1917 was the worst year of the War for Lancaster. With 265 deaths the year had marginally more deaths than 1918 (253), and far more than the more commonly remembered 1916, the year of the Battle of the Somme, which had 185. This reflects the arrival of total war, where conscription and massive increases in the country’s industrial and logistical capabilities meant that more men could be kept in the front line equipped to fight than had previously been possible. The inevitable result of this was a continuous flow of casualties. 1915 and 1916 saw relatively brief periods of intensive fighting in which large numbers of men died. In 1917 the fighting, and thus the deaths, were consistent across the year with only January having less than ten deaths. November was the worst month with 39 deaths, interestingly less than the highest month in 1915, 1916 or 1918, again showing that 1917 was a year of constant fighting.
There were, of course, battles and, as with earlier years, when the King’s Own Royal Lancaster regiment (KORL), and particularly its 5th Battalion which recruited heavily from the town, was involved, deaths tends to come in significant numbers. 1917’s famous battles are: Arras (9 April to 16 May), Passchendaele – or Third Ypres (31st July to 10 Novembers), and Cambrai (20th November to 7th December). It is difficult to know exactly how many Lancastrians died in each. From the appropriate dates, there are 24 Lancastrians memorialised on the Arras Memorial, 50 on the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot memorials near Ypres, and 17 on the Cambrai memorial. These seriously underestimate the numbers concerned as these are only for men who have no known grave.
The worst days in 1917 were the 31st July and 30th November, both with 14 deaths and the 26th October with ten. The 31st of July was the opening day of Passchendaele and, as with the first day of the Somme, the large numbers of regiments involved meant that Lancastrians were killed from a range of units including the 1st/5th KORL (four deaths), the 1st/4th KORL and the Manchester Regiment (three deaths each), the East Lancashire Regiment (two) and the King’s Liverpool Regiment (one). The fighting on this day was concentrated on the area towards Pilkem Ridge, to the north of the Ypres Salient, very close to the area where the 1st/5th KORL had taken heavy casualties in late April 1915. The 26th October was also deaths during the Battle of Passchendaele. Early in the War, as recruitment had gathered pace, the 5th Battalion, KORL had been split into two, the 1st/5th and 2nd/5th. The 2nd/5th had first come to France in February 1917, this was the first time that Lancaster was badly affected by casualties among the 2nd/5th, with five of the ten deaths that day being in this battalion and another the following day. A month later, on the 30th November, the 1st/5th was again in action, this time during the Battle of Cambrai, and nine of the fourteen Lancastrians who died that day were killed with them.
Total war also meant that new technology was changing the face of warfare. The 3rd of August 1917 saw the first Lancastrian to be killed with the Royal Tank Corps. This was 21 year old Oscar Primmer of Field View, Slyne Road, who died of wounds and is buried in Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension. He was the first of four Lancastrians killed with the Royal Tank Corp during the War. Four Lancastrians also died with the Royal Flying Corps. The first, 29 year old Maurice Sharpe of Elmhurst, Lancaster, had been shot down and killed on 28th October 1916, but three more died in 1917: 23 year old Eric Welch who had lived at 1 Belle Vue Terrace, Greaves Road and whose parents lived at 17 Queen Street, was killed 23rd April; 20 year old Edward Keir of Rossmore, Scotforth Road was killed 28th October; and 37 year old John Chamberlain from 70 Westham Street whose parents lived at 9 Pinfold Lane, Skerton was killed 30th November near Ypres. Three of these four were officers which was unusual as these made up less than 4% of Lancaster’s total casualties.