British Entrenching Battalions of 1918

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the history of the Entrenching Battalions that were formed in early 1918. Certain such battaltions had existed earlier in the war too. The details below are extracted from the battalion war diaries but in most cases these are fragmentary and do not cover their whole service. This is a work in progress. I shall add other battalions as I get around to examining their war diaries.

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

8th Entrenching Battalion

Formed from men of 10th and 19th (Service) Battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers 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.

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 Bruire 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).

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.