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Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Second Battle of Ypres - 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry

Soldiers of the 8th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, constructing a trench, 1914 (D/DLI 2/8/60(71))
D/DLI 2/8/60(71) Soldiers of the 8th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, constructing a trench, 1914

What was the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry?
  • The 8th Battalion (8DLI) was one of the Territorial battalions of 151st (Durham Light Infantry) Brigade
  • Recruits mainly came from the Durham City, Chester le Street and Houghton le Spring areas
  • Over 150 students of Bede Teacher Training College in Durham City served in 8DLI; the college produced a magazine called The Bede for students and alumni which contains several accounts of the battle
  • Commanded by Colonel WC Blackett until October 1914, then by Colonel J Turnbull

What happened when war was declared?
  • At the end of July 1914, 8DLI was at the annual brigade training camp at Conway, Wales
  • 3 August – The battalion left Conway in the evening, arriving at Durham City in the early hours of the 4th
  • 4 August – Gathered in the Market Place; no orders were received during the day so men were allowed home with orders to report as early as possible the following morning; mobilisation orders were received at 7pm
  • Battalion strength was 29 officers and 996 other ranks

What did the battalion do at the start of the war?
  • 5 August – 8DLI moved to the Sunderland area for coastal defence duty
  • 19 August – Moved to training Camp at Ravensworth Castle
  • Moved to billets at Gateshead prior to the end of 1914; undertook further training and remained there until April 1915
A  group of officers of the 8th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, at Cassel, France, April 1915 Left to right: Lieutenant E.A. Leybourne, Captain J. Turnbull, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Turnbull, Lieutenants P. Kirkup, F.M. Weeks, and C.L.B. Whall (D/DLI 2/8/59(6))
D/DLI 2/8/59(6) A  group of officers of the 8th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, at Cassel, France, April 1915 Left to right: Lieutenant E.A. Leybourne, Captain J. Turnbull, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Turnbull, Lieutenants P. Kirkup, F.M. Weeks, and C.L.B. Whall
When did the battalion leave the UK?
1915
  • 17 April – Transport and machine gun section left for Le Havre
  • 19 April – The rest of the battalion marched to Newcastle Central Station for trains to Folkestone, embarked for Boulogne aboard the Onward
  • 20 April – Moved to the vicinity of Cassel
  • 23 April – Ordered to move forward to Steenvoorde, then Poperinghe, halting at Vlamertinghe
  • 24 April – Moved further forward, marching through Ypres under shellfire, arriving in the early hours of 25th at Boetleers Farm where some Canadian troops were stationed

When did 8DLI first engage with the enemy?
25 April
  • A and D Companies were ordered forwards to trenches to relieve the Canadians holding them
  • B and C Companies were entrenched at the farm
  • The Germans line was an arc covering two sides
Map of positions at Boetleers Farm on 25/26 April 1915, based on a map enclosed in '8th Battalion., The Durham Light Infantry, 1793-1926'
Map of positions at Boetleers Farm on 25/26 April 1915, based on a map enclosed in '8th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, 1793-1926' (1)

What were the worst days for 8DLI at the Second Battle of Ypres?
25-26 April
  • The Germans attacked from the left side of D Company 8DLI
  • Shelling broke the communication lines back to Boetleers Farm
  • A German plane scouted the locations of A and D Companies; shells began to land in the D Company trenches, then in those of A Company
  • Several of the accounts in The Bede say there was little or no support from British guns
  • As the Germans made their way around from the left to the rear of the British line, those left of A and D Companies gathered in one trench, holding the position until the evening
  • Surrounded on three sides, the decision was made to withdraw through the remaining gap ‘…the force retired under a perfect Hell of fire; shells, high explosive and shrapnel, machine guns and rifles dealing out Death on all sides…The slaughter was fearful – the scene indescribable.’ The Bede
  • Some of the men made it back to Boetleers Farm, others found their way to Vlamertinghe
  • Whilst this was happening, some of B Company had tried to move forward to reinforce A and D Companies but were driven back
  • B and C Companies had their own close encounters with German troops who were found to be occupying some nearby farm buildings; the Germans advanced and 8DLI retaliated but were eventually forced to retire
  • Those still at Boetleers Farm were relieved by 5DLI on 27 April

Casualties 
The 8th Battalion history gives the total number of killed, wounded, and missing (including those taken prisoner) for these days as 19 officers, 574 other ranks.

The Soldiers Died record lists 102 names as killed in action on 26 April 1915 (no names are given for 25 April, it seems possible that as the fighting was continuous, those killed on this date were all recorded as 26 April).

Another account from The Bede records the thoughts of a soldier as he is transported in a Red Cross train to Boulogne: ‘Thank God! he said...  But his friends and comrades, what had become of them?  They had vanished like a dream.  When would he get to know how many were still alive?’

Due to the heavy losses suffered by the battalion over the course of the Second Battle of Ypres, orders were given on 7 June for it to amalgamate with 6DLI to form the 6/8th Composite Battalion.  The drafts from Britain were insufficient to bring them up to fighting strength.  The battalion comprised one company of 8DLI and three companies of 6DLI.  They remained as the 6/8th until August of that year.

How do I find out more about what happened?
1) 8th Battalion., The Durham Light Infantry, 1793-1926 – EH Veitch, (no year)
2) Faithful, The Story of The Durham Light Infantry – SGP Ward, 1968

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very interesting blog. My name is Richard Corr and the memoir of my grandfather, H. W. Tustin, of the 8th DLI, who fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, was captured by the Germans and subsequently escaped successfully back to England, is shortly (Aug. 30th) to be published by 'Pen and Sword' under the title "Escaping from the Kaiser": http://www.amazon.co.uk/Escaping-Kaiser-Dramatic-Experiences-Tommy/dp/1473821940

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    1. charles annandale1 October 2014 at 10:47

      Richard, I am about to buy this book. Was your grandfather's nickname at Bede College "Tutty" ? My wife's grandfather, William Stephenson, was at Bede College and 8th DLI. He spoke about his friend "Tutty" being captured in an interview with a Durham newspaper in the 80s. I have a cd copy although the quality is poor. William Stephenson was wounded a month after the action at Boetleer Farm at 2nd Ypres . He survived and lived to the age of 101. Kind regards, Charles Annandale

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  2. My great grandfather Pt Ralph Anderson was in the 8th DLI after the shock and chaos brought to the Ypre Front in April 1915. I know getting definative facts about the engagement are difficult and some sources scant to say the least. I was shocked to find how the Division just billetted in Ypre itself after being deployed from Newcastle etc, were within hours driven to the front to help the Canadian Units shore up a 4km gap caused by the Germans use of Gas on the 22nd April, against the Haigh Convention. The French troops suffered worst and panicked and ran. I do not know the Company Ralph was in, but from adjoining Canadian accounts indicated it was murder to send green troops into battle against the Professional German army in such a coordinated attack. The 8th and 6th DLI fought bravely but the lack of normalization to the front line trenches made many easy meat for the Germans.
    I now know that loses and details were hidden,the official history I believe 1880-1920 had no lists of missing, wounded or dead. What I found telling was after several days in this baptism to hell, the remaining troops of the 8th and 6th left, were to appear on parade in front of Sir John French. Battle weary men made to clean up and march around with barely an operational brigade(3/4) between them. No wonder they were sent behind the front to gather up all that might have survived and build up the new 6/8th. Which I believe nearly took over a year until the next action in June 1916 on the Somme. Staggering... My grandfather survived until early December 1917 at Arrass where a sniper luckily shot him through the rib missing vital organs but left for days in the mud and snow until a stretcher party retrieved him. He maintained although left with a weaping tangerine size chunk out of his back, that from the front medical station to Nettley Hospital by boat he was triaged and expected not to survive and left with other poor souls. But he survived although delayed shock caused his hair to fall out, he lived with the wound and shrapnel until his 80's. He continued being a stone mazon and reared 3 daughters, he never really spoke about his service, only snippets whilst ill before his death in 1973.
    Thanks for putting on record this piece of evidence as to the horror and sacrifice of our ancestors who I am immensely proud.

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  5. I am trying to find out where and how my uncle Pte 3717 Isaac Jackson of A Coy 1st/8th Bn DLI died.
    Killed "by a sniper" on 29th September 1916 seems a bit vague. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing but this seems to be at odds with the fact that his belongings were returned to my Grandparents. I know he could have been lost in the ensuing fighting but I would like to know especially now in 2016

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    1. Thank you for your comment. We are unable to respond to research enquiries on the blog but you can contact the Record Office, and find out about our research service, on the following pages:
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