Allied operations during the last six weeks of the war saw 1st and 2/4th Hampshire engaged in Third Army’s thrust eastwards through the Hindenburg Line and past Cambrai towards the River Sambre. The 2nd and 15th Hampshire took part in Second Army’s separate, but simultaneous, offensive in Flanders while 11th Hampshire advanced with Fifth Army. No Hampshires took part in Fourth Army’s great feat of breaking through the Hindenburg Line between Vendhuille and St Quentin (29th September), but the 2/4th in Third Army and the 1st in First Army both overcame similarly formidable obstacles on the Scheldt Canal and the Canal du Nord respectively.
2/4th Hampshire at Marcoing, 27th September – 1st October 1918
The 2/4th Hampshire, which had been strengthened by a substantial draft of fresh men and a dozen new officers, saw no action on 27th September when Third Army captured Ribecourt and the Hindenburg Support Line as far as Flesquieres. However, it was ordered into action the following day with the village of Marcoing its principal objective.
The plan was for 2/4th Hampshire to attack in support of the 5th Duke of Wellington’s, but when the latter failed to reach the assembly position by Zero Hour the Hampshires had to attack in their place. Despite being a mile behind the barrage, the men set off at a brisk pace and managed to catch up with the artillery support just short of the first trench to be taken, Dago Trench, west of Marcoing where several machine-guns, trench mortars and enemy were taken. The assault continued along the road to Marcoing and into the village itself where the lead Companies encountered fierce resistance. Reaching the canal, Captain Cottam led some of B Company across to establish a foothold there and a short time later they were joined on their left by elements of D Company under Captain Gotlee. The Hampshires then set about consolidating their new positions.
The following day the battalion attempted to advance in support of 5th Duke of Wellington’s who had come under heavy counterattack in trenches in front of the village of Rumilly. However, despite coming up level with the Duke’s the Hampshires found themselves pinned down by machine-gun fire which prevented any further advance. No progress was made on 30th September when the 2/4th Hampshire suffered a grievous blow, the death of Captain Cottam who had been described as ‘our best Company commander’.
The attack on Rumilly renewed on 1st October when troops of 76th Brigade ‘leapfrogged’ over the Hampshires and pushed on into the village where they established themselves. Suspecting that Germans might be lurking in the deep dugouts in Rumilly Trench, Colonel Brook detailed one Company to follow 76th Brigade and mop up carefully. The precaution was justified – the right platoon discovered and disposed of 70 Germans with five machine-guns in one dugout, while the left platoon dealt drastically with others who emerged from another dugout hoping to fire into the backs of the 76th Brigade.
The fight for Marcoing was one of the 2/4th Hampshire’s most successful efforts. It cost nearly 100 casualties, including 20 killed or missing, but the battalion captured four field guns, two trench mortars and no fewer than 46 machine-guns and many prisoners. These exertions earned the Hampshires nearly three weeks’ well-earned rest.
2nd and 15th Hampshire at Ypres, 28th September – 2nd October 1918
The extension of the Allied attacks to Flanders brought the 2nd and 15th Hampshire into the fighting. The 2nd Battalion joined the attack by 29th Division on 28 September from Ypres astride the Menin Road ridge. The initial advance swept through Hooge, Polderhoek, Tower Hamlets and Gheluvelt where the 2nd Hampshire took on the lead, making for the high ground around Oude Kruiseecke. This they duly reached and occupied before enemy resistance began to stiffen. The Hampshires dug in and from here managed to shoot down two low-flying German aeroplanes. The battalion suffered just 40 casualties while seizing more than 1,000 prisoners along with many guns and machine-guns. It was a substantial success – never before had more than five miles been gained in one day at Ypres.
The following day saw further gains limited to the flanks as the Germans threw in reinforcements opposite 29th Division, whose guns were struggling slowly forward over the devastated ground. After advancing half a mile towards Koelenberg, the 2nd Hampshire was held up by German pill boxes and forced to dig in.
Meanwhile, 41st Division, which included 15th Hampshire, had enjoyed similar success in the attack on 29th Division’s right. Although the Hampshires were not actively engaged, the 41st Division advanced to a line running from the Ypres-Comines canal at Kortewilde toward Zanvoorde on 28 September and then almost to the River Lys the next day.
Both Hampshire battalions now found themselves confronted by the Gheluwe Switch, a strong German defensive position which held up the advance for three days. The attack was renewed on 2 October with 2nd Hampshire in the lead. In the fight for the village, which raged for most of the day, a number of men and officers distinguished themselves. Private Bone rushed a troublesome enemy pill box on the eastern side of the village, capturing a machine-gun and nearly 30 prisoners in the process. Elsewhere, 2nd Lieutenant Mitchell disposed of half a dozen Germans as his Company secured the north-west of Gheluwe while Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Westmorland displayed good leadership in helping a platoon to extricate itself from its advance position in the village cemetery before it could be overrun by German counterattacks.
The attack by 15th Hampshire (on the immediate right of 2nd Hampshire) also met stubborn resistance. The battalion lost its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Puttick, and Adjutant, Captain S.H. Wigmore, wounded the day before the advance, leaving Captain Good in command. The assault went in at 5.30am and initially made good progress across the Gheluwe-Wervicq road with one Company successfully penetrating Quandary Farm. However, German counterattacks forced the battalion to relinquish both the farm and other positions seized early in the attack and by the evening it was left clinging to a lodgement in the Gheluwe Switch south-west of the village. The 15th Hampshire was relieved that evening for a fortnight’s rest having lost one officer and 33 men killed or missing and 120 men wounded. The battalion had captured a dozen machine-guns and many prisoners.
2nd and 15th Hampshire and the advance across the Lys, 14th – 19th October 1918
The 2nd and 15th Hampshire were both in action again when the Flanders offensive resumed after a ten-day halt on 14th October. The 15th Hampshire went forward with great dash, taking advantage of the early morning mist to work round and neutralise many troublesome enemy pill boxes and other strongpoints in the untaken portions of the Gheluwe Switch and the Terhand Line further north. The battalion achieved all its objectives for the loss of a dozen killed and missing as 41st Division advanced more than three miles.
To the north, 2nd Hampshire was in reserve behind the Leinsters and Worcesters as 29th Division attacked across the Ledgehem road towards Gulleghem. Skilfully led by Major O’Reilly (Middlesex Regiment), the Hampshires pushed on through the lead battalions to reach the Driemasten-Gulleghem road, an advance of three miles. The following day the 2nd Hampshire retained their position while 87th Brigade continued the attack, pushing on to the banks of the River Lys. On 16th October the British 9th Division crossed the Lys and that evening 2nd Hampshire sent two platoons across the river to try to secure the bridgehead there.
This foothold, however, had to be relinquished the next day but the inevitable could not be delayed for long and on 19 October 2nd Hampshire led 29th Division across the Lys, securing a bridgehead with elements of 41st Division which had got across the river at Courtrai earlier in the day.
2nd and 15th Hampshire and the advance to the Scheldt, October 1918
On 20 October 2nd Army started the thrust that was to take it from the Lys to the River Scheldt, an advance which gave both 2nd and 15th Hampshire their last battle of the war.
The 2nd Hampshire led 29th Division’s attack, quickly crossing the Courtrai-Harlebeke railway and then forging ahead over difficult country criss-crossed with streams and dotted with farms and cottages surrounded by hedges and gardens. With the enemy retiring in disorder, the Hampshires pushed on, capturing four field guns and reaching Esscher on the Courtrai-Bossuyt Canal. The advance continued into the afternoon, reaching as far as the Wolfsberg ridge where German resistance stiffened. At this point 2nd Hampshire was sent in to reserve for four days.
15th Hampshire’s part in the advance towards the Scheldt began on 21st October when 41st Division came into the line south-east of Courtrai. Attacking as part of 122nd Brigade, the Hampshires’ objective was the Bossuyt-Avelghem road, just short of the River Scheldt. The battalion successfully negotiated the Courtrai-Bossuyt canal, crossing via a ruined bridge at Knokke in single file. They then advanced a further 600 yards before coming under heavy machine-gun fire which prevented further gains that day.
After a night fending off enemy counter-attacks, the battalion was ordered to extend its frontage and continue the advance. Despite the men’s best efforts they were held up by a troublesome machine-gun nest at the entrance to a canal tunnel which was only finally silenced by reinforcements from the 10th Queen’s. After dark the Hampshires withdrew to billets near Knokke having suffered another 100 casualties.
Over the following three days 41st Division gained further ground, reaching a line from Herstert to the outskirts of Ooteghem. On 25th October 122nd Brigade, including 15th Hampshire, renewed the advance, with the Scheldt at Avelghem as the objective. The attack went in around midday and immediately encountered fierce opposition but, with the help of covering machine-gun fire, C Company on the left soon reached the objective. Meanwhile, A Company successfully outflanked and cleared several enemy machine-gun posts, enabling A Company to advance on the right. Although a German barrage caught B and C Companies in the open, the lead units had pushed on so rapidly that the shells fell behind them. These attacked with great dash and reached a line just short of the Scheldt where they consolidated in a deep ditch which provided a ready-made trench.
At midnight the 15th were relieved and went back to billets for four days’ rest. The battalion had fared well in their last attack, with just one man killed among the 20 casualties suffered in the push to the Scheldt.
1st and 2/4th Hampshire and the advance from the Selle, 20nd October – 2nd November 1918
On 20 October 1st and 2/4th Hampshire came back into the line for the attack on the so-called Hermann Position on the River Selle. The position was in no way comparable to the formidable Hindenburg Line which the British had already penetrated – the Germans had simply not had the time to construct elaborate trench systems and deep belts of barbed wire. Instead fighting took place in open country barely scarred by war, a new experience for officers and men who had spent the previous two months battling across the old Somme battlefield and beyond, an area of utter devastation.
The 1st Hampshire, with Lieutenant Colonel Francis Earle in command, attacked as part of 11th Brigade of 4th Division. The original objective was to cross the Selle and capture the railway line beyond, but during the night of 19th/20th October the Germans fell back allowing 11th Brigade to advance unopposed across the river, through Haspres to Grand Bois facing the village of Monchaux. The first patrols into Haspres received a wonderful reception from the French inhabitants, overjoyed at being delivered from German hands.
By contrast, 20th October was a day of very hard fighting for the 2/4th Hampshire whose objective was the village of Solesmes on the east bank of the Selle. The battalion moved forward at 2am, crossing the river on footbridges erected by Royal Engineers and then making for Solesmes. The speed of the attack, skilfully planned by the acting Commanding Officer, Major Cockburn of the Inniskilling Fusliers, took the Germans by surprise. Machine-gun posts were outflanked and rushed, enabling the Hampshires to take Solesmes and 250 prisoners at a cost of just eight killed and 20 wounded. The battalion held the village until being relieved on the evening of 22 October.
The 1st Hampshire, meanwhile, had spent 21-23 October dug in just east of Haspres, under steady shelling, mainly gas, and in heavy rain. On 24 October they returned to the attack as 4th Division attempted to cross the Ecaillon, a fairly fast-running stream about four feet deep and 20 feet wide with steep banks. The bridges provided by the Royal Engineers proved too short to span the river, but fortunately thick mist hampered the German machine-gunners.
On the right flank of the Hampshire attack 2nd Lieutenant Cancellor of C Company swam across the stream, armpit deep and icy cold, and rushed a machine-gun post single-handed, an act of gallantry that earned him the Military Cross. Once the attackers reached the opposite ban German resistance quickly crumbled, with most choosing to surrender. Elements under 2nd Lieutenants Rayner and Kelly then made their way into Monchaux from the north and established themselves in a barn. This enabled the bulk of the battalion to advance into the village which, by the end of the afternoon, was securely in British hands.
The capture of Monchaux cost the 1st Hampshire 20 killed and missing and 90 wounded, including four officers. Against this it could set 250 prisoners and 40 machine-guns.
The 1st Hampshire, by now reduced in strength by influenza and battlefield casualties to just 400 men, attacked again on 1 November south east of Valenciennes as part of a large coordinated operation by the British First, Third and Fourth Armies combined with another thrust in Flanders by Second Army.
The assault across the River Rhonelle began at 5.35am. The Hampshires had to cover nearly two miles to reach their objective which lay to the north and east of the village of Preseau. The attackers met some opposition, but many Germans surrendered promptly, including a group of 20 taken in one house by Corporal Dennett who pushed his way in ahead of his platoon. The Hampshires began to consolidate the new position, but as the Germans launched fierce counterattacks – particularly against the Rifle Brigade on the battalion’s flank – they were forced to bring the line back to a sunken road on the outskirts of Preseau.
In the mid afternoon B Company came under heavy attack. Rather than simply meet the advance with fire, the Company – along with a Company of the Somerset Regiment – charged the German attackers and sent them bolting. After this the Hampshires were not troubled again and the battalion was relieved in the early hours of 2 November.
This was the 1st Hampshire’s last action of the war. Among the 13 dead, sadly, was 2nd Lieutenant Cancellor who had so distinguished himself at Monchaux just a week earlier.
‘In at the Death’ – the 2/4th and 2nd Hampshire, 4th – 11th November 1918
The 2/4th Hampshire enjoyed ten days rest after its success at Solesmes. On 4th November it was back in action with 62nd Division near Le Quesnoy which was itself to be attacked by the New Zealand Division. The battalion’s final objective lay to the north-west of the village, but the attacking Companies first had to negotiate a stubbornly defended wooded ravine. Despite being caught amid the enemy’s barrage, one Company under 2nd Lieutenant Wheeler forced its way down the steep slope of the ravine. Many Germans were killed here and more than 50 taken along with three machine-guns.
Two other Companies, led by Captain Brierley and Captain Gotlee, then fought their way up the other side of the ravine and advanced to the Le Quesnoy-Orsinval road despite heavy fire from machine-guns. Within just three hours of the start of the attack the battalion had achieved all its objectives, for the loss of 20 killed and another 80 wounded.
The 2/4th then enjoyed two days’ rest before moving up again on 9 November in preparation for an attack across a canal on the outskirts of Mauberge. The assault, however, never materialised as the Germans, by now in headlong retreat, had abandoned their defensive positions on the canal. The battalion crossed the River Sambre the following day to take up an outpost position east of Mauberge. It was here that news of the Armistice was received on 11 November. Rather than excitement, it appears the news was greeted as something of an anti-climax. There was no enthusiasm – perhaps most men were too tired and too strained to realise that they had finished with fighting.
The 2nd Hampshire in Flanders also ended the war in the front line. After advancing across the Lys, the Hampshire enjoyed a week in billets before returning to the line on 8 November in preparation for an attack across the River Scheldt. However, reports the following day revealed the Germans had withdrawn, prompting the Hampshire to cross the river and push forward to Celles. On 10 November two Companies advanced behind a screen of cyclists without encountering any enemy and by evening they had reached St Sauveur. The next morning a squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards joined the advanced guard and succeeded in securing the bridges over the River Dender at Lessines, shortly before the Armistice came into effect at 11am. The 2nd Hampshire, however, did not have to fight again.
Of the other Hampshire battalions on the Western Front, the 1st was out of the line while the 15th, although moving forward, had not regained touch with the rapidly retreating Germans. Meanwhile, the 11th Hampshire had performed vital pioneer work for Fifth Army, assisting the Royal Engineers in bridging work and occasionally ferrying infantry divisions across rivers. The work was hard and relentless but the battalion suffered few casualties. In the final days of the advance the men of the 11th found themselves surrounded by a liberated population, mainly old men and women or children, who gave them a warm welcome. On 10 November, the day before the Armistice, the battalion’s band played in the square at Antoing, receiving enthusiastic applause from the townspeople.