During the Great War, three Territorial battalions of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment saw combat.
In August 1914 there were just two battalions; the 4th, which recruited from the Furness peninsula and the 5th, whose recruiting area was Lancaster and the Fylde.
When a battalion deployed overseas its numbering changed; the 5th became the 1/5th (pronounced ‘First-Fifth’) and its ‘Reserve’ battalion, the 2/5th. When the 2/5th sailed to France with 57 Division in February 1917, the Reserve battalion became the 3/5th.
In 1915 these were very much ‘local’ battalions but, by 1917, men from all over the country served in them; for example, fatalities suffered by the 1/4th between July 31- August 8, 1917, came from 59 different towns.
The 1/5th and 1/4th crossed the Channel in early 1915, serving in different divisions until January 1916, both joining 55 (West Lancashire) Division when that reformed.
An important aspect of holding the frontline was raiding the enemy. Although modern opinions vary about the value of raids, it cannot be gainsaid that the value of some intelligence gained from prisoners or documents seized from enemy dugouts was significant.
For example, papers captured by 55 Division in the spring of 1918, gave vital information about a forthcoming attack; prompted the division to move its headquarters (marked as such on a captured enemy map) and bring its reserve brigade across the La Bassée Canal prior to a bombardment which would have precluded its deployment in the defence.
Many lives were thus saved and, without this intelligence, it’s arguable that the battle may have been lost. Intelligence documents reveal that most prisoners were extremely voluble and far from just supplying name, rank and number, told everything they knew.
Even the humblest infantryman was stuffed full of useful information, such as the positions of machine-guns, mortars, dugouts, dumps, times of relief and trench strength.
At 9.30pm on July 10, 1918, a three officers and 86 men from the 1/5th, under Lancaster officer, Lt Thomas Blakeley MC, left their lines to raid enemy positions among the ruined houses
either side of a 350-yard stretch along the Rue de Cailloux in the Festubert Sector in France. Their objective was to seize prisoners and, once this was achieved, a whistle was to be blown signalling immediate retirement; hopefully minimising the time fighting in and around the houses.
In any eventuality, 15 minutes after commencement, a rocket bursting into gold and silver rain would signify withdrawal and a series of Verey lights fired to guide the raiders home.
The force was divided into two waves: The first of an officer and 30 men, split into 10 groups of three; five groups either side of the road. They were to advance straight through and hold the far side against enemy counter-attack from the east.
The second wave, organised into eight, five-man groups, dealt with buildings, dugouts and cellars.
These were ordered that if one became a casualty, the other four were responsible for bringing him back on their return journey. There were also two eight-man groups of flankers, whose job was to create a block in the trenches either side, man this with four men, while the other four kept watch on the nearby hedges.
Eight stretcher-bearers went over with the party, with an additional four on standby in Cailloux Keep, and another four at Cailloux West.
By 10.50pm everyone was in place awaiting. Exactly 25 minutes later, two Verey lights were fired from Festubert Central and the raiders leapt into action.
Blakeley, witnessing this from his command post in a disused trench, heard the first British grenades
detonate almost immediately – demonstrating just how close to the enemy the raiders had crawled.
German reaction was equally rapid and salvoes of grenades and two machine-guns south of the road targeted the raiders.
To the north of the road, 2Lt Harry Carless had led his men to within 50 yards of enemy positions during the bombardment and, when they rose to attack their target, a post in a shell hole, the three occupants fled.
Carless and Sgt Thomas Atkinson, from Ulverston, chased after them, firing as they ran and killing one.
Unfortunately, Carless tripped over some wire and the surviving pair escaped. While this was happening, the rest of his party were engaged by another cluster of enemy in a post hidden by long grass. These refused to capitulate, but when Cpl Joseph Newby (also from Ulverston) rushed forward and shot one, the other dropped his rifle and surrendered. Their prisoner secured, Carless blew his whistle for withdrawal, their only casualties a few lightly wounded.
On the right flank south of the road, the raiders were led by 2Lt Harold Woodcock. With him was Sgt William Rigden, who later recalled: “On the command to rush I made for the hedge with my party. When I reached the hedge, I was challenged by a German who levelled his rifle at me. He was immediately shot by one of my party.
“At that moment a machine gun opened fire from behind the hedge on my left. I threw a bomb [grenade] at the gun and someone shouted ‘Oh.’ I threw another and silenced the gun. I tried to get at them through the hedge, but the wire was too thick. I moved about five yards to my right and made another attempt but failed. 2Lt Woodcock was just behind me, but after this I lost sight of him. Then I saw the golden rain rocket go up which was the signal for return.”
Another to pursue fleeing enemy was Sgt Wilson Prickett, from Lancaster.
When his section approached their selected target, the garrison bolted. Unwilling to give up on his quarry, Prickett led his men deeper into enemy territory in hot pursuit of two terrified Germans, only withdrawing when his men were met by very heavy machine-gun fire and a fusillade of grenades.
Enemy artillery failed to react to the raid itself, but as soon as British guns began a bombardment to cover the raiders’ escape, German SOS rockets rose, and their artillery dropped a very heavy barrage on Cailloux Keep and all the way down Cailloux Road to McMahon Post.
It was this that caught the raiders, who up till that moment remained unscathed apart from a few minor wounds.
This barrage killed seven and brought the total number of wounded up to six.
In the initial confusion it was believed that 2Lt Woodcock had returned; several men reported this, though no-one had actually seen him themselves. Two men were also astray.
When the missing subaltern failed to report to Blakeley, the alternate locations were checked, but no-one had seen him. When Blakeley visited these just after 1am, he was told that Woodcock had last been seen bringing in three prisoners and Blakeley presumed that the two missing men were with him and reported the matter to HQ at 1.45 am.
As the battalion was due to be relieved, Capt. ‘Noel’ Briggs (the Mayor of Lancaster’s son) volunteered to remain behind in case the missing showed up.
As the first signs of dawn lit the horizon it became clear that no-one was going to reappear, so with a heavy heart Briggs left.
That night, a volunteer patrol returned to the front line and searched No Man’s Land without success for their missing comrades. Woodcock was later reported a POW, the missing men both killed by the German barrage.
Prickett and Atkinson had been of great assistance during the bombardment; treating, then organising, the evacuation of the wounded and steadying the shaken men. Carless was awarded the Military Cross and Newby, Rigden and Prickett all got the Military Medal.
Blakeley recommended Atkinson for one, but division retorted that; “The General does not consider the recommendation comes up to the standard of an
immediate award, not being the nature of a specific act of gallantry.”
The battalion did not give up and Sgt Atkinson received his Military Medal nine months later.
Newby’s prisoner, an infantry NCO, revealed that trench strength was so low that their companies were reduced to just two platoons of 30 men each, also reporting their sickness rates from influenza were very high, more than 50 per cent of his company having been infected; information 55 Division was able to take considerable advantage of soon afterwards.
l Next week, Kevin Shannon looks at the lost graves of the men who fought and died in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment during the First World War.
The Lion and the Rose series of books by Kevin Shannon is available from Fonthill priced £17.50 each. www.fonthill.media