This is the story of a group of seventy men who fought as Infantry in France during the First World War. Their experience is not exceptional, rather their journey echoes one that most young men had with the Infantry from 1916 onwards. They arrived together in France in early October 1916 as draft replacements, as most men after 1915 did, into a battle proven and bruised Infantry Battalion. My great uncle was amongst them. At wars end some twenty-five months later less than a handful would remain. This is their story.
Most of the men came from the towns North of Manchester; Radcliffe, Bury, Blackpool, Accrington, Burnley and such. A small number came from further afield such as Durham, Birmingham, Stoke, Cardiff or Manchester itself. In the main they were Lancashire men. They were labourers, farmers, mill workers, printers, miners, clerks, butchers, and a solitary glass polisher.
There is no comprehensive history for these men. I have used their medal roll to identify and confirm them as a group. Surviving service records, unit war diaries, pension cards, newspaper archives, casualty reports and wider research has been undertaken. There are still gaps. I have attempted to be factual with very little conjecture.
Their shared experience began with Infantry training at Press Health in Shropshire. This was initially with the 21st Reserve Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Their journeys to basic training were mixed with many men being conscripted in May and June of 1916 and being sent the 21st directly.
Many others had volunteered in December 1915 under the Derby Scheme and were mobilised at Preston in May 1916 into the Royal Field Artillery (RFA). A handful of North East England men were equally in the RFA but found their unit transferred to Preston alongside the others and into the 8th Reserve Battery, 2a Reserve Brigade. Other men found themselves conscripted into the RFA briefly. After a month or so the RFA men were sent en-masse on the 17th of June to the Lancashire Fusiliers for Infantry training, at the time the Army needed more infantrymen than gunners so there was little choice or science involved.
For a few men their journey was different. One man was a territorial solider who was at the end of his engagement but who was rapidly returned to the colours via conscription. Other men had volunteered but in the end were conscripted straight into the 21st.
They were not necessarily all together or in the same training platoons at Press Heath but they would have been going through training at the same time. When they arrived in Shropshire the battles of 1914 and 1915 were long past. The original regular army was largely gone, the originals very few and the impact of the Battles of the Somme from July 1916 would be being realised whilst they sweated through their four months of Infantry training.
A further re-organisation occurred on the 1st of September towards the end of their course when the Army re-organised all the Infantry training units. The bespoke regimental system was deemed too inefficient and more generic Training Reserve Battalions (TRBs) would now be formed. Our men joined the 72nd TRB. It’s likely they didn’t notice any difference.
Pte Tom Cunliffe 27561 from Blackburn almost didn’t get accepted at all as he was just 5ft tall. The Lancashire Fusiliers didn’t want him, but the Army insisted, and he stayed. Pte Robert Collier 27562 from Stockport kept going absent without leave with punishments of increasingly severity. He was absent for over 24 days on five occasions. Why he kept receiving leave as he never seemed keen to come back on time remains unknown. Both would be dead in less than a year.
On Friday 6th October 1916, training done, they left for France. On the Saturday they arrived at No 30 Infantry Base Depot (IBD) at Etaples. This was the wrong Depot for men joining the Lancashire Fusiliers but the recent reorganisations in the Army meant the rules were changing. At some point back in the UK it had been decided that these men were needed in the 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment and as such they would go to 30 IBD for kitting and preparation and not 23 IBD, the Lancashire Fusilier Depot. For the first time these 70 men all certainly came together. This decision lasted all of a week before it was again decided that another Lancashire Regiment was in need; the 8th Battalion the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL) it was to be. They were renumbered and sent to join their new regiment on the 14th of October, just another replacement Draft.
The 8th Battalion was formed in Lancaster in October 1914 and after training landed in France on the 26th and 27th of September 1915 with 859 officers and men. They formed one of the four infantry battalions in 76 Brigade which was under the command of firstly the 25th Division and from October 1915 the 3rd Division. They were in the front lines from the start with regular low-level casualties between large offensive or defensive operations. Their first significant losses occurred on the 2nd and 3rd of March 1916 at Loos. The Battalion had a strength of 814 on the 2nd of March before the battle; casualties by the 3rd were 57 killed, 66 missing believed killed and 216 wounded - 41% casualties. They remained in action with replacements periodically posted-in. A further action on the 4th April resulting in 20 killed and 45 wounded. The Battalion remained busy until July. The next offensive at the Somme on 18th July resulted in 37 killed, 263 wounded and 53 missing. The 16th to 18th of August saw further heavy casualties of 35 killed, 82 missing and 154 wounded. So set the scene for the arrival of our Draft.
The Battalion was recovering out of the line in billets at a place called Bertrancourt as part of the Divisional Reserve in October. From the 16th they began providing working parties to the front line and the war for the 70 began.
On the 13th of November they faced their first significant engagement - one of the last Somme battles at Serre. A frontal assault involving all 4 Rifle Companies with C Company in reserve. C Company later advanced alongside B and D whilst A Company consolidated a captured trench. The attack was only partially successful. Of the Draft Pte Percy Godson 27573 and Pte Thomas Metcalf 27600 were killed with 14 others wounded. The wounds received, that were recorded, were gunshot wounds to arms, legs, chests and heads.
Of those wounded Pte Joseph Jeffers 27595 and Pte George Robinson 27620 would be discharged from the Army a few months later as too badly wounded to remain. Pte John Horrocks 27577, Pte Joseph Henderson 27584 and Pte Gerald Miller 27601 were sent to the UK for recovery before being medically downgrading and transferred to the Labour Corps. Pte Wilfred Davies 27565 was sent to the UK to recover from his injured hand, which he did. He returned to France in 1917 and was killed with the 1st Battalion in November 1917.
Pte James Musk 27605 with shrapnel wounds to his hand and knee also went back to the UK before later being sent to the 13th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment in late 1918. He would go on to serve in Northern Russia in 1919 and win the Military Medal. The seven other men it seems were able to return to the Battalion after recovering from their wounds. The Draft of 70 was down to 61.
Although they didn’t know it at the time this was the last large battle they would face until the Spring of 1917. The Winter was spent between the front line, support trenches and periods of training. Casualties still occurred:
Pte Frank Evans 27567 was wounded in the neck on the 25th October 1916. He returned to the Battalion in November but was eventually sent back to the UK sick in January. He later joined the 1/4 Battalion, returned to France and was taken prisoner in July 1917 thus spending the rest of the war as a POW. Pte Albert Cowin 27563 was killed likely by an artillery shell on the 20th December, dying three day later.
Pte Thomas Pomfret 27613 was Court Martialled in February for at least one self-inflicted wound. He was sent to hospital with a gunshot wound to the hand. The punishment for such an offense was death, but throughout the war this was never carried out. Many men who were found guilty of the same offence were sent to prison. This soldier was fortunate as he left the Battalion and later in 1917 was posted into the Labour Corps.
In March the Battalion began its move from Wanquetin to the Leincourt and Arras areas. This was to prepare for the upcoming series of Allied Spring offensives. From the 6th of April they spent the nights in the cellars of Arras as the British bombardment and German counter fire crossed overhead. By the 8th they were starting to take casualties as they moved into the forward trenches. The Battalion went into action on the 9th moving forward from their positions and remaining in heavy action until the 12th. Over the four days the Battalion suffered 43 killed, 28 missing and 172 wounded. Amongst those killed were Pte Aloysius Laithwaite 27598, Pte Arthur Ashbridge 27553 and Pte Frank Nicholson 27609. Pte James Hudson 27579 was shot in the leg and sent back to the UK. He recovered and came back to France with the 1/4 Battalion, he would be killed in action with them on 20th September 1917.
Pte John Green 27574 was shot in the thigh on 11th of April, he was sent back to the UK before serving with the RAMC for a period, he was laterally medically discharged from the Army. He was the odd soldier out in the Draft of 70 in that he had previous military experience as he was a Territorial Force (TF) soldier who served in the 1/10th Manchester Regt. Discharged at the end of his TF service he was then conscripted back into initially the RFA before finding his way to the 8th.
On the night of the 25th/ 26th the enemy counter attacked following a bombardment of the Battalions trenches near Monchy le Preux. The attack was repulsed with close quarters fighting. Pte James Felstead 27572, Pte John Henry Royle 27615 and Pte Robert Collier 27562 were killed and Pte Frank Pulbrook 27614 was wounded, dying the next day. Pte Percy Broderick 27556 was also wounded in both legs being sent back to the UK. He was discharged as too badly wounded to serve in September 1917. Pte James Hunter 27578 was also likely wounded in this engagement, he was blown out of a trench, buried in a dugout and latterly shot in the leg. He was sent back to the UK and discharged from the Army that September.
Withdrawn from the front line on the 1st of May but not before Pte Norman Armstrong 27552 was killed on the 30th of April and Pte Nolan Ratcliffe 27619 was shot in the leg on the 7th of May. He was evacuated to the UK and soon after medically discharged from the Army.
The Battalion rested for a week before moving back into the front line trenches on the 10th of May. Pte Lincoln Moore 27603 left on the 6th of May with bad trench foot, he lost two toes, was sent back to the UK and eventually served in the Labour Corps after being medically downgraded.
Pte Fred Armytage 27554 was killed on the 10th as the Battalion moved back into the front line. On the 12th three of the four Rifle Companies attacked Devils Trench. There were heavy casualties and the survivors had to wait until dark to return to their own trenches, Pte Tom Hadfield 27576 and Pte Tom Cunliffe 27561 were killed. Pte Nathan Heaton 27583 was wounded in the arm. He returned to the UK where his arm was amputated, he was then discharged from the Army.
After 4 days overall casualties were 26 killed, 58 wounded and 12 missing, the Battalion was taken out of the lines on the 15th of May to rest.
The Battalion recovered, trained and re-equipped in Arras until the 12th of June before again moving up to the front lines.
After four days in the front line the enemy attacked after a heavy bombardment. These attacks continued for two days up until the 18th. Pte Henry Cowell 27564 was killed on the 16th. He had recently returned to duty after being wounded on 30th April. Pte Henry Hampson 27587 was wounded and sent to the UK, he later served with the 1/5 KORL Battalion. L/Cpl Rupert Bevington 27560 was also likely wounded as he was sent back to the UK on the 16th. He later joined the 1st Bn in Salonica. He died of phenomena when he returned finally to the UK. Pte Henry Ingleson 27589 was sent home on the 26th suffering from gas poisoning. This probably occurred a few weeks previously during a short enemy gas attack. He was discharged as medically unfit from the Army after returning to his shipbuilding civilian role.
The Battalion came out of the line on the 20th of June and recovered until the 10th of July. The rest of July and August was spent in rotation between front line and support areas, there was very little action. September started with a period of training; range work, fighting and attack skills and physical training. This included practising attacks at Company and Battalion level. On the 26th of September the attack for which they had been training took place. The Battalion attacked Polygon Wood. With the Gordan Highlanders on the left and the Australians on the right they attacked at 0550. The attacks were successful after over a day of heavy fighting and shelling, including gas. They came out of the line on the 29th. Casualties in the Draft were L/Cpl George Moss 27604 and Pte William Mathison 27599 killed, Pte Fred Watson 27621 – shot in the head and dying on the 29th. Pte Joseph Railton 27618 was wounded in the arm and sent back to the UK. He would later return to France with the 3rd Battalion being wounded again in November 1918.
Over the period its known other men were wounded and left the Battalion. Formal casualty lists were temporarily not published for the early summer of 1917 so a full picture of casualties cannot easily be reconstructed. However, it is known the following men left the Battalion, in the main because they were wounded in the Arras fighting:
Pte Herbert Moyers 27608 was wounded early in April he returned to the UK and eventually joined the Machine Gun Corps and returned to France.
Pte Albert Maden 27606 was wounded in the neck and medically discharged from the Army in September.
Pte Herbert Harrison 27585 was badly wounded in the leg he was medically discharged from the Army in November.
Pte Albert Evans 27568 was medically discharged from the Army in November.
Pte Thomas Fisher 27569 was medically downgraded, joining the Labour Corps in December.
Pte Evan John Rowlands 27616 was evacuated sick with a kidney condition he was also medically discharged from the Army in September.
Finally, Pte Ernest Ratcliff 27617 was medically discharged from the Army in December
So ended an intense period of fighting for the 8th Battalion. Whilst they remained in or near the front lines until the end of 1917 and continued to take casualties, they were much less than those suffered during the spring/summer period.
The Draft of 70 men had had a brutal 11 months. There were at best 25 of them left, almost certainly less, my great uncle was still among them. The others had either been killed, wounded or categorised sick enough to be evacuated.
Christmas and on into 1918
The Battalion spent Christmas Day 1917 in the trenches, they were shelled throughout. On 30th December another member of our draft left: Pte Frank Hargreaves 27582. He had been wounded in the head and arm in December 1916 and again in the legs during the Arras fighting. A bad case of Tonsilitis saw him evacuated to the UK. He later joined the 1st Battalion and returned to France being captured during the German Spring Offensive in April 1918. He died as a POW in October 1918.
The Winter remained quiet, both because of the weather and the need for both sides to reconstitute and recover from the fighting of 1917. Pte Ernest Jay 27592 was found unfit for further Infantry service and transferred to the Labour Corps in early January 1918.
By February the Army had been forced to re-organise its Infantry units to bolster unit manpower. The result being Brigades would now contain three and not four Infantry Battalions. For 76 Brigade this meant the 10th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were disbanded and the men sent elsewhere from the 2nd of February. Alongside the 8th KORL the 2nd Battalion the Suffolk’s and 1st Gordan Highlanders remained. In return the Battalion received 227 experienced reinforcements from the disbanding 11th Battalion of the KORL. England was running out of men.
The only soldier to win the Military Medal whilst serving with this group of men left the Battalion in February. Pte Christopher Kenyon 27597 won the award in the May 1917 fighting at Arras. He left the Battalion to be Commissioned, joining the 3rd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment.
The Battalion remained in and out of the front lines and Pte Frederick Butterworth 27557 was wounded and evacuated in February being medically discharged from the Army in September. There were now 21 men of the Draft left at best.
German Spring Offensive
From the 12th of March there was a growing awareness of an impending German attack - extra rations and great vigilance exercised. Artillery was fired on enemy rear positions to disrupt any German build ups. Nervousness continued and the Battalion was in Brigade support from the 18th. On the 21st of March at 0500 the Germans opened a heavy barrage on Wincourt and the British support areas. Shells of all calibres including gas. From 10am the enemy attacked on a Divisional wide front. The Battalion was in close support throughout the 22nd and a withdrawal took place on the 23rd to straighten the line after retreats elsewhere. By now the Battalion was in the front line and the Germans advanced on their positions at 0800 following a barrage. Fighting was severe with the Germans taking heavy casualties. The fighting and casualties remained heavy with the Germans continuing their assault, the Battalion eventually moving back to Neuville Vitasse as best they could, at one point withdrawing in sixes over open ground and creating numerous blocks whilst under substantial German infantry attacks. The Battalion were eventually relieved overnight on the 29th by the Canadians.
The Battalion reported 490 casualties. likely well over half their strength. At least 80 of those were killed and a large number taken prisoner. The dead also included their Commanding Officer. Pte James Hutton 27586 and Pte Thomas Jennings 27593 were among those taken prisoner. Sgt Arthur Jones 27594 was wounded. As was Pte Tom Allen 27555, he had been shot in the arm in Nov 1916 and this time was shot in the leg and shoulder.
L/Cpl John Houghton 27581 was also captured in April although not with the 8th. At some point, probably following wounding in 1917 he moved to the 1st Battalion and was captured with them.
Early April saw the Battalion attempting to recover. Fifty six new men arrived on the 3rd, another 193 on the 6th, 40 more on the 7th. The chaos meant the Battalion would for a short time come under the command of the 8th Brigade. On the 12th they deployed to ad-hoc defences as part of the Avelette bridgehead. Again, fighting was desperate and a further 155 men were reported killed, wounded or missing. The rest of the month was mostly in the support trenches. On the 27th they again went into the front line and on the 30th of April Pte Walter Perry 27612 was killed.
May continued in the front lines or support trenches. Casualties continued to occur at low levels with draft replacements arriving; 125 on the 18th for example. The Division suffered 1000 casualties from mustard gas on the 21st, the 8th Battalion was lucky and got away without any gas causalities.
June and July followed a similar pattern to May. A mix of trenches and Brigade support. A large trench raid on enemy positions on the 2nd June brough back prisoners but cost 1 dead and 8 wounded. A similar raid on the 10th of July saw Sgt White who led the attack later die of wounds. Later in July the Battalion was put in Divisional reserve which allowed for proper rest, training, showers, rifle ranges and attack practice. Enemy artillery hit their bivouacs on the night of the 16th of July killing 2 and injuring 9, even in the rear areas there was danger. They returned to the line on the 24th of July for a four-day spell before more time in reserve into August. On the 21st of August the Battalion was in the front lines and carried out an attack with a follow up attack on the 23rd. 34 men killed and 109 wounded. The wounded included Pte Robert Patterson 27611. Both these attacked proved successful.
The full story of some men in the Draft is unclear especially as to when they left the Battalion as they now appear elsewhere:
Pte George Molyneux 27602 was wounded on the 25th July 1918 with the 9th Battalion in Salonica. At some point he left the 8th Battalion for sickness or wounding and was posted to fight in Greece.
Pte John Devane 27566 now appears with him being with the 1st Cheshire Regiment. We know he was at some point wounded with the 8th Battalion and after recovery joined this unit. When he left the 8th is unknown but he was fighting with the Cheshire’s from 26 August.
Pte Arthur Broadbent 27559 was also transferred to the Cheshire Regiment in August after recovering from a gunshot wound with the 8th. He was back in France with the Cheshire’s in October.
100 Day Offensive - end game
There were now 11 men of the Draft left at best – my great uncle was still with them. The 100 Day Allied Offensive had begun on the 8th of August and some of the heaviest offensive fighting now lay ahead.
Pte Bernard Fahy 27571 was wounded on the 30th of August during an offensive operation. He was shot in the foot. This was the third and final time he would be wounded and he was sent back to the UK for good. He had previously been wounded in the arm in Nov 1916 and then in the thigh in April 1917. Each time he had returned to the 8th after recovering from his wounds.
Pte Thomas Grime 27575 is now found to be with the Labour Corps. He was wounded by a grenade in January 1917 but he was also the oldest man being aged 40. Pte Ernest Howarth 27580 is also now with the Labour Corps, he was shot in the arm in November 1916. They both likely left the Battalion some time ago but dates cannot be established. Eight left.
From September the Battalion was increasingly active with offensive patrols mixed with intense training whilst in reserve, On the 27th an attack near Flesquieres took place. The Battalion went in at 0500 with all Rifle Companies attacking. The Battalion took over 800 prisoners in a successful advance, partially due to the bravery of L/Sergeant Tom Neely MM, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. 64 other men were killed.
The next attack was planned for the 1st of October at Rumilly. The Battalion moved into position overnight from the 30th September. It was a cold very wet and dark night. After a 45-minute barrage the Battalion attacked at 0645. All objectives had been taken by 0915. That evening the Battalion were relieved and they returned to their lines. The Battalion suffered 134 casualties; L/Sergeant Tom Neely was one of those killed. From the Draft Cpl Harry Burgess 27558 was wounded, probably by a german artillery round, he died of wounds 10 days later. He had previously been wounded when the bivouacs were shelled on the 16th of July.
With the weather remaining wet and cold a further successful attack occurred on the 9th near Masnieres and again on the 23rd near Romieres. The 23rd saw 17 killed and 110 wounded. Amongst the dead was Pte Fred Oldham 27610. He had previously been shot in the arm during the Battle of the Serre on 13 Nov 1916.
This was the final engagement for the 8th Battalion the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. Evidence suggests six men remained.
L/Cpl Edward Farrelly 27570 was wounded at the Somme Battle of the Serre, 13 Nov 1916 and again during attack on Polygon Wood on 26 Sept 1917. L/Cpl Charles Johnston 27590 was also wounded following the attack on Polygon Wood. It’s likely both returned to the Battalion at some point, but it is not known when.
That leaves four men. Pte Edgar Mason 27607 who was wounded in 1916, Pte Frank Kelly 27596, Pte Edward Hitchen 27588 and Pte Thomas Jennings 27591. These four men were there at the end when at 1100 on morning of the 11th November the Battalion band played in the town square at La Longueville.
Of the 70 men, 25 died. All the rest bar three are confirmed as being wounded at least once or removed from the Battalion as being too sick to continue.
Cpl Harry Burgess
Edited by AndrewSid