1/6 Devonshire Regiment by Peter Turner, Keep Musuem
Peter Turner from the Keep Museum has written the following article about the 1/6 Devonshire Regiment.
The Battalion began life in 1860 as the 3rd Admin Battalion of the Devonshire Rifle Volunteers at Barnstaple; it then became the 4th Corps and subsequently the 4th. Volunteer Battalion, Devonshire Regiment in 1885. Under the Haldane Reforms, implemented in 1908, the battalion became part of the Territorial Force, designed to be the main force in home defence in the event of war. Manned by volunteers, who undertook to drill weekly and attended an annual training camp, the 6th Battalion retained its base in Barnstaple.
At the outbreak of war, the battalion was engaged, with the other territorial units, on its Summer Training Camp at Woodbury Common, near Exmouth. Upon mobilization, instead of heading for Barnstaple, the battalion marched 10 miles to Exeter and then entrained to Plymouth and 5 days later found itself under canvas on Salisbury Plain, getting fit and training or war.
On the 15th September the battalion almost unanimously volunteered for service overseas and on 9th October, 30 officers and 803 N.C.O.s and men embarked at Southampton for Karachi, from where it entrained to Lahore. During the rest of 1914 and 1915 the battalion was primarily responsible for internal security, thus relieving those regular units of the Indian Army that had been deployed elsewhere.
In December 1915 orders were received to deploy to Mesopotamia and by the end of the month the battalion had embarked and arrived in Basra on 3rd January 1916.
After a 230 mile march, northwards along the banks of the Tigris, still dressed in “Indian” drill, the troops reached Orah, where for the first time the men encountered the both the enemy and sickness – mostly dysentery and pneumonia.
Early in March 1916 a major assault, involving nearly 20,000 troops, was planned on the Turkish defences at Dujailah Redoubt, which barred the way to the south bank of the Tigris opposite the town of Kut, where some 10,000 British troops had been besieged by the Turks.
On 7th March
, 36 officers and 814 other ranks of the 6th Battalion, part of the southern group, paraded, each equipped with 2 days’ rations and 160 rounds of ammunition, and began the march to the assembly area. At daybreak on the 8th the lead column had reached its allotted position; the Turks were completely surprised and the objective, the Dujailah Redoubt was unoccupied. However, so detailed were the orders given that the lead commander was deterred from acting on his own initiative and thus waited for the arrival of the support column. The attack was therefore delayed for some 3 hours, giving the enemy ample opportunity to bring up reinforcements.
All surprise had been forfeited and the attack spectacularly failed. In the early hours of 9th March, under heavy fire, all units involved began a general retreat, but not before recovering their wounded and hastily burying their dead. With the Turkish cavalry and artillery in close pursuit, the retreat continued almost 20 miles back to the Wadi Camp at Orah. The men had been in action for some 21 hours and were totally exhausted and had suffered from lack of water.
Overall it is estimated that 3,500 Allied troops had lost their lives.
Of the 24 officers and 550 other ranks from the 6th Battalion, that had engaged in the attack, 8 officers and 44 other ranks had been killed or were missing; 8 officers and 141 men wounded.
One of the surviving officers reported however, that the Brigadier had commented that the 6th had only one fault, “They were too brave
.” And General Gorringe, who had taken command of the Tigris Force, later visited and congratulated the battalion on its conduct and bravery.
Back to Orah, the battalion remained mostly in reserve until 18th April when it moved forward again to join in the last unsuccessful attack on Sannaiyat, before General Townshend eventually surrendered his troops at Kut on 29th. April.
In May the battalion advanced and took possession of the defences around the Dujailah Redoubt, which the Turks had by then evacuated. The climate became oppressive and typhus, which was reportedly rife in the ranks of the enemy, was becoming a threat. Dysentery, sand-fly fever, jaundice and heat stroke all took their toll on the strength of the battalion; but, it is reported, not on the spirit of the men.
For the rest of the summer there was little serious fighting but the heat and deprivation of rations and water, added to the sickness levels. The battalion moved, first to Sheih Saad and then to Amara in October, when battalion strength was down to 9 officers and 276 other ranks.
In February 1917 the battalion moved up to Twin Canals to take over Line of Communication duties and then down to Shaiba, just south west of Basra, where it remained for many months in the searing heat of summer. The rest of 1917 and most of 1918 was spent in monotonous routine in various locations and in September the battalion returned to Margil Camp, Basra where the widespread influenza epidemic, claimed the lives of 1 officer and 88 other ranks.
In common with every unit deployed in Mesopotamia, the 6th both witnessed the horrors of war in an unimaginably oppressive climate and fell victim to the resulting diseases.
It is a tragic fact that 83 men died of disease compared to 42 killed in action. A further 34 were recorded as “missing- assumed dead “after action or accidental death and the tally of wounded in action was 146.
Following news of the Armistice in Europe the battalion moved firstly to Shaiba, from where a large draft of 200 men was sent to Salonika, and then to Amarah, joining their colleagues from 2/6th. Demobilization began soon afterwards, in the manner prescribed by the War Office and the battalion was soon reduced to a cadre.
On 30th March 1919 the remnants of both battalions left for Karachi, where they remained until departure on 27th July and they arrived home to Barnstaple on 19th August.
The 6th Battalion could be justly proud of its service both in India and Mesopotamia. Although it saw perhaps less sustained action than other Territorial Units, when tested, particularly along the Tigris in 1916, it performed with honour and gained Battle Honours (Tigris 1916, Kut el Amara 1917 and Mesopotamia 1916-1918) and numerous awards and citations. These included 2 M.Cs, a bar to DCM and no less than 30 Mentions in Despatches