Tag Archives: Trench warfare

Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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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 – 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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