1st Hampshire and the defence of Ploegsteert Wood, October – November 1914
Operations by the 1st Hampshire in and around Ploegsteert Wood formed part of the Battle of Armentieres between German and Franco-British forces between 13th October and 2nd November 1914. The battle saw reciprocal attempts by the combatants to envelop the northern flank of their opponent in what has been called the ‘Race for the Sea’. British troops moved north from the Aisne river in early October and joined the French in a major advance against the retreating Germans. This period saw III Corps, including 1st Hampshire, capture the town of Bailleul and advance towards the River Lys. On 19th October, however, the Germans were reinforced and at the end of the month launched counter-attacks from Arras to Armentieres. The Hampshires were ordered to dig in at Ploegsteert Wood, just to the south of Messines, where they repulsed a series of heavy German attacks over several days.
The defence of Ploegsteert Wood
The 1st Hampshire relieved the Somerset Light Infantry to the east of Ploegsteert Wood on 28th October 1914. Strung out along more than 2,000 yards, virtually the whole battalion found itself in the firing line. After repulsing an attack on Le Gheer on 29th October, 1st Hampshire came under ferocious German bombardment early the following morning. This barrage continued with varying intensity throughout the day and the Hampshire trenches and their garrisons suffered heavily. However, the men held on and during the morning their riflemen wreaked havoc among assaulting enemy troops.
The most dangerous attack came at about 4.30pm when the Germans swarmed forward in masses. One man wrote: ‘They came on so thick you couldn’t miss them. It was just like shooting rabbits on Shillingston Hill.’ No. 10 Platoon of C Company, under Lieutenant William Trimmer, was occupying an isolated trench some 20 yards in front of the main line and came under particularly heavy bombardment. The platoon, however, clung on tenaciously and took a heavy toll on the enemy before being killed or taken prisoner almost to a man. Another fine officer, Captain Reginald Harland, was also killed while gallantly directing the defence.
Despite taking heavy casualties the Germans made inroads in the centre of the Hampshire line and threatened to break right through. They were prevented from doing so by the platoons of 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Fidler and Lieutenant Edwin Wade and also C Company, under Captain Francis Aitchison, which threw up a barricade across the end of a trench and set up a machine-gun which they used to pour enfilade fire on the Germans in the captured stretch of line next to them.
That night much of the line was re-dug and the battalion benefited from these improvements the next day when German artillery mounted another tremendous bombardment, followed by a fresh infantry attack. The attackers reached the wire in front of the Hampshire line but were again driven back having suffered heavy losses – 75 bodies were counted in front of one short stretch of trench alone.
Renewed German attacks over the following two days were also successfully repulsed and 1st Hampshire were eventually relieved on the evening of 2nd November having won the plaudits of the Brigadier who was loud in his praise of the battalion’s stubborn defence. The defence of Ploegsteert Wood between 28th October and 2nd November cost 1st Hampshire two officers and 46 other ranks killed, 51 missing and 121 wounded.
On 4th November 1st Hampshire returned to the front line, this time on the Ploegsteert Road at Le Gheer. After two comparatively quiet days the battalion then faced another major German attack on 7th November. Again the enemy made no impression. According to one account: ‘We poured volleys into them and a long line of dead marked the position they had reached.’ This success, however, came at a price – one officer and a further 34 men killed and missing and 23 wounded.
The attack of 7th November was the last serious German venture against 4th Division. During the remainder of November a stalemate gradually settled on the Western Front and 1st Hampshire spent the rest of the year patrolling and improving their trenches around Ploegsteert. This proved extraordinarily difficult work: heavy rain flooded the trenches, some of which caved in and had to be abandoned. The conditions which the battalion endured during the winter of 1914 – 15 were truly dreadful and, unsurprisingly, sickness rates were high.
The end of 1914 found the 1st Hampshire with only six officers surviving from those who come out in August 1914. Eight had been killed, six were missing and 15 had been wounded. Of original other ranks 366 were still present, while 265 NCOs and men had been killed or were missing and 390 had been wounded.