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 seventh 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?”
Addendum to the audiohistory - 26/02/2021
‘To the Bitter End: the audiohistory’ was researched and written over the summer of 2020. We undertook this project with as much care and attention to detail as we could muster but, as we stated in the audiohistory itself, telling this story as accurately as possible had its challenges. There is a dispiriting shortage of primary and secondary sources relating to the Defence of Frankfurt Trench, and the absence of a reliable list of the men involved or details of how many survived was keenly felt.
Now, a new article by Chris Bate has been published - ‘Researcher’s Notebook: The Frankfort Trench Last Stand’ Medal News, March 2021 issue - which sheds new light on the subject. By sifting through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) records of German prisoners of war, Bate has identified all men from the battalions involved in the Defence who were taken prisoner on 25/11/1916; the final day of the Defence. Given that the 97th Brigade was several miles away at Arqueves on this date, it is highly likely that these prisoners were the captured survivors of Frankfurt Trench. Working from this list, the medal roll and the other available sources relating to the Defence, Bate has come “as close as possible” to creating a complete list of the defenders of Frankfurt Trench.
This new roll of honour makes for fascinating reading and the information which Bate has uncovered justifies a correction or clarification of a number of points in our audiohistory.
In the audiohistory, and indeed in the lyrics for ‘To the Bitter End’, we stated that there were about 130 men present in Frankfurt Trench at the start of the Defence. This was the estimate which SM Johnstone and Pvt Dixon, 11th Borders, gave to Brigade HQ on 21/11/1916 having left the Trench and successfully crossed no-man’s-land the night before. This is recorded in the 11th Borders Battalion War Diary and is the best contemporary estimate of the defenders’ strength.
Bate’s research, however, suggests that Johnstone and Dixon may have underestimated the numbers present. Bate’s list comprises 145 men; 141 POWs, Johnstone and Dixon, and Sgt George Lee and LCpl John Veitch, 16th HLI, who were confirmed killed in action during the Defence. Assuming that Lee and Veitch were not the only men killed during the Defence (more on this below), then the actual strength of the Defence could well have exceeded 150.
Killed and wounded:
We do not know how many of the Frankfurt Trench defenders lost their lives during the action, but in the audiohistory we made an attempt at a rough estimate. Extrapolating from the 36 HLI men on the medal roll, which we incorrectly assumed comprised all of the survivors from that regiment (more on this below), we estimated that “not much more than 60” men were left alive when the Trench fell; about half of what we then thought to be the original strength. While we still do not know the exact number killed, Bate’s research makes it clear that we massively overestimated this number.
Johnstone and Dixon may have underestimated the defenders’ strength at 130, but given their proximity to events they must at least have been in the right ballpark. Bate’s figure of 143 survivors seems reliable, so if we assume a reasonable margin of error on Johnstone and Dixon’s part, the numbers simply do not support the dozens killed that we had previously estimated. While it is highly unlikely (although not impossible) that Lee and Veitch were the only men who died during this eight day struggle, it seems unlikely that the actual number killed would have exceeded 10% of the original strength.
Turning to the question of wounds, Bate confirms that 18 of the 141 men taken prisoner were listed as wounded in the ICRC records. Does this mean that the claim in the 16th HLI Battalion History that only fifteen were left unwounded when the Trench fell is wildly inaccurate? Possibly, but it is also possible that there are gaps in this aspect of the ICRC records, or that the Battalion history included men incapacitated by sickness, starvation or thirst as wounded and the ICRC records did not. We cannot say for certain.
It is also interesting to note that three of the men who were taken prisoner, rather than the two referred to in the Battalion History and the audiohistory, died in captivity. None are recorded as having been shot by their captors.
The disparity between the recognition which the HLI and Border regiment men received for their contributions to the Defence, which we discussed in some detail in the final closing section of the audiohistory, is very much borne out by Bate’s work, but there are some small corrections to be made on this front.
Firstly, as mentioned above, not every HLI man was decorated for their part in the defence. 36 of the 79 HLI survivors received gallantry awards; an impressive number all the same.
Secondly, while the Border Regiment men received almost no recognition for their part in the defence, Bate has confirmed that Johnstone and Dixon both received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (reported in the London Gazette on 13/02/2017) for their actions. It was after the War, when the HLI were being showered with awards, that the Borders men were ignored entirely.
Finally, we are extremely pleased to say that, thanks to Bate’s hard work, our assertion that the names of the majority of the Frankfurt Trench Defenders had been lost to history has been rendered completely incorrect. This research puts the real people involved back at the centre of this incredible story, and Chris Bates should be applauded for that.
Bibliography for 'To The Bitter End: The Audiohistory':
War Diary of the 11th Battalion Border Regiment, July-November 1916
War Diary of the 16th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, November 1916
Thomas Chalmers, ‘A Saga of Scotland: History of the 16th Battalion The Highland Light Infantry’ (1930)
Lyn MacDonald, ‘Somme’ (1983)
Christopher Duffy, ‘Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916’ (2006)
RW Gould, ‘Epic Actions of the First World War’ (1997)
Martin Middlebrook, ‘The First Day on the Somme’ (1971)
Michael Renshaw, ‘Battleground Europe: Redan Ridge’ (2004)
Peter Simkins, ‘From the Somme to Victory’ (2014)
Thomas Scotland & Steven Heys, ‘Understanding the Somme 1916’ (2014)
Peter Weston, ‘Redan Ridge: The Last Stand’ (2005)