Pupils from Greater Manchester schools joined forces with members of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, French dignitaries, and local French school children today at Francilly-Selency – a small village in northern France – to mark the centenary of the Battle of Manchester Hill.
The battle was fought on 21 March 1918 and in one day took the lives of 79 men from the Manchester Regiment.
The day proved to be the second worst day in British military history – second only to the first day of the Battle of the Somme two years earlier on 1 July 1916 – and was the first day of the German Spring Offensive that marked the beginning of the end of the First World War.
One hundred years on, the school pupils gathered at the site of the battle, still known as ‘Manchester Hill’ – some of them not far off the same age as some of the Manchester Regiment men who fought there and lost their lives – for a moment of reflection, before joining a special service of remembrance in the local church at Francilly-Selency, where the moving service was delivered in both French and English.
Wreaths were laid after the service at a war memorial in the village that is dedicated to the memory of the sacrifice made by the men of the Manchester Regiment. The small village is unique in having two war memorials – one of which remembers the local men of the village who lost their lives in the war, and the other that remembers the men of the Manchester Regiment who also lost theirs.
The Battle of Manchester Hill took place in an area of high ground just outside Saint-Quentin in northern France.
The hill had become known as Manchester Hill after being captured by the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment – a battalion that included war poet Wilfrid Owen – in the previous year, April 1917.
The Regiment continued to hold and defend their position there until 21 March 1918 when the hill was attacked by the German army.
Despite a heroic defence by the 16th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment their action was unsuccessful with most of the battalion dead or wounded by 4 pm that day.
Out of 8 officers and 160 men who went into action on the hill, just two officers and 15 other ranks returned to British lines. Of the remainder, 79 men were killed and the rest either wounded and subsequently taken into captivity, or taken directly as Prisoners of War.
Among those who lost their lives was 29 year old Lieutenant Colonel Elstob, who led his troops selflessly into battle with the words ‘Here we fight. Here we die.’
To commemorate the centenary and learn about the sacrifices made by so many during the war, pupils from 22 schools in Greater Manchester have spent the last few days on a tour of World War One battlefields in Belgium and France.
Their tour ended today at Manchester Hill – exactly 100 years to the day since the battle of Manchester Hill was fought.
Further commemorative events to mark this important centenary are planned in Manchester over the next few weeks.
Brigadier Peter Rafferty MBE, Colonel of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who was also at today’s commemoration, said: “The defence of Manchester Hill by the Manchester Regiment is nationally recognised and a significant event both for the city and the regiment today. The commemoration events will provide opportunities for the whole community to reflect and learn more about the battle, and the involvement of so many schools and other organisations is particularly meaningful and important.”
More information about the Battle of Manchester Hill at: www.manchester.gov.uk/mcrhill