Winter 1916-17

Capt John James Whitehead. OC Bugle Band C Coy in April 1915

After the assault at Flers, the Battalion withdrew to reserve positions and moved to Pommern Redoubt on 17 October.  They then travelled to Ribemont.  Major John James Whitehead took over command with the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel effective 20 October.  Drafts of men totalling 142 other ranks (133 in War Diary) joined the Battalion 23 – 27 October, along with 2nd Lieutenant Victor Edward Rallison, who was an Old Contemptible commissioned from the ranks, as a former Sergeant in  the 1st East Lancs. Reorganisation began as the new men were assimilated in the life of their respective companies.

The Battalion entrained at Mericourt for Doullens on 26 October and marched north to billets at La Souich on the next day.  A large draft of replacement officers arrived on 27 and 28 October. Captain Hugh Tunbridge Pomfret (Boer War veteran Mentioned in Despatches with 2nd Bttn & att from 3rd Bttn) held the senior rank, with Lieutenants John Hanchett Chadwick (commissioned 6th Bttn), John Duncan (commissioned 7th Bttn), John Edward Lightburn (commissioned from Inns of Court OTC and att from 5th Bttn).

Major H T Pomfret MC Credit Bury GS

 There was also a large group of recently commissioned 2nd Lieutenants Norman Butterworth (commissioned from South Lancs and att from 5th Bttn), Reginald James Jackman (commissioned from Artists Rifles and att from 5th Bttn), Ben Holt Mills (commissioned from Inns of Court OTC and att from 6th Bttn), Henry James Robinson (commissioned as a Private in the Regiment).  The draft of 28 October included a number of new 2nd Lieutenants who had trained together in the Inns of Court OTC and received commissions on 5 September 1916.  These subalterns were all attached from 5th Battalion; Frederick Ernest Clayton, Harry James Cole, Frank Edmund Holmes, Frederick Arthur Orritt, Thomas Longworth, Walter Harvey Palmer and Ernest George Woodward.  2nd Lieutenant Richard William Leslie Wain also returned to duty with the Battalion, attached from 3rd Battalion, having been wounded in the advance on Montauban on 1 July 1916. 

The Battalion continued to move north to Bavincourt on 29 October and arrived at Bailleulval the next day where it held the divisional reserve positions, south west of Arras.  Five Other Ranks were wounded on 2 November.

Capt T Cartman MC as 2nd Lt in Jan 1915. Courtesy Bury Grammar School
Capt J H Chadwick Credit Bury GS

Returning to the front line on 6 November, 17th Battalion spent the final months of 1916 alternating in Bellacourt trenches and billets in Bailleulval with the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.  2nd Lieutenants Frank A Rayner and Charles Stanley Miles (commissioned from ASC)  joined for duty on 7 and 10 November respectively. One Other Rank was wounded on 6 November and another man was accidentally wounded on 13th of the month. 2nd Lieutenants J H Chadwick and  R WL Wain took temporary command of companies on 12 November and T Cartman received the same appointment on 15 November.  All three subalterns were granted the retrospective rank of Captain in orders of 7 January.

The sector was described as “extraordinarily quiet” with few casualties in the line.  There was a failed trench raid, using a Bangalore Torpedo, owing to the poor conditions in the line in late December. The challenges were described in the City Battalions record as “…it rained in torrents and the trenches in places were over knee deep in water and mud.”  By early January the trenches needed to be evacuated as uninhabitable.  Life out of the line was much better, with access to undamaged villages in reserve positions that were seldom the target of German artillery.

Map showing the trench line at Bellacourt and location of billets at Bailleuval

Very few losses took place in the last two months of the year. Private 36934 George Willie Stott died from pneumonia on 25 November and Private 8412 William Broomfield, of the listening post section, had been hospitalised after gunshot wounds in the leg at Ballelieu on 19th November.  The other casualty in November was Private 8734 John Morrissey, who died in Germany as a Prisoner of War, having been captured at Trones Wood. A draft of six Other Ranks arrived from Base on 12 November.

John Morrissey/s commemorative headstone at Weaste Cemetery. Credit George Tidswell

Acting Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead went on leave on 14 November and Captain Pomfret took over temporary command until Colonel Whitehead returned on 28 November.  Major Charles Leslie Macdonald had departed the Battalion on 26 October 1916 and promoted Acting Lieutenant Colonel on 15 November, taking command of 30th Divisional School.  He later took command of 19th Battalion. Three men were wounded on 19, 21 and 22 November respectively. Drafts of seven and 89 Other Ranks arrived from Base on 18 and 24 December.

Recorded casualties during December 1916 all took place in the aborted trench raid on 29th.  Three men were wounded with Privates 43160 Harry Cookson and 43247 John Muldoon being killed in action.

2nd Lieutenant William Proctor Smith joined from Base on 3 January 1917. William Smith had trained with the Artists Rifles and was attached from 5th Battalion.  17th Battalion’s original Quartermaster, Honorary Lieutenant Thomas Yarwood was struck of the strength on 5 December 1916, seemingly in his absence since wounding on 10 February.

2nd Lt. Richard Wain-Courtesy Wikepedia

17th Battalion moved to reserve positions at Sus St Leger on 7 January 1917. Colonel Whitehead departed for Third Army HQ to attend a Commanding Officer’s Conference.  He was temporarily replaced by Boer War veteran, Major Nowell Barnard de Lancey Forth MC, who had arrived in France the previous month.  Acting Captain Richard Wain departed 17th Battalion on 7 January.  He was transferred / attached to the Heavy Machine gun Corps – later designated the Tank Corps – where he was promoted Captain.  Richard Wain was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions at Cambrai on 20 November 1917.

Captain William Boyd Orr (commissioned 19th Bttn) joined for duty on 8 January 1917 and became Officer in Command of B Company, probably replacing Temporary Captain Wain.   Captain Orr was joined by a group of subalterns, 2nd Lieutenants John Broadbent (Officer Cadet commissioned and att from Territorials) and Frank Thorp (Gallipoli veteran commissioned from the ranks of 1/7th Bttn) on 13 January.

Captain E Fearenside rejoined the Battalion on 9 January, taking command of A Company and subsequently appointed second in command of the Battalion on 23 January – following departure of Major Forth, who went to be awarded the DSO and Bar with the Camel Corps and later became Commanding Officer of the 7th Essex.  Major J J Whitehead had returned to resume command of the Battalion on 15 January.  Captain H T Pomfret had departed to 30th Division Depot at Groches on 14 January.  He took command of 90th Brigade Company.

17th Battalion remained in the Bellacourt area during most of January with tours of the front line and fatigues, including work on the railway at Berneville. All the casualties seem to have related to the cold and wet conditions in the trenches. Three men died from disease; Privates 34677 Alfred Walter Madders (Disease), 34852 James Laville (Nephrites) and Stretcher Bearer 9395 Wallace Hampson (Meningitis).

Reinforcements of eleven trained men and 69 untrained Other Ranks arrived with 17th Battalion on 22 January with 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Rathbone (Officer Cadet commissioned). 2nd Lieutenant Donald Harlow Budenberg (Officer Cadet commissioned attached from 4th Bttn) arrived for duty on the following day.  A further draft of 60 untrained Other Ranks arrived for duty on 31 January.

Long term Battalion Adjutant Captain Robert Forbes Mansergh MC was posted to HQ of 90th Brigade on 2 February, replaced by Lieutenant John Duncan as Acting Adjutant.  On 4 February the Battalion moved to billets at Pommern and a draft of fifteen trained Other Ranks arrived for duty. They began preparations for the forthcoming offensive, including railway work.

Lt Col Edmund Fearenside DSO OBE PC

Captain Fearenside MC took over temporary command, vice Lt Col Whitehead (Leave) on 11 February and further subalterns joined for duty.  Herbert Victor Hobbs (former CSM, 22822, in 23rd Bttn commissioned from GHQ Cadet School serving in France from 29/01/1916) arrived on 16 February, William Frederick Swift (Formerly 19th Bttn commissioned 23/02/1915) joined on 18 February and  2nd Lieutenant Alfred Coldrick Carter rejoined the Battalion on 27February, having previously served as Scout Officer in April 1916.

2nd Lieutenant N Butterworth was struck of the strength of 17th Battalion on 28 February, having been attached to the Royal Flying Corps.  Norman Butterworth died of wounds on 9 May 1917, after his plane had a forced landing near Morlancourt.  2nd Lieutenant H J Robinson returned to England with sickness and struck of the strength.

2nd Lieutenant Alan Thomas Selbourne Holt (Original 17th Battalion contingent) returned to duty on 11 March, following wounds to his foot in a fatal rifle grenade accident on 18 August 1916. A draft of 24 trained Other Ranks arrived as reinforcements on 16 March.

2nd Lt Alan T S Holt. Courtesy Book of Honour

There were no casualties in the Battalion during February and early March 1917, while Private 8688 John Knight died at home on 19 March, from accidental gunshot wounds he had received at Maricourt in February 1916. 

17th Battalion took over the front line, from 2nd Bedfords, at Mercatel on 20 March.  17th Battalion spent much of the time on fatigues, including the digging of new trenches and wiring prior to the planned advance. Colonel J J Whitehead returned to command the Battalion on 21 March 1917, having had extended sick leave. 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Norman Marchant (commissioned from 17th Bttn ranks, 9199) joined the Battalion from Base on 23 March.

Casualties resumed on 25 March, when the Battalions positions at Madelaine Redoubt were heavily shelled. Privates 43289 George Edward Cook and 43360 Edmund McCormick were both killed in action in the Neuville Vitesse sector on 25 March and Private 20790 James Howard (formerly 22nd Bttn) was killed on 27 March.  Lance Corporal 34494 Henry Samuel Millyard had died of wounds on 26 March and the War Diary records two officers and 27 Other Ranks wounded in the period.

 The Battalion was withdrawn from the line on 27 March and took over billets at Bretencourt and the caves Blaireville. Working parties continued under Royal Engineers supervision. They returned to the front line on 2 April when Private 33092 Arnold Wood and signaller Private 46911 Albert Whittle were killed in action.  2nd Lt GBP Shapland was taken of strength on 4 April and later attached to King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.  Captain H T Pomfret departed for a Senior Officers Course at Aldershot.  He returned on 3 July.

Private 43224 William Charlesworth Lewis gun team were on outpost duty in front of the lines at Mercatel on 4 April.  He was accidentally wounded by a bayonet when returning to the British trench.   Following evacuation to 32nd Stationary hospital at Wimereux, he died of an abdominal haemorrhage on 8 April.

The Germans were undertaking their tactical withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line and British units were stepping forward in small advances behind the rear-guard of the enemy.  Patrols were moving forward to stay in touch with the enemy positions.  Private 43365 Robert Ramsey received a gunshot wound near Neuville Vitesse on 5 April.  He was evacuated to England and died in a Norwich Hospital on 18 April.  Private Ramsey had previously served at Gallipoli with 7th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and had been wounded three times previously.

Victor Rallison as Pte in East Lancashire Regiment

Reminiscent of the scenes in Sam Mendes film, 1917, events on 7 April 1917 reflected the challenges faced by the British advance through former German positions.  The withdrawing enemy burned villages and tried to ambush the approaching British units.  2nd Lieutenants Victor Rallison and Herbert Victor Hobbs led a patrol to Neuville Mill.  They were thrown off their guard when the defending Germans challenged them in English. Both officers were killed, together with former Royal Berkshire men, Privates 43300 Frederick Howard and 43333 Frederick Sims. Private 43290 Albert Victor Cooper was killed in action on the following day.

Neuville Mill 51B.SW 4.3.1917

In subsequent days fatigue parties assisted the Royal Engineers and 90th Brigade Machine Gun Company.  Former Royal West Kent man, Private 41644 Leonard Harris, died of wounds on 10 April and former Middlesex Regiment man, Private 43434 Richard Vickers was killed in action on 11 April. The Battalion moved to billets at St Amand on 13 April, where further training took place. Colonel J J Whitehead undertook an inspection of the entire Battalion on 16 April.

Captain Roger Arthur Mostyn-Owen (Pre-war Captain in Rifle Brigade DSO – Alexander de Piffel Johnson married his grandaughter) joined the Battalion as second in command on 10 April, temporarily replacing Captain Fearenside.

Returning to Mercatel on 18 April, Major E Fearenside returned to duty and the Battalion moved to newly dug positions near the Hindenberg Line in front of Heninel on 19 April.  (Further resemblance to “1917”) They received stores for the forthcoming advance toward Cherisy.  Significant casualties were sustained in German bombardments when the Battalion was making preparations.  Lieutenant F E Holmes was wounded on 20 April and thirteen other ranks were wounded during the period the Battalion was in assembly positions.  Private 43366 George William Stewart was killed in action on 20 April.  He had returned to duty on 7 April following recovery from wounds received at Flers.  2nd Lieutenant John Roy Bayley left the Battalion for an Engineers course at Newark on 19 April, later transferring to the Royal Engineers.

One of the depleted numbers of original Pals, Private Richard Lomax, was killed in action on 21 April.  Former Loyal North Lancs man, Private 43125 Fred Akers, died of wounds in the Warlencourt Casualty Clearing Station on the same day.

Copperthwaite W Credit Manchesters Forum

On 22 April three men were killed in action at Heninel.  Privates 43224 William Copperwhaite and 43329 Tom Alfred Simmonds had previously served in the Royal Berks and 43373 Arthur Williams had originally enlisted in the 5th Royal Fusiliers.  Former 12th East Lancs man, Private 43177 Herbert Spencer, died of wounds at 96th Field Ambulance at Ficheux on the same day.  33 Other Ranks arrived as reinforcements and 2nd Lieutenant F Thorp was struck of the strength.

The next day would bring enormous casualties in the advance from Heninel.