Tag Archives: Battalion

The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

I’ve begun looking at microfilm copies of the Portsmouth Evening News from 1914, to try and get some kind of handle on what was happening in those heady days, and what public mood and reaction was like to the climactic events that took Britain to war.

In July 1914, the crisis in Ireland was dominating news. In early 1912 the Liberal Government had proposed Home Rule for Ireland. Unionist in Ulster objected to the possible creation of an autonomous government in Dublin, and later that year the Ulster Volunteers were formed. In 1914, faced with the threat of civil disobedience, the Army in Ireland was ordered to prepare to act against any violence. Many officers and men refused to act, including the future General Sir Hubert Gough and Sir Charles Fergusson. The following scandal forced the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John French, to resign. The Irish crisis was very much dominating news in July 1914, and the stormclouds gathering over Europe were received only very minor coverage.

During July many of the areas Territorial Force units were on their annual camps. The Hampshire Fortress Royal Engineers Electric Light Companies were training with their searchlights at Southsea Castle, and the Wessex Royal Artillery were ‘enjoying’ what was described as a ‘dismal’ camp at Okehampton in Devon. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were in camp at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. The reports from these camps made little or no mention of European Affairs. Elsewhere the traditional English summer season carried on regardless, with the horse racing at Goodwood and Cowes week planned for early August.

However, by the end of July, with the mobilisation and counter-mobilisations taking place among the European powers, the threat of war was beginning to be taken more seriously. The Kings Harbour Master posted a lengthy ‘notice to mariners’ in the Evening News, warning that there would be stringent restrictions on watercraft in Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, and that navigation lights were subject to being turned off without prior warning.

Whilst usually naval movements in Portsmouth were publicised in the Evening News, with the coming of war these movements were taken out of the public domain, with the editorial of 30 July 1914 stating ‘…especially in a town like Portsmouth is extreme reticence necessary’. A special late edition on the same day reported on the Austrian invasion of ‘Servia’. On 31 July Russia mobilised, and the King, of course a naval officer and a keen sailor, called off his annual visit to Cowes Week.

On 1 August the 6th Hampshires were still in camp on Salisbury Plain, but were expressing ‘great excitement’ at the news from abroad. Goodwood was much quieter, as a great many naval and military officers have been recalled to re-join their units. Not all in Portsmouth were excited about the prospect of war, however. On 3 August an article in the Evening News advertised a Labour and Socialist protest against the war in Town Hall Square, to be held at 7.30pm the next day. Also on 3 August naval reservists were streaming into Portsmouth, and the submarine depot’s sports day was postponed indefinitely. The Government was to order full mobilisation the next day.

The Evening News of 4 August, the day that Britain finally found itself at war, carried a slightly bizarre notice, announcing that ‘owing to the serious aspect of affair, Lady Fitzwygrams garden party on August 8th will not take place’. The Evening News began publishing late special editions, as the demand for the newspaper was reaching unprecedented levels. The day’s News also contained the first direct appeal for recruits, initially for the Territorial Force. Colonel A.R. Holbrook, the local recruiting officer, appealed for 680 men to join local TF units. A large ‘your king and country need you’ advertisement also drove the message home. The Labour and Socialist protest of the same day was described as an anti-climax, and ended with the police having to intervene after trouble flared with pro-war crowds.

By 5 August, the war news had been promoted to the font page. Traditionally, 1914-era newspapers carried adverts on the front, and news inside. The local TF units had been mobilised, and the 6th Hampshires had returned from their summer camp, receiving an enthusiastic reception at the town station.

On 6 August it was reported that the Portsmouth Board of Guardians – ie, those who ran the Workhouse – had offered their facilities to the Government, and other local buildings such as schools were rumoured to be about to be requisitioned. The Corporation, it eas reported, had been badly disorganised by the indiscriminate enlistment of many of its employees, leaving many vacancies behind. There was also a notice explaining ‘how the join the army’, directing recruits to local barracks, the post office or recruiting offices. This was very much in line with national patterns, where during August most recruits enlisted in either the regular Army or local Territorial units. By the end of August it was reported that over a thousand men in Portsmouth had enlisted.

Whilst the first Pals type Battalion was raised by Robert White from among financial workers in the City of London, it was in Liverpool that the idea really took off. Lord Derby organised a recruiting campaign and managed to recruit over 1,500 men in two days. Speaking to his men, he said ‘this should be a Battalion of Pals’. Within a few weeks Liverpool had raised four Pals Battalions. Inspired by Lord Derby’s enthusiasm, Lord Kitchener encouraged other areas around the country to raise similar units, writing letters to local authorities to suggest the idea. The normal machinery for recruiting men into the Army was swamped. Kitchener also had a very low regard for the Territorial Force. Hence the solution was to recruit completely new Battalions, in what came to be known as Kitchener’s New Armies. A key part of these New Armies were the locally raised, or Pals Battalions.

As I have previously recorded, Portsmouth was the only town south of London to recruit what might be called Pals Battalions. Yet the impetus for recruiting a Pals Battalion in Portsmouth began much earlier than most of the more famous northern Pals Battalions. A report in the Evening News in late August stated that a Portsmouth Citizens Patriotic Recruiting Committee was being formed, and that a public meeting would be held in the Town Hall on 3 September 1914, when it was resolved that a Portsmouth Battalion should be formed. Among the speakers encouraging recruitment were Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, the town’s MP. The Town Hall was packed, with an overflow meeting on the steps being relayed the proceedings by megaphone.

Hence Portsmouth was among one of the first towns to raise its own Battalions. By comparison, recruiting began for the Sheffield Pals on 10 September, and for the Accrington Pals on 14 September. Lord Kitchener soon wrote to theMayor to accept the Towns offer of raising a Battalion. The Evening News began to publish lists of recruits to the Battalion. Ominously, around this time the News was also publishing the first casualty reports from the Western Front and the first Royal Navy ships to be sunk.

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Portsmouth as an Army Garrison 1914

Something that has always intrigued me is the manner in which Portsmouth’s military heritage is often overlooked, compared to its naval past. Sure, we all know that Portsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navy, but few people know about the long and enduring presence of the British Army in Portsmouth. It stands to reason that such a critical naval base and embarkation point will be a natural place for a significant Army garrison.

The regular Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment were both based outside of Hampshire. The 1st Battalion were at the Essex garrison town of Colchester, while the 2nd Battalion were overseas at Mhow in India. The convention in the British Army for many years had been for one of a Regiment’s Battalions to be based at home in Britain, whilst the other would be based overseas in one of Britain’s colonies.

In 1914 Portsmouth came under Southern Command, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien later commanded a Corps in the BEF in 1914 and 1915. Southern Command was Headquartered at Salisbury, but the Portsmouth Garrison in particular was commanded by Major General W.E. Blewett CB CMG, the General Officer Commanding the Portsmouth Garrison.

9 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General F.C. Shaw, comprised the bulk of Portsmouth’s infantry.  9 Infantry Brigade had four Infantry Battalions under its command, and was designated as a part of the BEF to go overseas in the event of war breaking out. 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and 1st Bn Lincolnshire Regiment were barracked in Portsmouth, while the 4th Bn Royal Fusiliers were at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and the 1st Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers were based across the Harbour in Gosport. The Brigade was one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, fighting with the 3rd Division.

Surrounded by fortifications, Portsmouth was also home to several Artillery units. 1 Heavy Brigade of Royal Garrison Artillery was based in Palmerston Forts nearby at Fareham, with 26 Battery at Fort Wallington, 35 Battery at Fort Fareham and 108 Battery at Fort Nelson.

The Army Service Corps also had a strong presence in Portsmouth, with 12 and 29 Companies being based in the town, along with 62 Mechanical Transport Company. A section of 2 Coy of the Army Ordnance Corps was also based in Portsmouth. No 6 Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps was based at Cosham, I suspect at the new Queen Alexandra Hospital on Portsdown Hill.

Portsmouth was also home to significant Territorial Force units. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment had its Headquarters at the Connaught Drill Hall in Portsmouth. Much of Portsmouth’s defence, in the event of war, comprised Territorial Forces. The General Officer Commanding South Coast Defences, under Southern Command, was based in Portsmouth. 37 and 42 Companies of the Royal Garrison Artillery formed part of the inner defences of the Portsmouth area, while 29 and 67 Companies comprised the outer defences.

III Reserve Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery was Headquartered at Hilsea, comprising 140 and 141 Batteries. The Artillery Barracks at Hilsea were located near Gatcombe Park, and several of the Barrack buildings still exist, including the Riding School. The Brigade’s 3 Depot was based nearby, close to Cosham Railway Station. 1 Wessex Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery had its Headquarters at St Pauls Road in Portsmouth, consisting of 1, 2 and 3 Hampshire Battalions RFA, and 1 Wessex Ammunition Column.

Territorial units of the Royal Engineers were based in Portsmouth. Hampshire Fortress RE had its Headquarters in Commercial Road, with No 1 and No 2 Work Companies being based in Hampshire Terrace, along with No 4 Electric Lights Company. 3rd Wessex Coy of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also based in Portsmouth.

In all, Portsmouth was home to several thousand Regular troops of Infantry, Artillery, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Army Medical Corps. There was also a Brigade Headquarters and no doubt the usual support services that come with any substantial garrison. Soldiers would have been a frequent and daily sight to the townspeople.

Interestingly, it seems that quite a few servicemen who went to France in 1914 with 9 Infantry Brigade had put down roots in Portsmouth. In particular, a not insignificant number of men who were killed serving with the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment seem to have been living in private residences in Portsmouth. Of course, neither Regiment could lay claim to southern Hampshire as a recruiting area, so it would seem that men from Northumberland and Lincoln who found themselves stationed in Portsmouth ended up marrying local girls and living out of Barracks in the town.

Portsmouth was by no means a prominent Garrison in the manner of towns such as Aldershot and Colchester, or Salisbury Plain, but never the less the town did play host to a much more significant military force than most people are aware of. It is perhaps hard for modern Portsmuthians to imagine, considering that the Army garrison began to shrink after 1918 and nowadays consists solely of the Army contingent at the Defence Diving School on Horsea Island. 

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Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think of a ‘Pals Battalion‘, you will invariably think of a bunch of lads from a northern, industrial working class town. Say, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, or Liverpool. So ingrained has this perception of the pals become, that you could be forgiven for thinking that nowhere south of Watford Gap raised any similar units. I even remember reading on a military history forum that, in the opinion of one member, a Battalion had to be from the North of England to be entitled to be called a Pals Battalion.

I’ve just taken Peter Simkins excellent ‘Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916′ out of the library. It is without doubt a great history of how the New Armies were recruited and raised, and launched into action, and Simkins does give good coverage to some non-Northern Pals – the Royal Sussex Downs Battalions, for example, and the Cardiff Pals. Yet I am slightly amazed to find not one mention of the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, or, as they were otherwise known, the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals.

I don’t think that history has been too kind to the Portsmouth Pals. Formed by the Mayor of Portsmouth and recruited locally, overwhelmingly from local young lads, many of whom no doubt knew each other, I think they are perfectly entitled to be called Pals. They served in the same manner as other better-known Pals Battalions, in particular at Flers and Guillemont on the Somme and again at Third Ypres, and were in New Army Divisions. Obviously, by the end of the war the numbers were being made up by men who were not from Portsmouth, but all the same, losses were horrific. The 14th Battalion lost 644 men killed, whilst the 15th lost 781 men. When we consider that the amount of wounded was often three times the number of those killed, then the two Portsmouth Pals Battalions lost their entire strength several times over as casualties.

For Portsmouth to raise two Pals Battalions – or three if we count the 16th Battalion, the Depot Battalion – was nothing short of magnificent. Remember that a very large proportion of Portsmouth’s young men were already serving in the Royal Navy, working in the Dockyard or were perhaps already serving soldiers, Portsmouth being a significant garrison town at the time. Nowhere else south of London managed to equal this feat. The Royal Sussex Regiment did have three ‘Downs’ Battalions that could be refered to as Pals, but these recruited from a much wider area and didn’t quite have the same link to place as the Portsmouth Pals did.

To put things into context, Southampton – at the time comparable in size to Portsmouth – did not raise any Pals Battalions of its own. Perhaps the people of Portsmouth were so keen to do their bit, as they were well used to sending young men off to fight, and it did not take too much to stir the martial spirit in a town that would have been full of serving and retired sailors and soldiers. I’m looking forward to reading the Portsmouth Evening News editions from those heady days in the summer of 1914. To what extent did these brave young men answer Lord Kitcheners call?

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2nd Portsmouth Pals – The story of a raid: Ploegsteert, June 1916

English: War cross in a Commonwealth War Grave...

Image via Wikipedia

The 15th Bn Hampshire Regiment, 2nd Portsmouth Pals, had entered the front line on the Western Front on 30th May 1916. They had gone into the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, a relatively quiet sector to the south of the Ypres Salient that was often used to ‘blood’ new arrivals in Flanders.

The 31st was a quiet day, with A, B and C Companies in the front line and support trenches and D Company in Reserve. No casualties were suffered. The next day Battalion HQ was shelled with 59 High Explosive rounds – the orderly room was demolished – and eight casualties were suffered. One man was killed, 2 accidentally injured, one returned to duty and three wounded.

Private Andrew Baillie, 20 and from Buckland, was killed on the 1st and is buried in Rifle House Cemetery. The next couple of days were relatively quiet, with several men wounded but none killed. On 5th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps at 5am, and went into billets at Creslow. The Battalion’s time out of the line was relatively quiet, but on 7th June A Companies billets at Touquet Berthe were shelled, and a barn destroyed, as well as nearby Royal Engineers supply dumps. Miraculously no casualties were suffered.

The Battalion went back into the line on 11th June, relieving the 21st KRRC at 5am in the same Ploegsteert Wood trenches. That evening two patrols were sent out from A and B Companies. Patrols were put out for the next couple of nights. On 14th June a patrol from B Company went out for 24 hours into no-mans-land. Pte Harris 18479 and Cpl Hopkins 20768 brought in a bad of three bombs (grenades) and saw several enemy patrols near Hampshire Trench. More patrols went out over the next couple of nights, and there were also several gas alarms. Several men were killed by enemy bombardment on 17th June, none of them being from Portsmouth.

On 18th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Bn KRRC, retiring to billets at Creslow. The men were congratulated by the Commanding Officer for their work on the night of 17/18 June. Later in the day a gas alarm was sounded, but no gas was present over the Battalion’s area. Although the Battalion was technically in reserve, patrols were still being sent out most nights. On the 21st the Battalion went back into the line relieving 21/KRRC, and the next couple of days in the front line were relatively quiet, with the usual patrols being sent out. On the 28th artillery fire from both sides became heavy. Private William Stephenson, aged 17 and from Twyford Avenue in Stamshaw, was killed and is buried in Ballieul Nord Cemetery. The next day Private L. Marshall, of Milton, was killed and is buried in Berks Cemetery Extension.

A major raid was planned on 30 June. Artillery began firing at 0730 and continued until 1700. The enemy wire was succesfully cut. At 2115 a preliminary bombardment began, ceasing at 2145. At 2200 gas was discharged. Then at 2201 artillery recommenced, before smoke was discharged at 2202. The smoke was turned off at 2215, and the raiding party started at 2223. Five minutes later the artillery lifted, and the raiding party advanced. The raiding party reached the enemys trenches at 2243 – after what must have been an agonising 15 minutes in no mans land. The artillery finally ceased at 2253, and later in the evening a second discharge of gas was made at 0125.

The raiding party was formed of three groups. No 1 was under Sergeant Green, No 2 under Lieutenant James and No 3 under Lieutenant Gates. No 1 group reached the enemy lines and threw in grenades, before returning as per the programme. No 2 group lost Lieutenant James wounded, and his second in command was gassed. No 3 group reached the enemy trenches, but had some difficulty in getting through the wire and returned. The raiding party was delayed in reach the enemy lines due to gas in no mans land which did not clear, resulting in the party having to don cumbersome gas masks. Sergeant Green was killed, Corporal Knight died of wounds and Private William Penfold (21, Fratton) later died of the effects of gas. Six men were gassed and wounded. In total 9 men were killed during the day, 28 men were wounded and two died of wounds. Three Portsmouth men died on the 30th – Private Edward Sansom (40, Stamshaw), Private E.H.W. Judd and Private William Fenfold (21, Fratton). All three are buried in Berks Cemetery, near Ploegsteer Wood. A number of men were recommended for awards.

Enemy retaliation was heavy. Lieutenant Gates, Corporal Murden and Private Parris returned into no mans land and recovered Sergeant Green’s body from about halfway across. The party was congratulated by the commander of 41st Division, Major-General Lawford. The objective of the raid had been achieved – to keep the enemy pinned down, and prevent them from sending reinforcements elsewhere. The next day the Battle of the Somme would commence further South. The raid by the Portsmouth Pals was obviously intended to pin down Germans along the western front. I would expect that it was replicated all along the line.

Raids and patrols were often insisted upon by Generals in order to foster an offensive spirit in troops, particularly those who had newly arrived on the front. The 2nd Portsmouth Pals were learning quickly, and a lot safer than their fellow Pals who were to suffer grievously on the first day of the Somme.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Land Forces

English: 2 para guarding POWs Port Stanley 1982

In 1982, the quality of British troops held out when the task force’s land troops came up against the Argentine Army. Much has changed since 1982, both in the British Army and the Argentine Army. Land Forces would play a pivotal part in any future battle for the Falklands, whether it be defending them, or attempting to retake them.

If the Falkland Islands were threatened, one would imagine that the first reaction of the British Government would be to reinforce the lone infantry Company at Mount Pleasant. This would probably involve flying in another infantry Battalion via Ascension, and some extra air defence in the form of Rapier and Starstreak of the Royal Artillery. An infantry Battalion is usually on standby as a spearhead Battalion to move anywhere in the world at short notice.

If, however, the islands were taken by Argentina, then larger land forces would be required to land and retake them. There are 9 Brigades available to the British Armed Forces for rapid deployment anywhere in the world:

There are also a number of other administrative Brigades, that are not geared up towards active deployment. These are the umbrellas for battalions and Regiments not earmarked for deployments, but which could in times of crisis be called upon. In such a manner in 1982, the Scots and Welsh Guards were deployed after finishing a stint of public duties in London, as they happened to be available.

As in 1982, we would probably be looking to the spearhead Brigades, ie 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigade to bear the brunt of any operations. Realistically, with the shipping available, the likely Argentine Garrison to be faced and the troops available, any mission to retake the Falklands would probably consist of two reinforced Brigades, with a similar level of supporting troops – artillery, engineers, etc – as was seen in 1982.

The fly in the ointment, at present, would be Afghanistan. Currently light infantry and mechanised Brigades serve 6 month stints in Afghanistan, meaning that Brigades such as 16 AA and 3 Cdo have spent up 6 months of every two years in Helmand. Prior to this, they are training up for the role, and afterwards building themselves up again. Of course, if it really came to it, troops arriving back from Afghanistan could be sent down south a week later, but this would hardly be ideal. In an ideal world, 16 AA and 3 Cdo Brigades would both be available. In the next best case scenario it would be 3 Cdo Brigade plus one of the light infantry Brigades, and the least satisactory scenario would be 16 AA plus a light infantry Brigade. 3 Cdo Brigade, of course, would be invaluable due to their amphibious role.

There can be few personnel in the British Army who have not served at least one tour of Afghanistan, and many have probably served more, as well as in Iraq and possibly in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia for some older sweats. The British soldier of 2012 is much more experienced and battle-hardened than many of his predecessors, and thanks to some early disasters in Iraq, personnel equipment seems to have seriously improved. In 1982, many troops went down with trench foot thanks to having inferior boots for cold weather. Most weapons systems have been updated – for example the SLR with the SA80, the Bren with the Minimi, and Milan with Javelin. A lot of the new vehicles that have been procured for use in Afghanistan to replace Land Rover are great for that theatre, but would be totally unsuitable to peat bogs in the Falklands. As in 1982, Scimitars and others of the CVR(T) family would be very handy.

Ideologically, the British Army is in a strange place compared to 1982. The last ten years have been spent largely fighting counter-insurgency wards against extremist islamic terrorists – firstly in Iraq, and then Afghanistan. To what extent could the Army go from fighting in the sand to fighting in chilly mountain ranges overnight? One suspects so, given the similarity between the Falklands and the Brecon Beacons, for one. Could it summon up the agression for a conventional war, after devoting much of its attention to ‘wars among the people’? I suspect that this wouldn’t be a problem – in 1982 the British Army was geared towards fighting the Russians in North West Europe, and also dealing with terrorists in Northern Ireland, which especially provided very good training for junior leaders. And unlike 1982, most British troops are not already commited to NATO.

The Argentine Army abolished conscription after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983. In 1982, the Argentine Garrison consisted of two strong Brigades, which consisted of 8 Regiments, the equivalent of a British Battalion. The Argentines also had many support troops, in terms of artillery, engineers and armoured cars. But as has often been written, in 1982 the Argentines had to keep their best troops in South America to guard against a possible Chilean attack. As a result, most of the troops deployed to the Falklands were inexperienced conscripts, and many were from warmer parts of the country, not suited to fighting in the cold and wet Falklands.

In 2012, the Argentine Army has 10 Brigades in total – two armoured, three mechanised, three mountain, one paratrooper and one jungle. In particular, a Rapid Deployment Forces is built around the Paratroop Brigade. The Argentine Marines consists of 4 Infantry Battalions with supporting troops. With the addition of dedicated Mountain Brigades, the Argentines could probably provide a better garrison for the Falklands than they did in 1982.Of course, what we do not know is how well trained their troops are – although the Argentine Army does seem to have benefited from increased international co-operation. In addition, friendly relations with the rest of South America means that Argentina would not have to leave units behind to guard her own frontiers.

But, as with the British Task Force, the Argentine’s real problem would be getting their troops to the islands in the first place. With one sole amphibious ship, and the tricky prospect of taking Mount Pleasant intact, they might have a bit of trouble actually getting them to the Falklands in the first place. But if a re-run of 1982 was to be experienced, but with modern forces, I would expect a British land force to edge it based on experience and training.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals Battalion War Diary located!

For a long time I had been labouring under the misaprehension that only a select few WW1 war diaries had been made available for download via The National Archives Documents Online service. In such a manner I had downloaded a copy of the 1st Hampshire’s War Diary some time ago, and not long ago I posted up a summary of their activities from Le Cateau in August 1914 until the beginning of 1918. It’s a thread that I’m sure I will pick up again some time in the future.

But thanks to browsing on the Grear War Forum, I have discovered that more War Diaries are available than I had originally thought. It works like this – for many Battalions, in particular territorial or hostilities only, the Battalion diaries have been grouped by brigade, hence by a cursory glance, it appears that it is only the Brigade HQ War Diary that is available. But, and here’s the golden bit, they are actually consolidated – so in reality you get four for the price of one!

Of course I have a very keen interest in the Portsmouth Pals, as I will be carrying out a lot of research into their formation, their membership, their battles and their losses. Sadly the war diary for the 1st Portsmouth Pals (14th Hampshires) is not available, and will necessitate a trip to Kew, but that of the 2nd Portsmouth Pals (15th Hampshires) is.

I’ve downloaded a couple of hundred page PDF’s, and although I have only had a quick flick through, it seems like it is unusually detailed for a war diary. Not necessarily in terms of grid references, maps or operational matters, but it does seem to give an unusually high amount of attention to other ranks rather than just officers. Of course this will be priceless for finding out about when Private X died, or when Sergeant Z won his Military Medal.

Let the transcribing begin!

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WW1 Dead research – some stats on the Army

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been busy beavering away with my research into Portsmouth’s Great War Dead. It’s a mammoth task, and one that will probably never be completed in the true sense of the word. There are just so many names to contend with, and the sources are that much more fragmentary than for the Second World War. But having said that, I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics so far.

So far, I have established that 2,574 men were killed serving with British and Empire Forces between 1914 and 1921. That compares to 2,549 men and women from Portsmouth killed in ALL services between 1939 and 1945. Out of those 2,574, some 890 have eluded identification so far, with around 1,600 odd having been traced on the CWGC. The Army casualties are a lot more difficult to research. This is probably down to the fact that most sailors were serving pre-war, so there is a significant paper trail on their existence. Whereas most soldiers volunteered or were conscripted, hence there is minimal documentation compared to sailors.

The vast majority of those men were killed serving with the Infantry. Most fell fighting with the Hampshire Regiment – 747 to be exact. Out of those, 133 with the 1st Battalion, 148 with the 2nd Battalion, 150 with the 14th Battalion (1st Portsmouth), 154 with the 15th Battalion (2nd Portsmouth), and 46 with the 1/4th Battalion (Territorials). These massive losses led to the War Office spreading men around regiments far more in the Second World War to dilute the effect of heavy casualties.

It is interesting that out of 1,600 men I have managed to identify, almost half of them were serving with the local Regiment. This is a much higher proportion than in 1939-1945. Out of the other Infantry Regiments, the next highest membership was of the Rifle Brigade (28 men) and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps (32 men). Both Regiments had no geographical recruiting area, taking men from all over Britain, and of course had their depots nearby in Winchester. Small numbers of men served in virtually every Regiment of the British Army. This attests not only to the mobility of Portsmouth people, but also that Portsmouth was a Garrison town – Battalions were based here as part of the city defences, and some men may have put down roots here, in the same manner as Portsmouth based sailors tended to.

90 men were Royal Engineers, 100 Field Artillery, 86 Garrison Artillery, 36 Machine Gun Corps, 9 RE Signals, 9 Tank Corps, 19 Guardsmen, 19 in Irish Regiments, 36 serving with Commonwealth Forces (5 African, 8 Australia, 19 Canada, 3 India and 1 New Zealand), 18 Cavalrymen, and 35 Army Service Corps. The tiny number of Cavalrymen killed does suggest that they were not particularly active during what was primarily a siege warfare scenario.

89 men are known to have been Regular Soldiers. 4 ex-Regulars re-enlisted. 60 men were Territorials or reservists mobilised on the outbreak of war. 211 men, by contrast, Volunteered between August 1914 and February 1916. 47 volunteered in August 1914 alone, followed by 27 in September. Once conscription was introduced in 1916 103 men were called-up. 2 men had attested under the Lord Derby scheme. So almost as many Portsmouth men were alreading in the Army system as volunteered for King and Country.

887 men were killed in France, 415 in Belgium, 12 in Germany, 22 in Greece (Salonika), 19 in India, 81 in Iraq (Mesopotamia), 27 in Israel (Palestine), 11 in Italy, 77 in Turkey (Gallipoli). Although we know much about France and Belgium, and to a lesser extent Gallipoli, campaigns such as Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika still need more research for us to understand their impact locally.

22 men are known to have been younger than 18. The youngest man was 16 year-old Private H Rampton, who died in April 1916. The oldest man was 72-year old Quartermaster Sergeant R.F. Robertson, of the Royal Field Artillerywho died in March 1916.

In terms of ranks, the vast majority – 1,242 – were privates. Only 92 were officers, the majority being 2nd Lieutenants. As my WW2 research suggested, historically Portsmouth does not contribute many Army officers. Is this because it was not such a fashionable place for the officer class to live, or that there were not many men in Portsmouth with officer-type qualities who volunteer?

Most men were killed in the bloody battles on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917, but a large number fell in 1918, which is often overlooked by history. 87 men were killed in 1914, 214 in 1915, 441 in 1916, 495 in 1917 and 495 in 1918 up to the Armistice. 112 men died post-Armistice – many, I suspect, from Influenza.

256 men were killed on the Somme, 148 at Passchendaele, 6 at Loos, 165 during the German offensive in Spring 1918, 189 in the Allied Offensive in 1918, 21 at Cambrai, 59 at Arras, 32 at 2nd Ypres in 1915, and 21 at 1st Ypres in 1914. These numbers would appear to suggest that as many men died in the meatgrinder of day-to-day Trench Warfare as died in set-piece attacks.

Where casualties came from tells us a lot about how the population of Portsmouth was made up in 1914, and how it changed by 1939. 76 men came from Buckland, 55 from Copnor, 30 from Cosham, 11 from East Southsea, 39 from Eastney, 69 from Fratton, 41 from Kingston, 216 from Landport, 38 from Mile End, 41 from Milton, 94 from North End, 6 from Old Portsmouth, 74 from Portsea, 119 from ‘Portsmouth’, 333 from Southsea and 61 from Stamshaw. In 1914 the vast majority of people in Portsmouth were concentrated in the city centre and Southsea, with fewer people in outlying areas such as Milton, Copnor, Cosham and Eastney. Paulsgrove did not even exist as we know it, and Cosham covered the whole area of the mainland part of the city.

This is all very interesting, but there are still 890 men I need to identify, which is going to take more work than researching the other 1,600!

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