1st Hampshire at the Second Battle of Ypres, April – June 1915
For most of 1915 the Germans concentrated their efforts against the Russians on the Eastern Front. However, they did mount one major offensive, around Ypres, between late April and early June. Today the battle is remembered chiefly for the Germans’ use of gas – the first time it had been employed as a weapon in a theatre of war – but it also saw 1st Hampshire subjected to what the Regimental historian CT Atkinson has described as ‘perhaps the severest strain … in the whole war’.
The battle opened on 22nd April 1915 with a German chlorine gas attack on the northern sector of the Ypres Salient. The French troops holding the sector were completely surprised and they swiftly gave way, thus exposing the left flank of the Canadians. BEF reinforcements were rushed to the front but on 24th April the Germans extended their attack to the Canadian front, driving forward to capture the village of St Julien. Meanwhile 11th Brigade had been ordered north from Ploegsteert to Ypres, with 1st Hampshire arriving at Poperinghe to be greeted by the sight of French and Algerian victims of the gas attack and the smell of chlorine lingering in the air.
On 25th April, 11th Brigade, by now placed under 28th Division, was ordered to relieve the scattered detachments between St Julien and Berlin Wood. With confusion reigning in the sector this was to prove easier said than done and it was not until 2am on 26th April, after a night march across unfamiliar ground, that the battalion finally began to dig in. When the early morning mist lifted a ferocious German bombardment started, salvo after salvo of heavy shell hitting the makeshift Hampshire line in rapid succession. The 1st Battalion War Diary describes vividly the hurricane of steel unleashed on the Hampshires:
‘With the lifting of the mist the German guns opened. It is hopeless to attempt to describe it. Owing to our being at the extreme point of the salient we had guns almost all round us, and owing to the shape of the ground and the Germans holding ridges north and east, which commanded every yard of the Ypres enclave, these guns could be laid with deadly accuracy. For eight days and nights their guns never ceased. At times shells were falling on our trenches at a rate of about 50 a minute. We had three batteries of howitzers playing on us at once from different directs, sending in bouquets of 12 HE [high explosive] shells at once. The marvel was that anyone was left alive, or any trench existing. All there is to be said is that we hung on from daylight on the 26th [April] till darkness on the 3rd [May] and not only did we not give way one yard, but we pushed our trenches forward on the right towards the Royal Fusiliers and extended them on the left till we eventually joined on to the Rifle Brigade and at the end our line was intact and not a man was left behind except our hundred dead.’
At one point the Battalion’s headquarters staff were buried when a shell landed nearby. Fortunately, the Commanding Officer, Colonel Frederick Hicks, though buried up to his neck, managed to summon men to dig him out along with the Adjutant and the orderlies.
The heavy shelling continued throughout the day, but the Hampshire thwarted all German attempts to break through. Casualties, however, were heavy – 59 men killed and missing (probably buried) with a further 100 wounded. That night the 1st Hampshire worked hard to repair their battered trenches in preparation for a renewed German assault. This duly arrived at daylight on 27 April, but while the bombardment continued all day, and was repeated for the next four, it never reached the same intensity of the 26th.
On 29 April, it was decided to withdraw to more favourable defensive positions, but preparations for this took some time and 1st Hampshire had to hang on in their exposed trenches for a further three days. German shelling increased in intensity once more and 1st and 2nd May added another 50 to the Battalion’s casualty list. However, the Hampshire were fortunate in that they escaped the gas attacks launched against their neighbouring brigades.
The crucial day for 11th Brigade was 3rd May, when a bombardment of greater intensity than ever began around daybreak and continued nearly all day. At about 3pm enemy infantry began to advance against the Buffs in Berlin Wood on the Hampshire right, giving the 1st Battalion’s rifles and machine-guns excellent targets as they tried to enter the wood. Later in the afternoon the Germans, having finally driven the Buffs out of Buff Wood, turned their attention to the Hampshire but were decisively repulsed with heavy losses. Only at 9m that day did the Hampshire finally begin the retirement to the new positions identified on 29th April.
The fighting on 3rd May cost the 1st Battalion a further 40 casualties, bringing the total since 26th April to six officers and 116 other ranks killed and missing, among them some irreplaceable NCOs. Another five officers and 208 other ranks had been wounded. The Hampshire were highly praised by the Army authorities from the Commander-in-Chief downwards for their action at Berlin Wood. The battalion could claim that, despite scanty artillery support, it had never lost a trench. The unceasing shelling and German attacks had tested discipline, endurance and training to the utmost, all of which bore testament to the calm and steadiness of the CO, Colonel Hicks, ably supported by Major Laurence Palk.
The Hampshire saw further action at Second Ypres after another major German assault around Frezenberg on 8th May. Two days later the battalion moved up to the front between Canadian Farm and Hampshire Farm where it was to endure another a very hard week, including a big German attack on 13th May. Once more the assault opened with a massive bombardment – one officer wrote that ‘at one time the whole line of trench disappeared in a yellow cloud of smoke and the earth was absolutely rocking’. When the bombardment lifted German infantry moved forward but, in the face of withering Hampshire fire, only a few made it to the wire where they, too, were shot down.
One soldier who particularly distinguished himself in the fighting was Drummer Eldridge who gallantly manned a barricade in a communication trench which German infantry were threatening to overrun. Eldridge refused to retire until he had thrown all the bombs at hand – around 60 – and kept the enemy at bay for half an hour despite being wounded. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the French Croix de Guerre for his bravery. Two further attacks were repulsed during the day which cost the Hampshire 90 casualties, but once again the line was maintained intact.
The Hampshire went back into the Divisional support line on 14th May, but returned to the front – this time just west of Mouse Trap Farm – between 19th and 22nd May. By this time the fighting had died down and casualties numbered half a dozen. The 1st Battalion’s final stint in the line during Second Ypres – just east of Potijze – began on 27th May and lasted a week. Casualties amounted to fewer than 20, with only three men being killed.
Second Ypres was a hard and exhausting struggle, with the ‘Old Army’ Divisions, the 4th, 5th, 27th and 28th, bearing the brunt of the fighting. Between them, they suffered 41,000 of the 59,000 British casualties and the battle was to be the last major action on the Western Front fought predominantly by British ‘Old Army’ units.