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Lord Ampthill on The Western Front 1917

Oakley war memorial March 2011
Oakley war memorial March 2011

Arthur Oliver Villiers Russell, 2nd Baron Ampthill served on the Western Front with two units during the First World War. One these was 13th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment, a labour battalion which later became part of the Labour Corps. He also served for a short time, as a lieutenant-colonel, with the 8th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. He transferred to the battalion on 3rd April, 1917, taking over command from Colonel Lord Henry Scott the following day. A battalion was part of a regiment (seven battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment served overseas between 1914 and 1918). It numbered around a thousand men at full strength but was often much less than this due to sickness, injuries and deaths in the front line. In the First World War four (later three) battalions comprised a brigade and three brigades a division.

8th Battalion was part of 16th Brigade of 6th Division. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has the war diaries of the battalion throughout its time in France [X550/9/1]. On the day he took over command the battalion was in front line trenches near Loos-en-Gohelle, scene of a major offensive in September 1915. On his first day in command an officer was wounded, one other rank was killed and three more wounded from “daily wastage” of shellfire and sniping.

The first real test of his command came quickly. On 15th April, with the battalion in trenches as brigade reserve between Vermelles and Grenay orders were issued for an attack in conjunction with the 1st Battalion, the Buffs. They moved up to a position south of Loos under a heavy German barrage and finally occupied the position. Twenty eight other ranks were wounded. The next day two companies bombed their way to their first objective. However, the battalion on their left failed to reach this and retired to its former position. This exposed the flanks of both companies to German counterattack, but despite these attacks they maintained all the ground they had gained, losing two men killed and seventeen wounded.

The next day, the 17th, the battalion continued to move forward in attack towards Hill 70. Any slight elevation in this almost entirely flat landscape was a considerable prize. One company was held up by a strong point in front of the brigade on its right, but the other, again took all its objectives, capturing twenty seven prisoners and a machine gun. For the remainder of the day the enemy bombarded the newly won ground but despite casualties the ground was held. The battalion was congratulated for their good work by its Brigadier and by the General Officer Commanding 6th Division. Three other ranks were killed and seventeen wounded on this day.

The next day a company from the battalion made an attack from three points on the strong point which had threatened the right flank since the day before. This attack failed through the devastating fire poured on it from concrete emplacements by hostile machine guns. Seven other ranks were killed and thirty three wounded. The next day, the 19th, all the ground previously gained was held despite many German attacks and a very heavy hostile barrage. At night the battalion was relieved. Total casualties in this four day action were two officers and seventeen other ranks killed, four officers and ninety one others ranks wounded. It was a fairly typical Great War action, partly successful, partly a failure.

The battalion moved back, rested, and then went forward to the front line again, at Cité-Saint-Elie on 21st. the war diary notes that on 25th: “At 11.0pm a hostile patrol slipped through a large gap on our front immediately after the place had been patrolled. They bombed one of our posts causing several casualties and took away one man as a prisoner”. One soldier was killed and six wounded in addition to the man captured. Patrols were constantly sent out at night by each side to seize prisoners to extract information, as well as to kill the enemy, seize or damage equipment and to lower his morale. No doubt this last happened with the 8th Bedfords following this embarrassing incident.

The battalion remained near Loos throughout May, alternating spells in the front line with periods in reserve and resting. Lord Ampthill left the battalion on 19th May for: “employment under the Director of Labour”, perhaps in connection with the 13th Leicesters.