The role of Hampshire during World War One and the sacrifices made
PUBLISHED: 11:55 08 November 2020 | UPDATED: 11:11 10 November 2020
With 100 years since the last guns were fired during World War One, we remember the sacrifices Hampshire made. Article first published in December 2018
After more than four years of war, the guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was November 11th, 1918, 100 years ago, and the First World War was finally over after more than 1,500 days of attrition. What did the war’s prosecution and its end mean, however, to the county of Hampshire?
You begin to comprehend the carnage of WW1 when you learn that there is not one Thankful Village in Hampshire. These were the fortunate communities that lost no servicemen in the war, when all around them did. Every single settlement in the county lost fathers, sons and brothers, be it city, town, village or humble hamlet.
The Hampshire Regiment contributed 32 battalions to the war effort, receiving no fewer than 82 battle honours and three Victoria Crosses. The cost of victory came high, however, with 8,022 men lost over the course of the conflict. The 1st Battalion was in action in France from August 1914 and participated in most of the standout British battles on the Western Front, beginning with the Marne and the Aisne (1914), before it took part in the impromptu Christmas Truce of 1914, followed by 2nd Ypres (1915) and the Battle of the Somme (1916). Five Hampshire battalions fought at the Somme all-told, with a death-toll of around 1,300. The 1st Battalion also fought at 3rd Ypres, or Passchendaele (1917), before fighting the various battles that finally saw the German forces pushed back during 1918. It’s a veritable roll-call of the British Army’s most famous (or infamous) Western Front slogs.
WW1 was by no means just about the Western Front and the 2nd Battalion would land in Gallipoli in April 1915 to take on the Turks. Come January 1916 it would be evacuated to Egypt due to heavy casualties from combat, disease and the severe weather conditions. It then joined the 1st Battalion on the Western Front from March 1916, also fighting at the Somme, and then Cambrai (1917), before joining the final push to victory. Another contingent fighting at Gallipoli was the 8th Battalion (Princess Beatrice’s Isle of Wight Rifles), which also suffered heavy losses. The 10th (Service) Battalion would also face the Turks at Gallipoli before locking horns with another of Germany’s allies, Bulgaria. The latter fate also awaited the 12th (Service) Battalion. During WW1 the Hampshire Regiment also served in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika and Aden, as well as providing garrison troops in India.
One of the more extraordinary postings was that of the 1/9th (Cyclist) Battalion Territorial Force, which was packed off to Siberia in October 1918, shortly before WW1 came to an end. The Russian Revolution of the previous year had seen the Russian army stop fighting. The 1/9th now found itself supporting the anti-Communist ‘White Army’ against the Bolshevik ‘Red Army’: it would be November 1919 before it sailed for home.
When WW1 commenced, Aldershot was the largest army camp in the country, with 20% of the home British Army based here. When war was declared, the 1st Corps of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) was made up of Aldershot units, so it was men based in Hampshire who spearheaded the British effort to try and halt the German juggernaut that had exploded through Belgium and France in the autumn of 1914. As the seasoned veterans headed out, thousands of new recruits swarmed into the huge training centre at Aldershot to replace them. The impact on the town was extreme. An accommodation crisis was exacerbated as the Army commandeered houses and schools to billet troops during training. The Army’s needs may have inconvenienced the locals, but there was no denying that Aldershot’s role was vital in the winning of the war: not only did it provide the nucleus of the 1914 BEF, it also guaranteed a ready supply of freshly trained recruits and treated the wounded as they limped back from the front.
The Cambridge Military Hospital (CMH) at Aldershot was the fifth military hospital established there but was the first to open a plastic surgery unit, which was quickly operating on soldiers who’d been wounded during the Battle of the Somme, some of them having suffered horrific facial gunshot and shrapnel injuries (the hospital closed in 1996). During WW1, auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were created to treat the wounded, with large private estates transformed into hospitals, including Alresford Place. In Hampshire alone, there were 59 such establishments, with the former Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, being among the most important military hospitals in the country (over 1,200 ambulance trains arrived at the hospital during the war).
The war affected everyone, not just those at the front. This was the first conflict termed a ‘total war’ in which the whole nation was mobilised. Taskers of Andover, a metal works and engineering company, converted to munitions work and thrived on war contracts, employing women to fill the gaps created by male employees volunteering for the front, and helping to overcome the ‘shell shortage’ that had blighted Britain’s early efforts in the war.
As well as providing the ammo to win the war on the Western Front, there was another ‘war’ at home to ensure that the nation was fed in the face of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare that threatened to bring Britain to its knees from starvation (Britain produced just 35% of the food it consumed at the start of the war). Portsmouth ladies comprised half of Hampshire’s contribution to the Women’s Land Army and they were soon proving their worth in ploughing, harvesting and timber cutting. 1,750 women would also be employed in Portsmouth Dockyard, the first women having been admitted in 1915. Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), born in Portsea, and an active Suffragette, was a distinguished lady scientist who invented a fan for dispersing poisonous gases in the trenches in 1915.
There was a mood after the war, of course, to honour the fallen and support the survivors. Virtually every one of Hampshire’s 400 parishes has a memorial, dedicated originally to the dead of WW1 (but sadly with other names added subsequently).
This November the county’s war memorials will once again be the focus for Remembrance, with added poignancy as we recall the end of a shattering conflict that finally ground to a halt 100 years ago after levels of death and destruction that would inhabit people’s nightmares for years to come. Some people may still ponder why we bother remembering a war from so long ago: if you could count the 1914-1918 names on Hampshire’s war memorials you’d have thousands of very good reasons.
• The ultimate Hampshire walking guide - With the North Wessex Downs, Windsor’s Long Walk and a whole host of beautiful towns and villages, Berkshire is an amazing place for a stroll