In the days following the attack at Serre of 1st July 1916, the broken battalions of 93rd and 94th Brigades (31st Division) were moved out of the forward area for re-fitting and re-organizing in the area of St. Venant.1
Convalescing men of the East Lancashire Regt. 18048 Stanley Bewsher is fifth from left in the middle row. Photograph by kind courtesy of Kieron Ridehalgh.
In mid-July, the division returned to the front, taking over the stretch of line facing Aubers Ridge. Over the next 15 weeks, the 11th Bn. East Lancashire Regt. (Accrington Pals) had spells of front-line duty in both the Neuve Chapelle and Festubert sectors. Although reinforcements had now started to arrive, the battalion could only have been at half its full complement when the division was brought out of the line early in October. "These trenches are prefectly amazing; only bits of them are tenable, and most of the way along the parapet is about 18 inches high....add to that the fact that its rained every day since we came in, so the trenches (where there are any) are full of water, and dear brother Bosche is only 60 yards away and overlooks the whole line from an enormous crater on the right, and you get a picture of earthly bliss (very earthy too) which I've rarely met before. Fortunately the old Hun is of the Saxon variety and fairly tame, besides which his trenches must be nearly as bad as ours. So we haven't much to content with except the weather and the snipers, who are some of the poorest shots I've met....I nearly tore it last night [20/21 Sept 1916]; I wandered out into No man's land after sending my runner to tell everyone I was doing so; unfortunately the ass never told the Lewis gunners, so they naturally thought I was a Hun, and did some pretty shooting on me at 30 yards. Of course, I was out of sight in about one fifth of a second, but they put one through the sleeve of my tunic, which was quite as close as I care about." [Letter from Gerry Gorst to Betty, 21 Sept]
As 31st Division rehearsed its role in the forthcoming renewal of the Somme offensive north of the Ancre river, the battalion - billeted in the area of Sarton2 - received further reinforcements of 200 men. On 15th October, the division returned to the Somme to take over the 1¼ mile (2km) stretch of front line which ran north from John Copse.3 The 11th East Lancashires - spared duty in the front line until the 30th - were sent to Warnimont Wood. For the survivors of 1st July, it was an emotional return to the place where the battalion had rested before the attack on Serre.
"Warnimont Wood came in sight, the steep slope from the road impressing its old familiarity on the "veterans". The same old huts, a little more worn and shabby, stood out plainly amid the half leafless trees.
The battalion's spell in the line from 30th October to 3rd November was a foul experience.
"This tour of the trenches was beastly in the extreme. Rain and mud harassed the poor fellows, while five-nines dropped persistently on communication trenches. Bringing up water rations and S.A. ammunition was truly a nightmare, especially when these had to be carried to advanced posts. Gum boots were worn, but one fellow from Brunshaw5 floundered up to the waist in a mud filled shell hole, not far from John Copse."4
Trench Foot was a new hazard to be faced.
"A new ailment appeared - Trench Feet. Feet were sodden with mud and rain and had become cramped and swollen - some even bloated and painfully tender. Walking was almost impossible and several men were sent into hospital as stretcher cases.
When the Somme offensive was eventually renewed on 13th November, the battalion's role was limited to carrying stores up to 92nd Brigade, whose gallant attack along the right sub-sector of the division's front was ultimately unsuccessful. Although the villages of St. Pierre Divion, Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel were all captured in the final days of the Battle of the Somme, Serre remained in German occupation.
Over the winter of 1916-17, offensive operations were continued by means of trench raids. Raiding parties were used to gather information about the strength and identity of the units holding the opposing front line, to kill or capture the enemy, to bomb dugouts and to destroy machine gun and trench mortar emplacements. The 11th East Lancashires took over the right sub-sector during the afternoon of 14th November and made an unsuccessful raid across No Man's Land on the night of the 17th/18th.
A better documented trench raid was made by the 13th York & Lancasters (1st Barnsley Pals) on the night of 23rd/24th December.
31st Division continued to hold the line north of John Copse until early January when it was withdrawn to the area south of Doullens for rest and training. By mid-February, further reinforcements had brought the 11th East Lancashires almost back to full strength. Although the new recruits mostly came from further afield than Accrington, Burnley and Chorley, the spirit of the original battalion lived on. Fred Sayer, a bomber before he joined the First Aid Squad, wrote of his feelings on leaving the battalion in 1917:
"Leaving the 11th East Lancs, even though it was not now the "Pals", was an anticlimax. All the old "Bombers" were casualties in July, but I had been in the forefront of the birth of the new "First Aid Squad" and saw to it that the old spirit had survived. Somehow this happened throughout the specialist groups, throughout the battalion, and the 1914 men, returning after recovery, found the old spirit still there."6
By the time the 11th East Lancashires returned to the front line on the night of 5th/6th March 1917, the enemy had abandoned Serre in withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. Until it was relieved on the 9th, the battalion occupied a line of isolated posts in two old German trenches - Orchard and Gudgeon - slightly east of Puisieux. On the night of 7th/8th March, 2/Lt. Frederic Wild and L/Cpl. Herbert Kewley were taken prisoner after a patrol into No Man's Land came under enemy fire.
Within a week of the battalion being relieved, orders were received to move north where 31st Division would prepare to take part in the Battle of Arras.
© Andrew C Jackson 2002.
Compiled from TNA documents WO95/2366, "The History of the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War" edited by Major General Sir N. Nicholson, "World War 1 Trench Warfare" by Michael Houlihan, and the references listed above.