The Defence of Manchester Hill battle isn’t as well-known as others that took place in the First World War, but is a proud and important part of our city’s history. The battle is the most famous of the final stands made by the British Army whose efforts contributed to the delay of the German advance.
Manchester Hill was an area of slightly higher ground in Northern France. It was an important defensive position as it offered commanding fields of view and overlooked the town of St Quentin, which was held by the Germans. It was given its name after being captured in April 1917 by the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, which included the war poet Wilfred Owen.
On 21 March 1918, at the start of the Spring Offensive, the Germans launched a series of attacks concentrated around the area where the British and French Armies conjoined. Manchester Hill was attacked by the German army and defended by the 16th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This offensive let the Germans concentrate an overwhelming superiority of both infantry and artillery which is why the 16th Manchesters’ defence of Manchester Hill was such an heroic and remarkable feat of arms.
The 16th Battalion, formed in August 1914, was recruited in Manchester by the Lord Mayor and considered itself to be ‘Manchester’s’. The battalion itself was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, a pre-war teacher from Chelford in Cheshire where his father was the local vicar. He was also a graduate of Manchester University and joined up as a private on the first day of the war.
Elstob led the heroic defence of Manchester Hill telling his men “Here we fight – and here we die”. The attack was preceded by a storm of artillery fire, both high explosive and gas. Despite most of his men being killed or injured, and he himself wounded three times, he maintained that ‘the Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last.’
Elstob inspired and led his men, fighting fiercely himself. He embodied all that was noblest in the Regiment he loved so well. On the eve of the battle, he wrote to a friend, “If I die, do not grieve for me, for it is with the sixteenth that I would gladly lay down my life.”
The soldiers fought bravely to defend their hill position, but German reinforcements meant that they were fighting against overwhelming odds. Despite a heroic defence, the action was unsuccessful with many dead or wounded by 4pm that day.
Elstob was shot and killed. Of the 168 men who fought to defend the position, only 17 managed to return to the British Lines. In total 79 were killed and the rest were either wounded or taken into captivity as prisoners of war.
The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, the Infantry Regiment of the North West, which formed on 1 July 2006 now incorporates the Manchester Regiment, along with six other North West regiments from the First World War.
Lieutenant Colonel Elstob was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry to add to the Distinguished Service Order, and Military Cross he won earlier in the War.
Did you know anyone who fought in this battle? See if their name is listed on The Men Behind the Medals website.