Daily Archives: 28 July, 2010

1st Hampshires in the Great War – The first day on the Somme

After a hiatus of a few months, its time to find out more about what happened to the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War. We left them on 30 June 1916, the night before the British Army launched its attack on the German lines on the Somme.

The Somme offensive was originally planned as a joint British and French effort to break the German front line. After the German offensive at Verdun, however, the battle evolved more into an relieve the pressure on the French defenders of Verdun by diverting German reinforcements. The ground had not been chosen for any reason other than that it was at the boundary between the British and French sectors of the Western Front.

There were arguments among the Generals about the tactics to be used. The commander of the Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was mindful of the limitations of the New Army units, and proposed to use a ‘bite and hold’ strategy of assaulting the front line, and then reinforce these gains before moving on to the next objective. He was overruled by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig -the Commander in Chief of the BEF -however, who ordered a more ambitious strategy of aiming to over-run the whole front line.

The Battalion had formed up in their assembly trenches the day before the attack was due to begin. A huge artillery barrage was planned, to neutralise the German front line, cut barbed wire and kill Machine Gunners. At 7.30pm the whole line assaulted. The 4th Divisions objective was the German front line between Beaumont Hamel and Serre. The Brigade’s front line consisted of the East Lancs and Somerset, and the second line was made up of the Hampshires and the Rifle Brigade. As soon as the troops left their trenches they encountered heavy machine gun fire from all directions, and it was impossible to even reach the German front line.

After hiding in shell holes in no mans land throughout the day, the survivors trickled back to the British lines. That same night the remains of the Brigade were relieved, and went back to billets at Mailly. From Mailly, the remnants of the Battalionwent back to billets at Betrancourt. On 10 July the Battalion relieved the Lancashires in the line near Beaumont Hamel, and stayed in the trenches until the 16th.

Losses were so great on the first day of the Somme, that the Battalion’s War Diary does not even give figures for men killed, wounded or missing. The stark figure of 100% casualties amongst officers tells its own story. Thousands of Tommies had been thrown against the German line, which despite a massive preliminary artillery barrage was still intact. Casualties among the officers amounted to 100%, and was also very heavy in other ranks. If these levels of losses are replicated across the whole Army on the Somme, only then do we get an idea of how heavy a price was paid for so little. The British Army on the Somme had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners. In ONE day.

Among the dead from Portsmouth were Private Frank Goldring, Private Henry Bushnell and Corporal Phillip Brymer who have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, Private Reginald Buckland (27, Copnor) who is buried at Serre Road War Cemetery, and Sergeant Norman Blissett (23, Southsea) who is buried in Beaumont Hamel War Cemetery. Corporal Walter Gubby (21) died the next day, and is buried at Doullens Cemetery.

Among the officer casualties on 1 July 1916 was the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lawrence Palk. Born in 1870, Palk was the second son of Lord Haldon, and fought in the Boer war between 1901 and 1902. He had served with the 1st Battalion since the start of the war, and had been awared the French Legion d’Honneur, the DSO and was mentioned in despatches. He is buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps. Colincamps is back from the front line, suggesting that Palk died of wounds received. Another officer killed was Lieutenant Charles Goodford, who had won the Military Cross the previous winter for leading a daring raid across no-mans-land. He is also buried at Colincamps.

The Battalion would not take part in another attack on the Somme until October. Its not difficult to see how the devestating losses on the Somme – and the first day in particular – cut a swathe through the British Army. Losses amongst Officers, NCO’s and experienced men were keenly felt, especially among regular battalions such as the 1st Hants. The Portsmouth Pals Battalions – the 14th and 15th Hants – would suffer even bigger losses when their turn to fight came in September 1916.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

14 Comments

Filed under Army, fiction, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized