Daily Archives: 5 July, 2010

Somme 1914-1918: Lessons in War by Martin Marix Evans

I’ve often thought that the history of the Western Front has been written-up like the history of a 5 match test series. The same sides, but each test they move to another venue to battle it out. How else do you explain 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Mons, Le Cateau et al? Reading through accounts of the Great War, we could be forgiven for thinking that fighting only took place in one place at one particular time.

But of course, just because a ‘big push’ was being made in one place, it did not mean that everyone went to sleep elsewhere. Maybe thats the down-side of focussing on one particular battle at a time and ignoring what was happening on the rest of the front. That pitfall is obviously what Martin Marix Evans is trying to rectify here, but looking at the Somme during the whole period of the First World War.

In an ironic kind of way, the same pitfalls are in evidence here. Even when you focus on an oft-ignored subject, to what extent do you refer back to the more well-known? Where exactly is the balance between context and irrelevance? Although Evans writes much about the Somme before and after July 1917, but also combines this with a potted history of the war elsewhere on the western front. This could be received either of two ways, depending on your viewpoint – tedious if you know all about the Great War already, useful if you are a newcomer to the subject. One other problem is the lack of referencing – despite an exhaustive bibliography, it would be nice to know where certain arguments come from.

I admire the intention of taking the Somme – and the first day in particular – and trying to place it into a wider context. Its a brave effort. For too long the grievous losses of that July day in 1916 have overshadowed much else that took place there – in particular some valuable lessons learnt in 1916, and some bitter fighting during the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918. And although he is trying to emphasise the other fighting, Evans gives us a very clear decscription of the fighting that began on 1 July 1916.

Were the massive losses of the First day of the Somme part of the process of learning to fight a new kind of war, or were they just another symptom of the ‘Donkeys’ school of thought? Evans argues that the First World War was a succession of ‘lessons expensively bought in blood and suffering’. Personally I’m not too sure the argument of ‘lessons learnt’ is backed up by developments, as the British Army fought almost exactly the same way at Passchendale in 1917 as it had on the Somme in 1916. But that is for the reader to decide.

Somme 1914-1918 Lessons in War is published by The History Press

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – The Hampshire Regiment in focus

The Hampshire Regiment in focus

114 men from Portsmouth died serving with the Hampshire Regiment during the Second World War, more than any other infantry Regiment. Between 1939 and 1945 six Hampshire Battalions fought overseas – the 1st, 2nd, 1/4th, 2/4th, 5th and 7th.

11 men died in England, 1 in Algeria, 1 in Burma, 1 in Egypt, 21 in France, 1 in Germany, 1 in Greece, 5 in Holland, 41 in Italy, 2 in Malta, 1 in Singapore, 1 in Syria, and 27 in Tunisia.

Traditionally British county infantry Regiments consisted of two regular Battalions and several territorial Battalions. In wartime these might be joined by a number of war-raised Battalions, and also Depot Battalions. Unlike in the Great War no ‘pals’ Battalions were formed, after concerns that too many men from the same communities were being killed together, which was bad for morale at home and for the men concerned.

For many years the Hampshire Regiment Depot had been at Winchester, but during the Second World War it was evacuated to the Isle of Wight. Almost all wartime recruits would have undertaken their basic training there.

Regular Battalions:

1st Battalion – 20
2nd Battalion – 22

Most line infantry Regiments began the Second World War with two regular Battalions. In peacetime normally one Battalion would be serving overseas – such as in India, or Egypt – while the other would be at home.

The 1st Hants began the war in Egypt. After pecekeeping duties in Palestine and guarding Italian prisoners in Egypt, they spent some time in Malta in 1941, suffering two casualties there, before joining the Malta Brigade and fighting in Sicily and Italy. At the end of 1943 they were withdrawn to England, after Montgomery requested experienced troops to take part in the D-Day operations. When the Battalion laned in England in 1943 it was the first time it had set foot in the UK after 23 years overseas. The 1st Hants landed on D-Day, with four Portsmouth soldiers being killed among total losses of 182 men, including the CO and second in command. After fighting at Hottot, Villers-Bocage, Belgium and Holland, along with the rest of the 50th Division the Battalion was disbanded in November 1944 and the men dispersed to other units.

The 2nd Battalion was based in Aldershot when war began. They landed in France in September 1939, serving on the Maginot Line and the Franco-Belgian Border, but were evacuated through Dunkirk with its equipment intact and without suffering any casualties. The 2nd Hants then went to North Africa in November 1942, fighting in Algeria and Tunisia. The Battalion suffered very heavy casualties between 1 and 3 December 1942, with 7 Portsmouth men killed. After the fall of Tunis they joined the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade.

Territorial Battalions:

1/4th Battalion – 15
2/4th Battalion – 16
5th Battalion – 14
7th Battalion – 17

On the outbreak of war in 1939 most Regiments also possessed two Battallions of the Territorial Army. To provide a firm basis for new recruits, the 4th Battalion were split in two to provide an extra Battalion, of the first and second line, ie 1/4th and 2/4th. The 5/7th Battalion, meanwhile, was split up into the 5th and 7th Battalions. Therefore these Battalions were made up roughly half of territorials and half of conscripts, although they would have taken on conscripts during the war to make up losses.

The 1/4th, 2/4th and 5th Hants were formed into the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade, part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division. In January 1943 the Brigade left the 43rd Division and joined the 46th (West Riding) Division for North Africa. After the end of the war in North Africa the Brigade landed at Salerno in September 1943, suffering very heavy casualties, with 8 Portsmouth Hampshires killed. After fighting up trough Italy the Brigade was taken out of the line in February 1944, and taken to Egypt where reinforcements were taken on. In August 1944 the Hampshire Brigade was back in action in Italy. In December 1944 they were relieved once again, and in January 1945 were sent to Greece to disarm communist guerillas. One man of the 5th Battalion was killed in Greece. Although the Brigade moved back to Italy in April 1945 the war was over before they could go into action again.

The 7th Hants was part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, and were grouped with the 4th and 5th Dorsets in 130th Brigade. They landed in France on 22 June, and were initially in reserve. In July the 7th Hants went into action in the bitter bocage fighting, culminating in the capture of Mont Pincon. The Battalion was then involved in the breakout and the great swan across France, before being involved in the latter stages of Operation Market Garden. After rest the 7th Hants took part in the battle of the Reichswald in February 1945. After crossing the Rhine on 24 March 1945 they ended the war at Barkhausen in Germany, between Bremen and Hamburg.

Home Service/Depot Battalions

12th Battalion – 3
13th Battalion – 2

Home Service and Depot Battalions were formed to act as holding units for recruits, or for older men who were maybe not suitable for service overseas. Younger men could in turn be posted overseas. Four of the five men who died while serving in Depot Battalions died in the UK. The other man died in Burma, perhaps while he was travelling to another unit or while he was serving as a Staff Officer.

Of the Portsmouth Hampshires killed during the Second World War, only Lance Corporal Leslie Webb of the 1st Battalion was decorated for bravery. He won the Military Medal for his part in D-Day, but after being evacuated wounded to England died on 14 June 1944. He was 27 and from North End, and is buried in Milton Cemetery.

Information taken from ‘The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1918 – 1954′ by David Scott Daniell.

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