STEVENS G.W.T.

GEORGE WILLIAM THOMAS STEVENS 1897 – 1918

250296 Private George Stevens, 1/6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 9 April 1918 and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial, Belgium. [1] He was 21 years old and is commemorated on the Cockfield War Memorial.

Family Details

 George was born 24 March 1897 in Jersey to George and Alice Stevens.  There were 5 children: [2]

  • Alice May born 24 July 1894 at Trinity, Jersey
  • Elsie born 27 June 1895 at St. Johns, Jersey
  • George born 24 March 1897 at St. Johns, Jersey
  • Vera born 20 April 1899 at Evenwood, Co. Durham
  • Stanley bc.1905 at Jersey

In 1901, the family lived at 2 Poonah Road, St. Helier, Jersey and George (snr.) is recorded as being a soldier.  George (jnr.) and his sisters attended Cockfield Church of England School but between 23 September 1907 and 29 November 1907 they went to the Council School before returning to the National School.  At that time, the family lived at Draft Yard, Cockfield.[3] By 1911, the family lived at Esperley Lane, near Cockfield and George (snr.) worked as a coal miner, an underground manager (road waggonner).  14 year old George worked as a coal miner, as an underground labourer.[4]

Military Details

George Stevens enlisted at Barnard Castle into the Durham Light Infantry, probably the 1/6 the Battalion which was his local Territorial Force.  He was allocated the regimental number 2943 and later given number 250296.[5]

The 1/6th Battalion was formed in Bishop Auckland in August 1914 as part of the Durham Light Infantry Brigade, Northumbrian Division and in May 1915 became the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division. The Division moved to France 16 April 1915 and served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the war.  Other battalions were:

  • 1/7th Battalion, D.L.I
  • 1/8th Battalion, D.L.I.
  • 1/9th Battalion, D.L.I.
  • 1/5th Battalion, the Loyal North Lancs. joined June 1915

Following heavy casualties in June 1915 the battalion merged with the 1/8th to become the 6/8th then it returned to its original identity 11 August 1915 and was then joined by:

  • 1/5th (Cumberland) Battalion, the Border Regiment joined December 1915
  • 151st Machine Gun Company formed 6 February 1916
  • 150th Trench Mortar Battery formed 18 June 1916

Other units joined in 1918:

  • 1/5th Battalion, D.L.I. joined February 1918
  • 6th (Service) Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers joined July 1918
  • 1st Battalion, the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, joined July 1918
  • 4th Battalion, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps joined July 1918

Following the German Spring Offensive it was reduced to cadre strength in July 1918 and transferred to Lines of Communication.

The Division took part in the following engagements on the Western Front:

  • 24 April – 25 May 1915: The Second Battle of Ypres
  • 15 – 22 September 1916: The Battle of Flers-Courcelette(6th phase of the Battle of the Somme)
  • 25 – 28 September 1916: The Battle of Morval (7th phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916)
  • 1 – 18 October 1916: The Battle of Le Transloy (8th  phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916)      
  • 9 – 14 April 1917: The First Battle of the Scarpe (1st phase of the Arras Offensive)
  • 23 & 24 April 1917: The Second Battle of the Scarpe (2nd phase of the Arras Offensive)
  • 26 October – 10 November 1917: The Second Battle of Passchendaele (8th phase of the Third Battle of Ypres)

The following 3 battles are also known as the First Battles of the Somme, part of the German offensive in Picardy, France.

  • The Battle of St. Quentin (first phase, 21 – 23 March 1918)
  • The Actions at the Somme Crossing (first phase, 25 & 25 March 1918)
  • The Battle of Rosieres (first phase, 26 & 27 March 1918)

The following 2 battles are known as the Battle of the Lys.

  • The Battle of Estaires (the first phase, 9-11 April 1918)
  • The Battle of Hazelbrouck (the third phase, 12 -15 April 1918)

Following a most trying time on the Somme and the Lys battlefields, the Division was withdrawn and sent to IX Corps then on the Aisne, believed to be a much quieter area.  Unfortunately this was not the case and the Division was hit hard by another German attack.

  • The Battle of the Aisne (27 May – 6 June 1918)

After suffering particularly heavy casualties while on the Aisne, the Division was substantially reorganised. [6]

The service details of 250296 Private George Stevens, 1/6 battalion, the Durham Light Infantry have not been traced and the War Diary for the date of his death, 6 April 1918 has not been researched.  Private G.W. Stevens entered France 19.04.1915 [7] together with the rest of the 6/DLI.  He was killed in action 9 April 1918 during the Battle of the Lys – the Battle of Estaires which was the first phase, 9 – 11 April 1918.

Private George Stevens was a territorial soldier who was called to arms at the outbreak of war.  He was only 17 years old at the time and witnessed the Second Battle of Ypres 1915, the Somme 1916, Arras & the Third Ypres (Passchendaele) 1917 and the German Spring Offensive of 1918 in Picardy and the Lys before being killed in action aged 21 years.  He has no known grave.

The German Offensive, spring 1918 – an overview

 3 March:  Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front 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.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions. [8]  A single division numbered about 19,000 men [9] so Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.

The German High Command needed victory to be gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America had entered the war on the 6th April 1917 and in the July, the U.S. Commander –in – Chief Pershing asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first of her troops arrived in France on 26th June 1917.[10] The training and build-up of troops obviously 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 ready to join the action.[11]

Elsewhere in the Alliance, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai. [12]  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis.[13]

The German Spring 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.[14]

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

  • Between 21 March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,350 men – 1/5th of their original strength.
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000 [15]

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but only 300,000 recruits stood available taking into account the next annual class of 18-year olds.  There were 70,000 convalescents available from hospitals 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.[16]   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. [17]

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 on the 27th October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on the 9th November and the signing of the Armistice on the 11th November 1918.[18]

The Lys Offensive: 9 – 29 April 1918

Ludendorff’s first and biggest offensive had resulted in the greatest advance since the first months of the war but it had failed to achieve any decisive results.  The chief error was that he had concentrated his efforts on the strongest sector held by the British Third Army and the operation was affected by severe transport problems and low morale of undernourished troops.  Casualties were enormous – 240,000 Allied losses, slightly more German casualties.  Unable to make further progress on the Somme, Ludendorff turned to Flanders and the Lys Offensive. [19]

The Battle of Lys, also known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Estaires, was planned as Operation Georgette with the objective of capturing Ypres.  In one of the greatest failures in the military history of Portugal, the Second Portuguese Division, approx. 20,000 men commanded by General Gomes da Costa lost about 300 officers and 7,000 men killed, wounded and prisoners, resisting the attack of 4 German Divisions with 50,000 men of the Sixth German Army commanded by General Ferdinand von Quast in the first day of the offensive. [20]

The 5th Division saw action at the Battle of Hazelbrouck, (the third phase) on the 12 – 15 April playing a part in the defence of Nieppe Forest.  The offensive was abandoned 29 April when attempts to seize the Flanders heights ended in failure.  The second German offensive had resulted in an advance of up to 10 miles but none of their strategic objectives had been achieved and the channel ports remained safe in Allied hands.  The Germans had lost 350,000 men the Allies about 305,000, the great majority of them British since the beginning of the Spring Offensive.[21]

The Battle of Estaires: 9 – 11 April 1918 [22]

8 April: The front line from Givenchy northwards to Ypres-Comines Canal was held by the 55th, Portuguese, 40th, 34th, 25th, 19th & 9th Divisions, with the exception of the 55th and the Portuguese Divisions all those holding the front line had already been engaged on the Somme.  Of the 4 Divisions in reserve i.e. 51st, 50th, 49th & 29th, the two former has also been through the operations in March.  The defences of the 2 rivers and the outpost line which ran from Lestrem to Laventie…..a defence scheme was then evolved….6/DLI in the system of redoubts named Clifton Posts, Riez Bailleul, Carter’s Post, Le Drumez Post and Cockshy House.  These posts were garrisoned by a platoon with a platoon in reserve and a company to hold the whole battalion.  The 8/DLI were to hold the defences and bridgeheads of the River Lawe from Fosse Post to its junction with the River Lys at La Gorfue (inclusive) to Nouveau Monde (exclusive) that at the latter place being known as Pont Levis.

Turning to the fortunes of the 151st Brigade:

9 April 6.20am: all 3 battalions instructed to move to defence positions at Estaires and the bridgeheads were under a very heavy bombardment.  One shell fell into the billet occupied by officers of 6/DLI killing, wounding and burying all these officers – the battalion proceeded into action with only 3 officers, CO and Adjutant.  All platoons and one company were commanded by N.C.O.s.

Brigade HQ at Estaires.  Forward Report Centre near Pont Riquel – cable had been deliberately cut therefore no telephonic communication between the two.

10.00am: Portuguese being attacked

11.00am: enemy broken through along the whole front held by the Portuguese – left their guns in the hands of the enemy.

12.00 noon: enemy advancing in force on Laventie.

  • 6/DLI held a line of fortified farms and posts about 2 miles SE of Estaires
  • 8/DLI held the bridges over the Lae near Lestrem with detached posts in front.
  • 5/DLI held bridges at La Gorgue, Pont Levis and Pont de la Meuse at Estaries.

6/DLI War Diary:

“After fighting all day the Battalion withdrew to a line running north from Lestrem.”

151st Brigade HQ Diary:

“it is possible to gather something of the gallant fight put up by the 6/DLI before they were practically wiped out.”

Noon: 6/DLI must have had contact with the enemy shortly after noon – patrols returned to BHQ with information that Laventie was being evacuated and that there were no British or Portuguese troops on the left flank of our outpost line.  The enemy had reached the western outskirts of Levantie and Cockshy House, held by 6/DLI as smashed in by shell fire and the garrison post destroyed.

1.30pm: 151st Trench Mortar Battery sent forward to reinforce Le Drumez Post (held by 6/DLI) but was unable to reach the post and by 1.45pm: Le Drumez Post & Carter’s Post (both 6/DLI) fell to the enemy.

Thus 151st TMB took up an isolated post astride the La Bassee road.

6/DLI then ordered to move their reserve company to the left flank and established a refused flank, joining up their outpost garrison at Riez Bailleul with the garrison of the Lys Pont Levis bridgeheads.  5/DLI moved forward to assist at this junction.

The enemy advanced rapidly in 2 columns – one heading for the bridgeheads and the second swinging out from Le Drumez with the intention of rolling up the outpost line of redoubts and securing crossings of the R. Lawe at Lestrum.

About 3.00pm:  The enemy reached the R. Lys at Nouveau Monde -5/DLI to hold Pont Levis “at all costs” and launch a counter attack in the direction of Laventie with one of their reserve companies to strengthen the refused flank SE of Pont Levis.

At 3.00pm: 8/DLI reported that the last 2 posts held by 6/DLI (Riez Bailleul and Clifton Post) had fallen.

  • Riez Bailleul – having been surrounded
  • Clifton Post – having been driven back

4.00pm: remnants of 6/DLI, 4 officers & 60 men, were ordered to fall back to a position and fill a gap between the 8/DLI & 5/DLI.  One company of 7/DLI (Pioneers) was also sent to assist 6/DLI.

The battle concentrated into 2 main attacks:

  • One against the river E of Lestrum to obtain a crossing over the R. Lawe
  • The second between Pont Levis & Nouveau Monde with the idea obtaining a crossing over the R. Lys

At 6.00pm the situation at Pont Levis was serious and by 7.00pm it was deemed necessary to hold the northern bank of the Lys and blow up the bridgeheads.  Then orders were given to withdraw.

“By the night of the 9th April, the original British line from Givenchy to Bois Grenier had given way and when darkness had fallen ran roughly – Festubert – Le Touret – Le Cason – Vieille Chapelle – Pont Rigneul – north of Lestrem – La Gorgue (E of Estaires) along the bank of the Lys, W of Sailly-sur-la-Lys to Croix du Bac – north of Fleurbaix – to just north of Bois Grenier.  A big dent on a front of about 10 miles had been made, creating salients north and south.”  [23]

Further detail is provided by Capt. R. B. Ainsworth MC:

 “On the night of the 8th April, there was another “stand to” and at 4.00am the threatened attack commenced with a heavy bombardment of the town.  One of the first shells burst in the Convent and all the occupants with 2 exceptions became casualties…….highest praise is due to the N.C.O.s who gave valuable assistance to the 3 surviving Company Officers in getting the Battalion into its battle positions in the Cockshy, Marais East and West and Drumiez posts…..The morning was misty and beyond the fact that the Portuguese were being driven back in confusion, nothing definite could be ascertained as to the situation.  The first reports which reached the Commanding Officer (Major T.B. Heslop) were to the effect that 3 companies (W, X and Z) had been completely overwhelmed and that 2 of his 3 Company Officers, Capt. Cardew (killed) and 2nd Lieut. Railton (prisoner) were casualties.  The remainder of the Battalion however under Lieut. A.N. Brown held its ground till the afternoon when it was forced to withdraw to the railway near La Gorgue.

At dusk, orders were received to cross the river Lawe and to hold the western bank.  This withdrawal was successful and the opportunity was taken to reorganise the Battalion which was divided into 2 companies, one under Lieut. Brown with Sergt. P. Finn MM and Sergt. Field; and the other under C.S.M. T. Sordy MC with Sergts. Bell and Cooper.  The strength of the Battalion was now barely 100 and when touch had been established on the flanks it was found that it was holding a frontage of about 2000 yards.

Assistance was therefore asked for….a company of Corps Cyclists and a company 7/DLI were attached. …….It was now about 10.00am on the 10th April and the enemy had renewed his attack and gained a footing in Lestrem…..” [24]

It is likely that 250296 Private George Stevens was killed in action when his company was overwhelmed during the action at Cockshy, Marais East and West or Drumiez posts.  He could have been involved later in the day at Riez Bailleul or Clifton Post but since the War Diary is “silent” on detailed proceedings and his body has not been identified then, the circumstances of his death “are known unto God”.

Later research records that between 9 and 11 April 1918, 6/DLI lost 4 Officers and 30 Other Ranks, killed in action or died of wounds.[25]

Private G. Stevens was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.[26]

Commemorations

 The Ploegsteert Memorial commemorates more than 11,000 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector during the First World War and have no known grave. The memorial serves the area from the line Caestre-Dranoutre-Warneton to the north, to Haverskerque-Estaires-Fournes to the south, including the towns of Hazebrouck, Merville, Bailleul and Armentieres, the Forest of Nieppe, and Ploegsteert Wood. The original intention had been to erect the memorial in Lille. Those commemorated by the memorial did not die in major offensives, such as those which took place around Ypres to the north or Loos to the south. Most were killed in the course of the day-to-day trench warfare which characterised this part of the line, or in small scale set engagements, usually carried out in support of the major attacks taking place elsewhere.  Private George Stevens is commemorated at Panel 8 and 9. [27]

References

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] Cockfield Council School Admissions Register and 1901 & 1911 census

[3] Cockfield Council School Admissions Register Note: probably Draft Yard

[4] 1911 census

[5] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[6] www.1914-1918.net/dli & http://www.1914-1918.net/50div

[7] Medal Roll

[8] “The Somme “ Peter Hart p.421

[9] cwgc.org/somme

[10] www.firstworldwar/timeline

[11] Hart p.437

[12] http://www.1914-1918/batt22

[13] Hart p.437

[14] Hart p.426 & http://www.firstworldwar/timeline

[15] Hart p.435

[16] Hart p.439

[17] Hart p.438

[18] http://www.firstworldwar/timeline

[19] wfa

[20] wikipedia

[21] wfa

[22]  “The Story of the 6th battalion the Durham Light Infantry” Capt. R.B. Ainsworth M.C. 1919 & “The Fiftieth Division 1914-1918” Everard Wyrall 1939 & “The Faithful Sixth” Harry Moses 1995

[23]  “The Fiftieth Division 1914-1918” Everard Wyrall 1939

[24] “The Story of the 6th battalion the Durham Light Infantry” Capt. R.B. Ainsworth M.C. 1919

[25] Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War

[26] Medal Roll

[27] CWGC

Photographs

STEVENS G.W. with sisters

STEVENS G.W. with sisters

Ploegsteert Memorial

Ploegsteert Memorial

Stevens G.W. Inscription Ploegsteert Memorial

Stevens G.W.
Inscription
Ploegsteert Memorial