Chapter 6: The Ancre at Hamel

German trenches at Hamel (Paul Reed)
German trenches at Hamel (Paul Reed)

“… that most deathly day “

Edmund Blunden Pillbox

The Battle of the Somme had begun on July 1st 1916, after a week long bombardment when over a million and a half shells were fired on the German trenches. Tens of thousands of men on an eighteen mile front amassed for the `Big Push’ which would end the war. By nightfall on July 1st the British Army had suffered over 57,000 casualties; killed, wounded and missing. Aside from a few small gains around Mametz and Montauban to the south, the Big Push had withered in the face of uncut wire, stiff resistance and German machine-gun and artillery fire.

By September 1916 the success in the south had been exploited, and the fighting had moved on to a number of woods which soon became household names; Mametz Wood, Trones Wood, Delville Wood, High Wood. Division after Division were thrown into the tumult. Further ground was gained. German positions were taken. Counter-attacks fought back. Casualties continued to mount.

One part of the line that was proving a particularly tough nut to crack was Thiepval. Situated on high ground, flanked by the well prepared defence works of the Schwaben and Stuff redoubts, and overlooking Thiepval Wood and the Ancre Valley, it loomed down on the British troops. It’s prominence precluded any further operations in this sector. Therefore it had to be taken.

The attack at Hamel was part of one such attempt to break the fortress of Thiepval. As part of V Corps, IV Army, the 39th Division were to attack north of the Ancre from Hamel to just below Hawthorn Ridge. South of the Ancre, the 49th (West Riding) Division were to make their assault on the Schwaben Redoubt and Thiepval village. Zero hour was set for 5.10am, and the attack would be preceded by a swift but heavy artillery barrage, using artillery brigades not only from the 39th Division, but others on loan from two other divisions. The general objective was to push on from the German front line, over the Ancre Heights towards Beaucourt, some miles distant. At the same time, it would also relieve the pressure on the main attack on Thiepval.

By the time the Southdowns arrived on the Somme, operation orders for the attack had already been formulated; only the final matter of exact map references and timings had to be added to a plan worked out at Monchy-Breton. Headquarters of the 39th Division detailed 116th and 117th Brigades to spearhead the attack, with 116th Brigade in and immediately east of Hamel village, and 117th in the valley to the left. In 116th Brigade Hornby looked at the fighting strength of his battalions and found only the 11th Royal Sussex and 14th Hampshires in a position to lead the attack on their front. Even so, the 11th had only 530 all ranks, and the 14th Hampshires 570 men. The 12th and 13th, although in receipt of various drafts after their blooding at Richebourg, were still terribly under strength and so they were designated to play a reserve role in operations.

The operation orders handed down to the attacking battalions laid out the fine details of the operation, designated for the early morning of September 3rd 1916. The 14th Hampshires would advance on the left, and the 11th Royal Sussex on the right, with the 13th Battalion in reserve behind. The 11th Battalion’s first objective was detailed as the German front line immediately north of the Ancre Valley; from there they would push on to the second objective in the support line, and follow this with an advance on the third and ultimate objective which was a maze of German trenches over the high ground, guarding the approaches to Beaucourt-Hamel railway station, further up the valley. The 14th Hampshires attack was to be in co-operation with this, capturing the German lines further along from where the 11th Battalion would advance. The 13th Battalion would be on hand in a support role, with the 12th Battalion in Hamel village and rear positions known as `Kentish Caves’ and act as a ready reserve. Due to the fact that they were now down to only 270 all ranks, it was hoped they would not be used unless a real emergency arose.

Supporting the attacking battalions were sixteen Vickers machine-guns from the 116th Machine Gun Company MGC, and eight 3″ Stokes mortars of the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery. Four of the Vickers guns each would accompany the 11th Royal Sussex and 14th Hampshires into the attack, and be at their disposal to establish strong points to provide cover fire once in the German trenches. The remaining eight guns would provide a machine-gun bombardment, now more and more common by this stage of the Somme battle, firing on German communication and support trenches, along with the approaching roads from Beaumont-Hamel to the north and Beaucourt-Hamel to the east. The Trench Mortars were to establish themselves in or near the front line, and accompany the attackers if required by the commanding officers of those battalions.

The artillery support was in the form of several batteries of eighteen pounders, a number on loan from other Divisions. Some would fire shrapnel to cut the German wire, while others would bombard the positions with high explosive to create as much damage and mayhem as possible. Lessons had been learnt from July 1st. No long preliminary bombardment would preceded the attack; Heavy Artillery groups of the Royal Garrison Artillery would initially engage their guns on the positions to be attacked, and gradually the Field Artillery would take over and keep up a steady barrage on pre-designated targets, on the lines of those outlined above. The artillery plan itself was no-where near as rigid as that exercised on July 1st, and Batteries could be called back to selectively fire, on the request of those commanding the attacking infantry battalions. Communications between the artillery and infantry were now seen as the key to a successful operation, and every effort was made to keep these lines, either in the form of runners, pigeons, flares or telephones, open throughout the operations. Indeed, each of the battalions in 116th Brigade was assigned an Artillery Liaison Officer who was to co-ordinate communications during the battle. With them they would have sections of trained artillery signallers, and extra telephone equipment and the tools to repair the line which all too easily became cut by hostile shell fire.

Within each attacking battalion, the various companies would `leap frog’ their way across the objectives, with two companies capturing the first objective, the other two moving on ahead of them to the next objective, and so on. Mopping up parties would left at each objective to clear the trenches of any Germans taking shelter in dugouts or saps; again a lesson of July 1st, when many attacking Divisions had paid scant attention to this, resulting in Germans coming out of their positions and firing on the attackers from behind.

The troops themselves would not go into action laden with equipment, again as had been the practice on July 1st. Each soldier adopted fighting order, without his large pack and greatcoat. He would also carry two Mills hand grenades, two sand bags and a hundred rounds of extra small arms ammunition. The unused proportion of the day’s rations would be taken in the small pack, along with one iron ration and a full water bottle. A good hot meal would be provided on the morning of the attack, and Rum would be issued prior to zero hour.

The final days prior to the operation were spent in billets at Mailly-Maillet. Corporal William Booth had been detailed to be part of one of the mopping up parties,

“… I was to be responsible for clearing any dugouts on our front. I could select any six men I wanted. As I did not relish going down steps with a rifle and bayonet, I asked for, and was issued with, a revolver and 50 rounds. I got permission to fire 5 rounds in practice.”

Booth’s elder brother, Frank, was also serving in the 11th Battalion and during their recent stays at Mailly, Booth had seen little of him. Being in his company’s bombing section, Frank had been busy making forward dumps of Mills grenades. The brothers took this all too brief respite as an opportunity to meet. Booth remembered, “… we wished each other a whispered good luck ” (Booth).

One final problem arose in the days leading up to the attack at Hamel. A wide gully lay between, with banks at either sides ten to fifteen feet high. Poor weather had made the ground in the gully quite muddy, and there were fears the men would have difficulties in both coming down the banks on the British side, and climbing the ones nearer the Germans. Wooden ladders were therefore constructed by the Divisional pioneers, and brought down to the trenches. Booth, and several other men in the 11th Battalion, were given the job of taking them out prior to the main operations. They went out in the darkness and,

“… our task was to collect the ladders and put them in the gully, trying to cover them with any grass we could find. Personally I did not like the look of things and did not feel very happy about our chances.”

Back in Mailly final arrangements were made. Booth was back with the battalion, as they assembled for the journey to the trenches. As they left the village, there were calls of “Good luck mate, see you in Berlin”. The troops they relieved in the line were tired and pleased to see them, having spent the previous days tearing down sandbags and piling them up in the bottom of the trench so that it would be easier to exit at zero hour. The night passed quietly, and at 4am on the morning of September 3rd dixies full of coffee arrived. Officers and NCOs added rum to the enamel mugs being passed round. Booth recalled, “… after the rum, we all felt better and were longing for zero hour”.

Zero arrived at 5.10am. The artillery support laid a intense bombardment on the German front line as the attackers left their trenches. This barrage moved to the support lines five minutes later, and then to the reserve lines until called back during the operations.

On the 11th Battalion front the men left their trenches in good order and advanced in extended order across No Man’s Land. Booth was among them.

”  We all seemed to have survived the first move, and it was now just starting to get light across the gully and no sign of the ladders we had so carefully stowed there… we [could] only think Jerry found them and carried them off.

We were now faced with the task of climbing this bank without ladders. I shouted to the men to help each other, but cannot believe it was heard. I managed to get to the top myself, and had just placed my rifle on top when I slipped down and had to go up again. This time it was a bit easier without my rifle and looking right and left I could see most of the platoon were up…

As we moved there was a sudden silence. The barrage had lifted and we now tried to run, but before I could get to the trench… I caught my foot in the wire and went down with a bang. I got up and literally fell into what had been the trench.”

The Germans responded quickly with a bombardment on No Man’s Land which seemed to grow in intensity and caught many in the waves behind Booth, still struggling to climb the gully. Terrific fighting now took place in the front line trench; Sergeant Booth and his comrades were in the thick of it.

”  I jumped up to try and see where Jerry was and saw tops of helmets, told the two with me to follow me, had my revolver in left hand, threw a Mills grenade over into what I hoped was their piece of trench and before this exploded there was a terrific explosion behind me – I was thrown off my feet and I could feel my legs were wounded. I just got on to my knees when I saw German boots beside me.. he brought his rifle down on my head with a terrific crack. Before he had a chance to do  more I poked my revolver into his belly and he fell on top of me.”

Booth had caught the blast of a German stick grenade. He only knew this much later, when parts of it were removed from his backside while in hospital at Etaples. His two comrades had gone, so he crawled on a bit further into a bay where he found another wounded 11th Battalion man.

”  I pulled myself up to look back to our trenches. Troops were still coming up out of that awful gully. Now 30 yards away was a Jerry MG with a crew of three firing at them. I slipped down into bottom of trench hoping they had not seen me, decided then I could try to stop them firing; found a rifle that worked, got myself into position where I could push rifle over top, take aim and fire, but I must have been seen and did not know another Stick Bomb had been thrown at me… I was blasted down into bottom of trench again. It felt as though the right side of my face had been blown off and my right arm was bleeding and blood was coming from my mouth.

Suddenly on top of the trench appeared a Capt Northcote – OC C Company. Those who survived were going on to the next objective. He at first shouted at me to get going, then saw that I was helpless and collected any Mills he could find. He no sooner climbed out of the trench than he was shot, I expect by the MG crew, I could still hear [them] firing.”

Meanwhile, officers like Northcote had been trying to make sense of the situation. The men Booth had seen back in the gully were those from the fourth wave under Captain C.L. Mitchell. Seeing what had happened to the preceding three waves, Mitchell initially held his men back as by now the German barrage on No Man’s Land was terrific. He ran out into No Man’s Land alone to assess the situation, and returned leading his men forward to the gully. Despite casualties, many of them reached the German wire, where Mitchell ordered them to dig in and form a defensive line against counter -attacks by joining up shell holes to make a new trench. This eventually proved to be a dangerous position, as shell after shrapnel shell fell on Mitchell and his men, inflicting heavy losses.

At Brigade Headquarters, Brigadier General Hornby noted,

“… the heavy hostile artillery fire… and the continuous machine-gun fire from the south side of the valley of the river Ancre, made it difficult to get up reinforcements.”

It was reports like this that made battalion commanders such as Lieutenant Colonel G.H. Harrison re-assess the situation. Harrison was a regular army officer from the Border Regiment, who had seen active service elsewhere on the Western Front. He had officially taken over from Grisewood soon after Richebourg. Sending Second Lieutenant Edmund Blunden forward to gather more information, Harrison soon concluded that continue with the fighting was pointless. He also understood that the 14th Hampshires on the left had encountered similar problems, and that the 117th Brigade had totally lost direction. Through Blunden, orders for a withdrawal were passed down. Mitchell organised his men, and although heavily strafed on the way, he managed to get most of them back.

Left behind were many dead, wounded and dying. Among the wounded was Sergeant William Booth, who while attempting to return to the British lines had been wounded a fourth time with a bullet through his leg. He had been joined by another wounded Southdowner but realised he was in a bad way; “… all through the day shells had been dropping all round and at times I wished one would drop in, for the heat and pain were awful” (Booth). Booth passed the night in his shell hole in No Man’s Land, until discovered the next day by a friend in C Company.

”  He tried to stand me on my feet. They were the only part of me not wounded. I just could not stand so he got me up on top, then on his back as he lay on the ground, then tied my hands together in front of him and then he started to crawl. What a hero he was – he could hear both German and English voices as there seemed to be some sort of truce to help get the wounded in.

He dragged me to the edge of the gully and somehow managed to lower me down. He must have been just about all in, but he assured me he would be back. I don’t know how long after, but he came with one of our own stretcher bearers but no stretcher. They carried me somehow and got me up the other side and then into what had been our own front line.”

From here Booth was slowly evacuated down to the battalion Regimental Aid Post, and from there to a Field Ambulance via a wheeled stretcher. After that he was taken to a Casualty Clearing Station by ambulance. He knew he had a `Blighty One’ and that he was going home, but even here, Booth ran into problems,

“… an orderly of the R.A.M.C. came and said he had got to remove all my clothes. First thing he did was cut off my respirator. I told him to be careful as there were some detonators in it. He almost ran away and came back with a C.S.M. who threatened to put me on a charge for bringing them into a hospital.”

Elsewhere, the 13th Battalion had run into similar problems. Like their comrades in the 11th, a welcome issue of coffee and rum had arrived before zero hour. Although in a support role, the whole battalion had already been detailed to follow the 11th Battalion’s attack, and so at zero hour they moved off into No Man’s Land. A and B companies spearheaded the attack, and encountered the same difficulties in crossing the gully. At one point, due to the intensity of the German barrage, many men took shelter in the gully. This proved of little use as cover, so the officers ordered their men forward again. By the time D Company reached these positions, all the officers of C Company had become casualties. The officer now in charge, Second Lieutenant H.H. Storey, sent one of his officers to find out what was holding up the advance. This Second Lieutenant encountered Captain Mitchell of the 11th, who told him he could, and would not, advance unless ordered to do so by his commanding officer. This order having not been given, Storey ordered his men in support of what was left of the 11th Battalion, who were by now storming the German support lines.

However, as they left the partial cover of the gully, they came under murderous machine-gun fire, with several officers being wounded, and resulting in Story’s party falling back again to the gully. But, with the aid of some stragglers, Storey pushed forward yet another attack, and after losing direction somewhat ended up in a very battered German trench. He decided to hold on to this precarious position, and sent out patrols to see what was happening and make contact with the rest of the battalion, but to no avail. One last patrol returned with the news that a withdrawal was taking place among the 11th Battalion, so Storey led his men back to the original British front line. Here he was sent down to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Draffen, who told him he had information that elements of the 11th were still in the German lines, and so Storey and his men would have to attack again. However, orders came down from Brigade Headquarters at the last minute, saying the attack was over and Storey was to stay put.

Meanwhile, A Company under Captain Arthur Fabian was making its way towards the German front line; but not before they ran into a dazed mob of stragglers from the 117th Brigade who informed them the order to withdraw had been heard. Fabian ignored them, and led his men on with the call ” Come on A Company 13th ! “. Fifty yards from the German trenches Fabian had two of his fingers blown off and although continuing to lead his men, he finally went down in a hail of machine-gun fire. All momentum was now lost, and the survivors took cover in shell holes. At this point, the only officer left, Lieutenant John de Carrick Cheape, took over what was left of the now disorganised and scattered Company. By now, the only worthwhile job left doing was to collect the wounded, it was while helping with one of these stretcher parties that Cheape, too, was hit and killed by a German sniper. Leaderless, the survivors made their way back to the British lines.

The support troops had faired little better. The Vickers guns had failed to come into action, as none of the positions captured could be consolidated. The 116th Trench Mortar Battery officer could only report heavy casualties in his unit and that the best his unit had been able to do was set up two Stokes mortars in a shell hole in No Man’s Land and fire 260 rounds in support of the infantry. The officer in command of them, Second Lieutenant F.W. Barrow, a Southdowns officers attached, lay dead near the guns.

Casualties had been high. In the 11th Battalion had lost ten officers and 296 men; of the latter 105 appear in Soldier’s Died, showing a high fatality rate. In the 13th Battalion, 11 officers and 128 men were killed, wounded or missing, which amounted to over a third of their fighting strength. Their medical officer, Lieutenant Dunning, had been among the casualties; wounded bravely risking his life tending to the wounded in No Man’s Land. As at Richebourg, many of the dead were left behind in the German trenches, and a large number of wounded were taken prisoner; among them Second Lieutenant C.A. Vorley, who died of his wounds ten days later in a German field hospital.

The attack had been a failure, as likewise in the 117th Brigade, the German trenches had been entered but not held. Too many men had become casualties while crossing No Man’s Land. The German wire had been well cut, but the artillery had failed to silence machine-gun units holding out in well constructed, deep dugouts. The ability to call back the barrage had proved limited, despite the extensive planning as far as communications went, but the terrific German bombardment across the gully had made it almost impossible to keep any telephone lines open. Major Neville Lytton, a former 11th Battalion original, was on his now usual duties as a staff officer with the 116th Brigade Headquarters. He came to the conclusion that the operation at Hamel was part of the costly learning process the British army was going through on the Somme. He wrote,

“… another good day for the Germans, I fear; the truth of the matter is that they had such wonderful defences our artillery fire had not broken the morale of the defending troops, and the situation was not yet ripe for an infantry attack.”

A similar fate had befallen the 49th (West Riding) Division on the other side of the Ancre; they had likewise failed in all their objectives, and the murderous crossfire from Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt had resulted in heavy casualties.

Hamel had been costly, but not quite such a disaster as Richebourg. Casualties were high, the fighting strengths reduced further. But this was the Somme Battle, where any ground was paid for with a mighty price. And the Southdowns battalions had only just arrived.

 

Chapter 5: Going South

Mailly-Maillet 1916 (Paul Reed)
Mailly-Maillet 1916 (Paul Reed)

Following Richebourg, the 12th and 13th Battalions were temporarily amalgamated under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Draffen. The 11th were sent straight back into the front line. Replacement drafts already began to arrive, to make up the men lost on June 30th. The horrendous losses in the opening stages of the Somme meant that units were not guaranteed to get men from the same regiment. Sergeant W. Booth MM remembered,

“… we had been made up to strength with a draft from Newhaven and one from Oxford and Bucks and the 5th Cinque Ports.”

He noted that “… each company’s fighting strength was 200 men, 50 per platoon plus about 20 H.Q. i.e. cooks, signallers etc “.

Men in the 13th Battalion felt that after Richebourg they were due a rest. However, a few days of respite in a cramped former Girl’s School at Locon was followed by a nasty surprise. Albert Banfield recalled,

”  All our poor fellows here, every man in the battalion, were put on working parties, and we marched every day to the trenches where we hauled sandbags about for the mining companies, full of wet, bluish clay, and very heavy, and built them up into parapets.”

From here it was back to normal duties in the line. Albert Banfield gives a good impression of life in the 13th Battalion at this time:

”  The battalion went into the front line. We lived in a sap, twenty feet down under the earth. It was reached by a flight of very steep stairs. The air was always rather close and stuffy down there, so I used to as much as possible sit in a sandbagged entry box at the entrance to battalion headquarters trench.

Leaving this place we went into support, at a place named Maison Rouge, Wimpole Street. This street is an old German trench and full of their dug-outs. It is adorned with camomile daisies along its entire length. Here we had a large dug-out to ourselves to live in, with a nice bench to sit on at the entrance.

The following day we were relieved and marched at a spanking pace into Bethune under the leadership of the RSM. Here we took over Montmorency Barracks, a vast whitewashed place, partly occupied by French gendarmes in smart blue uniforms. We didn’t stop here many hours. I just had time to get a little tea at a canteen and some cherries, and then we were marched off in the dark, and finally arrived at Le Touret in … wooden huts.”

Out of the line, training continued. Again, Albert Banfield:

”  We… encountered gas for the first time, but not from the Hun; paying a visit to a gas chamber. We were all of course a bit nervous. We donned the helmets and marched into a hut, and then the gas was pumped in four times as dense as we should encounter in any attack. Though it was very close, I couldn’t detect the slightest trace of gas in my helmet… the gas turned all our buttons black, and tarnished any metal we chanced to have about us.”

Following this, the 13th Battalion went back into the Richebourg sector and Banfield recalled:

”  Leaving Le Touret in the evening, we went up the Rue de Bois and under a little shrapnel fire, entered our new quarters.

We found we were to live in a very good dug-out, lined with ribbed iron, but the worst of it was, the orderlies had to sleep with us, making a united total of twenty four, hopelessly over crowded. The signalling office was half a cellar under a ruined house, and built over what the artillery telephonist said was a cess pool. The worst of it was a hole had been made through the floor, and when it was wet, it was said to overflow.”

On the night of July 23rd/24th, the 11th Battalion made a raid on the German lines at Richebourg, on ground fought over by the 13th Battalion on June 30th. Led by Second Lieutenant Gammon, the party left the trenches at 10.55pm, and crossed a ditch in front of the British trenches. The intention was to enter the German positions and obtain information on the unit holding them, if possible a prisoner. A gap in the German wire was located, but the men paused as they heard German working parties. The gap itself was found to be only a few feet wide, obscured by a large shell hole full of wire. A wooden plank had been brought forward to cross this, and it was usefully employed enabling the group to reach the German parapet. Somehow the Germans had been alerted, and the men were hit by a ” fusillade of grenades “. However, they pushed on, and bombed their way down several trench bays either side of the entry point. Gammon reported that “… much groaning and shouting was heard and it is assumed that many casualties were inflicted “. Indeed, Gammon had shot two men himself, but in the melee was wounded in the leg and wrist. He observed the Germans massing in strength, so gave the order to retire and the men started to make their way back across No Man’s Land. At this point they ran into shell fire and two men were killed. Three others were reported wounded, and one missing. Major General G. Cuthbert, then GOC 39th Division, commented afterwards,

“… I think the raid was well planned and pluckily carried out… all ranks showed great coolness.”

On returning to the trenches, all three battalions moved to another sector; Givenchy. By now, drafts had brought the units back up to some semblance of fighting strength and the amalgamated 12th and 13th Battalions went their separate ways again. Draffen stayed commander of the 13th, and Major R. Bellamy was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th. His new Adjutant was Captain C.O. Bolton, who had been awarded a Military Cross for Richebourg.

In early August, orders for a full Divisional relief arrived and the Southdowns battalions moved out of the Givenchy area on what was to seem a long march. Albert Banfield:

”  We pattered through Bethune, on to Chocques, along a paved road, lined by trees in the orthodox French fashion. It was very misty, but the moon shone out occasionally. We had a good halt half way when hot cocoa was purveyed round.

Then we went on again, finally reaching our destinations, Losinghem… We drew some icy water from the well and had a good sluice round.

After tea the same day I sauntered round… the glories of our billet, the rustic garden, the lawns, the walnut trees and the surrounding beauties. Then [I] went up to the Downs through the golden corn, and watched our planes manoeuvre through the air.”

Now a long period of training began. The men had left the trenches for the III Army Divisional Training ground near Monchy-Breton (known as `Monkey Britain’ to the troops), and stayed here until the end of the month. The ground in this area resembled the Somme battlefields, and an area had been laid out for the 39th Division representing a part of the German line at an as yet unknown location further south was laid out with white tapes. Each day the men were brought forward to familiarise themselves with the layout of the German `trenches’ and practise making attacks on them. It was easy work compared to a tour in the line and many appreciated this respite in such a peaceful location. Albert Banfield remembered it well:

” Our present billet… is named Magnicourt. It is a straggling place, almost hidden in a tree covered hollow in the Downs. At first we  thought the people were unfriendly, but afterwards I came to the conclusion that their aloofness arose from being quite unacquainted with the presence of British Tommies.”

Corporal W. Booth MM was another who relished this experience:

”  … local estaminets were open for two hours, and were soon drunk dry, but what we appreciated most of all was no working parties and there was every hope of being alive in the morning.”

However, even among these peaceful billets there was the business of war to attend to. A flame-thrower demonstration was given up on the Downs which so reminded Albert Banfield of his beloved Sussex homeland. But he still had time to let his mind wander, watching the “… innumerable wheat fields, which peasants were reaping everywhere “.

All too soon the peace was broken for good. On the 23rd August the battalions left Monchy-Breton and entrained in the Ligny St. Flochel area. The train journey took them ever further south, arriving at Le Souich and the 116th Brigade gathered at Bois de Warnimont. From here the journey south was on foot. Booth recalls the experience of the 11th Battalion:

”  The day was cloudless. Most roads we used were untarred and very dusty, and by noon, we were all filthy with dust and sweat. We were given the regulation 10 minutes rest in every hour, with only 30 minutes for a meal which was bully beef stew (not very appetising on a boiling hot day). However, we were mostly men in our early twenties – a few over thirty – and at that age we could eat anything.

Orders were issued… any man falling out would be put on a charge, and this actually did take place. Several NCOs lost stripes and man got 7 days registered against them. Any man falling out with blistered feet had to remove his boots and the M.O. and stretcher bearers would stick a needle through the blister, give it a dab of iodine and tell them to carry on. Thank goodness I was feeling very fit at that time, so apart from sweat and dust I was still O.K. and at times was carrying three rifles when I could see any man was getting too wobbly.”

Getting nearer the Somme, each passing village had an increasing number of British soldiers in and around it. Some were less than friendly, as Booth recalled,

“… we began to see we were getting back to war again, for we began to see troops everywhere and occasionally we were jeered at as being mistaken for fresh troops out, but in no mean language this was soon put right by our chaps.”

However, Booth and his comrades were close to their destination, Mailly Woods, near the village of Mailly-Maillet.

”  We were told we had arrived. My company climbed from the road, up some steep paths to a small copse of beech trees. The space between the trees was filled with bell tents. We were told we could sleep in the tents or outside. Most of the tents were slit by shrapnel, and did not give much shelter. Orders were to dig slit trenches in case of shelling. We had a meal, this time for a change, bully beef stew, and apart from detailing some poor L/Cpl and three men as gas guard, we were soon asleep, boots and puttees only having been removed.”

After arrival on the Somme, it soon became evident the attack the Southdowns had been training for at Monchy-Breton was going to happen sooner, rather than later. Officers from each battalion, along with some chosen NCOs, were detailed to make a reconnaissance of the line prior to taking it over for the attack. Corporal Booth MM of the 11th Battalion was one of those chosen to go. It was to be a harsh and vivid introduction to the Somme front:

”  That evening I was called to BHQ and told that I was one of a party to go to the front line the next day, starting at 8am. Just Battle Order and Rifle, and so a party of about a dozen officers and NCOs started off. We had an officer from the Cheshires as a guide. Poor devil, he had to walk right back to collect us and now back again. We were nearly five miles from the front line and everywhere it was guns and troops, plenty of ambulances going both ways and the congestion was terrible. Dust covered everything… We soon began to see smashed transport and overturned guns, and I am afraid we did not think we were following on a victorious assault. There were small cemeteries everywhere. These were not a cheering sight at any time.

We came to a small river. We followed a path along its bank which was quite steep, and all sorts of dugouts had been driven there. There were several first aid posts, Co HQ stores, ammo, dumps and even some sort of stables. We could hear plenty of M.G. fire and the occasional salvo of heavy stuff going both ways.

Along the river bank there were trees in all stages of destruction, and we could tell there had been much shelling. We rounded a bend in the river and very soon knew we could be observed from the opposite bank about 1,000 yards ahead, for a burst of M.G. just over our heads made us dive for cover. The order came from our guide only to move at 20 yards intervals. This took a long time, but we were soon in a comm. trench. This was a putrid place for there were skeleton bones sticking out all over the place and many of the dead of July 1st and after had never been properly buried.

Soon we were told we were in [the] front line and most troops were huddles on the fire step, asleep. We were detailed to various parts. My sector was on [the] right – this was on top of the river bank from where were could look across to the other bank and see traces of trenches and barbed wire everywhere. We could not tell which was which.

About 2 o’clock there was a sudden burst of gunfire and a barrage was being put down on Jerry’s trenches… at the same time, a Vickers near us opened up, firing at about 1,500 yards… after [the] barrage had been going for about three minutes, it lifted about 50 yards, and out of the chalk and wire appeared about 500 or 600 men. To us they looked like midgets. We could see bomb flashes and hear the crackle of rifle and M.G. fire…

Those who had field glasses said there were many casualties, and after about 30 minutes, we could see a few trying to get back – they were probably wounded – then all was quiet again.

We gathered from the troops in the line about 30 yards in front of the trench that there was a gully about 50 yards across, with a drop from our side of about 10 to 15 feet, and the same the other side to climb up. From what we could see of Jerry’s line it was about 150 yards away.

We had seen and heard enough… it seemed a hell of a long way back to Mailly Maillet and we were tired and hungry.”

Plans were finalised by Divisional Staff. The location for the forthcoming attack was the German lines east of the village of Hamel, above the Ancre valley Booth and his comrades had made their way up during the reconnaissance. The date for the operation was passed down to the battalion commanders – September 3rd; it was now September 1st. The Battle of the Somme was about to engulf them.

 

Chapter 4: Richebourg – The Cost

The Boar's Head just after the battle (Paul Reed)
The Boar’s Head just after the battle (Paul Reed)

” And so closed the youth or maturity… of many a Sussex worthy.”

Edmund Blunden  Undertones of War

As the afternoon sun became more intense, and out of the line the battalion roll calls were made, the full horror of the losses suffered in the fighting at Richebourg that day became known. In the 12th Battalion, few remained to take that roll call. Colonel Impey had been wounded during the attack, and all his company commanders had become casualties; indeed some six officers were dead, seven wounded and three taken prisoner – the only officers taken prisoner in the 12th Battalion for the whole of the war. Losses among the other ranks were fearful; 136 killed in action or died of wounds.

The 13th Battalion had feared little better. Colonel Draffen, who had survived the action, could only report that “… or losses were heavy “. Contemporary sources show nine officers in the 13th had been killed; among them the Adjutant Roger D’Arcy Whittaker, who Corporal Booth had seen hanging on the German wire. A further nine officers were wounded. Among the men, 169 were killed or died of wounds.

‘D’ company of the 11th Battalion, which had accompanied the attack, had also suffered badly. It’s commander, Captain Eric Cassels was wounded, along with two fellow officers. Two subalterns of ‘D’ company had died in the attack; Second Lieutenant Aylett Cameron Cushen, a Hastings man with previous service in the Honourable Artillery Company who had only joined the battalion eleven days before Richebourg, and Second Lieutenant Francis Grisewood. Francis was Colonel Grisewood’s younger brother.

In addition, the combined attacking force had over 700 other ranks wounded. The total casualties for the morning’s fighting, therefore, were 15 officers and 364 other ranks killed or died of wounds, and 21 officers and 728 other ranks wounded; nearly 1,100 Southdowners.

These figures belie the full human tragedy of Richebourg. In 1919, His Majesty’s Stationary Office published Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19, volume forty of which covers the Royal Sussex Regiment. This source shows, among other information, where each casualty was born and enlisted. Using this data, an analysis of the effect of the casualties at Richebourg on the county of Sussex can be made. Of the 349 other ranks killed in action on June 30th 1916, Soldiers Died shows that 243 were born in Sussex; some 70%. The  majority of the others would have certainly been residents of Sussex, but this source does not show place of residence if born outside the county. For example men like Regimental Sergeant Major May’s son, Lance Sergeant George Edward May. He had been born in Kis, India, while May senior had been serving there in 1896. On the outbreak of the war, the May family resided at Linden Avenue, Bognor.

Again, using the information in Soldiers Died, it is possible to ascertain that seventy-seven towns, villages and parishes were affected by the fatalities of those shown as born in Sussex; the greatest number coming from Brighton and Eastbourne. The latter is not surprising, considering there were several companies of Eastbourne men in the 12th Battalion. The additional fatalities, men not shown as having been born in Sussex but residing there like the May family, may have brought this figure up to nearer a hundred communities affected by the dead alone. With over 700 wounded, there can have been few places in Sussex that were unaffected by the losses at Richebourg.

Among the dead were dozens of tragic stories. Corporal Percy Parsons of the 13th Battalion who had dodged the sick parade to ensure his part in the attack had died on the German wire. Lance Corporal Frederick Chandler of the 12th Battalion had written to his parents in Eastbourne claiming he would “… ‘get one in for Fritz’ ” to avenge his brother Stewart who had died at sea in 1915. Chandler was killed in the early stages of the attack. Private Harry Mercer had enlisted in the 11th Battalion at Hastings aged only sixteen; he died after a year and a half in uniform. Private James Honeyset of the 13th Battalion was killed at Richebourg aged 36, a veteran of the Boer War. His brother was killed alongside him.

Elsewhere, five other pairs of brothers lay dead on the battlefield. The Blaker family of Worthing, the Blurton family, the Bottings of Balcombe, the Bristow family of Wiston, the Sumners of Crawley; all had double bereavements. The Jackson family from Amberley joined them when on 3rd July both their sons died of wounds within hours of each other. Worst of all was the Pannell family from Worthing. They had three sons in the 12th Battalion and one in the 13th; William and Charles died with the 12th, Alfred with the 13th – having only enlisted in late 1915 to join his brothers – and the fourth son was taken prisoner. After the war, none of their graves could be found and their names were listed together on the Loos Memorial to the Missing; a sad testimony to one family’s supreme sacrifice.

The killing was over for the time being, and the remaining men of the 12th and 13th Battalions temporarily amalgamated to form one battalion; but couldn’t even muster enough men for two companies. Lieutenant Colonel Draffen commanded what was left of these once proud men, as they sat in billets some miles from the line. Indeed, Albert Banfield later recalled,

“… about half a mile back we were met by our RSM. A barn floor had been covered with clean straw, and we were given a drink and told to sleep as long as we wished.”

The 11th Battalion had moved from its reserve positions and gone back into the line around Cuinchy. Corporal W. Booth MM and the other survivors of ‘D’company, on rest away from their battalion, received a sudden visitor;

”  Div. Commander (sitting on horse) announced – ‘You have done a good job : it was not expected to succeed : it was really to try to divert the Huns attention from the Big Attack opening up [the] next day’.”

Back at Brigade and Divisional headquarters, staff officers were already preparing reports as to what had happened at Richebourg on June 30th 1916. Few of the objectives had been reached, let alone held; and the scale of the losses beyond anything that had been imagined.

Even as early as 1st July, those left in command of the 12th and 13th Battalion were asked to submit their accounts of the action and what they considered to have gone wrong. Colonel Impey of the 12th Battalion had been wounded and could not be contacted; Captain J.S. Casey, an acting company commander now temporarily commanding the battalion, therefore submitted a report on what limited information he could gather. He described briefly the opening phase of the attack and the almost immediate response from the Germans when “… many casualties were incurred from the enemy artillery fire.” He recounted the major problem of uncut wire which was “…practically undamaged and intact “. Unable to give any real details as to what had happened once the few survivors, which in B and C companies he estimated to be only 40 men, reached the German trenches all he could report to his Brigadier was the estimated number of enemy casualties;

”  I have interviewed the most reliable NCOs… and from their information it appears that the enemy suffered heavy casualties, especially to their right. In many places dead bodies were piled up and… I would estimate the total number of enemy dead seen, as between 150 to 200.”

Lieutenant Colonel F.G.W. Draffen of the 13th Battalion gave a much fuller report of the fighting at Richebourg. He presented a very detailed picture of the attack, and the problems encountered in entering the German line; the darkness causing confusion, the smoke bombardment obscuring vision, the uncut wire in many places. The few men who had made their way into the support line found themselves isolated and the last remaining officer gave the order to withdraw. Draffen considered that this officer “… exercised a wise discretion in abandoning the ground gained “. He concluded that, in his opinion, the chief causes for the failure of the attack were,

 (a) The unfortunate incident of our own smoke cloud diverted by the wind across our own front, and not in the direction of the enemy. This, added to the unusual darkness, was one of the chief causes as it resulted in loss of direction by the assaulting troops and ultimately, disorganisation.

(b) From the information I have learnt from a prisoner news had reached the enemy of an intended offensive on our part, and we came up against fresh troops,a relief having taken place on the evening previous to the assault.

(c) The intensity of the enemy’s artillery fire.

(d) The intensity and accuracy of his M.G. fire.

(e) The failure of our artillery to cut the wire effectively on the left of the Bn. frontage.This wire was well concealed in shell holes and hollows, and was probably not observed.

Draffen admitted that casualties amongst his own men had been severe, but like Casey was anxious to point out that losses among the Germans were also high,

“… in [the] front line, which was almost obliterated by our guns, there were a great many dead buried, arms, legs being visible, also equipment.”

However, there was one thing he was keen to point out;

“… whatever the reasons were that led to failure to hold the enemy support trench, one was not forthcoming, viz. any lack of the fighting spirit on the part of officers, NCOs and men.”

Following these accounts, the Brigadier, Brigadier General L.M. Hornby DSO, and his staff compiled their own report. For the problems of uncut wire and artillery, Hornby and his staff felt,

“… [the] bombardment and wire cutting by the artillery… appeared to be, on the whole, very successful.”

This contrasted strongly with the accounts submitted from the two attacking battalions. Hornby admitted that in certain areas “emplacements were still undamaged”, but “… this was not the fault of the artillery” (BdeWD). It was due “… to the fact that the guns available for the general bombardment were not sufficiently heavy “.

Aside from this Hornby’s report contains little constructive comment about the failure of the attack. Instead, he concentrated on phrases like “the greatest gallantry and determination” and “good discipline” when discussing the difficulties incurred by the attacking battalions. He also highlighted the estimated German losses, even stating “… I am of the opinion that [the] losses must have been well over 1,000 “. No source for this statement is given.

There was no mention of how little time the men had before the attack to train for it. There was no mention of the objections put to Hornby by Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood before June 30th. No report from the Commander Royal Artillery of 39th Division, or the artillery brigades which carried out the bombardment, was called for. No follow up requests from Lieutenant Colonel Impey and other wounded officers were made. The whole action was buried in the files of 39th Division within twenty four hours of the attack, perhaps deliberately, perhaps because of the bigger events now looming close on the Somme.

Hornby had a surprise before the episode was finally over, however. Grisewood reappeared at the Divisional Headquarters. Owing to an error, when he was dismissed from the 11th Battalion he had been only sent on leave; when the leave was up, he simply returned. Hornby was horrified, especially when Grisewood told him that “… if he were not posted to another battalion within one week, he would demand a Court of Inquiry. ” Grisewood’s anger was further fuelled by the loss of his brother, Francis, in the operation. No doubt he had hoped that with such a threat he would return to his old battalion, but before he could open his mouth again orders arrived stating “… within a few days he [would] take command of a Manchester battalion on the Somme.” Grisewood departed, never to return to the Southdowns.

The action at the Boar’s Head received little publicity outside the Sussex newspapers which were already listing the ever growing number of obituaries of those who had died. An official communique simply reported that,

“… East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”

Having reviewed the papers sent him by Hornby, the XI Corps commander Lieutenant General R. King concluded,

”  The main objective of the operation was achieved because it was one of the small attacks about to take place… at this period… to hold the enemy in his line and distract his attention from the main battle to the south.”

This angered officers like Neville Lytton, an original Southdowns officer then serving on the 116th Brigade Staff. He later observed,

”  Naturally in the Communique our attack appeared as as a successful raid – nothing more, and yet our casualties were in excess of the casualties of the worst day in South Africa when The Times was printed with black borders.”

One thing was for sure; Lowther’s Lambs would never be the same again. With so many casualties, that distinct Sussex character had been decimated in the Richebourg trenches. Many originals would return, to see other battles and all too often to find their grave in another part of France or Flanders. But above all the later actions the Southdowns battalions took part in, Richebourg dominated them in terms of losses, of human tragedy, of the sheer horror at the cost of modern war. Men never forgot Richebourg, even though they might try to. Many years later one of them regularly wrote to me on June 30th every year “in memory of the comrades I lost”. He once concluded,

”  It was a terrible waste of all those fine men. In many ways it was the Day Sussex Died.”

 

Chapter 3.2: Richebourg The Butcher’s Shop Part 2

Boar's Head From Avove 1916
Boar’s Head From Avove 1916

Elsewhere, the 13th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel F.G.W. Draffen, had fared little better. Their operation orders had detailed a two-part attack. The main body of the assault on the battalion’s left involved four companies going over in wave formation, about fifty yards apart. On the right, nearer the Boar’s Head itself, a smaller flank attack under Second Lieutenants Elphicke and Ellis had been organised. This assault party was spear-headed by bombers, and its aim was to rush the old saps around the Boar’s Head and gain an immediate foothold in the German lines.

Colonel Draffen stood in the front line trench on the morning of June 30th, and noted that the opening bombardment on his front had started two minutes early. His men, of whom he was so proud, stood around him. The waiting for everyone was terrible, as one man recalled,

“… the worst part is just before you’re going to attack; the awful suspense when you know that in 15

minutes you’ve got to go – then 10 – then 7 – then 2 – and then the word’s given and you’re over the  parapet.”

Zero hour had indeed arrived. The whistles signalled the time of advance blew, barely audible in the din coming from the German positions. The men scaled the sandbag parapet and moved out into No Man’s Land,

“… [we] had to advance very slowly and cautiously, as it was difficult to see and very hard to find the openings in the barbed wire.”

As the main companies moved forward in the dark, the party detailed to make the flank attack on the right rushed the German saps around the Boar’s Head and bombed their way in. They had already suffered a few casualties, but according to plan began to move their way to the left, to link up with the advancing companies of the rest of their battalion.

However, these companies had already begun to run into problems. Those to the far left had come under very heavy fire from the German trenches. Some of the bridges placed out in No Man’s Land by Captain Finlay had been damaged or destroyed by shell fire, and as the men scaled the ditches and crawled up the other side, they were swept by murderous machine gun fire. Dozens were killed or wounded here, only a few yards from their own front line, as Private Humphrey recalled,

“… by the time we reached the German trenches there was no one left to command… no sergeant or officer – we just went on by ourselves.”

These men on the left found much of the German wire uncut, and so the few who had managed to get this far set about cutting it with the wire-cutters fitted to the end of their Lee Enfield rifles. As such, they only managed to penetrate into the German front line in one or two places. Private Humphrey was one of these men,

“… there was some very fierce hand-to-hand fighting indeed, with hand grenades and bayonets, and the first trench was absolutely knocked to pieces.”

The right companies had fared better, but it had still been “… nothing less than murder “, as one Southdowner later testified. Getting through some gaps in the wire, the front line trench was breached in several places. Here the attackers found the dead and the dying, and even some prisoners, who retained their fighting spirit,

“… one of the prisoners had the sauce to tell us they’d known for eight days that we were coming,  and we were five minutes late ! “

Hastily throwing up a new parapet on the back of the old German trench, parties were organised to push forward to the support line. Bombing and bayonet men made their way down the German communication trenches, but at this point disaster struck on the 13th Battalion’s front, when the Trench Mortar Battery’s smoke barrage drifted across this part of the line,

“… the morning was unusually dark… but the smoke had the consistency of  thick, London fog, with the result that soon all direction was lost, the attack was disorganised and resolved into small bodies of men not knowing their way, going in all directions.”

Some men had made their way into the support lines, and had even begun to consolidate that position. However, they were dangerously low on both numbers and supplies, particularly grenades. A few men on the far right of the 13th Battalion’s front had met up with the flank attack party, but as the trenches here were narrow and short, this caused much congestion. It was impossible to move out of these trenches and cross to others as “… between the enemy front and support line, a good deal of wire existed.”. A small trench railway also ran up to these positions, but it, too, proved broken in and impassable.

The main fighting therefore concentrated on those who had made it to the support lines. As in the 12th Battalion sector, it was left largely to the senior NCOs to take command, as the majority of officers had become casualties. One wounded officer witnessed such an episode,

“… Sergeant Baker, an old regular army man, [was] attached to the Southdowns. When his officer was knocked over he led the men on to the second line of the German trenches. I heard him shouting ‘Come on, boys, here are the huns !’ This was followed by cries of ‘Kamerade’ from the German soldiers. But the blood of the Southdowns was up, for the enemy had been bombing them only a few minutes before.”

But those in the support line, despite or because of their bravery, were getting fewer and fewer. It had perhaps seemed like a lifetime to many of them, but after only half an hour, the men under Captain Hughes – the last remaining officer – were forced to retire under a “… somewhat intense bombardment from 4.2 and ‘whizz-bangs’, suffering many casualties.” This retirement eventually escalated into a general withdrawal from the German front line as well; the isolated parties of men, lost in the smoke and unable to contact their comrades on either flank, perhaps realised that to stay on was pointless. The survivors raced back across No Man’s Land, into an ever intense barrage, and no doubt taking further casualties on the way back.

13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment 1916
13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment 1916

Albert Banfield in the 13th Battalion’s signal section had been watching the attack from his signals dugout almost opposite the Boar’s Head. At zero hour he had noted that,

“… our artillery began to bombard again, and the Germans began to reply with high explosive. Then our chaps went over in four waves, our signallers going with the fourth. The noise was so deafening, and the chaps went over so willingly and grandly, that the fourth wave had gone before I thought the first had started. It was truly awful waiting in the suspense while the chaps were going over, and I nearly cried with joy when I heard Marc’s voice shouting down the ‘phone.

[Later] Henshaw shouted out that the chaps were coming back. He was snarled down by somebody, who said they were coming for some more bombs, and then Sgt Woodward appeared over the parapet and said that they had received the order to retire.

And all the time the Germans had been raining shells on us without cessation. It now increased a hundredfold, until it seemed impossible we should escape. Three times the candle was blown out and the dugout seemed to rise by the explosions…”

Indeed, the attack might well have been over but the Germans were not intent on keeping quiet. Colonel Draffen noted that

“… in my opinion, the enemy brought more artillery into action at this period than he had hitherto employed. For the space of between 2½ and 3 hours, our trenches were shelled very heavily on a front of approximately 1,000 yards by 4.2s, ‘whizz-bangs’ and 5.9s, and a great many casualties were caused in our ranks.”

Albert Banfield in the midst of all this flying metal thought his number was up,

“… we all… crouched down under the parapet, praying that the terrible hail of death might not harm us. Then a huge shell landed almost on top of us, wounded and killing everyone within range but me, poor Marcus getting six wounds… he went off happy enough and that was the last I saw of him.”

Marcus Banfield, who had gone over several times that day, leaving his anxious brother waiting news of his fate, had finally got wounded when the operation was all but over. Marcus was evacuated down to the Field Ambulance, and eventually to England where he spent the next few months. If he ever wrote an account of his experiences at Richebourg on June 30th, it has not survived.

The fierce bombardment could not last forever, much to Albert Banfield’s relief,

“… then just as I was wondering when it would all end, quiet gradually stole over the scene, and we had a little respite.”

The 13th Battalion was relieved at 1.30pm on June 30th, Colonel Draffen proudly escorting the few survivors of his once proud unit out of the trenches.

Due to Colonel Grisewood’s refusal to take his men into the attack at Richebourg, the 11th Battalion had been given a very minor role in operations they had initially proposed to lead. However, ‘D’ company had been allocated to both the spear-head battalions, to carry up supplies and ammunition, and act as a ready made battle support.

Under the command of Captain Eric Cassels, the company went into the attack with five subalterns – one of them Colonel Grisewood’s brother, Francis – and around 150 men. The previous night had been spent on carrying parties, but early on June 30th, these men of ‘D’ company were assisting their comrades in getting ready for the assault. Sergeant William Booth, newly awarded the Military Medal, took part in ‘D’ Company’s on June 30th 1916;

” The troops were in the line, busy cutting steps in parapet, fixing short ladders and cutting lanes in wire. All of this was supposed to be carried out noiselessly, but I’m sure you would have heard some of it a mile off.”

With the preparations in order, the company was split up among the two battalions either side of the Boar’s Head. There was just about time to get a few hours of snatched sleep before zero hour arrived. The other three companies of the 11th Battalion were in the reserve lines. Among them in a position known as ‘Port Arthur’ was Second Lieutenant Edmund Blunden, witnessing his first action but thankful not to be taking part;

” … the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires… the eastward sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon punishing lightning’s burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the clashing tides of the explosion.”

It was into this crescendo that Booth and his men made their way. As zero hour came, they moved up to a nearby bomb dump,

” … where we were to load two boxes per man, and follow troops over the top carrying two boxes of grenades. With all other kit and rifle – this was no easy task.”

Then the barrage began.

” All hell was let loose and we started off up the trench: I was leading and the Corporal bringing up the rear. We had just reached the front line, troops were still climbing over the top, when Jerry put down a terrific barrage on our front line… a terrible clash and a shell landed right on top of our stock of grenades. When we sorted ourselves out, two were killed and four wounded.

Shells were falling all around; we sorted  things out a bit. Several stretcher bearers were arriving from our battalion as well as the 12th and the Gloucesters.

With three of my party who seemed fairly fit, we grabbed two boxes of Mills each which were still intact and with a Corporal from the Gloucesters… we climbed out on top. It was now quite daylight. We had difficulty in getting through our wire. There were several dead and wounded lying around. The MG fire was terrific.”

But Booth and his party struggled on, and eventually found their way to the German lines. It was here Booth saw a sight he very much regretted.

”  A Captain was laying on the wire, dead. He was a company commander, and started off in England as our platoon offficer. We were his first command. His name was Whittaker.”

Roger D’Arcy Whittaker had indeed been a platoon commander in the 1st Southdowns, but had transferred to the 3rd Southdowns in 1915 and by the time of Richebourg was in fact their Adjutant. His connection with Sussex is unsure, as his parents ran a Slate Quarries Company in Festiniog, Wales. Educated at the King’s School in Chester, he had been in Canada when the war broke out and had also served in the ranks of the Canadian Scottish before being commissioned. Sadly, his body was never recovered from the German wire and he has no known grave.

Meanwhile, looking around, Booth realised that the uncut wire before him meant that they could not gain access to the German trenches at this point. However, one man spotted some of the men of the 11th Battalion in a trench on the other side of the wire, so they began passing the boxes of Mills Bombs over to them. In the din of crashing shells, it was impossible to speak with the others in the trench, and his load passed on, Booth took his party back to the British trenches for more supplies.

” The line was still being shelled and really, there was hardly a bit of solid parapet left. An officer of the 12th came along and said another attack was being organised. I was to gather as many men as I could find, and join in. I really did not relish this as I thought my job up to now had been done.

I could not find many who were not wounded when the Corporal from the Glosters jumped down into the trench and said his man was out on our wire, wounded. He took off his equipment. I looked over the top and could see his man, also a German MG had been placed on [their] parapet about 200 yards to our left and they were playing hell all along our wire.

I told any around me who could fire a rifle to get ready; told them where the target was, and when I said ‘Right!’ we all opened up on this MG. The crew were either hit or dropped back into the trench.”

Soon afterwards the officer of the 12th Battalion had reappeared, and informed Sergeant Booth and his men that the proposed continuation of the attack had been cancelled. Booth was certainly glad to hear such news.

” Orders to withdraw had been sent out. It must have been about now when some of our 13th Battalion came up and all I could find of my original party was one man. We went, and very thankful we were.”

Booth was not alone in finding that very few of ‘D’ company were left. All the officers who had gone over that morning had become casualties; Captain Cassels had been badly wounded and still lay in No Man’s Land, and Second Lieutenant Francis Grisewood – the Colonel’s brother – was known to have been killed. The few survivors were met by the Regimental Sergeant Major, and taken to a barn, some miles back.

Vickers Guns in action 1916 (IWM Q1420)
Vickers Guns in action 1916 (IWM Q1420)

In the midst of all the infantry fighting, the support units involved in the attack had encountered much the same fate. The 116th Machine Gun Company, commanded by Captain G.R. Henniker-Gotley had ” suffered severely “. This company consisted of six Vickers Heavy Machine Guns with their teams, and had moved up to the line around the Boar’s Head on the evening of June 29th. One gun positioned in ‘Landsdowne Keep’ had assisted in the preliminary bombardment by firing indirectly at the German communication trenches in the areas to be attacked. It continued firing from 9pm on June 29th until 2am the following morning. Meanwhile, a further four guns in the British front line swept the German wire until five minutes before zero hour on June 30th.

At zero hour two gun teams each were attached to the 12th and 13th Battalions, and went over with the intention of setting up position in the captured German trench. However, on the 13th Battalion front “… the wire… was not cut at all, nor was it for some distance to the right “. In this situation, the guns had to find cover in shell holes, and one gun under Second Lieutenant Pearson stayed out in No Man’s Land for some six hours; mounted in a shell hole and firing on the German lines preventing enemy counter-attacks on the few tenuous foot-holds the Southdowns had gained. When the general withdrawal began later that morning, Pearson brought his Vickers Gun back “… under very trying circumstances “, ably assisted by SD/909 Private Arthur Catt, an 11th Battalion man from Warbleton. Attached to the Machine Gun Company for ammunition carrying duties, Catt also assisted in Second Lieutenant Person’s badly wounded servant. As the unit’s war diary records, “… it took them an hour and a half and they had to ford a ditch in front of our own wire.” Private Catt received no award for his bravery that day, eventually losing his life on the Somme a few months later.

The 116th Trench Mortar Battery had also experienced a rough time in the attack. Second Lieutenant Farrer in his report on the Richebourg operations stated that four Stokes mortars had been set up in special emplacements in the British front line. Number One gun on the 12th Battalion front had fired seventy-two rounds before being struck by a shell which buried its base plate completely and rendered the actual emplacement unusable. A second gun only had seventeen rounds to hand when the barrage began, and fired all these, unable to do anything else. The two other guns were firing on the 13th Battalion front and each let off around 150 rounds, a third of which were used in the opening bombardment and largely contained smoke. One of these guns was put out of action for a while when dirt clogged the barrel, but this was cleaned out and it continued firing.

Four other Stokes had been put aside to accompany the infantry attack. It was intended to set them up in the German support lines once the first waves had gone in, but these support lines were eventually only held for a short while and the plans abandoned. One gun reached a position between the German first and second lines, but the officer in charge was killed. The senior NCO did not know which way to proceed, and was unable to find suitable place amongst the destruction reaped on the German lines to set up his mortar. The party therefore returned to the British trenches without having fired any rounds at all.

Another party had found an unoccupied sap in the German front line and proceeded to set up their mortar when a shell buried the gun completely, along with it’s cleaning rod and a bag of tools, and wounding three of the team. The third mortar team got hit as they went over the parapet at zero hour; the officer falling at once, badly wounded. An NCO tried to push on across No Man’s Land, but was killed by a shell explosion, which also damaged the legs of the mortar, making it useless. The last remaining mortar team was also under the command of the officer who was wounded, and having lost its commander, the NCO in charge had no idea where to take the Stokes. Heavy shelling of the ground in front of the team had begun almost at once, and the NCO decided not to attempt a crossing of No Man’s Land. The gun team therefore did not leave the trench for the whole operation.

Gloucestershire Regiment Badge (North Eastern Medals)
Gloucestershire Regiment Badge (North Eastern Medals)

The 13th (Forest of Dean) Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, the 39th Division’s pioneer battalion, had also been heavily involved in the operations. Fulfilling its pioneer role, the battalion had provided four parties in various parts of the line either side of the Boar Head. The first party, Party “A”, had assembled in the Rue du Bois an hour before zero, and moved up to Fishtail Sap, opposite the Boar’s Head. Sixty men strong, the party was to connect up some of the old German communication trenches that ran across No Man’s Land towards the current German front line. In this task they were assisted by some of the men from Number Three Australian Mining Company, who operated the push pipe mine already discussed. When zero hour came, the mine had failed, and so the Glosters party moved out into No Man’s Land, attempting to dig their way across but the “… work was made impossible… owing to devil enemy wire which was not cut.” Attempts to improve existing communication trenches were halted, when parties of both assaulting battalions began to retreat through them. It was then time for these men from the Forest of Dean to throw down their spades and take up rifles, as a German counter-attack was expected. This never came, but after three hours with minimal results, the party withdrew, taking eleven wounded with them.

Parties “B” and “D”, of about 125 men, were on the extreme left of the 13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. They moved forward at zero hour and were detailed to construct new communication trenches, linking the British and German front lines. Party “B” incredibly stood out in No Man’s Land, marking out the ground to be dug with cord and using an electric torch held by an NCO. Despite the fact that the Germans were only two bays away from where this new trench entered the enemy line, and that both the Party’s officers were wounded, it still managed to dig a trench of sorts; varying in depth from two to five feet deep. Occasionally the men had to drop their spades and take up bombs, when German soldiers were seen coming down the trenches to the left and right. But the trench was used throughout the morning to bring up ammunition until the fierce bombardment that swept No Man’s Land made it impassable. This Party withdrew with over forty casualties.

Party “D”, alongside “B”, was less successful. They were also designated to dig a communication trench across No Man’s Land, but the infantry who went over at this point were unable to gain a foothold in the German lines, and so “… work was impossible “. Initially, the pioneers took up firing positions in the British front line, but,

“… on receipt of a verbal message that ammunition was urgently required by our troops holding the German line to the right [we] organised an ammunition party and proceeded with it up ‘B’ Party’s continuation of Copse Street and delivered two boxes to the infantry who had sent for it.

[We] attempted to get up a third box and some Mills grenades, but owing to the intensity of  the fire on our breastwork, was unable to again cross it.”

As the attack petered out, and the bombardment lessened, the officers in charge organised several parties to go out and collect wounded from No Man’s Land, eventually leaving the front line completely later that morning.

Party “C”, on the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment’s extreme right, was to push another trench across to a position just north of the Boar’s Head. However, an obstruction in the British communication trenches resulted in the Party arriving at the jumping-off point late. By this time the third wave of attack was already retiring, having suffered so badly under the withering German fire. Once again, the pioneers found themselves reverting to an infantry role and came under the command of the nearest senior Royal Sussex officer. They helped clear one of the communication trenches around Vine Street trench, enabling wounded men to be evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post. However, they never actually left the British lines throughout the morning.

By now it was late morning. The German bombardment of No Man’s Land was easing off. Quietness was returning to the scene, save the occasional burst of machine gun or rifle fire, as someone moved out in between the two front lines. Bird song was again audible. But in the space of those few hours, the men of the Southdowns battalions lay dead, dying or wounded in their hundreds. It was a disaster. What had gone so terribly wrong?

 

Chapter 3.1: Into Battle: Richebourg – The Butcher’s Shop

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Operational plans for the forthcoming assault were formulated during the training at Pacaut, a small hamlet north of Bethune. The 12th Battalion were to spear-head the attack on the Boar’s Head position itself, flanked on the left by the 13th and with the 11th in support; although ‘D’ company of that battalion was detailed to assist in carrying ammunition and supplies, also forming a ready made battle support.

After leaving the training ground, in the 13th Battalion, A and D companies were moved up from billets at Richebourg St Vaast on 29th June 1916, via Windy Corner, and passing battalion headquarters. At headquarters, each was issued with two cotton bandoleers containing a further 50 rounds of rifle ammunition each, in addition to the 150 rounds already carried in their personal equipment. Two Mills Bombs were also issued, along with a rolled up sandbag to tuck in the flap of the small pack; so that a ready supply of sandbags to build up the parados was available when the battalion entered the German trenches.

B and C companies were, on the night of 29th June, already in the line around the Boar’s Head, and were relieved by the 14th Battalion Hampshire Regiment before joining the other two companies in the trenches left of the Boar’s Head, ready for the assault at 3.05am the next morning. The rain, which had put paid to the training at Pacaut, turned many of the support trenches into an “… extremely wet and muddy state “. As such, company commanders were forced to move many more of their men into the front line than was desirable; once the preliminary bombardment started, the Germans were likely to retaliate and thus crowded front line positions would result in heavy casualties before the attack had even begun.

Further indications of an impending attack were given to the Germans on both battalion fronts, as gaps in the British wire were cut to allow the men to advance at zero hour. In the 13th Battalion, a party with special wooden bridges, made in the 116th Brigade workshops, were brought up that night under the command of Captain Findlay. The bridges were designed to aid in the crossing of a number of drainage ditches in front of the British trenches, some of which cut right across the path of the 13th Battalion’s advance. Several of these bridges were laid out beside the wire, to be collected at zero hour, while others were kept in the trenches in case others became damaged.

Boar's Head aerial photo 1916
Boar’s Head aerial photo 1916

In the 12th Battalion, very detailed plans were drawn up as to the expected conduct of operations. The battalion was to advance in wave formation, with four waves, each consisting of four assaulting platoons. The first wave would contain special bombing and trench blocking parties, to secure the German trenches once they were taken. This would be followed by further waves with additional bombing parties to exploit any gains made, trailed closely by Lewis Guns and six pairs of snipers; who would go in with the third wave and “… on arrival in the new trenches they will take up suitable posts for sniping and observation “. At Zero Hour, the artillery would lift the barrage from the German front line, and the first wave, men from D company, would move forward, immediately followed by the other waves. Within these waves, each assaulting platoon would form up in lines, with specialist parties and Lewis Guns behind them, and rush forward to the German front line trench. In addition to the darkness which would still cover the battlefield at 3.10am, the advance would be shielded by a smoke barrage from the Stokes Mortars of 116th Trench Mortar Battery.

Each man taking part in the attack would carry a day’s rations, with a full water bottle and additional water would be also carried up in petrol tins. The men were to go over in marching order, without the large pack, and carry their waterproof sheet rolled up on the back of the belt; tied with webbing loops. as in the 13th Battalion, two Mills Bombs were issued per man, but “… on no account be used except by the order of an officer “. In the first wave, a sandbag was also issued, with two issued to men in the second wave, and four to each man in the third and fourth waves. Picks and shovels were to be taken over; one tool per man in the last three waves. As well as their normal equipment, plus gas helmet and rifle, the Southdowns in all four waves of both assaulting battalions were loaded up like pack mules.

One of the most important sections of these intricate orders prepared for the attack was Point Fourteen, entitled ‘Special Warning’. All ranks were warned that, under no circumstances would the word “retire” be issued by officers or NCOs. If heard, it must be assumed that it was being given falsely by the Germans and was to be ignored; this related to earlier actions of the war where bilingual German soldiers had broken up British attacks, and causing great confusion, by calling on the attackers to withdraw. It was an order to be echoed in every official instruction issued prior to the Somme fighting further south the next day.

Additional troops from both Division and Brigade were allocated to the Southdowns, to aid in the attack. No advance could be made by infantry alone, and aside from the obvious support from Divisional Royal Field Artillery Brigades; the Divisional Royal Engineer Field Companies, the 116th Brigade Trench Mortar Battery and 116th Machine Gun Company were also to accompany the battalions as they moved forward. The 39th Divisional Pioneers, the 13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (Forest of Dean), were to assist in the consolidation of the German line, and also help dig new communication trenches across No Man’s Land.

The Third Australian Mining Company was brought in to utilize the existing trench, which stretched from the British lines across to the Boar’s Head, by exploding a push-pipe mine under it. This would clear the bomb block and create an instant trench between the two positions, through which support parties could reinforce the attackers in the German lines. This mine was prepared on the night of 29th June, as Major Coulter, the Australian officer in charge, and his men, began boring a hole out into No Man’s Land opposite the Boar’s Head.

It all sounded very easy on paper; indeed, it followed the pattern of many other raids in this sector, but on a much grander scale. Two whole battalions attacking with support troops was some considerable manoeuvre, and in the few days that had been allowed for planning and training, perhaps that had been overlooked a little. Colonel Impey, as he rose from the 12th Battalion’s headquarters dugout in Copse Street in the early hours of 30th June, must have felt a little unease; a veteran of the fighting at Loos, he had witnessed first hand the result when plans went disastrously wrong. One can only speculate on his thoughts that morning as his tall, well-built frame moved round the line, checking his men and speaking with the officers.

As Zero Hour approached, the Southdowns waited in their trenches. There was a slight drizzle, the men crouched in funk holes, pulled over their rain capes, heard the ping-ping of the rain on their newly issued steel helmets. Men shook hands, wished each other luck; brothers hugged and talked of family back home. Some were not even meant to be there. Corporal Percy Parsons of A Company, 13th Battalion, had reported sick in the week before the attack and was sent down to the transport lines. However, Captain Hughes, commanding the company, was going round his posts just as they were moving up, and noticed Parsons among the men; his reply was “… I could not stay behind, sir, when the boys were going over the parapet.” Hughes shook his hand and moved on.

Darkness covered the trenches. It was, in fact, an exceptionally dark night for summertime. There was little chance of any last minute notes or letters now, as lights were forbidden in the front line, and so smoking was out as well. If men talked, it was in a ghost-like whisper. Watches were consulted frequently. Officers and NCOs moved into position, checking equipment, and especially those wooden bridges which would get them across the ditches – which on aerial photographs had looked so formidable. A rum ration was issued from large earthenware jugs marked “S.R.D.”; which stood for Service Ration Department but which the troops would argue really stood for “Seldom Reaches Destination” or “Soon Runs Dry”.

In accordance with Operation Orders, the British barrage opened up with a roar at 2.50am, and lasted for some fifteen minutes. The men waited further, as the shells crashed into the German positions opposite; the shrapnel hopefully cutting the thick wire. Above the din of the bombardment, those nearer to the Boar’s Head itself would have heard a short, louder crack, as the push pipe mine was exploded by Major Coulter. The 300lbs of Ammonal explosive formed a smoking crater some sixty feet long, twenty feet wide and ten feet deep.

Into Action!
Into Action!

Then the watches could like no longer. It was Zero Hour, time to go, time to move from the front and support line trenches, and assemble in No Man’s Land, ready for the advance. Almost at once, the whole German line, invisible in the darkness, seem to explode with bursts of machine gun fire, and German shells began to fall in retaliation. Forty-two-year-old Private Jim Smith of the 13th Battalion thought he had read of such a scene somewhere before;

“… talk about Dante’s ‘Inferno’, it was never in it with our affair.”

On the 12th Battalion front Private Harry Finch, an Eastbourne man, was among the attackers. He recalled the events of the last few hours.

” We paraded at ten o’clock on the Thursday night for the trenches in full fighting order ready to go over the top the next morning. We all said the Lord’s Prayer with our chaplain who addressed a few words to us and gave us the blessing.

All night we were hard at work cutting the barbed wire in front and carrying out bridges to put over a big ditch in front of our parapet.

The time we were to go over the guns started a terrible bombardment of the enemy’s trenches. As soon as they started the enemy sent up a string of red lights as a signal to his own guns. I got a fragment of shell on the elbow about five minutes before our men went over… They blew our trenches right in at places.”

As his battalion went over the top at 3.05am, Private Finch witnessed a scene he could only describe as “… hell let loose ” and as the battalion moved out into No Man’s Land in wave formation,

“… a good many were hit before they went over… they went through a hail of shrapnel and machine gun fire.”

Private S.H. Tarrant, a newspaper boy from Horsham, was also helping Finch and his comrades put out the wooden bridges;

” I was out in No Man’s Land putting a bridge across a stream when the Germans opened artillery fire. We were all getting back into the trenches when a shell came and knocked four men out.

The order came along the line ‘over the top, boys’ and they went across the bridges which were being played on by machine gun fire.”

Moving away from the bridges, the men crossed into No Man’s Land in the darkness. German machine guns were firing blindly, but catching the men as they advanced towards the German lines; “We had such heavy losses”, recalled Private Finch, and indeed in many of the platoons both the officers and senior NCOs were amongst the first to fall – as the machine guns swept the ground from left to right. But the German trenches were finally reached and Private Tarrant was there;

” Into the German lines [we] went, which was half-full of German dead, and what were left were bombed out. After this [we] went on to the next line and killed or wounded them.”

The fighting in the front line was fierce as the men of the 12th Battalion made their way towards the communication trenches which led to the next line. In the now half-light, some Germans were seen coming down the trench towards the now depleted waves, but a quick acting Lewis gunner opened up with some well placed bursts, and the German counter-attack was halted.

The Germans could not get back into their front line, so brought the full force of their artillery to bear on the Southdowns, as Private Finch remembered,

“… they shelled their trenches mercilessly after our men had taken them that it was impossible to hold them.”

By this time, casualties among those leading the attack were very heavy indeed. Officers were nowhere to be seen; many of them lying dead in No Man’s Land or wounded in shell holes. Colonel Impey had been wounded, and was carried back to the British trenches by battalion stretcher bearers. It was at this time the senior Warrant Officers and Non Commissioned Officers began to take charge.

Nelson Victor Carter VC
Nelson Victor Carter VC

One of these was Company Sergant Major Nelson Victor Carter. Carter’s regimental number was SD/4; indicating he had joined the 1st Southdowns on the formation of the battalion in September 1914. And like many of those early enlistments, he was an old soldier. Born into a large Hailsham family in 1886, Carter had had spent some time as a labourer before joining the Royal Field Artillery in November 1902. Rapidly promoted to the rank of Bombardier by the following February, he was discharged medically unfit following a routine bladder operation; and after only 273 days’ service. He tried to re-enlist, but failed, returning to labouring for a while until his health was better. A further application to re-join the army came in August 1906, when Carter successfully enlisted into the 78th Company Royal Garrison Artillery. This time his service lasted almost three years, with postings both at home and in Singapore. He soon became the archetypal ‘old sweat’; a tall man of over six feet, he was heavily tattooed. Two horse’s heads, and clasped hands decorated his right forearm, with a huge tattoo of Buffalo Bill on his left forearm. Described by his commanding officer as “sober and reliable” and “very good”, his health problems, however, returned. A serious operation on his bladder was followed by a full reassessment of his medical grading. Found unfit for further service, Carter was discharged in June 1909, returning to his parents at Harebeating in Hailsham.

While in hospital, Carter had met a young woman named Kathleen. She became known to him as “Kitty”; they corresponded, a love affair followed and they married and moved to Greys Road in Eastbourne shortly before the Great War. Kitty later recalled the years following her husband’s discharge from the army,

“… when I first knew him he was recovering from a severe operation at the Princess Alice Memorial Hospital. He made a very good recovery, but when he tried to join the police they would never take him on account of the operation.

As he was unable to serve in the forces, he obtained work at various places in the town, at Eversley Court, Endcliffe School and the Burlington Hotel. Lastly he went to the Old Town Cinema as door attendant… when the cinema opened in December 1913.”

Carter was a well-known figure in the Old Town, dressed in the uniform of a commissionaire, and it was from here that he enlisted in September 1914; becoming one of Lowther’s first recruits. Indeed, it is likely he was known to Lowther before the war and was asked to join. Rapidly rising to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, he was posted to the newly formed 2nd Southdowns as Sergeant Major to A Company; and stayed with them for the rest of his service. His tall frame loomed high above many other men in his company; clearly visible in wartime photographs.

At Richebourg he had gone over in the fourth wave, armed only with a Webley Service revolver; a common side-arm for Warrant Officers at that time. The last to advance, this wave ran into problems getting out of the British support trenches, and then crossing the ground between them, the front line and No Man’s Land. German shells had already begun to fall, and many casualties were incurred even before reaching the British wire. Crossing No Man’s Land itself and entering the German trenches, Carter soon realised that few officers from his company, or indeed any company, had made it across. It had proved difficult to actually get into the trenches, as in many places it was found the German was “… practically undamaged and intact”. It was then down to the men to cut their way in with hand-held wire cutters, resulting in further casualties until this could be completed.

Nelson Victor Carter VC
Nelson Victor Carter VC

Reorganising the men around, CSM Carter took a bombing and bayonet party up the communication trenches and they fought their way into the German support line. By this time only forty men were left in Carter’s party, and after holding the support line for about half an hour, he was forced to withdraw to the old German front line. On the way back Carter personally carried several of his wounded men, and assisted others in the same task. He also single-handedly attacked a machine gun position with his revolver, shot the crew and then turned the gun on the Germans themselves.

The remaining troops of the 12th Battalion held on in the front line until 8am, by which time it was light and the full extent of the fighting was visible,

“… in many places dead bodies were piled up and trenches more or less impassable… the enemy trenches were badly damaged, and most of the dug-outs which were built in the parados immediately the rear of the front line, were demolished.”

Private Finch had been one of those accounting for the many German dead lying around,

“… the German infantry were no good; they ran crying from our men like babies.”

But Finch himself was caught in the blast of a shell, and shrapnel wounded him in the elbow. His “very warm time of it” was over, and he limped back across No Man’s Land to safety.

However, No Man’s Land was becoming a very dangerous place to be in. The German artillery had laid down a very heavy bombardment, making it very difficult to get back or forth. Men like Finch were lucky, but it meant supplies could not be brought across to the beleaguered 12th Battalion – and the trenches planned to link up with the German lines had not been completed. The push-pipe mine organised by the Australians had come to the surface some forty feet in front of the German trenches and the crater had not penetrated the German parapet at the Boar’s Head, merely lifting the wire up into the air and back down again, in a terrible and impassable jumble.

Back in the German trenches, it seemed that Carter and CSM White were the only men of any rank left unwounded. Several officers lay injured in the trenches around them, but could do little to help. The parados was built up with the rolled up sandbags carried by each man, and bombs, ammunition and other equipment was collected from the British dead and wounded. The two Warrant Officers decided to fight on until the ammunition ran out. The tenacity of the Germans to re-occupy their front line meant that these supplies were soon depleted, and by early morning only a handful of unwounded men were left; CSM White by then had himself been wounded.

Conferring with Carter, it was clearly time to withdraw. The Germans were still shelling No Man’s Land, and the position in the old front line was now untenable. Staying on would merely result in annihilation. Men began to drift back; some parties ran across with Carter leading them. Wounded were brought in. Captain H.T.K. Robinson was watching the scene, and saw Nelson Carter looming into view, his tall frame unmistakable.

” I next saw him about an hour later. I had been wounded in the meanwhile and was lying in our trench… [Carter] repeatedly went over the parapet – I saw him going over alone – and carried in our wounded men from No Man’s Land. He brought them in on his back, and he could not have done this had he not possessed exceptional physical strength as well as courage.”

The German trenches had been evacuated, and the survivors were now back in the British lines, but as Robinson indicated, No Man’s Land was littered with the dead, the dying and wounded men. Carter, and the few stretcher bearers left alive, again and again went out in search of their wounded comrades. But Carter’s luck could not last forever, and Robinson looked on in horror,

“… it was going over for the sixth or seventh time that he was shot through the chest. I saw him fall just outside the trench; somebody told me that he got back just inside our trench, but I do not know for certain.”

One veteran interviewed for this account told a similar story, but stated that the reason Carter had gone out one more time was to rescue a friend he had known from Eastbourne, who was calling out for help. Carrying him back across his broad shoulders, Nelson Victor Carter fell with the crack of a rifle as a German sniper caught him on the British parapet. His body was dragged in, and buried just behind the lines that evening.

For the 12th Battalion, the action at Richebourg was over. With the death of Carter and the evacuation of the last few wounded officers, the battalion had ceased to exist. A handful of men – their tunics torn and covered in mud, equipment missing, helmets dented by shrapnel – were relieved by the 14th Hampshires, and marched back to Les Lobes after resting for a short while at Richebourg St Vaast.

Chapter 2.2: Holding The Line Continued

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On the 13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment front at Cuinchy in early June 1916, a mine explosion had left a German soldier lying out amongst the debris. Marcus Banfield was to get a somewhat closer inspection of him.

” I saw a dead German sergeant whilst in the trenches this time, one which we had seen lying out in No Man’s Land. Lieut Fabian was responsible for bringing him in, which was rather a good bit of work, as the Germans must also have seen him and would naturally try to get him. We found out from the Intelligence Officer that the German was a Wurtemberger. He was a big fellow, 6 ft 3 ins. Our Adjutant got a ring off his finger as a souvenir; it sounds very rotten.”

Despite a chance for booty, the acquisition of Germans, dead or alive, was of great military value. It enabled clear identification of units opposite the British, and for many of the men it was a rare chance to actually see one of the enemy. For this reason, raids on the German trenches continued, despite all the hazards. Second Lieutenant Noel MacRoberts of the 13th Battalion, who had already distinguished himself for bringing in wounded men, led one such raid on the night of June 6th 1916. The battalion war diary relates what happened.

” 2/Lt MacRoberts and 36 other ranks left our trenches… and advanced up to the German wire accompanied by an Engineer officer and three sappers with a Bangalore torpedo. The latter was placed in a gap which had been made the previous night and the sappers returned to our front line trench. At 12.50am the message was received that all was ready and the F.O.O. phoned back to the Artillery to stand by. After a slight pause the torpedo was fired electrically from the front line and simultaneously the artillery opened fire.

Immediately the explosion had taken place the officer and parties rushed through the gap. Unfortunately, it is believed that the enemy were not entirely surprised from the fact that a barrage off bombs was thrown out in front having the effect of cutting of 2/Lt MacRoberts from his leading party. He however entered the German trench and ran over two dead bodies, and after a struggle with an enemy sentry, [he] was wounded in the hand and head. In the meantime, the second party reached the trench and were greeted with a shower of bombs from the enemy who appeared to be fairly strong. They, however, bombed along the top of the parapet inflicting considerable casualties on the enemy. Lt MacRoberts then gave the order to ‘move off’ and the parties made their way back independently to our trench.”

Through this action, the 13th Battalion earned the distinction of being the first in the 39th Division to enter the German trenches, but casualties amounted to Second Lieutenant MacRoberts and fourteen other ranks wounded. MacRoberts soon returned to the battalion, and later won the Distinguished Service Order, in addition to the Military Cross he had already received for bringing in the wounded at the Duck’s Bill.

Such patrols were dangerous work, and continued to account for many casualties. The 13th Battalion left the Cuinchy Brickstacks and after a brief rest, took over trenches opposite the Ferme du Bois; an old moated farm in No Man’s Land north-east of Festubert, and strongly defended by the Germans. Patrols were sent out the night of arrival to reconnoitre the position, and the two officers leading the patrols were wounded. One of them was Captain Francis Sydney Gillespie, who in civilian life was a well known English cricketer. Born in London, Gillespie had attended Dulwich College, where he began his cricketing career by playing in the school cricket team. After leaving, he went on to play for the London County Club, and later the Surrey County Team. At the Oval in 1913, he made one hundred and eleven runs in one hour. However, Gillespie could not devote his full time to the sport, and so joined his father’s firm in the city. On the outbreak of war, he enlisted as a Private in the Honourable Artillery Company and shortly afterwards was commissioned into the 13th Royal Sussex, rising to command `D’ Company by the time he came to France in March 1916. The wounds Gillespie received in No Man’s Land at Ferme du Bois were so serious that he was evacuated via the Field Ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station in Merville. He died of wounds the following day, aged 26. He was buried in the military cemetery, and the battalion war diary records,

“… this was a great blow to the battalion and one very much felt by all ranks. This officer was a model of energy and cheerfulness in the performance of his duty, and was always ready to help anyone who was in trouble. His funeral took place at Merville and was attended by 2nd Lt Jones and 2nd Lt Sparks.”

Such raids were popular with the General Staff of the 39th Division, and in particular with the officer commanding 116th Brigade. He wanted his officers to keep up the offensive spirit, and take the German wire as their own front line. Regimental officers often felt otherwise. Shortly after the debacle at Ferme du Bois when Gillespie had been mortally wounded, Colonel Grisewood, commanding 11th Royal Sussex, was called to Brigade headquarters with his second in command, Major Neville Lytton. The Brigadier unfolded a plan for a further raid, this time in the Brickstacks sector. According to Lytton, Grisewood “… jibbed a bit at the short notice “, but promised the Brigadier he would make a personal reconnaissance and assess the feasibility of the plan. After observing that the proposed ground was poor and unsuitable for such a raid, Grisewood reported back that,

“… the raid would not be successful unless he had three or four days for preparation. The Brigadier was furious and immediately took steps to get rid of him; the raid was carried out by another battalion… it a hopeless failure; several men were killed and no identifications were obtained.”

Herman Joseph Mary Grisewood 1916
Herman Joseph Mary Grisewood 1916

Herman Joseph Mary Grisewood was an interesting character. Born in October 1879, he had been commissioned into the 4th Hussars from the ranks of the Imperial Yeomanry, and served with distinction during the Boer War. Grisewood left the army in 1904 with the rank of Captain, and settled in the seaside resort of Bognor, living in a large house known as ‘The Den’. On the outbreak of war, he rejoined the army, and as an acquaintance of Colonel Lowther, Grisewood was instrumental in raising Southdowns recruits in West Sussex. By 1915 he was commanding the 11th Battalion, with one brother as his Adjutant, and another, Francis, as a platoon commander. When his brother the Adjutant died at Merville, the loss was keenly felt by Grisewood; many saw him as a changed man, with a different outlook on the war. He was known to care for the lives of his men, and as such earned respect from every man in the battalion; indeed Private Ashby wrote home to his parents in Hellingly that Grisewood “… was respected by all ” and even seventy years later, Ron Short, in 1916 a Lance Corporal in the 11th Battalion, described his former commanding officer as a “perfect gentlemen”.

Grisewood’s position was further compromised when orders for a forthcoming attack began to filter down to the Brigade. It was now well into the second half of June 1916, and there were many rumours of a large offensive about to take place down south, on the Somme. Speculation arose as to whether the Southdowns would take part, until final orders arrived showing that they would indeed play a role – in one of several diversionary attacks planned to take place on the eve of the great offensive. The idea was to make such attacks, thus confusing the Germans as to exactly where the real battlefront was; the 116th Brigade were informed that their assault would be on German positions at Richebourg L’Avoue, known by the British as The Boar’s Head.

Richebourg 1916
Richebourg 1916

Richebourg L’Avoue is a small village in the Pas de Calais, in French Flanders, just south of the Belgian border. It was less than a mile from Neuve-Chapelle, and was the scene of heavy fighting in 1914-15. Indeed, the 2nd and 1/5th (Cinque Ports) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment had suffered heavy losses here in the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915. The line consisted of a mixture of both trenches and breastworks, and the same problems with wet ground and flooding were in evident. However, from aerial photographs it is clear that in the summer months, the Germans used drainage ditches and old water courses as communication and support trenches. The British line had a greater network of communication trenches, and used a number of old, derelict buildings on and around the Rue du Bois; the main street that ran through Richebourg to La Bombe crossroads near Neuve-Chapelle. Most of these buildings were still standing and in fairly good order by June 1916, some have been reinforced and repaired by the Royal Engineers. A series of ‘posts’, or ‘keeps’, formed what was roughly the support line, each one a small sandbagged redoubt similar to the `Islands’ at Festubert.

Richebourg Panorama 1916 (IWM Q 37795)
Richebourg Panorama 1916 (IWM Q 37795)

The German defences were well constructed, consisting mainly of a single front line trench with three communication trenches linking up the support line around the distillery on the La Bassée road. As the land was flat, they had no advantage in height, but to the south the Ferme du Bois, a well known stronghold riddled with tunnels and machine gun positions, formed part of their front line. It had been heavily shelled, but some of the walls of the farm buildings were left standing, offering good observation points; the Southdowns had already lost men here earlier in June 1916. One strange part of the German line here was the old communication trench which ran westwards from the Boar’s Head itself, and actually linked up with the British trenches. It was a relic of the old 1915 fighting, when the German front line had been nearer the Rue du Bois. By 1916, it had been barricaded with a bomb block and partly filled in.

Richebourg church
Richebourg church

While out on a forward reconnaissance, Neville Lytton visited the old Richebourg church,

“… it was then bright moonlight, the ruin looked magnificent; it was an eighteenth century building and a short time before the Germans had bombarded it with eight-inch shells; the round classic arches were laid bare where the roof had given way, also the tombs of the departed had been churned up and it was curious to read Requiescat in Pace on the tombstones and then to see the skeletons of the deceased underneath performing a sort of dance macabre with empathetic gestures of horror and disapproval.”

The orders for the forthcoming attack on the Boar’s Head caused some surprise, if not a little concern among the regimental officers in the 116th Brigade, the formation chosen for the task. It was now 23rd June 1916; the operation was planned for the 30th, leaving less than a week to prepare and train for it. It was hardly enough time to make ready for such a large enterprise involving several battalions, and especially since the men had never been in action before.

Most opposition was silent, or resigned; but one man who would not keep quiet was Colonel Grisewood. His objections were quite simple. Lack of planning, training and knowledge of the ground would result in a massacre, and again Bob Short remembers the rumour going round that Grisewood had told the Brigadier, “I’m not sacrificing my battalion as gun-fodder”. Such objections had to be taken seriously, as Grisewood was a senior officer; but they could not be tolerated. The attack must go ahead, and Grisewood had to be stifled before he affected the morale of his men, if not the whole Brigade. Called before the Brigadier-General, the result of such actions was inevitable. Grisewood wrote to Neville Lytton,

“… an order has come from Brigade that I am to clear off at once. I am too miserable to come round and say goodbye… the whole thing is utter misery… Explain to them all the how and why of this rotten business.”

To his beloved men, he wrote a farewell message and made sure that all ranks had a copy. Private Ashby sent his home to his parents in Hellingly, remarking that Grisewood was “… very much upset at going and so were all the men.” Ashby’s letter, along with the farewell from his commanding officer, found its way into the local press;

” In relinquishing the command I have been so proud to hold during the past fourteen months, I wish to record my gratitude to each and every man in the battalion for the loyal co-operation they have given in the great work we undertook together and to express my appreciation of all the assistance each has rendered. The battalion has earned a great name and a splendid reputation, and I know they will add a record of glory and bravery worthy of the Regiment to which we belong. The memory of the two we spent together will always be with me, and to everyone in the battalion I wish God-speed and good fortune.”

Grisewood was a broken man. Hopes of staying with the Division until the forthcoming attack had taken place were dashed. He shook hands with his brother Francis, packed his kit, and took the boat train for England.

The war went on. Training for the attack began immediately. All three battalions were taken out of the line and sent to the Divisional Training Ground near Bethune, and the specialist groups were split up and trained separately; the bombers, for example, went off to the Divisional Bombing Ground at Le Pacaut. The attack was practised again and again on an area marked out with tapes, meant to represent the part of the German line they would be assaulting. The last day of training was scheduled for June 27th, but it poured with rain and so the idea was abandoned. It was their last evening behind the lines, and those who could sought sanctuary in the local estaminets, spending what little pay they had left on food, wine and beer. Afterall, these might have been the last home comforts many of them would have the chance to get.

If anyone felt fear, few showed it. Corporal Albert Banfield, waiting with his brother Marcus and the other 13th Battalion signallers, remembers the battalion on the eve of the action,

“… they went up as gaily as though they were going to a picnic. We had a Brigade of Territorials [nearby] and they saw us going up, and couldn’t understand it. They’d been out there longer than we had.”

Back in Sussex, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, sons and daughters of the men of the Southdowns Battalions slept soundly in their beds; ignorant of the fate of their loved ones. But even within the short space of twenty-four hours, all their lives would be changed forever.

Chapter 2.1: Holding The Line

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On a series of cold March mornings, the transport ships taking the 39th Division to France left the docks at Southampton. The Southdowns battalions were distributed among several vessels, which included S.S. ‘Viper’ and S.S. ‘Australind’, and disembarked at Le Havre on the night of 5th/6th March 1916. First to board their ship was the 11th Battalion on S.S. ‘Viper’, and Lance Corporal Bob Short remembered being handed some tea in his Dixie as he mounted the steps up onto the ship. Meanwhile, the 13th Battalion were kept hanging around.

” The train ran right up to the quay. We got into a large shed, where [there] was a canteen; here we could obtain hot coffee… and as we did not have to embark until 5.30pm we were at liberty to walk about the Docks.

There were two large Union Castle liners in the Dock, converted into Red Cross ships, having large red crosses painted on the sides and funnels. We also saw an armed merchantman, with several big guns.

About 5.30pm, we marched aboard and were taken down into the hold, which was low pitched, having fixed tables and forms. I did not stay there long – it seemed rather stuffy, so went on deck and had my last look at England. It was rather misty in the dusk, and I naturally wondered when and under what conditions I shall see it again.”

No doubt many of his comrades in all three Southdowns battalions felt the same, even if few showed it. For some it would certainly be their last glimpse of `dear old Blighty’, as with each passing minute they moved nearer and nearer to the war in France.

The crossing was pretty smooth, and even poor sailors like Marcus Banfield had managed to get some sleep. Arriving just off Le Havre at daybreak, the ships finally entered the harbour in the early hours, but disembarkation did not take place until about eleven o’clock that morning. Most men were marched in companies up to the rest camps near the town, but some of the 13th Battalion found themselves immediately seized for fatigue parties; “… much to our great disgust “, as Albert Banfield wrote in his diary. Eventually these elements of the 13th Battalion marched out of the town and like thousands of soldiers before them, endured their first experience of the cobbled roads, so typical of France. At the time it was an experience many could have done without, as the hard ammunition boots they wore were not suited to this sort of surface. All boots were hobnailed, which made walking on the pave very difficult: on the parade ground at Witley, and in the dusty roads of Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, fine, but here!

The camps round Le Havre were not liked by the men, now used to the wooden huts and relative comfort of Witley. Here they were back in tents; Albert Banfield wrote “… it is a rotten show, under canvas.”. The weather took a turn for the worst, as it began to snow the day after the battalions arrived. When orders at last came to leave for the station, there can have been few who were not pleased to leave the dismal camp behind. Arriving at Le Havre station, the men found cattle trucks waiting for them. Each one, marked with the infamous legend, `Hommes 40 Chevaux 8′: 40 men and 8 horses. It was to be an uncomfortable ride to the front; for the officers there was the luxury of the First Class carriages. The journey took them across Northern France, and lasted nineteen hours. Upon arrival at their destination, a further march, this time much longer, took the Sussex men nearer and nearer to the front.

Estaires: where the Southdowns arrived at the front.
Estaires: where the Southdowns arrived at the front.
The first proper billets the Southdowns had in France was at Estaires; a small town in the valley of the Lys river. In a reserve area commonly used for billeting troops out of the line south of Armentieres, Estaires was only a matter of a few miles from the trenches. Marcus Banfield recalled that “… we could distinctly hear the guns at times “, but for the moment the men were safe. The Germans, on the whole, left Estaires well alone. A few shells had fallen here and there in the early months of the war, and occasionally enemy aircraft buzzed the town, but there was little evidence that a war was on – the `business as usual’ attitude among the locals was apparent even by 1916. The local Estaminets, or bars, had signs which proclaimed the sale of `Egg & Chips’, watered down beer and over-priced wine – such spots were full of atmosphere, and were frequent, often illicit, gathering places for many of the Sussex men who had never before left their County, let alone England.

All too soon the inevitable reality of their situation became apparent when the three battalions were broken up into companies, and each one sent up to the front line for a course of instruction in trench warfare. At that time, the 8th Division were occupying trenches in the Fleurbaix sector, a few miles to the south of Estaires. To have called them trenches, however, was somewhat misleading. The ground in this part of France was so wet, that digging only a few feet into the earth resulted in a soggy pit full of cold water. These trenches were, in effect, breastworks built above ground level; constructed from sods of earth reinforced with sandbags, corrugated iron, and any other material found lying about. Several old houses formed part of the line, and these provided some form of protection, for without proper dugouts or ‘funk holes’, there was little protection from shell, and even rifle and machine gun fire. The corrugated iron shelters that were in existence, called ‘bashers’ by the men, were of little use when heavy shells came raining down.

British soldier looking at a crucifix in Fleurbaix, June 1916. (IWM Q690)
British soldier looking at a crucifix in Fleurbaix, June 1916. (IWM Q690)
Luckily, Fleurbaix was a relatively quiet sector. Heavy fighting had taken place here in the early months of the war, and again in 1915 during the Battle of Aubers Ridge. Now, both sides were largely content to live and let live; save the usual trench raids, patrols, rifle grenades and daily bombardments. Here the Southdowns were indoctrinated in the ins and outs of trench warfare. They had good teachers. The regular army battalions of the 8th Division – Lincolns, East Lancs, Rifle Brigade and Royal Berkshires – had been out since 1914, and even in 1916 still contained a high proportion of old soldiers, especially among the NCOs and WOs. Marcus Banfield encountered one on his first tour of the trenches,

“… had a chat with the Corporal in charge. He had been through Neuve Chapelle and had some good stories. I like what he said about Sir Douglas Haig, but some of the generals!”

Despite the seeming inactivity of the enemy, casualties were inevitable. On March 12th 1916, the 11th Battalion were in the line at Fleurbaix. Lance Corporal Fred Murrell, an Eastbourne man, was among those there.

” While going up to the first line we had a machine gun turned on us, the bullets striking the ground all round us. One poor fellow was killed.”

That `poor fellow’ was SD/1026 Private David Thomas Dunk. Dunk was a young man from St Andrew’s in Sussex, and one of the original September 1914 enlistments. He was the first overseas fatality in the Southdowns. There were to be many, many more.

Sergeant Fred Bird, of the 11th Battalion, also experienced that first time in the trenches at Fleurbaix. He wrote home to his mother,

“… we have had four days and nights in the fire trenches only about 200 yards away from the Allemands. That is plenty close enough at times.

Rifle bullets and machine gun fire we don’t mind; but it is the big stuff we object to. We see plenty of aeroplanes with shells bursting above them, and you have to dodge when you hear a piece of shell come whistling down…

Sometimes in the evening we have a Strafe, of Gaff, which consists of a mad minute; every man firing as many rounds as he can, while the machine guns pour out a leaden hail. I don’t suppose it does much damage. The Germans do the same, but we keep our heads down.”

However, Sergeant Bird did have some complaints. He recounted to his mother an age old grievance of many soldiers,

“… when we go into the trenches we are loaded up like young pack mules. Each man carries a day’s provisions, some coke and wood, periscope, gun, bombs, water tin and ammunition, besides all his personal belongings. I have carried some weights at times, but this lot is pretty killing.”

Private Walter Bourner, a Vine’s Cross man, was serving in the ranks of `A’ Company, 12th Battalion, on their first visit to the trenches. He wrote home.

” Only a few of us are killed so far by shells and a few wounded, but we cannot all expect to get clear. In the trenches we are so close to the Huns we can hear them talking; but we seem to be doing our share now – better than staying in Witley.

We get our supply of tobacco and cigarettes and plenty to eat, and of course we cannot grumble. We are allowed one envelope and one postcard a week. I shall get your letters when we get out of the trenches for four days’ rest in our billets – old barns with the roofs blown off and millions of rats.”

But Walter Bourner was never to see those letters; he was killed in action on 19th March 1916 and buried at Y Farm Cemetery.

Early days on active service with the Southdowns.
Early days on active service with the Southdowns.
By the end of March 1916, all three battalions were considered to have learnt enough from their comrades in the 8th Division, and were allowed to occupy the front line unassisted, and on a full battalion frontage. The weather was poor, the trenches miserable. Company Sergeant Major Nelson Victor Carter of the 12th Battalion wrote home to his wife in Old Town, Eastbourne,

“… this is a lovely place, plenty of everything including weather as well… I am quite alright but would like a good set to with the Gloves to keep me warm sometimes… this weather is enough to freeze the knockers off the Doors.”

His reference to ‘Gloves’ concerns Nelson Carter’s great love of boxing; something he had picked up in the regular army and in the Southdowns had become one of the champion boxers.

Considering the bad weather, the men were more than relieved when the 14th Hampshires arrived to take over the line from them. The battalions retired to billets in the Merville area, some miles from the trenches. It was a time for them to rest, to replace lost equipment, and to generally clean up. But most got a surprise when they discovered that `rest’ in army terms consisted of going out almost every night, and often during the day as well, on carrying parties for the Royal Engineers, or indeed anyone else who needed to-hand some ready made labour.

Lance Corporal E.W. Atkins, a former assistant master at Hailsham school, wrote home at this time.

” It was a big experience coming straight from England and the work was hard and trying, but taken with a good heart and in the right spirit without grousing. The time soon passed and trench life seemed no more than any other part of a soldier’s life. It is wonderful what fellows will do and how regardless they are of danger in the trenches.

Our rest billets so far have consisted of large barns and very welcome they are too, after the `dug-outs’. At all the houses where we have billeted we have been able to buy coffee `a la Francaise’, not to mention the `biere’. They all have a good stock – evidently they anticipate a huge thirst on the part of the British Tommies after several days fighting.”

Givenchy 1916
Givenchy 1916
Orders soon arrived, dictating a change of sector. All three battalions left their billets around Merville and moved south from Fleurbaix to the village of Givenchy. This village and its surrounding area was a notoriously `hot’ sector, with much enemy activity. The battalions took over trenches in the village itself, known as the `Village Line’, and facing the infamous `Duck’s Bill’, a configuration of numerous mine craters which littered No Man’s Land in a dangerously exposed salient. In some places the front lines were only a few yards apart. Here they were subjected to daily bombardments of both shells, rifle grenades and trench mortars known as “Minnies”; the name given to German Minenwerfer bombs by British troops. Lance Corporal Fred Murrell, 11th Battalion, wrote of his experiences at Givenchy,

“… every day the Germans shelled us, sometimes two or three times a day. Once they sent over 149 shells, among them being 50 `duds’. We only had one fellow hit with a piece of shrapnel.”

Casualties mounted. On 16th April 1916, a shell struck the parapet of a trench in the Village Line, occupied by the 13th Battalion, killing four men outright and wounding six others; one of these later dying of his wounds in a hospital at Bethune. Albert Banfield of the 13th Battalion recalled,

“… Fritz strafed vigorously in the morning some few hundred yards away… a good many of our fellows have been killed and wounded… which has rather depressed us.”

The following night a wiring party, sent out in front of the British trenches to repair and maintain the barbed wire entanglements, came under shell fire; three men were wounded, two of whom fell on the wire and became ensnared. Lying there only yards from the Germans, they would make easy targets when the sun came up. One man crawled back, reported the fate of his wounded comrades, and Second Lieutenant Noel MacRoberts who, along with Privates Parvin and Hayter, rushed out and brought them in to safety. However, one of them, Private Burt Spink, a nineteen-year-old Brighton man, died of his wounds the following day. MacRoberts bravery was recognised in July with the award of the Military Cross; Parvin and Hayter received the Military Medal.

Breastworks at Festubert photographed in 1918 (IWM Q 10752)
Breastworks at Festubert photographed in 1918 (IWM Q 10752)
By the end of April each battalion had suffered well over fifty casualties since landing in France. After a brief rest around the Hinges area, all three battalions marched back to the trenches, moving just a little further north to the village of Festubert. This village was only a short distance from Givenchy, but it suffered the same problems as the Fleurbaix sector – flooding. The line had hardly moved here since the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, and breastworks were again used instead of trenches. Worse still, the forward positions at Festubert consisted of small, isolated sandbagged emplacements known as `Islands’. If attacked, the occupants were expected to fight to the last, being supplied with extra issues of ammunition and bombs. Needless to say no man relished his turn in the Islands.

Like Givenchy, Festubert was another `hot’ sector, and the constant attention of the enemy unnerved many of the men. False alarms of German raids or attacks were common, and Marcus Banfield recalled on in the 13th Battalion trenches on 30th April 1916,

“… we suddenly heard a hooter sounding on our right, and the next minute we were given the order to turn out with our gas helmets, as the enemy were launching a gas attack. We all felt rather nervous, especially as it was night time. I found the gas helmet stuffy, and was not at all sorry when a few minutes later, we were allowed to put them up, as there was not any gas.”

Wiring parties on both sides of the line continued to be very active, as were patrols into No Man’s Land at night. On May 11th 1916, a German patrol approached one of the Islands, throwing bombs. The occupants returned fire with their own weapons, the Germans withdrew, but Lance Sergeant Gilbert Harriott, from the small village of Plumpton, and the 13th Battalion’s sniping Sergeant, was killed by machine gun fire in the melee. He was held in high esteem by his comrades, and the battalion war diary records, “… this splendid NCO will be greatly missed.”.

War poet, Lieutenant Edmund Blunden of the Royal Sussex Regiment (extreme right, second row) and a group of his fellow officers. (IWM Q 71249)
War poet, Lieutenant Edmund Blunden of the Royal Sussex Regiment (extreme right, second row) and a group of his fellow officers. (IWM Q 71249)
On 14th May 1916, the 11th Battalion received a draft of two officers from the 10th Royal Sussex in England. One of these was a certain Edmund Blunden. Although born in Kent, Blunden was educated at Christ’s Hospital School near Horsham. His family lived at Framfield, where his father was headmaster of the local school. Blunden became a well known figure in the 11th Battalion, and although not an `original’, became one of its longest serving officers. Awarded the Military Cross for bravery on the Somme, and mentioned in despatches, he commanded platoons, became the battalion Field Works Officer and eventually the Adjutant. He finally left the 11th in February 1918 for a well earned rest. In later years he became even more well known as one of the country’s foremost poets, and published his war memoirs, Undertones of War, in 1928.

2/Lt George Edward Elliott, died of wounds 1916 (Geni website)
2/Lt George Edward Elliott, died of wounds 1916 (Geni website)
The first officer to die on service with the Southdowns was Second Lieutenant George Edward Elliott. He was the 13th Battalion’s signalling officer, and prior to his death had trained the signal section to a very high standard while out on rest at Hinges. Known to all his men as “Rabbit”, both Albert and Marcus Banfield were in the signal section, and Marcus recalled his officer’s death,

“… Elliott, our signalling officer, was badly wounded last night and is hardly expected to live. He was shot in the forehead. We feel sorry for him.”

The son of a Vicar, and a former student at Oxford, the wounds he sustained proved fatal, and Elliott died of wounds in a Casualty Clearing Station at Bethune, aged only twenty. The following week the Adjutant of the 11th Battalion, Captain George Grisewood – brother of Colonel Grisewood – was sent down to a Field Ambulance, sick. He died a few days later at Merville, and was buried there, leaving a wife and small child in London.

George Grisewood (Beaumont Union website)
George Grisewood (Beaumont Union website)
The last week of May 1916 saw the three battalions again out on rest near Hinges. It was the same old story. The 13th Battalion, for example, spent its rest digging trenches in the 39th Divisional Training Area;

“… yesterday from 9 o’clock to 4 o’clock in the afternoon we were busy trenching. This is, I suppose, what the Army considers a rest. I think the best rest we get is in the trenches.”

By this stage casualties had become so numerous, that replacement drafts had begun to arrive from mid-May. A draft of ninety-nine men from the Army Cyclist Corps had arrived at the 11th Battalion on 19th May 1916. Initially viewed with suspicion, not being Sussex men, these new recruits were given five figure regimental numbers prefixed by a `G’, and not the `SD’ which all the original Southdowns had in front of their numbers.

The close of May 1916 saw the Southdowns battalions holding one of the most feared parts of this sector, the infamous Cuinchy Brickstacks. Marcus Banfield wrote of his experiences,

“… we have to spend most of our time… in the dug-out. The RSM, if he sees us outside, makes a great fuss of it. Our dug-out is very secure looking and has great wooden beams and small trees for a roof, besides the sandbags on top. It is a very long affair, like a miniature tunnel blocked up at one end. We have not really room to stretch our feet at night. My `Premier’ stove is very useful, and I have been able to fry some eggs for supper. I must be getting experienced, as they have turned out well.”

13 Section panorama. Taken from: North of Cuinchy. Direction: La Bassee (IWM Q 41775)
13 Section panorama. Taken from: North of Cuinchy. Direction: La Bassee (IWM Q 41775)
Cuinchy was a small village, just north of the La Bassée Canal. Dominated not by the local mines, or by farming, there was a huge brick factory here prior to 1914, which employed men from many miles around. When the Great War came to Cuinchy, the huge towers of undelivered bricks were left piled up in the fields around the village. When the fighting came to a close in the winter of 1914, they became part of the local defences on both sides, as well as landmarks in No Man’s Land. Towering above the battlefield, the Brickstacks saw numerous minor actions in 1915; indeed, in January 1915 the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment had fought off a German attack made with axes and scaling ladders, on the anniversary of the Kaiser’s birthday. By 1916, they were even distributed on both sides of the British and German trenches; being tunnelled into, dugouts and command posts established, along with sniper and machine gun positions in the summit of each pile. Neither side could move in the open without being seen, or without considerable loss, and consequently the fighting went underground.

The Great War has been likened to a siege many times, with old siege weapons and methods being employed by both sides. Tunnelling was one such example; digging under enemy positions, placing and detonating large charges of explosive, thus causing casualties, confusion and large craters. Such craters could be left, or captured by a raiding party, thus advancing the line forward a few more yards. At Cuinchy, they had all but turned this tunnelling into an art form. No Man’s Land from the La Bassée Canal to the Auchy road and beyond consisted of a long line of craters. Tunnelling was a non-stop, ongoing activity supervised on the British side by specially formed Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. The infantry in the line here knew only too well that such activity was going on, and that at any minute a mine could explode under them, blowing one and all to oblivion. In this respect, fear took on a special meaning at Cuinchy.

The 11th Battalion had a taste of this at 8.45pm on 4th June 1916 when a German mine exploded twenty-five yards from their front line parapet. Private Albert Turner, from Rotherfield, recalled the day,

“… I shall never forget it. The trench trembled like jelly and then up she went like one immense black cloud. Tons of earth and stones were thrown into the air and came down on top of us. We were all buried in and there were groans and cries all round. Dick Mitchell and myself were in the same bay and buried up to our armpits, but managed after a long struggle to get out. One poor little chap in the next bay had his neck broken by the falling earth, and numbers of others had to be dug out.”

In the midst of all this, many courageous acts were witnessed; Sergeant Budd, badly bruised, dug himself out of the mud, and immediately set about the re-organisation of the position in anticipation of a German attack; Private Dadswell’s foot was broken in the explosion, yet he stuck to his post and later aided in the rescue work; Corporal Russell suffered a broken leg, but despite this, rallied his men by crawling along the trench issuing orders, refusing personal assistance until his men had been attended to by the stretcher bearers. All three were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their bravery.

Casualties had been relatively light, with six men killed and thirty-seven wounded; fourteen of whom returned to duty that same day. The battalion’s bombers occupied the near lip of the crater, and a new sap was dug out to it. For some reason, there was no German attack – not even an artillery response. Several hours later, British tunnellers exploded their own charge under the German lines north of the La Bassée Canal. And so this strange form of warfare continued.

To be continued…

 

Chapter 1.2: The Formation of Lowther’s Lambs Continued

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In December 1914, the large wooden huts at Cooden, each one housing a company of men, were virtually completed for all three battalions. The men began to move in. Gone were the cold and wet tent lines on the hillside; gone were the cold floors of the Downs School; gone were the cramped houses in Bexhill; in the huts there was warmth, relative comfort, and protection from the weather that seemed to grow ever worse with each passing day. The blue serge tunics were gradually replaced by khaki Service Dress, and sets of the 1914 Pattern leather equipment were issued to each man. Although pleased to at last have some proper kit, it was unpopular with the men, as the design was poor, all the weight pulling on the base of the back; especially so when on the march. However, it was to remain in service with the battalions well into their first year in France; later, men replaced it with the normal 1908 Webbing equipment whenever possible.

Southdowns at Cooden, Christmas 1914
Southdowns at Cooden, Christmas 1914

There was little leave at Christmas; celebrations and huge dinners took place in each of the new huts at Cooden. the 3rd Southdowns were still not up to full strength – the number of enlistments had noticeably begun to decline – but recruitment started again in January 1915, and the reponse was promising – but still slow. Lowther had to send many of his officers far and wide to attract recruits. Handing out leaflets which appealed to South London men “… to prove you manhood”, the ranks of the 3rd Southdowns were swelled with men from the many communities in and around London, and on into Kent and Surrey. It created a somewhat cosmopolitan atmosphere in what was now known as the `Southdowns Brigade’.

By June 1915, changes were afoot. Colonel Lowther found himself more and more involved with politics and less so with the affairs of his beloved battalions. The time came to move on, and return to his work in the Houses of Parliament. He departed the battalions without fuss and ceremony. His wish to take them to the Front was never granted, and although rumours persisted that Lowther visited the Southdowns in France, there is no evidence to show that he ever crossed to the Western Front during the war.

On 1st July 1915, the `Southdowns Brigade’ was officially taken over by the War Office; before that it had effectively been Claude Lowther’s own private army. Now it officially became the 11th, 12th and 13th Battalions, The Royal Sussex Regiment (1st, 2nd and 3rd Southdowns). Men welcomed the news, but not Lowther’s imminent departure. And certainly not the events which soon followed; a move was ordered, out of Sussex. With almost lightening speed, the three battalions assembled at Bexhill Station, after a final march from Cooden Camp. Special trains were waiting, and despite the fact that few had the opportunity to warn their relatives of the departure, a large crowd had gathered to say farewell – but they were not allowed on the station itself. Marcus Banfield of the 13th Battalion was there,

“… [we] had our first experience of a troop-train. There were some touching farewells… but it was soon over.”

The trains departed Bexhill just after ten o’clock that morning. Leave was always sparse in the months and years that followed, and for some of these men it was undoubtedly the last time they would see their beloved Sussex. The destination they were heading to was Detling Camp, near Maidstone in Kent. Marcus Banfield was not impressed with his new abode,

“… after detraining, we marched to Detling, about 3 miles off. Detling village is pretty and old-fashioned, the camp lying about half a mile off, at the foot of the North Downs. The country is very pretty, but for some reason I soon wished I was back at Cooden.”

A further shock befell the Southdowners when they found the camp’s accommodation consisted entirely of bell tents: a far cry from the warm and comfortable wooden huts the men had become used to at Cooden. And as Marcus Bandfield had mentioned, the camp was miles from anywhere; with few opportunities for the troops to amuse themselves. One Orderly Room Sergeant wrote home from `Somewhere in Kent’,

“… we had a quiet journey down, but we had a very tiring march after detraining, and a blazing sun, coupled with a heavy pack, gave one or two the order of the `knock’. `Lights Out’ was a welcome call that night… sleeping under canvas has its advantages… I prefer the huts. At present there are too many earwigs for my liking… it is pouring like blazes… raindrops flop through the crevices in the flaps of the tent.”

The Sergeant presented a depressing scene, and to add to it, some of the hardest work the men had ever done – digging trenches on the Thames and Medway Defences – was carried out during this period. As the Orderly Room Sergeant concluded, “… we are having a much rougher time than we did at Cooden “. However, officers and men alike pulled together, improved the camp, and some hot weather ensued, several men taking to sleeping outside their tents. Marcus Banfield, however, continued to find his time at Detling full of misery,

“… on the Monday we had our first taste of trenching, which we soon found hard enough work… things were naturally rougher under canvas than in huts. We slept on the ground, with three blankets and a waterproof sheet. This we very soon got used to. The food was very tough, especially the meat, owing to the difficulty of cooking. While trenching we had to cook our own dinner. This I found a sickening process, especially when out signalling, as sometimes in the middle of receiving a message the pot would boil over and nearly put the fire out.”

Recreation was just as poor. Marcus Banfield attempted to keep up his religion while at Detling, and seek recreation in other quarters,

“… in the evenings we went to the Priory Chapel, where we heard various ministers… Saturday we often went into Maidstone to have baths and tea, and then short walks.”

The apparent misery at Detling came to an end in September when orders were received to move to Aldershot, for a course of musketry training. Marcus Banfield remembered the last few hours spent at Detling,

“… the rain came down in misty sheets at intervals in the night. I thought the tent would come down because of the violence of the wind; it however stood the shock, and did not let much water through until the morning… we did what we could as regards rolling our blankets etc. We packed our rations for 24 hours in our haversacks and got ready to march off. As it was raining we had to do this in our overcoats, which made it rather hard work. The band accompanied us, but minus the big drum, which made it sound rather strange.”

The battalions arrived at Maidstone station in the early hours, soaking wet and with some time before the train arrived. When it did, the journey took them via Redhill and Guildford, and onwards to Aldershot, the `home of the British Army’. The train stopped at Farnborough, and the men had to march to North Camp. These three battalions of now very fit and robust Southdowners arrived at the barracks in North Camp on 29th September 1915. Each man handed in the so-called Long Lee Enfield rifle, which by Detling had been issued to each man, and exchanged it for the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE). In this respect the men were lucky; many units of Kitchener’s Army were forced to take their obsolete Long Lee Enfields overseas with them, there being a shortage of SMLEs. For many of them, this was the first chance they had since enlisting to fire a rifle on the range; although each man had his own weapon, even by 1915 a great number were still rifles fit for drill purposes only.

Southdowns at Detling 1915
Southdowns at Detling 1915

Some did not like the change of scene. Marcus Banfield noted of Aldershot in his diary that “… I did not approve of it, the place being too military for my liking.” . One must remember that Banfield, and hundreds like him, were still very civilian minded; despite the months of training and any number of NCOs, only a year before these men had been in `civvie street’. Their experiences in the army may have inculcated in them the history and spirit of their regiment, but they were far from being like soldiers of the regular army.

The new barracks at North Camp were certainly a very comfortable affair. Made of red brick, with a wash house attached to each block, it was a great improvement on Detling. Nearby was a canteen, and also a YMCA Hut that provided writing paper, pencils, pens and envelopes for the men to write home to their loved ones. But still Marcus Banfield had complaints,

“… Aldershot town is the most abominable place I know of; plenty of public houses, fried fish shops, and the inevitable Cinemas. There seems to be a sort of curse over the place, and I shall be quite content never to see it again.”

Others, more used to such haunts, or perhaps experiencing them for the first time, would no doubt have disagreed with Banfield. He himself was pleased to leave Aldershot after only two weeks, but many would have mourned such a passing, for luxuries such as these were to be few and far between in the times ahead. While still at Aldershot, training continued. Each man shot a course on the ranges and slowly became proficient with his rifle. The best shots were noted and marksmen selected, to be recommended for each battalion’s sniper section. However, orders soon arrived, once again dictating a further move.

Wiley Camp 1916
Wiley Camp 1916

Marching through Surrey, over Hogg’s Back and Crooksbury Hill, the move from Aldershot took them to Witley Camp, some distance outside of Guildford. Witley was a war-time camp, established in 1914, but gave the appearance of a far more permanent affair. Set on open ground surrounded by pine trees, large wooden huts stretched across hundreds of acres. In October 1915, the 39th Division was assembling here, and the three battalions of Lowther’s Lambs now found themselves part of the 116th Infantry Brigade, itself part of that Division. During this period of the war, each division consisted of three brigades, each one having four battalions. The full Order of Battle of the 39th Division at this time was therefore,

116th Brigade

11th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (1st Southdowns)

12th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (2nd Southdowns)

13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (3rd Southdowns)

14th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (2nd Portsmouth Pals)

117th Brigade

16th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Chatsworth Rifles)

17th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Welbeck Rangers)

17th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (British Empire League)

16th Rifle Brigade (St Pancras Pals)

118th Brigade

1/6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment

1/1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment

1/1st Battalion Hertfortshire Regiment

4/5th Battalion The Black Watch

Pioneers

13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (Forest of Dean Pioneers)

Marcus Banfield was at last pleased with his new posting,

“… Witley Camp is situated in a beautiful spot… The huts are of wood, are fairly water-tight and quite comfortable. For the first time we have a separate mess room, which is rather nice.”

More specialist and intense training took place at Witley. The old machine-gun sections in each battalion were disbanded, and the men transferred to the Machine Gun Corps; recently formed through Royal Warrant in October 1915. This firepower was replaced by a Lewis Gun section, under an officer, and recruited from the more technically minded men of each battalion. Gas masks were issued for the first time, and training followed in a specially constructed gas chamber so that the men were familiar with the masks and the gas itself. The transport sections were brought up to strength, and all the equipment needed was finally made available; no more farm carts, as had been the case at Cooden.

11th Battalion NCOs at Witley 1916
11th Battalion NCOs at Witley 1916

Changes of command also took place. Lieutenant-Colonel Harman Grisewood, the Bognor man instrumental in the formation of the 1st Southdowns, now became the commanding officer of the 11th Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace and Lieutentant-Colonel Spurrell commanded the 12th and 13th respectively. They were replaced in early 1916 by Lieutenant-Colonel G.H. Impey posted to the 12th, and Lieutenant-Colonel F.G.W. Draffen to the 13th. Impey was an officer of the 7th (Service) Battalion, who had enlisted on the outbreak of war in August 1914. He had seen service as a company commander in France in 1915. Draffen was formerly of the Scottish Rifles, and had fought at Spion Kop in the Boer War. In some of the early battles of the Great War, he had served with a territorial battalion of his regiment.

Several deaths among Lowther’s Lambs took place while the battalions were at Witley; either due to accidents or of natural causes. One of those to pass away before his battalion was sent overseas was Private Byron Snook, an 11th Battalion former butcher’s assistant, from Felpham. Snook was taken ill in late December 1915, and died a few days later in a nearby hospital. His death was reported in a local Sussex newspaper,

“… the body was conveyed by rail to Bognor in preparation for the funeral service which was held held at Felpham church, the Rev. Rowland Lees officiating. The coffin was carried by deceased’s comrades from Witley, while a detachment of Cyclists acted as a firing party, and fired a volley over the grave. The Last Post was also sounded.”

This small village of Felpham, on the outskirts of Bognor, had already seen thirteen deaths due to war service by the time of Snook’s funeral, and among those to die in later years was Snook’s older brother. The village had also supplied a small contingent to Lowther’s Lambs in September 1914, and aside from Byron Snook, two of these were later killed in action, and a further eleven wounded at Richebourg alone. Felpham was only one of many such small villages in Sussex, which supported Colonel Lowther’s appeal in those early days, only to pay the price.

Christmas 1915 was now approaching. Before the festivities began, many men were given leave at short notice. Some complained, but were soberly told that this was to be the “… last War Office leave “. By the time of their return from leave, morning parades were cancelled, and some of the intense training, which had characterised the period at Witley, was relaxed.

” Christmas Day came on. We had nearly four days holiday, but the weather was unfortunately bad, so we could not get out much. Christmas morning we had a voluntary Church Parade, which was well attended. The food was not bad considering, but the attendant festivities I could very well have done without. We had dinner in No 10 Platoon hut, which was decked with holly etc. Capt Humble-Crofts, Lieuts Elliott and Elphick and the Adjutant had dinner with us, and I hope they enjoyed it. I was very glad when it was all over… the young fellow who slept next to me came in drunk for the first time in his life, and I think he was quite ashamed of himself. The three following days were wet, so we had to keep indoors, and altogether I was very glad to be on parade again.”

As yet another Christmas and New Year in uniform passed, what training the Southdowns battalions could expect in England was drawing to a close. As one observer noted, the men were,

“… daily expecting the date of moving for Active Service; orders they have eagerly been awaiting for months, and they are of the opinion that the authorities have delayed those far too long.”

In March 1916, after many false alarms and rumours, the time to leave for overseas finally came. The battalions, indeed the division, was ready for war. Bob Short, an Eastbourne man then a Lance Corporal in the 11th Battalion, remembered,

“… Colonel Grisewood called the men on parade and told us we were going to France. Everyone cheered. This was it; we were finally at war ! “

 

Chapter 1.1: The Formation of Lowther’s Lambs

” Men of Sussex:

You will not be seperated !

Together you will train !

Together you will fight !

Together you will die if needs be, But

Together, pray God, you may return ! “

Claude Lowther, September 1914

In the sleepy lanes of Sussex interest in the possibility of War had, up until 4th August 1914, been perhaps negligible. Most people were content to enjoy the Summer sunshine on a beach at any number of seaside resorts; from Bognor to Brighton, to Bexhill and Hastings. Others toiled in the fields, or herded sheep up on the South Downs. White collar workers took the familiar journey to the office, perhaps wishing they, too, were on the beaches or even up on the Downs. Milkmen did their rounds with carts led by horses, coal men lifted the iron portals on the pavement outside the terraced houses that had increasingly been built in the decade or so since the death of `The Old Queen`, Queen Victoria. It was the very picture of late Edwardian life; orderly, a scene of almost romantic tranquillity, not to be experienced for many years to come.

Yet when the War did come, the major towns in Sussex became alive with activity; men were called to rejoin their old units from the Reserve, the Regular soldiers of the Royal Sussex Regiment prepared themselves for the inevitable orders which would take them to France, and the Territorials – the 4th , 5th (Cinque Ports) and 6th (Cyclists) mobilised in preparation for home defence. At this stage, no-one had thought of sending them overseas as well; for all the national and local newspapers spoke of a War that would be over by Christmas.

Nevertheless, one man who believed the War would not be over in such a short time was the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. Unpopular with many of his Cabinet and Military colleagues, he called for a volunteer force to be raised from the young men of England, Scotland and Wales; to supplement the casualties which would be inevitably be suffered by the Regular Army abroad. He proposed a volunteer force of 100,000 men, but a great many more responded to the call. Patriotic fever ran high all over Britain and men, both young and old, flocked to take part in this `great adventure` and joined the so-called “New Army”, or “Kitchener’s Army” as it was more commonly known. Many joined at once in case they missed their chance before the war had finished. Others enlisted because life in the Army, with somewhere to sleep and regular meals, was often more preferable to the lifestyle they currently experienced either out of work or in any number of monotonous occupations that characterised the period.

Sussex answered the call for volunteers with a so-called `Service’ battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment; the 7th raised at Chichester on 12th August 1914, from a nucleus of 2nd Battalion officers posted to the Depot at Roussilon Barracks. The response was terrific and so unexpected that it was soon realised a further battalion, or battalions, might also have to be organised. For, at Chichester,

” … the scene for the following fortnight almost baffles description. A depot filled beyond capacity with recruits and more arriving every few hours… all joyfully expecting to be immediately issued with a rifle and bayonet and sent to France.”

An 8th Battalion therefore followed, again formed in Chichester, the recruits mainly came from the towns and villages of West Sussex. Contemporary photographs show this to be an `older’ battalion than the 7th – apparently recruited from men in their 30s, married men. Under strength by the time it moved to Colchester in the autumn of 1914, its ranks were swelled by enlistments from the London area. As yet, men from East Sussex were barely represented in the ranks of the Royal Sussex Regiment`s New Army Battalions.

Claude Lowther MP 1914
Claude Lowther MP 1914

One man who aimed to change this and add his own personal mark to Kitchener’s Army was Claude Lowther MP. Lowther had been born in 1872, the son of a Naval officer, and was related to the Lowther family of Cumberland who owned Lowther Castle. Educated at Rugby, Lowther left to enter the diplomatic service. He joined the Westmoreland and Cumberland Yeomanry in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and during the Boer War his unit was transferred to a Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry. He had a distinguished war in South Africa, being recommended for the Victoria Cross. After the Boer War, Lowther turned to politics, and was member for Cumberland up until 1906, and then again from 1910 to 1918. In the years leading up to the Great War, he bought Herstmonceux Castle; then largely in ruins. He began renovations at once, and by 1914 he was well known and greatly liked among Sussex society. Indeed, due to its closeness to London and the Houses of Parliament, Lowther spent more time in Sussex than his native Cumberland.

On the outbreak of War, drawing on his experiences in the Yeomanry, Lowther had hoped to form a volunteer Mounted Infantry Regiment; but the plans had been rejected by the War Office as there was already a surplas of cavalry units. Never one to be thwarted by red tape, a further attempt to raise a local unit was made by Lowther at the end of August; this time he proposed to form a local company of men from the Herstmonceux district which would be offered to Kitchener’s Army. To attract men, he placed a letter in local newspapers, then read widely and in their heyday due to advances in print technology since the turn of the century. He wrote,

”  I have obtained leave to form a company of local men willing to serve abroad and am willing to go with them. Sgt Coleman should immediately take names of all those willing to join in Hertsmonceux and neighbourhood. Men must form part of Kitchener’s New Army, but they will have the advantage of fighting side by side and not as units drafted into different Regiments.”

The response was far beyond anything Lowther could have imagined. Men not only from the Herstmonceux area, but from towns and villages all over East Sussex approached him with a view to joining the company. It was now clear to Lowther that a far larger unit could be raised, and so he therefore gathered together his many friends and contacts all over Sussex to form a recruiting committee with the view to forming a county-wide battalion. The committee consisted of many Sussex worthies; among them Earl de la Warr, the Grisewood family of Bognor and several retired Army officers, some of whom had fought with Lowther in South Africa. Recruiting offices would be established all over county, but chiefly in East Sussex, as the lack of representation of men from this area had been noted by Lowther and his committee; and in any case he was better known there.

Following successful recruiting campaigns elsewhere in Britain, posters were placed in all the major towns and villages, and advertisements appeared in many local newspapers. The word was spread, and after several set-backs, a date was set for the formation of the battalion. In all his recruiting literature, Lowther placed great emphasis on the fact that men would enlist and fight together, and not be split up; it was the spirit of the “Pals” battalions which so dominated enlistment patterns in the North of England. Recruiting therefore began on 7th September 1914. Offices opened in Eastbourne, Bexhill, Hastings, Worthing, Hertsmonceux, Newhaven, Horsham, Bognor and Chichester. Despite the fact that the War was nearly a month old, that two Service battalions had already been formed, and many Sussex men had joined other units of Kitchener’s Army, the response was quite incredible. In just over two days, Lowther had recruited more than enough men to form what was now known as the 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment.

The Bexhill Chronicle reported the event with some satisfaction,

“… Mr Claude Lowther MP… has recruited 1,100 men for his new Battalion. This has been achieved in 56 hours… the Battalion will go into camp at Cooden for training. It will have a distinctive uniform.”

What had obviously attracted many was Lowther’s original promise that if men enlisted together, they would not be split up; it would be pals and chums, and brothers, fathers and sons – all together. Indeed,

”  Mr Lowther has influence enough with the War Office apparently to be cumbered with no red tape; and it has been arranged that the men who enlist for, say, Bexhill, will all be in one company, so that Bexhillians will fight shoulder to shoulder and thus encourage a fine spirit of espirit de corps.”

Each of Lowther’s recruiting offices effectively formed its own `Pals Company’ with a distinct local identity, organised and led by well known local men. In Bognor, for example, Colonel Fryatt, Captain Grisewood and Regimental Sergeant Major May, all old soldiers with many years of service between them and known throughout Bognor, assembled the local recruits outside the drill hall in Bedford Street, and took them by train to Bexhill. In Bexhill itself, Earl de la Warr donned his old Naval uniform, and was instrumental in raising the companies there. In Hastings, the local recruiting officer, Lieutenant Colonel Whittle, enlisted some 108 men at his temporary headquarters in Havelock Road. Each man who joined up here was later presented with an illuminated coloured scroll, showing his name, regiment, and date of enlistment. For many years to come they would proudly grace the walls of local houses.

Eastbourne Pals 1914

In the outlying villages, men keen to enlist downed tools, left their homes and commandeered farm carts and horses, and rode into the nearest town that had a recruiting office. Others walked miles down long country roads, across fields and though woods, but elsewhere the departure was somewhat more spectacular. At Eastbourne,

“… recruits for the 9th Service Battalion… left Eastbourne for Bexhill by special train. They had a hearty send off from Eastbourne station, where the mayor (Councillor C.W.Bolton CSI), and deputy mayor (Councillor R.T.Thornton) saw them off while the municipal military band played popular melodies…as the train steamed out of the station.”

The Eastbourne contingent numbered well over three hundred men, and before boarding the train, each recruit had been presented with a packet of cigarettes, paid for by a local lady who chose to remain anonymous. Lowther himself was also there, and reassured the men that rumours the battalion was for home service only were “… entirely erroneous.”

Lowther accompanied the men to Bexhill, where they and hundreds of others from all the recruiting areas began to assemble as one complete unit. Billets for them hqd been arranged in several districts of the town – from single houses to schools, old sheds and factory yards – and many of the men spent their first night away from home and in the army sleeping in their own clothes, on cold, hard floors; no uniforms, no weapons and certainly little glory.

Next day they reassembled in the Town Hall square, and marched to Cooden Common; a few miles away on the western outskirts of Bexhill – and the location of their proposed new camp. Lowther had used his influence to secure a large area of ground,

“… situated near to the Bexhill Harrier’s Kennels, on the gently rising slope towards the road that leads from Cooden to Little Common. It is a short distance from the road, from which it cannot be seen.”

Part of the ground was owned by Cooden Golf Club, whose President, Mr C.K. Peache, was very co-operative and allowed many of the club’s buildings to be used as officer’s billets, guard houses and battalion headquarters. The tennis pavillion was eventually handed over to the stretcher bearers, and much later a concrete swimming pool was constructed, for the amusement of the men and to encourage physical fitness. Indeed, swimming competitions were eventually held. However, for the moment a “business as usual” attitude towards the War prevailed even here, with games of golf being played by members of the Club well into October 1914; while around them the battalion was blossoming.

Cooden Camp 1914
Cooden Camp 1914

By the end of September 1914 Claude Lowther had his battalion; yet a battalion in name only. The camp at Cooden consisted of old Bell Tents, lined up in rows of nine, with primative washing and cooking facilities, and located on a slope, which flooded easily in the September rain. Those who could not be accommodated in the camp were billeted in the many grand houses of Bexhill; among families with old women, and children, which caused friction, dispute and bad feeling. There were arguments over how much Lowther should be paying to these families for the inconvenience of having soldiers billeted on them. It was a far from satisfactory situation. Further problems occurred when the local licensed premises in the town were ordered to close at nine o’clock. One of the local newspapers took up the challenge and asked why it was “… necessary to close our hotels in Bexhill at nine, when one of the best behaved regiments there is, is encamped at a distance of two miles from most of them?”. However, the local authorities did not relent, and the feeling of being a `garrison town’ with `lights out’ at nine o’clock stayed with Bexhill for the rest of the War.

In late September 1914, Colonel Lowther assembled the battalion together and delivered a speech to his men many of them would remember for the rest of their lives. He was frank and he was honest, as he outlined his plans for the battalion,

“… it is now just a week since the majority of the battalion arrived in camp. In that short period you have had more than a taste of military routine, and although that routine must necessarily be varied and become harder and more interesting as time proceeds, yet I hope that even in these early stages it has not been unpalatable to you. It has been my endeavour… to make you as happy and comfortable as circumstances permit.

There was some delay in getting into camp… I arranged for you to be billeted, and I think it does you the utmost credit that although over a thousand men were billeted for several days in different parts of the county, not one single complaint has reached me of bad behaviour.

I am proud of the battalion I have the honour to command.

There is not the slightest reason whilst we are training here for any man to be insufficiently fed, and I have asked every officer to investigate minutely any complaint about food, and to pay particular attention both to the quality and quantity of your food.  Should the day arrive when it is necessary for me to demand a sacrifice of you, I shall not hesitate to do it. I know full well that the spirit which prompted you to leave your homes and vocations at your country’s call will enable you to endure hardships and privations with a brave and manly heart. But whatever hardships you endure I will share with you, whatever sacrifice you are asked to make will be borne by officers and men alike. I don’t want you to look upon your officers as mere automatons issuing words of command when they are not meeting out punishments. I want you to feel we are your friends, whose highest pride is in the regiment and whose deepest thought is for your well-being.”

Such sentiments seemingly cheered the men. They felt they were `getting a fair go’, that this battalion at least wasn’t going to be an ego trip for a bunch of `dug-outs’ and martinets. It pulled all ranks together in a strong bond; after all many of the officers were men who only a few months before were school friends or work mates of men who were now in their command. Lowther continued in his speech,

“… it is the intention of you officers to encourage every form of sport. I was glad to see that you have already begun to play football. Later on we must organise some wrestling and boxing matches, and I shall be glad to offer… belts for the heavy, middle and light weight championships… The sudden recruiting of Kitchener’s New Army has caused a momentary shortage in rifles, but every military gun maker in the country is working night and day, and I have no doubt that in a very few weeks the battalion will be fully armed. In the meanwhile the War Office are sending us 200 rifles. This will enable those who are not already proficient to practice daily at the butts and to learn how to fire, sight and handle a rifle.

With regard to uniforms, shirts and boots. Directly I was ordered to raise the battalion, I ordered these to be made. The first five hundred uniforms will be ready in a little over two weeks, the rest a week later. Owing to a shortage in khaki, your uniform will be dark blue. I hope you will take pride in them, and cause them to be respected by friends and feared by foes. I have also written to headquarters asking leave to give some compensation money to every man for the wear and tear of his private clothes until the uniforms are forthcoming.”

Pay was a mute subject with the men, as so far, no-one had been paid. Lowther promised to rectify the situation and all back pay would be settled shortly. He asked for patience, and offered to advance money from his own pocket to those who had dependants who were suffering hardships due to the parting of their men-folk. Again, such words pleased the men, and accommodation was the next issue on their minds,

”  It is evident that the sooner you leave your tents and get under more substantial cover the better it will be for your health and comfort. With this object in view I have ordered buildings to be constructed of sufficient size to accommodate the whole battalion. But instead of building a quantity of little huts… I have ordered three very large buildings, substantially constructed, well aired and ventilated, each capable of sleeping some 400 men.”

Lowther ended with a stirring call, but again levelling with the men,

“… you have much to learn and little time to learn it in, but the task is not impossible. I know the men I am speaking to. I know the sacrifice you have already made – the professions, the trades and the homes you abandoned when your country called.

Well, your country is still calling… Let us apply ourselves with a whole heart. Let us put energy, intelligence, good will go into our work, and who knows that one day in the future, the joyous news may come to us that the Southdown Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment has been ordered to the front.”

Such news would, in fact, be a long time in coming yet.

After outlining Lowther’s plans, the battalion was now organised on a proper company level;

A & B  became  A Company :  Eastbourne double company.

C & D  became  B Company :  Eastbourne, Bexhill and Hastings.

E & F  became  C Company :  Worthing, Herstmonceux, Horsham and Newhaven.

G & H  became  D Company :  Bognor and Chichester.

The first batch of uniforms then began to arrive, as Lowther had promised; the officer’s had their own, privately paid for with an allowance from the War Office. A number of senior NCOs and WOs had acquired current issue khaki Service Dress from somewhere, but the uniforms, which came in October 1914, were the ones Lowther had mentioned in his speech. Each man was therefore kitted out with a set of the new blue serge tunic and trousers, which were popular with many other units of the New Army, and were commonly dubbed “Kitchener’s Blues”. They resembled the Service Dress, but a side cap was worn rather than the regulation peaked cap. Brass buttons were sewn on and each man was given a Royal Sussex Regiment cap badge to wear; where there was a temporary shortage of these, men wore pre-war issue Royal Sussex collar badges instead.

Southdowns in Kitchener's Blues 1914
Southdowns in Kitchener’s Blues 1914

The men now at least looked like soldiers, but training during this period, and for some time to come, mainly consisted of sport, physical drill and route marches. The rifles that Lowther had predicted would arrive were either so antiquated they were too dangerous to fire, or the butstocks were stamped “D.P.” – indicating the weapon was for Drill Purposes only and should not be fired. It is likely that most men didn’t get to handle a rifle and shoot it until their arrival at Aldershot in the summer of 1915. Boots were also still a problem, and many men still wore the same ones they had joined in. The camp at Cooden started to take on a more permanent look as the wooden huts Lowther promised in his speech were constructed. The first ones, sited on ground between the camp and Little Common Road, were built by Messrs Boulton & Paul, of Norwich, a “… well known firm ” reported the Bexhill Chronicle. Furthermore, it noted that each hut would be two hundred and forty foot long, and fifty feet wide, with boarded roofs covered in water proof material. Inside,

“… the men will sleep in hammocks, which… are easily stored away, and will this leave the floor space available for other purposes.”

Rations improved, and some of the menus noted in the `Latest Camp Notes’, which appeared in local newspapers, are worthy of mention. For breakfast a Southdowner could expect bread and butter, with a choice of herrings, tomatoes and sausages. Lunch usually consisted of beef, potatoes and peas, and `Tea’ of cake, bread, butter and jam. Eating took place in large marquees, and a further mess tent was erected where the men could “… purchase almost anything they require, from provisions to note paper, minor drapery articles, wines and spirits.”.

Towards the end of October a parade was held at Cooden when Lieutenant-General A.L. Woolacombe, commanding Eastern District, reviewed the battalion. He “… expressed his satisfaction in glowing terms.” at the turnout of the men. Colonel Lowther took the opportunity to announce that he planned to form a second Southdowns battalion, on the advice of the Army Council. Recruiting for the new battalion began on 3rd November 1914, and the response was again good, although not as dramatic as when the 1st Southdown had been formed in September. However, by November stories of the fighting around Ypres filled the newspapers, and the first heavy casualty lists began to appear. This no doubt prompted many Sussex men to enlist; particularly as the war now looked it would drag on well beyond Christmas.

A number of officers and NCOs were transferred from the 1st Southdown, to form a nucleus for the new battalion. Major F.R. Leith, late Royal Irish Regiment, became the new commanding officer, CSM Secrett was promoted to Regimental sergeant Major, with a number of Corporals now acting as Company Sergeant Majors; one of them was Nelson Victor Carter, an ex-regular from Hailsham, and one of the tallest men in the Southdowns, who became CSM of `A’ Company.  Recruits for the 2nd Southdown came from the same areas as before, with once more distinct local companies;

A  Company  :  Eastbourne and district.

B  Company  :  Brighton and district.

C  Company  :  Worthing and district.

D  Company  :  Hastings and district.

And “… thereby carrying out the wishes of Colonel Lowther that friends should train and fight together as far as possible.”

12th Battalion men at the Downs School, Bexhill 1914
12th Battalion men at the Downs School, Bexhill 1914

The new battalion’s Orderly Room was set up in the Albany Hotel, Bexhill, and the growing number of recruits were temporarily billeted in the Downs School; there was no more room at Cooden, as the wooden huts Lowther had ordered had not yet been fully completed. The Downs School was a large building, built of local and Portland stone, where the men slept on the classroom floors. Training took place in the playground. Within a week of formation, over a thousand men had enlisted in the 2nd Southdowns Battalion. It was a much better response than Lowther had expected, and as a result, further plans were made to raise a 3rd Southdowns battalion. Colonel Lowther issued an appeal, published in newspapers and printed on pamphlets which were widely distributed. He wrote,

“… owing to the efficiency, manly bearing and soldier-like spirit of the 1st and 2nd Southdowns battalions, Lord Kitchener has paid the county yet another honour, by asking for a 3rd Southdowns battalion… let no man feel that he is not wanted.”

Recruitment for that battalion began on 20th November 1914. Each new enlistee was immediately presented with a “Kitchener’s Blue” uniform, and training was implemented much quicker than when the 1st Southdowns had been formed a few months before. Albert Banfield, from Hove, joined the 3rd Southdowns about this time. He and his brother kept detailed diaries, later typed up by their father after the war. They will both feature heavily in this account of the Southdowns battalions.

“… at first we were billeted upon the inhabitants of that town [Bexhill], we in particular being very comfortably provided for by Mrs Bashford, wife of the gardener up at the Manor House, Old Bexhill.

We were attached to `D’ Company, and were delighted to receive our uniform the day after arriving. Our day’s work consisted briefly of physical drill before breakfast, squad drill during the morning, and a route march in the afternoon. Our parade ground was on Bexhill [sea] front.”

Albert’s brother, Marcus, joined up with him. He wrote,

“… we left home about 9am, having to get to the Recruiting Office in Church Road [Brighton] pretty early. Here we were told to wait.

A youth from Steyning… was the first one to arrive, that was to form the party for Bexhill. A little later a disreputable man came in, with a terribly torn coat, whose name we learnt was Swann. We still waited for a third party, but as the minutes went by and [the sergeant] did not turn up, we were told to get ready to leave to catch the 11am train. A sergeant turned up, and we were for the first time in our lives escorted through the streets by an officer of the Army. For some reason or other I felt a bit ashamed – probably being in the company of the man with the torn coat had something to do with it. We halted at the office of the Southdowns at North Street Quadrant for more recruits, but on finding there were none, we marched on to the station. Arriving there, the sergeant got our tickets and delivered them for safe custody… to the disreputable Swann.

The train started with one 1st Battalion man in one corner of the carriage; he looked very fat, and slept most of the time… I saw my aunts waving a cloth of some kind out of the window of their house, in the hope of our seeing it. I saw it, but dare not stir from my seat for obvious reasons.”

The Banfields and their comrades soon arrived at Bexhill, where they were taken to the Orderly Room, then in the Bexhill Hotel. After been sworn in, the men were sent on to the Police Station to get their billets sorted. Both brothers agreed the ones they found themselves in were indeed fine, but Marcus was not a little homesick; they came from a well-off Sussex family, and this was perhaps the first time they had left their parents. He wrote in his diary, “… it was not long before I was thoroughly miserable. I looked out over the sea and wished I was wounded and being sent over to England.”. It was a wish the war was soon to fulfill.

Chapter 1.2 follows…

Images & text ©Paul Reed 2016

Lowther’s Lambs at War: Sussex to the Somme

11 Bn Witley 1916

A century ago the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th (Southdown) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were at war. Raised in Sussex in 1914 by Lieutenant Colonel Claude Lowther, the local press soon called them “Lowther’s Lambs”. After training and service in Britain they finally arrived in France in March 1916 and served in various sectors from Fleurbaix to Givenchy before going into battle at Richebourg and then on the Somme.

Back in the 1980s I interviewed the surviving veterans of Lowther’s Lambs and in June 1986 self-published a short account of their history from formation until destruction at Richebourg on 30th June 1916.

For the centenary of Richebourg, what one veteran called “The Day Sussex Died”, I will be publishing an account of the battalion here for free, for all to read and use. I had contemplated another book but so many people turn to the internet first that this seemed the best option for now.

The first chapter of the account, detailing the formation of the battalions, will go online shortly.