Oldham Historical Research Group

'THE GREAT WAR',     'THE WAR TO END WAR',     'WORLD WAR 1'
'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
                                                                                                  
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen

The 16th(S) Battalion, Manchester Regiment
at Manchester Hill, 21st March,1918

The long list of important battles in WW1 is full of names familiar to most of us ... Mons, Somme, Gallipoli, Paschendaele, Cambrai ... to name just a few; and we've all heard of Gallipoli and Jutland. Even as locals we might be forgiven, for not being aware of the Battle of Manchester Hill, in 1918 (so named because in April 1917 the position had been taken from the enemy, at great cost, by the 2nd Manchesters). However, for the City of Manchester, and at least 79 families, 8 of which came from around Oldham, the centenary, in 2018, has painful significance.

To go back to 1914 ... the 16th(S) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment was one of Kitchener's New Army Battalions. It was the 1st City 'Pals' Battalion and, with the 17th, 18th and 19th Manchester 'Pals', was part of the 1st City Brigade. It was formed in August 1914 and, after training, arrived in France in November 1915, with the Brigade, as part of the 30th Division. By March 1918, the Battalion was no longer comprised of just local men, as the previous two and a half years of active service, in France, had taken a substantial toll on their numbers, and was not always brought back to strength with local men.

Putting Manchester Hill into context, for what was to come in 1918, we know that in December 1917, following the October Revolution, Russia agreed a ceasefire with Germany. This enabled Germany to rush back great numbers of soldiers from the Eastern Front and reinforce its army on the Western Front. In early 1918, and aware of this, the Allies expected Germany to make an all-out attack on the Western Front, with the intention of over-running a great part of France and taking key strategic areas. The Allied Command expected the offensive to be sooner rather than later, and were conscious of the fact that they had to hold on at all costs until American reinforcements could arrive in numbers significant enough to make a difference to the outcome. The German command also knew this and realised that it might be their last chance to gain control of key areas.

To counter the anticipated attack, the greatly overstretched allied line relied on a series of forward positions incorporating strongly defended redoubts, within a defensive area surrounded by a continuous belt of barbed wire, and covered by observation posts. The main line of allied defence was about a mile further back and the aim was to break up the attacking wave of enemy troops, and create as much havoc and disorder as possible, before they reached the main allied battle zone.
This attack would become known as the German Spring Offensive, and lasted, on 4 connecting stretches of the Western Front, from March 21st to July 1918. The main areas of attack stretched from the River Somme to the north of Ypres.

1918 - the German spring Offensive map

"On 21 March 1918, the German army launched its Spring Offensive with Operation Michael. The Germans massed some 65 divisions and more than 6,600 artillery guns along the 46 mile front from Arras to Le Fère. At first just 26 British divisions were holding the line".
From CWGC website l

Initially, the planned offensive was succesful, breaking through the allied lines and sweeping into France, although with heavy casualties sustained on both sides.
Over 8,000 British soldiers lost their lives on the first day of the Spring Offensive.
However, the offensive was so succesful that it became a victim of its own success as the German army over-reached itself and out-ran its supply lines and necessary reinforcements. The turning point came in August when, with the American reinforcements arriving, the Allies launched a succesful counter-offensive, rolling back the German troops until their surrender and the subsequent Armistice in November.
Just days before the anticipated attack, the 16th Manchesters had been given the task of defending Manchester Hill. Just a mile and a half to the east, St Quentin was held by the Germans. I've found no better description of the position than the following two extracts:

[in St. Quentin] "... the Germans had made a tremendous concentration of guns to support the coming grand attack. Safe in the hollow the vast army of storm troopers waited, for our artillery had been instructed not to shell this large and important French town heavily."

and

"... Manchester Hill was a tactical feature of great strength. It was not a high eminence, but rather a bare swelling undulation, commanding an admirable field of fire in every direction. It was backed by the 'Brown Quarry' on its reverse slope which afforded excellent cover and location for dugouts. On either side clearly defined valleys were commanded by machine guns. It was a position naturally strong, and the trace of its trenches, the location of its posts, the organisation of its cross fire and the strength of its wire rendered it, for a clear day, almost impregnable. Mere penetration on a narrow front is of little value to the enemy if the garrison of important tactical localities hold their ground.
The principle of defence and depth combined with the system of redoubts on the back area of the Battalion led to very extended areas being given to Battalions to hold, and the sector held by the 16th had a frontage of 2,000 yards and a depth of nearly 2 miles."

From : 'Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth Battalions : the Manchester Regiment : 1st City Brigade : A Record of 1914 - 1918', published in 1923.

1918 - Manchester Hill - the 16th manchester Regt.

The Battalion was deployed as follows:
'A' Company was on the Right Front.
'B' Company was on the Left Front.
'C' Company, 2 Platoons, in support of the Right Front.
'C' Company, 2 Platoons, in support of the Left Front.
'D' Company with Manchester Hill Redoubt: Battalion H.Q., under the immediate command of the Battalion Commander, Col. Wilfrith Elstob.

Critically, the weather would play a devastating part in the events of that day, the first of the German Spring Offensive. All was quiet during the clear, moonlit night before the attack but, at 6:30am, the Germans began artillery bombardment of the Allied position. Disastrously, by this time, the valleys overlooked by the Manchester Hill machine gun posts, were shrouded in thick morning fog giving the enemy soldiers all the cover they would need. At 7:30 there still appeared to be no troop movement from the enemy lines and the German shells were landing behind the allied sectors. Just after 8am the bombardment increased, destroying some internal communication telephone lines on the Hill. At 8:30 came the first news that the attack had started ... that 'A' Company HQ, and then 'B' Company HQ, were practically surrounded. The thick fog had given the attackers all the help they needed to approach completely unseen ... but the defenders were not prepared to surrender until all hope was lost ... they could disrupt the German advance even if they couldn't halt it.

At 9am came the news that the soldiers on the left flank of the redoubt were fighting "at close quarters with the enemy", and was repeated again in respect of the right flank. Desperate fighting raged on, as the fog lifted in the late morning, and the enemy could be seen breaking through the line on both sides of the Hill, isolating it, and leaving enough troopers behind to "settle with Manchester Hill"

But the defenders would not capitulate ... led by Col. Elstob, and surrounded, they fought against tremendous odds as every man in the redoubt rallied around the Colonel. He was already the holder of the M.C. and D.S.C. and, despite being injured 3 times, continued to lead them until he was shot, and killed instantly, in the late afternoon. The remnants of the garrison in the redoubt, wounded, exhausted and now leaderless, surrendered.

"Though Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the attack (and Lt. Col. Elstob was thus prevented from exerting command over the rest of the Battalion) it held out until late in the afternoon ... Sometime after this (3:20pm) the post fell, overcome by vastly superior forces, supported by guns, brought close up. Of the original garrison of 8 officers and 160 other ranks, only 2 officers and 15 other ranks survived."
From : 'Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth Battalions : the Manchester Regiment : 1st City Brigade : A Record of 1914 - 1918', published in 1923.

Lt. Col. Elstob was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, in 1919. His body was never recovered and, as with a number of others who fought alongside him and whose bodies were not recovered, he is remembered on the Pozieres Memorial.

His citation for the Victoria Cross reads :

"For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during operations at Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, on the 21 March 1918.
During the preliminary bombardment he encouraged his men in the posts in the Redoubt by frequent visits, and when repeated attacks developed controlled the defence at the points threatened, giving personal support with revolver, rifle and bombs. Single-handed he repulsed one bombing assault driving back the enemy and inflicting severe casualties.
Later, when ammunition was required, he made several journeys under severe fire in order to replenish the supply.
Throughout the day Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, although twice wounded, showed the most fearless disregard of his own safety, and by his encouragement and noble example inspired his command to the fullest degree.
The Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the enemy attack, but by means of the buried cable Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob was able to assure his Brigade Commander that "The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last."
Sometime after this post was overcome by vastly superior forces, and this very gallant officer was killed in the final assault, having maintained to the end the duty which he had impressed on his men - namely, "Here we fight, and here we die."
He set throughout the highest example of valour, determination, endurance and fine soldierly bearing
."

The 79 men of the 16th Manchesters who died on Manchester Hill are listed on the MLFHS website : HERE

The names of those who came from around Oldham were :

Pt. 39652 Ernest Armitage, 16 Beech St., Oldham
Pt. 36276 Timothy Curtin [Curtain] 10, Maple St., Oldham
Cpl. 28248 John Willie Hall, 126 Chapel Rd., Oldham
Pt. 48590 Richard Mills, 75, Shaw Rd., Oldham
Pt. 37648 John Wesley Pickering, 52, Cranbrook St., Oldham
Pt 302736 Samuel Steel, 3, Joel Place, Oldham
Pt. 29617 William Thompson, M.M., 4, Nova Scotia St., Failsworth
Pt. 29462 Henry Clough, 49, Lord St., Ashton-under-Lyne

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Resources and Links:

* Museum of the Manchester Regiment - The Men Behind the Medals with Wilfrith Elstob's V.C. citation HERE
* The Manchesters - Manchester Hill 21st March 1918
* 'Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth Battalions : the Manchester Regiment : 1st City Brigade : A Record of 1914 - 1918', published in 1923

Contributed by Sheila Goodyear

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