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Durham Light Infantry, 11th 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 22 August 1914, the first 500 recruits left the DLI’s Depot in Newcastle for Woking in Surrey, where they were formed into the 10th Battalion DLI – the first of the DLI’s Service battalions. By the end of August, over 2,000 men had arrived and a second battalion was formed – the 11th Battalion DLI, with Colonel George Davison, who had retired from the 2nd Battalion DLI in 1906, in command. At first no uniforms were available, even for the officers, and the colonel wore his bowler hat and “civvies” whilst he drilled his raw recruits.

In November, the battalion moved into huts in Pirbright and was given blue serge uniforms as a stopgap. Though leather equipment and obsolete rifles were soon issued, khaki uniforms did not arrive until March 1915, when the battalion was at Larkhill.

In early January 1915, possibly because of the number of pitmen in its ranks, 11 DLI was made the 20th Division’s Pioneer battalion. In future, these Durham soldiers would work as labourers, but, when the need arose, they would fight as infantrymen, as shown by the distinctive crossed rifle and pick collar badges they wore.

On 20 July 1915, 11 DLI, with the rest of the 20th Division, sailed for France and was soon put to work behind the lines repairing roads, before moving to the front line to drain mud-filled trenches and strengthen barbed wire defences.

In 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, 11 DLI, often working at night, repaired old and dug new trenches. In early September, two companies fought as infantrymen to capture the ruins of Guillemont, before another winter was spent working in the mud-filled trenches.

On 30 November 1917, after the British tank and infantry attack at Cambrai had ground to a halt, the Germans counterattacked. And at Gouzeaucourt, some of 11 DLI’s Pioneers led by Colonel Geoffrey Hayes joined the desperate fighting to halt the advancing Germans.

When the German Army attacked on the Somme on 21 March 1918, the 20th Division, including 11 DLI, was in reserve. For ten days, the Pioneers suffered over 450 casualties as they fought and fell back and dug new trenches, only to fight and retreat again.

By August 1918, it was the turn of the Allies to attack the exhausted German Army. The 20th Division joined the advance and 11 DLI was near Maubeuge, when the Armistice came into effect on 11 November. Just because the guns had fallen silent, however, did not mean the end of the Pioneers’ work. Roads and railways needed repairing; shell craters filled in. Demobilisation, however, soon began and miners were amongst the first to be demobilised. By June 1919, the last of 11 DLI’s Pioneers had returned home.

Contributed by Durham County Record Office