The Hampshires found that the trenches they occupied on the Somme front were extremely comfortable, and featured huge dug outs several feet below the earth. It was a common feature of French trenches that units were allowed to dig bigger and deeper than their British and German counterparts. The Somme was also relatively quiet, with hardly any sniping or gunfire. Battalion HQ was agreeably located in a house in Hamel, and cookers were even brought up to within a mile of the trenches, so the men could have hot meals in the front line. On 31 July 1915 a few officers even went and had a look at a swimming pool that had been constructed by the French nearby! It must have been a welcome change to men used to the Ypres Salient.
August 1915 saw a new regime implemented, whereby Battalions spent 7 days in the front line. The war diary stated, however, that ‘as the trenches are so comfortable, with so little shooting by the enemy, the men are as happy here as anywhere’. It would be interesting to know the opinions of the men themselves.
After being relieved from their first stint in the front line the Battalion retired to Mesnil on 5 August 1915. Mesnil was a large village 1,000 yards behind Hamel. Hidden behind a hill, only the spire of the church was visible to the Germans, who none the less knew that it was occupied by the British, and sent over a few shells every day. These largely had little effect, apart from on 8 August when a German shell killed 3 men and wounded 3 others. During their next tour in the front line the Battalion were engaged in digging a new trench.
The routine of front line and reserve duties carried on quietly for quite some time, with only sporadic shelling interrupting proceedings. The Battalion regularly had detachments and officers from territorial and Kitchener Battalions attached in order for them to gain experience – many of them seem to have been Irish. Occasionally patrols took place, such as on 18 August when 2nd Lieutenant Flint, Corporal Elton and 6 men went on a patrol from Poste Castor to the mill in the marsh, and remained there for some hours.
On 28 August the Germans unleashed an artillery barrage that was heavier than usual, from a trench mortar near the railway line. This was followed at once by their main artillery (in the opinion of the adjutant, 5.9’s). The trench was blown in in two places, and two men killed. The appareance of a British aeroplane overhead caused the Germans to cease fire. 27 Battery of the Royal Field Artillery gave good support throughout with their 18 pounders. One Portsmouth man was killed during this period – Private Alfred Collyer, aged 19, from Collyers Pit in Cosham. He is buried in Hamel Cemetery.
On 31 August 1915 Colonel Palk went sick with ‘a touch of fever’ and handed over command to Major Perkins. Hospital admissions four August show just how more comfortable life was on the Somme in 1915 compared to Ypres -in August 1915 only 40 men were admitted to Hospital, compared to 100+ every month when in the Ypres Salient. Aside from the less intense fighting, the drier, more sanitary conditions of the Somme area must have been much healthier than those in Flanders. Additionally, only 5 men were killed all month.
The Hampshires tour in the trenches in the beginning of September 1915 was more lively than usual, ‘our casualties totally 26 killed and wounded’. Once casualty was Sergeant Jackson, ‘an energetic, hard working and valuable NCO’. After going into reserve in Mesnil on 4 September the Battalion HQ’s kitchen and dining room were destroyed by a German shell – mercifully there were no casualties. Even being in reserve was not to be completely safe.
The front remained relatively quiet. On 15 September, however, all leave was suspended, and the noise of artillery became more intense from the north. On 25 September news came through of a joint British and French offensive – the Battle of Loos, to the north. Bombing parties set out to ascertain whether the enemy trenches had had their garrisons weakened – they were still held in strength. The Battalion observed considerable railway activity behind the German lines, however, in both directions east of Miraumont. By the end of September the weather was becoming wetter and colder.