BATTLE TALK: At last month’s Western Front Association meeting, Clive Bowery described the role of the 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry in the 1918 Battles of the Lys.
The peace treaty which followed the 1917 Russian Revolution presented the Germans with a short window of opportunity and numerical supremacy on the Western Front before the American build-up could greatly influence events.
The Lys Offensive, Operation Georgettes to the Germans, was the second phase of their Spring Offensives launched in Flanders after attacks in Picardy had petered out in early April.
With 160 raw replacement troops recently arrive from the UK, the DLI battalion was in the process of moving forward over a few days to relieve Portuguese troops holding the front line near Neuf Berquin.
Fortunately, before the relief was completed battalion officers had already reconnoitred fall-back positions around the village of Lestrum which is where the battalion was immediately sent when the Germans, with the advantages of firm ground and a thick morning mist, launched their attack on April 9.
DLI positions held on the first day so that by the evening they formed a salient around which the Germans moved. The salient was expunged on April 10, but the battalion continued to hold ground on the edges of Lestrum.
During the next two days it was obvious to higher command that ground would have to be ceded to avoid a major disaster. Orders were issued for a fighting withdrawal in the general direction of the villages of Neuf Berquin and Merville.
Despite having been re-built with young inexperienced men fresh from England the battalion gave a good account of itself. The fighting between and April 9 and 12 was stubborn and the Germans only succeeded in advancing five miles.
By April 12, the front line, then lying immediately to the west of Merville, held firm and the German offensive exhausted itself.
However, a heavy price was paid. Casualties were so heavy that, at various times, remnants of different formations were mixed together to form composite fighting units. When, eventually, the scattered remnants of the 8th Battalion, DLI were collected together there were only nine officers and 158 other ranks, who were organised into a composite company which was finally withdrawn from the line on April 15. Casualties, killed, wounded and missing numbered almost 500 men.
The WFA’s next meeting, on April 23, will be an opportunity for members and guests to share their interests and reflections on the First World War, including family histories.
The next talk, on May 28, will be delivered by Geoff Spring who will relate the story of Artillery of the BEF in 1917.
Held at Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club, WFA meetings start at 7.30pm for 8pm. Visitors and new members are always welcome. The suggested minimum donation is £1 to include a buffet supper.