14th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
In 1914-15 the protracted trench-warfare in France and Flanders had resulted in an ever-increasing demand for skilled labour to supplement the work of the Sappers in the construction of redoubts, emplacements and other field works; and during 1915 it was decided to form special “ Pioneer” battalions to meet that demand. Those “Pioneer” battalions were not intended to be non-combatant “labour” units. Their creation was inspired by the famous Pioneer regiments of the Indian Army and, like their exemplars, the new units were designed as fully equipped battalions, skilled in constructive work but equally capable of fighting in the fore-front of battle. To indicate their combatant status it was decided that those new “ Pioneer” battalions should be designated as numbered battalions of various regiments of the Line.
The new " Pioneers" were recruited for the most part in the great mining districts of the North Country and of Wales; but there were abundant recruits of the needed knowledge and physique in the Severn Valley; and from that sterling material Colonel Sir Henry Webb raised at his own expense, a complete Pioneer battalion, known first as the “Severn Valley Pioneers” and later designated the 14th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment.
The new Battalion was formed in the autumn of 1915 (the first Adjutant of the Battalion was Captain N. J. Jones, appointed in September, 1915) and was first quartered at Norton Barracks. The Pioneers remained at Worcester until the following Spring, when the Battalion moved to Salisbury Plain. At Larkhill and later at Codford the Pioneers worked hard to complete their training. The command of the Battalion was taken over by Lieut.-Colonel C. C. H. O. Gascoigne (of the Seaforth Highlanders) with Captain R. B. Umfreville (of the Worcestershire Regiment, retired before the war) as his Adjutant. The Quartermaster was Lieut. J. Batchelor D.C.M. (formerly of the 2nd Battalion), who played a great part in the formation and the subsequent achievements of the Battalion.
The training of the Pioneers had to be more detailed than that of the other Battalions, since technical knowledge was added to the requirements of battle, and the work on Salisbury Plain was hard; but all ranks maintained the utmost enthusiasm, and the Battalion was much over strength (at one period the Battalion mustered nearly one hundred surplus Second-Lieutenants), when orders came in June to proceed to France. There was keen competition to be among those selected for the front; and after some busy weeks of final preparations the Pioneer Battalion left Salisbury Plain on the 19th June 1916 and entrained for Southampton.
14th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment Band (1915-16)
Private Cyril Millington (26883) of Stourport 3rd from right, third row from back, with clarinet
(photo kindly submitted by Paul Seaton his grandson)
On the 20th June 1916 the Battalion moved by rail from Codford to Southampton, there they embarked 1.30 p.m. and finally sailed 6.30 p.m.
The following officers embarked with the Battalion:
Lt.-Colonel C. C. H. O. Gascoigne, Major E. Hayward, Major C. E. Fitch, Capt. J. C. Holmes, Capt. F. J. Brazier, Capt. E. H. B. Coster. Lieuts. H. J. Maybrey, C. H. Vick, O. N. Jackson. H. H. Esbester, H. C. J. S. King, H. T. L. Brittain, 2/Lieuts. D. N. Rowe, W. A. Johns, T. H. Hill, A. P. Watkins, L. N. Jotcham, F. T. Price, S. H. E. Gansden, H. R. Clarke, H. M. Pharazyn, H. M. Tweddle, W. H. Goold, H. L. Sheen, A. Hoskins, H. C. Maben. Capt. and Adjt. R. B. Umfreville, Lieut. and Qmr. J. Batchelor, R.S.M. J. A. Collins.
The 14th (Pioneer) Battalion crossed from Southampton to Havre on the night of the 20th/21st June 1916 and arrived at Havre on morning of June 21st. After twenty-four hours in Base Rest Camp, the Battalion entrained and proceeded to the front; finally detraining at Bruay on June 23rd and marching to billets at Chamblain Chatelain. There the Pioneers came under the orders of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, of which henceforth they were to form part.
The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had recently arrived in France from the Eastern Mediterranean (after the evacuation of the Dardanelles the Royal Naval Division had remained as garrison to Mudros, until the middle of May: then the Division was transported to France) and was then in process of relieving the 47th Division in the trenches on the Vimy Ridge. On the 24th June 1916 the 14th Worcestershire marched forward towards the line, and that evening settled into bivouac in the Bois de la Haie, south of the great ridge of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette (Battalion Headquarters from 24th June to 17th July were at Bois de la Haie) and some three miles from the battle-front. The Battalion was destined to remain in that neighbourhood throughout the ensuing three months, the various companies and platoons being employed separately in work on the surrounding defences.
The position was changed on the 17th July 1916 and the Battalion Headquarters moved north of the ridge, to Fosse 10. There or thereabouts the Pioneer Battalion remained until September 1916, with its several companies busily working on defences and other technical work, Shifts of position were frequent (Battalion Headquarters July 17th to 19th was at Bois de Bouvigny, then from July 19th to September 3rd at Fosse 10, and from 3rd to 6th September at Sains-en-Gohelle and finally from 16th to 17th September at Bois de la Haie), but nothing of especial importance occurred. The working parties were continually under fire but fortunately the losses of the Battalion were not heavy.Total casualties of the 14th Battalion from July 1st to September 17th - 4 killed, 8 wounded.
In the middle of September 1916 the 63rd Division was relieved in the line by the 37th Division, and moved back into reserve to rest and train. The 14th Worcestershire marched west by stages, on September 17th to Hermin then September 18th to La Thieuloye. Thence, after a week’s rest the pioneers marched south on September 24th to Ternas. There training was carried out until the beginning of October 1916.
At the beginning of October 1916 the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had been transferred from the First Army to the Fourth Army. The move of the Division from the back areas near St. Pol forward to the Somme front had begun on the 4th October 1916 (the transport of Battalions moved on the previous day), on which day the 14th Worcestershire and the other battalions of the Division had moved by train from Ligny St. Flochel to Forceville. After two nights in the latter village, the 14th Worcestershire moved on October 6th to a camp midway between Beaussart and Mailly Maillet, where the Headquarters of the Battalion lay during the next ten days while the four companies worked on the defences in front. Enemy shell-fire caused some few casualties, with 3 Killed and 4 wounded.
On October 17th camp was shifted to the outskirts of Englebelmer and the work was continued (casualties 4 wounded). Four days later camp was shifted again, to a little valley midway between Englebelmer and Martinsart on the reverse slope of the spur which runs north from the latter village. That camp was the Headquarters of the Battalion during the subsequent operations, and from that camp as a centre the four companies of the Battalion went out working each day. Throughout the last week in October and the first fortnight of November all ranks worked eagerly in preparation for the attack.
From the 1st to the 4th November 1916 the Battalion was temporarily in Englebelmer, but then returned to the previous camp. That stay in Englebelmer was long remembered in the Battalion by reason of the enormous number of rats found in the deserted village. “The whole village was absolutely alive with rats, and it was impossible to get any rest from the pests. It was a great relief to all when the Battalion was ordered to give up the billets and live under canvas, even though it was November.” (2/Lieut. A.P.Watkins).
On November 12th work was stopped, and that day all stayed in camp while last preparations were made for the morrow’s battle.
It had been arranged that the Battalion should furnish three parties, each half-a-company in strength, to be attached one to each of the three Brigades of the 63rd Division. Those three parties, half each of “B,” “C” and “D” Companies, moved off during the day and reported to their several Brigades.
The Battle of the Ancre (The Somme)
The night of the 12th/13th November 1916, was dark and close, and before dawn the valley of the Ancre was filled with dense mist. “Zero” had been fixed for 5.45 a.m., well before daybreak, and consequently it was in thick darkness that the preliminary bombardment opened and the attacking troops went “over the top.” But the very obscurity aided the attack. The defending troops were surprised and overwhelmed, and on the right flank the enemy’s first system of defences was easily overrun. In the centre, however, a German redoubt, cunningly concealed so as to appear from the air to be an open communication trench, held up the attack and inflicted severe losses. By that time all three Brigades of the 63rd Division were engaged and were much intermingled in the intricate defences.
The three half-companies of the 14th Worcestershire had gone forward with the attacking Brigades and were soon busy in all directions, consolidating the captured defences and preparing new works amid the general confusion and turmoil of battle. The second half of” B” Company were sent forward at 9 a.m. to Beaucourt Station, where they remained throughout the day. The two officers of the half-company (Lieutenant H. C. J. Shuttleworth-King and 2/Lieut. B. J. C. Hamm) were both hit, but Sergeant W. D. Cherry took command and directed the work with great skill and coolness (Sergt. Cherry was awarded the D.C.M.).
After dark came orders that the remainder of the 14th Worcestershire were to go forward and assist in the consolidation of the line gained. “A” Company and the remaining halves of “C” and “D” Companies accordingly moved off, passed over the old front line near the river crossed the captured German trenches and worked hard for many hours on a new defensive line along the bottom of the little valley which runs from Beaumont Hamel down to the Ancre. Towards dawn they returned to camp, but at 9.30 a.m. “A” Company, under Captain E. M. Tweddlle, were ordered off again, to the assistance of the right wing of the Division. The Hood Battalion, led by Colonel Freyberg (who there gained the Victoria Cross), had stormed the village of Beaucourt. “A” Company made their way up to Beaucourt and worked hard under heavy fire on a communication trench to link up the captured village with the British positions in rear. The work was dangerous in the extreme, for the enemy were heavily bombarding their lost ground: but Captain Tweddle and his men stuck gamely to their task and were fortunate in completing their task without undue loss.
Dawn of 14th November 1916, witnessed the fall of the German redoubt which had hitherto repulsed all attacks. Three tanks were brought up from Auchonvillers to reduce it. One of them was knocked out by shells but the other two pushed on. Both tanks became stuck in the mud close to the redoubt: but the menace of their approach and the fire of their guns produced the required effect. The garrison of the redoubt raised the white flag and gave themselves up — 8 officers and some 400 men.
The two victorious tanks, stuck in the mud on the crest of the ridge, were now exposed to destruction by the enemy’s artillery. To their rescue was sent a party of the 14th Worcestershire ("B" Company of 41 men) under Lieut. S. Hartley. Under heavy fire the pioneers laboured around the two helpless monsters and after hours of work finally succeeded in setting them free; after which the pioneer party returned to the Battalion’s camp, where the various companies and platoons were gradually reassembling. By midday on November 15th all the parties were in, and at 2.30 p.m. the Battalion marched back to Forceville. There the Battalion rested for a day, and received a warm message of congratulation from the C.R.E. of the Division.
Casualties 14th Worcestershire from 13th - 15th November 1916;
8 killed, two officers (Lieut. H. C. J. Shuttleworth-King and 2/Lieut. B. J. C. Hamm) and 48 men wounded, 3 missing.
While the Divisions of the Fourth Army were gaining ground in the valley of the Somme, the Divisions of the Fifth Army were carrying out similar operations in the valley of the Ancre. The 63rd Division in which was included the 14th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Regiment, took a prominent part in a series of small attacks and advances, and the Pioneers were often under fire.
Operations were begun on the 18th January 1917. The 14th Worcestershire shifted their camp from Usna Hill, where they had lain since the New Year, to a site near Englebelmer. From that camp working parties were sent out daily.
On the 3rd February 1917, the first attack was made. The 63rd Division stormed two lines of the enemy’s trenches north of the Ancre. “D” Company of the 14th Worcestershire, commanded by Captain F. J. Brazier, were sent forward to assist the consolidation of the captured position. When the company reached the captured trenches heavy fighting was still in progress. The enemy were closing in to regain their ground. Parties of the Pioneers were pushed forward to hold the enemy at bay while the ground gained was entrenched. One of those parties, headed by Lance-Corporal J. Eggleton showed great bravery, beating off attack after attack during forty-eight hours of continuous fighting. Casualties were 4 killed, 3 officers (Capt. F. J. Brazier, Lt. J. R. Blake, 2/Lt. L. N. Jotcham) and 14 men wounded. L/Cpl. Eggleton was awarded the D.C.M. and Captain Brazier was subsequently awarded the M.C.
The capture of those trenches had a notable effect. At dawn on February 7th patrols reported that the enemy appeared to be evacuating Grandcourt. Battalions of the 63rd Division pushed forward and, after a bickering fight with German snipers, occupied the ruins of the village which had resisted so many attacks. “B” Company of the 14th Worcestershire was sent up, and worked hard under heavy fire among the ruins. One officer was severely wounded (2/Lieut. Gibson).
The next important action of the 63rd Division was on the 17th February 1917, when the German defences east of Miraumont were stormed. For that action “C” Company was attached to a battalion of Marines (2nd Battalion R.M.L.I. ). The Company did valuable work in constructing wire entanglements in front of the captured trenches, fortunately without heavy loss (1 killed, 9 wounded).
Fighting continued, and a week later came news that the enemy had evacuated all their front-line defences including Miraumont. It was urgently necessary to get artillery forward, so all companies of the 14th Worcestershire were recalled from other work and set to the construction of roads across the evacuated ground. The work was carried out under continuous fire; which caused some few casualties (February 26th - 2 men wounded).
The 14th Worcestershire remained working in the area around Miraumont until the first week in March 1917. Then the 63rd Division moved back to rest and train. The Pioneers left their camp at Englebelmer on March 8th and marched eastward fifteen miles to Val-de-Maison near Talmas. On March 20th the 63rd Division moved northwards. The Division had been transferred to the First Army, and marched up through the pleasant Artois countryside into Flanders. After six days of marching the 14th Worcestershire settled into billets at Mont Bernenchon, midway between Bethune and St. Venant. There the Battalion remained until the 7th April 1917, working and training.
The march of the 14th Worcestershire from 20th to 26th March 1917 was as follows :—
March 20th from Val-de-Maison through Candas and Fienvillers to Autheux.
March 21st through Outrebois, Mezerolles, Frohen-le-grand, Villers l’Hopital, Fortel to Vacquerie-le-Boucq.
March 22nd through Ligny-sur-Canche, Frevent, N uncq, Escoivres, to Croisette.
March 24th through St. Pol and Pernes to Floringhem.
March 25th through Ferfay, Ames, Lieres, to Bourecq.
March 26th through Lillers and Busnes to Mont Bernenchon.
During the battle on April 23rd the 14th Worcestershire had been employed near Gavrelle. That village had been attacked and captured early in the morning by the 63rd Division. “C” Company of the Battalion was sent forward in two detachments to assist in the consolidation of the front line. After many adventures across the battle-field under heavy shell-fire, the two detachments of Pioneers returned to their resting places early next morning (April 24th). From shell-fire during the day, the two Pioneer detachments lost one officer (Lieut. H. L. Sheen) and three men wounded.
On the whole the great attack had been disappointing; ground had been gained; Gavrelle and other tactical points had been taken; but, on the other hand, nowhere had the enemy’s resistance definitely been broken.
The Battle of Arleux
The next great attack of the Arras battles took place on the 28th April 1917. On the northern part of the battle-front Arleux was attacked and captured by the Canadian Corps; on their right the front of attack was continued by British Divisions. Among the latter was the 63rd Division, which attacked the German trenches east of the captured village of Gavrelle.
At first the 14th Worcestershire bore no part in that attack. The Pioneer Battalion was fully occupied in work on roads in the battle-area just north of Arras. The labouring platoons heard the roar of the guns and watched the streams of wounded and prisoners coming back from the line. As darkness fell the working parties returned to camp and settled down for the night.
At 9 p.m. came an alarm. Urgent orders had come for the Battalion to move forward at once in fighting order to assist the troops in front. The enemy were making a counter-attack and the battalions holding Gavrelle were hard-pressed.
The companies were assembled, ammunition was issued, and the Battalion set out.
Gavrelle village showing situation by dawn on the 29th/30th April 1917
There was no time to think of issuing rations for the next day. Through the darkness the 14th Worcestershire marched forward to Gavrelle and there joined the 188th Brigade. On arrival the Battalion was split up. “A” Company was attached to the “Anson” Battalion, “C” Company to the 1st R.M.L.I., and “B” Company to the H.A.C. “D” Company, with Battalion Headquarters, was kept back in reserve west of Gavrelle.
The guide leading “ A” Company lost his way and the company did not take up position till broad daylight, and one officer (Capt. C. H. Vick) was gassed. By the time that all were in position, dawn had broken (29th April 1917), and the battle was raging on all sides. Gavrelle lies in a fold in the ground. To the eastwards a maze of German trenches stretched across low-lying ground. Those trenches had been taken during the previous day, but had been retaken by German counter-attacks. On the low ridge immediately above the northern exits of the village a fierce struggle was raging around the ruins of a conspicuous Windmill which was being stoutly defended by a party of Marines.
Just as “A” Company reached the British front line the Anson Battalion advanced in a renewed attack against the German trenches east of the village. A protracted struggle followed amid shell-fire which rendered everything obscure. The attackers were eventually bombed out and were forced back to our original trenches. The enemy attempted to follow up their success, but were met with a steady fire from the Worcestershire company, which effectually checked any advance.
Private C. Rooke M.M.
Meanwhile on the left the Windmill had been gallantly held by the Marines. Heavy fighting continued all day but died away at nightfall, leaving the 63rd Division, sorely depleted, in the trenches they had held before the battle, but with the captured Windmill secured as an advanced post.
“A” Company was admitted by all to have behaved splendidly (for gallantry during the day two stretcher-bearers of the Battalion, Ptes. C. Rooke and P. Horkan, were awarded the M.M.); so much so that when the remainder of the 188th Brigade was relieved during the following night (April 29th/30th), by the troops of the 31st Division, the Worcestershire company was left to hold the north-east corner of the village during the relief and did not rejoin the remainder of the Battalion until the following night.
Casualties of the 14th Worcestershire between April 28th to 30th was 2 killed, one officer (2/Lt. H, S. Roper) and 11 men wounded.
The 63rd Division then moved out of the line to rest and train, and on April 30th the 14th Worcestershire made a short move westwards to St. Aubin, whence the Pioneers went out on many working parties during the next three weeks.
On the 20th May 1917 the 63rd Division once more took over the Gavrelle front and the 14th Worcestershire shifted back to their former camp on the Arras—Lens road. Work in the battle-area was continued under intermittent shell-fire, which cost the Battalion several casualties (between May 20th to 31st — 6 killed, 23 wounded).
The 14th (Pioneer) Battalion had remained in the Arras area (during most of July and August the Battalion was attached to the 31st Division). For the most part the Battalion had been split up in small detachments, doing much useful work on defences and communications. From the 2nd July to 25th September 1917 the headquarters of the Battalion remained at the camp west of St. Nicholas, a mile north of Arras, and the working detachments came and went to and from this camp. Shell-fire caused occasional casualties but no event of outstanding importance occurred.
Total casualties over this period;
July — Killed, 2 officers (2/Lt. F. S. Farmer on July 20th and 2/Lt. C. E. Smart on July 24th) and 5 men. Wounded one officer and 23 other ranks. Among the latter was Sergeant Kirkham, a splendid N.C.O., who was blinded by the shell which killed 2/Lt. Farmer.
August — 2 killed,. 9 wounded. September— 1 killed, 4 wounded.
On the 24th September 1917 came orders to move to the north: the 63rd Division was under orders for the Ypres Salient. On the following day Battalion Headquarters moved from Arras to Ecoivres, where the various companies and detachments gradually collected. Then the reassembled Battalion marched to Hermin; where the pioneers remained resting and training for a few days. Then on October 3rd the 14th Worcestershire entrained at Tincques and were carried northwards to Hopoutre. For some days the companies lay encamped (October 3rd to 5th at "X" Camp on the Woosten Road. October 5th to 8th at Seaton Camp) near Poperinghe. Then orders came for the Pioneer Battalion to be detached from the Division and to be placed directly under the orders of the XIVth Corps Staff for work in the forward area ; and on October 8th Battalion Headquarters were established in a camp half-a-mile east of the village of Elverdinghe.
The 14th Worccstershire had also borne a part in the battle of Poelcappelle in october 1917. During October 1917 the Headquarters of the 14th (Pioneer) Battalion remained in their camp near Elverdinghe, but strong working parties had been sent forward. Some 200 men of the Battalion laboured throughout the day along the road from Wijdendrift to Langemarck, and accomplished much good work under heavy shell-fire which cost them several casualties (3 killed, one officer (2/Lt. S. E. Couves) and 19 other ranks wounded).
Fresh troops were brought up, more artillery was concentrated, and then on the 12th October 1917 , a day of vile weather, the British Armies attacked again. Once again the attacking battalions ploughed forward through rain and mud against the block-houses and shell-hole positions of the enemy. Some little ground was gained on the slopes of the ridge of Passchendaele; but on the whole the results of the attack were disappointing.
No Battalion of the Regiment was actually engaged in that battle; but behind the battle front working parties of the 14th (Pioneer) Battalion laboured at various tasks under heavy shellfire.
October 10th and 11th had totalled 3 killed, 1 officer (Lt. L. N. Jotcham) and three men wounded.
October 12th :—2 killed, 7 wounded.
October 19th two subalterns (2/Lts. W. N. Miles and S. E. Couves) were wounded.
Then came a pause in the operations. The failure of the attack on October 12th showed clearly that more extensive preparations would have to be made if the Passchendaele Ridge was to be won. For a fortnight, the guns kept up a relentless bombardment, while the main energies of the troops in the Salient were devoted to the improvement of communications over the devastated battle-ground, the laying of cables and of duck-board tracks, the digging of gun emplacements and assembly trenches,. and the countless other tasks necessitated by the complexity of modern war.
On such tasks the pioneers of the 14th Worcestershire laboured incessantly. The enemy’s guns did their utmost to destroy the works and the German shells caused frequent casualties. Night provided no respite from danger: for each night the enemy’s aeroplanes bombed the camps and the works, and it was often with relief that the Pioneers proceeded from their “rest camps” to their daily labours near the front line. Not counting the losses in the two battles of October 9th and 12th the casualties of the 14th Worcestershire from October 1st to October 25th totalled 11 killed and no less than 91 wounded, a sufficiently eloquent testimony to their devotion and to the danger of their work.
On the 24th October 1917 the Headquarters of the Battalion were shifted forward from Elverdinghe across the canal to La Brique, just north of Ypres. To assist the work of preparation, whole battalions were being brought up from the quieter areas to furnish working parties in the Salient, and on the following day the 14th Battalion was joined at Ypres by the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment.’
On the 26th October 1917, the 14th Worcestershire witnessed the opening of the final attack on the Passchendaele Ridge. To the working parties of the 14th Worcestershire the commencement of the battle meant simply that the enemy’s shell-fire grew even heavier than before. The camps near Ypres were easily spotted, and were shelled daily by long-range high-velocity guns (Captain H. G. Roberts and several of his men were hit by shells bursting actually in the camp).
The enemy aeroplanes also made great efforts to hamper the British advance by nightly bombing of railways and dumps. The full moon of the night of October 29th gave the airmen an aid of which they took full advantage, and Ypres and its surroundings were heavily bombed. A big bomb wrecked a hut in the camp of the 14th Worcestershire just north of the city, killing 5 men and wounding 14. Another bomb struck an ammunition dump, and disaster was only averted by the prompt action of Lieutenant G. A. Porterfield. The dump was burning, and shells were exploding in all directions, but the subaltern, heedless of his own peril, threw water on to the fire until at last it was extinguished (Lieut. Porterfield was awarded the M.C.).
The fighting on the Passchendaele Ridge dragged on for a fortnight, with alternate attack and counter-attack through the heavy mud. At last, on November 6th, Passchendaele village was captured by the Canadians. During the next three days a little ground was gained beyond it and the enemy’s counter-attacks were beaten off. Then at last the long struggle at Ypres came to an end. The end was not at once apparent to the troops, for the gun-fire did not cease and orders were issued again and again for a fresh attack; but those orders were successively postponed and countermanded, and November 10th is now accepted as the closing date of "Ypres 1917."
Throughout that fortnight of battle the working parties of the 14th Worcestershire (the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division to which the 14th Worcestershire properly belonged, was engaged in the final battle on the Passchendaele Ridge, and the Worcestershire Pioneers then worked under the orders of the Divisional C.R.E. Previously the Battalion had been directly under Corps Headquarters.) laboured continuously behind the lines, with continual losses from shell-fire, gas, and bombs. Total casualties of the 14th Worcestershire, October 26th to November 10th :—18 killed, 2 officers (Captain H. G. Roberts and 2/Lt. A. Hennel) and 72 other ranks wounded.
At the beginning of December 1917 the 14th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Regiment had at last quitted the Salient. The close of the heavy fighting had made little difference to the work of the Pioneers, who continued to labour in small detachments scattered about the battle-field. The enemy’s artillery was still active and drew a constant toll of casualties (November 7th—December 3rd, 7 killed, 47 wounded). Not until December 3rd was the Pioneer Battalion released from labour in the Salient. The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, after a period of rest and training, was moving into the line further south, and the 14th Worcestershire which had been separated from the Division (when the 63rd (R.N.) Division was sent back for rest and training after the 2nd Battle of Passcbendaele the 14th Worcestershire were attached successively to the 1st and the 2nd Divisions) for several weeks, was ordered to rejoin its command.
The Pioneer Battalion reassembled in billets at Poperinghe on the 3rd December 1917 and, after a few days of refitting and reorganisation, marched to Peselhoek Station on December 10th and entrained for the south. For good work during the operations in the Salient, Lieut-Colonel C. C. H. O. Gascoigne was awarded the D.S.O. Captain H. C. Maben and Lieut. H. Gascoigne were awarded the M.C.
The 14th Worcestershire, had detrained at Achiet-le-Grand on December 10th. Thence the Battalion had marched to camp at Beaulencourt. After three days rest there the Battalion marched forward, to Rocquigny on December 14th, and on the following day to Etricourt. Thence on December 17th the Pioneer Battalion marched forward into Havrincourt Wood (at the extreme edge of the Wood), and remained there until the 63rd Division took over the line in front. Then the Battalion moved forward into the reserve trenches on Highland Ridge just north of Villers Plouich. Two companies were sent off and attached to the two flanking Brigades of the Division, while the other two companies with Battalion Headquarters formed the garrison of the Reserve line.
The line held by the 63rd Division was immediately on the right of that of the 19th Division, and the Worcestershire Pioneers were not a mile distant from the trenches held by the 10th Worcestershire.
The action of Welsh Ridge
The last fight of 1917 affected both the 10th and the 14th Battalions in the trenches before Marcoing. The 10th Battalion had held trenches in front line from Christmas Day onwards till December 28th; then, relieved by the 8th Gloucestershire, the Battalion had moved back into support trenches in the old Hindenburg front line.
The 10th Worcestershire were still in those support trenches, and to their right the 14th Worcestershire were busily working on the defences of Highland Ridge, when, at dawn of the 30th December 1917, the enemy’s guns opened an intense fire. For ten minutes shells burst all along Welsh Ridge; then German infantry attacked the line of the 63rd Division. For several hours fighting raged all along the Ridge, especially at the northern end of the high ground, the old battle-ground of the 4th Worcestershire, and at Corner Trench” which the Worcestershire Territorials had so gallantly defended at the beginning of the month. Not until nightfall did the firing die down. The apex of “Corner Trench” was gained by the enemy, and further to the north the line of the 63rd Division was forced back from the forward slope to the crest-line of Welsh Ridge.
Neither of the Worcestershire battalions was actually engaged in that fight, but both the 14th Battalion on Highland Ridge and the 10th Worcestershire in the valley behind remained under arms all day. Shell-fire cost the Pioneer Battalion a couple of casualties, and inflicted considerable loss on the 8th North Staffordshire in the valley at Couillet Wood. Next day some sporadic minor attacks brought the action to an end. That night the 10th Worcestershire filed forward round the slopes of Highland Ridge and relieved the 8th North Staffordshire in Couillet Wood. There the Battalion saw the dawn of the New Year.
After the heavy fighting during the German attack on Welsh Ridge, no event of any importance had occurred on the Cambrai front. The result of that German attack had been to force back the front line held by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division from the forward slope of Welsh Ridge up to the crest of the ridge. The entrenchment of the new positions demanded much labour, and the Pioneer battalion of the Di vision, the 14th Worcestershire, had much hard work in the days which followed. The working parties of the Pioneers were shelled constantly and casualties were numerous (casualties of 14th Worcestershire, January 1st-5th, 1918 were Killed 2/Lt. A. Hennell and 2 other ranks - Wounded 11 N.C.O's. and men.). After the fighting had died down it was decided that the 19th Division should extend its front to the right and should relieve the naval battalions which had borne the brunt of the action. The relief was carried out on January 3rd, and thenceforward the work of the Pioneers was less difficult. The 14th Worcestershire continued to labour on the trenches of Welsh Ridge and Highland Ridge in bitter weather until January 23rd (Casualties 14th Worcestershire. January 5th-23rd. 5 killed. 24 wounded.) when the 63rd Division was relieved by the 2nd Division and moved back in to reserve. The Pioneer battalion of the relieving Division, the 10th D.C.L.I., replaced the 14th Worcestershire. The Worcestershire battalion assembled behind Highland Ridge and marched back to a camp behind Havrincourt Wood near Ruyaulcourt. There the Battalion remained, resting and training, until the middle of February.
During that period the command of the Battalion passed from Lt.-Colonel C. C. H. O. Gascoigne, who was invalided, to Lt.-Colonel A. Caldier Ladd. Colonel Caldier Ladd had served throughout with the Battalion, commencing as 2/Lieutenant and rising by sheer merit to be Adjutant, then 2nd-in-Command, and finally Commanding Officer of his Battalion. Under his command the Battalion was destined to make the finest fight of its career.
When the 63rd Division returned to the Line, the 14th Worcestershire moved forward on February 14th from their camp near Ruyaulcourt to a position close to Trescault (which the Battalion took over from the 5th S.W.B. of the 19th Division). The Headquarters of the Battalion remained in that position for a week and then moved forward into dugouts in the old Hindenburg Line west of Highland Ridge. That move of Headquarters had little effect on the work of the companies (on February 28th, in common with other British Pioneer battalions, the 14th Worcestershire was reorganised, and reduced from 4 companies to 3 companies, "D" Company being broken up) of the Battalion, who continued to labour, split up in working parties among the various defensive works (casualties 14th Worcestershire, February 15th–March 20th, 8 wounded), until well into March.
By dint of much hard work and careful thought, the defences of the salient facing Cambrai were greatly improved. Havrincourt Wood was strongly defended, and the villages about the wood became hidden fortresses; but it was clear that the salient was a dangerous position.
Lt.-Col. A. Caldier-Ladd
The construction of those new defensive works absorbed the energies of all ranks not actually in the front line; though the Pioneers naturally bore the heaviest burden. Concentration on those works, combined perhaps with a carelessness due to long immunity, led to unforeseen disaster. At 10.0 p.m. on the night of March 11th/12th the enemy suddenly opened an intense bombardment of gas shells over the whole area of Welsh and Highland Ridges. Officers and men alike were caught unawares while labouring on the defences. Lucky were those whose training and alertness enabled them to get on their gas masks with sufficient speed. The others suffered terribly (the enemy used mustard-gas, which caused temporary blindness [the eyes being inflamed and running] and loss of voice [from sore throat]. The blinded men had to walk back along the trenches in long strings, holding hands to keep touch). On three successive nights the two ridges were deluged with drifting gas fumes, and by that time nearly one man in every three of the 63rd Division was incapacitated (2800 of the Division were evacuated as gassed before March 20th out of a fighting strength of between 8000 and 9000). The entire Brigade Staff of the 189th Brigade were prostrated, and in one Field Artillery Brigade (223rd Brigade R.F.A.) only one solitary signaller remained fit for duty. The 14th Worcestershire, either better trained or more alert than their comrades of the naval battalions, did not suffer quite so severely (the shelters occupied by the Pioneers lay in the valley west of Highland Ridge, and for three days the gas lay thick in the valley. The Pioneers obeyed strictly the order that no man was to leave his dugout without his mask on; but most of the casualties occurred when the troops got back into their dugouts and took off their masks. Their clothes were saturated with the gas through which they had passed, and the men literally gassed each other. The officers sent back gassed included Capt. A. E. Prosser, and Lieuts. G. A. Porterfield, L. C. Cox, L. F. Crane, F. W. Blakewell, and E. V. Hammersley) but 9 officers and 196 N.C.O's. and men had to be evacuated between March 12th and 20th, a sufficiently heavy loss among the 34 officers and 560 men (the "Ration strength" on 1st. March 1918) who at the beginning of the month had constituted the Battalion.
The opening crash of the German bombardment on 21st March 1918, roused the Pioneers of the 14th Worcestershire in the support trenches, the old Hindenburg Line, south of Ribecourt. Officers and men put on their equipment and awaited developments. Outside their dugouts high-explosive and gas shells were striking everywhere, the ground trembling under their impact. Hours passed. Presently at 9.30 a.m. came messages that the three companies were to await orders from the Brigades to which they were attached (H.Q. and "B" Coy. to 189th Brigade, "A" Coy. to 188th Brigade, "C" Coy. to 190th Brigade). The companies filed off to the support trenches in rear of their respective Brigades and again awaited events. Fighting seemed to be in progress (actually the enemy did not make a definite attack against the salient facing Cambrai; but there were some trench-raids) along Welsh Ridge, but all the Pioneers could see or hear were the enemy's shells which rained down in every direction. Gas shells caused numerous casualties in spite of the lesson of the previous week.
Heavy firing continued all day though reports showed that on the front of the 63rd. Division the enemy had gained little ground (it is now known that the enemy attacks on the front of the 63rd Division were no more than a feint). But that evening came disquieting news. On both flanks of the salient formed by the British line at Marcoing the enemy had broken through. On the left German troops were already in Beaumetz; the 63rd Division was to retire in order to escape envelopment.
Such a retirement had already been foreseen, and after dark the 63rd Division withdrew from Welsh and Highland Ridges to the support position (the "Intermediate Line") which ran in front of Trescault and Havrincourt Wood. As a preliminary to the withdrawal the Pioneer companies of the 14th Worcestershire were ordered by their respective Brigades, to retire to the new position (owing to a message miscarrying, "C" Company of the Pioneers did not receive that order. That company was busy putting up wire along the front line. It was not until they had finished their task that they found the trenches behind them to be empty. Luckily for them, their covering party had bluffed the enemy, and their retirement was not molested), where Battalion Headquarters found accommodation for the night in a dugout just north of Trescault Village. The casualties of the Worcestershire battalion so far had not been heavy-2 officers (Capt. E. H. Esbester and 2/Lt. D. B. Sutton—both gassed) and 23 other ranks (3 killed, 5 wounded, 15 gassed).
Next day (22nd March 1918) the Pioneers worked feverishly to complete the defences of the "Battle Zone" before they should be occupied. The work was carried out under heavy shell-fire, and gas-shells again caused loss (casualties 14th Worcestershire 22nd March, 2 officers [Lt. J. H. L. Godfrey and 2/Lt. A. D. Strongitharm] and 8 men gassed, 7 men wounded); for labour in a gas mask is difficult.
At dusk the troops of the 63rd Division withdrew from the "Intermediate Line" without difficulty and came back to the "second system" of defence, the forward edge of the " Battle Zone." The 14th Worcestershire were then ordered to move back again and prepare fresh positions for defence, since reports of progress by the enemy on either flank were being received. The Pioneers marched back through Havrincourt Wood to Ruyaulcourt.
Dawn of March 23rd brought further orders for retirement. The 63rd Division was to go right back and to occupy the last line of defence—the "Green Line"—from Ytres on the right to Bertincourt on the left (those orders reached the Division at 7 a.m. March 23rd). The Pioneers marched back to that position and again worked hard on the defences (the "Green Line" defences existed on paper rather than on the ground. Little had been done before the Pioneers arrived. During the retirement German aeroplanes [the celebrated "Red" Squadron] attacked there treating troops, firing machine-guns from an estimated height of 35 feet. On the way to Rocquigny a deserted canteen at Bus yielded valuable spoils, including an excellent set of boxing-gloves). During the day the battalions of the 63rd Division arrived one by one at their new positions and took over the work of entrenchment. At dusk the Pioneers were ordered back out of the line and the whole Battalion was concentrated in reserve at Rocquigny (casualties, 14th Worcestershire March 23rd, 2/Lts. J. Cox, W. H. Kevern and L. H. Kennedy and 10 men wounded, 8 gassed).
In order to understand the reasons for the retirement of the 63rd Division to the "Green Line" we must now turn to the fighting further to the left. There the 3rd and the 10th Worcestershire had been engaged.
To the northward of the salient facing Cambrai, the German attack had struck with full force against the front of the Third Army. An overwhelming bombardment, followed by the advance of wave after wave of infantry had broken through the front of the 51st (Highland) Division and had penetrated into the "Battle Zone." Before midday on March 21st the fortified villages of Louverval and Doignies were both in the hands of the enemy.
The possibility of such a breach in the defences had been foreseen, and arrangements for immediate counter-attack had been worked out. Consequently when news of the loss of those two villages was received, orders were issued for counter-attacks against them to be delivered by two of the Brigades which till then had been held back in reserve. Those two Brigades were the 74th Brigade, including the 3rd Worcestershire, and the 57th Brigade, including the 10th Worcestershire; the former was to attack Louverval, the latter Doignies.
On the southern flank the German attack broke through the line between the 47th and the 63rd Divisions, and captured Bus. The line of the 2nd Division also gave way and the 63rd Division was then ordered to retire. The Division fell back, each Brigade retreating independently past the southern side of Bapaume to the desolate waste of the old Somme battle-field.
The Pioneers of the 14th Worcestershire at Rocquigny received orders to precede the retreat of their Division and to prepare new positions on a line from Delville Wood, past High Wood to the ridge east of Flers. The Pioneer Battalion assembled and marched back, amid swarms of other retreating troops, past the ruins of Le Transloy across the shell-pitted ridges and up the slopes to that ridge between High Wood and Flers for which the British Fourth Army had battled in the Summer and Autumn of 1916. There they faced about and set to work on the preparation of defences. The desolate landscape was covered by retreating troops and the smoke of constant shell-bursts to the eastward marked the enemy's advance (casualties, 14th Worcestershire 24th March totalled only two wounded, including one officer, 2/Lt. A. F. Latour).
March 25th had been a day of disaster for the troops of the Third Army south of the River Ancre. During four consecutive days and nights the officers and men of the 51st, 2nd and 47th Divisions, had marched and fought, without sleep and in many cases without food or water. By the fifth dawn they were physically exhausted; and, as we have seen; the German attack easily forced them back.
The troops of the 63rd Division were in slightly better condition. Until March 24th the Naval battalions had not been heavily engaged, although they had been under constant shell-fire and although the physical strain of the retreat had been severe. So when the full force of the enemy's attack was developed on March 25th, the Brigades of the 63rd Division resisted longer and more steadily than did the troops on their right and left. The position held by the 63rd Division at dawn on March 25th was, as we have already told a line east of High Wood running north and south across the devastated ground of the old Somme battle-field. That position was maintained until after 11.0 a.m. Then the 2nd and 51st Divisions were seen retiring in the Ancre valley on the left, and the 47th Division likewise falling back past Longueval on the right flank. That retirement compelled the Naval battalions likewise to retreat. To assist their withdrawal the Divisional Pioneers, the 14th Worcestershire, were placed under the command of the 188th Brigade.
On the previous day (March 24th) the companies of the 14th Worcestershire, after successive retirements, had halted at nightfall. Headquarters of the Pioneer Battalion had been quartered at Martinpuich, "A" Company at Le Sars, and "B" and "C" Companies at Courcelette.
Early in the morning of March 25th "A" Company and "B" Company had been called in to join Battalion Headquarters at Martinpuich, leaving "C" Company at Courcelette under the orders of the 190th Brigade.
On receipt of orders from the 188th Brigade, Lieut.-Colonel Caldier Ladd took "A" and "B" Companies back from Martinpuich to the higher ground between that village and Courcelette. There the Pioneers hastily entrenched. On their left flank the line was prolonged by the reserve battalion of the 188th Brigade, the 1st Battalion Royal Marines. While the troops dug in, the Divisional R.E. (247th Field Company R.E.) blew up the few houses still standing in ruined Martinpuich.
In the Ancre valley on the left flank; disordered troops could be seen streaming back, and presently over the ridge in front came retreating the two front-line battalions (2nd Battalion Royal Marines, and Anson Battalion) of the 188th Brigade. The retreating troops came down the slope to Martinpuich and then up to the position of the Pioneers, passed through them and rallied in rear. Behind them great masses of the pursuing enemy came forward over the skyline.
Major D. N. Rowe
The enemy were pressing the pursuit with the utmost boldness, and companies and battalions in close formation could be seen advancing behind the leading waves. As soon as the first lines of the German infantry were within range, the thin line of Pioneers and Marines opened rapid fire, with rifles and Lewis-guns. The first line of the enemy was checked, but the supporting troops behind could be seen steadily advancing.
When the first onrush of the enemy had been checked, the Marine battalion was ordered back to a fresh position. The 14th Worcestershire covered their retirement and faced the enemy alone. On the right the Battalion's flank was unprotected ; on the left flank the advancing enemy were nearing Grandcourt; but the Pioneers held firm, taking good cover in the shell-holes which pitted the desolate battle-field and shooting rapidly whenever the enemy attempted to advance. For two hours the Battalion held up the enemy's attack. During that time Captain H. C. Maben was conspicuous by his bravery, reorganising and controlling the line under close and heavy fire (Captain Maben was awarded the D.S.O.): 2/Lieut. H. W. Woods, although wounded, remained in the front line, firing a Lewis-gun after all the gun-team had been hit, and inspiring his men to resist to the last (2/Lieut. Woods was awarded the M.C.).
Presently batteries of the enemy's field artillery came trotting forwards over the skyline east of Martinpuich, unlimbered in the open and commenced to bombard the defensive line. Casualties became heavy, Colonel Caldier Ladd (Colonel Caldier Ladd was severely wounded and was sent back on a stretcher. Unfortunately the stretcher party lost their way and were captured by the advancing enemy. Colonel Caldier Ladd died of his wounds) and many of his men were struck down, and at 2.30 p.m. Major D. N. Rowe, the sole surviving senior officer, decided that the remnant of the Battalion must retire if they were to avoid annihilation.
So effectively had the fire of the Pioneers checked the enemy that they were able to withdraw back over the ridge they had held, although the nearest of the enemy were within a hundred yards. The two companies made their way down into Courcelette and up across the shell-holes to the heights beyond (during the retirement from Courcelette Captain J. R. Blake and 2/Lt. H. N. Brearley were hit) near Mouquet Farm. There a new defensive position had been taken up by the 190th Brigade, together with "C" Company of the Pioneer Battalion.
While the other companies of the 14th Worcestershire had been engaged east of Courcelette, "C" Company, commanded by Captain A. P. Watkins, had been ordered back by the 190th Brigade from Courcelette to Mouquet Farm. There the Pioneer Company entrenched themselves on the 'right flank of the Brigade. That position was held until the remnant of the 188th Brigade had fallen back from Courcelette; then orders were given for a further general withdrawal to the line of the Thiepval Spur. The company went down across the valley to Thiepval, marching steadily: the only unit of the whole Division which was still in good order. On the eastern side of Thiepval the company deployed, but almost at once a message was signalled back that the enemy were breaking through the centre of the line in front. The Pioneer company was ordered forward to fill the gap. The company was about to advance, when Captain Watkins saw a force of the enemy pouring forward over the skyline on to the undefended left flank of the Brigade. The previous order was cancelled, and the Brigade-Major of the 190th Brigade led "C" Company to guard the threatened flank. Captain Watkins deployed his platoons amid a tangle of old trenches and shell-hales (practically the site of "Hessian Trench," held by the 3rd Battalion in October 1916) and for some time held back the enemy. But the attack was in too great force to be denied. In face of overwhelming numbers the Pioneers gradually withdrew, a platoon at a time covered by the fire of the rest. Captain Watkins was badly wounded but continued to direct the withdrawal so long as his strength remained, helped along by his men, who fell back in good order to the ruins of Thiepval (during the retirement of the platoons very gallant work was done by the two surviving subalterns, Lieuts. J. Hackett and E. H. Schofield. Captain Watkins was afterwards awarded the M.C.). There a fresh defensive line had been established by the other troop of the Division. The Pioneers passed through the village, made their way down the slope, and rejoined the remnants of the other companies of the Battalion in Thiepval Wood.
The enemy's pursuit died down, and the three Brigades of the 63rd Division were able to reorganise. Eventually the 189th Brigade, with "B" Company of the Pioneers, were left in Thiepval Wood, while the front line above the wood was held by the 188th and 190th Brigades, to which were attached "A" and "C" Companies of the Pioneer Battalion.
Although the enemy's infantry did not advance, the German guns bombarded the Thiepval position, and before the day was out Major Rowe had been wounded. The command of the 14th Worcestershire then passed to Captain Maben (casualties, 14th Worcestershire March 25th. Killed 3. Wounded and missing, Lt.-Col. A. Caldier Ladd, Capt. J. R. Blake, 2/Lt. H. N. Brearley and 14 men. Missing, 20 N.C.O's. and men. Wounded, Major D. N. Rowe, Capt. A. P. Watkins, 2/Lt. W. M. Bowie, 2/Lt. H. W. Woods and 45 N.C.O's. and men. Total casualties 14th Worcestershire during March were 25 officers and 354 other ranks).
That night came orders (received by 14tn Worcestershire at 3.0 a.m.) for the 63rd Division to withdraw across the River Ancre to the slopes on the western bank. In darkness the troops filed down through the tree-stumps of Thiepval Wood and across the marshy river to the ridge about Mesnil. Orders were then received for "A" and "C" Companies of the Pioneers to move back to Martinsart.
During the day of March 26th the 12th Division came up from reserve to take over the defence of the river line, and all three companies of the 14th Worcestershire were ordered to march to Englebelmer and concentrate as a Battalion once more.
That was the last which the Pioneers were to see of the great German offensive. For the next two days the 14th Worcestershire remained in reserve at Englebelmer, while the enemy made unsuccessful efforts to drive the 12th and 63rd Divisions from their positions along the Ancre. Then the enemy's effort died away. After March 28th there were no further attacks, and that afternoon the Pioneer Battalion was ordered back, first to Mailly-Maillet and then to Forceville. There they remained for a time, busily engaged on the construction of reserve lines of defence.
Thus by March 26th the British Third Army had been forced back to the edge of the Somme battle-field of 1916. We must now see what had been happening further south, on the front of the Fifth Army. There heavy fighting had been in progress since the opening of the battle on March 21st. Among the reinforcements sent to the assistance of the Fifth Army had been the 8th Division, including the 1st Battalion of the Regiment.
Some wound soldiers recovering from their wounds (including 14th Battalion men)
Private Cyril Millington (26883) of the 14th Battalion is 4th from right, at the back, with moustache
(photo kindly submitted by Paul Seaton his grandson)
14th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment Band Group
14th (Pioneer) Battalion Worcestershire Group - France 1917-18
Back row 6th from left L/Cpl Clarence Rooke had been awarded the M.M.
photo submitted by Dave Turton (L/Cpl. Rooke's grandson)
MORE INFORMATION WILL BE ADDED LATER
Timeline of movements
1915 (September) 14th (Pioneer) Battalion formed on the 10th September 1915 at Worcester.
1916 (June) France (attached to 63rd Division)
1918 (August) Boiry Ste. Rictitude
1918 (October) Cambrai
1919 (June) Cadre of the 14th Battalion left Boulogne for Dover on the 20th June 1919.
1919 (June) Disbanded at Worcester Cathedral on the 23rd June 1919.