‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’ –
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet.
On this day, exactly one hundred years ago, the Battle of Passchendaele began. Today, the conflict has become infamous, remembered across the world as one of the major battles of the First World War. Tragically, over 500,000 allied and German soldiers were killed, injured, or declared missing over the course of the battle, which raged until the 10th of November 1917 and impacted upon lives as far afield as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa. The casualties were also felt much closer to home, however, as the Royal Hampshire Regiment (known as the Hampshire Regiment prior to 1946) played an important role in the battle. This blog post will remember the men of the Hampshire Regiment in keeping with memorials and tributes across the world which, today, mark the centenary of Passchendaele.
‘My platoon was all Hampshire men… they came from villages I knew, and as they got knocked off I said to myself, there goes Hartley Wintney or Old Basing. It was like wiping those places off the map… some of them I’d even been to school with and I said to myself, Hampshire’s getting a good old doing.’
An account of the Hampshire Regiment at Passchendaele, taken from The Changing Countryside in Victorian and Edwardian England and Wales by Pamela Horn.
Firstly, in order to situate the conflict in the context of the First World War, The Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele (after the Flemish village which was the final objective captured by British and Empire troops), was a major Allied campaign in Flanders during the First World War. Rather than one battle, the Third Ypres campaign was, in fact, a series of operations which took place between the 31st of July and the 10th of November, 1917. The strategic aim of these operations was to break through German defences and capture enemy naval bases along the Belgian coast from where U-Boats were launching numerous attacks on British Royal Navy and merchant ships. The campaign infamously failed to achieve this objective, and resulted in heavy losses on both sides.
The campaign was preceded by the Battle of Messines (7th – 14th of June, 1917) which opened with the British detonation of 19 large mines under German lines. The attack, in which the 15th Hampshire took part, succeeded in capturing the strategically important high ground along the Messines Ridge and paved the way for the much larger operation further north which began exactly a century ago today, on the 31st of July.
The first operation of the Third Ypres campaign then began, at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Here, the 14th Hampshire were in action as part of the 41st Division’s attack from northwest of Wieltje towards St Julien; a distance of around 3,000 yards. The battalion captured three German lines and 200 prisoners, at a loss of 63 killed and 161 wounded. At one stage during the attack, 2nd Lieutenant Denis Hewitt was reorganising his Company when a shell exploded nearby, injuring him and setting fire to both the signal lights in his haversack and his clothing. After extinguishing the flames, and sustaining serious burns, Hewitt persevered by leading his men forward into the face of heavy German machine-gun fire and playing a major part in the capture of the battalion’s final objective. Tragically, having reached it, Hewitt was shot and killed by sniper. For his gallantry, however, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and the 14th Hampshire were able to hold their position for two days before being withdrawn on the 3rd of August.
A short time later, The Battle of Langemarck (16th – 18th of August, 1917) became the second Allied attack of the Third Ypres campaign. The 2nd Hampshire, as part of the 29th Division, had been in reverse during the Pilckem Ridge operation, but they rapidly became involved with the conflict. On the night of the 15th of August, the battalion traversed boggy ground (so boggy, in fact, that some of the men who fell into waterlogged shell holes had to be lifted out using ropes) to an assembly point northeast of Pilckem. At quarter to five the following morning, the Hampshires advanced behind a creeping barrage and secured their two principle objectives. During the fighting, Sergeant Finch led an attack on an enemy strongpoint. Remarking on his courage, The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum notes that Finch dashed ahead of the British barrage, ‘killing four Germans single-handed and taking the blockhouse with some 20 prisoners.’ The Corps commander, Lord Cavan, warmly congratulated the Hampshires for their achievement when he inspected them on the 19th of August and, on the 25th of August, the battalion was pulled out of the line to begin nearly a month’s deserved respite from the fighting.
The 15th Hampshire remained stationed at the front line, however, and became involved in the Battle of the Menin Bridge Road (20th – 25th September). By the 25th of August 1917, Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief, had become dissatisfied with the limited gains made during the opening phase of the Third Ypres campaign. He therefore passed responsibility for operations from Fifth Army Commander General, Sir Hubert Gough, to General Sir Herbert Plumer of Second Army.
After a three-week pause in fighting, the Battle of Menin Ridge is said to have opened in fine weather, a stark contrast to the heavy rainfall that would become synonymous with the Battle of Passchendaele. Now focusing on more limited objectives and with additional heavy artillery support, the British attacked on a 14,500 yard front. By mid-morning they had captured most of their objectives to a depth of 1,500 yards.
Among the units taking part, the 15th Hampshire had successfully secured their first two objectives before becoming entrenched in a desperate struggle to seize the third objective, Green Line. This was close to Tower Trench and the German strongpoint known as Tower Hamlets, a mass of concrete dugouts and pill boxes. Only 130 men could be collected for the attack, but they pressed forward nonetheless and soon established themselves in the Green Line, taking 40 prisoners. This number included 30 Germans taken from a dug-out by 2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore, supported by only half a dozen men, who then consolidated their position and defended it against several counter-attacks and their own artillery, who were unaware of their new position.
The following day, Moore was the most senior officer left in the Green Line. The regimental museum notes that ‘he showed great resourcefulness and composure, withdrawing his men slightly to avoid the British barrage but then re-occupying the position directly the moment it stopped.’ Early the next morning however, another British barrage destroyed the rifles and rations of the surviving Hampshires, forcing Moore and his men back to the line of the second objective. Tragically, of the 130 men who had begun the attack 36 hours earlier, only ten remained. For his gallantry, 2nd Lieutenant Moore was awarded the Victoria Cross, but the battalion faced heavy casualties. Six officers and 83 men were killed or declared missing, while seven officers and 251 were wounded.
The remaining men of the 15th Hampshire were relieved by the 14th Battalion which took part in the opening of the Battle of Polygon Wood (26th September – 3rd of October), an operation that finally saw the British capture of Tower Hamlets. On the 27th of September, the 39th Division (to which the 14th and 15th Battalions were assigned) was, at last, relieved.
Also in September, the 1st Hampshire moved from the Arras sector to Flanders where, on the 4th of October, they took part in the Battle of Broodseinde. This was to be the last of the Allied autumn attacks to take place in fine weather. The battalion attacked northwest of Poelcappelle, suffering 50% casualties before returning to Monchy, near Arras on the 18th of October. The Battle of Poelcappelle also involved the 2nd Hampshire Battalion. Unlike the Battle of Broodseinde, however, Poelcappelle was dogged by bad weather and supply problems which would greatly impact upon the conditions faced by the men.
The 2nd Hampshire Battalion soon became involved in heavy fighting north of Langemarck. However, together with the 4th Worcestershires, they successfully secured the Namur Crossing and then their second objective before being held up before they could achieve their third. After nightfall, the Hampshires went on to relieve the Newfoundland Regiment in what had become the front line, astride the Poelcappelle-Les Cinq Chemins road. Despite the wet and treacherous ground, the battalion worked to consolidate the line the following day.
That afternoon, a detachment under Captain Philip Cuddon attacked and captured an obstinate German strongpoint near Cairo House. Cuddon was later given a bar to his Military Cross for his role in the assault while Lieutenant-Colonel T.C. Spring, who had displayed exemplary leadership and courage throughout the operation, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On the night of the 7th of October, three days before the Third Ypres campaign would draw to a close, the Hampshires were relieved, finally bringing to an end the regiment’s active involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele.
If you would like to learn more about the Royal Hampshire Regiment’s involvement with the Battle of Passchendaele, their museum (which can be found on Southgate Street in Winchester) is an excellent place to start.
Originally posted on the 31st of July, 2017.