Friday, 30 September 2016

The Durham Light Infantry and The Somme 1916

One of our most exciting additions to the Durham at War website is ‘The Durham Light Infantry and The Somme 1916’ by John Bilcliffe, edited by Peter Nelson and Steve Shannon.
John Bilcliffe 1929-2014, Photo courtesy of Edward Bilcliffe
John Bilcliffe 1929-2014, Photo courtesy of Edward Bilcliffe
John had started writing this sometime in the 1990s with the intention of it becoming a book. He had already published ‘Well done the 68th’ concerning the Durham Light Infantry ancestor battalion in New Zealand. However, John stopped work on the book in 1998. He sadly passed away in 2014, after which his son Edward, found the manuscript. It was passed to the Friends of the DLI Museum where Peter Nelson started work on editing it.

Peter Nelson:

I saw the manuscript, together with DLI historian Harry Moses. It was an amazingly ambitious work telling, as John put it, the story of a regiment's involvement in the Somme campaign.

It has often been assumed that any man who died at the Front during that period was a Somme victim, something which John's work clarified. John's history identified the relevant engagements, the battalions of the DLI involved, maps of the actions, the individual soldiers killed, those who died of wounds and other causes as well as their final resting places and memorials. 

First study showed that the book was unfinished...John had, for instance, made notes of queries he wished to answer, doubts about the spelling of names and points he intended to work on.

After seven months of intensive work it became clear that the completion of the book planned by John was unachievable in the timescale we had hoped. Rather than miss having the core of his work available for the Somme Centenary Edward agreed to a release of the sections completed to date so that searches of battalion listings, honours and awards and all cemetery/memorial listings could to be made available to the public during the centenary. My hope was that the work could appear on the Durham at War website. The work of Steve Shannon and Gill Parkes has now made that a reality.

I believe John would have seen the Durham at War presentation as a fitting platform as it can, potentially, reach a far wider audience.

Steve Shannon:

I first met John Bilcliffe shortly after he had taken early retirement in 1984 from his managerial job in the steel industry. John already had a passion for all things DLI and was an avid collector of DLI medals, but his interest lay not simply in collecting for collecting’s sake but for researching “the man behind the medal”. 

I can’t now remember...when he volunteered to help me with the daunting task of researching every medal in the museum’s collection. But his work was invaluable, especially in tracing photographs of the men in the DLI’s archive for eventual display alongside the medals; and John was duly invited to attend the official opening of the new medal room by HRH Princess Alexandra in 1988.

Peter Nelson of the Friends took on the task of initially editing the book. After many months’ arduous work, Peter passed John’s typescript, together with his own additions and amendments, to Durham County Record Office, where I was to prepare the work for publication on the Durham at War website, as part of County Durham’s commemoration of the centennial of the Battle of the Somme.

My task has been to make John’s work accessible online by changing the formatting; removing inconsistencies; expanding abbreviations, e.g. Sgt to Sergeant; and adding footnotes. The spirit of John’s work, however, has not been altered and the wealth of details and analysis that fill every page remains.

The Durham at War team are very grateful to Edward Bilcliffe for allowing us to put the story on our website, and of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to his father, John, for taking on this massive endeavour to begin with.  You can read  here, (please note that edits are still being made): 

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