Alderman Jackson, Mayor of Lewisham had spent August 1914 on holiday in Germany and experienced considerable difficulty in getting home when war was declared. He was therefore probably in a sympathetic mood when he received a letter from the War Office in April 1915 over the signature of Lord Kitchener suggesting that the borough might consider raising a brigade of artillery towards the war effort. He agreed at once but suggested that as Lewisham was already the headquarters of a howitzer brigade; volunteers might more readily be found for an infantry battalion.
The War Office agreed and thus was created the 11th (Lewisham) Service Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment. Recruits were billeted at home at first although the borough paid for their rations, uniform, equipment and training and appointed their officers. Luckier than many Kitchener battalions, they had proper uniforms from the start and were equipped with real rifles, albeit fit only for training purposes.
Recruitment (Click here for the text of a recruiment poster for the regiment) started at a meeting at Catford Rink on 21 May 1915 and by the time the battalion left for Aldershot in December 1915 it numbered 34 officers and 941 other ranks. Along the way they had also acquired a band and a regimental mascot (a huge borzoi hound named lnvicta which rumour insisted had been presented by the Czar of Russia).
The battalion arrived in France in May 1916 as part of the 41st Division, a New Army division. Its first taste of trench life was in Ploegsteert Wood and the attack on Flers on 15 September was its first major action. The role of the eleventh, as in a number of its later actions, was to act as support, advancing through the leading battalions once they had reached their objectives to push on and seize the final objective.
The famous Times story “There’s a tank driving down the main street of Flers followed by the whole British army” might not have been recognised by the Eleventh. The battalion suffered heavy casualties from artillery and machine gun fire in the support trenches before even reaching their start line, and once the attack was under way they found the tanks assigned to them were either knocked out or unable to keep up with the infantry. However, munching apples from the orchards they had passed through, they reached their objective in the vicinity of what is now Bulls Road cemetery, and in small scattered groups held it until what their CO described in his report as “retrograde movements” by units to their left and right forced them to fall back. Of the 610 officers and men who began the attack on Flers, 15 officers and 328 other ranks became casualties. Twenty seven are buried in Bulls Road cemetery.
One of the best kept secrets of the war was how the battalion never ran out of rum. Somewhere among the debris of the Somme battlefield the Quartermaster came across an abandoned wagon load of rum jars. From then on each of the Battalion water carts carried a number of extra containers which no one ever seemed to notice. Fortunately the troops told off as water detail never realised either or the secret store would not have lasted long.
In October the Eleventh took part in the attack on Le Sars and the Butte de Warlincourt where it sustained a further three hundred casualties and then spent the winter of 1916 in and out of the trenches in the Spoil Bank sector near St Eloi. By June 1917 they were back near where their war had started in the vicinity of Ploegsteert waiting to take part in the attack on Messines Ridge. It may have been there that the D company sanitary man, who should have been left behind, found himself at the top of the steps of a German dugout accepting the surrender of its occupants while armed only with a bomb which he didn’t know how to use.
They played a part in 3rd Ypres with attacks on Hollebecke village on 31 July and the Tower Hamlets ridge near Gheluvelt in September and then spent three months resting and recuperating at La Panne on the Belgian coast. They spent the rest of the winter in Italy where the battalion history records endless marches, sporadic action, freezing cold and the Italians’ habit of using every freshly dug trench or dugout as a latrine.
In the spring of 1918 they returned to France and on 11 March at HalIoy near Doullens a War Office reorganization order finally achieved what the casualties of nearly eighteen months of action had failed to do. Divisions were to be reduced to ten battalions and as one of the three most junior the Lewisham battalion was disbanded and its men distributed among other units.
In its 22 month existence 3,000 men passed through its ranks and it sustained 1,812 casualties. Its dead are to be found in Bulls Road cemetery in Flers, at Warlincourt, Dickebush and at Lissenthoek. The Battalion’s badge is on the 41 Division Memorial in Flers ( a copy of which is in Holborn outside the old Pru building).
These are remembered on the St Dunstans WW 1 War Memorial
This article is by Andy Pepper and has drawn heavily on The History of the 11th (Lewisham) Battalion, Royal West Kents published in 1934 by Captain R.O.Russell M.C. There is a copy in Local History and Archives Centre, Lewisham.
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