Lives on the Line: The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry At War, 1917

Soldier washing clothes – IWM (Q6030)

INTRODUCTION

At the beginning of 1917, the British Army was still reeling from the previous year and the heavy losses of the Battle of the Somme. 1917 became the year the hard lessons learned from this campaign would be put into practice. New training techniques, weaponry and technology were beginning to improve the efficiency of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (K.O.Y.L.I.), and the British Army as a fighting force.

Throughout 1917, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was fighting on the Western Front to break through the German defensive ‘Hindenburg Line’, and further East, to defeat the Bulgarians in Salonika, now Greece.

Although the war was not brought to an end in this year, a K.O.Y.L.I. soldier of 1917 had more skills, weaponry, and ammunition available to him than a K.O.Y.L.I. soldier of 1914. He was also part of an Army that had better transportation and logistics than ever before.

THE BATTLE OF ARRAS

Horace Waller VC

In Spring 1917, the German forces began their carefully planned and deliberate withdrawal to a heavily fortified line of defences known as the ‘Hindenburg Line’. The German Army operated a ‘scorched earth’ policy during the withdrawal, destroying food and water sources, chopping down trees and setting up booby traps. This made it more difficult for the Allied forces to mount their planned attack and put the new lessons they had learnt into action.

When the battle began on 9 April, the 6th, 9th, and 10th K.O.Y.L.I. attacked the Line, not only battling against the German forces, but also against the weather. On the first day of this battle it snowed! The battle came to an end in May and although there was no decisive breakthrough, significant gains had been made in some areas.

Private Horace Waller, 10th Battalion, wins the Victoria Cross

During the Battle of Arras, the German forces mounted a counter-attack on 10 April 1917. Among those defending the line was a group of men from the 10th Battalion K.O.Y.L.I., including 20-year-old Private Horace Waller from Dewsbury. He was wounded and almost alone, the rest of his group having been killed. Private Waller continued to throw bombs, despite his wounds, until he too was killed. The citation for his win reported on his bravery, stating that he ‘showed the utmost valour’ and thanks to him, the German attacks on his post were unsuccessful.

THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES

Memorial Card for Harry and Ronald

‘I found myself completely separated from my battalion, wet, hungry and tired, geographically lost and wandering among the shell-holes, occasional duckboard tracks and…‘pill-boxes’ of the Passchendaele battlefield’

Captain L. W. Batten, Medical Officer, 1/5th K.O.Y.L.I.

The Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began on 31 July. The attack was an Allied attempt to damage German railway communications and remove the naval threat on the coast of Belgium. It was also intended to relieve pressure on the unstable French army. The 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 1/4th and 1/5th battalions of the K.O.Y.L.I. were fighting during the constant rain that plagued the battle. The battle became as well-known for the mud as it did for the high casualty figures.

Father and Son

One phase of Passchendaele, The Battle of Poelcappelle, began on 9 October 1917. The mud hindered movement of men, guns and ammunition. Among the men fighting with the 1/4th K.O.Y.L.I. were Lieutenant Colonel Harry Moorhouse and his son Captain Ronald Wilkinson Moorhouse, of Wakefield.

When Ronald was fatally wounded on 9 October, his father left Headquarters to organise medical help, against his son’s wishes. He was shot a few minutes later. Neither Ronald nor Harry’s bodies were recovered for burial. They are remembered on Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.

The battle finally ended with the taking of the village and ridge of Passchendaele on 10 November by the Canadian forces. Little ground had been taken and casualty figures were high. However, German forces also suffered heavy losses and the pressure had been taken off the French, allowing them to regroup.

BATTLE OF CAMBRAI

Tanks ready for Cambrai – IWM (Q 46932)

The Battle of Cambrai was planned with the failings of the Ypres offensive in mind. Surprise was the key to this attack. Hundreds of tanks were moved to the front line in secret. Royal Flying Corps planes were used to cover the sound of the tanks, as well as scoping out enemy artillery and distracting enemy forces.

Beginning on 20 November, the British attack succeeded in taking the Germans by surprise. The guns, men and tanks worked together in an attempt to break the Hindenburg Line. The 2/4th and 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I. were in the thick of the fighting. Although the Germans launched a counter attack and took back a large portion of the British land captured during the 10-day long battle, the British forces had shown that a new collaborative model of attack could work.

‘Nov 20th Z day 6-30am. two sections wiped out. Went and took objective and pinched Bosch Officers’ bacon & eggs. Fairly quiet time.’

Second Lieutenant J. L. Rodgers, 2/4th K.O.Y.L.I., diary entry for the first day of the Battle of Cambrai.

 

FROM WEST TO EAST

KOYLI cooks – IWM (Q 6031)

Although a large portion of the fighting which involved the K.O.Y.L.I. during the First World War did take place in France and Belgium, the 1st K.O.Y.L.I. fought in Salonika, Greece, arriving in late 1915. Here, they faced German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish soldiers on a line covering ground from Albania to Greece.

The weather plagued the soldiers in Salonika, as it did those in the trenches of the Western Front, but life in south eastern Europe was very different. K.O.Y.L.I. men faced a difficult terrain with an underdeveloped road and train system.

Life behind the lines:

Life on the Salonika front was marred by extreme weather, a lack of rations, low morale and the ever present threat of malaria. The situation improved in 1917 with better sports and recreation along with mosquito nets and improved access to medicine.

Back on the Western Front, the K.O.Y.L.I. was also looking for activities to boost morale. Quartermaster Captain Herbert Barker of 1/5th K.O.Y.L.I. came up with the idea of a concert party of men to provide entertainment for the men behind the lines. A group called ‘The Koylis’ performed on New Year’s Day 1917, and at the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. celebration marking two years at the front in May 1917.

A TACTICAL BREAKTHROUGH

Soldier eating dinner at Arras (IWM Q 5196)

Although the British Army had learnt from a lot of the mistakes of the Battle of the Somme, 1917 did not provide the breakthrough necessary to end the war. The response to the German withdrawal was not quick or decisive enough to break the strength of the German Army.

The British Expeditionary Force were the best organised and trained that they had ever been, but more needed to be done if the British Army, including the K.O.Y.L.I., was to be a consistent and successful fighting force.  Although the battles of Arras, Third Ypres and Cambrai did not provide the breakthrough hoped, the use of the new training methods and tactics introduced in 1917 would bring the war to an end in 1918.