Tag Archives: Beaumont Hamel

The Somme by Gary Sheffield

It’s nice to actually read a book about the Somme that actually makes me feel like I have learnt something. Too many books on the battle indulge in what has become rather cliched poetry. Most of us are well aware that the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history. Most of us are equally as aware that the Somme was ultimately futile.

What Sheffield does so well here is threefold. Firstly, he does not allow the narrative to become embroiled in cliche or hyperbole. The events of 1916 are examined and explained in a clinical, methodical manner. Secondly, he looks beyond the first day of the Battle. So many histories of the Somme look only at 1 July 1916. Yet the battle raged on for almost five months after that before the offensive ceased. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently readable.

Each phase of the offensive is examined in a manner which makes it clear to the reader. 1 July obviously comes in for special attention, and Sheffield looks at the Divisions all along the front, from Gommecourt in the north to the anglo-french boundary in the south, and relates their objectives and their experiences. As the late great Richard Holmes so rightly stresses in his foreword, Martin Middlebrook gave so much to our understanding of the first say of the Somme, but perhaps out attention in the past has been too focussed on this one day, out of a much longer battle.

Sheffield does not allow himself to get too bogged down in considering whether the battle was a waste of lives or not. The general assumption amongst most people is that the Somme was a horrific waste of lives, a by-word for futility. Or was it? As Sheffield reminds us, the French Army had its back to the wall at Verdun, and the Somme was vital in diverting German resources from that battle. Politically, to do nothing was not an option. In addition, the British Army learnt an awful lot on the Somme, that it put into practice in 1917 and 1918. Could Haig, Rawlinson and Gough have done much different on the Somme. Like Sheffield, I suspect not. The strategic thinking and even most of the tactics were sound, but the Army had not developed its technology and expertise – particularly around communications – enough to really take the offensive to the Germans.

I cannot stress enough how much this book has helped – and will help me – in my research into Portsmouth men killed on the Somme. In particular, the 1st Hampshires on the 1st day near Beaumont Hamel, and then the 15th Hampshires (2nd Portsmouth) at Flers in September – incidentally, one of the most succesful days on the Somme.

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Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

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

Lewis gun

A Lewis Gun, as used by the 1st Hants (Image via Wikipedia)

As June 1917 dawned Company Training continued, as well as sports events, including a Company football competition. On 6 June the Divisional Royal Engineers commander lectured on consolidation. On 10 June a party of 100 men under Captain Johnston marched to Monts-en-Ternois, where medals were presented after the recent operations at Arras.

On 11 June the whole Battalion moved to billets in Arras by ‘motor bus’. The next day the men were bivouaced in the support lines, until 7.15pm when the Battalion relieved the 5th Cameron Highlanders in Brigade support. They remained in support until 16 June, when the Battalion went into the front line near the River Scarpe. The line ran to the east of Roeux. The Battalion had a very quiet time in the line, and were relieved on 20 June, when they went back into Brigade support. The next few days were spent on improving the trenches and erecting barbed wire, before the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Royal Warwickshires on 26 June. The last few days of June were spent in the usual post front line cleaning, inspections and then work parties.

During June 1917 the Battalion had received significant reinforcements, in the shape of 6 officers and 131 men. Notably, no members of the Battalion were killed during the month – a rare month indeed on the Western Front. By mid-1917 the BEF and its units had honed the routine of trench warfare. Each time the Battalion went into the line or was relieved, a detailed operations order was issued in advance by the Adjutant. Atlhough this was no dobt efficient, it was also motivated by a feeling that the high proportion of conscripts in the Army, as well as non-regular officers, needed more detailed orders.

 Early July was spent in Balmoral Camp, training and providing work parties. On 13 July the Battalion went into Brigade support, and on 14 July went into the front line, north east of Monchy-le-Preux. The Germans were very quiet during the day, but very busy at night with snipers, rifle grenades and trench mortars. No men were killed, and the Battalion was relieved on 18 July. After several days in Reserve, the 1st Hampshires went back into the front line on 22 July. This tour proved to be more eventful. On the 23rd the Artillery carried out a dummy raid on the German lines to which the enemy replied, and the next day the Battalion sent out a patrol to reconnointre the enemy line. Several members of the patrol were lost. One of them was Corporal John Leask, a Portsmouth man, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial. On the 25th the Artillery again carried out a dummy raid, before the Battalion carried out a genuine raid the next night. The raiding party advanced behind a strong barrage, and took four prisoners. Only one Hampshire was killed. The Battalion was relieved the next day on 27 July. The rest of July was spent in Brigade reserve and providing working parties.

The Beginning of August 1917 found the Battalion in Wilderness Camp, before on the 2nd of the month they marched to Balmoral Camp. The Battalion began training, including a tactical exercise for officers to illustrate how to advance after a retreating enemy. Divisional sports competitions were held, and medals were awarded for the raid carried out on 24 July. On 13 August a full Battalion exercise was carried out, complete with dummy enemy machine guns. On the 14th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve, and the next day into the front line. The Battalions line was in the area of Musket Trench and happy valley. The Hampshires remained in the line until 23 August – a very long tour – and suffered 4 men killed by enemy shelling. One of them was Private Francis Davis, 35, from Boulton Road in Southsea. He is buried in Level Crossing Cemetery.

On 23 August the Battalion marched back to camp in Scots Valley, apart from A Company who remained in Lance Lane. The accomodation at Scots Valley consisted mainly of tents, and a few tarpaulin shelters. There were no cookhouses, and these had to be built. Over the next few days the Battalion also provided work parties. On 28 August Colonel Armitage left the Battalion temporary to take charge of the 11th Brigade – presumably the Brigadier was ill or wounded. On 31 August the Battalion marched back to Balmoral Camp.

September proved to be an interesting time for the Battalion. Although the ever-present work parties continued, time was found for platoon training. On the 5th the Battalion was relieved, and marched to Pommier. During the day a draft of 129 men arrived. The next day the new arrivals were inspected by the CO, and the Companies were re-organised into 4 platoons. On the 7th individual training commenced, including bombing and Lewis Gun lessons. the next day Brigadier-General Marshall, of the 45th Infantry Brigade, gave a fighting on recent fighting at Ypres. On the 8th Colonel Armitage returned to resume command.

Interestingly, on 9 September a group of 3 officers and 80 other ranks went by lorry to visit the area around Beaumont Hamel, where the Battalion had fought in July 1916 on the Somme – an early form of battlefield tour. Meanwhile back with the Battalion training continued, and on the 10th all officers and NCO’s down to Platoon Sergeant were lectured on German methods of defence ‘and how to deal with them’. More and more lectures were taking place – a sign of the experience that was being gained on the Western Front, the new professionalism in the BEF, and the number of amateur soldiers in the Army.

Training continued, and on the 15th of September, when 14 officers and 350 men turned out for a cross-country run (one wonders what happened to the rest of the men). On the 18th the Battalion marched off to Mondicourt. At midnight on the night of the 19th/20th the Battalion entrained at Mondicourt, and 9.30am detrained at Hopoutre, south of Poperinghe. From there they marched to Piddington Camp, south east of Proven.

The Battalion had returned to the Ypres Salient, where the Third Battle of Ypres had been raging for several months.

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