The history of 55th (West Lancashire) Division
The West Lancashire Division was a formation of the Territorial Force. It was formed as a result of the reforms of the army carried out in 1908 under the Secretary of State for War, Richard Burdon Haldane and was one of 14 Divisions of the peacetime TF. In August 1909, the West Lancashire became the first TF Division to take the field when it assembled for annual camp at Caerwys in North Wales.
The units of the Division had just departed for annual summer camp when emergency orders recalled them to the home base. All units were mobilised for full time war service on 5 August 1914. All of the infantry units left the Division during the period November 1914 – March 1915, most being sent independently to France as reinforcements for the BEF. The remainder of the Division temporarily joined with its second line, the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division.
The Divisional artillery moved to France in October 1915 and joined 2nd Canadian Division.
In November the War Office authorised the re-formation of the West Lancashire Division, now to be known as the 55th, in France.
The Division began to concentrate in the Hallencourt area on 3 January and was completed by 27 January. The Division relieved the French 88th Division south of Arras – in the area Wailly – Bretencourt – by 16 February. Trench warfare commenced, with many raids and minor operations. On 17 April 1916, a large scale raid was undertaken by the 1/8th (Irish) Bn, the King’s (Liverpool), in which 2/Lt E. F. Baxter became the Division’s first winner of the Victoria Cross. In this relatively “quiet” period before the Division moved into the Battle of the Somme, it nonetheless suffered casualties of 63 officers and 1047 men killed, wounded or missing. Relieved by 11th (Northern) Division on 25 July 1916, the 55th now moved south and took up a place in the front line opposite the village of Guillemont. It then remained in France and Flanders and took part in the following engagements:
The Battle of Guillemont (4-6 September)*
The Battle of Ginchy (9 September)*
There was a short period of rest at Ribemont from 12 to 17 September
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette (17-22 September)*
The Battle of Morval (25-28 September)*
* the battles marked * are phases of the Battles of the Somme 1916
Scene of the 55th Division’s first real test: the attacks on Guillemont. The village itself is off to the right of this image. Behind the camera is the Montauban-Guillemont road. On the left is Trones Wood, in the distance is Longueval and Delville Wood. Waterlot Farm is on the right edge of the shot. Hard to imagine but these fields were once a charnel house, choked with the dead of 55th (West Lancashire) and the other Divisions that found the German defences in front of Guillemont a very tough nut to crack.
Relieved by 41st Division on 28 September, the Division withdrew to the area of Buire and Ribemont. Here, orders were received to move to Flanders. 55th relieved 29th Division in the Ypres salient in October 1916. It was destined to remain in this area for almost a year. The first section of line that was occupied by the Division was Wieltje to Railway Wood.
The first half of the year was spent in the salient, which had a comparatively quiet time, if being surrounded by enemy on three sides and under constant artillery fire could be described as quiet.
The Battle of Pilkem Ridge (31 July – 2 August)**
Between 30 July and 4 August, in the Division’s attack in the area of Spree, Pond and Schuler Farms, no fewer than 168 officers and 3384 men were killed, wounded or missing. The Division was withdrawn to Recques for re-fit and training on 7 August. It returned to pretty well the exact position it had left on 15 September, under orders for the next phase of the offensive.
The Battle of Menin Road Ridge (20 – 23 September)**
Casualties in this action were 127 officers and 2603 men, incurred in the heavy but successful fight for Gallipoli, Schuler Farm and the Hanebeek. Relieved by 39th Division, the 55th moved out of the line from 22/3 September and proceeded to a very different area, south of Cambrai. The position taken up was between Honnecourt wood and Lempire-Ronssoy.
** the battles marked ** are phases of the Third Battles of the Ypres
The tank attack^
The German counter attacks^
The Division faced the enemy counter attack on 30 November 1917; its effect was later examined by a Court of Enquiry, the front line defence apparently crumbling and allowing the enemy to have a “rapid and almost bewildering” advance. The Divisional history remarks that “only two of our men passed through the straggler posts”; this may be so. But hundreds of troops had fallen into enemy captivity. “Not a man returned” from the 1/5th Bn, the South Lancashire. The Division’s reputation fell sharply in the eyes of the higher command. It was withdrawn from the area and sent to Bomy near Fruges for intensive training.
^ the battles marked ^ are phases of the Cambrai Operations
The Division relieved 42nd (East Lancashire) Division in the front line at Givenchy and Festubert on 15 February. Here, it faced numerous strong enemy raids in March. Early April was at first much quieter: it was a lull before a storm.
The Battle of Estaires (9-11 April) including the Defence of Givenchy (9-17 April)#
The Battle of Hazebrouck (12-15 April)#
# the battles marked # are phases of the Battles of the Lys
The capture of Givenchy craters (24 August)
The capture of Canteleux trench (17 September)
The Defence of Givenchy was to become the single most famous action that the Division fought. “It was afterwards publicly stated by an officer of the German General Staff that the stand made by the Division on April 9th and the days which followed marked the final ruination of the supreme German effort of 1918”, says the Divisional history. Givenchy was eventually selected as the location of a fine memorial to the Division (see below).
For full details of this action, you are advised to read my own book “The battle for Flanders: German defeat on the Lys, 1918” and Phil Tomaselli’s battlefield guide “Battleground Europe: Givenchy and the River Lawe“.
The pursuit to Mons, a phase of the Final Advance in Artois (2 October – 11 November) in which the Division occupied La Bassee (2 October), crossed the Haute Deule Canal (14-16 October) and captured Ath 911 November). The Division had advanced 50 miles in 80 days. The most forward units were on the line Bassilly-Thoricourt.
On 15 November 1918 the Division received orders to join the British force that would advance across Belgium and move into Germany to occupy the Rhine bridgeheads. These orders were cancelled on 21 November, at which time the Division was employed on road and railway repair work in the area of Leuze.
King George V visited the Division on 7 December. On 15 December the Division began to move to the Brussels area. King Albert of the Belgians reviewed the Division, which had begun to demobilise, on 3 January 1919.
The service of the Division came to an end iby April 1919 when the final cadres left for England. The Division reformed as part of the Territorial Army in April 1920.
The order of battle of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division
|164th (North Lancashire) Brigade||This Brigade joined the Highland Division on 18 April 1915, being redesignated 154th Brigade. It returned to this Division in January 1916.|
|1/4th Bn, the King’s Own|
|1/5th Bn, the King’s Own||left 15 February 1915|
|1/4th Bn, the Loyal North Lancashire Regt|
|1/5th Bn, the Loyal North Lancashire Regt||left 13 February 1915|
|2/5th Bn, the Lancashire Fusiliers||joined February 1915|
|1/8th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||joined January 1916, left January 1918|
|164th Machine Gun Company||formed 19 February 1916, moved to 55th Bn MGC 7 Mar 1918|
|164th Trench Mortar Battery||joined March 1916|
|165th (Liverpool) Brigade|
|1/5th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left 22 February 1915, rejoined January 1916|
|1/6th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left 25 February 1915, rejoined January 1916|
|1/7th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left 8 March 1915, rejoined January 1916|
|1/8th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left February 1915|
|1/9th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||joined January 1916, left February 1918|
|165th Machine Gun Company||formed 26 February 1916, moved to 55th Bn MGC 7 Mar 1918|
|165th Trench Mortar Battery||joined March 1916|
|166th (South Lancashire) Brigade|
|1/9th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left March 1915|
|1/10th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||left November 1914, rejoined January 1916|
|1/4th Bn, the South Lancashire Regiment||left 13 February 1915|
|1/5th Bn, the South Lancashire Regiment||left 13 February 1915, rejoined January 1916|
|2/5th Bn, the King’s Own||joined February 1915, left April 1915|
|1/5th Bn, the King’s Own||joined 7 January 1916|
|1/5th Bn, the Loyal North Lancashire Rgt||joined January 1916|
|166th Machine Gun Company||joined 1 March 1916, moved to 55th Bn MGC 7 Mar 1918|
|166th Trench Mortar Battery||joined March 1916|
|2/10th Bn, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment)||joined April 1918 but absorbed into 1/10th in same month|
|1/4th Bn, the South Lancashire Regiment||joined as Divisional Pioneer Bn January 1916|
|196th Machine Gun Company||joined 22 December 1916, moved to 55th Bn MGC 17 Mar 1918|
|55th Battalion MGC||formed 7 March 1918|
|Divisional Mounted Troops|
|1/1st Lancashire Hussars||left 29 October 1915|
|A Sqn, the North Irish Horse||joined January 1916, left May 1916|
|West Lancashire Divisional Cyclist Company||joined 16 January 1916, left 11 May 1916|
|Divisional Artillery||rejoined from 2nd Canadian Division in January 1916|
|CCLXXV (I West Lancs) Brigade, RFA|
|CCLXXVI (II West Lancs) Brigade, RFA|
|CCLXXVII (III West Lancs) Brigade, RFA||left January 1917|
|CCLXXVIII (IV West Lancs) (How) Bde, RFA||broken up October 1916|
|1st Lancashire) Heavy Battery, RGA||a battery of four 4.7-inch guns which left the Division to join 57th Division in early 1915|
|55th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA|
|V.55 Heavy Trench Mortar Battery, RFA||formed 25 May 1916, left 29 January 1918|
|X.55, Y.55 and Z.55 Medium Mortar Batteries, RFA||formed by 3 June 1916, on 29 January 1918 Z broken up and batteries reorganised to have six 6-inch weapons each|
|419th (1st West Lancs) Field Company|
|2nd West Lancs Field Company||left June 1915|
|422nd (2/1st West Lancs) Field Company||joined January 1916|
|423rd (2/2nd West Lancs) Field Company||joined January 1916|
|55th (The St. Helens) Divisional Signal Company|
|Royal Army Medical Corps|
|1st West Lancs Field Ambulance||left January 1915|
|2nd West Lancs Field Ambulance||left October 1915|
|3rd West Lancs Field Ambulance||rejoined 16 January 1916|
|2/1st West Lancs Field Ambulance||joined 17 January 1916|
|2/1st Wessex Field Ambulance||joined 16 January 1916|
|55th Sanitary Section||joined 16 January 1916, left for VIII Corps 12 April 1917|
|Other Divisional Troops|
|55th Divisional Train ASC||The original Divisional Train, formed in September 1915 and composed of 505, 506, 507 and 508 Companies ASC, remained at home when the units of the Division moved to France. It was transferred to the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division. A complete Train, composed of 95, 96, 97 and 98 Coys joined from 27th Division 1 January 1916|
|1st West Lancs Mobile Veterinary Section AVC||joined 5 January 1916|
|55th Divisional Ambulance Workshop||joined 6 January 1916, absorbed into Divisional Supply Column 3 April 1916|
|246th Divisional Employment Company||joined 16 June 1917|
The memorial to the West Lancashire Division, appropriately located at Givenchy, scene of the Division’s actions in 1918. Thanks to Ian Riley for this photograph.
Divisional histories and related books
“The story of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division” by the Rev. J. O. Coop gives good, concise coverage of the Division’s history.
The principal divisional memorial is situated in the village of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée (see above).
The village hall is also a memorial to the Division.
The Salle des Fetes in nearby Festubert is dedicated to the men of Southport.
There is a memorial within the Anglican Cathedral of St James in Liverpool.