Tag Archives: western front

War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Sergeant Frederick Godfrey DCM and Bar MM

''The Kairer knows the Munsters, by the Shamro...

I’ve found a quite remarkable soldier from Portsmouth who was killed during the First World War. Even though he was heavily decorated and fought in virtually every battle of the war, in many ways he encapsulates the essence of many Portsmouth soldiers.

Frederick Arthur Godfrey was, according to his stated age, born around 1890, in Putney in Surrey. However, the only Frederick Arthur Godfrey born in that area was born in either July, August or September of 1893, and was registered in Wandsworth – making it quite likely that Godfrey had lied about his age to join the Army. He also gave various places of birth in his enlistment papers and in the various censuses.

In 1901 Godfrey was boarding along with his brother Gerald and sister Susan, with Mary and John Knox, at 2 The Brins, Warren Lane in Portsmouth. There is no longer a Warren Lane in Portsmouth, but there is a Warren Avenue, just off Milton Road. Godfrey stated that he had been born in Edmonton in North London, although his brother Gerald was born in Putney.

In 1911 he was serving either A or E Company of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers. In the 1911 census the Battalion was stationed at Nowshera, in the Punjab in India. Godfrey was stating that his age was 21, that he was born in 1891 in Milton, Hampshire. This ties in with his having been living in Milton in 1901. Godfrey had probably been overseas for sometime, as the Battalion’s last home station was in 1899 in Fermoy.

By 1914 the 1st Munsters were stationed in Rangoon in Burma as part of the imperial garrison there, but with smaller units posted around islands in the Indian Ocean. As part of the policy of recalling regular units, the 1st Munsters were brought back to Britain to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. Arriving back in Britain in January 1915 at Bristol, the 1st Munsters went to Coventry and joined the 86th Brigade, in the 29th Division. At the time the 29th Division was Britain’s only reserves ready for action.

The 29th Division arrived at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. In the chaotic landings at V Beach on Cape Helles, almost 70% of the Munsters were lost. Between 30 April and 19 May losses were so heavy that the Battalion effectively merged with the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, calling themselves ‘the Dubsters’. The Battalion remained in the Gallipoli Peninsula until they were evacuated on 2 January 1916, sailing to Alexandria. From there the 29th Division landed at Marseilles in France on 22 March, for service on the Western Front.

Initially the Munsters served as lines of communications troops. After their arrival in France the 1st Munsters were transferred to the 48th Brigade in the 16th (Irish) Division on 28 May. Early in 1916 Godfrey was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. There is no date for the action in the citation, which appeared in the London Gazette on 20 October 1916 – my guess is that it was awarded for action on the Somme – the 16th Division fought at Guillemont and Ginchy on the Somme in 1916. :

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion. During an attack he was wounded, but saying “it is nothing”, led and cheered on two further attacks. When they finally broke down, owing to heavy machine gun fire, he was, with difficulty, restrained from going on by himself.

At some point between 1916 and 1918, Godfrey was awarded a Military Medal. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace any information about his MM as yet, as London Gazette announcements for them are somewhat harder to trace.

In 1917 the Division fought at Messine and Langemarck during the Third Battle of Ypres. After receiving heavy losses in the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918 particularly during the battles of St Quentin and Rosieres on the Somme, the 16th Division was withdrawn to England to be reconstituted. Virtually all of the Irish units were transferred, including the 1st Munsters, who absorbed troops from the 2nd Battalion and joined the 172 nd Brigade, 57th (2nd North Midland) Division.

The 57th Division fought in the Battle of the Scarpe, and the Battle of Drocourt-Queant in August and September 1918. During the final hundred days offensive on the Western Front, Godfrey was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal during the Battle of the Canal du Nord. The following citation appeared in the London Gazette on 2 December 1919:

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During the attack on Proville, south of Cambrai on the 30th September, 1918, he was wounded while his company was crossing theCanalBridge. He refused to go back and be dressed, but went to the assistance of other wounded, and saved some from being drowned. He then got his company across the canal, and all the officers being wounded, led them to the attack. He was wounded three times before he eventually left the company. He behaved splendidly.

Godfrey was evidently seriously wounded, as he died two days later on 2 October 1918. He was 28. He was buried in Sunken Road Cemetery, near Boisleux-St Marc, 8 kilometres south of Arras in France. Six Casualty Clearing Stations were based near the cemetery in the autumn of 1918, so it is likely that he died in one of them.

To have survived over three years of war, only to be killed a matter of days before the war ended, was both incredible and tragic. There weren’t many pre-war regulars left towards the end of 1918, so not only was Frederick Godfrey a very brave man, he must also have had luck on his side for some time. He fought at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Third Ypres, during the Kaiser Offensive and the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918. You didn’t win a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar and a Military Medal just by going through the motions.

Another thing worthy of mention – how did a man born in Putney (who also claimed variously to have been born in Edmonton and Portsmouth), find himself boarding in Portsmouth, before joining a southern Irish Regiment? It just goes to show how mobile Portsmouth people could be!

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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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Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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ANZAC #9 – Private Thomas Pearson

Thomas Owen Pearson was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1895, the son of Thomas and Ellen Pearson. In 1914, Thomas Pearson (junior) was working as an unapprenticed clerk. By this time, the Pearson family, including 19 year-old Thomas, were living at Walareyan, Dean Street, in Toowong. As well as working as a clerk, Pearson had been serving in a militia unit, the Oxley Infantry, for just over a year.

Thomas Pearson joined the Australian Army on 7  September 1914, very soon after the start of the Great War. He was initially drafted to the Australian Army Medical Corps, in No 3 Field Ambulance, A Section. He was 5ft 6 1/2 inches tall, weighed 133lbs, had a chest measurement of 33 and 36 inches, a fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair, and was a member of the Church of England.

After joining up Pearson spent less than three weeks in Australia, before he embarked for the Middle East, onboard the HMAT Rangatira (A22), on 25 September 1914 from Queensland. In common with most of the early members of the Australian Forces, Pearson and 3 Field Ambulance went to Egypt to await further instructions. Whilst there they commenced training, and it was not until 2 March 1915 that Pearson finally embarked for active service, joining the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. The Australians did not actually land at ANZAC Bay until 25 April 1915, but Pearson – who landed on the first day – was wounded in his shoulder and right hip on 9 May. He was taken to the Hospital Ship Gloucester Castle, and from there to Egypt. He was admitted to the 1st General Hospital in Helipololis, in Cairo. He had sufficiently recovered by 23 June to be discharged. On 21 July he again embarked for Gallipoli, this time on board HMAT Seang Bee.

Pearson was again evacuated from the Dardanelles on 26 September, this time suffering with Diaorrhoea. Admitted to the 1st Casualty Clearing Station, he then passed through 3 Field Ambulance – his own unit – and onto the Hospital ship Gascon. on 2 October he disembarked at Malta, where on 25 October he boarded the Hospital Ship Gibraltar, this time bound for England. He arrived in England on 31 October, and was admitted to the 2nd Southern General Hospital, at Mandlin Street in Bristol. There he remained for a good couple of months, evidently very weak after suffering from acute diarrhoea. A cable back home in November reported that he was suffering from debility, a serious weakness brought on by his illness. He was finally discharged on 4 January 1916, and reported to the ANZAC Depot at Abbeywood.

Pearson was destined to go back to the Mediterranean, but failed to report when he was supposed to. On 9 February he was fined a days pay, a remarkably light fine compared to some men who went AWOL for a matter of hours and were fined weeks worth of pay! Pearson finally embarked for the Middle East again on 24 February, onboard the MHAT Kingstonian. The Kingstonian arrived at Alexandria on 24 February 1916, and from there Pearson reported to the overseas draft base at Ghezerieh. He was finally assigned to the 2nd Field Ambulance on 12 March, at Serapeum. Two days later he was actually admitted to the Field Ambulance as a patient, suffering from Inflenza. This was edivently not serious, as he was discharged a week later.

The MEF had been evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916, and since then the ANZAC troops had been awaiting their next move in Egypt. As the Western Front was consuming vast numbers of men, it was decided to bring the Australians to France to join the BEF. Accordingly, on 23 March Pearson embarked on the HMAT Briton at Alexandria. He had only been back in Egypt for less than a month.

The Briton docked at Marseilles on 30 March 1916, and from there Pearson proceeded to the Western Front. On 19 June Pearson was transferred from 2 Field Ambulance to the 25th Battalion of the Australian Infantry – whether he had been transferred as medical orderly or stretcher bearer, or even as an infantryman, is unclear. But on 30 June 1916, the day before the opening of the Somme offensive, Thomas Pearson received a serious shrapnel wound in his left leg. Admitted to the 7th Field Ambulance the next day, by 3 July he was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital. By this time his wounds were described as a gunshot wound in his left leg, and a severely fractured fibula.

It appeared that Pearson’s wound was clearing up and healing well. Sadly developed Tetanus, probably as a result of the filthy conditions on the western front, the nature of his wound and lack of development of battlefield medicine at the time. On 24 July he reported a stiffness in his jaw, and by the next day was showing symptoms of Tetanus. He was treated with anti-tetanus serum, but died at 11.10pm on 26 July 1916. He was just 20. Unlike most soldiers who died at the Hospital in Milton, Pearson was actually buried in Highland Cemetery in Southsea. His personal effects were sent back to his fathe, consisting of 2 wallets, photos, letters, watch, correspondence, note book, purse, 3 coins, cigarette holder, cigarette case, tooth brush, scissors, ring, 2 pipes and a tobacco pouch. Pearson’s body was later exhumed after the war, and re-interred with his fellow Australians in Milton Cemetery.

Tragically, Thomas Pearson’s parents lost another son on the Western Front. Corporal F.W. Pearson, also serving with the 25th Battalion Australian Infantry, was reported missing on 29 July 1916, during the Battle of Pozieres on the Somme. Twelve months later he was reported killed in action. Thus it seems feasible that the two Pearson brothers died within three days of each other.

A series of letters from Thomas Pearson senior to the Australian Infantry Base Records Depot sheds much light on what this poor family went through. By the early 1920’s the family were living at Wilmington Street, in Newmarket, Queensland. Evidently their moving confused matters, as there is evidence that Thomas’s memorial scroll took some time to reach them. His letters also tell us that Mr Sanderson of Exeter Road, who voluntarily tended the Australian graves in Milton, had actually visited Thomas whilst he was hill. It seems reasonable to suggest that Mr Sanderson looked after the Australian boys in life as he did in death.

The last words, perhaps, belong to Thomas Pearson senior:

to know a lad is buried decently softens the blow exceedingly… of my other lad I suppose we shall never know

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Find my Past: The TV series

The other day I stumbled on a new genealogy programme on the Yesterday Channel. Under the banner of the commercial family history website findmypast, this series takes climactic historic events, andfollows the journeys of people whose ancestors were involved.

This trailer is for the episode looking at the hundreds of British soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences such as falling asleep on duty on the Western Front during the Great War:

Other episodes look at the Battle of Britain, the Mutiny on the Bounty, D-Day, Jack the Ripper and the Titanic.

I watched the Jack the Ripper episode the other day and found it very engaging. It is nice to see family history with ‘normal’ people and not just celebrities. The Jack the Ripper episode featured Dr Nick Barratt (genealogy’s own Troy Mclure who crops up everywhere), and a host of other experts.

As I have often said, anything that heightens awareness of family history is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t gloss over the long yet rewarding work that is involved.

Related articles

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Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918 by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody

During my research into Portsmouth’s Great War casualties, I have come across a number who are buried in Greece. I must confess that although I knew that the British Army had fought in ‘Salonika‘ during the First World War, I had very little awareness of what had actually happened in that campaign. As the Introduction explains, when this book was first published in 2004 it was the first book on Salonika to reach a British market in 39 years! Little wonder that the campaign has been ignored by history, overshadowed by both the Western Front on the one hand, and Gallipoli on the other.

The Balkans has always been a notoriously sensitive region throughout European history, with the melting pot of Yugoslavia, and numerous ethnic and religious tensions in the area. Into this dangerous context, the British Army landed in 1915. Ostensibly their presence was protect Greece against Bulgarian agression, yet many in the Greek establishment were decidedly anti-British and pro-German. The real intention was to divert Bulgarian resources away from a possible attack on Franco-Serbian forces elsewhere in the Balkans. The campaign took place in the Greek province of Macedonia (not to be confused with the modern state of Macedonia, which is nearby but part of the former Yugoslavia), and British forces depended on the port of Salonika for their lines of communications. Thus it was into a very delicate and awkward theatre that British soldiers entered in 1915.

Viewed from the foresight of British military overconfidence, and underestimation of the enemy, the campaign was a disappointment military. British forces failed to make much headway, even when the Bulgarians were on the point of collapse. In the end, the Armistice in September 1918 came completely out of the blue. Personally, I would argue that to have fought a tricky campaign with a lack of resources, lack of priority, and against a formidable enemy, climate and disease, not to mention a neutral host country, was no mean feat at all.

Many British troops at Salonika had embarked from Gallipoli, and there were many similarities between the two campaigns. Both were borne out of a desire to avoid mass casualties by fighting on the western front, and to attempt to ‘knock away the props’ by defeating Germany‘s allies. Little did the ‘easterners’ understand that Germany was propping up her allies. Similar arguments would be heard twenty five years later when Churchill exhoted the allies to exploit Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’, irritating american suspicions in the process. But the similarities do not end there. Troops fighting in the Eastern Mediteranean fought against the enemies of the heat, disease, and an foe that turned out to be much more formidable than had been expected.

This is a very useful book indeed. It sheds new light on a vastly under-studied campaign, and it certainly expanded my Great War horizons. It is incredibly well researched, and makes plentiful use of primary sources – both official documents and eyewitness accounts. It is not just a political narrative, but gives ample attention to the rank and file soldier, and wider contexts.

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

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They called it Passchendaele by Lyn McDonald

Along with the Somme, the name ‘Passchendaele’ perhaps captures more than anything the horrific legacy of the Second World War. Properly known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the big offensive of 1917 has gone down in history as Passchendaele. Even though the fighting for Passchendaele itself only encompassed a small part of the battle in the Autumn. Millions of men were fed, sausage-factory style, into the Ypres Salient between July and October 1917. This was Haig’s second attempt at the ‘big push’ after the slaughter on the Somme the previous year.

There are some harrowing accounts here – indeed, it almost feels trivial to call them fascinating. Stories of thousands of men drowning in mud – can there be a more horrific way to die? One shocking story even relates how a man became trapped in the Flanders mud, and sinking up to his neck, begged his comrades to shoot him and put him out of his misery.

And not only does McDonald focus on the British Tommy – Aussies, Canucks and Kiwis all fought in the battle too, and some of their stories are included here. The Western Front – and, indeed, Passchendale – were truly Allied operations. And the accounts are carefully and sensibly selected, to give an impression not only of the fighting itself, but also of the human cost of war, and of the social history – letters home, leave, rations, wounds and treatment and officer-men relations.

One review of this book on Amazon refers to Lyn McDonald as the ‘recording Angel’ of the common soldier, in particular the Great War Tommy. When this book was published, Oral History was very much in its infancy. It was still a completely new concept that the experiences of the ordinary, common soldier might be anything as interesting as the deliberations of those much higher up the food chain. 30 years on however, this book shows its age somewhat. Nowadays historians might be more inclinded to weave Oral History in with conventional writing in a more complementary manner.

Presenting the Great War through the eyes of the millions of men who fought in it changed the way that military history was approached. For too long the study of armed conflict – in particular that of 1914 to 1918 – was far too focussed on Haig, French, Lloyd-George and the like. The men in McDonald’s book, however, lived and died on the strength (or weakness) of those mens egos and decision making. McDonald does not get too bogged down in the age-old ‘Lions vs. Donkeys’ debate, thankfully. Instead she gives us the barest details of the grand strategy, whilst letting the stories of the common men shine as only they can.

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Great War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians by Paul Reed

There’s been a notable growth of interest in First World War Genealogy in recent years. I think there are probably two reasons for this – programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, and the prominence that they give to military history; and also the recent passing of the last veterans of the Western Front. Therefore this book by Paul Reed is most timely.

Many military genealogy books seem to follow a structured but disjointed route – this is how you do this, this is where you go to do this, etc etc. and by the way, you can find this out from here because etc etc. But here Paul Reed has followed a different model, by purely writing about 12 individuals, and THEN explaining HOW he found out about them. I think this approach works, as the reader can become fully immersed in the story without being interrupted with details of musems, archives and suchlike. I think its a much easier approach for the layman in particular.

Reed has chosen a broad but well-balanced range of individuals to write about. We find out about a Field Artillery subaltern who was killed in action but whose body was brought home to England; the village of Wadhurst (a timely counter to the perception that all Pals units came from ‘oop north’); The Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli; A Greek man on the Western Front; A Tunneller VC winner; A man who died in a base hospital; A Vicar’s son who fought in three theatres; A Royal Marine at Passchendaele; A ‘Great War Guinea Pig‘; An Officer who was dismssed from the Army for striking a French woman, but then re-enlisted as a Private; A Black Flying Corps Pilot and a little-known War Poet.

Plenty to get stuck into, and plenty to inspire too. I’ve found it useful and inspiring for my own Portsmouth WW1 Dead research.

Great War Lives is published by Pen and Sword

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Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War by Paul McCye

After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it was quickly realised that the relatively small size of Britain’s regular Army would not be enough to fight a long European War. Even after being reinforced by the Territorial Army, the British Expeditionary Force that left for France in 1914 was woefully small compared to the huge French and German Armies. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was under no illusions that the war would be long and bloody. His famous ‘your country needs you’ appeal inspired hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer to fight.

One of the most unique and tragic features of the Great War had its genesis in this recruitment drive. Kitchener promised that men who joined up together would be allowed to fight together, in the same Battalions. This ruling led to many ‘Pals’ Battalions, that were either distinctly in nature, or indeed some which were recruited from whole factories, professions or other social groups. Many towns and cities sponsored their own Battalions, recruited from the local young men. This book by Paul McCue focuses on the Pals Battalions raised by two London Boroughs – Wandsworth and Battersea.

Wandsworth’s Pals Battalion became part of the East Surrey Regiment, and was officially titled the 13th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment (Wandsworth). Battersea’s Pals came under the Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Their proper title was the 10th (Service) Battalion Queens (Royal West Kent) Regiment (Battersea). After the decimation of the original British Expeditionary Force at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and First Ypres, the demmands of war on the Western Front increasingly fell upon Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, particularly the Pals Battalions. After a long period of training, most of them reached the front by early 1916, in time for Haig’s planned ‘big push’ on the Somme.

Both the Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions were mercifully spared the bloodshed on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Somme, but both went on to see active service in the Somme and Ypres sectors, as well as other parts of the front. The Wandsworth Pals fought in several particularly tough battles at Villers-Plouich and Bourlon Wood, and then through the ‘Kaiser Offensive’ in 1918, when most of the Battalion were captured. After this the Battalion was disbanded. The Battersea Pals fought at Devil’s Wood, and in early 1918 were sent to reinforce the Italian Front, returning to Flanders in time for the armistice. The Battalion served in the occupation of Germany, before disbanding.

Paul McCue starts each section with a detailed history of each area in question. This is important, but I would probably give a very bried overview of the early history, with more emphasis on the early twentieth century context of the borough. We then progress onto an interesting history of how each Battalion was formed – in both cases, by the Mayor and Council. There are interesting tales of how the Councils insisted on the Battalion’s being officered completely by local men, and of interesting recruitment drives and fundraising efforts to kit out the units. There are plenty of stories about individual men, particularly Corporal Edward ‘Tiny’ Foster, who won the Victoria Cross. At the end of the book McCue has included a full Roll of Honour for both Battalions, listed by Cemetery and Memorial. This is an excellent resource for researchers.

The ‘Pals’ idea proved to be a dismal failure. If a Pals unit had a particulary tough battle, a whole towns menfolk could be lost in one fell swoop, and the impact on morale, both at home and on active service, was substantial. Whereas if men were dispersed around other units, losses would be more spread out. During the Second World War the Army did not make the same mistake, and dispersed men around Regiments much more.

I applaud Pen and Sword for their Pals series. The Pals units are a uniquely local story – perhaps the most striking example in military history of towns and cities having a shared military heritage, forged through enlistment, training, battle and then losses and casualties. Producing histories of each of the Pals Battalions around the country provides not only something of local importance, but also a rich tapestry of the experience of war for ordinary local men and its impact on communities. It’s seriously got me thinking about the Portsmouth Pals, and what little we know about them.

Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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

After the hard-fought battle on 28 March 1918, the 1st Hampshires went back into Brigade reserve trenches. March 1918 closed relatively uneventfully. On 1 April the Hampshires went into Brigade support, relieving the Somerset Light Infantry north of the River Scarpe, 3.5 miles east of Arras. Their spell in support was quiet, until the Germans began shelling on 5 April. The adjutant, writing in the war diary, felt that this was a ‘demonstration’ connected to the attacks being made at the same time, further south on the Somme. That evening the Hampshires went into the front line in Fampoux, holding Stoke Avenue, Pudding and Port trenches. The next few days saw intermittent shelling, until the Battalion was relieved on 8 April.

After being relieved the Hampshires marched back to St Laurent Blangy, and from there boarded buses to ‘Y’ Huts, about four miles north west of Arras. The next few days were spent in the usual clean up after the front line, and on 9 April it was announced that six other ranks had been awarded the Military Medal for their part in the battle on 28 March. On 10 April the Battalion moved again, marching to camps near Haute Avesnes. During the same day a draft of 159 other ranks joined the Battalion. A rare treat was enjoyed on 11 April, when the Battalion were treated to baths. Also that day Lieutenants Edwards and Evans were awarded the Military Cross for their part in the battle on 28 March.

The Battalions time away from the front was short lived, however, for on 12 April they boarded buses, and proceded to Bethune. Once there, the 11th Brigade took over a section of the line to the south of La Basse Canal, with the Hampshires being billeted for the time in Gonnehem. An attack was clearly imminent, for the next day certain personnel were detailed to remain with the transport. Sure enough, on 14 April the Battalion marched up from Gonnehem, and formed up. At 6.30pm the advance began, covered by artillery support and with the Somersets on the right. The Somersets took the village of Riez du Vinage, taking 120 prisoners. The Hampshires met no opposition, and after advancing 1,500 yards dug in on a line level with the Somersets. During the day only one man was killed, and four wounded. The next day orders were received to continue the advance. Attacks were made by the Ox and Bucks on the flank, and although they were initially succesful and the Hampshires pushed out patrols to keep in touch with them, they were eventually forced back to their start line. At 4.30am on 16 April the Hampshires were relieved, and went back to billets at L’Ecleme.

Although the 17th was spent in billets, as the situation was still very unstable the Hampshires were soon put on alert to return to the front. On 18 April a German attack on the 4th Division led to the Hampshires being recalled to Gonnehem to stand by. The attack was unsuccesful, and the Hampshires returned to L’Ecleme. This attack was part of the Germans Operation Georgette in the Lys Sector. The next day the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Bois de Pacaut. That night a patrol led by 2nd Lieutenant Clegg crossed the canal and captured a prisoner from the 471st Regiment. Prisoner snatch patrols were a hallmark of an agressive unit. The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Bois de Pacaut, capturing two wounded prisoners. 21 April was relatively quiet.

On 22 April the Battalion launched another attack on the Boise de Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of the Pacaut Wood, and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being alloted its own objectives, and with the remaining company in support. Zero hour was to be at 5.15am, with the troops assembling south of the Canal by 5am. Three bridges were to be erected across the canal by the Royal Engineers. Stokes Mortars and Machine Guns were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of Gas if the wind was favourable. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was also attached, to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold. Troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. At 7am an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.

The attack began as planned, but the heavy artillery barrage alerted the enemy almost at once to the impending attack. Enemy artillery fell as the Hampshires were crossing the Canal bridges, causing casualties. The centre bridge in particular received heavy fire, with the leading officer being killed whilst crossing the Bridge. The right and centre companies came under machine gun fire from the wood almost at once, but the left met no opposition. The right hand company pushed Lewis Guns out front, and managed to overcome resistance. By 5.35am the left flank company had reached its objective, and by 5.40am platoons of the right company were on their objective. The centre company, however, had taken heavy casualties in officers and NCO’s, but after being held up for a short time they managed to make progress and link up with the other Companies. At 9am a platoon of the support Company was ordered up to fill a gap in the Battalion’s line. After daybreak heavy Machine Gun fire was directed on the wood, and the Canal area received heavy shelling. At 1.30pm Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. At 5.30pm the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. This counter-attack was beaten off with machine gun fire. The centre Company were still struggling to make progress to their objctive. 12 men were detached from the support Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as the Support Company themselves were suffering heavy casualties on the Canal Bank, and if the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day.

The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of Operation Georgette. The Hampshires paid a high price, however. During the attack on 22 April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. 22 men were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing.

A number of Portsmouth men were killed during this period. 2nd Lieutenant Eric Reid, aged 19 and from Lennox Road in Southsea, was killed on 29 March 1918. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial. Lance Corporal G.H. Lacey, 33 and from Clive Road, Fratton, died on 31 March 1918. He evidently died in a Base Hospital or on his way home on leave, for he is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. Several men were killed on 3 April – Lance Corporal P.O. Lawrence is buried in Roclincourt Valley War Cemetery, and Private Frederick Henwood, 21 and from Bishop Street, Fratton, is buried in Athies War Cemetery. Four men were killed During the Battle of Bethune and the attack at Pacaut Wood. Corporal S. Metcalf, 40 and from Orange Street, Portsea, was killed on 21 April and is buried in Mont Bernanchon War Cemetery. Private Harry Reeve, 29 and from Rivers Street, Southea, was killed on 22 April, and is buried in St Venant-Robecq Road Cemetery. Also killed on the 22nd was Private C.F. Jerome, who is buried in Mont Bernanchon Cemetery. Finally, on 23 April, Private W. Brockway, 22 and from London Road, North End, who is buried in Lapugnoy War Cemetery.

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1918 in context

This photograph was taken in the forest of Com...

The signatories of the 1918 Armistice (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular visitors will be aware that my studies of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War have now reached the climactic year of 1918, when in November the Armistice was signed and the guns finally fell silent.

Having closely studied one Battalion’s experiences on the Western Front, at Le Cateau, the Marine, 1st Ypres, Ploegstreet, 2nd Ypres, The Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and then the Kaiser Offensive and the final 100 Days, it mystifies me how British military history places so much emphasis on Ypres and the Somme, yet the fighting of 1918 – which actually saw the end of the war – are largely seen as a postscript to the massive losses in Flanders and Picardy the previous year. Why is this?

Looking at casualty statistics is one way of assessing the intensity of fighting in particular sectors at particular times. I have now analysed over 2,000 men from Portsmouth who fell in the First World War whilst serving with the British or Imperial Armies. I have been able to trace 1,344 of them. Of those 1,344, a large number of them were killed serving in France or Belgium, and the following numbers were killed during the series of well known battles:

Somme – 187
Hundred Days – 145
Kaiser Offensive – 125
Passchendaele – 103
Arras – 50
2nd Ypres – 23
1st Ypres – 20
Cambrai – 15
Loos – 5

Of course, death totals from one city represents a relatively narrowed down sample. A large proportion of these men came from Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, who happened to be fighting in a particular place at a particular time. Also, as in most cases we do not know the cause of death, we cannot be absolutely sure that men were killed in action, and did not die of illness or accidents. Never the less, 2,000 men does represent a sizeable number to compare and contrast with.

Its interesting to note that more men fell in the battles of 1918 than did either on the Somme of Passchendaele, and signigificantly more than during earlier battles on the Western Front. So why, if more men died in 1918, do we not think of 1918 as a ‘bloody year’?

Possibly, because 1918 brought about victory. The blunting of the German’s Kaiser Offensive and the subsequent counter-attacks during the ‘hundred days’ were succesful in that they resulted in the end of the war, and thus they did not draw the same scorn as do the wasteful losses off 1916 and 1917. Certainly, the vast amount of literature published on the middle years of the war – especially 1916 and 1917 – has perhaps dimmed broader awareness of the first and last phases of the war in the west. British Second World War commanders were haunted by the spectre of the Somme and the huge casualties, and sought to limit losses as much as possible.

Also, I have read before that British military culture does have a fondness for the heroic defeat, such as Arnhem. The popular conception of ‘lions led by donkeys’, of trench warfare, of going over the top, and of Tipperary and Bully Beef is manifested in the Somme and Passchendaele. Yet the First World War DID begin with some mobile, hard fighting at Mons, Le Cateau and on the Marne, and ended with some mobile, well-fought battles in 1918.

It would probably be going a step too far to argue that victory in 1918 would salve Haig’s reputation as a butcher, but never the less the British Expeditionary Force ended the War as a highly professional organisation that had borne the brunt of the fighting in the decisive theatre of the war. The BEF had been victorious in defence and attack. Whilst victory might not say too much about the Generals, it speaks volumes of the regimental officers, NCO’s and men – many of whom were not regular soldiers, and by 1918 were very young indeed.

Another factor to bear in mind about 1918 is that the Spanish Influenza epidemic was killing thousands, both on the front line and at home. Also, after four years of war, millions of men killed or wounded, the privations of rationing, and untold other hardships, war weariness amongst the British people would have been quite understandable.

Does 1918 deserve a new emphasis in military history? I believe that it bears a strong resemblance of the lack of importance given to succesful phases in the Second World War – the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and the advance up until Arnhem; and also the rapid advance across Germany in Spring 1945 – both have been largely ignored, whilst historians pick over the bones of Arnhem, Dunkirk, Singapore and North Africa.

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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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