2nd Portsmouth Pals – The story of a raid: Ploegsteert, June 1916

English: War cross in a Commonwealth War Grave...

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The 15th Bn Hampshire Regiment, 2nd Portsmouth Pals, had entered the front line on the Western Front on 30th May 1916. They had gone into the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, a relatively quiet sector to the south of the Ypres Salient that was often used to ‘blood’ new arrivals in Flanders.

The 31st was a quiet day, with A, B and C Companies in the front line and support trenches and D Company in Reserve. No casualties were suffered. The next day Battalion HQ was shelled with 59 High Explosive rounds – the orderly room was demolished – and eight casualties were suffered. One man was killed, 2 accidentally injured, one returned to duty and three wounded.

Private Andrew Baillie, 20 and from Buckland, was killed on the 1st and is buried in Rifle House Cemetery. The next couple of days were relatively quiet, with several men wounded but none killed. On 5th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps at 5am, and went into billets at Creslow. The Battalion’s time out of the line was relatively quiet, but on 7th June A Companies billets at Touquet Berthe were shelled, and a barn destroyed, as well as nearby Royal Engineers supply dumps. Miraculously no casualties were suffered.

The Battalion went back into the line on 11th June, relieving the 21st KRRC at 5am in the same Ploegsteert Wood trenches. That evening two patrols were sent out from A and B Companies. Patrols were put out for the next couple of nights. On 14th June a patrol from B Company went out for 24 hours into no-mans-land. Pte Harris 18479 and Cpl Hopkins 20768 brought in a bad of three bombs (grenades) and saw several enemy patrols near Hampshire Trench. More patrols went out over the next couple of nights, and there were also several gas alarms. Several men were killed by enemy bombardment on 17th June, none of them being from Portsmouth.

On 18th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Bn KRRC, retiring to billets at Creslow. The men were congratulated by the Commanding Officer for their work on the night of 17/18 June. Later in the day a gas alarm was sounded, but no gas was present over the Battalion’s area. Although the Battalion was technically in reserve, patrols were still being sent out most nights. On the 21st the Battalion went back into the line relieving 21/KRRC, and the next couple of days in the front line were relatively quiet, with the usual patrols being sent out. On the 28th artillery fire from both sides became heavy. Private William Stephenson, aged 17 and from Twyford Avenue in Stamshaw, was killed and is buried in Ballieul Nord Cemetery. The next day Private L. Marshall, of Milton, was killed and is buried in Berks Cemetery Extension.

A major raid was planned on 30 June. Artillery began firing at 0730 and continued until 1700. The enemy wire was succesfully cut. At 2115 a preliminary bombardment began, ceasing at 2145. At 2200 gas was discharged. Then at 2201 artillery recommenced, before smoke was discharged at 2202. The smoke was turned off at 2215, and the raiding party started at 2223. Five minutes later the artillery lifted, and the raiding party advanced. The raiding party reached the enemys trenches at 2243 – after what must have been an agonising 15 minutes in no mans land. The artillery finally ceased at 2253, and later in the evening a second discharge of gas was made at 0125.

The raiding party was formed of three groups. No 1 was under Sergeant Green, No 2 under Lieutenant James and No 3 under Lieutenant Gates. No 1 group reached the enemy lines and threw in grenades, before returning as per the programme. No 2 group lost Lieutenant James wounded, and his second in command was gassed. No 3 group reached the enemy trenches, but had some difficulty in getting through the wire and returned. The raiding party was delayed in reach the enemy lines due to gas in no mans land which did not clear, resulting in the party having to don cumbersome gas masks. Sergeant Green was killed, Corporal Knight died of wounds and Private William Penfold (21, Fratton) later died of the effects of gas. Six men were gassed and wounded. In total 9 men were killed during the day, 28 men were wounded and two died of wounds. Three Portsmouth men died on the 30th – Private Edward Sansom (40, Stamshaw), Private E.H.W. Judd and Private William Fenfold (21, Fratton). All three are buried in Berks Cemetery, near Ploegsteer Wood. A number of men were recommended for awards.

Enemy retaliation was heavy. Lieutenant Gates, Corporal Murden and Private Parris returned into no mans land and recovered Sergeant Green’s body from about halfway across. The party was congratulated by the commander of 41st Division, Major-General Lawford. The objective of the raid had been achieved – to keep the enemy pinned down, and prevent them from sending reinforcements elsewhere. The next day the Battle of the Somme would commence further South. The raid by the Portsmouth Pals was obviously intended to pin down Germans along the western front. I would expect that it was replicated all along the line.

Raids and patrols were often insisted upon by Generals in order to foster an offensive spirit in troops, particularly those who had newly arrived on the front. The 2nd Portsmouth Pals were learning quickly, and a lot safer than their fellow Pals who were to suffer grievously on the first day of the Somme.



Filed under Army, Pompey Pals, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

35 responses to “2nd Portsmouth Pals – The story of a raid: Ploegsteert, June 1916

  1. I’ve heard of many a unit that managed to grab a long length of German wire, then chopped it into small bits and sent it back with faked nightly raid reports, just to avoid the silliness of the night-time trench raids.
    And the saddest thing I ever learned was that the first casualty you listed would have been classified under “wastage”. “Wastage” – the expected loss of over 100 men a day to various causes such as snipers and artillery, even during periods of calm.
    Can you imagine being the person, having to report to the parents that their son died as “wastage”?

    • James Daly

      The more I’ve looked into it, I think just as many men were killed by agreggating losses in the average ‘quiet’ days as were killed in the better known offensives. Think of it like this – if 100 men are lost in one day on say the Somme or at Ypres, it seems horrific. But if say 2 men are lost a day during a 50 day stretch in a quiet sectory, by sniping, bombardment or illness, it’s the same losses. And Battalion’s rarely went ‘over the top’ – the 2nd Portsmouth Pals went over twice on the Somme, then a couple of times at third Ypres. Trench Warfare in general took a heavy toll on manpower, without there actually being much fighting.

      As for raids, I do tend to subscribe to the view that generals ordered raids in order to ‘ginger up’ inexperienced and fresh troops. It is not too difficult to imagine that a regular Major-General would assume that a bunch of lads from Portsmouth, none with military experience, would need a bit of a boot up the arse to get them fit for fighting. Hence why units were often put somewhere quiet Ploegsteert to blood in gradually. Perhaps fortunately for both the Portsmouth Pals Battalions, they were in two of the most junior Divisions in the New Army and were not considered ready to take part in the first day of the Somme, unlike many of the other Pals from up north. This probably helped perpetuate the myth that all Pals Battalions are from working class northern towns and cities.

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