1916 began much as 1915 had ended for the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. In the trenches at Hamel, they were bombarded by 4.2 inch guns and Trench Mortars from the Bation Guillaumet. After marching back to Hedauville on 2 January, on the the 4th news came through that Hamel was being heavily bombarded. The Battalion was warned to stand by. The next day Mesnil was also shelled. When the Battalion went back into the front line on the 8th the Trenches had been heavily knocked about. Some men of the East Lancashire Regiment, who the Hampshires had relieved, had been buried alive by a trench mortar explosion – one of them was dug out alive 6 days later!
The next tour of duty began on 20 January. On the 21st 2nd Lieutenant Wilde was posting sentries on the gates of the mill in the marsh when ‘a fracas with the enemy occured’. All of the group managed to escape, except for 2nd Lt. Wilde and Private Chapman, who had not been seen since. Later in the tour a sniper was reported to be in the mill: 27th Battery Royal Field Artillery fired at him, but their aim was wide. The next day Private Harwood was killed by a sniper at the Stone Bridge post near the mill. On the 25th a German noticeboard was seen between the trenches; it was brought in that night, and found to read ‘give in before you are all straffed’.
To give an idea of the low-intensity of the Somme sector during this part of the war, in January 1916 the Battalion suffered 2 men killed and 5 wounded, 1 officer and 1 man missing; 51 men admitted to Hospital and 27 discharged. Compared to the losses suffered at Ypres the previous year, these were very light indeed.
A change in routine came after the Battalion left the trenches on 5 February. After resting for the night and the net day at Hedauville, on the 7th the Hampshires marched off, reaching Beauval at 3pm. The Battalion remained in billets at Beauval until 18 February, training and working in the surrounding countryside. However given the wet weather outdoor training was held up, confining the men to indoor lectures. An inter-platoon Football league was started.
On 18 February 11th Brigade was allocated a new sector, and moved off to Beaudricourt and Oppy, two small villages north of Lucheux. There the Brigade remained until 29 February. They were the first British troops to occupy the area, and were made very welcome by the inhabitants. The officers in particular were please to be able to house their mess in the village. Once they were settled training and Football continued. The last few days of the month, however, were lost to heavy snow that quickly turned into slush.
March brang better weather, and the Battalion were able to get on with training. Much of the local countryside was cultivated and out of bounds, but Lucheux Forest and a wood to the north of Beaudricourt were available for tactical exercises. On 3 March the eagerly-awaited Brigade Sports competition began. The Hampshires Machine Gun team won their event, as did the Lewis Gun Detachment. The Battalion also won the stretcher bearers competition. An icy wind and sleet meant that the rest of the events were postponed until the 5th. The Cross Country event took place, with teams of 200 from each unit – 150 had to finish in order for the Battalion to qualify. The Hampshires won, and were the only unit to have 150 finishers.
On 6 March the Battalion marched from Beaudricourt to Sus-st-Leger, a distance of a mile. The snowfall was extremely heavy. The next day the Brigade Horse Show took place, with the Hampshires finishing third. The Athletics took place on the 9th, with the Hampshires winning the Bayonet Attack and Relay Race contests. Going into the last event – the Tug of War – the Hampshires and Somerset Light Infantry were tied on first place. Each Battalion won one pull each, but on the third and final pull one of the Hampshires fainted, costing them the competition.
After the excitement of the sports events the Battalion carried out a tactical exercise through Lucheux Forest on 13 March. Between 14 and 19 March a rifle range was constructed nearby, along with other training. The Football League was completed, having been won by 5 Platoon. On 19 March the Officers played the Sergeants at Football, resulting in a 2-2 draw. News arrived that the 11th Brigade would soon be going back into the line, but that the Hampshires had been selected to act as Pioneers, employed in trench-digging, tree-felling and road-making. On the 20th the Battalion left for the main Doullens-Arras Road, where the various companies were to be located.
Battalion Headquarters were located at Berles-au-Bois, along with A Company and the Lewis Gun Detachment; B Company and the Battalion transport were based at St. Amand; C Company at La Cauchie, and D Company at Henu. There the Companies set to on various Pioneer work for the rest of the month. The war diary closes March 1916 with the comment that ‘the last few days of this month were really beatiful and reminded one that the winter was at last over’.
In April A Company moved to Bienvillers, and Headquarters moved to Pommier. On 6 April heavy firing could be heard from the direction of the Battalion’s old trenches at Hamel, but stopped as suddenly as it began. On 8 April the Battalion Football team played the 6th Bedfords at Humbercamp, resulting in a 1-1 draw. The next day some officers and men went over to visit the 2nd Hampshires who had recently arrived from Galipoli.
On 23 April the Battalion once again went into the front line east of Fonquevillers. The trenches were absolutely filthy, with much flooding and very few dug outs. There was a good deal more activity than in the Hampshire’s previous tours at Hamel. At stand-to in the morning and evening a Machine Gun at Gommecourt Wood fired at Fonquevillers, but little damage was done. On 28 April Lieutenant V.C. Smith and 2nd Lieutenant J.J. Sims were wounded by a shell. On the 29th Captain Westmorland was wounded by a snipers bullet, and 2nd Lieutenant Sweetenham by shrapnel. On the same day the Battalion suffered bad luck when a 5.9 inch shell landed on a working party in a communication trench, killing four men and wounding three. 30 April found the Battalion in close support, with two companies in Fonquevillers and two Hannescamps.
We can tell from the Battalion’s activities and movements during the Spring of 1916 that the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front was adapting to the routine of static trench warfare. In 1914 and 1915 the Hampshires spen much of their time in the front line, either serving in the trenches or in attack. By the beginning of 1916 the Territorial Force and Kitchener’s New Army were mobilised and arriving, and thus regular units such as the 1st Hampshires were able to take time out of the line for rest, training and sports. Around this time Field Marshal Haig was also planning a Great Offensive to take place later in the year, so the time out from the line spent resting and training was almost certainly with that in mind.
The 1st Hampshires suffered very light casualties in the winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916 compared to their losses at Le Cateau, the Marne, First Ypres, Ploegsteert Wood and Second Ypres. But the summer of 1916 was to bring horrific losses on an unimaginable scale.