Lancashire Rose: 55th (West Lancashire) Divisional Insignia (Author’s Collection).

100 Years Ago: Lancastrians reformed as Britain's 55th Division on Western Front

Posted on centenarynews.com on 14 January 2016
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CN contributor Paul Knight tells the story of the British Army's West Lancashire Division, experienced Territorial soldiers reformed on the Western Front at the start of 1916. The new 55th Division would go on to play a crucial role in resisting Germany's spring offensive of 1918.

The West Lancashire Division of the Territorial Force was re-formed as the 55th Division in France on 6 January 1916.

As the Territorials, their role before the First World War had been Home Defence. They expected to undergo a six-month mobilisation period before engaging in operations and were trained and equipped accordingly. Their training was also limited by the amount of free time available. This was limited to about a fortnight’s annual leave per year and Saturday afternoons, hence they were called the Saturday Afternoon Soldiers. Yet, despite this, and the lack of an overseas service obligation, when Lord Kitchener called for volunteers in August 1914, they volunteered in large numbers.

The West Lancashire Division was one of 14 Territorial Divisions formed in 1908, and had a claim to be the senior division as it was the first to conduct a divisional annual camp, in 1909. However, when the divisions were numbered in 1915, numbers were allocated in the order that they deployed overseas as complete divisions. Seniority went to the East Lancashire Division (numbered 42nd) who deployed to the Suez Canal in September 1914.

Embattled

In 1914, the West Lancashire Division was broken up with units deploying to the Western Front to support the embattled BEF. The first to go was 10th King’s, the Liverpool Scottish, who sailed on 1 November 1914 and was amongst the first twenty-two Territorial battalions on the Western Front. The rest of the infantry battalions sailed to France over the winter of 1914-15 and gained considerable experience.

In 1915, the Western Front was not the only active theatre. One Royal Engineer Field Company deployed to Gallipoli to support the East Lancashire Division, and would spend the whole war in the Mediterranean, ending up at Salonika. Two units were permanently attached to new divisions. A RAMC Field Ambulance was posted to 29th Division, with whom it would serve both on Gallipoli and on the Somme, while another RAMC Field Ambulance joined the Liverpool Pals in 30th Division. The divisional artillery supported the 2nd Canadian Division in late-1915 while its own artillery was still in training.

So, when the 55th Division was reformed individual units possessed considerable operational experience. The task of moulding them, new units from outside the original division and the brigade and divisional staffs went to Major-General Sir Hugh Sandham Jeudwine, the division’s only wartime commander. He set about creating a well-trained, well-motivated force. Their first action was at Guillemont on 8 August 1916, and then at Ginchy, Morval and Fleurs. Paddy Griffith, in his book Battle Tactics of the Western Front, writes that by September 1916 it is possible to identify ‘elite’ divisions and commanders, including Jeudwine and the 55th: ‘we can….start to glimpse some truly effective individual commanders within the BEF.’*

'Finest moment'

However, it would not be a smooth process. The division was accused of panicking during the German counter-attack during the Battle of Cambrai but, most importantly, they learnt their lessons. When the Germans attacked in the spring of 1918, the 55th was the only division to hold its ground. This achievement was all the more impressive when it is realised that the 2nd Portuguese Division on their left collapsed, leaving an exposed flank. This would be the division’s finest moment, and may even have saved the war.

There were also some highly effective individuals, including Captain Noel Chavasse, RAMC, the only Great War recipient of the VC and Bar.

Jeudwine also set about creating a ‘corporate identity’ around the Lancashire roots, including the Lancashire Rose divisional emblem. This inspired Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall to write a poem from which the divisional motto was taken. Wall, from West Kirby, Cheshire, served with 1/1st (West Lancashire) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and had already been Mentioned in Despatches by the time he was killed, aged, 20, in the Ypres Salient on 9 June 1917.

'They Win or Die who wear the Rose of Lancaster'.**

Major Paul Knight is PhD VR is author of 'The British Army in Mesopotamia 1914-1918'

©Centenary News & Author

Sources: *Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: the British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18 (Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 82 – 3.

** W.W. Wadwsorth, War Diary of the 1st West Lancashire Brigade, RFA (Liverpool, 1923), pp. 68 – 69.

Images: Author's collection