Phase 1: The Elimination of the Salients,
8th August – 14th September 1918
No Hampshire unit took part in the Battle of Amiens (8th – 12th August 1918) which saw the British Fourth Army begin the task of driving back the Germans from their furthest point of advance. The 15th and 2nd Hampshire in Flanders were involved in smaller attacks by Second Army at Kemmel and Meteren on 9th and 16th August respectively, but it was 2/4th Hampshire – just two weeks after its gruelling experience on the Ardre – that became the first Hampshire battalion to join the pursuit of the retreating German Army during the Hundred Days.
2/4th Hampshire at Vraucourt, 24th – 28th August 1918
On 24th August Third Army launched an operation around Vraucourt aimed at harrying the Germans as they retreated towards the Hindenburg Line north of Bapaume. The 2/4th Hampshire was in reserve for the attacks which captured Behagnies, Sapignies and Favreuil on 24th – 25th August, but on the 26th the battalion was ordered forward to assault trenches near the Beugnatre-Vraucourt road.
Heavy rain, a pitch-dark night and ground criss-crossed with old trenches and wire impeded the move to the assembly position, but the commanding officer had fought over the same ground in 1917 and his ‘local knowledge’ ensured that 2/4th Hampshire was in position just before Zero Hour at 6am. It then advanced behind a good barrage and secured its first objective without much difficulty or loss. When they moved forward again later in the day, however, the Hampshires came under heavy machine-gun fire from two directions. Nevertheless, despite losing one officer and 16 men killed, the battalion gained the second objective which it held the following day despite persistent shelling.
Battered by a succession of blows, the German forces opposite the British Third and Fourth Armies now began to retreat along the whole front. On 28th August the 2/4th were involved in fierce fighting for a position known as the Horse Lines. This was only finally taken 24 hours later, the battalion barber Private Baldwin winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his leadership and gallantry. On 3rd September, having suffered nearly 150 casualties on top of their losses on the Ardre, the 2/4th were relieved and went for a week’s rest near Courcelles.
1st Hampshire and the breaking of the Drocourt-Queant Line, 28rd August – 3rd September 1918
The northward extension of the fighting brought 1st Hampshire – part of 4th Division – into battle. On 28th – 29th August the battalion helped capture the village of Boiry Notre Dame where it paused before embarking on its next task – breaking the Drocourt-Queant Switch Line which ran northward from near Bullecourt.
Early on 2nd September 12th Brigade succeeded in capturing the first Drocourt-Queant trenches, but when the Hampshires moved through to advance against the Support Line they came under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. However, the battalion did manage to pass through a gap in the German wire in short rushes and they entered and seized the Support Line.
The next stage of the advance, against a ‘Green Line’ which curved round from Etaing to Recourt Wood, was held up by a German pill box which forced the Hampshires back into the Support Line. By the following morning, however, the Germans had retreated, allowing the battalion to occupy L’Ecluse Wood. The 1st Hampshire was relieved that night, having suffered around 100 casualties in breaking through the Drocourt-Queant Line.
2nd Hampshire and the capture of Hill 63, 1st – 4th September 1918
One repercussion of the British successes in August 1918 was that it enabled Allied units further north – including the 2nd Hampshire at Meteren – to continue to push the increasingly over-stretched Germans out of the Lys salient. On 30th August patrols reported that the Germans had evacuated their front line and the following day 2nd Hampshire joined a general advance by 87th and 88th Brigade, reaching an old aerodrome between Bailleul and the Ravelsberg Ridge.
On 2nd September, 29th Division – including the Hampshires – arrived just west of Ploegsteert Wood and Hill 63 where the enemy had decided to make a stand. The following day the battalion successfully established a good starting line for the assault on Hill 63 which went in on 4th September. The Hampshires, together with men of the Leinster Regiment, attacked behind an effective artillery barrage, cutting through belts of wire, rushing machine-gun posts and killing and capturing many enemy before they captured their objective, Gas Trench. One German strongpoint was successfully tackled by Sergeant Stone and four men who disposed of it and its whole garrison of 14. From here the leading companies pushed on and secured a further trench which they then consolidated.
With Hill 63 secured, 86th Brigade renewed its stalled attack on Ploegsteert which was swiftly captured. The Germans then mounted a series of heavy counterattacks but these were successfully dealt with, the Hampshire’s reserve company repulsing one advance on the right and 2nd Lieutenant HF Lambert leading his men to drive back the enemy on the left. Lambert was one of four Hampshire subalterns to receive the Military Cross for their exploits that day.
The attack on Hill 63 cost the 2nd Hampshire three officers and 34 men killed or missing. The battalion captured a dozen machine-guns, three large trench mortars and at least 50 prisoners.
15th Hampshire at Vierstraat, 4th September 1918
The German withdrawal from the Lys salient extended as far north as the Kemmel front. This brought the 15th Hampshire – part of 41st Division – into action, the battalion being assigned to attack strongly defended enemy positions along the Vierstraat-Wytschaete road, north-east of Kemmel. The attack, on 4th September 1918, began badly when the covering barrage fell behind, rather than in front of, the first objective, the light railway west of Bois Quarante. The German machine-guns which escaped being shelled inflicted heavy casualties. Among those killed were two fine company commanders, Captains Leybourne and Newman, while the Commanding Officer, Colonel Murdoch, was gassed.
Nevertheless, the Hampshires pushed on and managed to reach the railway line. The battalion, reinforced by reserve companies of the East Surreys, endeavoured to hold on along the railway, but a strong German counterattack forced them out. Only the efforts of 2nd Lieutenant GJ Potter, almost the only officer still in action, enabled the Hampshires to maintain an advanced line, though short of the objective.
The 15th Battalion lost eight officers and 90 other ranks killed or missing in the action, along with six officers and 220 men wounded. It left the battalion badly depleted, but Major Puttick was available to assume command and sufficient reinforcements were soon forthcoming, enabling it to take part effectively in the next attack.
2/4th Hampshire and the capture of Havrincourt, 12 September 1918
The middle weeks of September 1918 saw many British units involved in fierce fighting as they attempted to dislodge the Germans from their outpost positions covering the Hindenburg Line. One of these was 2/4th Hampshire which was tasked with helping to clear the Havrincourt area. This was a difficult challenge. Not only was the enemy alert and defending strong positions, but the attackers had to carry out an awkward change of direction, advancing north initially until level with the village before swinging round to their right.
Starting at 1am on 12th September, the battalion made its way through what had once been Havrincourt Wood to its assembly point in the open beyond. At 5.45am, 20 minutes after Zero Hour, 2/4th Hampshire went forward and reached their wheeling point without much loss. When the barrage lifted at 7.15am the battalion pushed forward into Havrincourt. One Company, led by Captain Cave, quickly seized Havrincourt Chateau, Cave himself capturing one troublesome gun and four prisoners. Meanwhile, 2nd Lieutenant Wheeler led a rush which captured two machine-guns before establishing his men on the far side of the village. Here he figured prominently in repulsing a German counterattack, shooting several men himself. Captain Cave then led another rush attack into the Hindenburg trenches, capturing nearly 20 prisoners including six officers.
A heavy German barrage held up the advance of B Company towards the final objective east of Havrincourt. With all the Company’s officers hit, 2nd Lieutenant Laine came over from C Company to assume command and, inspired by him, B eventually joined the other companies along the railway line northeast of the village.
The Germans brought up a fresh Division to launch a ferocious counterattack at dusk supported by low-flying aircraft. This was broken up by the rifles and machine-guns of the 2/4th Hampshire and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. At 3am on 13th September the Hampshires assembled prior to being relieved, but it was discovered that several men were missing. Captain Cave duly went back to find that the enemy had broken through beyond the Hampshires’ left and had taken several posts in the rear. In one, he found five of the 2/4th Hampshire, all dead, evidently having defended their post to the last. Other men of the battalion had established a flank and played a significant part in beating the Germans back.
The 2/4th Hampshire spent 13th and 14th September in reserve in the assembly position where they suffered several casualties from heavy shelling. Captain Bulley – one of only three remaining officers who had sailed with the 2/4th Hampshire to India early in 1915 – was badly hit in the leg, which was subsequently amputated. These two days bought total casualties to nearly 300. Against this the battalion took nearly 100 prisoners along with seven machine-guns and the action earned the Hampshires the congratulations of both the Corps and Divisional commanders.