After making its successful attack at Oppy-Gavrelle on 28th June 1917, 31st Division side-stepped north to occupy the line opposite the German-held villages of Acheville and Méricourt east of Vimy Ridge. For the 11th East Lancashire Regt. (Accrington Pals), much of July was taken up with training and reorganization first at Maroeuil then later at Mont-St. Eloi. Whilst at Maroeuil, the battalion was reorganized into three fighting companies and one Headquarters company.
As the battalion lined the Arras-Souchez road on the 11th for the visit of H.M. King George V, some 50 miles (80km) to the north at Nieuport the enemy was preparing to make its first use of mustard gas as a chemical weapon.
Chemical weapons had been deployed on the battlefield as early in the war as October 1914 when shrapnel shells containing an irritant substance1 were fired by German artillery at Neuve Chapelle. In January 1915, shells containing xylyl bromide (tear gas) were fired against Russian troops at Bolimow on the Eastern Front. The use of chemical weapons escalated massively when, on 22nd April 1915, 168 tons (171 tonnes) of chlorine gas were released from 4,000 cylinders on a 4-mile (6.5km) front against French and Canadian divisions in the Ypres Salient. French-Algerian troops fled in panic as the gas was carried by the wind into the Allied trenches. The first British deployment of chlorine gas, on 25th September 1915 at Loos, demonstrated the fallibility of using cylinders when a change in wind direction drove the gas back towards the British trenches. From 1916 onwards, both sides made increasing use of artillery shells to deliver the gas directly onto the target.
Following its first use at Nieuport, mustard gas2 was used to deluge the town of Ypres on the night of 12th/13th July 1917, causing 2,014 casualties. The gas shells burst on impact to release the liquid contents which evaporated to give a virtually-odourless gas. Inhalation of the gas was rarely fatal, but caused severe pains in the head, throat and eyes, vomiting and bronchial irritation.3 Many victims would suffer from chronic bronchitis in later years.
Above: 35450 L/Cpl. John Roden, 11th Bn., East Lancashire Regt. - Excerpt from Ministry of Pensions Form M.P.A. 122a. Document courtesy of John's grand-daughter, Sue Sweeney.
While the Third Battle of Ypres raged to the north, the month of August saw the 11th East Lancashires engaged in routine trench warfare in the Acheville sector. Over the night of 4th/5th September, the battalion moved out of the front line to go into Brigade Reserve with Headquarters and one company at Thélus Caves and two companies in the railway embankment near Vimy Station. During the move, a hail of mustard gas shells burst over Vimy and the embankment saturating the air with poisonous fumes. In this one bombardment, the battalion suffered 119 casualties.4
Above left: 26731 Pte. Fred Wood, Z Company, 11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt., wounded by mustard gas on 5th September 1918. Above right: the five sons of Daniel and Dorothy Agnes Wood of Stacksteads; inset left: J77239 Able Seaman Lewis Wood, H.M.S. Vivid I; inset right: 24739 Pte. William Wood, 6th Bn., Loyal North Lancs. Regt.; seated left: 26731 Pte. Fred Wood; seated middle: 101 Gnr. Dyson Wood, 3rd Army Brigade, Australian Field Artillery; seated right: 202151 Pte. Craven Wood, 2nd/4th Bn., East Lancs. Regt., k.i.a. 21st March 1918. Photographs courtesy of the brothers' great-nephew, Peter McQuade.
East of Willerval on 16th October, the battalion was heavily shelled with high explosive (H.E.) and gas shells, causing 35 casualties. On 13th November, Battalion Headquarters again came under bombardment from H.E. and gas shells; two men were killed5 and 47 wounded or gassed, including the commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Arthur Rickman.
Above left: 29393 Pte. Bertram Harradine; Above right: letter from Capt. Frederick Heys to Mrs. Annie Harradine, informing her of her son's death on 13th November 1917 from gas poisoning. [Transcript] Images courtesy of Bertram's great-niece, Helen Wright. Bertram Harradine is buried in Roclincourt Military Cemetery, France.
By February 1918, the deliberate withholding of reinforcements to the British Army on the Western Front6 necessitated the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions. In 31st Division, 94th Brigade ceased to exist, its place being taken by the 4th Guards Brigade. The 11th East Lancashires - restored to four fighting companies after the transfer of 20 officers and 400 other ranks from the regiment's disbanded 8th Battalion - and the 13th York & Lancasters (1st Barnsley Pals) were transferred to 92nd and 93rd Brigade respectively. Both the 12th and 14th York & Lancasters (Sheffield City Battalion and 2nd Barnsley Pals) were disbanded.
Having recovered from the wound sustained four months earlier, Rickman had barely resumed command of his battalion when 31st Division was deployed south of Arras to help stem the German offensive launched on 21st March. Within days, the 11th East Lancashires would be in action at Ayette.
© Andrew C Jackson 2003
Compiled from TNA document WO95/2366, "The History of the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War 1914-1919" edited by Maj.-Gen. Sir. N. Nicholson, "First World War" by Martin Gilbert, "World War 1 Trench Warfare" by Michael Houlihan, and "Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Vol II" by Brig.-Gen. Sir James E. Edmonds.