Battle of the Lys (Hazebrouck)
As dawn broke on 13th April, the weakly-held British lines were just 5 miles (8km) east of the strategically-important railway centre of Hazebrouck. It was vital that the battle-weary 29th and 31st Divisions should hold on throughout the day until fresh troops of the 1st Australian Division were dug in.
At 8.30am the enemy attacked in force along the whole front of 92nd Brigade. On the edge of Celery Copse, the Lewis gun team commanded by Sgt. Walter Beckett of the 11th East Lancashires fired at the enemy until practically surrounded. Beckett stayed with his gun to cover the withdrawal of his men before retiring himself. Although the forward posts in front of Merris and Celery Copse had been driven back by around 10am, the enemy were held up by artillery fire and made no further progress.
At 11.30am a fresh attack against the front of the East Lancashires came to nothing as the enemy were caught in enfilade fire from Lewis guns sited at Labis Farm. At one point, 2/Lt. Ernest Kay took three Lewis gun teams forward 150 yards (140m) into the open to where he could direct enfilade fire into enemy troops gathering in a hollow.
To the right of 92nd Brigade, a critical situation was fast developing. The 12th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, defending the approach to Vieux Berquin along the road, had been blown out of their position at la Couronne. Further to the right, the 4th Guards Brigade was now having to defend against both frontal and flank attacks.
Desperate to exploit the situation at la Couronne, the enemy launched a fresh attack at 2.35pm against the the two right companies of the East Lancashires and the left of 29th Division. As the East Lancashires held firm and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, their commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Arthur Rickman, was alarmed to see on his right up to 1,000 men from the 12th K.O.Y.L.I. and 29th Division streaming north out of Vieux Berquin. Rickman promptly sent Major Lewis Lewis and Capt. Francis Macalpine to recover the situation. In the face of heavy machine gun fire coming up the road from Vieux Berquin, the two officers collected around 400 stragglers, formed them in a position commanding the exits to the village and saw them issued with ammunition.
Throughout the day the 1st Australian Division had been digging in behind Vieux Berquin. By 5pm, the left flank of 4th Guards Brigade had been broken, and the remnants of the brigade were ordered to fall back through the Australians. It was in the bitter fighting on the Guards' left flank that Capt. Thomas Pryce of the 4th Bn. Grenadier Guards lost his life; his Victoria Cross citation records that "with some forty men he had held back at least one enemy battalion for over ten hours. His company undoubtedly stopped the advance through the British line, and thus had great influence on the battle."
With the enemy in possession of Vieux Berquin, the East Lancashires were again in danger of being outflanked. Conforming to orders, the battalion remained in position until after dusk, covering the withdrawal of units from 29th Division before swinging around their right to face south-east.
The stubborn fight put up by 29th and 31st Divisions over 11th-13th April had bought enough time for the 1st Australian Division to form a new line running from Strazeele through le Paradis to la Rue de Bois. At 4am on the 14th, 92nd Brigade withdrew through the Australian line.
The 84 men of the 11th East Lancashires reported as missing include those taken prisoner-of-war as the battalion fell back on 12th April; amongst them was Pte. Alfred Edward Roberts.
At least 16 gallantry awards were later made to men of the 11th East Lancashires: Lt.-Col. Arthur Rickman (Bar to D.S.O.), Maj. Lewis Lewis (D.S.O.), Capts. John Duff, Spencer Fleischer and Francis Macalpine (all M.C.), Lt. Harold Wilton (M.C.), 2/Lt. Ernest Kay (M.C.), C.S.M. Cornelius Lacey (D.C.M., posthumous), Sgt. Thomas Blackley (D.C.M.), A/Sgt. Walter Beckett (D.C.M. and M.M.), Cpl. John Birtwistle (M.M.), L/Cpl. William Stuart (M.M.), and Ptes. James McLoughlin, Harry Mills and Charles Nutt (all M.M.).
On 14th April, the Australians repulsed enemy attacks through Merris and Vieux Berquin. Three days later, a sharp attack between Merris and Meteren came to nothing. The line was to remain substantially unchanged until the tide turned on 28th June; at La Becque the 11th East Lancashires would again be involved.
The Battlefield Today
Panorama from the D23 just south-west of the junction with the D69, and close to the right flank of the 11th East Lancashires' line on 13th April 1918. Lynde Farm in 1918 was just to the left of the present-day farm (the red-tiled buildings at the far left of the picture). Celery Wood (Bois de Merris) is the wood to the right of Lynde Farm. In 1918, there was only one small building at the road junction. Labis Farm is at the extreme right of the picture, again slightly moved from its 1918 location.
The D947 running north-west from Estaires passes through the village of Vieux Berquin. Leave the D947 in the centre of the village, turning right onto the D23 towards Outtersteene. Park near the crossroads with the D69 1 mile (1.5km) along the road. This is approximately on the right flank of the 11th East Lancashires' position on 13th April 1918 which extended from Labis Farm, forward of Lynde Farm to beyond Celery Copse. By continuing along the D23, a visit can be made to Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension where 13 men of the 11th East Lancashires are known to be buried, including 2/Lt. J. C. Lott M.C. Pte. G. W. Pilkington, an original Pal who died of wounds with the 8th Bn., is also buried in the cemetery.
From Vieux Berquin it is only a short distance to the battlefield of La Becque.
© Andrew C Jackson 2001, 2008
Compiled from TNA documents WO95/2343, WO95/2356, WO95/2357, WO95/2358, "The History of the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War" edited by Major General Sir N. Nicholson, "The British Campaign in France & Flanders" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "War History of the 18th (S.) Battalion Durham Light Infantry" by Lt.-Col. W. D. Lowe and with the kind help of David Ingham.