17th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment

One result of the German offensives of March and April 1918 had been the addition of another Battalion to the Regiment. In the dismay caused by the first German onrush, orders were hastily given that the large numbers of unfit or half-trained personnel behind the British front should be organized into “provisional battalions” to man reserve lines of defence. Those new formations were first called “Garrison Guard Battalions,” (Presumably because they were intended to guard the neighbourhood of their garrisons). Several such battalions were formed in March 1918 at various centres behind the enemy line. However, the German advance was brought to a standstill before it reached the reserve positions which they occupied, and consequently those additional battalions saw no actual fighting. After long weeks in the rear defences it was found that the “G.G.” battalions were neither as smart nor as trustworthy as could be desired, and, presumably in the hope of improving their morale, they were given fresh titles as numbered “garrison” battalions of different Line Regiments.

For no apparent reason the 1st “G.G.” Battalion, then commanded by Lieut.-Col. T. W. T. Isaac of the Gloucestershire Regiment, was allotted to the Worcestershire Regiment (It does not appear that any of the officers of the new Battalion belonged previously to the Regiment), and became the 17th (Garrison) Battalion of the Regiment. Orders to that effect were issued on the 25th May 1918.

Later, when the check to the German onrush made the manning of these reserve defences unnecessary, it was decided to convert some of those battalions of half-fit men into Pioneer Battalions. The 40th Division had been broken up, after losing heavily in March and April 1918; but the Divisional Staff had been retained, and several of the “G.G.” battalions were grouped under their command. The 17th Worcestershire were employed at first in manning the reserve defences around Hazebrouck (The Battalion had marched from Clarques to Salperwick on the 18th June and then moved by bus from Salperwick to Le Noir Trou west of Wallon-Cappel on June 23rd).

It was decided to reconstitute the 40th Division as an effective field unit, and to convert the 17th Worcestershire into the Pioneer Battalion of the reconstituted Division. At the same time, an existing Pioneer Battalion, the 12th Green Howards (Yorkshire Regiment), was ordered to be amalgamated into the reconstituted 17th Worcestershire Battalion.

On June 28th the amalgamation took place and Lieut. Colonel H. W. Becher, D.S.O. of the 12th Green Howards took command of the amalgamated Battalion, with Lieut.-Colonel Isaac as Second-in-Command. The Battalion, then billetted near Wallon-Cappel west of Hazebrouck, was instructed in Pioneer duties during the next few weeks and thereafter worked on the various defensive lines in the neighbourhood during the ensuing months. The Battalion was not employed in the front line, and fortunately suffered no casualties from the enemy’s intermittent bombardment of the rear defences.

The 17th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Regiment remained in the Lys area, labouring behind the lines. On the 2nd August 1918 the Headquarters of the Battalion moved from Le Noir Trou to camp at La Belle Hotesse. Later, moving to another camp half a mile further east on the 7th August 1918 and finally moved to camp near La Cunewele (S.W. Of Hazebrouck) on the 25th August 1918.

The 40th Division, to which the battalion were attached, had come into the line between the 29th and 61st Divisions, but the 40th Division was not heavily engaged, and the operations did not bring any casualties to the newly-formed Pioneer Battalion.

The first stages of the German retreat in the Lys Valley may be said to have come to an end about the 22nd August 1918, and by that date the enemy were firmly entrenched along a new front, the general line of the Lawe Canal and the Laudick Becque. Preparations were made for an attack on that position—an attack which would prove none too easy if the enemy were well supplied.

The 17th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Regiment followed on in rear of that advance down the Lys Valley. Leaving their camp at La Cunewele on the 2nd September 1918, the Headquarters of the Battalion had moved a few miles eastward to Petit-sec-Bois. From that centre the working parties of the Battalion had laboured busily, repairing roads and improving communications generally. But no fighting fell to their lot and the enemy’s artillery were too busy in front to spare many shells for the back areas. So the work of the Pioneers was uneventful, although none the less useful for that.

As the state of the roads and bridges improved, the work shifted further and further down the valley, and eventually the Headquarters of the Battalion were shifted forward on the 17th September 1918 to Onyx House near Steenwerck. In that new area, closer to the enemy, the Pioneers came in for a certain amount of long range shell-fire, and before the month was out the Battalion had sustained three casualties, one of which proved fatal.

On the 9th October 1918 Headquarters of the Pioneer Battalion were shifted forward to Weal House near L’Hallobeau, and during the following week the Pioneers laboured on the bridges and railways around Armentières.

17th Worcestershire Battalion, saw little of the fighting during the last two months of the war. Untill the 18th October 1918 the Battalion remained in the Lys Valley near Estaires. On that date a move was made forward to Fort de Vert Galant, south of Armentieres. Four days later the Pioneers moved on again into the territory newly evacuated by the enemy. Battalion Headquarters were established at Mouvaux; and the working parties of the Battalion laboured on the surrounding roads until the 27th October 1918. Then the 40th Division moved forward. The Pioneers marched eastward through Roubaix across unbroken country to billets at Lannoy. In that area the Battalion remained, doing much useful work, until the end of hostilities.

The close of hostilities brought little variation in their labours. The 17th Battalion around Lannoy, near Roubaix, continued their work of construction and repair. The companies of the Battalions were scattered over the battle area, remaking roads, demolishing ruins and constructing bridges. Their arduous and painstaking work was invaluable to the returning inhabitants, who were grateful for the ready help given by the English soldiers.

Throughout the Spring months of 1919 the 17th Pioneer Battalions continued its work of salvage and reparation. Like the other Battalions their strength had dwindled gradually as officers and men left to be demoblized.

It was at first intended to disband the Battalion when the 40th Division was broken up at the end of March 1919. Early in that month the retainable personnel of the 17th Worcestershire were transferred to the 2/8th Battalion of the Regiment (5 officers and 61 other ranks). Then plans were changed. The evacuation of the stores and bases in France was taking longer than had been foreseen. For the protection of those bases a certain number of battalions had to be retained; and it was decided that one of those battalions should be the 17th Worcestershire. The cadre (8 officers and 44 other ranks) of that Battalion entrained at Croix on March 27th to join forces with the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment.

Only the 17th Battalion was now left in France. On 12th June 1919 the Battalion was shifted to a new camp at Harfieur. The duties of the Battalion were still confined to providing guards over stores, but those duties afforded time enough to allow of a general smartening of drill; and the Battalion showed up well on a parade of the 100th Brigade on the 5th July 1919, in honour of the Signing of Peace. That parade was followed by a great inter-Allied celebration on the 14th July , the French national fête. The Battalion found a company, one hundred strong , under Capt. Hinds, which formed part of a composite British battalion. The marching and turnout of the Worcestershire detachment was much commended. One more ceremonial parade followed, when on the 7th August 1919 the 100th Brigade said goodbye to their Brigadier (Brig.-Gen. G. Guggisberg, C.M.G., D.S.O., who had taken over from Brig-Gen. Baird in February).

Many and varied duties fell to the lot of the troops still remaining during those final days of the British forces in France. One notable experience was that of a strong detachment of the 17th Worcestershire which went to Trouville and thence escorted by sea a large body of German prisoners who were repatriated at the beginning of September 1919.

Soon afterwards came news that the Battalion was to be broken up. The Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel J. F. Badham, left for home on the 18th September 1919 (three days later the Adjutant, Capt. Tough, left for home and was succeeded by Capt. H. B. Boswell, D.S.O., M.C.) and was succeeded by Lt.-Colonel A. S. Henry, O.B.E. A week later came orders for reduction to cadre strength.

Brig.-Gen. G. Guggisberg
Photo by kind permission of
(c) Daniel A. Guggisberg
Redondo Beach, CA, USA

During the first days of October 1919 a strong draft of retainable personnel, 8 officers and 121 other ranks, was transferred to one of the last surviving battalions in France, the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers. The remaining details were sent to the neighbouring Base camp for dispersal.

On the 8th October 1919 a tiny cadre (Officially termed an “Equipment Guard.” )—one officer and thirteen men with the King’s Colour of the Battalion—embarked at Havre for England.