Friday, 22 September 2017

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20-25 September 1917, was the third phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known today as Passchendaele. You can read blog posts about earlier action here:

A signals section of the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, equipped with telescopes, field telephone and signalling lamps, watch the battalion's advance on Veldhoek on 20 September 1917, © IWM (Q 5971) IWM Non-commercial Licence
A new commander of the offensive, General Herbert Plumer, meant a change in tactics. Units would make short gains behind a barrage of British artillery, then consolidate their position and hold it against German counter-attacks. Air support provided observation to warn of counter-attacks. Other units would then move forward to take the next objective. The fighting was to gain ground; moving east of Ypres, pushing the Germans back. This tactic was called 'bite and hold'.

There were many battalions involved in the battle as a whole, including 12th, 13th, and 20th Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), who took part in the first days of the battle. 12 and 13 DLI were part of 68th Brigade of 23rd Division with 10th and 11th Battalions, Northumberland Fusiliers (NF). 20 DLI was part of 123rd Brigade of 41st Division. All four battalions of this brigade were from different regiments.

The following account of these battalions' actions is taken from their official war diaries held at the National Archives.

20 September 1917
13 DLI battalion HQ moved to the Advance Brigade HQ.

5:40am Zero hour
13 DLI moved forward to Jam area trenches.
12 DLI A and B Companies moved forwards behind 10 and 11 NF and assisted in clearing a German strongpoint and snipers at Dumbarton Woods.
12 DLI C Company less the Lewis Gun Section formed up behind 13 DLI and worked as a carrying party making three journeys in total.
12 DLI D Company moved forward behind 11 NF to Jasper Drive 'encountering a strongpoint...which was successfully dealt with by a sergeant* and three men.' They dug in near Jasper Drive.

13 DLI ordered to move forward again, arriving 8:50am.

12 DLI A and B Companies dug in in front of Jasper Trench in support of 10 NF.

[no time]
12 DLI D Company ordered to reinforce 10 NF and remained dug in on the right of B Company.

13 DLI Battalion HQ established.

20 DLI received orders to 'move up to the original British front line between Shrewsbury Forest and Bodmin Copse and dig in there'.

13 DLI advanced in attack.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section moved to 13 DLI Advance HQ.

13 DLI 'German prisoners passed Battalion HQ, about 150 in all'.

13 DLI took objective and began consolidating the position.

20 DLI D Company sent to help 124th Brigade take the second objective after they were held up by machine gun fire.

20 DLI ordered to move up to the first objective line and dig in, and to be ready to help in the attack.

20 DLI received orders to push on to second objective between 122nd and 124th Brigade. Arrived in position about 3:00pm.

13 DLI repulsed a counter-attack by the Germans on the left company.

20 DLI ordered to attack the third objective on the forward slope of Tower Hamlets ridge. The orders were received 'too late' and the battalion dug in on the backwards slope. They were rejoined by D Company at about 6:00pm. The right flank of the battalion was 'in the air' as 124th Brigade had not managed to cross the stream.

12 DLI A and B Company put under orders of 9th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment (Y&L).

21 September 1917
12 DLI D Company ordered to move back.

20 DLI received orders to attack the third objective with 10th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment.

13 DLI dispersed another German counter-attack on the left company by Lewis gun and rifle fire. One German officer and five other ranks captured.

20 DLI attacked, the British barrage was only 'a few shells sent over at intervals and was in consequence insufficient to keep down the enemy machine guns.' 20 DLI rushed about 200 yards before being forced to dig in, but not before suffering casualties from the German machine guns.

[no time]
12 DLI C Company made two more journeys as a carrying party.

20 DLI drove back a German counter-attack over Tower Hamlets ridge by 'rifle fire and Lewis guns which inflicted heavy casualties'.
13 DLI repulsed attack by Germans on the right company 'coming up the valley from Gheluvelt' after a heavy bombardment.
Section of map from April 1917 showing trenches, Tower Hamlets, and Gheluvelt, (Map Sheet 28 NE.3 1) 'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland' The full map can be viewed here:
20 DLI A German barrage began.

13 DLI 'After two hours heavy shelling the enemy was seen massing on the right of the the Ypres-Menin Road near Gheluvelt preparatory to attacking. The SOS signal was sent up on our right and left and the enemy was caught by our barrage before his attack could materialise'.

12 DLI A and B Companies received orders to move back but due to a counter-attack, A Company were ordered to move forward to reinforce the Y&L. B Company remained in position to protect the right flank.

20 DLI drove off another counter-attack as it was assembling with artillery, rifle, and Lewis gun fire.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section ordered to reinforce right flank.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section ordered to move back by the officer commanding 13 DLI.

12 DLI A Company 'situation became normal' and returned to Jasper Trench.

22 September 1917
13 DLI relieved by 8th Battalion King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and moved back with the exception of HQ and two platoons of B Company.

12 DLI A and B Companies ordered to move back as per the original orders of the previous night.

12 DLI A and B Companies worked as carrying parties.
12 DLI C Company moved to Holy Corn dug out.
20 DLI Enemy shelling and barrage but no counter-attacks.

12 DLI D Company moved to Lucky dugout area to relieve D Company of 11 NF and acted as a carrying party.

13 DLI HQ and the remainder of B Company were relieved.

23 September 1917
20 DLI relieved by 13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, reaching camp at 8:00am.

[no time]
12 DLI A and B Companies continued carrying work.

12 DLI C Company moved up to trenches near Jasper trenches.

24 September 1917
[no time]
12 DLI A and B Companies relieved by 16th Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, and returned to camp.

12 DLI C Company relieved by a unit of the Queen's Regiment.

12 DLI D Company relieved by 9 Y&L.

The battle was mostly successful in that it achieved most of its targets except for taking Tower Hamlets. However, it was not without great cost to the Allied forces (British and Australian). According to the figures in the official history, 20255 British men and officers were killed, wounded, or missing between 20 and 25 September. The Australian casualties are counted at 5013.

The 12 DLI war diary doesn't provide casualty figures but the diaries of 13 and 20 DLI were:

20 September
13 DLI
Killed – 1 officer, 1 other rank
Wounded – 4 officers, 177 other ranks
Missing – 16 other ranks

20 DLI
Killed – 1 officer, 1 other rank
Wounded – 4 officers, 6 other ranks

21 September
13 DLI
Killed – 14 other ranks
Wounded – 37 other ranks
Missing – 1 other rank

20 DLI
Killed – 2 officers, 33 other ranks
Died of wounds – 1 officer
Wounded – 6 officers, 188 other ranks (one of these officers died of his wounds 25 September 1917)

22 September
13 DLI
Killed – 1 other rank
Wounded – 5 other ranks
Missing – 1 other rank

20 DLI
Killed – 6 other ranks
Wounded – 14 other ranks
Missing – 21 other ranks

Sergeant B Cruddas
Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions. The citation reads:
'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Dumbarton Wood in September 1917. An enemy strongpoint which had been overlooked in the advance was causing heavy casualties to carrying parties and supporting troops. He left the carrying party of which he was in charge, and going forward alone, located the strongpoint. He then attacked it with three men, and captured it after a very stubborn fight, putting all the garrison out of action. He showed great powers of organisation, and was a splendid example to all ranks'.

12th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2182/1
13th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2182/2
20th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2639/1

Third Ypres - Passchendaele, The Day by Day Account, by Chris McCarthy

The Long, Long Trail
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Australian War Memorial

Friday, 15 September 2017

“All of a sudden hell let loose” The trench raid at Chérisy

This week, Steve Shannon tells us about events at Chérisy, and a new exhibition at Durham County Record Office.
First panel of the Chérisy exhibition
First panel of the Chérisy exhibition
One hundred years ago today, Durham soldiers raided a German trench in northern France. Trench raids were commonplace on the western front during the First World War, carried out to take prisoners and gather intelligence, but above all, to kill as many enemy soldiers as could be found.

Most raids took place under cover of night and involved few raiders but the raid on a German trench at Chérisy on 15 September 1917 was unique. This was not only because of the number of soldiers involved, but also because flying above the raiders was a Royal Flying Corps warplane taking the only known photographs of a trench raid in progress.

Enlarged copies of these unique - and fascinating - photographs form the centrepiece of a new exhibition, which opens in Durham County Record Office on Friday 15 September. Also on display will be copies of original maps, documents and photographs from the Durham Light Infantry’s archive, cared for by the Record Office on behalf of the Trustees of the DLI Collection, plus full explanatory labels telling the story of this unique raid.
The aerial photographs on display at Durham County Record Office
The aerial photographs on display at Durham County Record Office
This raid at Chérisy is largely forgotten today, submerged beneath the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele but, at the time, it had an important outcome. The majority of the DLI’s raiders came from the 9th Battalion DLI, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC MC from Witton Park. For two weeks before the raid, Colonel Bradford trained his men hard until every raider knew what he had to do. This included practising attacks on a full-scale model of the target trench dug behind the lines with a farmer’s plough.

During one of these practice attacks, the raiders were watched by senior officers, including General Byng, commanding the British Third Army. Such a high-ranking audience for a raid was most unusual. Were they watching to see how Colonel Bradford commanded and trained his battalion? Was Roland Bradford, despite being only 25 years old, being tested for promotion?

The answer came after the successful conclusion of the raid. On 5 October, Roland Bradford was promoted to brigadier general and became the youngest general in the British Army. Sadly, just a few weeks later, on 30 November 1917, a German shell killed Brigadier General Bradford. He was still only 25 years old.

Exhibition location:
Along the corridor leading to Durham County Record Office at County Hall, Durham.

The exhibition can be viewed Monday to Friday between 9am and 4pm. Please note that the Record Office searchroom is closed to the public on Thursdays and Fridays.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Merchant Navy

D/DLI 13/2/170 Embroidered postcard with Red Ensign and anchor
D/DLI 13/2/170 Embroidered postcard with Red Ensign and anchor
On 3 September, Durham County Council flew the Red Ensign above County Hall for Merchant Navy Day. This day of remembrance began in 2000 to honour those that served during the two world wars, and to celebrate those who served during peacetime, and continue to serve.

As an island nation, shipping has always been an important part of trade and transport for Britain. At the outbreak of war, more than half the food consumed in this country was carried by merchant shipping. During the war, the Merchant Navy were responsible for ‘supplying the nation and the armed forces with food, transporting raw materials for the manufacture of munitions, maintaining ordinary cargo and passenger trade, and transporting troops and materiel to theatres of war’. (

It didn’t matter that these men were civilians, they were still exposed to the same dangers as the military. The sea became rife with mines from the early days of the war, then the German U-boat campaign began. This increased each year until its most devastating period of 1917. Over 17000 Merchant Navy men lost their lives during the First World War, around 13000 of these were British, with the other 4000 being made up of a wide variety of nationalities from both within, and outside of the Commonwealth.
The Mercantile Marine Medal, with thanks to Football and the First World War, used under the Creative CommonsAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License 
One of our Durham at War volunteers, David D, put together the story of John Alfred Roch, who was born in Sunderland in 1903. His father, who was born in Russia but became a naturalised Brit in 1909, worked as a mariner, and as a crane driver when ashore. John’s mother was the daughter of a mariner, so it is no surprise that he followed in their footsteps. 1917 saw John, aged only 14, serving as a deck boy on the SS Lady Ann. On 16 February of that year, the ship left Sunderland for Kent, laden with coal. As the SS Lady Ann passed Scarborough, she is thought to have been torpedoed by a German U-boat. Eleven of the crew, including John, lost their lives. He was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal, and the British War Medal for his service.

John’s body was never found, but he is remembered on the Tower Hill memorial, across the road from the Tower of London. This memorial recognises the men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died during the two world wars, and have no known grave. 

Researching merchant seamen of this period is not easy, there was no official registration, and some other records didn’t survive. What do exist are ships’ crew lists. The National Maritime Museum, with the National Archives, have digitised and indexed the lists for 1915, and these can be searched here:

Royal Museums Greenwich website has a detailed research guide available here: