The Devons in World War One
A Lewis gun section of the 8th Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment resting after an attack near Fricourt, August 1916. © IWM (Q 1395)
Many of the men we are honouring on this website served as infantry (foot soldiers) with the Devonshire Regiment on the Western Front.
There is a Great War cemetery dedicated to the Devonshires at Mansell Copse, at Mametz in northern France.
The 11th (North Devon) Regiment of Foot was first formed, under the name The Duke of Beaufort’s Regiment of Foot, in 1685 by Henry Somerset, who was the duke, and included troops from men in Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Its first major action came five years later in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne when, under King William III, the regiment helped to prevent King James II regaining the throne he had lost in 1688.
It also fought in Holland and in the Iberian peninsula in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14), and then returned to Britain where in 1715 it helped overcome the Jacobite Risings. In the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) it fought against the French in Germany and what is now Belgium, and in the Seven Years’ War it won numerous battle honours in Germany and Iberia.
During the French Revolutionary Wars, the regiment, now officially the 11th Regiment of Foot following army reorganisation in 1751, served as marines with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, and captured Malta in 1800, moving to the West Indies that year, returning across the Atlantic to join the Peninsular War (1807-14) under the Duke of Wellington. It was during the Battle of Salamanca (1812) that the regiment, which incurred heavy losses, became known as The Bloody Eleventh.
Following the defeat of Napoleon and his French forces, the 11th Foot served across the British Empire and in 1881 the 11th (North Devon Regiment) and the Devon Militia were merged to become the Devonshire Regiment. In the Boer War in southern Africa, they were at one time under the command of General Redvers Buller, from Crediton, whose statue can be seen near Exeter College today.
In peacetime the Devonshires had been made up of two full-time battalions, a reserve battalion and four Territorial forces, but as World War One wore on, eventually the regiment raised a total of 25 battalions.
At the outbreak of the Great War, the 1st Battalion was stationed on the island of Jersey, and the 2nd in Cairo, Egypt. The reserves and Territorials were all in Exeter and Barnstaple.
The 1st and 2nd battalions were thrown into the conflict from the beginning, with both being landed in France by the end of 1914. Later the 1st was moved for a time to Italy before returned to the Western Front.
Meanwhile, battalions of the Territorial Force were sent to serve in India and later saw action in Basra in what is now Iraq, and others served in Egypt, Palestine, and at home in the UK and Ireland.
Troops from the Territorial Force were also sent to the Western Front and saw action in France and Belgium.
Battle honours awarded to the Devonshire Regiment in WW1: La Bassée 1914 Neuve Chapelle, Hill 60, Ypres 1915, Ypres 1917, Gravenstafel, St. Julien, Aubers, Loos, Somme 1916 and 1918, Vimy 1917, Bullecourt, Pilckem, Broodseinde, Passchendaele, Rosières, Villers Bretonneux, Lys, Hazebrouck Bois des Buttes, Marne 1918, Tardenois, Bapaume 1918, Drocourt Quiant, Hindenburg Line, Canal du Nord, Beaurevoir, Cambrai, 1918, Selle, Sambre, France and Flanders 1914 - 1918, Piave, Vittorio Veneto, Italy 1917 - 1918, Doiran 1917- 1918, Macedonia 1915 - 1918, Egypt 1916 - 1917, Gaza, Nebi Samwil, Jerusalem, Palestine 1917-1918,Tigris 1916, Kut al Amara 1917, Mesopotamia 1916 - 1918.
In addition, the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry (Hussars) and the Royal North Devon Yeomanry (Hussars) were awarded battle honours for: Somme 1918, Bapaume 1918, Hindenburg Line, Epehy, France and Flanders 1918, Gallipoli 1915, Egypt 1916 - 1917, Gaza, Jerusalem, Tell Asur, Palestine 1918 – 1918.
Many of these battles are now famous for their ferocity and for the losses incurred, including Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Passchendale and Gallipoli.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the Devonshires’ 9th Battalion lost 463 men dead or wounded, out of 775 who saw action.
The 8th and 9th Battalions were, at that time, both part of the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division of the British XV Corps under General Henry Horne. In the following days they were in the midst of the battle to capture the village of Mametz and surrounding woodland.
The Devonshires were in the thick of the fighting, and hundreds of men were killed. At Mametz today are a number of military cemeteries, including one to the Devons. At the cemetery is a sign which has now become famous: “The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshires hold it still.”
After the Great War, the Devonshire Regiment was scaled down, but as war broke out anew in 1939, its numbers again swelled, and Devons took part in a number of famous battles, including the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1958, it joined with the Dorset Regiment to become the Devon & Dorsets, and in 2007 this new force was itself merged into what is now The Rifles. The colours (flag) of the Devon & Dorsets can today be seen in Exeter Cathedral.