Tag Archives: Ploegsteert Wood

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

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

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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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2nd Portsmouth Pals – formation to May 1916

 

With the euphoric volunteering for the British Army that was experienced in the late summer of 1914, many towns and cities formed their own Battalions for service in the Army. Comprised virtually of volunteers, in many cases these became known as ‘Pals’ Battalions. The word ‘Pals’ is normally applied to midlands or northern working class towns or cities, but my research has shown that the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment respectively – were very much Pals Battalions. And it was quite credible of Portsmouth to raise two Battalions – over 2,000 men – considering that most of her young male population must have been either at sea with the Royal Navy, or engaged on important war work. Fortunately, the war diary for the 2nd Portsmouth Pals is available to download online from the National Archives website, and it tells us an awful lot about what happened to these young men from Portsmouth in those dramatic years.

 

The 1st Portsmouth’s were formed by the Mayor and a local committee on 3 September 1914, and would have taken the initial rush of recruits. After gathering and training locally, it was found that there were still enough recruits to form a second battalion, which took place on 5 April 1915. Several men died before they even left Britain – Private R.P.A. Cornhill on 6 August 1915, who is buried in Kingston Cemetery. After training locally, on 30 May 1915 both battalions were accepted by the war office, and began training for service abroad. With so many raw recruits, so many new units and a shortage of equipment, naturally things happened slowly. In October 1915 the 2nd Portsmouths joined the 122nd Brigade, in the 41st Division at Aldershot. In February 1916 they were at Marlborough Barracks in February 1916, before landing in France in early May. Private H.T. Sait died on 11 March 1916, and is also buried in Kingston.

 

The Battalion disembarked at Le Havre at 0600 on 2 May 1916, marching to a rest camp from the port. The next day they entrained at 1139, before detraining at Godewaerveld the next day and marching to Meteren. After three days in billets at Meteren, the Battalion marched to new billets in the La Creche area. On 10 May 12 officers and 40 NCO’s spent two days in the trenches, attached to the 11th Royal Scots, in order to gain experience. Whilst they were there they experienced some heavy bombardments, and then an attack on the Royal Scots trenches. Two were repelled, but a third gained access to the Scots front lines before being pushed back.

 

All was quiet again until the 18th, when a gas alarm was raised. The Battalion stood to at 0115, and stood down at 0150. The next day more men went into the trenches for experience, this time 4 officers and 80 NCO’s. On the 25th the Battalion suffered a sad casualty, when Private H. Evans committed suicide. A Court of Enquiry found that he had become temporarily insane. Private Evans was buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (Nord), but unfortunately his record on the CWGC does not give any information as to where in Portsmouth he lived.

 

On the 28th the Battalion marched from La Creche to billets at Creslow. Two days later on the 30th they moved up to the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, taking over trenches from the 8th Black Watch, between Le Gheer to opposite the Birdcage. A, B and C Companies were in the front line, with D Company in reserve. Ploegsteert was often used to give new units experience, rather than the more active Ypres Salient.

 

 

 

 

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