BRITISH INFANTRY DIVISIONS
OF THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918
SHORT HISTORIES BY PAUL REED
PART 1 - THE REGULAR ARMY: 1st - 4th DIVISIONS
1st Division - On the outbreak of war the units that made up this division were the 1st (Guards), 2nd and 3rd Brigades. The Guards brigade only had two guards units in it and the infantry units that made up the rest of the division were drawn from a wide variety of regiments. Units from the division began landing in France around 12th August 1914, but did not take part in the fighting for Mons. However, during the Retreat From Mons, 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers fought a famous and gallant action at Etreux on 27th August, when this battalion was all but wiped out in holding up a German force many times its size. One of the few divisions to actually fight in the Battle of the Marne, the 2nd Royal Sussex and 1st Loyals engaged the Germans at Priez. Following fighting on the Aisne in September, the division moved to Flanders for First Ypres, and was heavily involved in the Battle of Langemarck, at Gheluvelt (where the South Wales Borderers fought a famous action at the Chateau) and at Nonne Boschen during October/November. At the end of 1914, 1st Division moved down to the La Bassée front and took over the trenches at the Cuinchy Brickstacks. Here they came under attack from the Germans on 29th January 1915, the Kaiser's Birthday, but the assault was beaten back by 2nd Royal Sussex. In the Spring of 1915 a number of Territorial battalions were attached for instructional purposes, and the division was heavily involved in the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May, when the German line around Richebourg were attacked with heavy losses. 1st Division was in the forefront of the fighting at Loos on 25th September 1915, near The Lone Tree and Le Rutoire Farm, and in October fought at the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
1st Division stayed in the Loos sector until early 1916, launching a diversionary attack on the Double Crassier on 30th June. They arrived on the Somme and fought numerous actions at High Wood between July and September 1916, particularly around the North-East corner of the wood and Wood Lane.
The division did not fight at Arras in 1917, but moved to the Flanders coast in preparation for an expected sea-borne invasion of Belgium. These plans came to nothing, but the division was still here on 10th July 1917 when the Germans attacked and captured the trenches around the coastal town of Nieuport. A number of battalion commanders were killed, wounded and taken prisoner, one having to swim the Yser Canal to avoid capture! 1st Division took part in the final stages of Third Ypres, and stayed in the Salient over the winter of 1917/18.
When the German Offensive began in Flanders, 1st Division fought in the Battle of the Lys in April 1918 at Estaires and Hazebrouck, and in the defence of Bethune. It returned to its old haunt at Cuinchy, and during the Allied Offensive in September fought in the Battle of the Drocourt- Queant Switch Line, and in the Battles of the Hindenburg Line at Epehy, the St Quentin Canal and the Bearevoir Line. In October it took part in the Battle of the Selle, and its final action was in the crossing of the Sambre Canal on 4th November 1918.
|Pte R.Tollerton||1st Cameron Highlanders||Aisne 14.9.14|
|L/Cpl W.Fuller||2nd Welch||Chivry sur Aisne 14.9.14|
|Bdr E.G.Harlock||113th Bty RFA||Vendresse 15.9.14|
|Lieut J.H.S.Dimmer||2nd KRRC||Klein Zillebeke 12.11.14|
|Cpl J.Ripley||1st Black Watch||Aubers Ridge 9.5.15|
|Rfn W.Mariner||2nd KRRC||Nr Cambrin 22.5.15|
|2/Lt G.A.Boyd-Rochfort||1st Scots Guards||Nr Cambrin 3.8.15|
|Pte G.S.Peachment||2nd KRRC||Loos 25.9.15|
|Capt A.M.Read||1st Northants||Loos 25.9.15|
|Sgt H.Wells||2nd Royal Sussex||Loos 25.9.15|
|Pte H.E.Kenny||1st Loyal North Lancs||Loos 25.9.15|
|Lieut A.H.H.Batten-Pool||2nd RMF||Nr Colonne 25.6.16|
|Pte R.G.Masters||ASC att 141 Field Amb RAMC||Bethune 9.4.18|
|Lt-Col D.G.Johnson||2nd Royal Sussex||Sambre Canal 4.11.18|
|Mjr G de C.E.Findlay||409 Field Coy RE||Sambre Cana; 4.11.18|
There is no published history of this division.
Bird, A. (Ed) - Unversed In Arms (Crowood Press 1990) [2nd KRRC]
Eyre, G. - Somme Harvest (Jarrold 1938) [2nd KRRC]
Hammerson, M. (Ed) - No Easy Hopes or Lies: The WW1 Letters of Lt A.P.White (London Stamp Exchange 1991) [1st Northants]
2nd Division - In August 1914 this division had a strong Guards presence with the 4th (Guards) Brigade being the senior brigade in the 2nd Division. Like the 1st, the rest of the formations battalions were drawn from a variety of different regiments. It crossed to France, commanded by Major-General C.C.Monro, in August 1914 as part of the BEF's I Corps and although not directly engaged in the Battle of Mons, it took part in the retreat. A notable incident occurred at Landrecies involving the 4th Guards Bde, and then later in the forests of Villers-Cotterets. However, the first major action 2nd Division saw was on the Aisne in September-October and at First Ypres October-November 1914. In these three months of fighting the division suffered 8,500 casualties.
Units from the division participated in the Christmas Truce during the winter of 1914/15, and the division went on to fight in the Battle of Festubert in May 1915 - a costly action in which they lost 5,445 casualties. Prior to the Battle of Loos the Guards Brigade left to join the newly formed Guards Division being replaced by 19th Bde from the 27th Division. At this time all the division's brigades had between five and six infantry battalions in them, rather than the usual four - the others in each Bde being territorial units attached for instruction.
It was with this order of battle that 2nd Division took part in the Battle of Loos 25th September -18th October 1915. Attacking the German positions opposite the Cuinchy 'Brickstacks', on a frontage from the La Bassée canal to the Bethune-La Bassée road, the division suffered heavy casualties - some 3,400 men. It was on this part of the front that gas, here used by the British for the first time, blew back onto men of the 1st Middlesex - resulting in heavy casualties.
In early 1916 the division moved to Vimy Ridge, and underwent further organisational changes - the 19th Bde being replaced by the 99th and most of the old regular battalions moved out to other divisions. Then in late July 2nd Division moved south to the Somme. Here in August-September it took part in the fighting at Delville Wood, Waterlot Farm, and Guillemont - losing 4,900 casualties. Then in November on the Ancre Heights with a further 2,900 losses. 2nd Division stayed on the Somme until March 1917, then moved on to fight in the Battle of Arras where it lost 3,400 men in the First and Third Battles of the Scarpe in April-May 1917. Following a tour of the line at La Bassée, it did not fight at Third Ypres, but in November 1917 took part in the operations of the Battle of Cambrai.
When the German offensive was launched on 21st March 1918, 2nd Division was in Corps reserve at Bapaume but was soon called forward to stem the advance. It was another costly action, with 3,900 casualties by the time the division had been pushed back to the old 1916 Somme battlefields. A move to Arras followed, and in the allied offensives of 1918 the 2nd Division participated in the fighting for the Drocourt-Queant Switch Line, the Canal du Nord, Cambrai and the Battle of the Selle. This was a very costly period of the war - in only seven weeks casualties amounted to 5,240 officers and men. On November 11th, 2nd Division was in reserve near Le Quesnoy and went on to serve in the Army of Occupation in Germany until March 1919 when it was officially disbanded.
|L/C G.H.Wyatt||3rd Coldstream Guards||Landrecies 25/26.8.14|
|Pte G.Wilson||2nd HLI||Aisne 14.9.14|
|Capt H.S.Ranken||RAMC att. 1st KRRC||Aisne 19/20.9.14|
|L/Cpl F.W.Dobson||2nd Coldstream Guards||Aisne 28.9.14|
|Capt A.Martin-Leake VC [bar]||5th F.A. RAMC||Zonnebeke 29.10.14-8.11.14|
|L/Cpl M.O'Leary||1st Irish Guards||Cuinchy 1.2.15|
|L/Cpl J.H.Tombs||1st King's Liverpool Regt||Festubert 16.5.15|
|Capt A.F.G.Kilby||2nd South Staffs||Cuinchy 25.9.15|
|Cpl A.A.Burt||1st Hertfordshires||Cuinchy 27.9.15|
|2/Lt A.B.Turner||1st Royal Berks||Fosse 8 28.9.15|
|Sgt A.Gill||1st KRRC||Delville Wood 27.7.16|
|L/Sgt F.W.Palmer||22nd Royal Fusiliers||Courcelette 16/17.2.17|
|L/Cpl J.Welch||1st Royal Berks||Oppy 29.4.17|
|Capt W.Stone||17th Royal Fusiliers||Cambrai 30.11.17|
|Capt A.M.C.McReady-Diarmid||17th Middlesex||Moeuvres 30.11.17 - 1.12.17|
|Pte J.T.Counter||1st King's Liverpool Regt||Boisleux 16.4.18|
Wyrall, E, The History of the Second Division 1914-18 (Thomas Nelson & Sons 1921) - 2 volumes.
- This book has recently (1999) been reprinted by the Naval & Military Press (see LINKS) in their Divisional History series.
Dunn, J.C. Captain - The War The Infantry Knew [2nd RWF]
Graves, Robert - Goodbye to All That [2nd RWF]
Richards, Frank - Old Soldiers Never Die [2nd RWF]
3rd Division - Based in Southern Command when the war broke out in August 1914, the units making up 3rd Division were dispatched to France to join the BEF. As part of II Corps, they were all ashore by 16th August 1914 and went straight up to the front at Mons. Taking up positions along the Mons-Conde canal, the division gave a good account of itself (the first three VCs of the war were won by men from the division on this day - see below), but at high costs - more than 3,000 casualties. The retreat followed, along with service on the Aisne before moving up to French Flanders in early October 1914 to take part in the fighting south of Armentières. It was here, on October 14th at Vielle Chapelle, that the division's first commander, Major General H.I.W.Hamilton was killed - in fact the first British divisional commander to die in the Great War. Killed by shell fire, Hamilton's body was in fact taken back to England for burial and his grave can be found at Cheriton (St Martin) Churchyard in Kent. By the end of November 1914 the division as a whole had suffered 8,355 casualties since mid-October: from this it is possible to gauge the ferocity of the fighting.
In early 1915 the division moved up to the Ypres Salient, and took over the trenches opposite the Messines Ridge, and at St Eloi and The Bluff. 3rd Division then moved up to the Menin Road sector at Hooge and Bellewaarde and fought actions there on 16th June and 25th September 1915 - losing 5,600 men. They remained in the Salient and fought another action at the St Eloi Craters in March 1916 before moving down to the Somme. Here they fought in the 'Dawn Attack' near Bazentin on 14th July 1916, then opposite High Wood and later near Delville Wood. From the period 11th - 27th July, the division suffered 6,100 casualties. Following a short tour of the Loos sector, the division returned to the Somme and fought at Serre on 13th November 1916 in waist deep mud, and with heavy losses.
The year 1917 saw the division at Arras in April/May, taking part in the three Battles of the Scarpe - at Arleux, Monchy and Roeux. It stayed on this front until September 1917 when 3rd Division moved up to Flanders and fought in the Battle of the Menin Road, and at Polygon Wood - here on 26th September the division lost 4,032 officers and men in one day; 1,360 of them killed in action, died of wounds or missing.
When the German Offensive broke on 21st March 1918, 3rd Division were back at Arras, holding a front from Guemappe to Croiselles. Until being relieved by the Canadians on 29th March, units of the division were slowly pushed back towards the Somme, and in doing so lost 3,527 men. The division then moved north, and fought in the Battle of the Lys in April 1918, and then later during the allied offensives of 1918 fought at the Canal du Nord, Cambrai and the Battle of the Selle, ending the war in reserve near Bavai. Like many divisions, casualties in the last few weeks of the war were high - 4,000 in six weeks. It then became part of the Army of Occupation until disbandment in March 1919. One source estimates the 3rd Division suffered more than 60,000 casualties during the Great War. It also acquired the nickname 'Iron Division' at some time during the war.
|Lieut M.J.Dease||4th Royal Fusiliers||Mons 23.8.14|
|Pte S.F.Godley||4th Royal Fusiliers||Mons 23.8.14|
|L/Cpl C.A.Jarvis||57th Field Coy RE||Mons 23.8.14|
|Capt T.Wright||57th Field Coy RE||Mons 23.8.14 & Vailly 14.9.14|
|Cpl C.E.Garforth||15th Hussars||Nr Mons 23.8.14 & Aisne 2/3.9.14|
|Lieut C.G.Martin||56th Field Coy RE||Spanbroekmolen 12.3.15|
|2/Lt R.P.Hallowes||4th Middlesex||Hooge 25/30.9.15|
|Capt E.N.Mellish||RAMC att. 4th Royal Fusiliers||St Eloi 27/29.3.16|
|Major W. de la T.Congreve||Brigade Major 76th Bde||Longueval 6/20.7.16|
|Cpl J.J.Davies||10th Royal Welsh Fus||Delville Wood 20.7.16|
|Pte A.Hill||10th Royal Welsh Fus||Delville Wood 20.7.16|
|Pte H.McIver||2nd Royal Scots||Courcelles 23.8.18|
|L/Sgt T.Neeley||8th King's Own||Flesquieres 27.9.18|
McNish, R. Iron Division: The History of the 3rd Division (Ian Allan Ltd 1978)
- This is a history of the division from Napoleonic times until after WW2. The book was reprinted 2000.
Davidson, C. (Ed) - The Burgoyne Diaries (Thomas Harmsworth 1985) [2nd Royal Irish Rifles]
Haldane, W. - A Soldier's Saga (Blackwood 1938) [former Div. commander]
Lucy, J. - There's A Devil In the Drum (Naval & Military Press reprint 1993) [2nd Royal Irish Rifles]
Manning, F. - Her Privates We (Peter Davies 1929) [7th KSLI]
Norman, T - Armageddon Road: A VCs Diary 1914-16 (William Kimber 1982) [Re. Billy Congreve VC]
4th Division - As part of the Eastern Command in August 1914, the division was assembled in France by 22nd August and moved quickly up to the front to take part in the Battle of Le Cateau on 26th August where it lost some 3,000 men. Following service on the Aisne in September, it moved to Flanders in the sector on the French/Belgian border north-east of Armentières. Here it stayed until the Spring of 1915, some units of the division taking part in the Christmas Truce, when it moved up to the battlefield north-east of Ypres to fight at St Julian, and the Frezenberg Ridge during Second Ypres. This fighting all but wiped out the division, and many of those who had survived the battles of 1914 were killed or wounded here. Following a tour of duty on the Canal Bank Sector at Boesinghe, 4th Division was one of the first British formations to move down to the Somme, where it took over the line in front of Beaumont Hamel from French troops in July 1915. This was very much a quiet sector compared to the Salient, and the division stayed here until just prior to the Battle of the Somme when it took up positions on the Redan Ridge. On 1st July 1916, as part of Aylmer Hunter-Weston's VIII Corps, it assaulted the German lines from the Serre road at the Heidenkopf to just north of the Sunken Lane on Redan Ridge. This attack was a costly failure, with heavy casualties: some 5,752 officers and men. Among them was the brave and charismatic Brigadier General Bertie Prowse DSO, commanding 11th Bde. With such heavy losses, 4th Division was moved up to the Ypres Salient for a 'rest' and to refit with drafts from England. However, it soon returned to the Somme in time to fight in the Battle of Le Transloy Ridge in October 1916, remaining in this sector for the winter of 1916/17.
In 1917 the division was engaged at Arras, and on the first day of the battle - 9th April 1917 - advanced further than any other unit. After further fighting at the Third Battle of the Scarpe, by May 4th Division had lost 6,300 men. It then returned to the Ypres Salient, where as part of Third Ypres, it fought at Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele with 2,340 casualties.
When the German Offensive came in March 1918. 4th Division was out on rest near Arras, and towards the end of the month was engaged in the fighting in defence of Arras. In April it fought in the Battle of the Lys with 4,800 casualties. When the Allied Offensive started, 4th Division was attached to the Canadian Corps at Arras, and then took part in the operations for the Drocourt -Queant Switch Line (September), the Battle of the Selle (October) and then the liberation of Valenciennes on 1st/2nd November 1918. Casualties during this period were around 1,600 officers and men. When the war ended the division was still in the Valenciennes area, and did not become part of the Army of Occupation in Germany.
|Dmr S.J.Bent||1st East Lancs||Le Gheer 1/2.11.14|
|Pte R.Morrow||1st Royal Inniskilling Fus||Messines 12.4.15|
|Pte J.Lynn||2nd Lancashire Fus||St Julien 2.5.15|
|L/Sgt D.W.Belcher||London Rifle Brigade||Wieltje 13.5.15|
|Dmr W.P.Ricthie||2nd Seaforths||Beaumont Hamel 1.7.16|
|Sgt R.Downie||2nd Royal Dublin Fus||Lesboeufs 23.10.16|
|Lt D.Mackintosh||2nd Seaforths||Fampoux 11.4.17|
|Pte A.Halton||1st King's Own||Poelcapelle 12.10.17|
|2/Lt B.M.Cassidy||2nd Lancashire Fus||Arras 28.3.18|
|L/Sgt J.E.Woodall||1st Rifle Brigade||La Pannerie 22.4.18|
|2/Lt J.P.Huffam||2nd Duke of Wellington's||St Servins Farm 31.8.18|
There is no published history of the 4th Division.
Haldane, A. Lt Gen Sir - A Brigade of the Old Army 1914 (Edward Arnold 1920) [Haldane was GOC 10th Bde in 1914]
Hopkinson, E.C. - Spectamur Agendo: 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment August and September 1914 (Privately Printed c.1926)
Smith, A. - Four Years on the Western Front by a Rifleman (Odhams 1922) [LRB]
©PAUL REED 2001
DIVISIONAL SIGNS ©JOHN WHALLEY