When war was declared the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was part of the 11th Brigade, in the British Army’s 4th Division. They were originally based in the garrison town of Colchester, but moved to Harrow. It was earmarked to embark for Europe as part of the British Expeditionary Force as soon as war broke out. Later in the war at Ypres and the Somme the Territorial and Kitchener Battalions bore the brunt of the fighting, but in 1914 the BEF comprised regular, pre-war Soldiers.
The 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment left Harrow at 12.20am on 22 August 1914, bound for Southampton. At 7am half of the Battalion and the Headquarters embarked on the Breamaer Castle, and the other half on the Castrian. At this point, most of the men were no doubt hoping that the war would be over by Christmas.
Between 11pm on the 22nd and 1am on the 23rd the two ships docked at Le Havre, and the Battalion concentrated in camp at Bleviere. After a short stay, at 12.10pm on 24 August the Battalion boarded trains at Le Havre. There was heavy fighting at the front, and they were to be pitched straight into battle. After a short halt at Rouen for an hour, they arrived at Le Cateau at 3am on 25 August. From there they marched straight to Solesmes, where they took up position to cover the retirement of the 5th Division, after the Battle of Mons.
By 3.30pm on the 25th the 1st Hants themselves were retreating. The stopped at the village of Briastre until midnight, when the withdrawal continued. At 3am on the 26th the Battalion reached Le Coquelet, where they bivoucaed. It was a very short stay, however, for at 4am the Brigade moved out to take up positions covering Ligny. 2 Platoons of B Company remained behind to cover the rest of the Battalion. These two platoons came under heavy artillery fire and sustained 10 casualties. The Battalion occupied a position astride the railway about a mile north of Ligny, near a deep cutting. D and A Companies made what cover they could with their trenching tools. Heavy firing was heard on the left flank, and the Battalion came under fire. The position was held all day, with D Company suffering heavy casualties and having to be reinforced by C Company, until a counter-attack by A Company had little effect.
The 1st Hants and the rest of the 11th Brigade held their line all day, but at 3pm the order came to retire, due to a strong attack on the 10th Brigade to their right. The retirement was up a grassy slope back to Ligny. During the withdrawal the Battalion came under heavy fire, however the German infantry did not advance until the Battalion had concentrated in Ligny. A Battery of British guns in Ligny swiftly dealt with their advance. The Battalion was told to fix Bayonets and move at the double, which after a day of fighting they were hard-pressed to do. While the Battalion was resting a strong attack by the Prussian Guard entered the East of the village. The village was held until 6pm, when the Brigade and the guns withdrew to Elincourt, unpursued by the Germans. They Battalion reached Elincourt at 8pm. The retirement was chaotic, with the roads jammed with retreating units. From Elincourt they moved south eat to Serain, which they reached at 9pm – having marched nearly 20 miles in 24 hours. There the men rested, and were given water and bread by the inhabitants.
The 1st Battalion suffered its first serious casualties of the war on 26 August 1914. Its War Diary records that during the day 3 Officers were killed, along with 6 other ranks. 5 Officers and 126 men were wounded, and 2 officers – including the Medical Officer – were missing, along with 40 other ranks. These were figures that were recorded at the time – any of the men who were recorded as missing were later confirmed as being killed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records that the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment lost 23 men killed at Le Cateau. The British forces at Le Cateau suffered 7,812 men killed, wounded and missing, and lost 38 guns.
Among those killed were two Portsmouth men. Sergeant Thomas Greenland, 24 and from St Vincent Street, Southsea; and Private William Baldock. Both have no known Grave, and are remembered on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial. While Kitchener Battalions – esecially the 14th and 15th Hampshire Battalions – would be raised solely from one town or city, the regular Battalions were recruited from across the County, and beyond.
What became known as the Battle of Le Cateau is regarded as one of the most succesful holding actions in British Military History. Although the BEF’s commander Field Marshal Sir John French criticised General Smith-Dorrien’s decision to stand and fight, Le Cateau played a part in blunting the left-most hook of the Von Schlieffen plan, which was evenually halted at the Marne. It was also the first of many battles fought by the Hampshires in the Great War.
Compiled from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion of the Hamspshire Regiment (The National Archives WO 45/1495), and the long-long trail website.