A Bitter Winter in France and Flanders

More Lancashire Territorials Arrive at the Front


As 1915 opened, the Territorial Force, forerunner of today’s Army Reserve, was increasingly needed to strengthen the depleted Regular Army in France and Belgium during a frozen and lengthy winter. A ‘Home Defence’ force that had been referred to as ‘England’s Last Hope’ became Britain’s first line of support in the growing continental conflict, ‘Weekend warriors’ transformed to ‘reservist reinforcements’.

Note: Quotes from diaries and other sources may have been paraphrased for reasons of space.

 As told in the last edition, units of the Territorial Force [TF] began to arrive in France and Belgium to reinforce the much-depleted Regulars of the original BEF. The TF existed solely for ‘Home Defence’ within the UK, only sent overseas if individual Territorials volunteered: many had quickly stepped forward. Battalions came from the West Lancashire Division. The East Lancashire Division was away garrisoning Egypt and soon to be deployed against the Turkish Army on the Suez Canal and in Gallipoli.

The three brigades of the West Lancashire Division were based on North Lancashire, Liverpool and South Lancashire. The Northern brigade moved to Bedford to reinforce the 51st (Highland) Division that went to France in May 1915, the first complete Territorial division in the BEF. These battalions were the 1/4th Bn. King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regt), the 1/8th Bn. King’s (Liverpool Regt.), known as the Liverpool Irish, and the 1/4th Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regt. from Preston together with the 2/5th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers from Bury, the first ‘second line’ battalion to go overseas. What Territorials from Perth, Inverness, Argyll and Sutherland initially thought of the men of the Liverpool Irish and of Bury (and vice versa) is reported but probably best not repeated … later they got on very well. In the autumn of 1914, before joining the Highlanders, the 1/4th King’s Own, from Ulverston, were guarding railway lines from Paddington in the south of England, uncomfortable and dangerous work, strung-out along 30 miles of track travelled by locos that ran fiery and fast.

Their regimental history records:

The battalion was accommodated in waiting rooms without furniture or bedding … food being sent up to 30 miles along the line in dixies. There were fatalities: it would be expected that men fresh from the country, many never having seen an express train before, would incur casualties. Several good men lost their lives serving their country who might have preferred to make the sacrifice against a more vulnerable foe than an express train. 

In 1914, seven men of the 1/4th King’s Own were killed accidentally plus Lance-Corporal Thomas Ward, shot by a sentry he was supervising, having failed to reply to three challenges. On similar duty the Lancaster battalion, the 1/5th King’s Own, also lost five men to trains before going to France in February 1915. Details are on the excellent regimental museum website.

The other West Lancashire battalions crossed the Channel independently. The Liverpool Scottish had been posted to the Regular 3rd Division in November 1914; brigades began to hold five, instead of the normal four, battalions.

The Liverpool Scottish went from a 1000 men (full strength) to just over 300 men in a few months almost entirely through sickness resulting from weather and trench conditions. The lessons of trenchcraft and personal survival were hard-learned by those, all of strong physique, more used to coal fires in city offices. Amongst fatal casualties in January were two international rugby union captains, Fred Turner and Percy Kendall.

On 25th January 1915, Captain Bryden McKinnell of the Liverpool Scottish wrote:

Beautiful frosty day. At 11 enemy shelling with 8in. Howitzers (Jack Johnsons). Their range was very accurate. They are high explosive, bursting on graze, sending an enormous column of thick black smoke and earth as high as a church steeple, bursting all around us, nearer and nearer, (one making an enormous hole about five yards across and eleven feet deep, the crater edge being only three yards from the dugout, shaking the whole earth around us. Most marvellously lucky, no casualties. At night, at Battalion HQ, news from the right trench that Toggie Kendall was shot through the shoulder. We all laughed saying, "Lucky Beggar", expecting to see him soon come in saying, "Three months' holiday." But we soon got a phone message that he was killed, having lived only one minute, being killed by a ricochet off a tree - awfully bad luck. They buried him next evening, next to Fred Turner. Strange, the one time captains of Scotland and England to be buried together in a beastly small Flemish churchyard. The Doctor (Noel Chavasse) and Staff made very pretty graves for them. Worked all night, and finished my new MG emplacement.

Sam Moulton, Liverpool Scottish and the Doctor’s groom, had mixed experiences at the south end of the Ypres Salient.

Sam Moulton, 2nd March 1915:

Battalion moved up to Ouderdom - On message on Doctor’s horse – following and finding Battalion the best I could - found them near Ouderdom - 6th Liverpool Rifles passed later on - saw my brother. Three of us grooms found billet at farm in the village - nice girl lived here - some A.S.C. motor drivers here - gave us tea and then we had a sing-song; slept there.

The next day was less pleasant.

Moulton, 3rd March 1915:

Water and feed horses - breakfast with drivers in a motor ambulance and then went to look for Transport lines - On second piquet from 10:00 p.m. Was wearing gum boots and the field so muddy they stuck in the mud and I walked out of them - had a terrible job to retrieve my boots from mud – socks and feet wet and cold - glad when my four hours were done.

 At the heavily contested Hill 60, south of Ypres, the Liverpool Scottish CO, Lt. Colonel Jonathan Davidson, a professional civil engineer, was personally keeping enemy heads down with rifle grenades.

 Hill 60 Afternoon 21st March 1915 (Denis Wilson)Hill 60 Afternoon 21st March 1915 (Denis Wilson)

Davidson’s diary for 20th March 1915:

The Battalion’s pioneers deepening trench at H.Q., continued work on new support dug-outs. To trenches in morning and afternoon. Made new sniper’s loop-hole in Trench 38 to fire across cutting to right.

 Davidson in the Trenches

Davidson's diary 21st March 1915:

 Morning in trenches, fired rifle-grenades from Trenches 38 and 39 with success. Started additional snipers’ loop-holes. Finished off H.Q. also dug-outs on railway cutting for 50 men. Relieved in evening by Liverpool Rifles, (1/6th Bn., King’s Liverpool Regt.)

There was a huge shortage of grenades in the BEF and many were improvised, possibly at greater risk to thrower than target. The elaborate ‘Davidson Dugout’ at Hill 60 became famous amongst the Regulars, allowing Bn. H.Q., with mess and kitchen, to be within four hundred yards of the front line at the Hill 60 railway bridge.

Other battalions of the division began to arrive:

The 1/4th Bn. South Lancashire Regt. (Warrington) had landed in Le Havre in mid-February 1915, becoming the Pioneer battalion (infantry working as engineers) of the 3rd Division on the same day that the 1/5th Bn. South Lancashire Regt. (St. Helens) and 1/5th Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regt. (Bolton) landed to join the 4th and the 6th Divisions respectively. Over the three weeks from 22nd February, the 1/5th Bn., the 1/6th Bn., the 1/7th Bn. and the 1/9th Bn. of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) arrived to make almost a full hand of Territorial KLR battalions. 5th KLR came from St. Anne Street and 6th KLR (the Liverpool Rifles – a rather ‘posh’ collars and cuffs battalion of commercial men) was from Upper Warwick St. The 7th KLR was based in Bootle. The 9th KLR served northwards towards Southport and Ormskirk.

All these KLR battalions were heavily committed to serious actions in May and June 1915 and will be covered in a later article. At about the same time, 1/5th Bn. King’s Own from Lancaster arrived, joining 28th Division. They found their own serious baptism of fire (other than everyday trench casualties) during April 1915. Their war diary and Regimental History tell of April 1915 (showing that ‘rest’ was anything but restful) and their part in the Second Battle of Ypres with Germany’s devastating attack, using chlorine gas for the first time. The effective strength of the battalion was reduced by 380 from the 1020 who left England (100 of whom were rear details such as Transport and not in trenches) within ten weeks.

Diary of the 1/5th King’s Own:

1st to 5th April 1915 Resting then move to Boescheppe. (6th) Resting, Company drill and musketry. (7th) Rest and inspection by General Smith-Dorrien. (8th) Resting. Bayonet exercise and company drill, short route marches. (9th) Move to Ypres. (10th) Company Drill, handling of arms and lectures. 10 officers for trench instruction (12th) Occupy trenches.

History of 1/5th King’s Own (Albert Hodgkinson).

11 April: (Quoting the CO’s diary) ‘Enormously improved the trenches, but greatly handicapped for want of sandbags. Asked for 3000 last night and got 650… shortage of ammunition is a great difficulty’. 23 April 1915: 1/5th King’s Own joined in a hurriedly improvised counter-attack towards Pilckem. Casualties: Killed in Action 38, Died of Wounds 2, Missing 21, Wounded 147. 27 April 1915 Battalion supports attack region of Potijze. Killed by one shell, 12 other ranks and wounded 5. 29/30 April 1915: Rest and reorganization.

The Liverpool Scottish were too far south of Ypres to be directly involved in the Second Battle of Ypres although it did cause them to ‘Stand To’ but for Sam Moulton there were rather more immediate concerns recorded in a diary entry covering two weeks.

 Sam Moulton 6th May 1915:

Usual routine. Every day I have to go to Stink village as it is known (Really it is Voormezeele) -with the Doctor's horse. Troubled with boils and they turned septic (all the eggs we had been eating) very painful especially when they are on your 'sit down upon' - but riding is the quickest way to get rid of them. Right (it seemed) at the end of the road there was a German Observation Balloon - they couldn't help but see me on a light grey horse ride up every morning.

One night we had to get dressed as we had to ‘stand to’. The Germans had broken through at Ypres - Artillery fire was going off in grand style - as well as rapid rifle fire - Boils still troublesome - Medical Sergeant said I was sure to go to Blighty - What a hope! Afternote: Observation balloon still there but I wasn't worth the expense of a couple of shells.

 In the next article, we will shift from the plains of Flanders to the Eastern Mediterranean to follow the fortunes of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division in Gallipoli against the Turkish Army.

  Museums relevant to this article:

Museum of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regt.): www.kingsownmuseum.plus.com/fww-centenary007.htm and www.kingsownmuseum.plus.com/

Liverpool Scottish Museum Trust: www.liverpoolscottish.org.uk and www.liverpoolscottish.org.uk/~liverpo4/the-museum/the-trenches/

 A full list of links to military museums in the North West of England and the Isle of Man can be found at www.armymuseums.org.uk/ and selecting ‘North West’