Durham Light Infantry, 53rd Battalion
Young Soldier 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.
Following the introduction of conscription in 1916, in place of the old system of regimental reserve battalions, 112 new Training Reserve battalions were created to train the recruits. So, in September 1916, the 16th (Reserve) Battalion DLI and 17th (Reserve) Battalion DLI lost their link to the DLI and became the 1st and 2nd Training Reserve Battalions.
In 1917, the system for training conscripts was again changed with Young Soldier and Graduated battalions being formed. Under this system conscripts aged 18 years and one month were first sent to a Young Soldier battalion and then, after basic training, moved into a Graduated battalion to complete their training. Every three months, this system produced a company of (about 200) trained 19 year old soldiers ready for active service overseas.
In October 1917, the War Office decided that the Young Soldier and Graduated battalions should, once again, be linked to a parent regiment. And so the 51st (Graduated) Battalion DLI and 52nd (Graduated) Battalion DLI were born, whilst the old 17th (Reserve) Battalion DLI was reborn as the 53rd (Young Soldier) Battalion DLI.
During all the system and name changes, the newly-named 53rd Battalion DLI had remained at Rugeley training young conscripts. In March 1918, however, the desperate need for replacements on the Western Front saw the age for service overseas reduced from 19 years to 18 years and six months. The 53rd Battalion then acted as little more than a collecting station for young conscripts, who were quickly moved to the 51st and 52nd Battalions for training.
In early April 1919, the 53rd Battalion DLI was sent to Cologne as part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. The battalion was, however, almost immediately broken up and the young soldiers posted to the 51st and 52nd Battalions. These battalions of young soldiers – none of whom had seen any active service – had been sent to Cologne in March 1919 to replace older British soldiers in the British Army of the Rhine desperate for demobilisation and a return to civilian life.
Contributed by Durham County Record Office
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