18/1628 Private William Edwin Earl, 14th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action, 27 September 1916 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, France.   He was 19 years old and is commemorated on the Evenwood War Memorial and the Roll of Honour, St. Paul’s Church, Evenwood.[1]

Family Details

 William Edwin was born 1897 at Wolsingham [2] the son of William and Elizabeth Earl.  There were at least 3 children, all born at Wolsingham:

  • Edith bc.1896
  • William born 1887
  • Henry bc. 1904

In 1911 the family lived at Walworth, High Conniscliffe near Darlington where 51 year old William worked as a game-keeper.[3]  After the war when the Imperial WGC collated details of those who had died, William’s father had died and his mother lived at Buck Head, Evenwood. He enlisted at Darlington and Walworth was his recorded residence.[4]

Military Details

 William Earl enlisted at Darlington into the Durham Light Infantry being given the regimental number 18/1628 which infers he joined the 18th battalion and was later transferred to the 14th Battalion, DLI. [5]

The 18th (Service) Battalion was formed 10 September 1914 and came under the orders of the 93rd Brigade, 31st Division.  It arrived in France 11 March 1916. [6]  In 1916, the 93rd Brigade comprised the following units:

  • 15th Bn., the West Yorkshire Regiment (Leeds Pals)
  • 16th Bn., WYR (1st Bradford Pals)
  • 18th Bn., WYR (2nd Bradford Pals)
  • 18/DLI (Durham Pals)
  • 93 Machine Gun Company joined May 1916
  • 93rd Trench Mortar Battery formed April 1916

The 31st Division served in Egypt 23 January – 6 March taking over the defences of the Suez Canal (No.3 Sector) and then sailed for Marseilles, France to serve on the Western Front for the duration of the war.  In 1916, it saw action at the Battle of the Somme – the Battle of Albert and the Battle of the Ancre.[7]

The service record of Private W.E. Earl has not been traced therefore the date he entered France and was transferred to the 14/DLI is unknown.[8]  The 14th (Service) Battalion was initially attached to the 64th Brigade, 21st Division then 25 November 1915.  It was transferred to the 18th Brigade, 6th Division as part of the XIV Corps, Fourth Army.  By July 1916, the 18th Brigade consisted of the following units:[9]

  • 1st Bn., the West Yorkshire Regiment
  • 2nd Bn., the Durham Light Infantry
  • 11th Bn., the Essex Regiment joined October 1915
  • 14th Bn., DLI joined November 1915
  • 18th MGC joined February 1916
  • 18th TMB joined April 1916

The 18th Brigade together with the 16th, 17th, 19th and 71st Brigades combined to form the 6th Division. The Division remained on the Western Front throughout the war.  It suffered a total of 53,740 battle casualties. [10]

 The Battle of the Somme 1 July – 18 November 1916 [11]

 The Battle of the Somme was viewed as a breakthrough battle, as a means of getting through the formidable German trench lines and into a war of movement and decision.  Political considerations and the demands of the French High Command influenced the timing of the battle.  They demanded British diversionary action to occupy the German Army to relieve the hard pressed French troops at Verdun, to the south.

General Sir Douglas Haig, appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1915, was responsible for the overall conduct of British Army operations in France and Belgium.  This action was to be the British Army’s first major offensive on the Western Front in 1916 and it was entrusted to General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to deliver the resounding victory.  The British Army included thousands of citizen volunteers, keen to take part in what was expected to be a great victory.

The main line of assault ran nearly 14 miles from Maricourt in the south to Serre to the north, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt 2 miles further to the north.  The first objective was to establish a new advanced line on the Montauban to Pozieres Ridge.

The first day, 1 July, was preceded by a week long artillery bombardment of the German positions.  Just prior to zero-hour, the storm of British shells increased and merged with huge mine explosions to herald the infantry attack.  At 7.30am on a clear midsummer’s morning the British Infantry emerged from their trenches and advanced in extended lines at a slow steady pace over the grassy expanse of a No Man’s Land.  They were met with a hail of machine gun fire and rifle fire from the surviving German defenders.  Accurate German artillery barrages smashed into the infantry in No Man’s Land and the crowded assembly trenches.  The British suffered enormous casualties:

  • Officers killed 993
  • Other Ranks killed: 18,247
  • Total Killed: 19,240
  • Total casualties (killed, wounded and missing): 57,470

In popular imagination, the “Battle of the Somme” has become a byword for military disaster.  In the calamitous opening 24 hours the British Army suffered its highest number of casualties in a single day.  The loss of great numbers of men from the same towns and villages had a profound impact on those at home. The first day was an abject failure.  The following weeks and months of conflict assumed the nature of wearing-down warfare, a war of attrition, by the end of which both the attackers and defenders were totally exhausted.

The Battle of the Somme can be broken down into 12 offensive operations:

  • Albert: 1 – 13 July
  • Bazantin Ridge: 14 – 17 July
  • Delville Wood: 15 July – 13 September
  • Pozieres Ridge: 15 July – 3 September
  • Guillemont: 23 July – 3 September
  • Ginchy: 9 September
  • Flers-Courcelette: 15 – 22 September
  • Morval: 25 – 28 September
  • Thiepval: 25 – 28 September
  • Le Transloy: 1 – 18 October
  • Ancre Heights: 1 October – 11 November
  • Ancre: 13 – 18 November

Adverse weather conditions, the autumn rains and early winter sleet and snow turned the battlefield into morass of mud.  Such intolerable physical conditions helped bring to an end Allied offensive operations after four and a half months of slaughter.  The fighting brought no significant breakthrough.  Territorial gain was a strip of land approximately 20 miles wide by 6 miles deep. In terms of casualties, the cost was enormous – British and Commonwealth forces were calculated to have 419,654 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) of which some 131,000 were dead.  French casualties amounted to 204,253.  German casualties were estimated between 450,000 to 600,000. In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918.

25 – 28 September 1916: The Battle of Morval: An overview

 What became known as the Battle of Morval took place in the days following 25 September 1916.  This town is situated in the southern sector of the British 4th Army’s theatre to the north of the French 6th Army.  The objective was to drive the Germans from their positions in the vicinity of Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs, Morval and Combles.    The XIV Corps comprising the Guards, the 5th and 6th Divisions were faced with capturing the fortress villages of Lesboeufs and Morval.

As was customary, the offensive commenced with an artillery bombardment which opened up on 24 September.  On this occasion, the Germans had no time to deepen their trenches or prepare deep dugouts, concreted machine gun posts and massed belts of barbed wire.  The infantry went over the top at 12.35, 25 September.  The offensive purposely coincided with a French assault to the south.  The Royal Artillery blasted a “creeping barrage” and the infantry followed into No Man’s Land.  Tanks were to be used in the attack behind the troops and concentrate their fire power on specific strong German positions.  The village of Gueudecourt was still holding out as night fell.

The real success was to the right on the front where the XIV Corps, packed into a narrow frontage to maximise their penetrative power swept forward to dramatic effect, eventually capturing the whole of the German front line system.  The objectives of Lesbouefs and Morval were taken.

In many places along the line the troops of the XIV Corps met little opposition from front line Germans and they smashed their way through.  The village of Combles was left isolated and the Germans had to abandon it the next day, 26 September.  Gueudecourt was finally overrun on the afternoon 26 September.  That day, 14/DLI went to the front line east of Lesboeufs.  By the conclusion of this offensive, the final objectives had been achieved and in addition land had been captured beyond the villages of Lesboeufs and Morval.

The 6th Division

The Divisional History records: [12]

“Sept. 25 – General attack – 6th Division on Lesboeufs and south to Morval – by 16th and 18th Infantry Brigades with 71st Infantry Brigade in reserve – successful – over 500 prisoners.

Sept. 30. Relieved by 20th Division.”  

More detail is provided:

“At 12.35pm the attack was launched – the 16th Infantry Brigade on the right gaining the first objective with the Buffs and the final objective with the K.S.L.I. and the Y & L.  On the left the 2nd D.L.I. and the Essex captured the first objective and the West Yorks and 2 companies 14th D.L.I. the final objective.  This was one of the most successful battles on the Somme – thanks to good weather and observation, a carefully arranged creeping barrage and a sound preliminary bombardment.”

The History confirms that:

“The Division had taken part as a whole in 3 general attacks on the Somme (15th and 25th September and 12th October) and had also carried out subordinate operations on the 13th and 18th September and the 18th October.

It has suffered casualties amounting to 277 officers and 6,640 other ranks and had well earned a rest.”

Appendix 1 provides information that the Division suffered 7,430 casualties between 5 August and 23 October 1916 on their tour of the Somme.

14/DLI in action [13]

The British battlefront extended from the region of Leuze Wood, east of Guillemont to the vicinity of Martinpuich.  The 14/DLI made its first appearance in the Battle of the Somme.

11 September 1916:  The 6th Division took over the front east of Guillemont

12 September: 6am, General bombardment of the German lines began.  14/DLI moved up from Sand Pit Valley to the Citadel, south of Fricourt.  Later in the day, the 18th Brigade rushed into the Quadrilateral from the flanks and 2/DLI entered a trench called Low Road, bombed it down for 100 yards and held on.  At night 14/DLI were sent forward from Guillemont to consolidate a position where the railway crossed the Ginchy-Leuze Wood road.  The trenches were full of dead and wounded Norfolks and Suffolks.

13 September: dawn patrols sent out to locate troops on the flanks.  Further fighting to the north where the Guards attacked Lesboeufs.  14/DLI began work on an assembly trench in front of their position for another attempt upon the Quadrilateral.

14 September: early morning, heavy enemy barrage, counter attack expected, did not happen, resumed work on the trench.

15 September: work on another assembly trench 70 yards further forward.

24 men were wounded before the actual attack started.

18 September: intense bombardment of the German positions by the British artillery.  Rain began to fall

18 September: 5.50am, 14/DLI climbed out of the wet trenches and plodded forward following the creeping barrage.  On the right and the centre the line made good progress but on the left, “German machine-gunners maintained a galling fire”.  Rifle grenades were used and the machine guns were soon in British hands.  The Straight and the Quadrilateral were taken, the advance pressed on.  North of the railway, 14/DLI bombed out dug-outs and reached the forward slope in view of Morval.  The battalion dug in.  The expected enemy infantry counter attack did not materialise but German gunners opened fire on the new positions.  At night, the whole brigade was relieved and 14/DLI reached billets at Meaulte, the following day.

4 officers and 31 men killed, 4 officers and 161 men wounded and 32 men missing.  106 unwounded Germans had been captured and 6 machine guns.

21 September: a draft of 80 men had been received before 14/DLI moved forward again relieving the 1st Guards Brigade in front of Lesboeufs.  The night was spent in reserve between Trones Wood and Bernafay Wood.

23 September: evening, 14/DLI moved forward and relieved 2/DLI and 11/Essex, taking over the whole of the brigade front just south of Ginchy-Lesboeufs road.  The Germans occupied Cow Trench on the left beyond the road.  Hostile shell fire.

24 September: dawn, the German infantry advanced under intense bombardment.  They did not reach the trenches of the 14/DLI.  British gunfire prevented further enemy attacks but many shells fell short into the trenches of the 14th.  At night, the battalion was relieved by the 2/DLI.  Losses 1 officer killed and 10 men wounded.

25 September:  the 2/DLI & 14/DLI participated in the attack along the whole allied front from the river Somme to Martinpuich.  The 1st West Yorkshire Regiment was successful in “making good” the village of Lesboeufs but 14/DLI were not called upon and sat in reserve positions all day under a heavy German bombardment – 1 officer and 2 men killed, 2 officers and 32 men wounded.

26 September: evening

“On the evening of the 26th the Durhams relieved the Yorkshiremen on the ground that had been won.  All 4 companies were put in the front line which ran just east of the ruins of Lesboeufs and here the battalion remained until the early morning of September 29th when the 2nd Sherwood Foresters of the 71st Brigade took over the position.  During this period German shell fire never ceased and losses amounted to 13 killed and 2nd Lieut. R.E. Bryant and 29 wounded.  On the 28th an enemy aeroplane flew over the trenches and was driven off by Lewis Gun and rifle fire.”

Private William E. Earl was killed in action 27 September 1916.  He has no known grave.

29 September: evening, 14/DLI arrived at billets in Meaulte and the focus of the Somme offensive moved to the north and the Battle of Thiepval.

Later research records that 14/DLI lost 8 Other Ranks killed in action or died of wounds 27 September 1916.[14]

 A firsthand account

 The following account was provided by a Guardsman fighting in the same area as Private William Earl and it is likely that their experiences were similar.

“Out of the trench and there was no barbed wire in front.  We met the usual machine-gun fire, the mistake to me was blowing a whistle before the attack; another way could have been found which was silent.  As soon as the whistle went the Germans must have known the attack was on its way and they were ready.

We had to bomb the Germans out of one position.  I was just a few yards away from where the bombers were throwing the bombs and when I passed it the corpses were piled up – our bombs had done a lot of work there.  We were losing a few and the section corporal wasn’t far away from me when he was hit in the right arm…He said to me, “I’ll have to go back.”  He set off walking.  The usual thing – there were snipers waiting and they got him on his way back.  He was killed.  We got near the front-line trench when I got mixed up with some German bombers.  These bombs came fast and furious among us.  And I and one or two more caught the nasty side effects, shrapnel in the right shoulder.”

Guardsman Horace Calvert 4th Battalion, Grenadier Guards, 3rd Guards Brigade, Guards Division

Returning to the Battle of Morval, it appears that the tactic of “bite and hold” was successful in this instance due to the effective preliminary bombardment, the “creeping barrage” which provided cover for the infantry and the relatively weak German defences.  A concentrated attack with limited objectives was supported by a French offensive to the south which further occupied the German defensive cover.  Thus the British edged forward as the Germans edged back and prepared new lines of defence.


 Private W.E. Earl has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.  The Memorial bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the UK and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave.  Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916.[15]


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales 1837-1915 Birth Index Vol.10a p.300 Weardale 1897 Q4

[3] 1911 census

[4] CWGC

[5] “Durham Pals – 18th, 19th & 22nd Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry in the Great War” Sheen J. p.316 Note: age recorded as 28 years old.

[6] http://www.1914-1918.net/dli.htm

[7] http://www.1914-1918.net/31div.htm

[8] CWGS & SDGW both record Private W.E. Earl serving with 14/DLI when he was killed so this work will concentrate on 14/DLI

[9] http://www.1914-1918.net/6div.htm

[10] “A Short History of the Sixth Division” edited by Major General T.O. Marden Appendix 1

[11] Various sources including www.cwgs.org/somme & “The Somme” Hart P.

[12] “A Short History of the Sixth Division” edited by Major General T.O. Marden Appendix III

[13] “The Durham Forces in the Field 1914-18: The Service Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry” 1920 Capt. W. Miles

[14] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[15] CWGC




EARL W.E. Thiepval Inscription