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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the Kaiser Offensive begins

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff, architects of Germany's last throw of the dice (Image via Wikipedia)

As 1918 dawned, it seemed to most that the endgame of the First World War was in sight. Britain had expanded her Army hugely, and had taken massive losses, particularly on the Somme and at Passchendaele. The French Army, battered at Verdun, had mutinied and refused to take offensive action. Unrestricted submarine warfare had brought the USA into the war, but her troops would not start arriving in any numbers until later in 1918. The German commander, Ludendorff, propsed a knock out blow, using troops released from the Eastern Front after the newly Communist Russia had withdrawn from the war to reinforce the west. The intention was to defeat the French and British before the American reinforcements had arrived.

Even though most of the British Army on the Western Front was all too aware that an offensive was likely. However, for the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment March 1918 began as quietly as February had ended. In camp at Fosseux, the men practiced night attacks and marching at night by compass. On 6 March the Battalion marched to a Camp at Warlus, where training continued. Two days later the Battalion practiced an attack in conjunction with tanks, the tanks being represented by artillery limbers. All throughout this period, the Commanding Officer and Company Commanders were visiting sections of the line to familiarise themselves. At the same time a warning order was issued, preparing the Battalion to move up in support in the event of an attack anywhere on the front. But even though an attack was expected, the Battalion was also being prepared to attack.

After further training and inspections by the Brigadier and Major-General Commanding the Division, on 18 March the whole Battalion spent a day being drilled by the Regimental Sergeant Major. The next day the Battalion marched to billets in Arras at the College Communal. The day after the 1st Hampshires relieved the 2nd Coldstream Guards in support north of the Arras-Fampoux road.

The Hampshire’s first full day in the support lines was also the first day of the German’s Kaiser Offensive. From 5am to 8am a heavy barrage came over the Scarpe Valley sector, consisting of gas and high explosives. This proved to be a diversion, in support of the main attack further south on the Somme. At 11pm the Hampshires were ordered up to occupy the 2nd trench system, consisting of Coot and Colt Trenches. By this time the enemy had become quiet, however, and only one Hampshire was wounded throughout the day.

22 March was also a quiet day for the 11th Brigade, but news was received that the enemy had made considerable gains further south on the Somme and nearer at Wancourt. At 11pm news was received that the 15th Division to the right had pulled back, abandoning Monchy-le-Preux, where the Hampshires had fought on numerous occasions. As a result the Hampshires flanks were wide open. They did not retreat, however.

23 March dawned misty, adding to the uncertain situation. A good deal of machine gun and artillery fire could be heard around Monchy. Shortly after dawn the 11th Brigade received orders to pull back, during daylight – a highly risky move. Later during the day news was received that Monchy had fallen, and men could be seen streaming westwards from the town. At 4pm the enemy made their first attack on the Hampshire’s front line. Small parties of Germans managed to penetrate the front line, but were dealt with by the Somerset Light Infantry to the rear of the Hampshires. Between 5pm and 8pm the enemy’s artillery barrage increased, but no attack was forthcoming. At 7pm the Battalion moved back to the old reserve line.

The 24th was uneventful until the evening. At 8pm orders were received to pull back to the old third trench system. An attack was considered likely at dawn but did not materialise, and before daybreak the Hampshires relieved the Somerset Light Infantry in the front line. During the 25th the German Artillery registed on the Hampshire’s trenches, causing heavy casualties. Information was received that an attackl was expected the next morning. Interestingly, no information is ever given about the source of these expected attacks. The next few days were quieter, although at 3am on 27 March an enemy raid was beaten off by D Company.

28 April saw the German’s heaviest attack yet on the Hampshire’s positions, as the offensive switched from the Somme to the Arras sector. The CO, Lt-Col Armitage, filed a detailed report of the days fighting. At about 3am the enemy opened up a heavy bombardment, which mostly fell behind the first system. At 4.50am the barrage reached the Hampshire’s lines, and by 5.30pm all telephone communication between HQ and companies was cut. At 7.15am the enemy infantry began advancing in waves. Rifle and Machine Gun fire was directed on them, inflicting heavy casualties. An orderly withdrawal took place however, to a designated strong point in the reserve lines. By 9.30am the Hampshires line ran from Coral Trench-Coot Trench-Camel Avenue-Cadiz Trench. The enemy were still attacking however, attempting to turn the Battalions left flank. The Company in Cadiz Trench, however, held out srongly, until the neighbouring Brigade withdrew, forcing them also to pull back. The enemy followed up closely, delivering bombing attacks. A counter-attack by a company of the Rifle Brigade relieved some of the pressure.

At 2.15pm Colonel Armitage was informed that all troops south of the railway had pulled back, leaving his flank dangerously exposed. Rather than withdraw, however, Armitage merely ordered two Platoons of the Rifle Brigade Company to form a left flank along the railways embankment facing south, and sent back for reinforcements. At 4.15pm the enemy began another bombing attack, but were caught in the open by a Lewis Gun and wiped out. From then on the front was quiet. The Hampshires remained in their positions until ordered to withdraw at 8.30pm.

The Hampshires had faced a very serious German attack, but had inflicted heavy losses. Although tactical withdrawals had been made, these were orderly and well planned, and forced upon the Battalion by movements on their flanks. This demonstrates just how well the British Army had learnt to soak up attacks, by standing their ground but pulling back orderly to avoid excessive losses. Colonel Armitage’s decision to remain in the positions on the railway embankment, when he knew that his flank was open, was very brave indeed.

During March 1918 the Hampshires suffered significant losses. Two officers and 34 men were killed, and two officers (including the Padre) and 81 men were wounded. Two officers and seven men were missing and wounded, and two officers and two men were missing presumed killed. These were heavy losses, particularly among junior officers.

Two Portsmouth men were killed in the major battle on 28 March 1918. Private Robert Bevis and Private George Grainger are both remembered on the Arras Memorial.

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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 – Passchendaele

artillery barrage map from ...

An example of a creeping artillery barrage at Passchendaele (Image via Wikipedia)

The Battle of Passchendaele had begun on 31 Jul7 1917. The first phase during July and August had failed to make any serious progress. The Battle of Broodseinde was to be the last assault launched in the Ypres Salient as part of the offensive, and was an attempt to protect the southern Flank of the salient. The ever-elusive breakthrough was still hoped for, however.

After arriving at Proven on 20 September, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment spent the next week training hard. It was hard to get much training done, however, due to the limited amount of space available. On 23 September a draft of 103 men arrived, and on the 27th the Divisional Commander, Major-General Matheson, inspected the Battalion.

On 28 September the Battalion entrained at Proven in the afternoon, and detrained at Elverindghe. From there the Hampshires marched to Roussol Camp. The next day Company Commanders instructed their NCO’s and men in the plans for the forthcoming offensive. The day after that on the 30th each Company rehearsed their plan for the attack.

later on the 30th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at the Canal Bank, relieving the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. The detailed operation order issued by the Adjutant listed the equipment and rations that the men were to carry. Officers were not to carry swagger sticks, and were to dress exactly the same as the men. Haversacks and entrenching tools would be left behind. Instead every man was issued with either a pick or shovel. Each platoon would carry 10 wire cutters, every man 2 aeroplane flares and every man 3 sandbags.

A detailed map was issued, showing the ground over which the Brigade was to advance. Starting in the area of Langemarck, the 11th Brigade was to attack on a narrow front, capturing ground to the North East of Poelcappelle. The 1st Hampshires were on the left, the Somerset Light Infantry on the right, and the 1st East Lancs in support and the Rifle Brigade in reserve. The Hampshires objectives, in order, were to be the Red House, Beek Villa, Imbros House, Kangaroo Huts and Tragique Farm. The principal objective, however, was merely a green line marked on the map. An even more detailed Battalion-level map was issued, that showed each of the Companies objectives, and also the distances between each landmark on the map. A diagram of how the platoons were to be set out in the advance was also included, and each platoon was allocated a specific objective, either to capture or, for the support companies, to consolidate once it had been captured.

The attack was to be on a 2 Company front, with each company’s front being 150 yards wide. The two other companies were to be in close support. A creeping Artillery Barrage was planned, as well as a Machine Gun Barrage. A detailed map showed the planned creep of the Barrage, beginning at Zero hour, and creeping forward on lines in front of the advance, moving forward every 2 to 3 minutes. Each Battalion was also alloted 2 Vickers Machine Guns to act in support. 2 Platoons were also designated as counter-attacking platoons, and designated authority to act on their own initiative to break up any German attacks. A Lewis Gun team of the 21st West Yorks was to be attached for anti-aircraft duties. A contact aeroplane was to overfly the area at set times to observe and report on progress.

On 1 and 2 October officers and NCO’s went forward to reconnoitre the line. The next day, on the 3rd, the Battalion went forward to its assembly area at Eagle Trench. It comprised 19 officers and 522 men. 3 officers and 118 men were to be left with the transport, to form a nucleus for reforming the Battalion if it were wiped out. Two tins of hot tea laced with rum were brought up for each Platoon. Heavy rain had fallen in the first few days of October, turning the artillery-riddled ground into a morass.

The troops were formed up and ready to go at 2am on 4 October. The enemy began shelling at 5am. At 6am the advance began, advancing behind the creeping barrage. They met light resistance, but the barrage was reported as being ‘ragged’, and caused many casualties to the Battalion. 30 prisoners and a machine gun were captured in Kangaroo trench. The Battalion advanced well, however. At 1pm it was noticed that the 10th Brigade on the left flank were retiring. An advance by the Rifle Brigade, coming up from reserve, checked this withdrawl. The Hampshires held firm on their objective line as night fell. Overall the battle of Broodseinde was one of the most succesful of the war. All objectives had been captured, for relatively light casualties when compared with the Somme and the earlier phases of Passchendaele. This was

The Battle on 4 October inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion. 4 officers and 36 men were killed, and 8 officers and 182 men were wounded. 25 men were missing. Among the wounded were Colonel Armitage and Captain Laurie, the Chaplain, who both remained at their post.

Four Portsmouth men were killed on 4 October 1917. Private William McCarthy, 32 and from Highland Street, Eastney, is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Henry Hall, of Victoria Road South, Southsea, is also remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Private Charles McCable is another man remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, while Private Frank Oxford, 29, is buried in Cement House Cemetery.

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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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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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