Tag Archives: Battle of Arras

1st Hampshires in the Great War – Battle of Arras #2

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a res...

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest (Image via Wikipedia)

 

As night fell on 9 April 1917, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were holding a section of captured German trenches after the Battle of Arras. Snow fell throughout the night, enough to leave a white blanket over the ground.

10 April seems to have been a relatively quiet day. The Hampshires observed the Germans very closely, and they seemed to be in the process of retreating. Judging by the traffic on the roads behind the enemy lines it seemed that they were pulling back, yet small groups of Germans in the front line kept up resistance. Attempts were made to continue the attacks, but the wintry conditions made fighting difficult.

At 7pm Germans were spotted moving towards the Hampshires front in a counter-attack. An artillery barrage was quickly called up – a great example of the improvements in all-arms co-operation – as well as rifle and Lewis Gun fire. After several hours it became clear the enemy’s attack was a reconnaisance in force, to assess the strength of the British line.

The next day, 11 April, saw the Battalion return to offensive action. The 4th Division was ordered to attack and hold a low ride, about 1,200 yards to the East of the fourth line of German trenches. The Somersets were in the lead for the 11th Brigade. The Germans were holding their line in strength, however, and the plan had to be altered. The Hampshires attacked to the left, and extended their line by 150 yards, losing 1 officer and 11 men killed and 16 wounded in the process. A similar attack was enacted the next day in order to cause a diversion for another attack elsewhere near Arras. This attack was repulsed, and the Battalion again lost 11 men killed and 16 wounded.

The next two days were very quiet apart from heavy shelling, and one man was killed on each day. On 15 April another attempt was made by B Company to capture Hudson and Hazard trenches, but again it was found impossible to take.

On 16 April the Battalion was shelled heavily, losing 4 men killed, before being relieved by the 1st Royal Irish Rifles and going back to Divisional Reserve that night. D Company did not manage to get away before daylight and had to remain in Hyderabad redoubt until the next night.

The Battalion marched back to shelters in the old German second line. Whilst they would have been OK in decent weather, the rain and snow had made them uncomfortable. After several days in reserve the Battalion then marched back to huts in Agnez-lez-Duisans, six miles west of Arras. The next day the Battalion marched to crowded billets at Izel-lez-Hameau, twelve miles west of Arras.

After the ubiquitous church parade on the first Sunday and time spent cleaning up, the Battalion were paraded and read messages of congratulations from Major-General Lambton (GOC 4th Division) and Lieutenant-General Fergusson (XVII Corps) for their efforts in the Battle of Arras. By the end of the month the Battalion had recommenced training in a similar manner to that it had before going into action.

During April 1917 the 1st Hampshires had suffered their heaviest casualties since the Somme the previous year – 3 officers and 26 men killed, 8 officers and 122 men wounded, 3 men accidentally wounded and 5 missing.

On 2 May the Battalion returned to the front line. After marching up to the old German 4th system the Hampshires were occupying trenches immediately north of the Fampoux-Athies road. Major Earle was in command, as divisional orders had ordered that Lt-Col Armitage was to remain behind with the transport.

The next day the 4th Division attacked, with the aim of capturing the western outskirts of Plouvain. Zero hour was very early, at 3.45am. The Germans were obviously expecting an attack, and it seemed that little progress was made. In the afternoon the 1st Hants supported the 1st Rifle Brigade in their attack on the Chateaux north of Roeux. Due to delays the Rifle Brigade began their attack at 3.30am, but were held up by maching-gun fire.

The next few days were relatively uneventful apart from heavy shelling. On 4 May the Battalion was holding a position between the junction of Corona and Ceylon trenches and the railway embankment. The enemy’s snipers were very active between the Chemical Works and the Chateau that the Rifle Brigade had attempted to capture. On 8 May the Battalion made a ‘chinese attack’ on the Chateaux, Chemical Works and surrounding areas, but evidently were not succesful.

10 May was spent preparing for operations, and nightfall found the Battalion occupying Ceylon and Cordite trenches. On 11 May the 4th Division, together with the 17th Division, attacked on a fron from Roeux Cemetery on the left to the station buildings on the right. Maps showed blue and black lines which were the respective objectives. The enemy were completely surprised and offered little resistance. The Black line was reached by 7.30pm, and the Battalion had taken 150 prisoners and 7 machine guns. The next day at 6am the Battalion advanced on the Blue line, and was again succesful, taking very few casualties.

The Battalion was relieved on 12 May by the 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 13 May found the Battalion bivouaced south of the Fampoux-St Nicholas road, and from there the men marched to the Cavalry Barracks in Arras. On 14 May the 1st Hants boarded buses at Arras and moved to Magnicourt-sur-Canche. Over the next two days Major-General Lambton and General Sir Edmund Allenby inspected and addressed the Battalion, and operation awards were announced – 1 DSO, 2 MC’s, 1 DCM and 2 MM’s.

Although relatively modest, compared to the Somme the gains at the Battle of Arras were very impressive, and for much smaller losses. Little progress was made after the first day, however, and no breakthrough was made. The Hampshires were to remain at Arras for the time being, until the Third Battle of Ypres began – Passchendaele.

More Portsmouth men were killed in the days and weeks after the first day than on the first day itself:

11 April – Corporal Mervyn Offer (Arras Memorial), Private J.J. Cleaver (Bailleul Road East)

15 April – Private W.C.Brine (Etaples)

16 April – Lance Corporal George Jones (96 Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw; Arras Memorial)

18 April – Private Frederick Earwicker (Worlds End, Hambledon; Aubigny)

25 April – Lance Corporal W. Palmer (29 Mills Road; Aubigny)

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The Battle of Arras

Battle of Arras in April 1917

Battle of Arras in April 1917 (Image via Wikipedia)

The 1st Hampshires went into the Battle of Arras better prepared than for any other operation since the beginning of the War. The men had taken part in individual, Company and Battalion training, and a number of Brigade exercises. And, thanks to the methodical and exhaustive staff work that went into planning the attack, historians are left with a wealth of documents to study, that allow us to tell the story of what happened to the Battalion on 9 April 1917.

The plan

At the end of March the Adjutant circulated a note on signals between Infantry and Artillery, and also a complicated table showing what equipment troops were to carry during the attack – ammunition, sandbags, barbed wire and poles, and screw pickets.

On 2 April the detailed Operation Order for the coming battle was circulated to Officers. Running to eight pages, its length and complexity show how the British Army had learnt the importance of good planning and preparation – the hard way, sadly. The XVIIIth Corps – comprising the 4th, 34th and 51st Divisions – were to capture the third system of trenches, around the River Scarpe. Rather ambitiously, if this objective was achieved, the next target was to be the southern section of Vimy Ridge. Detailed instructions were given for where the Battalion was to assemble prior to the offensive. The officers were assured that the Artillery Barrage would cut gaps in the wire in front of the German defences.

The Hampshires specific targets on day one were as follows: to capture the second German trench (code named HAGGARD) , and then to bomb the first and third trenches (HUDSON and HAZZARD), and then to push out patrols as far as the sunken road. D and B companied were to be in the front, with A Company in support. The companies were given very detailed instructions, down toobjectives for their platoons and sections. The plan also placed emphasis on consolidation and the building of strong points. Looking at the map, the plan was very much to break through the line, and then attack down the length of the German trenches.

The attack would have significant firepower support. The 11th Trench Mortar Battery were to move up immediately behind B Company. A incredibly complex artillery creeping barrage was put together, with very specific timings – to the minute, in fact.

The plan also made extensive use of very detailed maps, with the German trench system mapped and code named. All orders made thorough use of grid references. Communictations were also important – a Squadron of Royal Flying Corps BEC2 aircraft were assigned to work with XVIII to observe progress and sport for signal flares.

Medical arrangements were also thorough. The Regimental Aid Post was to remain with Battalion HQ, and from there officers were briefed on where the Main Dressing Station,  advanced Dressing  Station and Walking Wounded Aid Post were to be. Men were assigned to act as xtra stretcher bearers, and a special Labour Company was assigned to bury the dead.

The thought, effort and detail that had gone into the planning of the Battle of Arras shows how, slowly but surely, the British Army was learning how to fight on the Western Front. This, compared to the non-existant or minimal planning for previous battles, was much more professional.

The Battle

The day broke with slight rain. Reveille was at 4.45am, and breakfast was served before the Battalion marched off. Arriving at the assembly area at 7.30am, the Brigade ate dinner from cookers. No news was heard from the first phase of the attack, but promisingly large numbers of German prisoners were seen being herded to the rear.

The Brigade finally marched off at 10am, at a compass angle of 90 degrees until it reached the original British front line. There enemy shells began to fall, and one landed in the middle of B Company, causing 17 casualties. After an hour, the Battalion then launched its attack.

The enemy  offered slight resistance, most German troops apparently turned and fled. The guns had not in fact cut the German barbed wire, but due to the lack of enemy activity the men were able to cut it themselves. The Battalion captured 80 prisoners, 2 Machine Guns and three 8 inch howitzers. By 4.05pm  all Companies had achieved their objectives. The captured position was a good one, giving good observation and a commanding view of the north east and east.

The Battalion had suffered remarkably few casualties. 12 men were killed, and 47 wounded. The Doctor, Captain J. Walker RAMC, was wounded but remained at his post. Among those killed was Private Gerald Gomer, from Portsmouth, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial.

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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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