (the latter with lighter, more mobile guns like the 18 pounder), 164th Brigade on the right (supported by 166th Brigade) attacked close behind the barrage. The enemy position was more strongly held than expected and a concealed position was mistaken for the objective. The 1/4th LNLR and the 2/5th LF were forced to withdraw with heavy casualties as was 1/4th KORLR in a second attack a few days later. Edmund Herd, stretcher bearer in 1/10th KLR (166th Brigade) wrote of Delville Wood:

Heavily shelled and many casualties. Carried them through the wood which was a death trap. What a dreadful time. Horace Worsley killed as he was bearing and his stretcher case is badly wounded a second time. Two Germans surrender at Dressing Station after hiding in an old dugout for three days, so we gather. … Shall not forget Delville Wood and Longueval. I have experienced nothing worse. (Herd Diary, 10th September1916).

However, to the north, the 1/5th KLR and 1/6th KLR made progress in their bombing attack, reaching their objective in 15 minutes and then consolidating by constructing strongpoints.

Jeudwine's StrogpointIn August 1916, Jeudwine’s specified that the [55th] ‘Divisional strongpoint’ should be for a garrison of twenty men and two machine guns. Its construction was to be practised as a regular drill with standardisation of the men, tools and stores required.

The integration of the 55th Division’s pioneer battalion, 1/4th SLR from Warrington, and the two Royal Engineer Field Companies (St Helens and Widnes) highlights the increasing importance of skilled hands rapidly carrying out field engineering and supervising the infantry in similar work. Each infantry division had an extra ‘pioneer’ battalion, trained for more routine engineering work such as the construction of strongpoints, dugouts and repairs whilst the 419th Field Company RE War Diary records assisting and supervising tasks such as digging of trench mortar emplacements, road mending, strongpoints, filling of shell holes, laying trench boards, construction of runner posts and working with infantry to construct a light railway. Their war diary also records one officer and ten men going for training on the ‘Sentinel’ pipe forcing jack, an extraordinary device that drove a three-inch pipe hundreds of feet through the earth to eavesdrop on enemy positions or, packed with ammonal explosive, cause substantial disruption.

The deep-thinking Pte William Campbell (1/10th KLR), only eight weeks in France, wrote on 14th September:

Howitzers pictured by CampbellEverywhere I gaze is war material. Evidence of this hellish nightmare ever before my eyes. Tents, horses, khaki-clad figures. Oh just to leave it all alone for a few hours. The atmosphere leaves one forever the possessor of a queer feeling, which at times borders upon absolute hopelessness. A kind of melancholy depression seems to grip me. … The dread of seeing the line becomes more acute each time. … Each time we go we leave someone, perhaps a pal. … There is a type of boy out here who can kick a ball, take part in games, etc. just as usual, but for the life of me I cannot get out of my memory the deaths of so many pals.

Campbell pictures a Howitzer it is an early 8 inch version firing 200lb (91kg) shells nearly 10,000 yrds. it wieghed about 5 tons.

The 55th Division withdrew for a short period, returning to the front on 17th September, a few kilometres further north of Ginchy between the villages of Flers (where tanks, after a year of secret development, had first been used a few days previously) and Gueudecourt. Rumours reached General Jeudwine that sixty Germans had been seen trying to dismantle a ditched tank just in front of 166th Brigade (a gross exaggeration by a ‘young idiot officer’ as it turned out – it was ‘a few Germans’ loitering) and he had heard that a French artillery liaison officer was being made to feel less than welcome by the Brigade Major. Homely advice followed:

Try to put that right if you can. It is most necessary to keep on good terms with them. A cup of hot tea and a few minutes chat goes a long way. At the moment, they are under the impression they are not wanted. (Handwritten note from Major-General Jeudwine: The National Archive)

 On 22nd September the Assistant Adjutant of 1/10th KLR (2Lt GD Morton MC) wrote to his CO (Lieutenant-Colonel JR Davidson CMG, wounded at Guillemont and now in the UK). Morton had ended up temporarily commanding the battalion at Guillemont in August after 19 officers became casualties and had since walked over the ground of that battle:

I’m training and putting the wind up a draft of 70 of our own men and 14 officers so I have my hands full … took a stroll over to Guillemont, quite interesting to see the ground we charged over, it has all changed. … We searched the ground for any clue of Monty [Capt HB Montgomery], Slo [2Lt Lancelot Slocock, captain of the English Rugby Union team in 1908] or Rory W [Capt J Rhonwy Williams] but found none. It is an awful mess, and for yourself alone, Colonel, some of our men have not even been buried yet, and are nothing else but bones. I’m glad to say we got 2 definite marks of identification relating to Pte Nelson and Pte Paterson (Engineer Battalion) both who had been reported missing. (Letter 2Lt GD Morton, © LSMT)

Awaiting the Order to Attack

Reserve troops awaiting the order to attack

An offical Photograph entitled 'Reserve troops awaiting the order to attack near Ginchy 25 September 1916'. This was likely some way behind the lines given the closeness of the men to each other. 

The 55th Division took part in a Fourth Army offensive, the Battle of Morval, on 25th September. The four battalions of 165th Brigade attacked, all King’s Liverpool Territorials. At 12.35 pm they advanced successfully to take Gird Trench and its support trench but were so close up to the creeping barrage that there was a risk from their own shells, preferable however to allowing the enemy time to bring machine guns into action. By 6.30 pm it was apparent that the 21st Division on their right had not taken Gueudecourt village, leaving an open flank. This was secured by 1/7 KLR by the construction of strongpoints, presumably of the divisional pattern.

The Royal Artillery map (below) shows the plan for the attack on GIRD SUPPORT Trenches near Gueudecourt on 25th September 1916. The detail plan specified timings and lines for the barrage which moved forward at 50 yards per minute with the infantry following very closley behind.

Plan for Creeping Barrage for Grid Trench

Plan for the Creeping Barrage 25th September 1916

 

Creeping Barrage Legend

Creeping Barrage Timings

On 27th September, 164th Brigade was tasked to capture a section of Gird Trench further to the north. The attack was carried out by the Liverpool Irish. 1/8th KLR, again moving off close under the creeping barrage at 2.23 pm, capturing their first objective by 2.30 pm and their second at 3.15 pm with the artillery barrage stopping a counter-attack at 3.50 pm. After several days of heavy but successful fighting the 55th Division was withdrawn to the rear before its move north in early October to the Ypres Salient.

Further Reading:

The Story of the 55th Division (Coop, 1919)

The Liverpool Scottish 1900-1919 (McGilchrist, 1930)

The 9th King’s in France (Roberts, 1922)

The 42nd (East Lancashire) Division (Gibbon, 1920)

The Lion and the Rose [4th KORLR] (Shannon, 2015)