JAMES SKELHORN 1896 – 1918

 122510 Private James Skelhorn 8th Battalion, the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry) was killed in action 28 March 1918 and is buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres. [1]  He was 21 years old and is commemorated on Evenwood War Memorial and the Roll of Honour, St. Paul’s Church, Evenwood.

Family Details

James was born in 1896 [2] in Burnley, Lancashire and was the son of James and Elizabeth Skelhorn.  There were 5 children: [3]

  • James born 1896
  • Mary Ellen bc.1899
  • John Herbert bc.1906
  • Clara bc.1911
  • Amy Gladys

By 1911 the family lived at 48 Murray Street West Hartlepool and 55 year old James worked as a boot repairer.  He had been married to Elizabeth for 15 years and Mary Ellen aged 12, John Herbert aged 5 and an unnamed baby girl aged 1 month lived with them.  There is no mention of James who would have been about 15 years old. His whereabouts in 1911 have not been traced.

Military Details

 James Skelhorn enlisted at Bishop Auckland and joined the Durham Light Infantry being given the regimental number 73013.  At some time later he joined the Machine Gun Corps being given the regimental number 122510.[4]

The service details of Private James Skelhorn have not been traced therefore the date when he enlisted into the DLI and the date he transferred into the Machine Gun Corps remain unknown.

The 8th Battalion the Machine Gun Corps was formed 2 January 1918 from the 23rd, 24th, 25th and 218th Machine Gun Companies.[5]  The battalion was attached to the 8th Division. [6] The 8th Division consisted of the 23rd, 24th and 25th Brigades:

  • 23rd Brigade: 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire regiment, 2nd Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment
  • 24th Brigade: 1st Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, 1st Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters, 2nd Battalion, the Northampton Regiment
  • 25th Brigade: 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade

Machine Gun Corps [7]

Prior to January 1918, the machine gun companies were attached to infantry brigades or squadrons attached to cavalry brigades and were armed with 16 Vickers guns (cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons 12 guns).  They took the brigade number ie 19 Machine Gun Company of the 19th Brigade.  There were 288 Infantry MG Companies and 26 Cavalry MG Squadrons (Sqns.)  A Major became the Brigade Machine Gun Officer, a Captain commanded the Company (Coy.) of 16 guns.  A  MG Coy consisted of an HQ, 4 Sections of 4 guns and a Transport Section.  Sections were divided into 2 sub-sections each commanded by a subaltern, the senior being the Section Commander.  Sub-sections each had a Section Sergeant and a Section Corporal.  Transport Sections of mule drawn limbers for guns/ammunition were larger than an infantry battalion’s transport.  Cavalry MG Sqns had 6 no. 2 gun sections.

Re-organisation in 1918 resulted in MG Coys in a Division forming a Battalion which took the Divisional Number ie 1st 2nd 3rd & 216th MG Coys 1st Division became “A”, “B”, “C” &”D” Companies, 1st Battalion MGC.  The chain of command was as follows:

  • Commanding Officer – Lieutenant Colonel
  • Second in Command – Major
  • Adjutant – Captain (the CO’s Staff Officer, orderly room, legal/clerical matters)
  • Signal Officer – Subaltern (an officer below the rank of Captain) thus Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant (communications between Div./Bn/Coys.  Signallers trained in the use of telephone, Morse code and semaphore.)
  • Transport Officer – Subaltern (Transport – horses/mules, limbers/carts drivers/grooms, shoe-smiths etc)
  • Quartermaster – Subaltern (Battalion supply department, collect /deliver rations, fodder/water, clothing etc. store-man, armourer, cobbler, carpenter and cook
  • Liaison Officer – French/Belgian bilingual officer or NCO
  • Medical Officer – Doctor with Regimental Aid Post with First Aid trained stretcher bearers
  • Regimental Sgt. Major – Regimental Police, discipline, ammo supply, PoW, regimental tradition.

An infantry battalion had 4 companies, divided into 4 platoons each commanded by a subaltern.  Platoons were divided into 4 Sections each under a Corporal.  There were 2 sub-sections and 2 gun teams consisting of 6 men to each team.  A Gun Team had a crew of 6 men and they had specific tasks.  No. 1 a Lance Corporal was in charge, fired the gun and carried the tripod.  No. 2 fed the 250 round belts into the gun and carried the gun.  No. 3 supplied ammo to the gun, another observed, there was a range finder.

The Vickers MG Mark 1 was used by the Army from 1912 and earned a reputation for reliability and effectiveness and remained the support machine gun of the British Army until 1968.  The gun is water cooled.  It is capable of firing 10,000 rounds per hour then the barrel has to be changed – a trained team could do this in 2 minutes.  Ammunition came in wooden boxes ready belted or in cardboard boxes of 100 rounds which then had to be hand fed into the canvas belts.  A mechanical loading devise was available.

From 1904 – 1914, the War Office ordered 10 guns per annum.  By 1918, Vickers produced 39,473.  Each weapon cost the tax-payer £80.

In November 1914, a machine gun training school opened in France and in England – at Belton Park and Harrowby Camps, Grantham, Lincolnshire.

Officers and men of the Corps earned 7 VC’s, 292 Military Crosses, 779 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 3653 Military Medals and 156 Bars, 276 Meritorious Service Medals and many foreign decorations.  170,500 officers and men served in the MGC.  62,049 were casualties; killed, wounded or missing.

The unofficial nickname of the MGC was “The Suicide Club (or Squad).”

The German Spring Offensive 1918 – an overview [8]

 3 March 1918:  Soviet Russia made peace with Germany which meant that Germany could transfer divisions from the Eastern to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army, the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West so that the Germans held superiority in numbers.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions.  A single division numbered about 19,000 men so the German High Command could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.

It was essential that final victory was gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America had entered the war 6 April 1917 and the first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.  In July 1917, the U.S. Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Force General J.J. Pershing asked for 3 million men.  The build-up of troops took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States.

The French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of effective inactivity.  However, the British were worn down by continuous fighting following the major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai during the summer of 1917.  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918.

The German Offensive was launched 21 March 1918 and took 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918) against the British
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, the Battle of Lys against the British sector near Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, the Third Battle of Aisne against the French sector along Chemin des Dames
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, the Battle of the Matz against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive.  23 March, the Kaiser declared a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren.  The cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21  March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 1/5th of their original strength – 303,450 men
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but even by drawing the next annual class of 18-year olds, only 300,000 recruits stood available.  Also 70,000 convalescents from hospitals were available each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required.

To add to this dilemma, in June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world.

Added to this the poor diet of the German troops, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realisation that their great effort was beginning to wane, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralised German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II 9 November and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918.

 The First Battle of the Somme 1918  [9]

 The British called this engagement the “March Retreat”.  Gough’s Fifth Army of 13 Divisions plus 3 cavalry divisions was attacked by 43 Divisions of the German Second and Eighteenth Armies.  Byng’s Third Army comprising 12 Divisions faced the 19 Divisions of the German Seventeenth Army. The 8th Division fought as part of the Fifth Army, XIX Corps in the following engagements:

  • 23 March 1918: Battle of St. Quentin
  • 24 & 25 March 1918: Actions on the Somme Crossing
  •  26 & 27 March 1918: Battle of Rosieres

Then it was incorporated elsewhere as follows:

  • 24 & 25 April 1918: Villers Bretonneux (III Corps Fourth Army)
  • 27 May to 6 June 1918: Battle of the Aisne (IX Corps, Sixth French Army & Fifth French Army)

The village of Rosieres had been located well within the British lines since the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in the spring of 1917 but the swift advance of German storm-troopers soon saw the village under attack.

  • 23 March:  Peronne fell
  • 24 March:  Bapaume fell
  • 26 March:  Albert, “capital” of the old Somme battlefield fell

The Fifth Army retreated and was involved in some extremely fierce and sacrificial fighting.

The German Army swept through the old Somme battlefield to the east and aimed to reach Amiens.  The British Fifth Army retreated and held positions to disrupt the enemy.

26 March:  the 8th Division occupied positions in the vicinity of Harbonnieres and Framerville.  The Germans advanced from the general direction to the west and occupied the villages of Proyart, Mericourt, Chipilly and Cerisy to the north.  As the battle continued the British line retreated from the Proyart – Rosieres line in the direction of Bayonvillers – Caix, then Wiencourt – Cayeux-en-Santerre then to Marcelcave –Demuin.  A summary of the retreat is provided below:

27 March:  8.00am – the enemy attacked the Rosieres line.  On the left and the centre they were driven off but on the right a Labour Company fell back until a counter attack restored the situation.  The 50th Division had practically been reduced to the 149th Brigade which was holding 4000 yards of line between the 66th and 8th Divisions.  The retirements north of it had led to a warning order for a withdrawal being issued but this had been misinterpreted by the battalions in the line which began to fall back, abandoning Vauvillers near the junction of the 66th Division.  The position at Vauvillers was held until noon at which time they withdrew because the troops on both flanks had retired.

Noon: an attack developed along the whole of the front line held by the 8th, 50th, 66th and 39th Divisions.

1.00pm: the 66th retired.  2.00pm: 5th Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers retired (part of the 149th Brigade)  The 8th Division which had once formed a defensive flank attacked on the right while on the left the 7/DLI and the 22nd Entrenching Battalion with some 66th Division Reserves went forward.

3.00pm: these troops, well supported by artillery were under way and struck the enemy who was advancing in 8 or 10 waves.  They drove the foremost waves back and re-established the 50th Division line, recapturing Vauvillers.  Brigadier-General Riddell led a counterattack and drove the enemy from Harbonnieres – very heavy losses inflicted on the enemy.  The success was only temporary.  The Germans attacked again and when ammunition began to run out, broke in south of the village and enfiladed the line causing another retirement.

7.00pm: the line withdrew to the light railway between Rosieres station and crossroads half a mile to the east.  A counter attack was organised and the 50th Division was back on the light railway to the east of Harbonnieres.

8.00pm: the enemy made another determined attack, advancing in 12 waves but was repulsed again.

27/28 March:  the allied line, south of the Somme, ran from Mesnil-St. Georges, west of Montdidier) to Hamel via Boussicourt, Arvillers, Warvillers, Rosieres and Haronnieres.

28 March:  the 8th Division together with the 16th Brigade, the Royal Horse Artillery defended Rosieres But these troops were withdrawn at night.

The Fifth Army in March 1918 [10]

26 March:  at dusk, the 39th Division manned the Proyart sector; Malcolm (?Div) was south and west of Framerville and north east of Vauvillers; and the 50th Division continued the line to Rosieres.  The 8th Division under Heneker were in the line to the south west in the vicinity of Warvillers.  The map below shows the disposition of British forces in the Harbonnieres – Framerville area.

During the night of 26/27th the line drew back from the northern outskirts of Proyart to the village of Mericourt.  The Germans entered Chipilly on the morning of the 27th and by dark the Germans advanced from Cerisy to Lamotte – all the British troops and guns were outflanked.  All day a battle raged along the Proyart-Rosieres front.  At 9.00am a big attack commenced at Rosieres and extended along the railway line.  Fighting was intense to the north around Harbonnieres and Framerville was recaptured by some men from the 50th Division and the Devonshires from the 8th Division:

“This was a fine counter-blow; and let us note, it was accompanied by 8 machine-guns taken out of tanks which arrived only just in time……What a day!  About 16 miles from Amiens the foe had had an opportunity to break through.  His attack was clever and brave.  Yet it failed.”

At Rosieres the right flank held firm and the Northumberland Fusiliers and a battalion from the 8th Division made a fine effort to recover Vauvillers.

“The day’s fighting had been costly.”

The Germans were in no state to continue, exhaustion from the struggle and perhaps attraction to captured Allied provisions, the night had been cold, British platoons and companies were mixed up, the retreat continued to the general line Ignaucourt-Marceleave.  28 March:  an effort was made to recapture Lamotte by the 61st Division and the First Cavalry attacked from the west but without artillery and no cover they were at the mercy of German machine-guns and at dusk, the Germans attacked Marceleave.  The village fell.

Elsewhere, Brigadier Riddell and the remnants of the 4/Northumberland Fusiliers after 7 days and nights fighting were attacked along the Guillaucourt-Caix road by enemy machine gun fire:

“Some men rally at once though German machine-gunners have taken the wood south east of Guillaucourt and their fire enfilade is a hail of torture.

Bit on our left, happily, our own machine-gunners are all right, hidden on a hill crested by a small wood.  Their fire rattles most comfortingly into purring bursts.  Yet the attack comes on; it is only about 800 yards away and its aim is to reach a crest overlooking the valley and Caix.  Then Caix could be turned into a shambles and our centre and right enfiladed, would be untenable.”

British troops from Caix entered the battle and the Germans retreated back to Guillaucourt.  The hill was saved but enemy machine-gunners continued their assault from the copse south east of Guillaucourt and “many a good man is killed”.  The retreat reached Hangard the next day.

The Fifth Army held out.  The 66th Division was relieved by the 18th.

2 April:  The remnants of the 50th joined the unwounded of the 20th and were relieved by the 14th Division.  Amiens was not taken.

Ludendorff wrote:

“Strategically, we had not achieved what the events of the 23rd, 24th and 25th had encouraged us to hope for.  That we had also failed to take Amiens, which would have rendered communication between the enemy’s forces astride the Somme exceedingly difficult, was specially disappointing.  Long range bombardment of the railway establishments of Amiens was by no means an equivalent.”

Private James Skelhorn was killed in action 28 March 1918.  Whilst his service details and the 8 Bn., MGC War Diariy have not been researched it is assumed that he died during action at the Battle of Rosieres.  There can be no doubt that men like Private James Skelhorn, a machine-gunner would have been in the thick of fighting.  He could have been involved with the Northumberland Fusiliers at Harbonnieres or the Guillaucourt-Caix road skirmish.  He is buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres which is located to the north of Rosieres.  Private J. Skelhorn was awarded the British War and Victory medals.[11]


Private James Skelhorn is buried at grave reference V.I.6 Heath Cemetery, Harbonniers.  Heath Cemetery is located to the south of the Amiens to St. Quentin road approx 13km from Villers-Bretonneux.  This cemetery was made after the Armistice when graves were brought into it from other burial grounds on the battlefields between Bray and Harbonnieres.  The majority of casualties died in March or August 1918. There are 1491 burials and memorials.[12]

Commemorations [13]

The Machine Gun Corps Memorial, unveiled by the Duke of Connaught in 1925 at Hyde Park Corner, London close to the Royal Artillery Memorial, has as its main feature a bronze figure of David by Derwent Wood.  The naked David is holding the slain Goliath’s huge sword and an inscription on the stone base of the memorial is a brutally frank quotation from 1 Samuel, chapter 18, verse 7:



To either side of the figure and at a slightly lower level is a bronze machine gun covered by 2 laurel wreaths and on the back of the central pedestal is inscribed a short history of the Corps.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Haslingdon 1896 Q3

[3] 1911 census & A family tree on the ancestry website provides details to confirm that James (1852-1919) was his father and Elizabeth (nee Bowman 1871-1959) was his mother and Mary, Herbert, Clara and Amy Gladys were his brothers and sisters.

[4] Soldiers Died in the Great War



[7] Jim Parker

[8] Various sources including “The First World War” 1998 J. Keegan & & http://www.1914-1918/batt22

[9] Various sources including & & &

Jim Parker &

“1918 – Year of Victory” M. Brown

[10] “The Fifth Army in March 1918” W. Shaw Sparrow 1921, chapter 4, “The centre fighting” p119-135.

[11] Medal Roll

[12] CWGC



SKELHORN J.  Headstone