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The Great War, 1914-1918


Number 1 breastwork, Ploegsteert Wood,
winter 1914

The Great War saw the Somerset Light Infantry increasing in size to nineteen battalions, which fought in the three main theatres of war: on the Western front, in Mesopotamia and in Palestine, whilst other battalions remained on garrison duty in India, Burma and at home.

With the declaration of war on 3 August 1914 the 2nd battalion was on garrison duty in India and it was to remain here for the duration of the war. The 1st battalion was stationed at Colchester as part of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Division. It was the first Somerset Regiment to be selected for active service and within days from the declaration of war the battalion was mobilised. In just two weeks the battalion was in France on the Western Front, where they would remain for the duration of the war. Forming part of the British Expeditionary Force the 1st battalion was soon confronting the enemy during the battle for Le Cateau, before becoming embroiled in the retreat from Mons. Early October saw the 1st battalion entering the trenches for the first time, they took a position in Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, where they remained for the winter.

In April 1915 the 1st battalion became embroiled in the second battle of Ypres. In May the 6th battalion moved to France (as part of the 43rd Infantry Division) and two months later they were joined by the 7th battalion (as part of the 61st Infantry Brigade). The 8th battalion, as part of the 63rd Brigade, arrived in France in September. On 25 September the 6th, 7th and 8th battalions became embroiled in the Battle of Loos. July to November 1916 saw the Battles of the Somme. On 1 July 1916 at 7.30 am fourteen British Divisions, including the 1st battalion, began the attack. On the first day 26 officers and 478 men of the 1st battalion were killed, missing or wounded, the immediate result was nil. The 6th, 7th and 8th battalions also became embroiled in the Battles of the Somme during the summer.

1917 marked a fresh initiative by the Allied leaders who wanted to put the losses of the Somme behind them, plus the German leaders also wanted to strike quickly and try to bring about a victory, thus the year saw heavy involvement by all of the Somerset battalions on the Western Front. The Battles of Arras began in April 1917, it saw the involvement of all the Somerset battalions in France at that time. In June the Third Battle for Ypres began, this time only the 7th and 8th battalions saw action.

In November 1917 the Battle of Cambrai began. It was a unique battle as it was the first time the Allies had used tanks in large numbers and to a positive effect. The 7th battalion were detailed a role in the battle and was almost wiped out due to a heavy German counter-attack.

1918, the final year of war, saw all four battalions involved in fighting which aimed to hold back a final push by the enemy. During the battle of St. Quentin only four men from the 6th battalion made it back to brigade headquarters. Spring saw the tables turn and the Allies began to push the German lines backwards and the Somerset men (now augmented by the 2/4th, 11th and 12th battalions) helped put the enemy to flight.

A Somerset Light Infantry soldier in
1917 wearing a gas mask, drawn by
Sergeant R.S. Corwell
The Regiment also saw action in the Middle East. In February 1916 the 1/4th battalion arrived at Basra to take part in an attempted relief of Kut el Amara, where General Townshend's forces were under siege, before taking part in localised actions in and around Basra. The other battalions in the Middle East, the 12th (formerly the West Somerset Yeomanry), 1/5th and 2/4th were occupied with the recapture of Palestine from the Turks. These battalions took part in the second and third battles of Gaza. The third battle of Gaza, launched on 31 October 1917, was a success and by mid-December the British had regained control of Jerusalem.

At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the war ended, 4,756 soldiers from the Somerset Light Infantry had died for King and Country and one soldier had been awarded the Victoria Cross.

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