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From Pontefract to Picardy

John Lee

The 9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the First World War
By Derek Clayton
Tempus paperback (2004) £17.99
ISBN: 0 7524 3165 X

Reviewed by John Lee for the Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham

There were many hundreds of unit histories published in the 1920s and 30s – most divisions of the British Army were covered, some in substantial two volume sets, some quite briefly, most in a good solid volume. There were some notable exceptions, including the division in which this battalion served (of which more later). Then there were the general regimental histories, covering all battalions in all theatres; necessarily in less detail but still of considerable value. And then, of course, there was the battalion history, usually written by one or more officers who had served and drawing heavily on the battalion’s war diary. These can vary enormously in detail and style, but always yield something of value about the nature of the army and the way it adapted to modern industrialised warfare.

Some years later there was a new rush of battalion histories, of the ‘Pals’ battalions, usually with an unhealthy obsession with the disaster of the 1st July 1916. Some of the later ones got over that hang up and were more useful. The more fortunate writers worked on the units with a highly literate rank and file, none more so than the ‘class’ battalions of the London Regiment (TF) and we were presented with the pioneering work of Bill Mitchinson on the London Rifle Brigade (“Gentlemen and Officers” IWM 1995) and most recently the magnificent new book by Jill Knight on the Civil Service Rifles (to be reviewed for this journal by Peter Simkins, but let me tell you now it is the best unit history I have ever read).

It is especially useful to get a good solid battalion history for a unit where the divisional history doesn’t exist. We thank Derek Clayton for giving us the 9th KOYLIs who served throughout the war in 21st Division. This was a splendid formation that overcame an early disaster, was blessed with a first rate commander, and went on to become a thoroughly reliable division, and one that badly needs a modern history. (I would love to do it but I have pledged myself to the 58th Division -‘my boys’, the London Territorials!)

The 9th KOYLIs was a classic ‘Kitchener’ battalion of the New Army, recruited from the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire, with a stiff contingent of Durham miners joining up with large numbers of Yorkshire colliers. As John Bourne reminds us, these are trade unionists in uniform and they start grumbling about their ‘rights’ from the minute they join up! Their early marching songs say it all: “The more we work the more we may, It makes no difference to our pay”. These are men used to doing as they are told in the work place, and you only need to start worrying about them if they stop complaining.

Officer-man relations were of the greatest importance. Clayton reminds us that every single original battalion commander of the 21st Division was a ‘dug out’, a former regular officer brought out of retirement for war service. Future studies will, no doubt, tell us how long they lasted. The ‘temporary gentlemen’ that made up the bulk of the officer corps learnt their duty at the same pace as their men. The battalion’s first commander was a ferocious martinet, which might have stood them in good stead in the greater scheme of things, but made him detested even by the other officers (they refused to toast him on the eve of the Somme attack). He had that sarcastic tone ‘up with which Tommy Atkins will not put’! He was killed on the 1st July 1916 and the battalion passed into the hands of two excellent lieutenant colonels, one of whom won a well-deserved Victoria Cross as he led them to victory in 1918.

What do we want from a 1914-18 unit history?

  • A good sense of the social composition of the battalion and how it reflected the society from which it sprang.
  • A suitably detailed battle history, showing how the unit was introduced to the routine of trench warfare and how they performed in battle. This should always include accounts of their training and how this was adapted to new conditions of warfare. (A note to future writers – this is not boring, it is important!)
  • A sense of how the battalion fitted into its brigade and division, and how those units figured in the BEF at large.
  • An ongoing assessment of the morale of the unit and how it absorbed drafts after its major actions, how it rested and played, and how it kept going though the attritional battles of 1916/1917, the crisis of March/April 1918 and the new conditions of the final march to victory.

Derek Clayton scores high on most of these issues. He makes a good use of the war diary for the basic narrative and is fortunate to have a collection of letters from perceptive officers to bring the whole thing alive. It is very interesting to read their remarks on the way they conduct warfare in late 1918, compared to the bludgeoning style of 1916/17. We get many themes familiar from all battalion histories – how unpopular the trench mortar teams are when firing from your bit of trench; how ‘live and let live’ systems are quite prevalent; the importance of football in the life of the unit; what a blooming nuisance formal parades were, even visits of the King! And a number of useful reminders of important things that are often neglected – how excellent regimental officers went on to staff work at brigade and higher levels; the importance of battlefield salvage work; just how novel were the problems of the later stages of the fighting in 1918 (not just outrunning ammunition supply, but advancing off the edge of your maps, having to care for civilians along the way, etc.)

In this age of the PC we are now blessed with excellent analysis of casualties based on the CD ROM ‘Soldiers Who Died’. No unit history is complete now without its bar chart of losses for the whole war. You run your eye along it and intone – battle of Loos, first day of the Somme, first day of Arras, Third Ypres, spring offensives 1918, etc. As a published author myself I know that, however carefully you read those galley proofs, a few errors will creep in. The copy editors should have picked up most of them – don’t worry, there are only a few, they are not earth shattering, and you can contact me through the Centre if you want to know what they are.

Instead I want to heartily recommend this unit history to you. It is, to use Peter Simkins’ immortal phrase, another ‘brick in the wall’ to help us understand the experience and evolution of that war-winning machine, the British Expeditionary Force. With a slight tilt of emphasis it could have been an even more useful addition to our understanding of the sadly neglected 21st Division – that the French civilians liberated by it in 1918 automatically assumed to be an elite formation.

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