To The Bitter End
The Forgotten Last Stand of 1916
18 November 1916 marked the final day of the Battle of the Somme; four months of carnage that would come to define Britain’s cultural memory of the First World War. Snow fell across the shattered landscape as British troops advanced through the pre-dawn in an attempt to make some final territorial gains before weather and exhaustion brought the campaign, which had already inflicted more than a million casualties on the nations involved, to an end.
On the North bank of the River Ancre, the men of the 97th Brigade attacked the German positions on Redan Ridge. Their faltering attack was at first successful, with some troops breaking through to the German second line trench, known as Frankfurt Trench, but a fierce counterattack soon retook the front line, sending the British reeling and leaving around 130 men stranded in Frankfurt Trench.
The men left holding Frankfurt Trench were of the 16th Battalion Highland Light Infantry (Glasgow Boys Brigade Battalion), the 11th Battalion Border Regiment (Lonsdale Battalion) and the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. They were led by Captain Alexander Welsh of the Lonsdales, a Gallipoli veteran recently promoted from Lieutenant. A third of them were badly wounded and they were dangerously short on supplies. Their orders were to hold their position for 48 hours. They held out for eight days.
From the moment the Germans became aware of their presence, the defenders of Frankfurt Trench were in a state of constant siege. Several attacks were launched against them and all were successfully repelled, some by way of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, but each attack left their numbers further depleted. Attempts were made to rescue the stranded party, but breaking through to Frankfurt Trench a second time proved impossible. The days passed and bullets, bombs, sickness and starvation continued to take their toll on this defiant pocket of resistance.
On the sixth day, the Germans sent the defenders an ultimatum; surrender, or they “would come over in staggering force - and they could take what was coming to them”. Captain Welsh and his men rejected the ultimatum; they would stand and fight to the last. The Germans kept their promise, and on the eighth day Frankfurt Trench was overrun. Of the 130 men that originally took the position, only fifteen were left standing. The German Brigadier who interrogated them is reported to have said:
“Is this what has held up the brigade for more than a week?”