The First World War has a very significant place in the collective memory of the United Kingdom, and other countries around the world for many reasons. One of those reasons being that ordinary young men who had never considered being in the armed forces before, were now enlisting in droves. The rapid expansion and recruitment into the armed forces in 1914 meant that regular and territorial units – whose members were generally recruited to regiments in the areas that they lived – were joined by New Army units in being compromised of groups of men from the same area. Some of these units were nicknamed ‘Pal’s Battalions’, purposely organised in a local group to encourage men to enlist and serve with people they know; men who worked, played football or attended church together. As a result of this, there continues to be geographical or ever familial links to units to this day, meaning that as the war continued and the lists of casualties got longer, certain dates came to correlate with large numbers of deaths in particular parts of the country, one of the most famous examples of this being the Accrington Pals on 1st July.
For me personally, there are two local divisions that I have taken a keen interest in, the 46th (North Midland) Division and the 48th (South Midland Division). A division during the First World War was made up of approximately 20000 men. Within a division you had three Brigades (or four in some cases); each brigade had 4 infantry battalions; and each battalion had 4 companies. There were also support troops such as medical and veterinary services, artillery units and royal engineers to name but a few. Both of these divisions I have taken an interest in were pre-war territorial units formed in 1908 and were mobilised for full time war service on the 5th August 1914. Territorial units were made up of ‘Saturday soldiers’; men who had full-time jobs and undertook training on weekends. Some may already have had regular army experience and joined the territorials when they left the army. Whilst territorial divisions had units from the areas where they were based, regular army battalions were spread across a number of different divisions. For example, the 46th Division had units that covered the areas of Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire whereas the 48th Division had units from the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. But there are plenty of examples of regular army units from these areas in other divisions; for example, the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment was part of the 22nd Brigade, 7th Division. Some New Army units were built into Regular and Territorial Divisions to bolster the numbers.
At the time of the First World War, the county of the West Midlands (where I live) did not exist. The county area today was part of Staffordshire (including the towns of Wolverhampton, Walsall and parts of Dudley) Worcestershire (Oldbury, Halesowen and parts of Dudley) and Warwickshire (Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry). The borders of Staffordshire and Worcestershire in particular were very irregular. As an example, where I live now used to come under Staffordshire but the town 2.5 miles to the north used to be part of Worcestershire. As such, this means that men from the area where I live ended up in a variety of local regiments and a significant number of them ended up in either the 46th or 48th Divisions. Over the course of two posts, I will go into basic details about the stories of each of these Divisions; where they served and what battles they took part in. Throughout the year, I will then add posts featuring these battles in much further detail. Today’s post will be focussing on the 46th (North Midland) Division. I must point out here, that this will be fairly long post, highlighting key dates for the division. There are many times when the division would have been in support or reserve, miles behind the front line.
In August 1914, the North Midland Division was spread across the country carrying out annual training events. When war broke out, the units were called back to their drill halls in the towns where they lived. The men of the unit were then asked if they were willing to serve abroad or not. Those who agreed to serve abroad became the became the original members of the unit. The division was then mobilised and was carrying out training in the Luton area by the middle of August 1914. The command of the division had that year only been taken up by Major General the Hon. Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. He inherited a territorial division that was well organised and well trained. Stuart-Wortley ensured that this high level of training was continued whilst preparing for the division to be sent abroad. He was well thought of by his men and his influence on them was evident, as shown in the history of the 7th Battalion Sherwood Foresters
“It is largely owing to the ability with which he supervised the preparatory training of the 46th Division in England that they made such a great historic name for themselves in France. He was thorough in all he undertook, and no small detail escaped his attention. In France, it was often remarked how clean, well-shaven and smart the men of this Division were, and it was under his command that the North Midlanders were asked to accomplish the impossible. No territorial division landed in France better prepared or with greater Esprit de Corps than the 46th”
The Division kept on training until February 1915, when King George V inspected the unit on the 19th. The King wished the soldiers good luck and God Speed. With this blessing, it became evident that the Division would soon be en route to a theatre of war wherever that may be; thus, becoming the first complete territorial division to do so. The King, who was a personal acquaintance of Stuart-Wortley, asked that he be written to on a weekly basis and kept abreast of how the Division were fairing. Stuart-Wortley agreed to this and informed his superiors including Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.
The Division arrived in France in March 1915 and where first sent to Messines area before making the move to the Ypres Salient in June 1915. The division was rotated in to trenches around Sanctuary Wood, near Hooge. Whilst the unit had been involved in some skirmishes, had been on the flanks of attacks and had been the victims of mining, the first instance of being directly involved of fighting was during the 30th– 31st July attack by the Germans at Hooge. This was the first use by the Germans of liquid fire or flame throwers as they would become better. The division was in support and assisted the 14th Division during this attack, where the skill of the Midlanders was noted and praised by senior officers. However, this was in a defensive capacity not an offensive one. The first real opportunity for the 46th to prove itself in an offensive capacity would be the coming attack at the Hohenzollern Redoubt as part of the Battle of Loos.
The Battle of Loos commenced on the 25th September 1915 and continued until the 8th October. This area is just to the immediate north of the city of Lens. The attack at the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the 13th October was an attempt to regain the land that had been taken in the Battle, but then lost to a German counterattack on the 3rd October. This was the first chance that the 46th Division had to show how it could fight against a strong defensive German position. The forward regiments attacked after a gas cloud release. The attack by the North Midlanders failed and resulted in 3643 casualties, mostly in the first few minutes. The gas clouds had little effect due to high winds and bright sunlight and artillery support had been minimal, due to a lack of ammunition. This lack of ammunition led to the Munitions Crisis of 1915. In the British Official History, it was written that “The fighting [from 13–14 October] had not improved the general situation in any way and had brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry”.
6 weeks after the costly attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, the Division was ordered to proceed to Egypt, with most units leaving Northern France around Christmas time and arriving in Egypt on 13th January 1916. However, after just a few days in Egypt, the division was ordered to return to France and Flanders, where it remained for the rest of the war. The unit spent time around Vimy Ridge before being moved to the area around Gommecourt.
The attack at Gommecourt was designed to act as a diversion and to draw fire away from the northern end of the Battle of the Somme that commenced on 1st July 1916. The Battle of the Somme is extremely well known, but the attack at Gommecourt is known to a lesser extent. The diversions aim was to keep artillery and machine gun fire away from the northern end of the Somme battle area to reduce the number of casualties around the village of Serre, but also to kill as many Germans as possible. Gommecourt village was to be attacked by the 46th and 56th (London) Divisions. The division found itself in a less than ideal position as, due to the costly attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the time spent on Vimy Ridge, the division was nowhere near full strength and had lost a lot of experienced officers. I will go into what happened at Gommecourt in more detail in a later post, but these two factors had a significant effect on what was to come for the North Midlanders. The initial attack by the Division launched from trenches located at the village of Foncquevillers at 0730 and failed within a half an hour with heavy casualties from enemy fire, most of the Division’s troops seeking cover and finding themselves trapped in their own trenches. Stuart-Wortley was ordered by his seniors to renew the attack at midday as the 56th Division on its right had made good progress but was in desperate need of support as it came under increasing counter-attack from German forces. However, the 46th Division had become incapable of doing this due the chaotic situation in its own trenches and was unable to seriously re-engage for the rest of the day. After continual failed attempts to organize a renewed attack by his troops throughout the morning and early afternoon, it was clear to Stuart-Wortley that there was no prospect of success, but at 1530 under pressure from senior command, he ordered a token effort to be made by two rifle companies of men. In the evening the 56th Division was forced back out of the enemy trenches after 13 hours of continuous heavy fighting within the German position on its own, having sustained very heavy losses, sealing the defeat of the overall operation at Gommecourt.
Thus the 46th Division’s attack failed completely. It suffered 2455 casualties and was removed from the front line the next day. Somewhat unfairly, in the days that followed, the division was deemed responsible for the failure at Gommecourt, allegedly leaving the London Scottish to fight alone. The division was even accused of having ‘A lack of offensive spirit’. A Court of Inquiry was set up to investigate the divisions wrongdoing, which seems overly harsh considering what else had gone on on the 1st July. This was a reputation that followed the division until the victory that was achieved on the Saint Quentin Canal in 1918.
After periods in quieter sections of the Western Front, the division was brought back to the Gommecourt area in December 1916, where it was noted by the troops who had been there in July, that there had not been much change, and not much maintenance either. They were still in the Gommecourt area when the Germans started their withdrawal back to the defensive position known as the Hindenburg Line. It was at this point, in March 1917, that the troops finally made their way successfully into Gommecourt, coming across their comrades who had still yet to be buried, 9 months after the failed offensive.
The division was again moved from this area of France further north, again, just like in 1915, back to the area around the city of Lens (known as an industrial city due to factories and coal mining; not unfamiliar to the men of the 46th Division) where the unit was to participate in two attacks. The first was the attack on Lievin, a small town on the outskirts of Lens itself on 1st July 1917, exactly a year after Gommecourt, which no doubt would have been playing on the minds of some of the veterans amongst the division. Again, just like at Gommecourt, the 4 attacking companies found themselves seriously under strength, only mustering 2 platoons worth of men for each company (there were usually 4 platoons of 50 men in a company). The attack started with artillery support at around 0315 in the morning and started off well. Objectives were taken – if a bit slower than expected – by 2 of the companies who actually got to the final objective of Aconite Trench and German positions were destroyed. However, as the flanks of the success were not completely successful, it was eventually decided to withdraw to a position in Ague Trench that all units had managed to get to. So, there was some success for a division that had suffered some very serious losses in their campaigns. The division then continued to stay in the Loos/Lens sector for a significant amount of time, assisting on the 15th August 1917 during the Battle of Hill 70 by providing fire support for the Canadian troops involved in this battle, which proved to be a success. Then, the division continued to stay in the Loos/Lens sector all the way until September 1918 when the division took part in what can be considered one of the most successful attacks during the First World War.
The Battle of the St Quentin Canal occurred in the early morning of Sunday 29 September. The wider battle included troops from Australia and America but the objective for the 46th Division was the Riqueval Bridge across the Saint Quentin Canal. The Bridge formed a ready-made defence and the main Hindenburg Line trench system lay on the east side of the canal. The 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade of the division spearheaded the attack. The attack was an incredible success. A solid artillery bombardment kept the Germans in their dugouts, with men from the 1/6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment managing to capture the bridge intact, before the Germans had a chance to detonate their explosive charges. The troops used a variety of flotation aids to cross the water. Ladders were used to climb the brick wall lining the canal. The village of Bellenglise was captured, including the tunnel that the canal went through, which had been heavily fortified as part of the Hindenburg line. By the end of the day the division had taken 4200 German prisoners (5100 had been taken in total in the battle) and 70 guns and all with fewer 800 casualties. A truly astonishing feat for a division accused of a lack of offensive spirit! The division continued to fight and chase the Germans across France, but the Battle of the Saint Quentin Canal was its’ last big set piece. The division was then disbanded in 1919.
If you have got to the end of this blog post, you deserve a gold star! This has been a difficult one to put together, but I can say that whilst I already knew a great deal about the division, it has encouraged to find out more about these men who fought with it, from my local area. I will attempt to do justice to the stories I’ve highlighted above throughout the year so please do keep reading to find out in more detail what happened to these men.
‘Til next time!
One thought on “46th (North Midland) Division – A General History”
A great read, Beth. Personally, I prefer divisional histories more than regimental ones, with regards to the FWW.
Keep them coming, please!
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