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’.