During October 1914 the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, saw action in four Battles, all to the west and north-west of Bethune, Pas-de-Calais. These were at:
Leaving Droizy on the evening of the 3rd October the troops marched due west through Loncpont, Courcy and Pontdrun, arriving at Verberie on the 6th, a distance of 35 miles (56 kms.). The Battalion was still short of Officers and at Pontdrun Major Crofton Bury Vandeleur, 1st Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), joined the Battalion and assumed Command.
Despite not reaching their billets in Verberie until 11.00 p.m., at 5.30 the next morning they were off again, reaching Pont St. Mexenceat at 8.00 a.m. They entrained at 9.00 a.m. and left after lunch for the 8 hour journey to Abbeville. This was the first time the Battalion had been on any form of transport since 18th August, during which time they had marched over 350 miles (560 kms.).
Getting off the train at Abbeville about 12.30 a.m. of the 8th, Grandad was off again, firstly marching to Boufflers then to Haravesnes, arriving at 8.00 p.m. on the 9th.
The next day they travelled by bus from Fillièvres and to billet at La Thieuloye at 6.00 p.m. New supplies of light entrenching tools were received up to 48 per Company!
On the 11th Grandad arrived in Bethune and went into billets about 8.00 p.m. (The War Diary reports the necessity to requisition 1 horse (absolutely necessary) for 1200 francs at Ourton.
The Battle for Festubert really began on 12th October. On that day II Corps (including 1st Cheshires) was ordered to advance east to a line running north from Givenchy.
The British advance was opposed by four German cavalry divisions from I and II cavalry corps.
It would take three days to reach the line originally intended to be the target for the fighting on 12th October. During those days II Corps suffered 2,000 casualties, half of them on the first day. Givenchy was captured on 12th October, but lost on the next day.
On reaching Festubert the Battalion took up a position with 3 Companies in the firing line and one in support, and stayed on outpost duty at night. Captain Butterworth was reported missing; 1 N.C.O. and 5 men were wounded.
At 4.45 the next morning (13th) ‘A’ Company made a dawn attack on Rue D’Ouvert (see map left) but without success.
Major Vandeleur’s short command came to an end when he was captured, along with Major Young, Captain Harbord, Lieutenant Harrington and 2nd Lieutenant Thomas, plus 8 N.C.O.s and men were wounded.
55 N.C.O.s and men were reported missing – 6 of whom were killed in action.
These were: Pt. 7064 William George Bartlett; Pt. 8202 Luke Bradley; Pt. 8406 Albert Edward Cartlidge; Cpl. 9690 Thomas Goodwin; Pt. 7982 Herbert Hewitt, and Pt. 9054 William Holmes. None of these brave men have a known grave and are commemorated on Le Touret Memorial.
The rest of the Battalion took up position on the Festubert – Laquinque Road and entrenched. The Battalion remained on outpost duty that night and captured 2 Uhlans. With the loss of so many more Officers Captain John Lintorn Shore once again took over command of the Battalion.
For the next two days Grandad and the rest of the men remained in the same positions back in the trenches they so much hated and which they had thought to bid farewell to when they left the Aisne, being shelled and raked by machine gun fire.
On the 16th October, however, they ‘went over the top‘ and moved along the Violaines road. At 3.00 p.m. the Battalion advanced in direction of Rue D’Ouvert and found the village unoccupied.
At 8.00 p.m. they advanced to Rue du Marais (see Map above) and half of ‘A’ Company continued their advance along the Violaines Road and came into touch with an enemy patrol which opened fire, which was returned.
During the course of the day Captain Mahony took over command of Battalion and brought up 2/Lieutenants Napier, May, Woodhead, Carr, Anderson and 248 reinforcements. Five days later, however, Captain Frederick Henry Mahony was mortally wounded by a sniper and died the following day. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.
The engagement at Festubert and the ensuing actions at Violaines and La Bassée marked the culmination of what came to be known as “The Race To The Sea“. With it ended also the mobile stage of the Great War.
After what was grouped into the “Battle of La Bassée” the period of mobile warfare was over, and the period of trench warfare had begun.
Following the Battles of the Marne and the Aisne earlier in the month the BEF’s focus of attention now swung further north, to Flanders with the dual hope of turning the German right flank and preventing them reaching the Channel ports. Instead the advancing, however, the British ran into a new German army, the Fourth, under the Duke of Württemberg.
Despite the reinforcements, Grandad’s Battalion was still operating at only about half its full complement, yet still over the next few days time and again it attacked the German positions between its own positions and the town of La Bassée, with catastrophic losses.
Early in the morning of the 17th October, two attempts were made to advance from Festubert to Violaines, but on both occasions the Battalion was repulsed. Captain Frank Lewis Lloyd was wounded, 2/Lieutenant Napier was missing, 1 man was killed (Pt. 8749 William Hill) and 3 men wounded.
However, by 6.15 p.m. the Battalion had occupied Violaines and entrenched North, East and South-east of the town (see Map right)
The next day Violaines was held with the D.C.L.I. (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) on their left and the Norfolks on the right, despite being heavily shelled. Two men were killed (Pts. 8284 Fred Marrow and 5943 Hugh Munro), and 17 wounded. However, 2/Lieutenant Napier rejoined the Battalion which was stationed on outposts.
At 10.00 a.m. on the next morning (19th) the men attempted to occupy La Bassée itself, and came under heavy fire from each side. They finally entrenched 450 yards in front of their former positions.
The gains were not without considerable casualties: 2/Lieutenant Andrews, 2/Lieutenant Sidebotham and 2/Lieutenant Napier were wounded; 8 men were killed and 20 wounded. [The dead were: L/Cpl. 9393 James Chadwick; Pt. 8534 George Dunning; Pt. 7052 Frank William Farrant; Pt. 6690 Charles Cash Harrison; Pt. 10541 Frank Arnold Jackson; Pt. 6014 John William Mott, and Pt. 6497 Harry Poole.]
On the 20th and 21st October Grandad’s Battalion held Violaines whilst the artillery shelled La Bassée. A German attack was repulsed about 3.00 p.m. on the 20th, although 2/Lieutenant May and 2/Lieutenant Addison were wounded as well as 2 men killed [Pt. 7410 William Ellis and Pt. 9325 John William Rogers] and a further 24 men wounded.
At 9.30 a.m. the next morning the Battalion again attacked La Bassée but without success and came under heavy shell fire. 1 machine gun was put out of action. Captain Frederick Henry Mahony (the C.O.) was wounded and died the following day, 4 men killed [Cpl. 9428 Samuel Deakin; Pt. 7344 Alfred Leonard; Pt. 9711 Joseph Postlethwaite and Pt. 7270 John William Purches] and 6 wounded.
Captain J. L. Shore took over command of the Battalion, but he too was wounded and in what was to prove Grandad’s final day in action at 5.10 a.m. on the morning of October 22nd the German forces launched a heavy attack, and took the trenches at the point of the bayonet.
At the time of the attack the Battalion was in position as shown on the Map above – Grandad’s ‘D’ Company was digging trenches, protected on either side by ‘C’ and ‘B’ Companies.
However, Crookenden (p. 28) considers the covering party gave insufficient notice of the attack and ‘D’ Company were forced to retire to their second position shown on the Map above – behind the church.
(At some time during this action Grandad received wounds from which he was evacuated and finally returned home.)
The withdrawal of ‘D’ Company exposed ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies, and without troops on their flanks were enfiladed and forced to withdraw. Eventually the Battalion retired to Rue du Marais under very heavy fire and The Manchester Regiment came up in support. At 8.00 p.m. the Battalion was withdrawn and went into bivouac at last East of Rue de Bethune.
Captain Hugh Irving St John Hartford, 2/Lieutenants Henry Noel Atkinson and James Arthur Greenhalgh were killed in action, whilst Captain William Suttor Rich and Captain Lionel Archibald Forster were wounded and died of their wounds in November.
Captains Shore and 2/Lieutenant Leicester were reported missing, captured. 18 N.C.O.s and men were wounded (including Private Ernest John Conway) and 200 N.C.O.s and men were missing including the Sergeant Major.
The Battalion Adjutant, Lieutenant Thomas Laurence Frost took over command and the grand old Quartermaster, Micky Sproule, assumed the appointment of adjutant.
It is some indication of the severity of the fighting during October to note that in this month the Battalion had no less than seven Commanding Officers.
Lieutenant Thomas Frost was the last of the Officers who had landed with the 1st Battalion in August.Since landing at Le Havre on 16th August the 1st Battalion had been part of 15th Brigade in 5th Division, itself part of II Corps.
Between 16th and 19th October, II Corps had advanced from the red dotted (Map right) to the red solid line and was confronted by the German VII Corps.
By 23rd October, the German forces had succeeded in pushing the British back to the solid red line shown above.
Fromelles, Aubers, Illies, Lorgies and Violaines had all fallen into German hands and as things turned out remained occupied until late in 1918. The red solid line is that held by the British by 2nd November 1914, and that is the way is stayed until 10th March 1915.
The 1st Battalion had, in effect, ceased to exist. Such as they were, the survivors continued the business of digging trenches, all utterly exhausted. Until the 26th October they operated either in Reserve or in their billets. On the 25th Captain Woods, Munster Fusiliers, took over command of Battalion.
As Crookenden, page 27, wrote: “The Battalion had got nearer to La Bassée than any British or Allied troops were to go for four years“.
“The little village of Violaines occupies an important place in the history of the 1st Battalion” (‘Ever Glorious’ – Bernard Rigby)
Almost all of the men killed in this action have no known grave and are commemorated, with honour, on Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.
Sixteen years after the Great War, in 1934, Bernard Newman and Harold Arpthorp, two British veterans, together wrote ‘The Road to La Bassée‘. It describes their return to the former battlefield in France.
Even though Grandad’s War was over, the Battalion moved on, initially, on the 27th, from their billets at Rue de Bethune, then at 7.00 p.m. it marched to Richebourg St Vaast and from there to St Vaast.
At 5.00 a.m. the next morning the Battalion moved in support to the attack on Neuve Chapelle, and came into the firing line at 3.00 p.m.
Their position was entrenched on East side of Estaires – Neuve Chapelle road at Pont Logy (see Map on left).
The Battalion was on outposts with ‘B’ Company in reserve. About 9.00 p.m. the enemy opened fire, which was returned.
The men remained in their trenches the following day, suffering sniping and artillery fire, and had 4 more wounded and 5 missing. At 1.30 a.m. on the 30th they were relieved by Seaforths and the Jats (part of the Meerhut Division, Indian Army) and they marched back to billets in Le Touret. Finally, at 3.00 p.m. the Battalion marched to Calonne and billeted for night.
On the last day of October Grandad’s proud Battalion marched out of the line, the 22½ miles (36 kms.) from Calonne to Borre, arriving at 8.00 p.m.
Sources: Most of the quotes in the above account are referenced to Arthur Crookenden’s book: “The History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War” [ASIN: B074V8DM97], and “Ever Glorious: The Story of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment”: Bernard Rigby [ISBN-13: 978-0952473152]