The 1st Hampshires went into the Battle of Arras better prepared than for any other operation since the beginning of the War. The men had taken part in individual, Company and Battalion training, and a number of Brigade exercises. And, thanks to the methodical and exhaustive staff work that went into planning the attack, historians are left with a wealth of documents to study, that allow us to tell the story of what happened to the Battalion on 9 April 1917.
At the end of March the Adjutant circulated a note on signals between Infantry and Artillery, and also a complicated table showing what equipment troops were to carry during the attack – ammunition, sandbags, barbed wire and poles, and screw pickets.
On 2 April the detailed Operation Order for the coming battle was circulated to Officers. Running to eight pages, its length and complexity show how the British Army had learnt the importance of good planning and preparation – the hard way, sadly. The XVIIIth Corps – comprising the 4th, 34th and 51st Divisions – were to capture the third system of trenches, around the River Scarpe. Rather ambitiously, if this objective was achieved, the next target was to be the southern section of Vimy Ridge. Detailed instructions were given for where the Battalion was to assemble prior to the offensive. The officers were assured that the Artillery Barrage would cut gaps in the wire in front of the German defences.
The Hampshires specific targets on day one were as follows: to capture the second German trench (code named HAGGARD) , and then to bomb the first and third trenches (HUDSON and HAZZARD), and then to push out patrols as far as the sunken road. D and B companied were to be in the front, with A Company in support. The companies were given very detailed instructions, down toobjectives for their platoons and sections. The plan also placed emphasis on consolidation and the building of strong points. Looking at the map, the plan was very much to break through the line, and then attack down the length of the German trenches.
The attack would have significant firepower support. The 11th Trench Mortar Battery were to move up immediately behind B Company. A incredibly complex artillery creeping barrage was put together, with very specific timings – to the minute, in fact.
The plan also made extensive use of very detailed maps, with the German trench system mapped and code named. All orders made thorough use of grid references. Communictations were also important – a Squadron of Royal Flying Corps BEC2 aircraft were assigned to work with XVIII to observe progress and sport for signal flares.
Medical arrangements were also thorough. The Regimental Aid Post was to remain with Battalion HQ, and from there officers were briefed on where the Main Dressing Station, advanced Dressing Station and Walking Wounded Aid Post were to be. Men were assigned to act as xtra stretcher bearers, and a special Labour Company was assigned to bury the dead.
The thought, effort and detail that had gone into the planning of the Battle of Arras shows how, slowly but surely, the British Army was learning how to fight on the Western Front. This, compared to the non-existant or minimal planning for previous battles, was much more professional.
The day broke with slight rain. Reveille was at 4.45am, and breakfast was served before the Battalion marched off. Arriving at the assembly area at 7.30am, the Brigade ate dinner from cookers. No news was heard from the first phase of the attack, but promisingly large numbers of German prisoners were seen being herded to the rear.
The Brigade finally marched off at 10am, at a compass angle of 90 degrees until it reached the original British front line. There enemy shells began to fall, and one landed in the middle of B Company, causing 17 casualties. After an hour, the Battalion then launched its attack.
The enemy offered slight resistance, most German troops apparently turned and fled. The guns had not in fact cut the German barbed wire, but due to the lack of enemy activity the men were able to cut it themselves. The Battalion captured 80 prisoners, 2 Machine Guns and three 8 inch howitzers. By 4.05pm all Companies had achieved their objectives. The captured position was a good one, giving good observation and a commanding view of the north east and east.
The Battalion had suffered remarkably few casualties. 12 men were killed, and 47 wounded. The Doctor, Captain J. Walker RAMC, was wounded but remained at his post. Among those killed was Private Gerald Gomer, from Portsmouth, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial.