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55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division

The West Lancashire Division was an infantry division of the British Army, active during both the First and Second World Wars. The division was raised in 1908 following the creation of the Territorial Force (TF), with the intent of being a defensive formation to protect the county of Lancashire in the event of an invasion. Following the outbreak of the First World War, the majority of its units volunteered for overseas service and the division was stripped of assets; those who remained were merged with the new 2nd West Lancashire Division in 1915.

West Lancashire Division
55th (West Lancashire) Division
55th (West Lancashire) Motor Division
55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division
55 inf div -vector2.svg
The divisional insignia, the Red Rose of Lancaster, used during the Second World War.[1][2]
Active1908–1915
1916–1919
1920–1945
Country United Kingdom
BranchFlag of the British Army.svg Territorial Force (1908–1919)
Flag of the British Army.svg Territorial Army (1920–1945)
TypeInfantry
Motorised infantry
Motto(s)First World War: "We win or die who wear the rose of Lancaster"[3]
EngagementsBattle of the Somme
Battle of Passchendaele
Battle of Cambrai
Battle of Estaires
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Hugh Jeudwine
Insignia
First World War divisional insignia[4]55thDivision (7 leaf) WW1.svg

In 1916, the division was reformed in France as the 55th (West Lancashire) Division, and was reassigned the units that had been transferred. The division went on to fight in the Battles of Guillemont, Ginchy and Morval; part of the Battle of the Somme. In 1917, the division fought in the Battles of Pilckem and Menin Road Ridges during the Battle of Passchendaele, gaining a reputation for excellence. Late in 1917, the division fought in the Battle of Cambrai. Towards the end of the battle, the division was forced back just over 1 mile (1.6 km) by a large German counter-attack. A court of enquiry was convened to examine the reasons behind this loss of territory, and its findings have been controversial with contemporary soldiers and modern historians. In 1918, the division faced the German Spring Offensive, conducting a much-lauded defence of Givenchy during the Battle of Estaires. After the German offensive stalled, the division joined in the Hundred Days Offensive, which resulted in the defeat of the German Army and the end of the war. The division suffered almost 36,000 casualties in more than two years of combat.

In 1920, the TF was reformed as the Territorial Army (TA), which the division became part of. It served in the United Kingdom throughout the 1920s and 30s. In the late 1930s, the division was reduced from three to two infantry brigades and gave up some artillery and other support units to become a motorised formation, the 55th (West Lancashire) Motor Division; the intention was to increase battlefield mobility. Following the Battle of France, the motor division concept was abandoned, the division regained its third infantry brigade, and became the 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division. It remained within the United Kingdom until the end of the war, assigned to anti-invasion duties. In 1944, it was scheduled to be sent overseas for combat, but instead was stripped of its units, which were sent overseas to join other formations. The remnant of the division was used in Operation Fortitude, the deception effort that supported the invasion of France. At the end of the war, the division was demobilised.

FormationEdit

In 1901, following lessons learned from the Second Boer War and increasing tension with the aggressive German Empire, the United Kingdom sought to reform the British Army to be able to fight a European adversary. This task fell to Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, who implemented the Haldane Reforms. The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907 created a new Territorial Force (TF) by merging the Yeomanry and the Volunteer Force in 1908.[5] This resulted in the creation of 14 Territorial divisions, including the West Lancashire Division.[6] The Territorials were liable to serve only in the United Kingdom.[7] Haldane envisioned the Territorials taking over the defence of the country when the regular army was abroad on military service. He also saw the Territorials as a pool of reinforcements for the regular army. Six months following mobilisation, when the troops would have come up to an acceptable training standard, Haldane was confident that up to a quarter of the men would volunteer for overseas service.[8]

 
4th Battalion, King's Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment troops detraining at Trefnant for annual training at Caerwys, 1909

The new division was placed under the command of Major-General Edward Dickson and was composed of the North Lancashire, Liverpool and South Lancashire Brigades. Divisional headquarters, the Liverpool Brigade and the divisional artillery were based in Liverpool, with the latter based at Seaforth Barracks. The rest of the division was based in Blundellsands, Lancaster and St Helens.[9] The division, as a formation, was inspected by Edward VII in July 1909 at Knowsley. A month later, it began its first annual training camp at Caerwys, Wales, the first Territorial division to conduct field training.[10]

The division was reviewed by French Général Hippolyte Langlois at its first training camp.[11] Langlois witnessed the division in manoeuvres against an imaginary invasion force, which was represented by flags. The infantry brigades practiced retiring from advancing opponents and counter-attacks. The divisional artillery practiced moving to support the infantry.[12] He described the infantry having limited technical proficiency but lauded their skilful use of terrain, initiative, morale, stamina and unit cohesion. The latter he described as being due to the lower ranks being "factory workers" under the command of "the superintendents and directors of their own factories". He also believed the men to be motivated by "duty and patriotism", rather than motivated by pay as he believed the men of the regular army were.[13] Criticism included units unnecessarily exposing themselves to the opponent, lacking flanking guards, and bunching up. Langlois mused if this was a doctrinal issue or due to the division not having training grounds and needing to hire private property.[14] Langlois described the field artillery as the division's major weakness. The horses and their drivers needed more training, artillery batteries lacked mobility and were too slow in moving. Having watched them during an exercise, Langlois described the divisional artillery as having "acquitted itself creditably" but having also suffered from training and mobility flaws. One of the reasons for these flaws he believed, was the lack of live fire practice that saw each battery firing a little over 100 rounds per year.[15] Langlois wrote "the manoeuvres ... convinced us that the British Territorial infantry is really adequate for the duties which it will have to undertake – repelling an invasion in a country favourable to the defence – and for which it is preparing itself patiently, resolutely, and diligently".[16]

First World WarEdit

Early yearsEdit

Following the start of the First World War, the division returned from annual training in Wales to barracks and depots in Lancashire.[17] With the popular enthusiasm for the war, the division was flooded with potential recruits. The divisional historian, James Ogden Coop, wrote, "every existing vacancy was filled and could have been filled ten times over". The division was invited to volunteer for overseas service and "every unit in the division volunteered".[18]

The West Lancashire Division went through a succession of general officers commanding (GOC), before Major-General John Forster was given command on 3 September 1914.[19][20][21] The division moved to Kent to continue training in preparation for service in France. Due to the casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the opening months of fighting on the Western Front, the division was used for reinforcements. Between October 1914 and May 1915, the division was steadily drained; companies of engineers, artillery, medical personnel and battalions of infantry were removed from the division to reinforce other divisions.[19] After the North Lancashire Brigade, its last remaining infantry formation, transferred to the 51st (Highland) Division in April 1915, the remainder of the division became part of the 2nd West Lancashire Division, which was soon renumbered the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division. The divisional artillery was sent to France in October 1915, attached to the 2nd Canadian Division.[17]

The Army Council authorised the reformation of the 55th in France in November, and its former artillery units were given orders to move to Saint-Omer in mid-December. They were followed by other units, which assembled near Hallencourt between 3 and 27 January 1916. With these experienced troops, the division was reformed as the 55th (West Lancashire) Division[22] and Major-General Hugh Jeudwine was given command.[23] The infantry of the division comprised: the 164th Brigade, consisting of the 1/4th Battalion, King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) (1/4KORL), 1/4th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (1/4LR), 2/5th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers (2/5LF) and 1/8th (Irish) Battalion, King's (Liverpool Regiment) (Liverpool Irish); the 165th Brigade, consisting of the 1/5th Battalion, King's (Liverpool Regiment) (1/5KR), 1/6KR, 1/7KR, and 1/9KR); and the 166th Brigade, consisting of the (1/10th (Scottish) Battalion, King's (Liverpool Regiment) (Liverpool Scottish), 1/5th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (1/5SL), 1/5th Battalion, King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) (1/5KORL) and 1/5th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (1/5LR).[24] During the year, Jeudwine adopted the Red Rose of Lancaster as the divisional emblem to foster county pride in the division.[3]

First trench tourEdit

 
Men of the King's Liverpool Regiment, moving along a communication trench leading to the front line near Wailly, 16 April 1916

In February 1916, the division took over a sector of the front line between Brétencourt and Wailly, near Arras, relieving the French 88th Division. This area was held until July and the division engaged in trench raiding.[25] On 17 April, the Liverpool Irish launched the division's first large trench raid. The battalion, attacking during the night, did significant damage and inflicted 56 casualties for the loss of Second Lieutenant Edward Felix Baxter.[26] Baxter, while assisting in preparation for the raid in no man's land, disarmed a live grenade stopping it from exploding before it could injure any of his men or alert the Germans. Afterwards, he was first into the German trenches, killed a sentry, and assisted in attacks on German dugouts. He was last to leave, ensuring his men had got away, and was then killed. For his actions, Baxter was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest gallantry award available to British military personnel.[27]

 
A raiding party of the Liverpool Irish on the morning after the first large trench raid of the division

A trench raid was launched on the night of 3/4 June, which resulted in two wounded men being left behind in no-man's land. At noon on 4 June, Private Arthur Procter of the 1/5KR noticed movement. On his own initiative, and under German rifle fire, Procter went out into no man's land. After dressing the wounds of the two men, and providing them with clothing, he promised them rescue after dark and returned to his trench. At dusk, both men were rescued. For his actions, Procter was awarded the VC.[28][29]

Another big raid was launched on 28 June, this time during the day. Elements of six battalions crossed no man's land behind a smokescreen. A shift in the wind dispersed the smoke and the raiders came under heavy German fire. Two of the attacking battalions were repelled while the other four entered the German trenches and inflicted casualties before returning.[30] Private James Hutchinson of the 2/5LF earned the VC for his actions during this raid, being the first man in his party into the German trenches and responsible for killing or wounding eight Germans, clearing two positions and on his own initiative covering the retirement of the raiding party, allowing the wounded to be brought back.[31][32] Losses for this raid are not reported. During this period in the trenches the division suffered 1,110 casualties.[a] On 25 July, the division was relieved by the 11th (Northern) Division.[34]

Battle of the SommeEdit

 
Division positions in the Guillemont sector

The division then moved south to participate in the Battle of the Somme, which had begun on 1 July. It was given the objective of capturing the village of Guillemont and the German trenches to its south east. The German defenders, dug in at the village and its environs, had already repulsed two large attacks during the Battle of Guillemont.[35] On 8 August at 04:20, the attack began, following a heavy bombardment. The 164th Brigade advanced on the division's left flank. The advance of the 1/4KORL on the left flank ran into barbed wire laid by the Germans during the night. While the 1/4KORL tried to cut the wire they were subjected to massed small-arms fire that forced them to return to their trenches. The battalion lost 56 killed, including its commander, and 215 wounded and missing.[36] The 2/5LF, in reserve, became embroiled in the assault and suffered heavily.[37] To the right, the Liverpool Irish had more success, advancing over the German first line trench and rapidly entering the village. The battalion was isolated due to the difficulties faced by the other attackers; German troops, hidden in bunkers throughout the village, emerged to re-occupy the front line, along with reinforcements from nearby positions. Attacked from all sides as German artillery bombarded the village with gas shells, the battalion suffered 572 casualties,[38] with only one or two survivors returning; the rest were captured.[39]

The 1/4LR advanced after the Liverpool Irish had reached the village, discovered the Germans had returned to the front line trenches and was unable to advance further.[39] In the 165th Brigade on the right flank, the 1/5KR advanced but was not able to reach the German lines and dug-in where they had been stopped.[40] Second Lieutenant Gabriel Coury, commanding two platoons of the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (1/4SL), the divisional pioneer battalion, followed the attacking troops. Under his direction, his men dug a new trench to link the new positions gained by the 1/4LR with the old front line. After the commanding officer of the 1/4LR was wounded, Coury went past the forward positions to retrieve him while under fire. Afterwards, he rallied elements of the battalion and led them forward for a renewed attack. His actions during the day resulted in him being awarded the VC.[41][42] During the night, the 166th Brigade moved up to the front. The historian Everard Wyrall wrote that the trenches were "not only crowded with troops in an exhausted state and littered with dead and wounded, but damaged and blown about by hostile shell-fire".[43]

An attack on 9 August made little headway.[44] During the day, Royal Army Medical Corps Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, attached to the Liverpool Scottish, tended to the wounded in the open and under fire all day long and organised parties to get the wounded to safety. After dark, he spent four hours searching for wounded in no-man's land, directly in front of German positions. On 10 August, he resumed his efforts. In one instance, he was himself wounded while carrying a wounded soldier 500 yards (460 m) to safety during a heavy German artillery bombardment. That night, he again ventured out into no-man's land within 25 yards (23 m) of the German positions and rescued three men. He buried two dead and collected numerous identity discs. He saved twenty lives and was awarded the VC.[45][46]

The division was ordered to prepare for an attack after 20 August; French troops on the right flank were to attack to clear German positions to assist the 55th Division's attack. The 1/9KR of the 165th Brigade was ordered to assist the French, by attacking Cochrane Alley.[47] After a three-hour bombardment, the 1/9KR attacked. Despite German defensive fire, the battalion reached the German line and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting that drove the Germans out. The French attack failed and left the battalion isolated and under enfilade fire for the rest of the day. After dark, the battalion was withdrawn and the captured ground was consolidated by other troops. Two days later, the division was withdrawn from the front line for a rest.[48] During August, the division suffered 4,126 casualties.[49]

 
British troops moving forward to support the fighting at Ginchy, with a shell explosion nearby, and example of the trenches on the Somme.

The division returned to the front line during the night 4/5 September, relieving the 24th Division near Delville Wood and took part in the Battle of Ginchy on 9 September. The 164th Brigade was set the objective of capturing a line of trenches on the outskirts of Ginchy and into Delville Wood. The initial attack was delayed, as some of the attacking troops captured an unidentified trench and mistook it for the objective.[50] At the main objective, the brigade found a determined defence and after some back and forth fighting was forced to retire to the start line. Meanwhile, an attack by the 165th Brigade succeeded, capturing the objective within 15 minutes.[51] Other British forces took Ginchy during the day, which brought an end to the battle.[52] In an attempt to improve the local position, the 164th Brigade conducted another attack two days later and were once again repulsed. Between 10 and 12 September, the division was relieved by the New Zealand Division.[51]

On 17 September, the division returned to the front, relieving the 41st Division near Flers during the Battle of Flers–Courcelette.[17] On 25 September, the division took part in the Battle of Morval, a general offensive launched by the Fourth Army. The division was to attack German trenches north-west of Gueudecourt.[53] Under a creeping barrage, the division attacked, overran the German positions and captured all its objectives. The attack on Gueudecourt was repulsed and left the 55th Division's flank exposed.[54] The following day, the division attacked again, captured more German positions and repulsed a counter-attack late in the afternoon. When the division was relieved it was transferred north to the Ypres Salient.[55]

Battle of PasschendaeleEdit

The division re-entered the front line in October 1916, manning a section of the Ypres Salient. It rested, re-equipped and limited itself to raiding.[56] Towards the end of the year, inline with changing British Army's infantry doctrine, Jeudwine "recognized that many of his soldiers had held responsible positions in civilian life that required independent thought" and "by devolving decision-making down the chain of command he was able to harness their skills and experience to enhance tactical performance on the battlefield".[57] In June 1917, Jeudwine authorised the publishing of the divisional magazine Sub Rosa (Under the Rose). This was a further effort to foster a link between county pride and the division; the magazine contained poetry based on Lancashire history, county tales and cartoons.[58]

 
Division front line and objectives during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge; coloured lines east of the front line showing successive objectives

By July, the division was part of Fifth Army, and assigned to the opening assault (known as of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge) of the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele).[59] The division's objective was to capture the German defensive positions opposite and push forward to take the German third line.[60] In preparation, an intensive artillery barrage was fired and at 03:50 on 31 July the attack began. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, the division overran the German front line and captured a fortified farm. As the attack proceeded, supported by at least one Mark IV tank, it was met by increasing German resistance. The artillery barrage weakened as it moved forward. The attack was pressed with mounting casualties and the majority of objectives were captured. The 1/4KORL and the 1/4LR of the 164th Brigade fought their way into five German 77 mm gun batteries and captured them.[61] During the afternoon, the Germans launched several infantry battalions in a counter-attack against the 55th Division, driving back the forward British units before the end of the day.[62]

After being held-up by heavy German machine-gun and rifle fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley of the 2/5LF rallied his men and led his battalion from the front in a renewed attack on the German positions, overrunning them. He later directed the battalion, including the headquarters staff, in an effort to fight off a German counter-attack that cost him his life. His actions were credited with enabling the advance of the 164th Brigade and he was awarded the VC.[63][64] During the fighting, Lance Sergeant Tom Mayson's platoon, part of the 1/4KORL, was held-up by German machine-gun fire. Mayson attacked the position with grenades knocking the machine-gun out and wounding four of the German crew. The remaining three members of the German team fled to a dug-out; Mayson followed and killed them. His actions ensured that his unit did not fall too far behind the supporting artillery barrage. Later in the day, he again single-handedly attacked a machine-gun position and killed six more Germans. During a German counter-attack, he led the defence of an isolated post of four men until ordered to withdrawal after exhausting his ammunition. These actions earned Mayson the VC.[65][66]

 
Stretcher bearers during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge

During the next two days, the division consolidated the ground seized. On 2 August, the Germans began a methodical counter-attack (German: gegenangriff) to push back the 55th but it was repulsed.[62] Chavasse earned a second VC during this period for again venturing into no-man's land, while under fire, to bring in wounded and saving numerous lives. He was again wounded and died on 4 August,[67][68] the day that the division was relieved. During the fighting 600 German prisoners had been taken and the division suffered 3,552 casualties.[62]

 
German prisoners as well as British troops carrying wounded from the front line during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.

The 55th was given a period of rest, during which it received reinforcements and conducted training. The division was visited by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF. On 12 September, the division returned to the same sector of the front, with orders to take the final objective that had eluded them on 31 July. This included an important ridge with two rises known as Hill 35 and Hill 37, as well as Schuler Farm, a strong point. Two abortive attacks has been made while the 55th Division was resting.[69] The division moved during the night of 19/20 September and manned the front line trenches and water-logged shell holes that dotted the area. While a 24-hour bombardment hit the German positions, indicating an imminent assault, German prisoners reported the attack was anticipated having spotted tape the British had laid to aid the division in moving into the correct area. At 05:40 on 20 September, the attack, known as the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, began.[17]

The division advanced behind a creeping barrage but this did little to suppress German resistance. By 11:00, Hill 37 was taken but 20 minutes later the Germans launched a counter-attack that retook the hill. By 14:00, Hill 35 had been cleared and the nearby trenches and strong points mopped-up. Within thirty minutes the Germans counter-attacked but this was met with British strong artillery fire and petered out. A further effort was made to capture Hill 37 and it was taken by 17:00, before being subjected to artillery fire and a German infantry attack. The division dug-in on its objectives and used captured machine-guns against the Germans.[70] Schuler Farm fell the following day. During the afternoon of 21 September, the Germans launched a major counter-attack, aiming to retake all lost ground, especially Hill 37, which was an important observation point for their artillery. While the Germans were able to temporarily take back some territory, the counter-attack was a failure. Coop called the German losses in this battle "appalling", while divisional losses amounted to 2,730. The 55th Division was relieved during the night of 22/34 September by the 39th Division, ending its role in the battle. The division moved south towards Cambrai, where it joined VII Corps in the Third Army.[71] The historian Helen McCartney wrote that by the end of this period, "the 55th Division was described as 'a good fighting division, possessing the right spirit' and a 'first rate division' by its army and corps commanders in their reports to GHQ".[57]

Battle of CambraiEdit

In its new position, the division took over 8,000 yards (4.5 mi; 7.3 km) of the frontline in front of the village of Épehy.[72] Rather than a continuous trench line, the division occupied a series of fortified posts, each capable of holding a platoon, that were connected by trenches only designed to facilitate movement.[73] On 18 November, following a heavy bombardment, a 200-strong German raiding party entered the division's trenches in three places.[74] During the raid, 40 members of the division were captured.[75] Coop stated it was believed that the Germans obtained information about the division's upcoming attack from these prisoners.[74] Historian Bryan Cooper, however, wrote that the men provided no information. Instead, six prisoners from the 36th (Ulster) Division provided intelligence to the German 184th Infantry Regiment.[75] The division was assigned a supporting role to the Battle of Cambrai, tasked with preventing German forces from moving north to reinforce their comrades against the main British effort. This would be accomplished by assaulting two German strongpoints: Gillemont Farm, and a position known as the "Knoll." The assault was to be conducted by the 164th Brigade.[76][77] As a consequence of the acquired intelligence, the Germans abandoned their frontline trenches and reinforced their second line positions. In addition, new, deep, narrow trenches were dug east of Gillemont Farm, where counter-attacking forces were massed, and from where they could launch rifle grenades upon the attacking force.[78]

 
An example of British deception methods

At 06:20 on 20 November, the artillery started bombarding German positions. Two minutes later, the 1/4LR attacked towards Gillemont Farm, advancing behind a creeping barrage. At 06:30, the division utilised deception measures that included dummies and a mock tank, to attract German fire away from the attack. At 06:44, behind a creeping barrage, the Liverpool Irish and the 2/5LF attacked towards the Knoll.[76] In support of the attack, a smoke screen was deployed on the flank of the 2/5LF; thermite rounds were used to silence German machine gun positions; and 1,320 gas shells were fired into other German positions. The Liverpool Irish were forced back to their own positions, due to uncut wire; while the 2/5LF entered the Knoll.[79]

Between 08:00 and 09:00, the 1/4LR entered the German trenches at Gillemont Farm. Following a heavy barrage, the Germans launched a counter-attack on the Knoll, and by 10:00 had recaptured the position following heavy fighting. Another series of counter-attacks were launched around noon, and the Germans retook Gillemont Farm by 13:00. Fighting ceased for the day, with the exception of a heavy bombardment laid down on the German positions at 16:30. During the night, patrols were dispatched without incident. The following morning, a ten-minute bombardment of the German positions took place at 05:00, followed by a three-minute hurricane bombardment at 06:30. A creeping barrage was then laid on, to simulate a British attack that resulted in the Germans manning their positions. These efforts aided in keeping the Germans from being redeployed. This ended the division's effort in support of the battle, which had resulted in around 600 casualties.[80]

Regular nightly patrols followed thereafter. On 28 November, German artillery fire increased on the division's positions. This was judged to be additional German batteries registering their guns. This coincided with low-flying reconnaissance flights by the Luftstreitkräfte and a reported build-up of German forces behind their lines. Jeudwine judged this as an indication that the division was about to be attacked, reported this up the chain of command, and ordered an artillery bombardment to commence on the morning of 29 November.[81] Jeudwine's judgement was correct, the German 2nd Army intended to use seven divisions to retake the territory lost to the British during the fighting at Cambrai.[82] The following day, the division was ordered to take over part of the front held by 20th (Light) Division, resulting in the division being responsible for 13,000 yards (7.4 mi) of the front line.[83] The 166th Brigade held the left (from north to south: 1/5SL, 1/5LF, Liverpool Scottish; 1/5KORL in reserve), and the 165th Brigade on the right flank (from north to south: 1/6KR, 1/5KR, 1/7KR; 1/9KR in reserve).[74]

 
Positions of the division before (red and green) and after the German attack on 30 November (blue line)

At 07:00 on 30 November, the German counter-attack began with a heavy barrage across the entire divisional front. An hour later, German machine guns opened fire on divisional positions, supported by aerial attacks. On the division's left, the Germans broke through and were able to use this to outflank the 55th Division's positions.[84] The 1/5SL came under heavy attack, but were initially able to hold their ground. However, they were outflanked, surrounded, and were forced to surrender. The rest of the 166th Brigade were heavily engaged, but despite their fierce resistance slowing the German advance, they were unable to stop the Germans from penetrating the front to a depth of 800 yards (730 m). Front line troops, despite many casualties, were able to fall back. Some were able to launch minor counter-attacks, which denied high ground to the Germans. In one sector, a composite group of the 1/5KORL, the 1/5KR, and the Liverpool Scottish were cut off but held their position until 05:00 the next morning when they fought their way back to the main divisional positions. The 166th Brigade, reinforced with elements of the 164th Brigade held in reserve, was ordered to dig new trench lines and lay wire in front of Épehy, to deny the village to the Germans.[85]

The 165th Brigade also came under heavy attack, and its battalions had varied experiences. The 1/5KR threw back the German attack on their front, the 1/7KR stalled the assault in their sector, and despite having their lines penetrated the 1/6KR were able to launch counter-attacks to retake their lost positions. Much heavy back and forth fighting took place throughout the afternoon, while VII Corps organised assets for a counter-attack.[86] During the fighting, German infantry advanced to within 300 yards (270 m) of Sergeant Cyril Edward Gourley's howitzer battery of the 276th Brigade Royal Field Artillery (RFA) of the divisional artillery, and snipers infiltrated behind it. Despite this, he managed to keep one gun in action from 10:30 until dark, firing over open sights at German troops. Under constant fire, he held the Germans back in his area and destroyed one machine-gun. His actions resulted in the battery being saved and it was able to be withdrawn after nightfall. His actions earned him the VC.[87][88] A.J. Smithers wrote "the 55th fought off all assaults during the day".[89]

Later in the day, a VII Corps counter-attack allowed the front to be held and stemmed the German attack.[90] In the following days, the division was withdrawn from the frontline to the Flamicourt area to be rested.[91] Prior to leaving, Lieutenant-General Thomas Snow (VII Corps) wrote that he

...cannot allow the 55th Division to leave ... without expressing ... his satisfaction at the way they fought and worked during the recent operations. It is not at present quite clear what happened on the left of the Division, but, from the enquiries made ..., he knows that ... in spite of the heavy losses incurred, [the 30th] was a day which will always reflect credit on the 55th Division.[92]

A casualty breakdown for 30 November is not available; for the period 20 November to 8 December, the division suffered 3,259 casualties.[93]

Cambrai court of enquiryEdit

The division had been pushed back 2,000 yards (1.1 mi) and while the line outside of Épehy was not broken, the loss of terrain was a cause of concern for the Army. McCartney wrote "this scale of loss could not be ignored, and a Court of Enquiry was convened to investigate the causes of the collapse of a previously 'first rate fighting division'". The enquiry admitted that the Germans were able to achieve surprise due a thick mist and that the division's position had become untenable due to its having been forced to remove artillery to bolster other units. The enquiry was critical of the division's lack of defence in depth and the training of the men.[94] Tim Travers wrote that the reasons for the success of the German counter-attack "are not hard to find, and they principally relate to command failures on the part of GHQ and Third Army, who did not anticipate the attack, believing the Germans not to be capable of a major effort". Jeudwine warned of the attack but VII Corps failed to co-ordinate their defence with flanking units. Travers wrote "when the warnings of the attack came from 55 Division, these warnings ran into greater and greater resistance the higher they went. Hence the divisional level was caught in the inability of the corps and army structures to communicate with each other". The use of infiltration tactics by the Germans was also ignored.[95] Smithers wrote that the enquiry blamed junior officers and below, holding "no officer of field rank or above ... to blame for anything".[96] Smithers mused "one cannot wonder at the contempt this document excited once its contents became known" and wrote that Louis Oldfield [a senior officer within the 51st (Highland) Division] "probably spoke for everybody ..: 'The result of the Cambrai enquiry is very misleading and discreditable. Someone ought to be kicked'".[97]

Early 1918Edit

After Cambrai, the division was assigned to the First Army, and moved to the Bomy area for rest and training. In anticipation of a German attack, the 1/4SL (the divisional pioneers) and Royal Engineer (RE) troops fortified the defences in the GivenchyFestubert sector.[98] By 1918, the number of front line infantry within the British Army in France had decreased due to casualties and a lack of eligible replacements, leading to a manpower crisis. To consolidate manpower and to increase the ratio of machine guns and artillery support available to the infantry, the number of battalions in a division was reduced from twelve to nine.[99][100] This had the effect of reducing the establishment of a division from 18,825 men to 16,035.[101] An attempt was made to consolidate battalions from the same regiment within the same brigade.[102] The Liverpool Irish (164th Brigade), the 1/9KR (165th Brigade), and the 1/5LR (166th Brigade) were transferred to the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division to be merged with second-line units.[24][98][103] The artillery was also reorganised: the third medium trench mortar battery was divided between the other two, and the heavy trench mortar battery was transferred to corps artillery on 29 January.[24]

 
A 1/7KR soldier in a covered trench of the La Bassée sector, March 1918

On 15 February, the division returned to the frontline. It replaced the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division northeast of Festubert. The first skirmish followed two days later, when a 30-strong German party attempted to raid a sector of the line. This attack was repulsed. A further raid was launched on 7 March, which was also driven off, but not before the 1/5SL suffered 43 casualties.[104] The same day, a further divisional reorganisation took place. The brigade and divisional machine gun companies were consolidated, with the formation of the divisional machine gun battalion.[24][105]

 
Men of the 1/7KR in the trenches of the La Bassée sector, March 1918

In early March, military intelligence had established that the Germans had vastly increased their artillery presence in the area, and it was believed their attack would fall on the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, on the division's left. The 55th Division's reserves were tasked with reinforcing the Portuguese in event of an attack. On 18 March, a raiding party from the 1/5KR found the German trenches deserted; a second raid, on 25 March, penetrated into the reserve line, taking nine prisoners and captured a machine gun while suffering a few wounded in return.[106]

On 21 March, Germany launched the opening salvo of their Spring Offensive, aimed to deliver a single, decisive, war winning blow (a vernichtungsschlacht (battle of annihilation)) initially in the Saint-Quentin area. The intent was to inflict such a defeat upon the British Armies that the country would abandon the war, which in turn would force the French to sue for peace. During the final days of March and the opening of April, the division was aware that the Germans were preparing a major assault. Defensive preparations were undertaken, including a reorganisation of the frontline and artillery barrages of German positions that included firing 500 gas shells. Nightly patrols were also conducted, with the men able to continually enter the German frontline without encountering opposition.[107] On 8 April, the 166th Brigade was ordered to relieve the Portuguese brigade on the left of the division; the handover was scheduled the following day.[108] At this time, the 164th Brigade held positions on the right of the division between the La Bassée Canal and a point north of Givenchy (the 1/7KR on the right, the 1/5KR on the left, and the 1/6KR in both support and reserve positions); from which the 165th Brigade held the line north to Festubert (the 1/4KORL on the right, 1/4LR on the left, with the 2/5LF in support).[109] Coop described the infantry as being tasked with "hold[ing] their posts to the last, no matter whether outflanked or surrounded" and with launching "immediate local counter-attack[s]", which had been rehearsed in training exercises.[110]

Defence of GivenchyEdit

 
German attack against XI and XV Corps, 9 April

When the opening attack of the Spring Offensive did not achieve the desired result, the Germans shifted their effort north (to the Ypres sector) to immediately strike again.[111] At 04:15 on 9 April, the German bombardment marking the beginning of Operation Georgette, began in the divisional sector. The engagement in the southern part of the Allied line became known as the Battle of Estaires.[112]

The German bombardment, using the greatest concentration of German guns during the war, shelled the frontline and transportation routes in the divisional rear as far back as Locon. It was believed that the Germans had launched a large-scale raid upon the Portuguese, and the 166th Brigade was ordered to move and reinforce them. Rather than a raid, the Portuguese division had collapsed under the weight of a full-scale attack and resulted in the 55th's flank being exposed.[113][114]

At 09:00, three German divisions—the 4th Ersatz, 43rd Reserve, and 18th Reserve—launched their attack upon the 55th Division's 4,000-yard (3,700 m) frontline.[115][116] The German division had circulated orders that stated the "English 55th Division", after battles on the Somme, Flanders, and Cambrai, "was described by prisoners ... as a Division ... that is below the average quality."[117] Due to mist, visibility was limited to 30 yards (27 metres), hindering the British ability to repulse the attack. German infantry pushed through the frontline between strongpoints held by the 164th Brigade and within half an hour were assaulting the 1/4LR battalion headquarters. The bypassed British frontline positions, now surrounded, held out, impeding the German efforts. Local counter-attacks resulted in the reoccupation of the majority of territory lost by early afternoon, with forward posts retaken at dusk. By the end of the day, the brigade had reclaimed its entire sector.[118]

 
55th Division positions (red line) at midnight on 9 April

At 09:50, the Germans attacked the 165th Brigade, having moved around their flank after the defeat of the Portuguese. The Germans pushed through the brigade's forward positions, but due to the resistance of bypassed garrisons, their attack was disrupted. The German attack only partially broke through the brigade's main line of resistance in one place, and a local counter-attack quickly restored the position.[119] Repeated German attacks were launched upon the brigade, reinforced with several infantry companies from the 166th Brigade, throughout the afternoon, but were unable to make any gains.[120] Under artillery fire all morning, and having to dispatch troops to the division's other brigades, the 166th Brigade had moved into defensive positions on the flank of the 165th Brigade by early afternoon. It was then reinforced by elements of the divisional pioneer battalion and RE companies. The 51st (Highland) Division's 154th Brigade was attached to the division and took defensive positions around Locon, with its 1/4th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders moved forward to reinforce the 166th Brigade.[121] During the day, the Germans made several unsuccessful efforts to breach the 166th Brigade's positions.[122] Historian Don Farr wrote that the division's efforts, in conjunction with other divisions in the area, had forced major delays on the German assault plan, "their plan had called for them to be across the River Lys along the whole length of their assault" by the end of the day, instead they had only made minor gains.[123]

During this fighting, Second Lieutenant John Schofield of the 2/5LF (164th Brigade) led a counter-attack by 9 men against a position held by 100 Germans. His tactical efforts suppressed the position and took 20 prisoners, and then in conjunction with reinforcements captured the position. Taking command of additional forces, Schofield continued the counter-attack towards the original frontline positions forcing the Germans back and taking 123 further prisoners. These efforts cost him his life, and earned him a VC.[124] In addition, Second Lieutenant Joseph Henry Collin of the 1/4KORL was posthumously awarded the VC for singlehandedly engaging two German machine guns after retreating from Route A Keep,[125] the one position lost by the brigade and not retaken on 9 April.[126]

 
Members of the division, blinded by poison gas on 10 April 1918.

Before dawn on 10 April, the 3rd Division's 9th Brigade and 42nd Brigade Royal Field Artillery were attached to the division. The artillery were moved to support the 166th Brigade, although two batteries were soon detached to support the 51st Division for the day. One battalion of the 9th Brigade was placed in divisional reserve, and the remaining two attached to the 164th and 165th Brigades.[127] The German attacks resumed at 07:40, with a strong infantry attack under the cover of an intense artillery barrage. Despite fierce fighting throughout the day, the German attacks failed.[128] The last German attack of that day, in the evening, managed to make a temporary lodgement before being repulsed following local counter-attacks.[129] Coop described the evening shelling, with defensive positions being "subjected to a terrific bombardment with shells of heavy calibre ... [that] were practically obliterated", but despite this were still held by the division.[130]

"There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The Safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

– Douglas Haig, message to the troops on 11 April in response to Georgette.[131]

German shelling resumed at dawn on 11 April, and escalated into a three-hour bombardment that was followed by another major infantry attack at 11:00 against the 166th Brigade. The attack made gains and created a dangerous gap in the line, which was ultimately rectified by a counter-attack. During the afternoon, reports were received of German troops massing. The divisional artillery bombarded the positions, inflicting heavy casualties, and preventing an attack on the 165th Brigade.[132] Further German attacks were launched at 16:00, resulting in more back and forth fighting until 19:30, by which time all divisional positions had been retaken.[133] The German attacks on this day were launched by four divisions – the 4th Ersatz and the 18th and 43rd Reserve Divisions, reinforced by the 44th Reserve Division from the second line.[134]

On the morning of 12 April the 55th and 3rd Divisions were transferred to I Corps, as XI Corps' focus was shifted northward.[135] At midnight, 12–13 April, an ad hoc company from the 1/5KR and 1/6KR, the Liverpool Scottish, and the 13th King's from the 3rd Division (under 165th Brigade command) launched a counter-attack and recaptured Route A Keep.[136] The Germans launched their own counter-attack to retake this position following dawn but were repulsed after heavy fighting. No further major German infantry attacks were launched on the divisional sector following this, although German artillery bombardments were maintained.[137] This was the result of the German commanders shifting the focus of their attack further north, after failing to breach the British defences in this sector.[114] Between 14 and 17 April, the division was relieved by the 1st and 3rd Divisions,[138] and moved to the Auchel area for rest; the divisional artillery remained on the front in support.[139] Divisional losses were between 3,119 and 3,871.[140][141] German losses are reported to have been heavy, with almost 1,000 prisoners being taken by the division along with the capture of 70 machine guns.[140]

 
Soldiers of the division marching through Bethune after being pulled out of the line

By the end of the battle, the division had been attacked by elements of four German divisions.[132] Coop wrote "it was afterwards publicly stated by an officer of the German General Staff that the stand made by the Division on 9 April and the days which followed marked the final ruination of the supreme German effort of 1918".[140] The historian David T. Zabecki wrote that Givenchy was "one of the most impressive defensive battles of the war", where the division "stubbornly held on and never gave way" that "diverted [German] resources and combat power away from the main effort".[142] After his experience at Ypres, Jeudwine contributed his own ideas on defensive tactics to an unpublished army pamphlet in December 1917. McCartney wrote "the ideas developed there contributed directly to the success of the stand of the 55th Division at Givenchy" and "the plans, sketches and narrative of the Battle of Givenchy were subsequently circulated to other divisions as an example of good defensive practice". McCartney concluded the division "could be said to have helped indirectly to shape the tactical thinking of the British army".[143]

Local attacks in the Givenchy sectorEdit

 
1/4KORL officers watching men carrying rations through a street in Givenchy, May 1918

On 21 April the Liverpool Scottish battalion was brought up to strength by the arrival of the remnants of its sister battalion from the 57th Division. The same day, the 55th was visited by French Minister of War Georges Clemenceau.[144] Between 21 and 23 April, the division relieved the 1st Division and returned to their prior sector of the frontline. On 24 April, the Liverpool Scottish (166th Brigade) launched a counter-attack to retake Route A Keep, which had been lost while the division had been out of the line.[144][145] On 25 April, two raiding parties moved forward to reoccupy previously held forward posts, but were repulsed by the Germans. Further small-scale attacks were launched throughout the night and into the early hours of 26 April, supported by artillery. These attacks were also repulsed, but Coop reported that they inflicted heavy losses. At 14:20, under the cover of an artillery barrage, the division attacked with two companies to retake these positions. One company succeeded, but the other failed due to the artillery missing the intended objective. Both companies withdrew amid fierce fighting, capturing 30 Germans.[146] For his actions during this attack, Lance-Corporal James Hewitson of the 1/4KORL was awarded the VC.[147][148]

On 2 May, German air activity increased. Reports from prisoners and deserters claimed that a German attack would occur around 9 May. As a result, the divisional artillery increased its shelling of German positions, blowing up an ammunition dump on 8 May and destroying a church used as an observation post the next. After 15 May, it was realised the Germans would not attack. Coop states the Germans suggested this was the result of the Spanish flu. The rest of the month remained quiet. Between 4 and 5 June, the Germans bombarded Beuvry, Givenchy, and Labourse with Yellow Cross gas shells. Prisoners taken around this time suggested an imminent attack, but it did not come. On 8 June, a raiding party form the 2/5LF attacked forward German positions to gather intelligence, but was repulsed. Afterwards, with the exception of sporadic raiding, the sector remained quiet until August.[149]

 
A dressing station in a village behind the Givenchy sector, May 1918

At 07:20 on 24 August, the 164th Brigade launched a new attack to retake the forward positions that it had failed to recapture in April. Within 40 minutes, the objectives had been taken and the front pushed back 200 yards (180 metres). The brigade lost 103 casualties, and took 44 prisoners. Two minor counter-attacks were repulsed, and the Germans bombarded the captured positions, including with gas shells.[150] Four days later, the 166th occupied additional positions having found them deserted by the Germans.[151]

To the south, the Allied armies launched the Battle of Amiens, which marked the start of the Hundred Days Offensive, the culminating offensive of the war.[152] This caused the Germans to start withdrawing in the division's sector.[151] The division was ordered to rapidly pursue German troops if a retreat began, and not to worry about maintaining an unbroken line. On 2 September, the division sent out patrols to establish forward outposts, advancing 500 yards (460 metres) and determining that there had been no major German retreat in this sector. Further advances were made, against steadily stiffening opposition.[153] Patrols continued to advance through 12 September, with fighting becoming increasingly brutal including hand-to-hand combat.[154] On 14 September, the 166th Brigade was able to make further gains whereas the 164th Brigade engaged in a six-hour back and forth battle and were unable to advance.[155] On 17 September, the 1/5KR captured a series of German trenches that allowed observation of the ground between it and the German-held La BasséeFromelles line.[156] On 19 September, the division made minor gains, which were lost three days later. At this juncture, attention was turned to strengthening the positions held due to fears of an impending strong counter-attack, although patrols were kept up to detect if the Germans began a retreat.[157] On 25 September, the 1/6KR retook the disputed trenches and repulsed a weak counter-attack. The position was lost in the evening, and once again retaken the next morning under the cover of dark. The fighting cost 52 casualties, and took 105 German prisoners.[158] A further advance was made two days later by the 1/7KR.[159]

In anticipation of a German retreat, I Corps ordered a general advance for the morning of 30 September. After 24-hours of artillery fire, the 1/4LR (166th Brigade) launched a two-company attack. Initially successful and having taken 48 prisoners, a counter-attack pushed them back to their start line. The battalion made a second attempt on 1 October, and this time held its objective. With these gains, the divisional main line had moved forward an estimated 4,000 yards (3,700 metres) in the left sector and 2,500 yd (2,300 m) in the right since the beginning of September. During the month, the division captured 308 prisoners and 17 machine guns.[160][161]

Advance into BelgiumEdit

In anticipation of a German retreat, cavalry, RE, machine-gun, and medical support units were attached to the two brigades in the frontline, a practice which continued for the rest of the campaign. In addition, personnel from RE tunneling companies were attached in order to investigate and disarm booby traps.[162] Following the capture of a German officer who revealed that a German withdrawal to the Canal de la Deûle had began, the 164th and 166th Brigades advanced on 2 October. The advance of neighbouring divisions was mainly uncontested, but the 55th was held up by German resistance at La Bassée for much of 2 October. By the end of 4 October, over 5 miles (8.0 kilometres) had been covered and the division was 500 yards (460 metres) from the canal.[163][161]

 
A La Bassée canal bridge destroyed by retreating German troops the day after the 2/5LF (164th Brigade) captured the town

The Germans were largely dug-in on the east side of the canal, supported by large numbers of machine-guns. They had destroyed most bridges, and had began to flood the low-ground to the west. The division did not assault, and instead bombarded the German positions. The only infantry action during this period occurred when a company from the Liverpool Scottish attacked several pillboxes and the railway embankment near Don Station, on the west side of the canal, encountering initial success. They suffered heavy losses when a German counter-attack erased the gains and captured most of two platoons.[164]

On 8 October, the division was transferred to III Corps of Fifth Army when the latter took over the sector at the junction of I and XI Corps.[165] The area around Don Station was raided on 14 October, and an attempt to force the canal that night was repulsed. Patrols were sent out again the following morning, following reports of the Germans withdrawing from the canal in front of the divisions on either side of the 55th, but found the Germans still present in strength. The next day, the 164th Brigade fought against determined resistance to clear German positions on the west side of the Canal, and the division started crossing the canal that night.[166][167]

 
Men of 1/4SL (divisional pioneers) crossing a pontoon bridge over the Scheldt at Tournai, 9 November 1918.

With the canal crossed, the division advanced, liberating several villages and crossing the River Marque on 18 October after overcoming strong resistance on the line of the river. By the end of the next day, they were close to the Belgian border, and crossed it on 20 October.[168][169] That day, the 2/5LF captured a divisional ammunition column at Froidmon, southwest of Tournai.[170] The advance continued until 22 October, when heavy resistance was met on the outskirts of Tournai. That evening, the 1/4LR (164th Brigade) seized this German defensive position, but lost it during a counter-attack the next day. This was seen as a larger effort by the Germans to maintain their positions west of Tournai. As a result, the division formed up and started taking defensive positions.[171] On 25 October, a small attack made gains that were subsequently lost following a German counter-attack. No major action took place for the rest of the month, activity being limited to raiding and artillery fire from both sides. On 8 November, patrols captured prisoners who stated that the Germans had withdrawn to the east bank of the Scheldt. As a result, the division advanced largely unopposed to take up positions on the west bank, with the 1/6KR entering the western half of Tournai to the jubilation of its inhabitants. During the night, the division started crossing the river.[172][173] Despite sporadic fighting, the division continued to advance, captured Ath, and advanced 7 miles (11 km) by 13:30 on 11 November, when orders were received by the leading troops that the Armistice had taken effect. In total the division had advanced over 50 miles (80 km) in the 80 days of the general advance.[174] From 27 September to the armistice, the division suffered 180 casualties.[175]

EpilogueEdit

 
Belgian fireman and men of the 55th Division working the pumps to extinguish a fire in Tournai, December 1918

The division received orders on 15 November to advance into Germany with the Second Army, but six days later the orders were rescinded and the division was transferred to the Fifth Army. During the second half of the month, the division rebuilt railways and roads around Leuze-en-Hainaut. A comrades' association for the veterans of the division was established in early December. Reviewed by George V on 7 December, it relocated to Brussels in midmonth. The personnel of the division filled the time with lectures, educational courses, and athletic competitions.[17][176] During January 1919, the 55th was reviewed by Albert I of Belgium and sent representatives to a Brussels ceremonial parade, while its numbers were steadily reduced by demobilisation. Jeudwine departed on 15 March to command an Army of Occupation division, and by the end of April the division numbered 158 officers and 2,192 men.[17] The division was disbanded shortly afterwards, although not all personnel were demobilised. For example, the Liverpool Scottish had a large number of men not eligible for immediate demobilisation. They were sent to Antwerp, with the Army of Occupation, to maintain a receiving camp for cadres returning to England via Antwerp for demobilisation. They remained there until demobilised at the completion of their task in November.[177][178]

 
Albert I and Jeudwine arriving for a review of the division in the Bois de la Cambre, Brussels, January 1919

Between January 1916 and November 1918, 6,520 officers and men of the division were killed, 24,294 wounded, and 4,887 reported missing, more than half of the total of 63,923 officers and men who served with the division during this period.[179] For acts of valour, eleven soldiers were (in some cases posthumously) awarded the VC, one of whom, Chavasse, gained a second Victoria Cross.[180] In addition, the following awards (in several cases, multiple times) were bestowed: 80 Distinguished Service Orders, 427 Military Crosses, 200 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 1,649 Military Medals, and 70 Meritorious Service Medals.[179]

Battle insigniaEdit

The practice of wearing battalion specific insignia (often called battle patches) in the BEF began in mid-1915, with the arrival of units of Kitchener's Armies, and became widespread after the Battle of the Somme.[181] The patches shown were adopted on 30 March 1916, and were worn on the back below the collar. The division sign was worn on the sleeves when introduced in May 1917. The division was unusual in extending battle patches to the engineers and artillery.[182]

  164th Brigade, from left to right, top row: 1/4KORL, Liverpool Irish, 2/5LF, 1/4LR. Bottom row: 164th Machine Gun Company, 164th Trench Mortar Battery.[182]
  165th Brigade, from left to right, top row: 1/5KR, 1/6KR, 1/7KR, 1/9KR. Bottom row: 165th Machine Gun Company, 165th Trench Mortar Battery.[182]
  166th Brigade, from left to right, top row: 1/5KORL, Liverpool Scottish, 1/5SL, 1/5LR. Bottom row: 166th Machine Gun Company, 166th Trench Mortar Battery.[182]
  429th Field Company RE, 422nd Field Company RE, 423rd Field Company RE, 1/4SL.[182]
  275th Brigade RFA, 276th Brigade RFA, 55th Divisional Ammunition Column.[182]

Inter-war periodEdit

 
The division memorial in Liverpool. The corbel represents tank treads. The sculpture depicts an angel with a cross holding a crown above a kneeling soldier, with the divisional motto in relief.[183]

In September 1919, the division's Comrades Association decided that two memorials would be erected: one in Liverpool; and the second in Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée. The memorial in France was constructed on land near the town's church and unveiled on 15 May 1921. The ceremony included an honour guard of division veterans, including Jeudwine, and guests including the Duchess of Sutherland, the Mayor of Liverpool, Marshal of France Joseph Joffre, and the mayors of Givenchy and other nearby towns.[184] The second (pictured) is a sandstone sculpture by Walter Gilbert that was installed in Liverpool Cathedral.[183]

The division began reforming as part of Western Command in Lancashire during April 1920.[17] In 1921, the TF was reconstituted as the Territorial Army (TA) following the passage of the Territorial Army and Militia Act 1921.[185][b] As part of the TA, the division continued to be based throughout Lancashire, with units located in Lancaster, Liverpool, Preston, Southport, St Helens, and Warrington.[190] On 19 July 1924, the division was once again reviewed by George V during a visit to Liverpool.[191] During the inter-war period, the TA were only permitted to recruit up to 60 per cent of their established strength. Due to chronic underfunding, the lack of a pressing national threat, and a diminished level of prestige of serving in the TA, it was rare for units to even reach this level of manpower. By the 1930s, this resulted in the TA having limited access to modern equipment, under-trained men, and officers with inadequate experience in command.[192]

Motor divisionEdit

The development of British military doctrine during the inter-war period resulted in three types of division by the end of the 1930s: the infantry division; the mobile division (later called the armoured division); and the motor division. Historian David French wrote "the main role of the infantry ... was to break into the enemy's defensive position." This would then be exploited by the mobile division, followed by the motor divisions that would "carry out the rapid consolidation of the ground captured by the mobile divisions" therefore "transform[ing] the 'break-in' into a 'break-through'."[193] French wrote that the motor division "matched that of the German army's motorised and light divisions. But there the similarities ended." German motorised divisions contained three brigades and were as fully equipped as a regular infantry division, while their smaller light divisions contained a tank battalion. The British motor division, while being fully motorised and capable of transporting all their infantry, was "otherwise much weaker than normal infantry divisions" or their German counterparts as it was made up of only two brigades, had two artillery regiments as opposed to an infantry division's three, and contained no tanks.[194]

In 1938, the army decided to create six motor divisions from TA units. Only three infantry divisions were converted prior to the war, which included the 55th (West Lancashire).[194][195][c] The reform started the process of removing infantry and artillery elements from the division.[194] Many of the division's battalions were converted to new roles, and transferred to other branches of the army. The 6th Liverpool Rifles were retrained and transferred to the RE becoming the 38th (The King's Regiment) Anti-Aircraft Battalion, RE; the 5th King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) was converted to artillery, becoming the 56th (King's Own) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery; the 7th King's Regiment (Liverpool) became the 40th (The King's) Royal Tank Regiment.[190] The division retained three brigades until March 1939, when the 164th Brigade was disbanded, bringing the division into line with the intention of the new organisation. The division now comprised the 165th (Liverpool) and the 166th (South Lancashire and Cheshire) Infantry Brigades.[197][198]

Rearmament, 1930sEdit

Throughout the 1930s, tensions built between Germany and the United Kingdom and its allies.[199] During late 1937 and 1938, German demands for the annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia led to an international crisis. This was resolved in September by the Munich Agreement, which accepted that the Germans would annexe the Sudetenland.[200] On 15 March 1939, Germany breached the terms of the agreement by invading and occupying the remnants of the Czech state.[201] On 29 March, the British Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha announced plans to increase the TA from 130,000 men to 340,000, doubling the number of divisions.[202]

The plan was for existing TA divisions, referred to as the first-line, to recruit over their establishments, aided by an increase in pay for Territorials, the removal of restrictions on promotion which had hindered recruiting, the construction of better-quality barracks, and an increase in supper rations. The units would then each form a new division, referred to as the second-line, from cadres.[202][203] This process was dubbed "duplicating". The 55th provided cadres to create the second line duplicate formation which became the 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division. Despite the intention for the army to grow, the programme was complicated by a lack of central guidance on the expansion and duplication process and a lack of facilities, equipment and instructors.[202][204] It had been envisioned by the War Office that the duplicating process and recruiting the required numbers of men would take no more than six months.[204][205] The process varied widely between the TA divisions. Some were ready in weeks while others had made little progress by the time the Second World War began.[204][205] In April, limited conscription was introduced. At that time 34,500 men, all aged 20, were conscripted into the regular army, initially to be trained for six months before being deployed to the forming second line units.[206][207]

Second World WarEdit

Home defenceEdit

 
Universal Carriers of the 9th Battalion, King's Regiment (Liverpool), of the 164th Brigade, moving through a Sussex village, 3 July 1941.

By the outbreak of the war, the 55th Division had reformed the 164th Brigade. On 4 September it established the second line duplicate of the 166th Brigade, the 177th.[208] On 15 September, the 166th Infantry Brigade (renamed the 176th Infantry Brigade) and the 177th Brigade were transferred to the 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division.[209] This left the 55th Division with the 164th Brigade (with the 9th Battalion, King's Regiment (Liverpool), the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, and the 2/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment), and the 165th Brigade (with the 5th Battalion, King's Regiment (Liverpool), and the 1st and the 2nd Battalions, Liverpool Scottish (Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders)).[210] The division's GOC was Major-General Vivian Majendie, who had been in command since 1938.[211] The division was assigned to Western Command, and initial duties for the division included deploying guards to the docks at Birkenhead, the Port of Liverpool, and the naval defences at Crosby, while also assisting the civilian authorities in the cases of air raids.[212][213] On 6 September, the division fired its first shots of the war. Divisional anti-aircraft and machine guns fired on three aircraft flying low over the River Mersey. Fortunately, the shots missed, as the aircraft were later determined to be Royal Air Force Handley Page Hampdens.[214]

It was envisioned that the TA divisions each be deployed intact to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France as equipment became available, with all 26 TA divisions deployed by the end of the first year of the war.[215] However, in October 1939, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, General Walter Kirke, was tasked with drawing up a defensive plan to defend the United Kingdom from a German invasion, which was codenamed Julius Caesar.[d] As a result, the division was assigned to Home Forces' reserve. It was transferred to Northern Command and moved to Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire. Here the division furthered its training, while also being able to act as a counter-attack force for Julius Caesar, in case of a German invasion between the Humber and The Wash.[212][217] Additional duties included the protection of RAF Finningley.[218]

In January, the division was used to obtain drafts for formations overseas as well as volunteers to man anti-aircraft guns on small ships.[218] In March 1940, the division was relieved as a reserve formation. It was assigned to Eastern Command the following month, and transferred to defend the coastline of Suffolk and then Essex. These moves was part of a larger effort by Kirke to reinforce the defences in the East of England, which he believed was in imminent danger of invasion as a result of the German operations on mainland Europe.[212][219] Other than coastal defence, the division was also responsible for providing mobile detachments to hunt down any German airborne landings, guard Ipswich Airport, and construct roadblocks inland from potential invasion beaches.[220] In April, following the start of the Norwegian campaign, the division organised No. 4 Independent Company, which departed for Norway on 7 May 1940. Following the conclusion of that campaign, many of the men of the company joined the Commandos.[221] As a result of the German victory in the Battle of France and the return of the BEF following the Dunkirk evacuation, the division was not deployed overseas per the original TA deployment timeline.[212][222]

The British Army began implementing lessons learnt from the campaign in France. This included a decision that the standard division would be based around three brigades, and the abandonment of the motor division concept. This process involved the break up of four-second-line territorial divisions to reinforce depleted formations and aid in transforming the Army's five motor divisions, each made up of two brigades, into infantry divisions made up of three brigades.[223][224][225] As part of this process, on 23 June, the 66th Infantry Division was disbanded. This freed up the 199th Infantry Brigade and an artillery regiment to be transferred to the 55th Division, which became the 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division.[226][e] General Edmund Ironside replaced Kirke, who believed the division (along with the others which had remained in the UK) to be insufficiently trained, equipped, and unable to undertake offensive operations. It was therefore assigned a static coastal defence role in Essex, while leaving enough troops available to deal with any German paratrooper landings that may occur in its area.[231] Duties also included the digging and improving of defensive positions, and ongoing training.[232] On paper, an infantry division was to have seventy-two 25-pounder field guns. On 31 May, the division had eight such modern guns in addition to four First World War-vintage 18-pounder field guns, and eight 4.5 in (110 mm) howitzers of similar vintage. The division had only two anti-tank guns, against a nominal establishment of 48, and only 47 of the required 307 Boys anti-tank rifles.[233][234] General Alan Brooke, who replaced Ironside, reviewed the division on 1 August and stated the 55th "should be quite good with a bit of training."[235]

The division remained in Essex until 1941, when it was replaced by the Essex County Division. The 55th moved south to defend the Sussex coast.[212][236] The division improved the beach defences in its sector, as well as constructing and expanding defences to the rear of potential landing zones. With the arrival of increased levels of ammunition, the men of the division were able to considerably increase their proficiency in the use of small arms and mortars.[237] On 1 June 1941, Major-General William Duthie Morgan replaced Majendie as GOC.[195] In July, the division was relieved from coastal defence. It relocated to Aldershot to act as a reserve formation, and increased the tempo of training.[238] Morgan maintained his position until October, when he was wounded during a training exercise, and was replaced by Major-General Frederick Morgan.[195][239] During the final months of 1941, the division started to provide drafts of men to other formations.[238] This was followed by the division being placed on the lower establishment in January 1942.[f] In December 1941, the division relocated to Yorkshire and was reassigned to Northern Command. The division was spread out with troops based in the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, with the intention it would counter-attack any German landings along the coast or at nearby airfields. The 165th Brigade also spent some time at Catterick Garrison.[242][243] The division spent the majority of the time training, from the battalion to the brigade level. The division relocated to Devon in January 1943, and was assigned to the South West District. The division's role was to counter any raids conducted by German forces along the coast. The division also continued training, provided guards for vulnerable points, and rendered assistance to nearby civilian authorities as needed after air raids.[212][244] In June, the division lost five men killed following a German bombing raid.[245] In December 1943, the division received drafts from anti-aircraft regiments. These men were then given a ten-week training course to make them viable drafts for infantry units.[246] In December 1943, the division went to Northern Ireland, under the command of British Troops Northern Ireland. In Ulster, the division aided farmers, helped train elements of the reforming Belgian Army, and trained with newly arrived American troops.[212][247][248] The division continued to provide men to other formations through 1944.[238]

Wind down and deceptionEdit

In May 1944, the 55th was raised to higher establishment.[212] However, the division did not increase in size; in 1944, the war establishment (the paper strength) of a higher establishment infantry division was 18,347 men.[249] The 55th and the 38th (Welsh), the 45th, the 47th (London), and the 61st Infantry Divisions had a combined total of 17,845 men.[250] The division would remain within the United Kingdom and be drained of manpower to a point that it was all but disbanded, and then maintained as a deception formation.[251][252] Of these 17,845 men, around 13,000 were available as replacements for the 21st Army Group fighting in France.[253] The remaining 4,800 men were considered ineligible at that time for service abroad for a variety of reasons, including a lack of training or being medically unfit. Over the following six months, up to 75 per cent of these men would be deployed to reinforce 21st Army Group following the completion of their training and certification of fitness.[250] For example, the Liverpool Scottish were used as a training formation and a source of reinforcements for other Scottish regiments.[254] Entire units were stripped from the division and deployed abroad; the 2nd Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) (previously 10th Battalion of the Loyal Regiment) was transferred to Italy.[255]

While the 199th Brigade remained part of the division, it was attached to Northern Ireland District in July 1944. The same month, the division, minus the 199th Brigade, returned to the mainland and moved to southern Wales. The 199th Brigade, renumbered the 166th Brigade, physically rejoined the division in June 1945.[256][248]

The division's actual and notional moves were deliberately leaked by double agents as part of the Fortitude North deception, the effort to make the Germans believe that the notional 250,000-strong Fourth Army, based in Scotland, would assault Norway.[257][258][259] The division was assigned to the fictional II Corps, which was "preparing to assault Stavanger".[260] The division participated in this deception effort by maintaining wireless signals suggesting it was moving around the United Kingdom as part of Fourth Army, while in fact remaining in Northern Ireland. The ruse of an attack on Norway was maintained through July, with the plan coming to an official end in September.[261] Historian Mary Barbier wrote "the evidence seems to indicate that [Fortitude North] was only partially successful" and "a heated debate has erupted over whether or not [the operation] was a success."[262][g] The division then joined the Fourth Army's notional move south from Scotland to England, becoming part of Fortitude South to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and the main Allied invasion would take place in the Pas-de-Calais with a force of 500,000 men.[263] The deception aimed to persuade the Germans not to move the 18 divisions of the 15th Army from the Pas-de-Calais to Normandy.[264][265] The division also provided the signal and headquarters staff to create the phantom 55th US Infantry Division.[266] Gerhard Weinberg wrote that the Germans readily believed in the threat to the Pas de Calais and "it was only at the end of July" that they realised a second assault was not coming; "by that time, it was too late to move reinforcements".[267] Barbier wrote "it is time to consider that the importance of the deception has been overrated".[268][h] The 15th Army was largely immobile, not combat-ready and that despite the deception, numerous German divisions, including the 1st SS Panzer Division in reserve behind the 15th Army, were transferred to Normandy; the Germans had realised as early as May that the threat to Normandy was real. While the Germans believed the deception due to "preconceived ideas about the importance of the Pas De Calais", the Allied staff had overestimated the effectiveness of the deception in causing the inaction of the 15th Army, because they held a "preconceived notion of what FORTITUDE would accomplish".[269]

In the aftermath of the war, the British army demobilised.[270] The TA was reformed in 1947 on a much smaller scale of eight divisions that did not include the 55th West Lancashire.[271][i] In 1947, the division's insignia was temporarily adopted by the 87th Army Group Royal Artillery, which was based in Liverpool and was made up primarily of units from West Lancashire, creating a connection with the division.[1]

General officers commandingEdit

Appointed General officer commanding
1 April 1908 Major-General Edward Thompson Dickson[272][273]
6 July 1909 Major-General Edward Cecil Bethune[274]
3 June 1912 Major-General Walter Lindsay[275][21]
5 August 1914 Major-General Frederick Hammersley[21][276]
3 September 1914 Major-General John Burton Forster[20][21]
3 January 1916 Major-General Sir Hugh Jeudwine[21]
29 May 1919 Major-General Sir Reginald Barnes[277][278]
1 April 1921 Major-General Sir Cecil Nicholson[279][280]
1 April 1925 Major-General Hugo de Pree[281]
16 July 1926 Major-General Basil Hitchcock[282][283]
14 September 1928 Major-General Harold W. Higginson[283]
14 September 1932 Major-General George Alexander Weir[284]
1 January 1934 Major-General James Cooke-Collis[285]
5 December 1935 Major-General Ernest Lewin[286]
1 June 1938 Major-General Vivian Majendie[211]
1 June 1941 Major-General William Duthie Morgan[195]
13 October 1941 Brigadier Rupert Brett (Acting GOC)[195]
30 October 1941 Major-General Frederick Morgan[195]
14 May 1942 Major-General Hugh Hibbert[195]
15 August 1943 Major-General Walter Clutterbuck[195][287]
13 July 1944 Major-General Horatio Berney-Ficklin[195]

Order of battleEdit

See alsoEdit

FootnotesEdit

  1. ^ For comparison, the average casualty rate for British battalions during the First World War was 100 casualties per month.[33]
  2. ^ The TA was the reserve of the British regular army made up of part-time volunteers. Its intended role was the sole method of expanding the size of the British Armed Forces (comparable to the creation of Kitchener's Army during the First World War). First-line territorial formations would create a second-line division using a cadre of trained personnel and, if needed, a third division would be created. All TA recruits were required to take the general service obligation: if the British Government decided, territorial soldiers could be deployed overseas for combat (This avoided the complications of the First World War-era TF, whose members were not required to leave Britain unless they volunteered for overseas service, until the Military Service Act 1916.).[186][187][188][189]
  3. ^ The other two were the 1st London and 50th (Northumbrian) divisions.[196]
  4. ^ Julius was the codeword to bring troops to a state of readiness within eight hours. The codeword Caesar meant an invasion was imminent, and units were to be readied for immediate action. Kirke's plan assumed that the Germans would use 4,000 paratroopers, followed by 15,000 troops landed via civilian aircraft once airfields had been secured (Germany only actually had 6,000 such troops), and at least one division of 15,000 troops to be used in an amphibious assault.[216]
  5. ^ The other brigades of 66th Division were transferred to the 1st London and 59th (Staffordshire) divisions to complete their transition to infantry formations.[227] 12th (Eastern) Infantry Division was disbanded on 11 July 1940, with its brigades allocated to 1st London and 2nd London Motor Divisions as part of their transition to infantry formations.[228] 23rd (Northumbrian) Division was broken up on 30 June, with one brigade being transferred to 50th (Northumberland) Motor Division.[229] On 7 August, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was re-created by the re-designation of its second-line duplicate, the 9th (Highland) Infantry Division.[230]
  6. ^ During the war, divisions of the British Army were organised as either higher or lower establishment formations. The former were intended for deployment overseas and combat, whereas the latter had been strictly detailed for home defence in a static role.[240][241]
  7. ^ Barbier discussed the opposing arguments. Those in favour of the success of the operation have highlighted that German troop levels in Norway stayed relatively the same, and none were transferred to Normandy. Opponents have pointed out that troops were transferred from Norway, albeit to the Eastern Front. The troop levels in Norway could also have several explanations: the Germans did not realize there was sufficient forces based in Scotland to carry out an invasion, the deception plan played into the German understanding of how important Norway was, and the levels could have remained the same as a way to guard the German northern flank and protect Finnish nickel ore shipments. The former two points have been used to highlight the success of the operation. Detractors have also noted that the Germans were "more interested in radio traffic that originated in the Soviet Union than that from Scotland".[262]
  8. ^ The 15th Army was made up of seven static divisions trained for defensive operations, and supplemented with two Luftwaffe Field Divisions. The army lacked equipment, transport and was under-trained.[268]
  9. ^ The 49th (West Riding) and 56th (London) Armoured Divisions and the 42nd (Lancashire), 43rd (Wessex), 44th (Home Counties), 50th (Northumbrian), 51st/52nd (Scottish), and 53rd (Welsh) infantry divisions.[271]

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Further readingEdit

  • Gregson, Adrian (2018). From Docks and Sand: Southport and Bootle's Battalion, the 7th King's Liverpool Regiment, in the First World War. Solihull: Helion. ISBN 978-1-91151-216-5.
  • Knight, Paul (2016). Liverpool Territorials in the Great War. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-473-83404-0.
  • Knight, Paul (2019). Lessons from the Mud: 55th (West Lancashire) Division at the Third Battle of Ypres. Warwick: Helion. ISBN 978-1-912-39005-2.
  • Shannon, Kevin (2015). The Lion and the Rose: The 4th Battalion The King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment 1914–1919. Stroud: Fonthill Media. ISBN 978-1-781-55438-8.
  • Shannon, Kevin (2017). The Lion and the Rose: The 1/5th Battalion the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment 1914–1919. II. Stroud: Fonthill Media. ISBN 978-1-781-55555-2.
  • Shannon, Kevin (2019). The Liverpool Rifles: A Biography of the 1/6th Battalion King's Liverpool Regiment in the First World War. Stroud: Fonthill Media. ISBN 978-1-781-55701-3.