By Harry Fecitt MBE TD
We were fortunate also in getting during April the 1/12th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which came to us as our Pioneer Battalion, under a most capable officer, Lieutenant Colonel Beckett. They were a hard-bitten, thirsty lot of Lancashire miners, but what they could do with a spade was a perfect revelation. The Division owed a great deal to this fine Battalion for the splendid work they did on the Vimy Ridge, and I attribute our comparatively low casualty returns to the rapidity with which these pioneers, assisted by the various battalions, managed to lower the depth of the trenches eighteen inches in record time.
Major General E.S. Bulfin CB, Commander 60th Division, France 1916.
1/12th (Territorial) Battalion (Pioneers) The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
The 12th (Territorial) Battalion was raised in August 1915 in the Bolton area. On 1st September it entrained for Lytham where it was billeted and training began, despite the prevailing shortage of rifles, clothing and equipment. In March the following year it moved to Norfolk to complete its training in infantry and engineering duties as it was to become a Pioneer Battalion.
British Pioneer Battalions
Initially many in Britain thought that the war would be over before Christmas 1914. However the early fighting against German troops in France showed that not only was the war going to last longer, but serious thought had to be given to quickly protecting infantry and artillery from the destructive effects of enemy artillery shells and machine gun fire. Far too many infantry men were being deployed on building fortifications, trenches and shelter bunkers, and many of those men were unskilled and slow at this work. The Royal Engineer units in the Army needed specialist support.
The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall Herbert Horatio Kitchener, had earlier introduced a concept into the Indian Army of each Division having one Pioneer Battalion on its order of battle. Lord Kitchener forecast that this war would last at least three years, and he introduced the Pioneer Battalion concept into the British Army. The over-riding criteria was that a Pioneer battalion had to contain men capable of fast efficient digging, and divisional commanders could select one of their existing battalions that met this criteria or ask for such a battalion to be posted into their divisions. The Pioneer battalions were still regarded as fighting infantry units, and each battalion was equipped with rifles and a section of four medium machine guns; also by 1916 eight Lewis light machine guns had been issued. Often the medium machine gun sections were detached and employed as the anti-aircraft defence for divisional headquarters; the Lewis guns were distributed amongst the four companies. Each Pioneer battalion had an officer and a senior rank from the Royal Engineers attached to it to provide technical assistance.
Pioneer battalions were expected to dig, shore-up and revet trenches, build dugouts, provide overhead cover and shell-proof walls to gun positions, dig approach trenches called saps towards enemy positions, to tunnel and mine when necessary, and to build track ways for men, pack mules, horses pulling guns and for motor transport. They had to be able to make roads, fell trees, build bridges, construct barbed-wire obstacles and prepare railway embankments. The concept called for battalions of organized and competent labour that could also immediately fight as infantry when called upon to do so.
In late December 1914 it was decided that each Pioneer battalion should have at least 16 carpenters and joiners, 16 blacksmiths, 16 masons and bricklayers, 8 tinsmiths and 4 engine drivers and fitters. These 60 or more tradesmen were to be distributed equally amongst the four companies in each Pioneer battalion. The typical establishment of a Pioneer battalion was 24 officers and 860 men, but in certain theatres of war the figure for men rose to over 1,000. In recognition of their specialist status the men received two pence more per day than an infantryman received, and they were eligible for the normal additions to their pay for being classified in relevant infantry skills.
Harry has written about another pioneer battalion here:
The 60th (London) Division
At the end of April 1916 the 1/12th Battalion joined the 60th (London) Division which had been raised primarily from Territorial Army soldiers who responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers made on 10th August 1914. The Division commenced embarking for France on 21st June 1916. The 1/12th Battalion’s strength was over 1,000 men and 21 officers.
On arrival in France the companies in the Battalion were dispersed and immediately employed on a variety of pioneer duties such as repairing front-line and communication trenches and maintaining a light railway; in the Division’s Vimy Ridge area the pioneer task was to increase the trench depth to seven feet.
60th Division was ordered to move to the Salonika Front (Macedonia) in Greece during December 1916 but the 1/12th Battalion remained in France attached to the 7th and then the 32nd Division until January 1917 when it entrained for Marseilles and embarked for Salonika. The Battalion had taken casualties in France, mostly from German artillery fire, but replacements quickly arrived from the Reserve Battalion in Oswestry that had been formed there when the 1/12th Battalion moved to France.
To be continued …
Two British infantrymen attempt to deepen a trench using pick and shovel in the rocky terrain around Doiran. THE BRITISH ARMY IN SALONIKA DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR © IWM (HU 81087)