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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”.
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.
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.
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.”
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…