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1st Hampshires in the Great War – 1918 dawns

Laid up Colours, Royal Hampshire Regiment

Laid up Colours of the Hampshire Regiment in Winchester Cathedral (Image by David Spender via Flickr)

The 1st of January 1918 found the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the front line trenches near Moncy, in the Arras sector. According to the war diary the enemy tried to mark the occasion by fraternising, ‘but was not met in a friendly spirit’. Tony Ashworth has written about how a ‘live and let live’ system operated on some sectors of the western front, and that elite units were less likely to fraternise with the enemy.

On 2 January the Battalion was relieved, and went back into billets in Arras. Having spent the Christmas period on duty, the Battalion held their Christmas festivities in early January. 5 January was the Hampshire’s ‘official’ christmas day, and a football match was followed by the mens dinner, which was ‘indeed, a good show’. In the afternoon all attended divisional ‘follies’. The officers christmas dinner was held in the evening, and the Sergeant’s on the next day.

The ‘christmas’ respite was short lived, however, for on 7 January the Hampshires went into reserve at Wilderness Camp, where they spent three days digging under heavy snow. On the 11th the Battalion went into support at the ‘Brown Line’, and several days later on the 15th went into the front line north east of Monchy. A thaw set in, which when followed by heavy rain made the trenches impassable. It was impossible to send up cooked rations, so men had to take care of their own cooking. On 19 January the Battalion was relieved, and went into support. On the 23rd they were back in the front line, again north east of Monchy. The war diary records that the weather was improving, and that although the nights were misty and cold the trenches were much improved although they still required a lot of work.

On 27 January the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Arras. Motor buses were provided for part of the journey. A short-lived two day rest period was spent cleaning up and parading, before the Hampshires went back into support at Wilderness Farm. An attack was clearly felt to be imminent, for on 28 January a Warning Order was issued detailing what the Battalion was to do if an attack was made on the front line. The order detailed exactly where the Battalion was to reinforce, and the order of march.

At the end of January a number of awards were announced for actions the previous year. The Adjutant, Captain Flint, was awarded the Military Cross, and Sergeant Leamon the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Five men were mentioned in despatches, including the CO and the Adjutant, and two men were awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. 20 NCO’s and men were awarded a new congratulatory certificate for ‘gallantry and good work’ in 1917.

 The first few days of February were spent working in the forward area at night. On 2 February the 1st East Lancashires, whom the Hampshires had served with since August 1914, left the Brigade to join the 34th Division, as part of the BEF‘s reorganisation to three infantry battalions in a brigade rather than four. On 3 February the Battalion marched to Schramm Barracks in Arras. The next day a firing competition was held to determine the best platoon in the Battalion, the winners being No. 11 Platoon of C Company.

The stay in Arras was relatively short, however, for on the 5th of February the Battalion marched to new billets in Fosseux, via Beauetz Les Loges and Gouy-en-Artois. Only one man fell out. The next day a draft of 125 men arrrived as reinforcements. The war diary records that they were mostly under 20 years of age, which shows just how short of manpower Britain had become after almost three years of trench warfare. Due to the wet weather however there was little chance for training or even parades. By the 11th however the weather had sufficiently cleared for the Battalion to exercise on a nearby training area, practicing moving from column to ‘artillery formation’ and other drills – something that was important given the large number of new, young recruits.

The Hampshires remained in Fosseux for the rest of February 1918. Companies took it in turns to go onto the ranges, while on 13 February the Battalion played the 1st Somerset Light Infantry in the first round of the Divisional Football Cup, winning 2-1. On 15 February the Battalion marched to Berneville to witness a Gas Projector Demonstration. The next day the Hampshires drew with the 1st Rifle Brigade in the Second Round. On 18 February Officers and NCO’s attended a lecture on co-operation between infantry and tanks, while the next day was spent practicing outpost and counter-attack schemes. The day after that the CO gave a lecture to all Officers and NCO’s down to section Commanders, on ‘the attack’. The evening was spent attending a Regimental Concert. 

 On 21 February the training programme entered a Brigade dimension, when the Hampshires provided the enemy for the rest of the Brigade in an exercise. Company parades, range practice and platoon marching competitions continued, meanwhile. 25 February was spent building anti-aircraft defences for huts, while the last few days of February were spent on a field firing excercise.

We can tell several things from the Battalion’s training. Firstly, that given the large number of new and young recruits – a total of 217 during the month –  a ‘back to basics’ approach was needed. Platoon and company level training, mainly physical and weapons firing led into Battalion and then Brigade level exercises. All the time football competitions, concerts, lectures and demonstrations were taking place.

Also, it is clear that the High Command had pulled the 4th Division, including the Hampshires, out of the line to enable them to rest, regroup and prepare for future operations in 1918. The training and lectures that they took part in make that clear – co-operation with tanks, and the attack. March would bring a rude awakening, however.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to Arras

A British machine gun post in a captured trenc...

A British machine gun post during the Battle of Arras (Image via Wikipedia)

After returning from the front line on 2 February 1917, the 1st Hants spent several days going through the usual clean-up routine. After the ubiquitous church parade on the Sunday, attention then shifted to training, and also providing men for fatigue duties. On 8 February a party of 3 officers and 268 men were seconded to Maurepas to relieve a working party from another regiment. 268 men represented a sizeable amount of the Battalion’s manpower, at a time when they were supposed to be resting and training.

Although the remainder of the Battalion went on a route march on the 9th, and on the 10th marched to a new camp at Suzanne, on the 11th a party of 4 officers and 171 men were attached to 171 tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers near Maurepas. The remainder of the Battalion left in the camp did nothing but fatigues, with only a Lewis Gun class continuing. The party of men sent to Maurepas were engaged in making gun emplacements, and the men attached to the tunnellers were assisting in building accomodation for gun teams.

On 16 February the Battalion went into close support. Every available man was put to work improving the trenches, as the onset of the spring thaw was making them very very wet and muddy. On 18 February the Battalion went into the front line. By this time it was raining, making conditions even worse. After four days in the line the 1st Hants were relieved on 22 February. As the ground was in such a poor condition it took until midday on the 23rd for all of the Battalion to pull back to Hem crossroads, where they boarded buses for their new camp at La Neuville-les-Bray.

Having reached La Neuville-les-Bray, on 24 February the Battalion marched to camp 124, near Corbie. Once there the usual cleaning, inspections and church parades commenced. Finally, on 27 February, a full scheme of training began, starting with individual training within sections, and other training for specialists. A platoons football league was also begun.

On 4 March the whole 4th Division began the march to its new area of operations at Arras. The first day’s march was for 15 miles, and 16 men fell out. This was quite a low figure, given the Battalion’s fitness, the conditions and that they had become used to static warfare. The next day’s march of 10 miles saw only five men fall out, even with a snow fall. By 7 March the Battalion hard reached their new camp at Buire-au-Bois.

After the usual cleaning up and improving of billets, training began in earnest on 9 March. Individual training continued, with Company training beginning on the 10th. For several days D Company were attached to the 3rd Army, to give a demonstration to training staff and observers of ‘the company in attack’. Later, on the 18th, the whole Battalion have a similar demonstration.

No sooner had Battalion training begun on 19 March, than on the 21st the Battalion was transported by bus to Bajus. Company and Battalion training resumed, but time was found on the 25th for the final of the Platoon Football Cup, with 9 Platoon beating 5 Platoon 2-0.

Although the Battalion were scheduled to take part in a major offensive in only a matter of days, on 26 March 119 men under 2nd Lieutenant Stannard left for Anzin-st-Aubin, to form a work party. The next day the rest of the Battalion went to the divisional training area, and took part in a Brigade exercise. The Battalions assaulted positions almost identical to those that they had been given for the coming battle – in effect, a dress rehearsal. Another practise took place two days later, and another two days after that.

With plenty of individual, company, Battalion and now Brigade training behind them, the 1st Hants were certainly better prepared for Arras than they had been for any other battle so far in the war. At the end of the month detailed instructions were circulated to officers by the Adjutant, covering signals between infantry and artillery, and also a complex table showing what equipment men were to carry during the assault. Staff work was also beginning to come into its own.

Into April, poor weather limited the amount of training that could be carried out. 4 April was spent – for A and D Companies – practising consolidation, that is, keeping hold of positions that had been captured, clearly something that was of benefit when attacking enemy trenches. B Company spent the day exercising with the Trench Mortar Battery, a good example of co-operation. The next day was spent going through Operation Orders with NCO’s and men – again, the men were going into the Battle of Arras better informed than ever before.

On 7 April the Battalion marched to huts on the main Arras-St. Pol road, and the next day marched to camp at Maroeuil. The Battle of Arras was to begin the next day.

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Privates Edwin and Frederick Denyer

Most British Army Regiments began the First World War with two Regular Battalions. Since Victorian times it had usually been the norm for one of a Regiment’s Battalions to be serving overseas – particularly in India – and for the other Battalon to be based at home.

The 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment began the war in India. They quickly returned to England, however, landing at Plymouth on 22 December 1914. They spent the next four months moving between Romsey, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick. On 29 March 1915 the Battalion sailed from Avonmouth, bound for Galipoli, via Egypt. Landing at Helles on 25 April 1915, they were eventually evacuated in January 1916.

There were commonly family links in the pre-war regular Army. Private Frederick Denyer, 22 and from 66 Maitland Street in Landport, was killed on 28 April 1915. He is buried at Redoubt Cemetery, Galipoli. His Brother Private Edwin Denyer, 24, was killed on 6 August 1915. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Helles Memorial, Galipoli.

After being evacuated to Egypt the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment landed in Marseille on 20 March 1916, and saw out the rest of the War in France and Belgium, seeing action at Arras and Passchendaele.

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