The Road to Victory: The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at War, 1918–19

6th Battalion on the Western Front

INTRODUCTION

The First World War had raged since August 1914 and in November 1918 it finally came to an end. However, the campaigns of 1918 were not straightforward for the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (K.O.Y.L.I.) and the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.).

1917 had been a year of technological development and tactical advances for Allied forces, with better training introduced for soldiers. However, this hadn’t proved enough to defeat enemy forces. As late as July 1918, Allied victory wasn’t a certainty. Early in 1918, K.O.Y.L.I. soldiers were fighting against bad weather in decaying trenches.

However, the tide changed throughout 1918 and a sequence of successful battles finally secured Allied victory, bringing the war to an end on 11 November 1918. Men of the K.O.Y.L.I. were among those who entered Germany as part of the army of occupation. Peace negotiations continued until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE

KOYLI, French and Italians Officers – IWM (Q 11113)

German forces launched their attempt to end the First World War in March 1918. The huge ‘Kaiserschlacht’ offensive was supported by an influx of men arriving from the Eastern Front following Russia’s withdrawal from the war in late 1917.

On July 15, German forces launched another phase of this offensive. Men from the 5th and 2/4th K.O.Y.L.I. fought alongside French and American forces in the counter-attack, the Battle of Tardenois. This counter-attack not only prevented the German offensive from moving forward, but actually pushed German forces back and forced them to lose ground. The men of the K.O.Y.L.I. would have been unaware at the time that this was to be the final offensive for the German Army during the First World War.

Hyde Park Pony Driver and double Military Cross winner

John William Dore, a pit pony driver who lived in Hyde Park, Doncaster, rose through the ranks of the K.O.Y.L.I. He went to France with the regiment in early 1915, was twice wounded, sent home to train, awarded a commission and won the Military Cross, all by the end of 1917! John’s dramatic war-time experience continued into 1918 while he was serving with the 9th K.O.Y.L.I. He was reported missing on 27 May 1918, the first day of a fresh German offensive. In September 1918, the London Gazette reported that John had won the Military Cross for the second time in recognition of his bravery during this action before being taken prisoner. His citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  He led his company with great dash and efficiency in an attack under heavy machine-gun fire, and captured and killed several of the enemy.  He set a brilliant example to his men.

John was moved between several German Prisoner of War camps but was later released. He survived the war, and returned to Doncaster. He died in Stainforth in 1929.

THE HUNDRED DAYS CAMPAIGN

A crowd of German prisoners – IWM (Q 9271)

The first day of the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 was described by German General Rich Ludendorff as the ‘black day’ of the German Army. At this battle, the 2nd K.O.Y.L.I. supported the Canadian Army. This date also marked the beginning of what has become known as ‘the Hundred Days campaign’. From this point on until the end of the war, Allied forces were constantly advancing. Instead of continuing with failing campaigns, they diverted their efforts after initial successes had faltered. These constant changes eventually exhausted German forces, and helped the Allies to achieve a decisive victory.

Pulled out shape

On the first day of the Battle of Amiens, there were 30,000 German casualties and prisoners taken. The British lost 8,800 casualties and advanced over an area 7 miles long and 15 miles wide.

ARMISTICE

Armistice declared at Doncaster Mansion House

In early November 1918, German forces finally conceded defeat, following the Ottoman and Bulgarian forces. German negotiators arrived in France soon after. Over the next few days, the German Kaiser abdicated, Germany was declared a new democratic parliamentary republic and the armistice agreement was signed on 11 November.

For the 2/4th K.O.Y.L.I., this momentous occasion was noted simply in the battalion war diary:

‘At 08.30 hours a telephone message was received from Brigade to say that hostilities would cease at 11.00 hours.’

However, Major Beaumont, in command of C Company of the 2/4th showed more emotion in a letter to his wife;

‘Sweetheart – well it has come at last. The day we have always longed for, for four weary years… it’s surprising how we all took it. Practically no excitement – I suppose really our feelings are too deep.’

 In Doncaster, the Mayor announced the Armistice to a jubilant crowd who had gathered in front of the Mansion House.

BACK TO DONCASTER

Men of the 5th Battalion collecting the Colours from the Mayor

Prisoners of War returned to Doncaster from German camps throughout 1918. Debates raged in local newspapers about the lack of organisation and failure to give recognition to soldiers returning to the town. In February 1918, the Doncaster Gazette described a “welcome home fiasco”. In July 1918 a formal Doncaster Prisoners of War Committee was set up. Regular appeals for donations appeared in local newspapers alongside interviews with returning prisoners now back at home in Doncaster.

In April 1919, a large Prisoners of War Fund dinner and concert was held at Doncaster Mansion House. 125 local prisoners of war attended from across the borough including Arksey, Bawtry, Conisbrough and Thorne. Among them was Herbert John Darley whose objects can be seen in the case. Many returned Prisoners of War could not attend as they were still in the army at home or abroad and could not be relieved of their duties.

K.O.Y.L.I. Colours

In December 1918, the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. attended a special ceremony at Doncaster Mansion House. The Mayor, Councillor Jackson, handed the colours banners back to the battalion. These had been with the Mayor since their presentation by the King in 1909. The banners would accompany the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. to Germany as they entered the country as part of the army of occupation. Among those at the ceremony was Sergeant Laurence Calvert, V.C. of Conisbrough.

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.

THE WAR TO END ALL WARS?

Although the war officially came to an end in November 1918, for some K.O.Y.L.I. soldiers it continued as they moved into Germany as the army of occupation. For others, their return to Doncaster and other neighbouring Yorkshire towns and cities was swift. Most would carry the weight of their wartime experiences with them for the rest of their lives. Many went on to be involved with comrades clubs and regimental associations.

In 1918, the long process of developing memorials to remember the dead began and numerous crosses, plaques and other monuments sprang up across Britain. One of these, the memorial board to the men of the 5th K.O.Y.L.I., can be seen in this museum.

On the signing of the Armistice the Doncaster Gazette reported:

‘After this long, arduous and exacting war had come to an end… the town of Doncaster had done its bit… the black clouds of war had been lifted and the armistice signed, and they were looking forward to a peace that should be clean, just and permanent.’
– Doncaster Gazette, 20 December 1918

Unfortunately, this peace did not prove to be permanent and many K.O.Y.L.I. First World War veterans would live to see the Regiment back in action during the Second World War, with some thrown back into fighting again.