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The DLI & Chester
|The connection between the two goes back to the year 1756, during the Seven Years’ War, when they were formed as the 2nd battalion of the 23rd Regiment, later to become the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Within two years John Lambton, a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards arranged for them to be titled the 68th Foot. Following a period when they served in the West Indies the 68th returned to Britain in 1772 and ten years later Lord Lambton pressed the government of the day to have the 68th affiliated with County Durham. It is likely that during this period that many of the recruits came from the area surrounding Chester-le-Street following Lord Lambton’s influence. Indeed it is known that Waldridge Fell was used as a military training ground in this period.
More than one hundred years were to pass before the Regiment made the formal link with the county. In 1881 it was decided by the War office to emphasize the link between the county and the name of regiments, thus the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry were formed from the 68th Foot and the 106th Foot respectively. The latter regiment had been formed in 1839 as the 2nd Bombay Europeans of the Honourable East India Company’s private army.
The DLI saw postings throughout the globe prior to World War I, including South Africa, India and Pakistan. It was however the 1914-18 War where the Regiment received a most testing time. Throughout the whole of the war the Regiment formed part of the fighting force allocated to Northern France and their actions received a great deal of credit.
In addition to the regular troops there were a number of Territorial Battalions formed including men from County Durham. The DLI seemed to make their home among the remains of the woods and villages of the Somme Area. They were to be located close to the Albert-Bapaume road not far from the village of Pozzieres where today can be found an Allied cemetery bearing the names of many County Durham men. One action of the war sums up the strength and gallantry of the Durham soldier.
Inside the parish church on the north wall is a rough-hewn cross which was given to the DLI by the people of the Somme for the bravery shown by men of the Regiment when given the task of taking the Butte of Warlencourt in November 1916. The Butte was a hump of limestone some 40 feet high which was built some 2000 years previously by a Gallic Chieftain. It was an important marker on the battlefield as it provided the only observation position over a wide sweep of the countryside.
In extremely poor weather conditions when the area was lashed with freezing rain the 6th,8th and 9th Battalions were ordered to take the Butte. Trenches filled chest high with freezing water and unbelievably muddy ground made passage very difficult. Difficulties allowed only the 9th to press home the attack and they were successful in taking the Butte on Sunday 5th November. Total success however eluded them and after suffering shortages of ammunition and a severe death toll the 9th were forced to withdraw from the Butte after concerted pressure from Prussian troops.
By midday on the 6th the Durham battalions lost almost 1,000 men. It had been an impossible task, but the Durham men had given of their best. The Butte remained in German hands until their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in late 1917.
The remains of the regiment continued to serve in the same Somme wilderness area after this action right up until the end of the war in November 1918. When the armistice was announced the appalling roll of dead for the Regiment totalled more than 12,000.
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