‘Go One Better’ – Fighting to the Finish in 1918

‘Go One Better’ – Fighting to the Finish in 1918

Major-General Arthur Solly-Flood inspects a battalion of 42nd Division as they march past, drums beating, bugles sounding – June 1918 (© IWM Q 8903)

Ian Riley, Liverpool Scottish Regimental Museum Trust

Note: Some quotations have been paraphrased.

From 8 August until 11 November, the British Expeditionary Force conducted a highly mobile and very successful though hard-fought campaign known as the ‘Hundred Days’ in conjunction with its allies. Germany was forced to ask for an armistice (a ceasefire) that marked the end of over four years of fighting on the Western Front. From North West England, four infantry divisions took part, the 42nd (East Lancashire) and the 55th (West Lancashire) Divisions and their ‘second line’ counterparts, the 66th and the 57th respectively. Here there is only space to outline the actions of the 42nd and 55th Divisions. The 42nd Division’s motto was ‘Go One Better’.

The 42nd (East Lancashire) Division and the Battle of the Selle


German tanks captured by 42nd (East Lancashire) Division

in November 1918 (Photo: 42 Division History – Gibbon)

In October 1918, the Germans made one last attempt to stop the British advance by holding a line based on the River Selle running south east of Cambrai. Behind this lay Valenciennes, the key German communications in northern France. The crack German 25th Division was brought from reserve into the front line. The Territorials of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division took over the front, which already included a few footholds on the German side of the river, on the night 12/13 October. They were immediately attacked over several days but still managed to establish further posts on the east bank.

In the fighting over the next few days, Lance-Corporal Armstrong of the Bury-based 1/5th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers distinguished himself.

Being ordered to reconnoitre a suspected machine gun post in a house on the Solesmes-Belle Vue Road , Armstrong led his section so skillfully that they not only found the post, with a loaded gun in position, but also seized the opportunity to enter quietly and abstract the gun before the garrison realized what was taking place. They were then fired upon, but the withdrawal was managed with equal skill, and the gun was carried off without a casualty to the section. [42nd Division History]

The steep banks of the River Selle made it a difficult obstacle to cross in itself and additionally it was overlooked from 400 yards by the main German position with machine-gun posts

42nd (East Lancashire) Division Memorial (Michelle Young)

even nearer. During the nights of 17 and 18 October, the Divisional Engineers pushed four footbridges across the river. Some were improvised from 30 foot German telegraph posts with planks nailed across and the wider ones were made of trestles. Two pontoon bridges were also prepared and, after dusk on 19 October, these were taken down to the river, the sound of the cartwheels muffled by lining them with canvas stuffed with straw. All this was done under an hostile barrage of high explosive and gas shells combined with machine gun fire. Heavy rain brought the river level up by a metre, causing flooding back from the banks. Bridges had to be raised and extended back immediately, with the sappers doubly handicapped by working in respirators in the dark. Infantry advanced down taped routes to bridges marked by numbered lanterns to deploy on the far bank with no delay and in good order. At 2 am on 20 November, the Third Army advance continued, with 42nd Division moving North East in three phases. 126th Infantry Brigade advanced with 1/10th Bn. Manchester Regiment (Oldham-based) and 1/5th Bn. East Lancashire Regiment forward and 1/8th Bn. Manchester Regiment from Ardwick in support.

With tactics far-removed from those of the Somme in 1916, each battalion advanced in four waves, with formations being adjusted to task. Sections in the first wave moved in arrowhead formation (with a separate platoon attack on a farm) with the second wave moving in extended order and the third wave advanced in line of sections (each section in single file). The fourth wave formed defensive flanks. In the second phase, the 127th Brigade, Territorial battalions of the Manchester Regiment, swept on through 126th Brigade. They advanced under the umbrella of an artillery barrage lifting 100 yards every five minutes to make a total advance of between 3000 and 4000 yards. Amidst many tales of bravery and initiative:


Sgt S. R. Lee

Sgt S. R. Lees, commanding a platoon of the 10th Manchesters, captured a crater heavily defended by machine guns and cleared 1000 yards of railway, taking the initiative to work beyond the divisional boundary. Corporal Martin, with just two men of the same battalion, charged a party of 50 enemy, putting them to flight. In the 5th East Lancashires, Private Kehoe, in confusion caused by enfilading machine gun fire and wire obstacles, organized a party of men (including NCOs) into an improvised platoon, gave the direction and took them forward giving covering fire every 20 or 30 yards with a Lewis Gun that was not his normal weapon. [42nd Division]

The whole assault had started on a very dark night in heavy rain with troops already so tired that some, waiting to assault, fell asleep in open fields. The bandsmen of Burnley’s 1/5th Bn. East Lancashire Regiment, on duty as stretcher bearers, brought up their instruments and played the leading waves forward with the Regimental March. Many acts of gallantry are described in the Divisional History:

Private Wilkinson of the 1/5th Bn. of The Manchesters, the ‘Collier’ (or ‘Miners’) battalion from Wigan, managed to deliver a very urgent message, exposed to extremely heavy machine-gun and shell fire for 600 yards. Four comrades had already been shot down making the attempt. This and his subsequent conduct that day earned him the Victoria Cross. [Sadly, he was killed in a mining accident at Bickershaw Colliery in 1940 and is buried in Leigh]. [42nd Division History]

With further fighting up to 24 October, the 42nd Division lost 128 killed and 707 wounded. They withdrew to excellent billets in the small town of Beauvois where, against a background of further training, canteens were established, regimental bands gave concerts and a theatre was improvised for the Divisional Concert Party, known as Th’ Lads, to give popular daily performances. On 3 November the advance restarted through the Forest of Mormal with a succession of fast-moving brigade and divisional attacks including the crossing of the bridgeless River Sambre, the division’s RAMC Field Ambulances rapidly evacuating wounded under difficult conditions. With the Armistice, they came to a halt of 11 November with Salford’s 1/7th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers leading, 2000 yards ahead of the outpost line. The Divisional Commander was Major-General Arthur Solly-Flood, a man hugely influential since 1916 in the reform of tactics that, by 1917, had placed far greater emphasis on the leadership of the platoon commander and his NCOs and the key rôle of fire and movement at that level. He felt that the Division had lived up to its motto of ‘Go One Better’.

A memorial to 42nd (East Lancashire) Division marks the attack and capture of the Hindenburg Line at Trescault near Cambrai, 28 September 1918.

The Final Advance of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division

Men of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division in Tournai attending fires started by retreating enemy, 10 November 1918 (©IWM Q 9672)

The 55th (West Lancashire) Division moved forward in a more piecemeal manner through gradual advance and well-planned raids. Lieutenant Frank Macdonald of the Liverpool Scottish wrote:

8 November 1918: Orders this morning to leave Froidmont village. Overnight the enemy retired; there was no machine-gunfire and all the shells he sent over seemed to come from a long way off. Stopped for lunch in Ere, a ruined out-post village, with shell-torn farms and houses everywhere. Battered furniture lay scattered, everywhere the sickly smell of gas and lyddite. Strange to march with no fear of shelling as yesterday this street was swept by bullets and artillery. We crossed yesterday’s "No Man's Land" , seeing two of our fellows dead, killed that morning, … hard lines to be killed with the end so near. Staying in a village on the German out-post line still with resident civilians, all looking dirty and hungry … not realising that they are now free. … Dull explosions in the distance … the enemy blowing up roads and railways, the sky lit with houses and warehouses set on fire. [Personal diary]

The Division’s three brigades remained intact but a balanced all-arms mobile force was earmarked. It was commanded by Brigadier-General Clifford Stockwell, a colourful officer known by some in his own regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers) as ‘Buffalo Bill’. Known as ‘Stockwell Force’, it was based on one battalion, 2/5th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers, strongly supported by cavalry, artillery, an RE Field Company, a machine gun company and a cyclist company with appropriate medical, logistic and wireless support. It was to be activated if the enemy started a rapid withdrawal and so was being held ready on 8 November to push forward beyond the Division’s advance guard. On 9 November ‘Stockwell Force’ crossed the River Escaut, followed by a brigade of cavalry that had been placed under Divisional command.

The End

The 55th Division planned an attack on the town of Ath for 11 November. However, at 7 am, 2/5th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers swept over a bridge before it could be destroyed and occupied the town. Further operations were still being planned at a brigade-level conference when news was received of the ceasefire to be imposed at 11 am. Troops had been expecting to move forward into another attack:

Troops and civilians at once went mad. Church bells across the district rang and the Liverpool Scottish Pipe Band (amongst others) marched and counter-marched on a village street through crowds of cheering soldiers and excited Belgians in a riotous scene that would have made Donnybrook Fair [an event near Dublin abolished as too riotous even by the celebratory standards of the Emerald Isle] look like a prayer meeting. [McGilchrist]

As the news sank in, the Armistice brought an unaccustomed stillness: George Carter of the 1st Bn. East Lancashire Regiment (not a Territorial) wrote home on Nov 16th 1918:

How are you feeling now-a-days … a little jubilant, I guess. We can hardly realise out here that there is no war on. When it was read out to us on the morning of the 11th we were just starting off practising a stunt, over the top, and we carried on with it just the same as if nothing had happened. … I did manage to see a paper with the terms of the Armistice and they did seem a bit stiff; anyhow they have been worth fighting for. [Lancashire Infantry Museum]

It was over.

 Pte. Edwin Leatherbarrow of Culcheth (then in Lancashire) 242004 Killed in Action on 15th July 1918, aged 22, with 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, serving in 1/5th Bn. East Lancs Regiment but originally with the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). In the photo, his cap carries the badge of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). As a bellringer, his memorial plaque is to be found in the ringing chamber at Newchurch Parish Church, Culcheth where it continues to be looked after by his family today, over 100 years after his death (Photos - Portrait: Jenifer Poole – Plaque: Graham Young).German tanks captured by 42nd (East Lancashire) Division in November 1918 (Photo: 42 Div History – Gibbon)

Sources and Further Reading for this article:

The 42nd (East Lancashire) Division 1914-1918 – Frederick Gibbon

The Story of the 55th Division 1916-19 – J.O. Coop

4th Bn. The King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) – Wadham and Crossley

1/5th Bn., The King’s Own War Record – Albert Hodgkinson

The Liverpool Scottish 1900-1919 – A.M. McGilchrist

The War History of 1/4th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (Battalion Committee)


The Lancashire Infantry Museum, Fulwood, Preston http://www.lancashireinfantrymuseum.org.uk/


An extended version of this and previous articles will be found at www.liverpoolscottish.org.uk (Tab - Magazine Articles)