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Durham Light Infantry,1st/7th Battalion

Territorial Force battalion

Before the First World War began in August 1914, the Durham Light Infantry, County Durham’s own infantry regiment, was made up of nine battalions each of about 1,000 men. There were two Regular battalions of full-time professional soldiers, many of whom came from outside the North East of England; two Reserve battalions of part-time volunteers and ex-Regular soldiers; and five Territorial Force battalions of part-time volunteers centred on key County towns. There was also a Depot or headquarters shared with the Northumberland Fusiliers at Fenham Barracks in Newcastle upon Tyne.

By the end of the war in November 1918, the DLI had grown to 43 battalions, as new Reserve, Service, Territorial, Young Soldier, and other battalions were formed. Of these 43 battalions, 22 served in war zones from the Western Front to the North West Frontier of India.
The 7th Battalion DLI, formed in 1908 from the old 3rd Volunteer Battalion DLI, was a Territorial Force battalion with headquarters and six companies in Sunderland and two companies in South Shields. On 25 July 1914, 7 DLI left Sunderland for annual camp in North Wales with the rest of the Northumbrian Division. On 3 August, however, following Germany’s declaration of war on France, the order came for the division to return home and prepare for war. Over the next nine months, 7 DLI’s part-time volunteer soldiers, formed into four companies, were trained at Boldon, Ravensworth, and Gateshead for full-time active service overseas.

Meanwhile, in September 1914, a reserve battalion was formed in Sunderland as the 2nd/7th Battalion DLI. Later still, in June 1915, a 3rd/7th Battalion was formed for home service.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Vaux, a member of the Sunderland brewing firm, the 1st/7th Battalion left Newcastle railway station on 19 April for France. Within days, the raw Durham soldiers were fighting for their lives in the Second Battle of Ypres, suffering heavy casualties from shelling and gas attacks at Zonnebeke and in the GHQ line, the last trench defence before Ypres itself.

On 22 November 1915, after serving in the trenches as a normal infantry battalion of the 151st Brigade of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, the 1st/7th Battalion began training for a new role as the division’s Pioneer battalion. In future, 1/7 DLI was to dig and repair trenches and dugouts, move supplies, plus a hundred and one other jobs, including burying the dead. But the new Pioneers, with their distinctive crossed rifle and pick collar badges, were still expected to fight as infantrymen, when the need arose.

The 1st/7th Battalion served on the Somme in 1916 and at Arras and Passchendaele in 1917. Then on 21 March 1918, the German Army attacked on the Somme. The 50th Division moved forwards to the front, but was soon forced to retreat and the Pioneers were needed to fight as infantrymen. The Pioneers again fought as infantry in April and May, and in the fighting on the River Aisne, the 50th Division was all-but destroyed. So in June the 1st/7th Battalion was transferred to the 8th Division, absorbing the remnants of that division’s Pioneers, the 22nd Battalion DLI.

From August 1918 until the Armistice, as the German Army fell back under repeated attacks, the 1st/7th Pioneers joined the advance, repairing roads and bridges, and clearing booby traps. On 11 November, the Pioneers were in Belgium near Mons. Demobilisation followed. On 31 May 1919, the last entry was written in the battalion’s War Diary and on 20 June the last of the Pioneers returned home to Sunderland.

Contributed by Durham County Record Office