British Entrenching Battalions of 1918

In early 1918 a manpower crisis caused an unwelcome reorganisation of the British infantry in France and Flanders. One of its effects was the creation of 25 Entrenching Battalions. Certain such battalions had existed earlier in the war too, but are a separate matter and dealt with elsewhere on this site.

Many of the old hands, many of whom had come out with the battalion, were broken hearted. [War diary, 7th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, National Archives WO95/2081, at the time of disbandment]

Regulations

The Adjutant-General at British General Headquarters issued the following instruction to the Armies in France and Flanders on 10 February 1918. A copy of this instruction is held at the National Archives within piece WO95/5494.

Under instructions which are being issued by GHQ 3rd Echelon, the surplus personnel of disbanded battalions not immediately required for reinforcements is being formed into Entrenching Battalions. These Entrenching Battalions will be at the disposal of Army Commanders subject to the following provisos:

  1. Shall be kept under Army or Corps control and not be placed at the disposal of Divisional Commanders;
  2. Shall invariably be employed as complete units under their own officers and shall not be split up and attached to fighting units under any circumstances;
  3. Shall be used for work on defences only;
  4. Shall not be employed in front of the “Rearward Zone”;
  5. Shall be held intact at the disposal of GHQ, 3rd Echelon, for drafting purposes, who alone has authority to dispose of the personnel, and shall be broken up as and when the Deputy Adjutant-General, 3rd Echelon, considers the situation requires it.

When formed they will be allotted to Armies by GHQ.

All regimental transport as required will be provided under Army arrangements from (a) surplus Battalion Transport now with Divisions; (b) Reserve Parks; (c) Army Auxiliary Horse Transport Companies which are now at the disposal of Armies; but when Entrenching Battalions are moved from one Army to another under the orders of GHQ such transport will not be moved fro one Army area to another.

Entrenching Battalion Headquarters in Bus les Artois. May 1918. Imperial War Museum image Q19546

Entrenching Battalion Headquarters in Bus-les-Artois. May 1918. Imperial War Museum image Q19546

Organisation

Further instructions were issued – for example, by First Army’s Adjutant on 17 February 1918.

The staff of an Entrenching Battalion would be comprised of the Commanding Officer; an Acting Adjutant and Quartermaster; an Acting Regimental Sergeant Major; an Acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant; a Sergeant or Corporal as Orderly Room Clerk; two additional Orderly Room Clerks; two Quartermaster’s Storemen and three Batmen and Grooms.

The battalion would be organised into four companies with a total of 20 officers and 1000 other ranks (in addition to permanent staff and transport) although there was no objection to these numbers being exceeded.

In each army an Army Group of Entrenching Battalions would be formed. This would have a permanent staff of an Officer Commanding;  an Acting Adjutant; a Sergeant or Corporal as Orderly Room Clerk; two additional Orderly Room Clerks and three Batmen and Grooms.

The First Army Group of Entrenching Battalions was to be headquartered at 41 Rue de la République, Bruay.

The Third Army Group of Entrenching Battalions was headquartered in Albert.

No similar information exists in the diaries of the other Armies.

Insignia and recognition

No special badges or other insignia were issued to men who were transferred into the Entrenching Battalions. They would retain their original regimental and battalion identity until posted to other units.

Men who lost their lives while serving with Entrenching Battalions do not have this information included in the details recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which recognises them by their original regimental and battalion identity.

Battalion histories

The details below are extracted from the same Adjutant-General’s instructions but I have also added information from battalion war diaries if they exist. In most cases these are fragmentary and do not cover their whole service. This list is incomplete and is work in progress. Most of the war diaries of the disbanded battalions do not exist beyond the  end of January 1918.

1st Entrenching Battalion

Formed at Menegate Camp near Steenwerck in First Army’s area and placed under XV Corps. The surplus of 16th (Service) Battalion of the Welsh Regiment arrived on 23 February 1918 and formed the basis for the new battalion as “A” and “B” Companies. Men of 15th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers joined the battalion on 26 February 1918 and become “D” Company; 10th Service) Battalion of the Welsh Regiment arrived on the same date and became “C” Company. The 1st Entrenching Battalion was organised by First Army Group of Entrenching Battalions.

2nd Entrenching Battalion

Formed at Doulieu in First Army’s area and placed under XV Corps. 25 officers and 182 other ranks from 2/5th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment formed “C” Company on 25 February 1918.  Other units said to have sent their surplus to this unit were: 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Wales Borderers; the 2/5th Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment); the 7th (Service) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment; the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers; and the 11th (Service) Battalion  of the Middlesex Regiment. The 2nd Entrenching Battalion was organised by First Army Group of Entrenching Battalions.

3rd Entrenching Battalion

Formed in First Army’s area and placed under I Corps. Formed from the surplus of 18 different units: 1/3rd, 1/9th and 1/12th London Regiment; 1/5th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment*; 1/4th East Lancashire Regiment**; 1/9th Manchester Regiment; 6th (Service) Battalion of the Border Regiment; 16th and 18th (Service) Battalions and 2/6th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment; 8th (Service) Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment); 9th (Service) Battalion and 1/6th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers; 1/8th and 1/9th Battalions of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment); 1/4th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment; 1/5th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment and 1/7th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment). The 3rd Entrenching Battalion was organised by First Army Group of Entrenching Battalions.

*This is as stated in WO95/5494. I suspect that it should read 2/5th Battalion.
** This is as stated in WO95/5494. I suspect that it should read 2/4th Battalion.

4th Entrenching Battalion

Formed at Pernes in First Army’s area and placed under XIII Corps. The core of the battalion was formed from 30 officers and 462 other ranks from 14th (Service) Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment, which formed “A and “B Companies on 17 February 1918. The rest came from the from surplus of 2/6th Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment); 2/5th and 12th (Service) Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment; and the 12th and 13th (Service) Battalions of the East Yorkshire Regiment. The 4th Entrenching Battalion was organised by First Army Group of Entrenching Battalions.

5th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of six Service Battalions: 8th South Lancashire Regiment; 8th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment; 8th Bedfordshire Regiment; 9th Suffolk Regiment; 13th Cheshire Regiment and 14th Durham Light Infantry. The Loyal North Lancashire and Suffolk both reported joining the battalion at Courcelles-le-Comte on 16 February 1918. Battalion was in IV Corps area.

A 5th Entrenching Battalion was also formed in Salonika. It was disbanded on 1 June 1918.

6th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of seven Service and three Territorial Force Battalions: 7th South Lancashire Regiment; 7th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment;  7th East Lancashire Regiment; 7th King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment); 13th Essex Regiment; 17th Middlesex Regiment; 22nd Royal Fusiliers; and 1/6th, 1/7th and 1/8th London Regiment. The South Lancashire formed the core of the battalion, transferring 23 officers and 640 men on 22 February 1918. The King’s Own report that just two officers and 28 other ranks joined the battalion on the same date. The battalion was in Third Army’s area.

7th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 3/4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment; three officers and 48 other ranks); the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment (possibly just one officer); the 8th (Service) Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment; and the Howe and Nelson Battalions of the Royal Naval Division. Nelson formed the core of the battalion, transferring 8 officers and 493 other ranks at Barastre in Third Army area on 22 February 1918. The South Staffords reported joining on 23 February 1918; Howe reported that their surplus joined five days later.

8th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from the surplus of 10th and 19th (Service) Battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 24/27th Northumberland Fusiliers at Bailleulval on 15 February 1918. By 1 March had moved to Durham Lines Camp for fatigue work on Corps Defence Line. Moved to Authie 22 March 1918 but did not arrive until midnight owing to enemy bombing train from the air. Began training. Entrained at Mondicourt on 30 March 1918 and moved to Vignacourt. Diary ends 31 March 1918.

9th Entrenching Battalion

Formed at Bailleulmont on 16 February 1918 under Lt-Col A. G. McDonald DSO. Had an original strength of 4 officers and 1342 other ranks. Men came from the 11th King’s Own, 26th Northumberland Fusiliers, 12th South Wales Borderers; 2/5th South Staffordshire, 17th Welsh and 2/8th Sherwood Foresters. On 22 February marched to Arras and next day began work on defences at Tilloy. Moved by train to Fremicourt on 10 March, for work on defences on the Fremicourt-Beugny road.

When the German attack began east of this area on 21 March 1918 the battalion was out at work as usual, despite enemy shellfire “bursting all around the camp”. Some casualties were incurred. At 5.30pm the battalion moved to the main Bapaume road and awaited orders; at 6.15pm it was ordered to entrain to join VI Corps Reinforcements but no train was available and the men were billeted in cellars. Next day the battalion marched to Rocquigny to entrain for Puchevillers. The train left at 4pm, going via Albert and Achiet-le-Grand. A German aeroplane bombed the train at Achiet. Arriving at Puchevillers at 3.30am on 23 March, the men then moved to Pommera where they arrived at 8.30am. A draft of the 26th Northumberland Fusiliers left to reinforce their regiment’s 23rd Battalion, but it was soon recalled. A Divine Service was held at Mondicourt on 24 March, with music from the band of the 40th Division. There were no casualties from an air raid that night. By 26 March there were rumours that the enemy had now reached Souastre. Orders were received to fill a gap near Couin but on reaching Authie this was cancelled and the battalion returned to Pommera. On 29 March the battalion commenced work loading ammunition at Mondicourt. Next day the battalion entrained at Bertaucourt-les-Dames and arrived early next morning at Vignacourt. Many drafts now departed for other battalions. The much reduced battalion marched to Bruchamps on 7 April and two days later went to Gorenflos. The diary ends on 27 April with the battalion still at Gorenflos.

10th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 8th (Service) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment (which formed nos. 3 and 4 Companies) and the 12th (Service) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment (1 and 2 Companies) at Berles-au-Bois on 16 February 1918.

11th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 3/10th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment (which formed the core of the battalion at Agnez-les-Duisans on 20 February 1918) and the Household Battalion. Under command of XVII Corps in Third Army area. The battalion relocated to Arras on 21 February.

An 11th Entrenching Battalion was also formed in Salonika. On 21 January 1918, at that time under command of 16 Corps, it was merged into 5th Entrenching Battalion 

12th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of four Service Battalions: 14th Gloucestershire Regiment; 16th Cheshire Regiment; 20th Lancashire Fusiliers and 23rd Manchester Regiment. Appears to have been formed at II Corps Reinforcement Camp at Merckeghem.

13th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of three Service Battalions: 10th Gloucestershire Regiment; 16th Northumberland Fusiliers; and 17th Highland Light Infantry (about 30 men under RSM Burns). The Gloucesters appear to have formed the core of the battalion on 19 February 1918 at II Corps Reinforcement Camp at Merckeghem. By 22 March 1918 was in III Corps area at Cugny.

14th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 6th (Service) Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry; the 10th (Service) Battalions of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Rifle Brigade; the 7th (Service) Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 1/5th Battalion of that regiment; the 1/8th West Yorkshire Regiment and the 1/5th Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment). By 23 March 1918 was in III Corps area at Bethancourt.

15th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 8th (Service) Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment; 10th (Service) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment; 10th (Service) Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment; 11th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment; 3/5th Lancashire Fusiliers; 2/8th and 2/10th Manchester Regiment. Diaries confirm that the battalion formed at Wippenhoek on 21-22 February 1918  but was under orders for imminent move to Fifth Army area.

16th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of the 5th (Service) Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry; 6th (Service) Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry; 6th (Service) Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; 10th (Service) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry; and the 2/1st, 2/5th, 2/7th and 2/11th Battalions of the London Regiment.

17th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of six Service Battalions: 12th Royal Sussex Regiment; 14th Hampshire Regiment; 17th Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment); 18th and 19th Manchester Regiment and 20th Liverpool Regiment. By 22 March 1918 was in VII Corps area at Tincourt Wood.

18th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from surplus of four Service Battalions: 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment; 8th Norfolk Regiment; 8th Suffolk Regiment and 12th Middlesex Regiment.

19th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from 450 men of 10th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 200 of the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Leinster Regiment plus other details not required by 16th (Irish) Division, at Barleux on 18 February 1918. It was commended by Lt Col J. D. Mather of the 7th Leinsters. By 3 March it had moved to Buire but by three days later was at St Christ, working on railway construction under the Canadian Railway Engineers. The battalion was heavily involved in the fighting against the German spring offensive:

Late on 21 March moved by bus to Vraignes. By 1am on 22 March it was at Vermand: here, half was detailed to dig a line that had already been wired and the other half took up a defensive position in front of the village. During the afternoon the battalion beat off an enemy attack with rifle fire, but with no British troops in sight on either side were soon in danger of being surrounded and withdrew to Monchy Lagache. at 5am on 23 March the battalion was ordered to withdraw to devise, where in the afternoon enemy troops, moving up by lorry, once again attacked and enveloped the battalion on both sides. Another withdrawal was made, to St Christ. By the day’s end it was at Pressoire. Next day it moved through Chaulnes to Hallu. Six men wounded at night in an enemy air raid on Hallu. Next day battalion was in brigade reserve near Curchy before falling back on digging a line between Fonches and Hattencourt (battalion believed they were the right-most unit of the whole British army at this point). On 26 March a heavy enemy attack caused severe casualties to the battalion, which withdrew to Fouquescourt and thence to Warvillers. At 9am next day the 19th Battalion attacked and recaptured Rouvroy-en-Santerre but then came under attack and again suffered severely. On 28 March a short withdrawal was made to the south east of Warvillers. Coming under sustained attack the battalion soon found that units on either side had gone, and a rearguard action was fought until a small wood north west of Beaufort was reached. Later in the day a further withdrawal was made through Quesnel to Mezieres. The battalion was finally completely withdrawn for rest at Thezy and thence to Boves.

On 3 April 1918 orders were received that the battalion was to be disbanded and the men posted to units of 24th Division. Protests led to a change of orders and eventual absorption into 16th (Irish) Division at Saleux. All with the exception of battalion HQ staff were posted to the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, which itself was soon absorbed into 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers.

20th Entrenching Battalion

Formed on 20 February 1918 at Sorel-le-Grand. Officers and men arrived from the 3/4th Queen’s, 8th and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 9th Leicestershire Regiment, 10th Yorkshire Regiment, 10th KOYLI, 14th Hampshire Regiment and 3rd South African Infantry. Moved by train to Doingt. Worked with B Company, 7th Canadian Railway Troops at Quinconce (note: the war diary repeatedly used this place name but I have not been able to determine exactly where it was other than it appearing to be NW of Peronne). Was involved in the fighting against the German spring offensive:

On 23 March the battalion was ordered to move to the west bank of the Somme, south west of Peronne. Next day it moved off in the direction of Harbonnieres, with the Somme bridges being blown as they moved. Was engaged in a defensive action next day near Harbonnieres (no details remain). On 26 March was ordered to be absorbed into 16th (Irish) Division and moved via Bray to Etinehem. Next day, having taken up a position “on a bluff just outside … Morcourt” the battalion mounted a counter attack (again, no details remain).

21st Entrenching Battalion

Formed from men of the 8/9th and 10th (Service) Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

22nd Entrenching Battalion

Formed in early February 1918. Officers and men arrived from the 11/13th Royal Irish Rifles, making an “extremely strong and well equipped unit”, according to one of its officers. Another officer reports that the battalion never actually used the title 22nd Entrenching Battalion. The battalion was at first positioned at Essigny and Grugies, both in the area of the 36th (Ulster) Division south of Saint Quentin but moved to Douchy on 11 February. There it worked on cable trenches. The battalion then moved on 17 February to Misery, an aptly named village between Chaulnes and Peronne. Working parties were sent to Marchelepot, Brie and Villers-Carbonell, where the battalion was put to work under Canadian Railway Engineers. Unfortunately during this period the battalion had its Lewis guns taken away. It was involved in the fighting against the German spring offensive, being ordered early on 24 March to move to Guillancourt and dig a defensive line from Rainecourt to Rosieres. The left hand company then took part in a counter attack at Framerville. The battalion CO, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Blair-Oliphant died of wounds on 8 April, a result of injuries he sustained in this action. In the withdrawal that followed, the battalion ended up near Hangard with its right flank next to a French unit.

23rd Entrenching Battalion

Formed at Cugny on 21 February 1918 from the 14th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles and the arrival of about 200 other ranks from the 11th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. War diaries of the two merging battalions disagree on how many officers joined from the latter: one says 9, another 30. Two companies were soon sent for railway construction work near Ham.

24th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from men of 2/5th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (joined at Languevoisin on 20 February 1918); 2/4th and 2/6th Battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment; and the 2/7th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment.

25th Entrenching Battalion

Formed on 22 February 1918 from 42 officers and 637 men transferred from the men of and 2/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and about 250 coming from the 2/8th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Billeted at Curchy, Etalon and Herly, all west of Nesle. Employed on light railway construction. A draft of about 200 men was soon transferred to the Royal Berkshire Regiment. The battalion was absorbed into the 2/4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on 7 April 1918.

Links

Entrenching Battalions before 1918

British infantry regiments

Other aspects of the British Order of Battle