Tag Archives: World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to Arras

A British machine gun post in a captured trenc...

A British machine gun post during the Battle of Arras (Image via Wikipedia)

After returning from the front line on 2 February 1917, the 1st Hants spent several days going through the usual clean-up routine. After the ubiquitous church parade on the Sunday, attention then shifted to training, and also providing men for fatigue duties. On 8 February a party of 3 officers and 268 men were seconded to Maurepas to relieve a working party from another regiment. 268 men represented a sizeable amount of the Battalion’s manpower, at a time when they were supposed to be resting and training.

Although the remainder of the Battalion went on a route march on the 9th, and on the 10th marched to a new camp at Suzanne, on the 11th a party of 4 officers and 171 men were attached to 171 tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers near Maurepas. The remainder of the Battalion left in the camp did nothing but fatigues, with only a Lewis Gun class continuing. The party of men sent to Maurepas were engaged in making gun emplacements, and the men attached to the tunnellers were assisting in building accomodation for gun teams.

On 16 February the Battalion went into close support. Every available man was put to work improving the trenches, as the onset of the spring thaw was making them very very wet and muddy. On 18 February the Battalion went into the front line. By this time it was raining, making conditions even worse. After four days in the line the 1st Hants were relieved on 22 February. As the ground was in such a poor condition it took until midday on the 23rd for all of the Battalion to pull back to Hem crossroads, where they boarded buses for their new camp at La Neuville-les-Bray.

Having reached La Neuville-les-Bray, on 24 February the Battalion marched to camp 124, near Corbie. Once there the usual cleaning, inspections and church parades commenced. Finally, on 27 February, a full scheme of training began, starting with individual training within sections, and other training for specialists. A platoons football league was also begun.

On 4 March the whole 4th Division began the march to its new area of operations at Arras. The first day’s march was for 15 miles, and 16 men fell out. This was quite a low figure, given the Battalion’s fitness, the conditions and that they had become used to static warfare. The next day’s march of 10 miles saw only five men fall out, even with a snow fall. By 7 March the Battalion hard reached their new camp at Buire-au-Bois.

After the usual cleaning up and improving of billets, training began in earnest on 9 March. Individual training continued, with Company training beginning on the 10th. For several days D Company were attached to the 3rd Army, to give a demonstration to training staff and observers of ‘the company in attack’. Later, on the 18th, the whole Battalion have a similar demonstration.

No sooner had Battalion training begun on 19 March, than on the 21st the Battalion was transported by bus to Bajus. Company and Battalion training resumed, but time was found on the 25th for the final of the Platoon Football Cup, with 9 Platoon beating 5 Platoon 2-0.

Although the Battalion were scheduled to take part in a major offensive in only a matter of days, on 26 March 119 men under 2nd Lieutenant Stannard left for Anzin-st-Aubin, to form a work party. The next day the rest of the Battalion went to the divisional training area, and took part in a Brigade exercise. The Battalions assaulted positions almost identical to those that they had been given for the coming battle – in effect, a dress rehearsal. Another practise took place two days later, and another two days after that.

With plenty of individual, company, Battalion and now Brigade training behind them, the 1st Hants were certainly better prepared for Arras than they had been for any other battle so far in the war. At the end of the month detailed instructions were circulated to officers by the Adjutant, covering signals between infantry and artillery, and also a complex table showing what equipment men were to carry during the assault. Staff work was also beginning to come into its own.

Into April, poor weather limited the amount of training that could be carried out. 4 April was spent – for A and D Companies – practising consolidation, that is, keeping hold of positions that had been captured, clearly something that was of benefit when attacking enemy trenches. B Company spent the day exercising with the Trench Mortar Battery, a good example of co-operation. The next day was spent going through Operation Orders with NCO’s and men – again, the men were going into the Battle of Arras better informed than ever before.

On 7 April the Battalion marched to huts on the main Arras-St. Pol road, and the next day marched to camp at Maroeuil. The Battle of Arras was to begin the next day.

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The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins

The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.

I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.

If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.

Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.

As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.

As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.

Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.

Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.

The Great Western Railway in the First World War is published by The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Christmas and New Year on the Somme

For their first stint back in the front line since the grievous losses on 23 October, D Company was in the front line, C Company in support, and A and B Companies were in reserve. The Battalion’s front line was about 500 yards long, and opposite St Pierre Vaast Wood. This tour of the front line also saw a new rotation of companies. Instead of all of the Battalion being in the line for the duration and having other Battalions in reserve, the Hampshires held a shorter front, with Battalions rotating between front line, support and reserve every day. This caused less strain on the men by lessening the time they were in the front line for any continuous period, and also gave newer soldiers a chance to gain experience gradually.

The 1st Hampshires were relieved on 23 December 1916 by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, after four days in the front line. After marching to Maurepas the next three days were spent carying out fatigues, including on Christmas Day. The Battalion were in the front line again on 27 December, relieving the 1st East Lancashire Regiment. A similar routine of rotating Companies was once again carried out. This was a very short tour, however, for on 29 December the 1st Hants were relieved by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment. After once again marching back to Maurepas, lorries took the men the rest of the way to Bray. There the Battalion worked on making its camp habitable, including building roads and paths. The day before New Years Eve a draft of 132 reinforcements arrived.

The first page of the War Diary for 1917 records that the first week of January was spent in a ‘plucky attempt’ at training in spite of very poor conditions. The camp now had a road into it, and chalk paths round the huts. Training was mostly limited to musketry and gas helmet training. A regimental course was set up for training men in using the Lewis Light Machine Gun. Due to operational commitments on the actual day, the 4th Division celebrated Christmas Day on 7 January 1917, putting on a good dinner but in a typically british manner the War Diary bemoans the lack of plates or glasses.

The next week was again spent on training, until 15 January when the Battalion marched to huts in Curlu. This camp was much better than the one at Bray, consisting of small huts with a capacity for 25 men each. Training was impossible, however, due to a heavy fall of snow. Therefore time was spent improving drainage and building cookhouses.

On 20 January the Battalion relieved the 1st East Lancashire Regiment in the front line. D Company, however, remained in Curlu and was attached to the East Lancs. The front line was around 500 yards long, and about 500 yards east of Bouchavesnes, which itself was three miles north of Peronne. Rations had to be carried 5 miles from the nearest road – a significant logistical undertaking. The front line was exposed, as the enemy occupied higher ground. The front line does seem to have been relatively quiet during this stage of the war, however; the Germans limiting themselves to the odd shell and the odd sniper.

On 24 January the 1st Hants were relieved by the 1st East Lancs, and went back tot dugouts in Clery or camp in Curlu. No work could be carried out while the men were out of the line, as the ground was so hard. The Battalion were back in the front line again on 28 January, and again the Battalion practised a roulement of Companies. On 1 February the Hampshires were relieved by the 1st Kings Own Regiment, and marched back to camp near Suzanne, the last Company arriving just before 6am on the 2nd.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Respite on the Somme

The day after the bloody battle on 23 October 1916 the 1st Hampshires were relieved in the front line by the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and went back to bivouac in Trones Wood. After reaching the wood at 4am, at midday they marched on to Mansell Camp near Carnoy. On the 27th they went to new billets at Meaulte, then 3 days later entrained at Mericourt. They arrived at Arraines – about 13 miles south east of Abbeville – and marched to billets in Merelessart.

By this time the Battalion was severely understrength after its losses on the first day of the Somme and 23 October. In terms of officers, the Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Armitage, and the second in command was Major F.H.W. Guard. There were three Captains, three Lieutenants and eleven 2nd Lieutenants. In peactime, a Battalion would have five Majors, and a similar number of Captains. Losses had been so heavy that young and inexperienced officers were given a lot of responsibility very quickly (Incidentially, its noticeable from my research that very few officers came from Portsmouth, and those that did tended to be pupils of the Grammar School).

The attrition rate amongst officers was particularly high on the Western Front. On 23 October alone the 1st Hampshires lost one Captain and two 2nd Lieutenants killed, and seven 2nd Lieutenants wounded. Its not difficult to see how the Battalion needed to rebuild after such losses. Many officers were also away on courses.

On 2nd November 1916 the Battalion marched to a new area at Ramburelles. On the 4th the General commanding the 4th Division, Major-General Lambton, made an inspection. On the same day training began, and would continue for the rest of the month. The war diary gives an unusually detailed account of the training that was carried out – close order drill, arms drill, physical drill, Bayonet fighting, musketry, firing on the range and small attacks. The ubiquitous church parades also took place each Sunday.

After a week of basic training to build up the men, Company training began on 20 November. At the same time a draft of 73 reinforcements arrived, going some way to making up the Battalion’s losses – 159 arrived during the month in total. On the last day of the month the Battalion carried out a full exercise. Battalion training continued into December. Private Alexander, Sergeant Oliver, Corporal Golding and Private Patterson were presented with the Military Medal, and Lance Corporal Alexander received a bar to the Military Medal.

On 7 December the Battalion marched to Morlancourt. The next day they marched to Bray-sur-Somme. On 15 December the Battalion was transported by lorries to Maurepas, and from there marched to Combles, where the sheltered in old dug outs while in Brigade reserve. On 19 December 1916 the 1st Hampshires once again went into the front line on the Somme.

The Somme offensive had been ‘closed down’ after the failure to make a breakthrough at the end of October. The British Army was therefore pausing to rebuild in time for the next offensive, which would come in the north at Ypres in the Spring. A pattern was therefore emerging – of units taking part in the latest ‘big push’, and then withdrawing to rebuild in time for the next effort. In between there were relatively quiet spells in the trenches on the front line.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The eye of the Storm

After the Gas attack 0n 8 August 1916, the 1st Hants were relieved on 11 August. The Battalion went back to camp accomodation. Space was cramped, and water supply was a problem. After the first couple of days were spent resting, what the war diary describes an ‘ambitious’ training programme was curtailed by having to provide men for working parties. This pattern continued until 21 August when the Battalion entrained at Brandhoek for Ypres. There Headquarters was based in the Town Ramparts, C and D Companies in the Infantry Barracks, and A and B Companies in the Zillerbeke Bund.

It was only a short stay in the front-line town, for on 22 August the 1st Hants relieved the 42nd Canadian Infantry. The sector occupied was only 1,000 south of Ypres, along the Menin Road itself, and stretched for 800 yards. The position was described as ‘rather unpleasant’, due to being overlooked by all points of the Salient. Most of the trenches were in a poor condition. The Germans were relatively quiet, apart from sending over light guns and trench mortars in the evening. A heavy barrage on the 26th, however, resulted in two officers being buried by earth and being badly shaken. 5 men were killed and 15 wounded. During the bombardment 10 Germans tried to infiltrate A Company’s positions but were beaten off. The next day the Battalion was relieved.

August 1916 had been a hard month for the Hampshires, particularly considering they had been sent to the Ypres sector to recover from their mauling on the first day of the Somme. They had lost 23 men killed (including 7 from Gas), 38 wounded, 2 missing, 46 men were gassed, and 91 were sent to hospital, with only 36 returning in the opposite direction. This was hardly a Battalion rebuilding itself – replacements were going straight in at the deep end.

September 1916 proved to be a much quieter month for the Battalion. On 1st September they went back into the front-line east of Zillebeke. On the 2nd two men were killed in D Company, the Battalion’s only loses for the whole month. On the 5th the 1st Hants were relieved and went back to Montreal Camp, 2 miles south of Vlamertinghe. After spending several days resting and on inspections, on 10 September the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, then by train to Bollezeele and thence to billets at Merckegem. The next day the whole Brigade marched to Capelle, two miles south of Dunkirk, and the next couple of days were spent in the sand dunes at Dunkirk.

On the 15th the Battalion marched back to Merckegem, where Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wished them ‘godspeed on their departure for the Somme’. The next day they marched to Esquelbecq station, where they entrained for Amiens. After several days spent in billets in Amiens the 11th Brigade marched to Corbie. On the march the 1st Hants fought a readguard action exercise against the rest of the Brigade. The rest of the month was spent training hard and in practising assaulting enemy positions.

Finally the Battalion had been allowed to rest and gather itself after its hard time on the Somme and a less than quiet spell at Ypres. However, only 27 men and 4 officers arrived as reinforcements during September 1916, so the Hants would still be seriously undermanned on their return to the Somme, where the Battle had been raging ever since their departure.

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Mud, Blood and Bullets: Memoirs of a Machine Gunner by Edward Rowbotham

Having researched 1,500+ Portsmouth soldiers who died in the First World War, sadly I know very little about any of them as people. There really aren’t as many Great War veterans accounts as there as there are from their counterparts who fought twenty or so years later. Therefore anything that sheds new light on the soldiers experience of the Trenches is to be applauded. Here, a Granddaughter has edited her Grandfathers wartime memoirs.

Edward Rowbotham was born into a large Midlands mining family, one of 14 children. Although he followed his father and most of his brothers down the pit, as soon as war broke out in 1914 he wanted to join the Army. Although he initially remained at home, in 1915 he finally volunteered as part of Kitcheners Army.

Although he initally joined this local unit the Staffordshire Regiment, he was soon drafted to a brand new formation – the Machine Gun Corps. Although infantry Battalions had begun the war with Vickers Machine Guns in their weaponry, it was soon found that for them to be fully effective they would need to be put into the hands of a dedicated unit. And thus the Machine Gun Corps was formed.

Rowbotham fought at the Somme – particularly at the Battle of Flers – and then at Passchendale in 1917. Almost continuously in the front line for three and a half years, his story takes us right up to the point where the British Army marched into Cologne as an occupying force. Three and a half years is an awful long time to he survived on the Western Front, and it is difficult not to have the feeling that Rowbotham had a charmed life.

As so often is the case with personal accounts, it is not the ‘what happened when’ that is interesting, it is the very human tales that emerge that are worth their weight in gold. Stories of bizarre wounds, boxing matches, grumbling about bully beef, officer-men relations, the usual ‘British-soldier-in-a-strange-country’ stories and tales of super-strength Army Rum are what make personal stories such as this so valuable. At all times we are reminded that we are reading about a real person and their experiences, the text has such a personal feel to it. I found myself not just by the war stories, but also by the tales of failed romances. Rowbotham’s premonitions about his own safety are also amongst some of the intriguing episodes I have read about.

Ted Rowbotham distinguished himself on a number of occasions. On one occasion he went ino no-mans land to find a missing soldier, after receiving a premonition of his own safety. Having found him mortally wounded, Rowbotham sought out a stretcher and remained with the wounded man. Eventually Rowbotham managed to have him evacuated to Hospital, where he later died. Although this incident was not reported at the time, when Rowbotham later took over a gun position and manned it all night he was recommended for a Military Cross. But, as with so many men decorated for bravery, he is entirely modest about it in his memoirs.

Not only is Ted’s account of the Western Front interesting, but also is stories of what happened to him before and afterwards – its like the bread in the sandwich, it holds the filling together. But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is the authors warm, grandfatherly style of writing – its very much in the tone you would expect a wisened older relative to take when passing on their life experiences to the young. But not at all patronising, more ‘warm fireside’.

Mud, Blood and Bullets is published by The History Press

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Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!

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