Friday, 6 April 2018

The Battle of Estaires

The second phase of Germany's spring offensive in 1918, became known as the Battle of the Lys, itself made up of a series of smaller battles. The first of these was the Battle of Estaires, in which territorial battalions of the Durham Light Infantry were involved. 

All quotes, and maps, are taken from The Fifth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, 1914-1918, by Major AL Raimes, DSO, TD, published in 1931 (Record Office reference: C 213).

On 8 April 1918, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (5 DLI), marched to Estaires, between Bethune and Armentieres, in northern France, under command of Colonel GO Spence. The 151st Brigade was in reserve, ‘…in the event of an attack taking place [they were] responsible for the defence of the crossings of the Rivers Lys and Lawe, both above and below Estaires’.
Map showing the Lys and Lawe running through Estaires, from Raimes, ref: C 213
‘Estaires at that time had hardly been touched by shell-fire, and was a thriving little town. There were plenty of shops and estaminets, and the men had a very happy evening, little thinking that in a few short hours it would be the scene of hard and bitter fighting’.

At 4:00am, the Germans began heavy shelling all along the line from Bethune to Armentieres, bombarding Estaires. Each company of 5 DLI quickly made their way to their battle positions ‘while the Regimental Band cheered them by playing the old familiar marching tunes’. 6 DLI who were also at Estaires, were extremely unlucky, one of the shells hit a convent where many of the battalion’s officers were billeted and several were killed. They moved out with only five officers. 

“According to the general scheme of defence, the 6th Durham Light Infantry held an advanced line of fortified farms and posts some two miles south-east of Estaires, the 8th Durham Light Infantry held the bridges over the River Lawe near Lestrem, with some detached posts in front, and the 5th Durham Light Infantry held the bridges at La Gorgue and the two bridges at Estaires…” 

All but one of the bridges (the one at La Gorgue) held by 5 DLI were attacked on 9 April. Some bridges were taken by the Germans but recaptured by the DLI and their support. Many were driven back to the opposite bank. The battalion suffered many losses but there was a tremendous show of bravery by some of the men and officers which did not pass without notice. 

The circumstances at the bridge, Pont Levis, seemed dire, but two privates, T Tweddle, and E Dean were not finished, they volunteered to rush the position to retake the bridge again. They inspired others to help in the attack and, up against strong resistance, they succeeded. Both privates were wounded, but they also earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The enemy continued to shell the area over night, and in the morning (10 April) re-intensified their attempt to take Estaires. Again, all the battalion, except those at La Gorgue, were involved in fighting during the day. In the evening, orders received to vacate the town, and 5 DLI and others retreated during the night of 10/11 April.
Map showing the area around Estaires, and how far the British line was pushed back by the Germans, from Raimes, ref: C 213
The fighting was not over. The battalion’s new position was an old line from the Estaires-Neuf Berquin Road to a bend in the Lys. C Company, that had a surprisingly quiet time so far, found themselves under direct fire. They were then almost surrounded when a group of Germans found their way through a gap between 5 and 6 DLI, and into a wood behind C Company’s position. The fighting was taking place at close quarters and the company was forced back. 

The Germans continued to push the allied army back. By the evening, 5 DLI were on the western outskirts of Neuf Berquin. “Probably a complete disaster was only prevented by the oncoming darkness, and by the fact that the Germans were also weary of with their tremendous efforts”. 

The remainder of 5 DLI were relieved by a company from 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. They joined what was left of 6 and 8 DLI west of Merville and formed a new line of defence along the River Bourre. A fresh attack by the Germans began on the morning of 12 April and the whole of 151st Brigade was pushed back. By the end of the day, 5 DLI was on the outskirts of the Forest of Nieppe.

The Germans had paid a cost for their advances, the British having inflicted heavy losses on them, but they too had suffered many casualties. 151st Brigade was relieved early on 13 April, and were looking forward to a good breakfast which was being made when they arrived at La Motte au Bois. Unfortunately, this camp was not far enough back, and was shelled just as breakfast was nearly ready, inflicting further casualties on the depleted brigade. The whole of 50th Northumbrian Division was moved further west by a few miles. 5 DLI remained near Pipote for several days.

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