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Durham Light Infantry, 13th Battalion

New Army Service 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.

In August 1914, within days of Britain declaring war on Germany, Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, called for volunteers to join a New Army. Across County Durham and the North East men rushed to enlist.
On 16 September 1914, over 4,000 recruits left Newcastle for Bullswater Camp, near Pirbright in Surrey. There they were divided into the 12th and 13th Battalions DLI and the 10th and 11th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers.

Whilst command of 13 DLI was given to a retired Cornwall Light Infantry officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Ashby, amongst the newly commissioned and inexperienced young officers were two DLI veterans, Major Nicholas Biddulph, who became second in command, and Samuel Snow, who had first joined the DLI as a private in 1881, and who was appointed Quartermaster.

By late November, rain had made Bullswater tented camp unusable and 12 and 13 DLI moved to Malplaquet Barracks in Aldershot, with later moves to Ashford in Kent, and finally to Bramshott in Hampshire. The recruits had begun their military training wearing their own civilian clothes. Later blue serge uniforms were issued but khaki uniforms and leather equipment only arrived in February 1915.

On 26 August 1915, 13 DLI, as part of the 68th Brigade of the 23rd Division, landed in France and within days was sent into the trenches. The battalion, however, was spared the disastrous Battle of Loos and spent the rest of 1915 and early 1916 in and out of the trenches at Armentieres and Souchez.

On 1 December 1915, Private Thomas Kenny was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing his mortally wounded officer, Philip Brown, from no man’s land. This was the first VC awarded to the Regiment during the First World War.

In late June 1916, the 23rd Division was moved south to the Somme and 13 DLI entered the fighting south of La Boisselle on 7 July. In late July and early August, the battalion was involved in desperate fighting around Munster Alley east of Pozieres. There the battalion suffered over 100 casualties, including Lieutenant George Butterworth killed by a sniper’s bullet.

After spending the rest of August in reserve at Armentieres, 13 DLI returned to the Somme with the 23rd Division. On 7 October, 13 DLI joined an attack on Le Sars. Whilst 12 DLI, assisted by a tank, captured the Tangle, 13 DLI bombed its way into the ruined village. Over 150 Germans were taken prisoner, whilst the battalion suffered some 60 casualties. After this fighting, 13 DLI left the Somme for the Ypres Salient.

On 7 July 1917, after the successful attack in June by the 23rd Division on Messines Ridge, 13 DLI was in the trenches at Klein Zillebeke when Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens was mortally wounded by a bomb. For his selfless bravery, he was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the second awarded to the battalion.

The 13th Battalion DLI was again in action in September, during the Third Battle of Ypres, in the fighting on the Menin Road. Then, in October 1917, 13 DLI, as part of a combined French and British force, was sent to northern Italy, where Austrian and German forces had defeated the Italian Army at Caporetto and was threatening Venice.

Whilst in Italy, 13 DLI served in both the trenches on the Piave River and on the Asiago Plateau. However, before the final Allied advance across the Piave, the battalion was withdrawn from Italy in September 1918 to join the Allied advance on the Western Front. Fierce fighting followed and by the end of October, 13 DLI had lost over 300 men killed or wounded.

When news of the Armistice was received the battalion was working repairing roads behind the front. In January 1919, 13 DLI paraded to receive a King’s Colour. Less pleasant work from February to April saw the battalion unearthing bodies from the battlefield and reburying them in larger cemeteries. Meanwhile, men were being demobilised and, in July 1919, the 13th Battalion DLI was finally disbanded.

Contributed by Durham County Record Office