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The 8th and 9th (Service) Battalions The Devonshire Regiment in World War One

 

The 8th Devons were the first service battalion formed by the Regiment in the First World War.  Raised in August 1914 from a nucleus of officers and NCOs from the 1st Battalion, they quickly spawned a second battalion – the 9th – who became their twin and with whom they would serve very closely until 1918.  Their recruits came from all over the country and their junior officers were initially recruited from the universities, the public schools and from the Artists’ Rifles.

In early August 1915 the 8th and then the 9th joined 20 Brigade in the 7th Division in France. After the briefest experience in the line, both Battalions were hurled into the Battle of Loos on 25th September.  Despite German shelling and British gas blowing back on them during the attack, the 8th pressed on leading the attack and captured the German position.  The 9th followed in support and lost a great many men to machine gun fire as they crossed No Man’s Land to join the 8th in their stretch of German trench.  The survivors of the two Battalions held the position until the evening of 26th September, when they were withdrawn.  In this single battle the 8th suffered 639 casualties and the 9th 476.

After a spell near Givenchy both Battalions moved to the Somme area.  The Somme remained a relatively quiet sector until the offensive began on 1st July 1916.  On that morning the 9th led the attack towards Mansel Copse, where well-placed machine guns, whose crews had survived the preliminary bombardment, cut down hundreds of advancing men.  Two companies of the 8th Devons followed and met the same fate.  By noon survivors of both Battalions were scattered across the battlefield.  At 1530 hours the final company of the 8th Devons were ordered forward.  Their commander, Eric Savill, realising what had happened to the other companies of both Battalions, found a route that avoided the machine guns and was able to occupy a stretch of German trench.  On the 2nd the 8th Battalion beat off a German counter-attack and were able to advance.  On the 4th the Padre of the 8th Devons, Capt Crosse, buried 160 officers and men of both Battalions at Mansel Copse, erecting a plaque: The Devonshires held this trench.  The Devonshires hold it still.        

On 13th/14th July both Battalions were involved in a night attack on Bazentin.  In a second night attack on 19th/20th July Private Theodore Veale of the 8th Devons won the Regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the War rescuing Captain Eric Savill under fire.  By the end of July the two Battalions had suffered 1137 casualties on the Somme and were withdrawn for rest and reconstruction.  In early September the 9th lost heavily again from heavy shelling during an attack near Ginchy.  In three days the 9th lost 730 casualties.

In April 1917 during the Battle of Arras both Battalions attacked Ecoust with great success and light casualties but, a month later, capturing part of Bullecourt cost them 382 killed and wounded. Early October found both Battalions near Passchendaele enduring the worst of the Third Battle of Ypres.  On the 26th in an unsuccessful attack on Gheluvelt both lost heavily – especially among their officers, only three of whom from the two Battalions emerged unscathed. 

By the end of January 1918 both Battalions were in Northern Italy on the Piave front, where they remained until the 9th were returned to France in September.  In early October the 9th broke through the German line at Beaurevoir on the Somme and on the 23rd captured Pommereuil despite high casualties.  On the same day the 8th captured Papadopoli Island and took part in the final advance on the Italian front, chasing a collapsing Austrian Army.

The two senior Service battalions fought side by side, won 18 battle honours for the Devonshire Regiment and together lost 1918 of their number killed in France, Belgium and Italy.

Biographies

Private Theodore Veale VC, 8th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment

Captain Sir Harold Roper CBE MC, 8th Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment

Colour Sergeant Thomas Knightley, 8th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment

Captain Duncan Lenox Martin 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment

Lieutenant Harold Leslie Rayner , 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment