As 1918 dawned, it seemed to most that the endgame of the First World War was in sight. Britain had expanded her Army hugely, and had taken massive losses, particularly on the Somme and at Passchendaele. The French Army, battered at Verdun, had mutinied and refused to take offensive action. Unrestricted submarine warfare had brought the USA into the war, but her troops would not start arriving in any numbers until later in 1918. The German commander, Ludendorff, propsed a knock out blow, using troops released from the Eastern Front after the newly Communist Russia had withdrawn from the war to reinforce the west. The intention was to defeat the French and British before the American reinforcements had arrived.
Even though most of the British Army on the Western Front was all too aware that an offensive was likely. However, for the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment March 1918 began as quietly as February had ended. In camp at Fosseux, the men practiced night attacks and marching at night by compass. On 6 March the Battalion marched to a Camp at Warlus, where training continued. Two days later the Battalion practiced an attack in conjunction with tanks, the tanks being represented by artillery limbers. All throughout this period, the Commanding Officer and Company Commanders were visiting sections of the line to familiarise themselves. At the same time a warning order was issued, preparing the Battalion to move up in support in the event of an attack anywhere on the front. But even though an attack was expected, the Battalion was also being prepared to attack.
After further training and inspections by the Brigadier and Major-General Commanding the Division, on 18 March the whole Battalion spent a day being drilled by the Regimental Sergeant Major. The next day the Battalion marched to billets in Arras at the College Communal. The day after the 1st Hampshires relieved the 2nd Coldstream Guards in support north of the Arras-Fampoux road.
The Hampshire’s first full day in the support lines was also the first day of the German’s Kaiser Offensive. From 5am to 8am a heavy barrage came over the Scarpe Valley sector, consisting of gas and high explosives. This proved to be a diversion, in support of the main attack further south on the Somme. At 11pm the Hampshires were ordered up to occupy the 2nd trench system, consisting of Coot and Colt Trenches. By this time the enemy had become quiet, however, and only one Hampshire was wounded throughout the day.
22 March was also a quiet day for the 11th Brigade, but news was received that the enemy had made considerable gains further south on the Somme and nearer at Wancourt. At 11pm news was received that the 15th Division to the right had pulled back, abandoning Monchy-le-Preux, where the Hampshires had fought on numerous occasions. As a result the Hampshires flanks were wide open. They did not retreat, however.
23 March dawned misty, adding to the uncertain situation. A good deal of machine gun and artillery fire could be heard around Monchy. Shortly after dawn the 11th Brigade received orders to pull back, during daylight – a highly risky move. Later during the day news was received that Monchy had fallen, and men could be seen streaming westwards from the town. At 4pm the enemy made their first attack on the Hampshire’s front line. Small parties of Germans managed to penetrate the front line, but were dealt with by the Somerset Light Infantry to the rear of the Hampshires. Between 5pm and 8pm the enemy’s artillery barrage increased, but no attack was forthcoming. At 7pm the Battalion moved back to the old reserve line.
The 24th was uneventful until the evening. At 8pm orders were received to pull back to the old third trench system. An attack was considered likely at dawn but did not materialise, and before daybreak the Hampshires relieved the Somerset Light Infantry in the front line. During the 25th the German Artillery registed on the Hampshire’s trenches, causing heavy casualties. Information was received that an attackl was expected the next morning. Interestingly, no information is ever given about the source of these expected attacks. The next few days were quieter, although at 3am on 27 March an enemy raid was beaten off by D Company.
28 April saw the German’s heaviest attack yet on the Hampshire’s positions, as the offensive switched from the Somme to the Arras sector. The CO, Lt-Col Armitage, filed a detailed report of the days fighting. At about 3am the enemy opened up a heavy bombardment, which mostly fell behind the first system. At 4.50am the barrage reached the Hampshire’s lines, and by 5.30pm all telephone communication between HQ and companies was cut. At 7.15am the enemy infantry began advancing in waves. Rifle and Machine Gun fire was directed on them, inflicting heavy casualties. An orderly withdrawal took place however, to a designated strong point in the reserve lines. By 9.30am the Hampshires line ran from Coral Trench-Coot Trench-Camel Avenue-Cadiz Trench. The enemy were still attacking however, attempting to turn the Battalions left flank. The Company in Cadiz Trench, however, held out srongly, until the neighbouring Brigade withdrew, forcing them also to pull back. The enemy followed up closely, delivering bombing attacks. A counter-attack by a company of the Rifle Brigade relieved some of the pressure.
At 2.15pm Colonel Armitage was informed that all troops south of the railway had pulled back, leaving his flank dangerously exposed. Rather than withdraw, however, Armitage merely ordered two Platoons of the Rifle Brigade Company to form a left flank along the railways embankment facing south, and sent back for reinforcements. At 4.15pm the enemy began another bombing attack, but were caught in the open by a Lewis Gun and wiped out. From then on the front was quiet. The Hampshires remained in their positions until ordered to withdraw at 8.30pm.
The Hampshires had faced a very serious German attack, but had inflicted heavy losses. Although tactical withdrawals had been made, these were orderly and well planned, and forced upon the Battalion by movements on their flanks. This demonstrates just how well the British Army had learnt to soak up attacks, by standing their ground but pulling back orderly to avoid excessive losses. Colonel Armitage’s decision to remain in the positions on the railway embankment, when he knew that his flank was open, was very brave indeed.
During March 1918 the Hampshires suffered significant losses. Two officers and 34 men were killed, and two officers (including the Padre) and 81 men were wounded. Two officers and seven men were missing and wounded, and two officers and two men were missing presumed killed. These were heavy losses, particularly among junior officers.
Two Portsmouth men were killed in the major battle on 28 March 1918. Private Robert Bevis and Private George Grainger are both remembered on the Arras Memorial.