The 12th (Eastern) Division in 1914-1918
The Division came into existence as a result of Army Order No. 324, issued on 21 August 1914, which authorised the formation of the six new Divisions of K1. It was formed of volunteers, under the administration of Eastern Command. It was assembled from late August 1914: 35th Brigade and artillery in the area of Shorncliffe, 36th Brigade at Colchester, 37th Brigade at Purfleet, Engineers and RAMC at Hounslow, ASC initially at Aldershot and then at Lord’s cricket ground.
Divisional training was completed near Aldershot from 20 February 1915, where the cavalry, motor machine gun battery, sanitary and veterinary sections joined. The Division moved to France on 29 May – 1 June 1915 and after two days rest near Boulogne, moved to concentrate near St Omer and by 6 June had moved to the Meteren-Steenwerck area. Next day Divisional HQ established at Nieppe. Units of the Division were placed under temporary orders of 48th (South Midland) Division for the purposes of instruction. The third of the New Army formations to go to France (after 9th (Scottish) and 14th (Light) Divisions) the 12th Division served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the rest of the war.
On 23 June 1915 the Division took over a sector of the front line for the first time, at Ploegsteert Wood, relieving 46th (North MIdland) Division. 6th Queen’s, 6th Buffs and 11th Middlesex were the units that first entered the trenches. By 15 July the Divisional front had extended south to reach east of Armentieres; the 12th was now holding 7000 yards. In just holding this relatively quiet sector, in July alone the Division suffered the loss of 7 officers and 64 men killed, 18 officers and 413 men wounded.
The Battle of Loos
On 26 September, after this battle had started, the Division was relieved by the 1st Canadian and 50th (Northumbrian) Divisions and moved towards the Loos front. It arrived on 29 September and relieved outgoing units in the Gun Trench – Hulluch Quarries sector on the night of 30 September – 1 October. The Division commenced consolidating the position, under heavy artillery fire. The Officer Commanding, Major-General Frederick Wing CB, was killed in action on 2 October 1915. His ADC, Lieutenant Christopher Tower DSO, was killed by the same shell. On 8 October, the Division repelled a heavy German infantry attack. Five days later the Division took part in a large scale action to renew the offensive, now called the “Action of the Hohenzollern Redoubt”. The Division succeeded in capturing Gun Trench and the south western face of the Hulluch Quarries. During this period at Loos, 117 officers and 3237 men were killed or wounded. By the end of 21 October the Division had been relieved and moved to Fouquieres-les-Bethune. It took over the Hohenzollern Redoubt front after a very short rest of five days and spent a cold, wet and miserable month here before being relieved on 15 November by 15th (Scottish) Division, whereupon it moved into reserve at Lillers.
On 9 December, 9th Royal Fusiliers was given the unusual task of assisting in a round-up of spies and other uncertain characters in the streets of Bethune. Next day the Division moved up and relieved 33rd Division in the front line north of the La Bassee canal at Givenchy.
Between 12 December 1915 and 18 January 1916 in a quiet period of trench-holding, the Division nonetheless suffered the loss of 102 officers and 670 men killed, wounded or missing. Relieved on 19 January and moved to Busnes, the Division had a spell of training in open warfare. Units moved back into the Loos trenches at the Quarries on 12-13 February 1916 and by 15 February held the line from there to the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
Little trace remains today of the once fearsome Hohenzollern Redoubt and Fosse 8. The small hillock and rough ground in this shot mark the spot. The higher summit in the background is on the site of the Hulluch Quarries. This picture is taken from near Quarry Cemetery, facing Auchy les Mines.
The area of the Hohenzollern Redoubt had in the meantime become one where underground mine warfare was very active. A plan was evolved that required 4 mines to be blown under the enemy positions, which would be followed by an infantry assault aimed at capturing the enemy front trench called “The Chord”. 36th Brigade made the attack after 170 Tunnelling Company RE detonated the mines at 5.45pm on 2 March 1916, successfully capturing the craters and gaining important observation over enemy lines as far as Fosse 8. Severe fighting in the crater area continued for some weeks, with the Division suffering more than 4000 casualties until being finally relieved on 26 April. A period of rest and training began, until finally – beginning with the RE Field Companies – the Division moved to the Somme.
The Battles of the Somme 1916
The Battle of Albert*
By 18 June 1916 the Division was based at Flesselles. It immediately carried out a training exercise to practice a planned attack to capture Martinpuich. This action never materialised. The Division moved up to Baizieux on 30 June and reached Hencourt and Millencourt by 10am on 1 July, in reserve to the British infantry attack that had begun earlier that morning. It moved to relieve 8th Division, which had suffered a severe repulse at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, during the night of 1-2 July.
Ordered to continue the attack on Ovillers, 35th and 37th Brigades went in at 3.15am on 2 July (just before this, Divisional HQ received information that a British attack on their left, by X Corps against Thiepval, was cancelled). Unlike the troops of 8th Division who had to cross a wide no man’s land in the bright morning sun, the 12th Division attack, at night, adopted sensible tactics of advancing across no man’s land while the artillery bombarded the enemy and rushed the last few yards when it lifted. The first wave of the attack met with mixed success: for example the 9th Essex came under heavy shellfire before it had reached even the British front line; it was difficult to keep direction in the deep shell holes; yet the 5th Berkshire and 7th Suffolk crossed, finding the enemy wire was well cut, and took at least two lines of German trenches before becoming bogged in intense bombing fights in the trenches. 6th Queen’s were held up by wire and machine gun fire from Mash Valley. Heavy fire from the Leipzig salient – where X Corps would have been attacking – halted supporting units in no man’s land, and the attack failed to achieve its objective.
On 7 July 36th Brigade, with 74th Brigade attached to the Division for the purpose, attacked again and in spite of heavy casualties from German artillery and machine guns in Mash Valley, succeeded in holding the first and second lines that they captured on the spur on which Ovillers stands. By the time the Division was withdrawn to the area on Contay on 9 July, 189 officers and 4576 men had become casualties.
The Battle of Pozieres*
After short spells at Bus-les-Artois and in the front line at Beaumont Hamel, the Division moved back to the Ovillers area for an operation north and northwest of Pozieres designed to destroy the enemy garrison holding Thiepval. On 3 August, an attack aimed at capturing 4th Avenue Trench was successful and pushed on to Ration Trench next day. German counter attacks including flamethrowers were beaten off over the next few days. An attack on 8 August to finally capture the stubborn enemy Point 77 failed with heavy casualties to 7th Sussex. Severe local fighting continued for five more days, when the Division was relieved and moved to the area of Doullens. Casualties since 28 July amounted to 126 officers and 2739 men.
This contemporary aerial photograph shows the ground over which the 9th Royal Fusiliers advanced on 4 August. The wiggly lines are trenches; the many pinprick dots are shell holes; the white is exposed chalk, which lies just below the surface in this area.
The Battle of Le Transloy*
Marched for five days after leaving Somme and relieved 11th (Northern) Division on the Arras front on 22 August. A comparatively quiet time, punctuated by trench raids. Relieved on 26-7 September and moved back to Somme, taking over forward positions in appalling conditions at Geudecourt, Grid and Grid Support on 1-2 October. Fourth Army mounted an attack on 7 October: the objective for the Division was Bayonet Trench and 500 yards beyond. A small gain was made in spite of heavy enemy fire. So few men made it to Bayonet Trench that it could not be held. Troops came under machine gun fire from German aircraft on 9 October. More efforts were made on 12 and 19 October, that got no further. The Division – except its artillery – was relieved on 19 October and returned to Arras .Another 135 officers and 3176 men had become casualties. In all, almost 11000 casualties had been sustained in a total of just 43 days fighting on the Somme.
The battles marked * are phases of the Battles of the Somme 1916
Again, Arras proved to be a relatively quiet sector although there were frequent trench raids and shellfire. On 17 December 1916, the Division moved out of the front line for rest – its first since June – in the Grande Rullecourt and Ambrines areas.
The Arras Offensive
The First Battle of the Scarpe**
As early as January 1917, the Division received notice that it would take part in an offensive at Arras. It moved to the front in that sector on 14 January. It did not leave other than for periods of rest until towards the end of 1917. The position held at Arras was not affected by the German withdrawal from the Somme to the Hindenburg Line in March.
The 1917 Arras battlefield. The attack began from the dotted red line and finally reached the solid red line.
The task of the Division, now part of VI Corps, in the Arras attack was to capture the enemy’s “Black Line” (forward position) then go on to the “Brown Line” (the Wancourt-Feuchy trench including the strong point at Feuchy Chapel). The artillery bombardment opened on 4 April 1917, and the infantry – many of whom had been able to approach the front line in the long tunnels and subways reaching out from Arras itself, advanced behind a creeping barrage on 9 April. Resistance was rapidly overcome; fine counter-battery work had stifled the German guns. The leading troops quickly captured the Black Line, but German fire increased as successive waves came through to advance on the Feuchy Switch trench, notably from Observation Ridge. In places, the German soldiers were seen retreating at a run and by noon, 37th Division had pushed through with orders to capture Monchy le Preux. The 12th Division remained in position, as snow and sleet fell.
On the night 11-12 April, 36th and 37th Brigades moved up and relieved units of of 8th Cavalry Brigade east of Monchy. Next day, 29th Division relieved 12th Division, whereupon the units moved back to the area between Arras and Doullens. The attack had been highly successful, making an advance on the Divisional front of some 4000 yards for a total of 2018 casualties.
The Battle of Arleux**
After a ten day rest the Division re-entered the Arras battlefield, 37th Brigade going into the forward positions between the north east of Monchy and the River Scarpe. On 28 April, formations north of 12th Division undertook an operation to capture Roeux. 35th Brigade took part and attacked Rifle and Bayonet Trench but owing to heavy enemy shellfire and machine guns firing from Roeux – which was not captured – fell back to its start point.
The Third Battle of the Scarpe**
This action included the Division’s role in the capture of Roeux. A larger effort – including the British Fifth, Third and First Armies – took place on 3 May 1917, with an artillery bombardment that began two days earlier. 12th Division’s role was to make an advance of some 2500 yards, including the capture of Pelves on the left flank. A preliminary attack on the left by 36th Brigade in the early hours of 2 May, including a gas barrage fired by Livens projectors, was not entirely successful but apparently caused considerable casualties to the enemy. The main attack was of mixed fortune, although 7th Royal Sussex reached the objective and then beat off determined counter attacks. Once again, German shellfire was the primary cause of problems and and heavy machine gun fire from Roeux caused many casualties. Shellfire was heavy over the next few days and the uncertain position of the advanced troops in Devil’s Trench meant that British artillery was cautious in replying on German trenches. The Division was relieved on 16 May and moved to the area of Le Cauroy, having suffered a total of 141 officers and 3380 other ranks casualties since 25 April 1917.
The battles marked ** are phases of the Arras Offensive 1917
Between 17 May and 19 October 1917, the Division held positions east of Monchy le Preux, mounting several raids and small scale attacks and beating off some made against them, notably in the area of Hook Trench – Pick Avenue – Tites Copse. Much manual work took place, for the position held in May was of shell holes and disconnected parts of trenches, with few dugouts and no communications. When out of the line, units took part in training at Beaurains, where a scale model of the area occupied had been built for the purposes of instruction. A very successful major raid was carried out on 14 October. Five days later the Division was relieved by 4th Division, and returned to La Cauroy. (It should be noted that in holding the Arras front for as long as it did, 12th Division did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres).
The Cambrai operations
Divisional HQ moved to Hesdin on 30 October, preparatory to a move to the Cambrai front. Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig watched a rehearsal attack carried out by 6th Buffs and 7th East Surrey on 13 November. Next day, a gradual move to the Heudecourt – Vaucelette Farm area began, where the Division went into III Corps for the offensive. It was the right-most formation of the attacking force.
The special role of 12th Division in the attack of 20 November 1917 was to capture its first objective and then form a defensive flank to the south east, keeping in touch with 55th (West Lancashire) Division which was not attacking. Advancing from Gonnelieu, the Division moved forward through Sonnet and Pam Pam Farms, Bonavis and Lateau Wood, and dug in a defensive flank to allow the cavalry to pass unrestricted, as ordered. On the extreme right of the attack, the 7th Royal Sussex got into Banteux, which had been subjected to gas attack from Livens projectors.The next three days were spent in consolidating as the centre of the battle moved to the north. On 24 November a local operation to move the line to Quarry Post – Bleak Quarry – to gain command of a better line of observation – was carried out by 35th and 36th Brigades, which met with mixed success.
By 29 November it had become apparent that the enemy was assembling a force in the area of Villers Guislain, south of 12th Division in area of 55th. Warning orders were issued: just in time, for on 30 November at 6.45am, heavy shellfire began to fall and by 7.45am Divisional HQ was already out of touch with its forward units. The failure of the 24 November attack now became apparent as the enemy had invisibly assembled a considerable attacking force in the canal valley. A hard and confused fight followed as the German infantry advanced, the Division falling back across the recently won ground. By the end of the day the line had held at La Vacquerie. Further German efforts on 1 December were largely held off, although by now losses to some units had been as high as 50% of the strength they had before the counter attack. Relieved on 3-4 December, the Division – excluding its artillery which stayed a while longer – moved to Albert and from there moved by train to Aire, with billets at nearby Thiennes and Berguette.
A British tank, a casualty at Cambrai – note the Ace of Spades, symbol of 12th Division, painted on its side.
On 5 January 1918 Divisional HQ moved to Merville and on 13 January moved again to Croix du Bac where it came under orders of XV Corps, while the brigades relieved 38th (Welsh) Division in the Fleurbaix front line. Various trench raids took place here, as did the reduction of brigades from 4 battalions to 3. On 22 March orders were received warning the Division of an imminent move. Two days later the Division, less its artillery, concentrated in the Busnes area and moved that night by motor lorry to Albert.
The First Battles of the Somme 1918
The Battle of Bapaume+
On the morning of 24 March the Division arrived in the area of Senlis, Warloy and Bouzincourt. An tiring and confusing day was to follow. That afternoon, 36 and 37 Brigades moved forward to the line Montauban-Bazentin le Grand, on the old 1916 Somme battlefield. But events were moving fast as the enemy’s offensive pressed forward. 35 Brigade after much marching took up a position covering Albert. 37 Brigade, in the area of Ovillers, covered the withdrawal of 47th (London) Division and then itself withdrew to Aveluy and by 4.30am on 26 March 36 Brigade had also taken up a position west of the Ancre. There were no prepared trenches or wire defences and natural lines, such as the railway embankment north of Albert, were taken up to await the expected German attack. There was no touch with other Divisions to the right but contact was made with 2nd Division on the left.
The positions held by 12th (Eastern) Division on 26 March 1918
The First Battle of Arras 1918+
Soon after midday on 26 March, Germans were seen advancing down the slopes into the Ancre valley. They were also seen in large numbers to the south of Albert moving on Meaulte and Dernancourt and by 7pm Albert itself was full of them. The 7/Suffolks had to withdraw through the ruined town to west of the railway line. On the northern side too, it seemed that the Division was in great danger of being outflanked, for enemy had got to Grandcourt and Beaumont Hamel. All units came under increasing pressure as the enemy pressed on. Many enemy attacks were repelled with heavy casualties, although the Division suffered 1634 casualties in halting their advance.
The Division was finally relieved by 47th (London) Division on 29 March and moved to Warloy. After a short rest, the Division came back to the front line on 2 April. Further enemy efforts on 5 and 6 April were beaten off, yet by the time relief came from 38th (Welsh) Division and the 12th Division had withdrawn to Toutencourt, another 1285 men were lost. April to July were spent in the area of Auchonvillers and Mailly-Maillet, where new drafts arrived to replace the losses.
The battles marked + are phases of the The First Battles of the Somme 1918. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was to say in his “British Campaign in France and Flanders, January to July 1918” of the Division’s role in March and April that they “withdrew from the line in glory, for it is no exaggeration to say that they had fought the Germans to an absolute standstill”. He was right. The enemy offensive in Picardy had finally been defeated.
On 1 July 1918, two years to the day that the British offensive had opened on the Somme, the Division carried
out an attack at Bouzincourt. After initial success, counter attack drove the attacking units back at a cost of 680 casualties. The Division was relieved on 10 July and came under orders of XXII Corps. It was moved to the area south of Amiens.
The Battle of Amiens
The Divisional artillery supported the successful attack of the French 66th Division near Moreuil on 23 July 1918. It remained in action near Gentelles in covering the 2nd Australian Division, and between 8 and 25 August played a part in the highly successful attack by Fourth Army, the Battle of Amiens. Meanwhile the infantry of the Division continued to rebuild and train. On 30 July, the Division moved to III Corps and the area of Vignacourt, Canaples and Pernois.
The Battle of Albert, a phase of the Second Battles of the Somme 1918
Under the command of III Corps and on the left flank of this Corps front along the River Ancre, the Division generally played only a holding role on 8 August 1918 when Fourth Army made its great attack. However, German withdrawal from the Ancre and from Dernancourt being observed before the attack took place, 35 Brigade – on the Division’s right – became involved. The 7/Norfolk and 9/Essex advanced to their objectives, consolidating a new line from the west of Morlancourt to the Ancre, but the Cambridgeshires on the right were held up by heavy fire from the Sailly Laurette road. The battalion renewed its attack later in the day, assisted by a tank, and achieved its objectives, capturing 316 enemy, 14 machine guns and 10 mortars. 37 Brigade took up this attack later on 9 August and succeeded in further captures. By the evening of 10 August the old Amiens defence line had been recaptured: in all the Division had by now advanced almost two miles.
After a brief rest, the Division attacked again on 22 August, pushing right across the wilderness of the old Somme battlefield, capturing Meaulte, Mametz, Carnoy, Hardecourt and Faviere Wood, which was reached after a week’s continuous fighting. The Division had made an advance of another 15000 yards. It was relieved on 30 August by 47th (London) Division and moved back to the Carnoy-Briqueterie area.
On 4-5 September 1918 the Division relieved 18th (Eastern) Division east of the Canal du Nord and just south of Manancourt, for an attack on Nurlu. Formidable wire defences and German counter attacks were overcome, Nurlu was taken. The German army retreated in haste for several miles, pursued by the Division which reached the line Sorel Wood – Lieramont cemetery. The advance was continued early on 8 September, capturing Guyencourt although in spite of heavy casualties. The movement halted 1000 yards west of Epehy and Pezieres, where the Division was relieved. It was now some 17 miles ahead of where the offensive had opened on 8 August. More than 1000 prisoners had been taken, as well as 17 artillery pieces and dozens of smaller weapons.
The battles of the Hindenburg Line
The Battle of Epehy^
After a rest in the area of Manancourt, the Division was ordered to renew the attack on Epehy. This took place on 18 September. Enemy strongholds at Malassise Farm and Fishers Keep held on stubbornly and caused heavy casualties but gradually resistance was overcome. Over the next few days further attacks were made against heavily defended posts and trenches; fighting was intense and progress slow.
The Battle of the St Quentin canal^
On 27 September 1918, the British Third and Fourth Armies made a heavy attack on the Hindenburg Line. The role of 12th Division, still involved in pushing through and past the Epehy defences, was to secure the vantage points up to the St Quentin Canal and to protect the left flank of the 27th Division of the United States Army which was attacking under orders of Fourth Army. Localised actions took place at first before the main attack on 29 September, in which the Division fought up through the formidable mass of enemy trenches in front of Ossus Wood before reaching the western outskirts of Vendhuile. This successful action gave the US Division, 46th (North) Midland and Australian Divisions to the right the chance to break through the Hindenburg Line on this most important day in the the final offensive. The Division was now 26 miles from where the offensive had begun on 8 August and for that ground had lost 6229 officers and men. The Division was withdrawn for rest in the areas of Savy, Acq and Aubigny and left III Corps at this point.
The battles marked ^ are phases of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line
The Final Advance in Artois
On the night 6-7 October 1918, the Division relieved 20th (Light) Division in Third Army, taking over the front sector between Oppy and Eleu dit Leauvette. It became apparent that the enemy was in the process of withdrawing from this area, leaving only stubborn outposts. Patrols pushed out and a general advance began through Drocourt, Mericourt and Billy-Montigny (east of Lens), in which the strong Drocourt-Queant Line was occupied by the Division. The advance had now assumed the characteristics of open warfare: the trenches were of the past and this battle became one of pursuit, communications and logistics. The advance pushed on through Courcelles, Henin-Lietard, past the Canal de la Haute Deule. By 23 October, the Division was crossing the River Scarpe at St Amand and four days later were at the Scheldt Canal. The Division was withdrawn for rest on 30 October and as events turned out, had finished its war.
Once the enemy had signed the Armistice, the Division – not selected to advance into Germany – moved to the area east of Douai. Main activities were battlefield salvage and sports, as demobilisation began. On 22 March 1919, the Division ceased to exist.
The order of battle of the 12th (Eastern) Division
|7th Bn, the Norfolk Regt|
|7th Bn, the Suffolk Regt||left May 1918|
|9th Bn, the Essex Regt|
|5th Bn, the Royal Berkshire Regt||left February 1918|
|35th Machine Gun Company||formed 1 February 1916
left to move into 12th MG Battalion 1 March 1918
|35th Trench Mortar Battery||formed by 25 June 1916|
|1/1st Bn, the Cambridgeshire Regt||joined May 1918|
|8th Bn, the Royal Fusiliers||disbanded February 1918|
|9th Bn, the Royal Fusiliers|
|7th Bn, the Royal Sussex Regt|
|11th Bn, the Middlesex Regt||disbanded February 1918|
|36th Machine Gun Company||formed 1 February 1916
left to move into 12th MG Battalion 1 March 1918
|36th Trench Mortar Battery||formed 15 June 1916|
|5th Bn, the Royal Berkshire Regt||joined February 1918|
|6th Bn, the Queen’s|
|6th Bn, the Buffs|
|7th Bn, the East Surrey Regt||disbanded February 1918|
|6th Bn, the Royal West Kent Regt|
|37th Machine Gun Company||formed 4 February 1916
left to move into 12th MG Battalion 1 March 1918
|37th Trench Mortar Battery||formed by 15 June 1916|
|5th Bn, the Northamptonshire Regt|
|9 Motor Machine Gun Battery||joined early 1915, left 20 June 1915|
|235th Machine Gun Company||joined 16 July 1917
left to move into 12th MG Battalion 1 March 1918
|12th Battalion Machine Gun Corps||formed 1 March 1918|
|Divisional Mounted Troops|
|A Sqn, the King Edward’s Horse||ljoined April 1915, left June 1916|
|12th Divisional Cyclist Company, Army Cyclist Corps||left 15 June 1916|
|LXII Brigade, RFA|
|LXIII Brigade, RFA|
|LXIV Brigade, RFA||left 6 January 1917|
|LXV (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA||broken up 30 August 1916|
|12th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA|
|12th Heavy Battery, RGA||left 8 June 1915|
|V.12 Heavy Trench Mortar Battery RFA||joined 31 July 1916, disbanded 12 February 1918|
|X.12, Y.12 and Z.12 Medium Mortar Batteries RFA||formed 1 July 1916; on 16 February 1918, Z broken up and batteries reorganised to have 6 x 6-inch weapons each|
|69th Field Company|
|70th Field Company|
|87th Field Company||joined January 1915|
|12th Divisional Signals Company|
|Royal Army Medical Corps|
|36th Field Ambulance|
|37th Field Ambulance|
|38th Field Ambulance|
|23rd Sanitary Section||left 1 April 1917|
|Other Divisional Troops|
|12th Divisional Train ASC||116, 117, 118 and 119 Companies|
|23rd Mobile Veterinary Section AVC|
|214th Divisional Employment Company||joined 16 June 1917|
|12th Divisional Motor Ambulance Workshop||joined 7 June 1915, absorbed into Divisional Train 16 April 1916|
“The history of the 12th (Eastern) Division in the Great War” by Major Sir Arthur B. Scott and P. Middleton Brumwell
Memorials to the Division, identical in nature, stand at Feuchy (east of Arras) and Epehy (north of Saint-Quentin).
This page is dedicated to the memory of George Coppard, young 12th Division machine-gunner and later author of “With a Machine Gun to Cambrai”. His book really kick-started my interest in understanding the war beyond the experience of my own family. His simple but powerful remembrance inspired me to find out more. “Today’s my daughter’s wedding day…hooray, hooray!”