In December 1915, British and French military leaders had drawn up plans for a joint attack against German forces on the River Somme. This was part of a wider Allied Grand Offensive which would also feature attacks by the Russians and Italians on their respective fronts. However, in February 1916 the Germans launched the own offensive against the French at Verdun, a huge attritional battle aimed at ‘bleeding France white’. Forced to feed more and more men into the defence of Verdun, the French Commander-in-Chief General Joseph Joffre had to scale back his own Army’s involvement on the Somme which now became a British-led operation. Throughout the spring and early summer Joffre pleaded with the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig to launch the offensive in order to draw away German troops from Verdun. The Battle of the Somme finally opened on 1st July 1916.
The 1st Hampshire, serving as part of 4th Division, were assigned to attack north of the heavily fortified village of Beaumont Hamel. The lead units were the East Lancashires, attacking from the right, and the Rifle Brigade from the left. The second line consisted of the 1st Hampshires on the right, and the Somersets on the left. The Hampshires had A, B and half of C companies in the attack, D was in reserve and the rest of C was detailed to look after a trench on the right flank.
The Battalion took up position on 30th June 30 with Zero H set for 7.30am the following day. At 7.20am the British exploded a huge mine under the German redoubt on Hawthorn Ridge. While this obliterated the German defenders there, it also gave away the element of surprise. The Germans in the Beaumont Hamel area had sufficient time to leave their dug-outs, man their positions and get machine guns into place.
The Hampshires left their trench at 7.40am after the East Lancashires had already been practically wiped out. The Hampshires fared little better. In a letter home one soldier described it as being ‘mown down like corn by machine gun fire and shell fire’. The majority of Hampshires were brought down just short of the German barbed wire, although the Commanding Officer, Colonel Laurence Palk, barely made it halfway across. The few men who did reach the wire had only one choice: to seek shelter in the shell holes in No Man’s Land. Here, mixed with survivors from the East Lancashires, they remained for the next 14 hours, pinned down and under constant artillery bombardment. Not until sometime after 10pm, when darkness fell, did these troops finally get an opportunity to scramble back to the safety of their own lines.
Plans were put in motion for the 2nd Hampshire and the Worcestershires to be utilised to support the 4th Division. However, heavily congested trenches meant orders reached them long after the hour the attack was ordered for; the plan was eventually abandoned, preventing further loss of life.
Overall, 4th Division suffered almost 6,000 losses. Casualties among the 1st Hampshire were particularly heavy – 11 officers were killed and 15 wounded (a casualty rate of 100 per cent) while among the other ranks 310 were listed as dead or missing and 250 wounded. In total, 586 members of the Battalion were killed or wounded.