56th (1st London) Division


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The 1st London Division T.F. existed in August 1914 made up of sixteen infantry battalions in three brigades. Most of these battalions were recruited in the Working Class districts of London, and were significantly under strength with the exception of the 5th, 9th, and 12th Londons who were taken out of the division and all sent overseas in late 1914, attached to other formations. Eventually the rest of the division was broken up, some units going to France, others to Malta. Many of these battalions distinguished themselves in the fighting of 1915, and suffered heavy losses. These were made up with wartime recruits from the second and, later, third line battalions of their respective London Regiment.

In January 1916 the Army Council gave the approval for the 1st London Division to be reformed in France. Twelve London battalions (seven from the original 1914 formation), plus most of the original support units, were brought together to create the 56th (1st London) Division, at Hallencourt on the Somme. It then moved to the Hebuterne sector, opposite Gommecourt where it would remain until the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. On this day it was part of a diversionary attack, with the 46th (North Midland) Division on its left, to confuse the Germans as to the true location of the Somme advance. In the days leading up to the attack it made all its preparations obvious to the enemy, and despite some expectations moved forward at Zero Hour and eventually reached Gommecourt village. The 46th on the left had failed, and by the end of the day the London battalions had been forced back to their original lines. Casualties were 182 officers and 4,567 men killed, wounded and missing. The divisional historian later concluded, “… unpleasant as it may seem, the role of the 56th Division was to induce the enemy to shoot at them with as many guns as could be gathered together.”[1] In this, they had certainly succeeded.

The division remained in the line opposite Gommecourt until mid-July, when it was relieved and went in to rest and for further training – including training with tanks, which had yet to go into action. In early September they took over the line east of Guillemont, opposite Bouleaux and Leuze Woods. Here the eventual objective was to push through the woods, and take Combles beyond. This fighting continued until 26th September, when Combles was finally taken by the Londoners. The next phase of operations was on the Le Transloy Ridge, near Les Boeufs in October. By the close of operations conditions were truly awful; “… constant rain turned the mass of hastily dug trenches for which we were fighting into channels of deep mud. The country roads, broken by constant shell craters… rapdily became impassable, making the supply of food, stores and ammunition a serious problem.”[2]. 

During the winter of 1916/17, the division remained in the Somme area until the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. They then moved up to Arras, and on 9th April 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Arras, the London Division attacked and captured Neuville Vitesse. Units then moved on to the Wancourt Line, which were reached after heavy fighting. Several battalions lost more than 300 men each. Back into the line in late April, the final advance at Arras began on 3rd May, the division assaulting the lines east of Monchy le Preux. Due to the failure of the divisions on either side, the attack was a costly failure with other 2,000 casualties. 

In July 1917 the division moved to Ypres, and fought in the Battle of Langemarck at Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood on 16th/17th August. Objectives were reached, but a strong German counter-attack threw the London Division back to its original start line. Casualties were 111 officers and 2,794 men over a five day period in the line, most of them as a result of the attack on 16th August. Following these operations the division withdrew from the line, and moved south to the Cambrai area, taking over trenches at Lagnicourt in early September. 

On the opening day of the Battle of Cambrai, 20th November 1917, the division was involved in diversionary operations opposite Moeuvres, and two days later attacked and captured Tadpole Copse  and the Hindenburg Line near Moeuvres itself. Here they remained in reserve while the fighting for Bourlon Wood continued. During the German counter-attack, the positions held near Tadpole Copse were overrun and the division forced back towards the old British front line. Casualties at Cambrai were 211 killed, 1,046 wounded and 369 missing. 

After Cambrai the London Division moved to Arras, and took over the line between the Oppy and Gavrelle sectors. The German Offensive began on 21st March 1918, the divisional front being bombarded but not attacked. However, this changed a week later when an attack was launched on the morning of 28th March. A terrific bombardment ‘blotted out’ many of the forward positions, and some five German divisions advanced on the Londoner, and 4th Division on their left. Although some ground was eventually given way, the Germans were stopped with minimal losses to the London battalions – 55 officers and 1,433 men. 

The division remained in the Arras area until the allied offensive, when they fought in the attacks on the Hindenburg Line near Boyelles, Croiselles and Bullecourt. By the end of August casualties were 123 officers and 2,381 men. At the same time the London division had captured nearly 1,100 prisoners, two field guns, 200 machine guns and fifty trench mortars. Despite some rest in billets, “… once the great offensive had started there was no pause in the fighting.”[3] The next phase of fighting was near Cambrai, when the Canal Du Nord was crossed on 27th September. 56th Division was in reserve, but several units went forward to assist the Canadians and advanced on the Canal de la Sensee, where it dug in. Fressies was captured on 11th October, and with the assistance of the divisional Engineers, an attempt was made to cross the Sensee on the 14th. Although some units got across, they were forced back, and the positions were handed over to the Canadians the next day. 

Open warfare characterised the last phase of the war, when on 4th November the division crossed the river Aunelle and took Sebourg. By the 10th, it had crossed the Grand Honnelle and was relieved only a few miles from Mons. After the Armistice, the division remained in Northern France working on roads and battlefield clearance. It had one time been selected to go to the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland, but these orders were cancelled. Demobilisation soon began, and the formation returned to England via Belgium in May 1919. In April 1920 the 1st London Division was reformed as part of the newly created Territorial Army. 

During its 1,010 days in France and Flanders, the 56th (London) Division had spent 100 days in action during major operations, 385 days in an active sector of the Western Front, 195 days in quiet sectors and 330 days in rest. Its total casualties were 1,470 officers and 33,339 men.




167th Bde: 1/7th Middlesex Regt, 1/8th Middlesex Regt, 1/1st Londons, 1/3rd Londons
168th Bde: 1/4th Londons, 1/12th Londons, 1/13th Londons, 1/14th Londons
169th Bde: 1/2nd Londons, 1/5th Londons, 1/9th Londons, 1/16th Londons

Pioneers: 5th Cheshire Regt


167th Bde: 7th Middlesex Regt, 8th Middlesex Regt, 1st Londons
168th Bde: 4th Londons, 13th Londons, 14th Londons
169th Bde: 2nd Londons, 5th Londons, 16th Londons

Pioneers: 5th Cheshire Regt



Cpl J.McPhie 416th Field Coy RE    Canal de la Sensee 14.10.18(p)


 Dudley Ward, C.H. Major – The 56th Division (1st London Territorial Division) (John Murray 1921)



Cave, N. – Battleground Europe: Gommecourt (Pen & Sword ) [56th Division 1st July 1916]
Reed, P. – Battleground Europe: Combles (Pen & Sword 2002) [56th Division September 1916]
Smith, A. – Four Years On The Western Front (Naval & Military Press reprint) [5th Londons]
Tucker, J.F. – Johnny Get Your Gun (Kimber 1978) [13th Londons] 

[1] Dudley Ward, C.H. Major – The 56th Division (1st London Territorial Division) (John Murray 1921) p.46.

[2] Dudley Ward op cit. p.88.

[3] ibid. p.281.

©Paul Reed 2004

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