The story of the 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry
The Somme, the Lys and the Aisne.
On debussing just west of Bethune, the Battalion marched through the town to billets at Beuvry, where was about four toiles behind our of the quietest sectors on the British front. Here a draft of about 400 men arrived, and preparations were being made for a relief of the 55th Division near La Bassée. These arrangements, however, were not carried out, and after a few days the Battalion moved by a short railway journey to Estaires, where it occupied billets in the town, all the officers - except the Commanding Officer, Adjurant, Transport Officer and Capt. Cardew - being in one billet, the Convent. At this time Estaires, though a very short distance behind the line, was a flourishing town.
After a quiet day and night, alarming rumours of the second German offensive spread, and the next night there was a "stand-to". The day following, the officers and a few N.C.O.'s reconnoitred a line of posts in support which were to be occupied in the event of an attaek, and in the evening instructions were received for a relief of the Portuguese Division, which was holding the line, the relief to take place the night after (9th April).
On the night of the 8th April, there was another "stand-to", and at 4 a.m. the threatened attack commenced with a heavy bombardment of the town. One of the first shells burst in the Convent, and all the occupants with two exceptions became casualties. The men, however, got out of their billets in safety, and the highest praise is due to the N.C.O.'s, who gave valuable assistance to the three surviving Company Officers in getting the Battalion up to its battle positions in the Cockshy, Marais East and West, and Drainiez posts. Amongst the officers killed in the Convent were Capt. G. Kirkhouse, Capt. J. F. G. Aubin, D.S.O., M.C., and Lieut. C. L. Tyerman, all of whom had seen much service with the Battalion.
The morning was misty, and beyond the fact that the Portuguese were being driven back in confusion, nothing definite could be ascertained as to the situation. The first reports which reached tire Commanding Officer (Major T. B.Heslop) were to the effect that three Companies (W, X and Z) had been completely overwhelmed, and that two of Iris three Company Officers, Capt. Cardew (killed) and 2nd Lieut. Railton (prisoner) were casualties. The remainder of the Battalion, however, under Lieut. A. N. Brown, held its ground till the afternoon, when it was forced to withdraw fo the railway near La Gorgue.
At dusk. orders were received to cross the river Lawe and to hold the Western bank. This withdrawal was successful, and the opportunity was taken to reorganise the Battalion, which was divided into two companies, one under Lieut. Brown, with Sergt. P. Finn, M.M., and Sergt. Field ; and the other under C.S.M.T. Sordy, M.C., with Seras. Bell and Cooper. The strength of the Battalion was now barely 100, and when touch had been established on the flanks it was found that it was holding a frontage of about 2,000 yards. Assistance was therefore asked for, and a company of the Corps Cyclists and a company of the 7th Durham Light Infantry were attached. The latter were sent to fill a gap on the right flank between the Battalion and a Battalion of the Black Watch (51st Division). If was now about 10 a.m. on the 10th April, and the enemmy had renewed his attack and gained a footing in Lestrem. From this, however, he was driven by the 7th Durham Light Infantry company, but further to the south he had pressed back the Highlanders.
Orders were then received to withdraw in a N.W. direction to the line of the Lys canal, the company of 7th Durham Light Infantry being moved over to the left flank to fill a gap which had been caused by the re-adjustment of their line by the 5th Durham Light Infantry. Meanwhile, the 8th Durham Light Infantry, which was in rear, was ordered up to occupy the line between the right flank of the Battalion and the 51st Division.
The new position was being fairly well held when it was reported that the 5th Durham Light Infantry on the left had been forced to retire. Both flanks being now uncertain, the Battalion was withdrawn towards Merville, under very heavy machine-gun fire. A stand was made on the outskirts of the town, but before night the fighting was taking place in the streets of the town.
The next day the retirement continued towards the Forêt de Nieppe, and a line was taken up near Le Sart. By this time the strength of the Battalion was very small, and with the remnants of the 8th Durham Light Iufantry, a composite battalion was formed under Lieut.-Col. P. Kirkup, M.C. Eventually, all were withdrawn from the fighting, and moved to the grounds of La Motte Château, where they cmne under very heavy shell fire for a short time. For a few days longer they remained on the western edge of the Forest and provided working parties on new trenches in the forest itself on a line in front of the Rue des Morts. At the end of this time they were taken out to billets at Cohem, near Wittes, where they remained for about a week reorganising and cleaning. Here Lieut-Col. F. Walton, M.C., returned and took over command of the Battalion from Major T.B. Heslop, who was subsequently awarded the D.S.O. for his services whilst in command. Other honours gained in the Lys battle were the Military Cross by Lieut. A. N. Brown, the bar to the Military Cross by C.S.M.T. Sordy, M.C., the D.C.M. by Sergt. P. Finn, and Military Medals by Sergts. Bell and Cooper. Having now shared in two great battles within a month, a rest was confidently expected, and very soon orders were received to move by bus to Lapugnoy, near Bethune, to entrain for an unknown destination, though rumour suggested somewhere near Paris.