A PONTEFRACT BATTALION
(Service) Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment 1914/1916
PART ONE – THE BEGINNINGS
The 6th July marked the 90th anniversary of arguably the most
famous, some might say notorious, battle of the Great War, the Battle of
The press and television have, quite rightly, given substantial coverage to
the anniversary and we have heard again about the huge loss of life and
the decimation caused to whole towns through the casualties suffered by
the ‘Pals Battalions’, such as the 11th East Lancashire Regiment,
the Accrington Pals, or the 12th York and Lancaster Regiment, the
Sheffield Pals, whose losses & heroism can never be decried.
The Accrington Pals suffered 584 out of 720, killed missing or wounded, and
the Sheffield pals 513 out of a similar number but, tragic as those
losses were, the 8th York and Lancaster, as we will later see, suffered
casualties far higher, probably worse than any other unit engaged in the
first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Of course, the 8th York and Lancs was not a pals battalion, there was no
‘Pontefract Pals’ and the losses suffered by the pals battalions
were heightened because their members all came from the same town,
sometimes from the same factory or cluster of streets.
Still, I find it surprising that so little is said or known about the part
Pontefract played in this great undertaking.
As a garrison town, and the depot of the York & Lancaster Regiment,
Pontefract was in the forefront of Lord Kitchener’s call for a new ‘citizen’s
After the German advance through northern France was altered by Britain’s
small professional army, "that contemptible little army" as
the Kaiser called it, thus giving rise to the badge of honour those men
wore when they referred to themselves as ‘The Old Contemptibles’, it
was quickly realised that Britain would need a huge increase in army
strength to actively persecute the war. Lord Kitchener, the Minister for
War in Asquith’s Government, called for a million men to join up,
featuring that famous poster of him pointing his finger over the caption
"Your Country Needs You".
In the event, Kitchener and the Army staff greatly under-estimated the
response, as three million volunteered and the Army struggled to train
and equip them - hence the stories of men drilling with broomsticks
because they had no rifles.
In just two months, August & September 1914, five York & Lancaster
battalions of the New Army, as it was to become known, were raised at
Pontefract, the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th (Service) Battalions.
These battalions were not formed solely of Pontefract men, although some of
them were, they came from all parts of the County to enlist at the
The 8th York and Lancaster, along with the 9th Battalion of the same
regiment; the 8th Battalion The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; and
the 11th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters, formed the 70th Infantry
Brigade as part of the 23rd Division.
The 70th Brigade concentrated at Frensham on the 16th September 1915 but it
was not until October that some old uniforms became available for the
soldiers along with one hundred obsolete rifles per battalion ‘for
drill purposes only’. It was November before they received some modern
rifles, but only eight per battalion for instruction purposes, such was
the dearth of equipment caused by the overwhelming response to Kitchener’s
call to arms. In December the brigade moved into barracks at Aldershot
when they at last received khaki uniforms but it was June 1915 before
modern rifles were issued and proper training could begin.
On the 28th August the Brigade embarked for France, landing at Boulogne and
moving on to rest camp at Ostrohove.
In September the 23rd Division was attached to III Corps of the 1st New
Army and moved up to the front where the 70th Brigade took over the
trenches just south of Armentieres.
On 24th/25th September 1915 the Division took part in the Battle of Loos
and the 8th Battalion York & Lancaster regiment was thus ‘blooded’,
later withdrawing to the rear of the line to rest.
To better train the troops of III Corps, brigades were rotated so as to
associate with more experienced units and to this end, on October 18th,
the 70th Brigade was transferred to the 8th Division. This was supposed
to have been a temporary move, but it the event the 70th Brigade were
still part of the 8th Division when the Battle of the Somme started.
In November 1915 the Division moved into reserve near St. Omer and
concentrated on training.
The Division moved back to the front in January 1916 where it remained until
March when it was relieved by the 34th Division and withdrew to
Vignacourt where it became part of II Corps in General Sir Henry
Rawlinson’s 4th Army wherein it would meet it’s nemesis!
The war, meanwhile, was going badly for the French; Verdun was being
assailed by the German army with unparalleled fury with the intention of
‘bleeding France white’ and knocking it out of the war. Britain was
being urged to act to relieve the pressure on the French and much
against his better judgement, and only after considerable political
pressure, Field Marshall Haigh, the commander of the British
Expeditionary Force to France, agreed to attack along the Somme.
PART TWO – THE SOMME
Plans were now put in place for a great offensive along the line of the River
Somme to draw the Germans away from Verdun to the East and so relieve
the beleaguered French forces there.
Despite what many people have been told about the Somme battle, it was never
intended to be a war-winning campaign. It had clearly defined strategic
aims, and in many respects was successful, it’s failures are extremely
complex and outside the scope of this article. That it has become a
by-word for failure and incompetence is, in my opinion, unfair. The huge
and terrible loss of life has blinded us to any other interpretation but
it is pertinent to remember that a German Staff Officer described the
Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German Field Army’.
On the 4th April 1916, in preparation for the coming battle, the 8th
Division moved up to the Le Boisselle-Thiepval sector, the 8th Battalion
York & Lancaster occupying trenches to the left of the sector in
front of Authuile Wood, periodically withdrawing to reserve at Albert.
The ground occupied by the 8th Division was the most difficult of the whole
front, no-man’s land being exceptionally wide and the attack of the
70th Brigade would have to be made beneath the southern spur of the
Thiepval salient which was commanded ‘in enfilade’ by the
On the 30th June 1916 the 8th York and Lancs took up it’s final
positions. The 70th Infantry Brigade would attack on the left of the
Divisional line, the 8th K.O.Y.L.I. and 8th York and Lancs forming the
assault battalions with the 9th York and Lancs in support and the 11th
Sherwood Foresters in reserve.
After the artillery barrage lifted, the battalions began their assault near
the village of Ovillers at 7.30am, 1st July 1916. Immediately after
leaving their trenches the battalion came under heavy machine gun fire
and most of the men were killed or wounded. The remainder carried on and
took the enemy front line trenches and about 70 men eventually reached
as far as the third line of German trenches, but only one man returned
from there! What was left of the battalion remained fighting in the
first line of trenches until overwhelmed.
Such was the ferocity of the fighting that the Germans were forced to move
extra troops in to face the 70th Brigade and this enabled other British
units to make significant advances.
The 8th York and Lancaster Regiment took 680 men and 23 Officers over the
parapet, all the Officers were either killed or wounded and of the
battalion only 68 returned. The 8th K.O.Y.L.I.’s losses were only
My Great Uncle, Benjamin Burnley, was a Company Sergeant Major with the 8th
Battalion York and Lancaster and was not amongst the survivors.
The battalion had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting unit and was
withdrawn that evening.
PART THREE – AFTERMATH
BLIGHTY VALLEY CEMETERY, AUTHUILE WOOD, FRANCE.
Blighty Valley was the name given by the Army to the lower part of the deep
valley running down south-westward through Authuile Wood to join the
river between Authuile and Aveluy and it was here that the dead of the
8th battalion were buried.
Blighty Valley Cemetery is almost at the mouth of the valley, a little way up
its northern bank. It was begun early in July 1916, and used until the
following November by the troops taking part in the fighting on that
front. It then contained the graves of 212 soldiers and comprised the
whole of the present Plot I except 21 graves.
It was not used again until after the Armistice in 1918 when 784 bodies
were brought in from the battlefields and small cemeteries to the east.
The majority of the officers and men thus reburied fell on the 1st July
1916. The cemetery contains the graves of 993 soldiers from the United
Kingdom, two from Australia and one from Canada. There are 532 unnamed
graves and special memorials are erected to 24 soldiers from the United
Kingdom known, or believed to be, buried amongst them. There are five
other special headstones commemorating soldiers from the United Kingdom,
buried by the enemy in Bécourt German Cemetery in the spring of 1918
whose bodies could not be found on exhumation.
The 70th Infantry Brigade erected a wooden cross in the cemetery to their
dead of the 1st July 1916, but this was removed in the 1920s. C.S.M.
Benjamin Burnley is buried there along with his comrades of the 8th
(Service) Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment. The cemetery is
maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and was designed by
Sir Herbert Baker.
I would welcome any further/additional information on any of the above
soldiers so that a permanent record of the Pontefract War Dead can be
compiled before memories fade and facts are lost forever.
I can be contacted either via the Pontefract Digest or by Email eric (at)
Names of the Fallen in the Great War
Also by Eric Jackson:
The Barnbow Lasses
Reports from the Courts
Pontefract Sessions House