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Durham Light Infantry, 20th Battalion (Wearside)

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 June 1915, though Sunderland had only just raised and equipped the 160th (Wearside) Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, the War Office asked the town’s Mayor and Recruiting Committee to raise a new infantry battalion. The committee agreed; Major Kenneth Leather from the 4th Battalion DLI was given command; and by August, the first recruits were drilling on a local cricket field. Though known as the ‘Wearside Battalion’, the 20th (Service) Battalion DLI attracted recruits not only from Sunderland but from across the North East.

In late August 1915, the battalion moved to a tented camp at Wensley in North Yorkshire and training began in earnest, though still without any rifles or equipment. Bad weather in October forced the Wearsiders into billets in Barnard Castle, where they stayed until January 1916, when they moved to Aldershot to join the newly-formed 41st Division.

After months of intensive training, the 41st Division landed in France in early May 1916 and, on 29 May, 20 DLI entered the front line trenches north of Armentieres for the first time. For the next three months, the battalion followed the routines of trench warfare on the Western Front and suffered casualties almost every day, including Colonel Leather wounded on 22 July and sent home to England.

In early September 1916, the 41st Division was sent south from Flanders to the Somme and 20 DLI entered the fighting at Flers on 14 September. Over the next few days, the Wearsiders lost over 100 men, most to shell fire. On 1 October, after a week spent in reserve cleaning and re-equipping, the battalion returned to the Somme fighting near Gueudecourt, before being ordered north to Flanders.

The Wearsiders spent the winter of 1916-17 patrolling no-man’s-land, digging, and repairing their trenches. Few replacements had arrived since May 1916 and, by January 1917, the battalion had been reduced to some 450 men from the original 1,000 who had landed in France.

On 7 June 1917, after a series of huge mines were exploded under the German trenches on Messines Ridge, 20 DLI took part in the advance against little opposition, capturing the Dammstrasse strongpoint and consolidating a new British front line but heavy German shell fire caused over 100 casualties.

The 20th Battalion DLI was again in action on 31 July 1917 on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres. South of Klein Zillebeke, four waves of Wearsiders went over the top to attack the German held Imperfect Trench. The objective was reached but machine gun fire from concrete pill boxes and shell fire caused over 430 casualties.

After a few weeks of rest and retraining, the battalion joined the fighting south of the Menin Road and suffered 300 more casualties. Then, in November 1917, 20 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.

The Wearsiders took over part of the Italian front line on the Piave River. The front was quiet but shell, machine gun and sniper fire still caused casualties, including the battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel Robert Smith, who died of his wounds.

In March 1918, the 41st Division, including 20 DLI, was withdrawn from Italy and returned to France, where German attacks on the Somme were threatening the British front. On 23 March, after a heavy bombardment, the Wearsiders faced a mass attack by German infantry. Six attacks were driven back before the battalion was forced to withdraw to a new position. The Wearsiders were forced further back over the next few days until finally being withdrawn from the fighting having suffered over 300 casualties. There was more heavy fighting in April 1918, after the 20th Battalion had been moved north to Ypres.

During the summer of 1918, 20 DLI remained in the Ypres Salient rebuilding its strength and retraining. In early August, the battalion was merged for a few days with a US Army battalion to train the raw American infantry in trench warfare.

In late September 1918, 20 DLI joined the advance in Flanders to push the German Army back across the rivers Lys and Scheldt. Progress was often slow and the battalion continued to lose men. On 2 November, a patrol of Wearsiders crossed the Scheldt by a broken bridge. This was the battalion’s last action. On 11 November, the First World War ended.

On 12 December, though the battalion’s coal miners were soon sent home to return to their peace-time jobs, the rest of the Wearsiders began to march towards the German border and Cologne, via the battlefield at Waterloo. The battalion remained as part of the British Army of the Rhine until February 1920, when it was disbanded, though by then most of the battle-hardened soldiers had been replaced by young soldiers from 51 and 52 DLI.