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Over by Christmas? 1st BattalionThe Dorsetshire Regiment in 1914.

Over by Christmas? 1st BattalionThe Dorsetshire Regiment  in 1914.

Pisseloup Ridge, La Bassee, Pont Fixe, Violaines  and Ploegsteert Wood

On 6 September 1914 , after the Retreat from ons, the Dorsets then started to advance northwards as part of the first Battle of the Marne, which turned the tide against the month long German offensive that had threatened to engulf the French capital.  The German Imperial Army was forced to retreat northeast, leading to four years of the trench warfare that was so characteristic of the Western Front in the First World War.

On 9 September the Battalion was involved in heavy fighting at Pisseloup Ridge (also known as Hill 189), when German artillery, rifle and machine gun fire took a heavy toll of the advancing Dorsets, leaving 3 officers and 11 other ranks killed and 31 wounded.   A centenary memorial ceremony was held on 27 September 2014 at the Montreuil aux Lions British Cemetery where the 11 Dorsets and men of several other regiments who died in the fighting at Hill 189 and the surrounding area are remembered.  Organised by local residents Andrew and Pam Davison, this moving ceremony was conducted by Olivier Devron, Maire of Montreuil aux Lions, Canon Alyson Lamb, Chaplain of St Michael’s English Church, Paris and Père Bernard Proffit, Curé of the Parish of Saint-Crépin en Vignes.  The Last Post was sounded by Dennis Garnham, grandson of Private Frederick Garnham of the Essex Regiment who died on 8 September 1914 and is buried at the cemetery.  The following exhortation was made:  “May we remember and pass on these accounts to our children and grandchildren so that they may never forget the supreme sacrifice made by these young British soldiers.”

On 10 September 1914 the advance resumed, when the Dorsets were encouraged by the arrival of 187 reinforcements under Lieutenant Parkinson and 2nd Lieutenant Clutterbuck.  During September and early October the northward advance continued on foot, by train and by bus and on 12 October, following the British Expeditionary Force’s transfer to Flanders (Belgium), the Dorsets were close to the canal at La Bassée in northern France, to the right of the new front line.  Moving off in thick fog to fill a gap in the line threatened by strong German forces advancing westwards from La Bassée, the Dorsets advanced but were held by enemy fire.  Their 50 casualties included the second in command Major Reginald Roper, an accomplished officer of great promise, who was killed.  The next day saw fierce fighting near a bridge known as Pont Fixe over the canal at the village of Cuinchy when the attacking Germans were finally stopped by the Dorsets, although with 15 officers and half the men casualties, the Battalion was now a shadow of its former self.  The 1st Dorsets were mentioned in despatches for their heroic fighting at Pont Fixe and the ground fought over was to remain part of the British line until the final phase of the war.  Given the critical situation of the BEF, even a shattered battalion could not be spared and the Dorsets continued their efforts to advance, suffering a further 140 casualties at Violaines, and eventually on 1 November they were taken by a fleet of London buses to the front line near Ploegsteert Wood in the Ypres sector, where they settled down to the first winter of trench warfare, with Christmas 1914 being spent with two companies in the trenches in front of Wulverghem and the rest in billets at nearby Neuve Église.

Mention of Christmas inevitably brings thoughts of the famous “Christmas Truce”, which was not in fact a centrally organised cease-fire but rather a number of spontaneous local truces along the Western Front, when men tired of fighting each other met in no-man’s land and exchanged gifts.  The British High Command frowned on such fraternisation, so it is perhaps not surprising that the regimental war diary of the 1st Battalion makes no mention of any such event.  However, writing home on 26 December, 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Stanley-Clarke of the 1st Dorsets said “Christmas day was extraordinary in the trenches.  Although I was back in billets I almost wish that I had been up there – not a shot was fired and hardly a man in trenches.  Groups of English and Germans were seen walking about talking and for the day peace reigned – which was good – but today again the guns are shaking the house.  We have had a cold spell during the past two days and snow is falling – of course we hate frost as it makes the trenches fall in and adds a lot of work; still everything is perfectly ripping and I'm not sure that I do not like snow better than mud but they are both becoming close friends of mine.”

In August people were saying that the war would be over by Christmas.  As 1915 started, the Dorsets never dreamed for a minute that nearly four years of fighting and heavy losses lay ahead – but that is another story.

Ernie Thomas

Originally published in The Bridport News