Tag Archives: ypres

Third Ypres (Passchendaele) 95: Portsmouth connections

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium.

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

95 years ago today the Third Battle of Ypres, often somewhat erroniously referred to as Passchendaele, began.

There are hundreds of books out there about Ypres and Passchendaele – some of which I am busily thumbing right now researching Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes! – and if you want to find out more about the battle there is certainly a lot of information out there. Suffice to say, Passchendaele has become, alongside the Somme, a byword for futility, needless slaughter and mud. To what extent this legacy is deserved has been debated keenly by historians in recent years.

The campaign began with an assault on Pilckem Ridge, on the northern side of the Ypres Salient. Although the battle was relatively succesful, heavy rainfall turned the ground into a quagmire, which delayed subsequent operations and potentially gave the Germans time to reinforce their positions.

11 Portsmouth men were killed on the first day of Third Ypres. Seven of them were fighting with the 1st Portsmouth Pals, more properly known as the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, who were involved in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. They were Private T.J. Fitzgerald (19, North End), Private Reginald Chamberlain (27, Forbury Road, Southsea), Private Frank Childs (a parishoner of All Saints Church), Private Henry Harnden (27, South Brighton Street in Southsea), Private G. Jerrard (23, College Street, Portsea), Lance Sergeant Joseph Wilkins (Dover Road, Copnor) and Private Ernest Shawyer (19, Lake Road, Landport). Fitzgerald, Chamberlain and Shawyer are buried in Buffs Road Cemetery, Jerrard is buried in Gwalia Cemetery while the rest are remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Wilkins had been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery on the Somme the previous year.

Portsmouth men also died serving with other units on 31 July 1917: Lance Corporal H.P. Evans (1st Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; parishioner of All Saints Church, buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery), Private Albert Jackson (11th Bn, South Wales Borderers; aged 32, Dickens Road, Mile End; remembered on Menin Gate), Private John White (26th Field Ambulance RAMC; age 20, Gunner Street, Landport; remembered on Menin Gate) and Private Moses Purkiss (196th Company, Machine Gun Corps; age 24, from Grosvenor Street, Southsea; buried in Vlamertinghe Cemetery) also fell.


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Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.


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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.


Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

New footage shows WW1 battlefields from above

Extraordinary aerial pictures of First World War battlefields have been discovered, after being hidden for nearly a century.

The dramatic aerial shots show the huge damage wreaked on towns such as Ypres and Passchendaele. The programme, on BBC One this Sunday evening, also includes aerial footage taken by British pilots. These new images give historians of the First World War a new insight into the impact of the fighting on the western front.

‘The First World War from Above’ is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm.


Filed under Army, On TV, Royal Air Force, western front, World War One

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 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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1st Hampshires – The Ypres Salient, Summer 1916

The next day the Battalion went into the front line, relieving the 1st Grenadier Guards. It was very hot and the trenches in most part were dry, unusually for Flanders, which normally had a very high water table. The spell in the line was relatively quiet, with the only interruptions being Trench Mortars and mainly snipers. Enemy Machine Guns were also more active at night.

On the 28th Major Armitage of the West Yorkshire Regiment arrived to take over command. It was most unusual for an officer from outside the Regiment to be posted, especially to take command. The losses on the Somme had been so great, however, that it is likely that the usual tribal considerations had fallen by the wayside.

On 31 July the Battalion was relieved, and went back into support at Elveringhe. The time in support, and the men found time to bathe in the lake at Elveringhe Chateau. Some training was carried out, as well as providing fatigues for night work. On 4 August the Battalion went back into the line. It was still extremely hot, but the men were able to get on with work to improve their trenches.

The quiet was shattered, however, on the 8th. A warning was issued the day before that the enemy might use gas, as the wind was from the north east. Sure enough, at 10.30pm on the 8th the Germans discharged Gas. 10 minutes later a raiding party of 20 to 30 enemy was spotted, but was beaten back by rifle fire and grenades. An artillery barrage was called up, which effectively cleared no-mans land in front of the Hampshires sector.

The day afterwards Major Armitage submitted a detailed report of the incident. The numerous anti-gas devices, such as ‘gas gongs’ and klaxons, had not worked. 3 men had been killed, 14 wounded and 8 missing. 3 men were killed by gas, 37 suffering from the effects of gas, and 1 from shell shock. 1 officer had been wounded, and 1 affected by gas.

The Battalion went back into support for some much-needed rest, but D Company in particular were still feeling the effects of gas. Working under the threat of gas not only caused horrific casualties, it also seriously hampered the ability of a unit to resist attack – men wearing gas masks found breathing, moving and fighting much more difficult.

Among the dead during this period were Lance Corporal Wilfrid Cox (18, Copnor) who was killed on 4 August 1916, Private Albert Harris (29, Fratton) who was killed during the Gas attack on 8 August 1916, and Sergeant H.W. Doige who died on 10 August 1916. Cox and Harris are buried at Essex Farm Cemetery, and Doige at Lijssenthoek.


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1st Hampshires in the Great War: Aftermath of the Somme

On 10 July 1916 the 1st Hants left billets in Bertrancourt to take over front line trenches from the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – this only nine days after the Battalion had been decimated on the first day of the Somme. – in the Beaumont Hamel-Serre sector. There they found trenches in a very bad condition. In some places Mills Grenades were buried in the mud – B Company lit a fire which exploded some grenades, killing one man and wounding two. There were only six officers in the front line, excluding Battalion HQ.

On the 13th a big fire demonstration was put on along the front line of the whole Corps. Gas, Smoke and High Explosive Shells were sent over all night, but retaliation from the enemy was light. By the next day trenches were beginning to dry out. Two patrols were sent out that night, and found that the German front line was strongly held. On the 15th the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Mailly-Maillet. They were still close to the front line, and had to sleep in cellars to avoid shelling.

On the 16th the men attended a church parade in the morning, followed by 100 men forming a working party on the communication trenches. A draft of 15 men arrived, most of them men who had recently been lightly wounded. This suggests both how seriously understrength the Battalion was, and how desparate Britain’s manpower situation had become after the losses on the Somme. The next day a draft of 300 men arrived, mostly from the 16th (Depot) Battalion, but some from the 14th (1st Portsmouth) Battalion. Again, taking on such a huge number of men in one go suggests how depleted the Battalion was. The War Diary notes that the physical condition of these men was very poor – one man was sent to the Hospital within two hours of arriving. More new arrivals appeared on the 19th, including, as the War Diary puts it, ‘our old friends Capt Lockhart and Lt. Smythe’. Slowly, the Battalion was rebuilding. The influx of men who were no doubt volunteers or conscripts marked the point at which the Battalion lost much of its regular make-up.

On the 22nd the Battalion paraded for inspection. The next day they marched at 3am from Beauval to Doullens (Nord) Station, where they boarded trains for a 5 hour journey to Esquelbeeq (Nord) in Belgium. From their the men were billeted in farms. Battalion HQ was in Wormhoudt. The move to Flanders was evidently unpopular, as the War Diary records ‘those of us who were in Flanders before showed no zeal at renewing our acquaintance with this part of the world’. This is somewhat intriguing, given that the Battalion had suffered crippling losses on the Somme only weeks earlier, and that during 1916 the Ypres Salient proved to be relatively quiet. It is very possible that the 1st Hants were sent to this quiet sector in order to rest, rebuild and integrate their new recruits.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Ypres to the Somme 1915

After retiring to their billets after the second battle of Ypres in June 1915, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment entered one of the quietest periods of the war on the western front. While the war continued in France and Belgium, the allies in particular were attempting to circumvent the deadlock with their offensive at Galipolli. Therefore the western front settled down into something of a deadlock for the rest of 1915 and early 1916, until the great attritional battles of Verdun and the Somme.

June 1915 saw the Battalion being inspected by Lieutenant-General Sir J.L. Keir, the Corps Commander. They took several turns in the front line, east of the Yser Canal and about 2,500 yards north west of La Brique. Very few men were lost during this period, and the biggest concern seems to have been improving the trenches. Several officers even went home to England on leave. On 18 June 1915 the War Diary recorded that two officers of the Zouave Regiment – presumably a French unit – came over for dinner. On the 20th ‘a good many’ allied aeroplanes were flying around – obviously a novel occurence at the time. On the 22nd, however, a freak incident wounded two officers – Major Humphrey and 2nd Lieutenant Beatty were hit in the neck by the same bullet. Near the end of the month the Battalion enjoyed a rare treat of baths.

6 July, however, saw the Battalion committed to an attack near Hulls Farm, west of the Yser Canal. The bombardment of the German trenches began at 6am, at which point the 1st Rifle Brigade attacked succesfully. The British guns kept firing all day, and several German counter-attacks came to nothing. By nightfall the Battalion began to move east across the canal. The 7th saw the Germans launch more counter-attacks that had little effect. Heavy shelling continued on the 8th, when the Hampshires relieved the Lancashire Fusiliers on the front line. The next day found the Medical Officer, Captain J.F. Gwynne RAMC, up in the trenches tending the wounded left by the Lancashires, and also a serious wounded Rifleman. No sooner had he finished than he was shot by a sniper and killed instantly.

July 1915 saw three Portsmouth men killed with the 1st Hampshires in the Ypres Salient. On 1 July 1915 Sergeant W.G. Benham, who is buried at Talana Farm Cemetery, on 5 July Private Norman Goodall (aged 17, and from Windsor Road in Cosham), buried at Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, and on 10 July – the day the Battalion came out of the line – Private E.V. Burchell, 36, from Regent Street, Mile End. He is buried in Lijssenthoek Cemetery.

10 July saw the Battalion out of the line again, marching back to ‘halfway billets’ north east of Poperinghe. At 4pm they continued on to their ‘real’ billets, a mile west of Watau. The war diary recorded that ‘it really was a blessing to be clear… of that awful salient’. The period from 11 to 22 July saw the Battalion resting, during which they were inspected by the Brigadier (Prowse), the Army Commander (Plumer) and the Commander-in-Chief (French). Otherwise the period was spent getting the men into good shape. ‘Naturally there was much speculation as to the next move, ‘official’ rumours varied from the Dardanelles to England’.

The speculation ended, however, on 23 July 1915 when the Battalion entrained at Codewaersvelde at 5.30pm, and reached Doullens on the Somme at 12.30am. In moving to the Somme sector the Battalion was swapping the frenetic pace of the Ypres Salient for what was, in 1915, a relatively quiet part of the front.

After detraining early on the 24th the 1st Hampshires marched to Freschvillers, where they bivouaced in tents and barns. The next few days were spent preparing to move up to the front. On 25 July the new Army commander, General Monro, inspected the Battalion. Finally, on 29 July the Hampshires relieved 62nd French Infanterie Regiment in the trenches north of Hamel.

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1st Hampshires and the second Battle of Ypres

On 22 April the German Army around Ypres released 168 tons of chlorine gas over a 4 mile section of front. Approximately 6,000 French and colonial troops were killed, and the surviviors were forced to pull back. This however left a 4 mile gap in the front line between the French and the Canadians on the flank. There was a very serious danger that the Germans might breakthrough the allied front line. Reinforcements were taken from quieter sectors of the front to try and plug the gap.

The War Diary of the 1st Hampshires takes up the story. Also the Commanding Officer, Colonel F.R. Hicks, left a very detailed account of the battle.

On 24 April 1915 the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment left Bailleul by train at midday. They reached Poperinghe about 3.15pm, and from there marched to Basse Boom where they were billeted for the night, accoring to Hicks in some farms. At 6am the next day the Battalion marched to Vlamertinghe. There they remained until 6.30pm, when the 11th Brigade was ordered to relieve the Canadians Zonnebeke. The Battalion reached Wieltje at about 9pm, where they were to be met by guides from the Canadian Brigade. However after waiting for more than an hour the Canadian Brigadier had arrived, but no guides. Little information could be found. Hicks described it as a ‘horrid situation’.

Brigadier-General Haslar, commanding the 11th Brigade, ordered the Hampshires up to occupy a line to the right of the 85th Brigade. The 85th Brigade was severely stretched and had gaps in its line. Furthermore, the Brigade’s left flank was open. There was very little information about which trenches the Germans had captured. With only a couple of hours left before daybreak a hasty reconnaissance was made, and the Battalion began to dig itself in. It was, as Hicks described, ‘a race with dawn’, as to be caught in the open in daylight would have meant annihilation. Fortunately there was a thick fog at dawn, which gave an extra hour digging before the men were exposed to the view of the enemy. ‘There was no time to lose and we started to dig. The men were tired out. They dug like bricks. Most of them knew that their lives depended on being underground by dawn’.

Heavy shelling began at midday, followed by German advances. The position proved to be a strong one, and prevented the Germans getting round the flank of the 85th Brigade. The Hampshires were however heavily enfiladed from both flanks. At the extreme point in the Ypres Salient and overlooked on three sides by thee enemy, who also had the advantage of high ground, the Hampshire’s position was not an enviable one. On the left A Company, under Captain Sandeman, had occupied some houses. A surprise attack caused some confusion and Sandeman was killed, before a local counte-attack secured the situation. By nightfall the Battalion had lost 4 officers and 50 men killed. 2 officers and 98 men were wounded. 9 men were missing. These losses were incredibly light given the weight of fire the Battalion was under – Colonel Hicks writes that the ‘hung on’, and that the 26th was the worst day of the battle.

At one stage Battalion Headquarters had a very lucky escape, when the C.O., Adjutant and 3 orderlies were buried by a shell which pitched just into the side of the parapet. ‘Luckily the soil was dry and light and they were dug out unharmed’.

During the night of the 26th-27th the trenches were extended and improved. The situation was obviously still fairly chaotic, as the Battalion learnt during the night that the Rifle Brigade were about 1.5 miles to their left and rear, leaving a large gap. Although the war diary states that 27 April was a fairly quiet day, 1 officer and 16 men were killed, 1 officer and 28 men wounded, and 2 men missing.

On 28 April the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hicks, was called away to take over command of 11 Brigade after Brigadier-General Haslar was killed. Major Palk took over command of the Battalion. 1 officer and 10 men were wounded.

By the 29th the front was firming up. The Hampshires made contact with the Rifle Brigade on their left and the Buffs on the right, forming a continuous front line. 6 men were killed, and 13 men wounded.

The 30th saw a counter-attack by the French to the north, but little progress was made. The Battalion Headquarters was heavily shelled. Also on the 30th Colonel Hicks returned to command the Battalion. During the day 3 men were killed, and 1 officer and 3 men wounded.

During April 1915 the Battalion received 2 officers and 223 men as reinforcements. However taking into account the men lost killed wounded or missing, and the 89 men admitted to hospital during the month, these reinforcements were nowhere near enough to make up losses. The rate of attrition amongst officers in particular was very heavy.

The Battalions dead included 6 Portsmouth men. Private Frederick Hall, Private J Cooper (24, Portsea) and Private J.K. Blofield were killed on 26 April. Sergeant John Cleall was killed on 28 April, and Private Frank Bridger (19, Cosham) and Private John Battell (29) were killed on 1 and 2 May respectively.

Colonel Hicks rounded off his account of the battle with some stirring words:

‘The gallant deeds performed by the men of the Regiment would fill pages… and the stretcher bearers were beyond praise… young officers of 18 (and some under) commanding platoons through such a week of terror and keeping control of their men, when in the ordinary course, they might have been trembling before an awe inspiring Headmaster.’

‘Though few remain who fought in 1914, the spirt of the Regiment remains as fine as ever’.


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Sapper Charles Cuff

Hot on the heels of my review of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon Jones, I’ve been doing some research into the only Portsmouth tunneller that I have discovered so far.

Sapper Charles Cuff was 22 and from 22 Chance Street, Landport. He was serving with the 250th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. He was killed on 17 June 1916, and is buried at Lindenhoek Chalet Miliary Cemetery in Belgium, a few miles South West of Ypres.

The 250th Tunnelling Company was formed in Rouen in October 1915, and dug the deep-level mines (Petit Bois, Peckham and Spanbroekmolen) under the Messines ridge in the winter of 1915 and Spring of 1916. Its hard to tell whether Cuff was killed in action, by an accident or illness. There are documented collapses in 250th Company’s tunnels in Jones’s book. If Cuff has been killed in a collapse, its probable that he would have no known grave.

Out of almost 1,000 men I have analysed so far, Cuff is the only Sapper-Tunneller I have found from Portsmouth. Does his suggest that most of the tunnellers came from traditional mining areas? It should be interesting to find out.

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The three Dugan brothers

The First World War exacted a heavy toll on the Dugan family from Portsea.

Private Wesley Dugan was part of the 15th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, a Portsmouth New Army ‘Kitchener’ unit. He was killed on the Somme on 15 September 1916. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. The 15th Battalion suffered incredibly heavy losses on this day the first day of the battle of Flers-Courcelette – an attempt to renew the Somme offensive that had started in July 1916.

His brother Private James Dugan was killed just under a year later. Serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, he died on 21 August 1917 at the age of 43. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. He was killed during the battle of Passchendaele, between the battle of Langemarck and the battle of the Menin Road.

The third Dugan brother fell in the spring of 1918. Private Edwin Dugan killed on 19 April 1918 in the Ypres Salient, while serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He is remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial. This was during the Kaiser Offensive, the German’s last -ditch attempt to turn the tide of the war on the Western Front in 1918.

Thus the Dugan family lost three sons in 18 months of bloody fighting. As tragic as this seems, apparently some families in Britain lost as many as 5 sons between 1914 and 1918.


Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, World War One

Privates Edwin and Frederick Denyer

Most British Army Regiments began the First World War with two Regular Battalions. Since Victorian times it had usually been the norm for one of a Regiment’s Battalions to be serving overseas – particularly in India – and for the other Battalon to be based at home.

The 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment began the war in India. They quickly returned to England, however, landing at Plymouth on 22 December 1914. They spent the next four months moving between Romsey, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick. On 29 March 1915 the Battalion sailed from Avonmouth, bound for Galipoli, via Egypt. Landing at Helles on 25 April 1915, they were eventually evacuated in January 1916.

There were commonly family links in the pre-war regular Army. Private Frederick Denyer, 22 and from 66 Maitland Street in Landport, was killed on 28 April 1915. He is buried at Redoubt Cemetery, Galipoli. His Brother Private Edwin Denyer, 24, was killed on 6 August 1915. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Helles Memorial, Galipoli.

After being evacuated to Egypt the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment landed in Marseille on 20 March 1916, and saw out the rest of the War in France and Belgium, seeing action at Arras and Passchendaele.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, World War One

The Riddles of Wipers by John Ivelaw-Chapman


I’m a big fan of social history. Which isn’t always an area of study that sits easily with military history. Too often in the writings about wars and battles, we hear all about the Generals and the politicians, but not about the ordinary fighting man. Yet ever since men fought each other, the human impact of conflict has been sigificant. So why is it that we rarely hear about it? What puzzles me is that there are plenty of sources available to study the experiences of the fighting man during wartime.

Perhaps one of the most incedible of these sources is The Wipers Times. A typically British corrupion of the pronouncation of Ypres. This book by John Ivelaw-Chapman serves as a very useful introduction to this uniquely British institution.

The back of the book describes The Wipers Times as ‘the Private Eye of the Ypres Salient’, but I would argue that it was much more than that. Although it was edited by a Battalion commander of the Sherwood Foresters, its contents were almost completely contributed by rank and file Tommies. Hence there was something uniquely democratic and representative about it – nothing is lost in translation. At times cryptic and couched in Edwardian sensibilities, and its riddles can take some deciphering – hence the title of the book – but that was the language of the time. To take the language out of the message would be to take The Wipers Times out of context.

It demonstrates a typically British sense of humour, in its poetry and cartoons. It tells us much about the men who shaped it, and their views on the War, the British Army and the World. Whats more, its not some kind of ‘top-down’ view, but in their own words, and their own language. A lot of myths have built up regarding Trench Warfare in the Great War, and book such as this are very important at helping a degree or reality to shine through.

This book is well illustrated with pages from The Wipers Times , and some interesting and illuminating analysis from Ivelaw-Chapman. Perhaps at times the text does not flow easily and maybe we do not need to know so much about the authors own experiences – The Wipers Times speaks for itself.

But never the less, books such as this make a very important contibution to our understanding of the social history of warfare. To listen to a lot of historians, we would think that the average Tommy was constantly worrying about whether Haig was a good General. Mud, Gas, Shells, Fear, Courage, Humour and Bitterness probably occupied Tommy’s mind much more.

The Riddles of Wipers is published by Pen and Sword


Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War One

The Christmas Day truce

A scene from the 1914 Christmas truce

A scene from the 1914 Christmas truce

On 24 December 1914, German troops on the Western front near Ypres began dressing their trenches with decorations. They then began singing carols, and the English troops opposite replied. After shouting christmas greetings, visits were made across no mans land, where small gifts were exchanged. Artillery was silent for the night, and an unofficial truce fell into place. In some places football matches were even played out in between the barbed wire.

The events had an incredible impact on British and German culture. Generals were horrified, and forbade any future unofficial truces. The fact remains, however, that the Christmas truce proved one thing – the private soldiers on each side had more in common with each other than they did with their own Generals. They were all far from home, stuck in the same squalid trenches, facing the same dangers.

In the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the protagonists discuss events of the past that led them to their current situation, including the Christmas Truce. Captain Blackadder was apparently still sore over being ruled offside during a football game with the Germans. He also cynically muses that “Both sides advanced further during one Christmas piss-up than they did in the next two-and-a half years of war.”

On 11 November 2008, the first official Truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, the site of a Christmas Truce football game in 1914. After the unveiling and a Service of Remembrance, men from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. The Germans won, 2-1.

A very Happy Christmas to you all, wherever you are – especially all of the men and women who are far from home this Christmas, in harms way. Stay safe, and come home soon.


Filed under Army, Remembrance, World War Two