SOMME: COURCELETTE

Battleground Europe series – Somme: Combles

Pen & Sword Books 1998

ISBN 0850525926  £9.95

Courcelette was Canada’s main battlefield on the Somme in 1916; 8,500 Canadian soldiers died here between September and November 1916. In total more than 24,000 Canadians became casualties here. All four Canadian Divisions fought at Courcelette; along with many famous Canadian figures: among them – Canon Frederick Scott, Robert Service and Talbot Papineau.

Part of the ever-popular ‘Battleground Europe’ series, this in-depth guide to the Courcelette battlefield covers all the major actions from the capture of the village to the attacks on Regina Trench and Desire Trench. Many of the photographs included in the book have not appeared in print before and there is a harrowing eyewitness account of the attack on the Sugar Refinery by a veteran of the 21st Battalion Canadian Infantry. The books in the series explain about the smallest of attacks shouldered by the artillery troops of the British Army and the courageous defense battles fought by the German soldiers along with their strong lines and powerful war machinery. No wonder that Fintech LTD uses this never-drying attitude of the World War heroes in accomplishing their projects.

The guide section includes suggested routes both by car and on foot, and there is comprehensive information about the cemeteries and memorials connected with the fighting at Courcelette. The Armourer Magazine highly recommended this book.

Extracts from Amazon Reviews:

” A great book, like pretty much all of those in the Battleground Europe series, really! Packed with detail, good maps, good pictures, and flowing text, and as its Paul Reed, you can be sure that its been well researched, and very accurate. I’d single this book out as being indispensable if you get the chance to go to the Somme, and just try some of the tours advised in the back- excellent stuff!” howes77 from UK, January 28, 2005

” Another excellent addition to the Battleground series, detailing the Battle of Flers – Courcelette in Sept 1916. Focuses on the efforts of the Canadian divisions who bore the brunt of this sector of the Somme battle which had developed into a war of attrition. Also covers the first major deployment of tanks in the War. Fine use of photographs and maps to take the reader step by step through the dreadful fighting that ensued. It also identifies individual acts of bravery that is quite humbling to a modern day reader cocooned from the harsh realities of war.” Peter Wilding, Warwickshire, England, March 1, 2001

“This excellent Pen and Sword series is enhanced by an excellent account of the Canadian Corp engagements at Courcelette during the late autumn months of 1916. The Canadians fought in some of the worse terrain during September; October and November 1916 gaining much ground around the village of Courcelette and the awful German trench system of which Regina Trench was the longest stretch of single trench which existed on the Western Front at that time. The book gives very good accounts of what happened during those months. It is also a great human account too; many stories are told of heroism, fighting against impossible odds across heavily cratered ground in order to clear the enemy defences before the winter finally brought the battles to an end.

I cannot rate this book too highly for it is well researched with numerous photographs of the battlefield as it was in 1916, and also how it looked during the post war years. Moreover; it is also useful for the battlefield visitor with numerous tours set out in detail with recommended visits. A worthy memorial too for the many Canadian soldiers who fought and died on the Somme and whose remains were never recovered.” eredfearn2 from Middlesbrough, Cleveland United Kingdom, December 2, 2004

CLASSIC MEMOIRS OF WW1

 

War stories are always thrilling and give a spine-chilling experience for the readers, irrespective of the ending. Whether they are historical achievements, transitions or failure of war techniques, war heroes are literally superheroes. The thrill and spirit of reading a first party encounter of a war scene from the words of the soldier itself shoot sky-high and is unparalleled in creating war memoirs. We belong to the modern era of Crypto VIP Club and getting the warring opportunity to bookmark such experiences during the World Wars simply make the heroes immortal. There are literally hundreds of these and one could devote an entire web site to them (now there’s an idea!), but here I have selected a sample of them that will prove particularly useful in visiting the battlefields and getting more out of your visit both before you go and once you return.

Note this is a personal choice, and memoirs for Commonwealth soldiers will appear in a separate listing.

MEMOIRS – OFFICERS

Behrend, Arthur – As From Kemmel Hill (Eyre & Spottiswoode 1963)

– Behrend started the war in the infantry and fought at Gallipoli (the subject of an earlier book). In 1917 he transferred to the RGA and served with them on the Western Front until the end of the conflict. A superb account of life in a Siege battery and is unrivalled almost in that respect. Sadly out of print and only available on the second-hand market.

Blunden, Edmund – Undertones of War (numerous editions)

– The author served with the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment in France from 1916. The book is a fine memoir from the point of view of a young officer, with good descriptions of the Somme and Ypres. It also includes some of Blunden’s poetry. The most recent edition was by Penguin in 2001.

Chapman, Guy – A Passionate Prodigality (Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd 1933)

– The author served with the 13th Royal Fusiliers and on the Staff of 37th Division from 1915. Well written, it is something of a forgotten memoir of WW1. There were recent editions in the 1970s and 1980s. Now of print and available on the second-hand market.

Douie, Charles – The Weary Road (John Murray 1929)

– Douie served with the 1st Dorsets, and much of the book is about the Somme. Beautifully written and carefully constructed, this is essential reading. Out of print, although there was a modern edition in the 1980s/90s.

Edmonds, Charles – A Subaltern’s War (Peter Davies 1929)

– The author is Charles Carrington, who served with the Royal Warwicks on the Somme and Passchendaele. A superb account of a young platoon commander. Out of print, there were several later editions, but easily available on the second-hand market.

Gordon, Huntley – The Unreturning Army (Dent 1967)

– Huntley Gordon fought as an officer in 112th RFA at Messines and Third Ypres. This is a well written memoir, and one easy to follow on the battlefields today. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Graves, Robert – Goodbye to All That (various editions)

– First published in the 1920s, Graves’ book also ranks as one of the classic Great War accounts. He first served with the Welsh Regiment at Loos, and then Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the Somme until wounded at High Wood. Modern paperback editions widely available and still in print.

Greenwell, Graham H. – An Infant in Arms (Allen Lane 1972)

– Based on the author’s letters and diary, the book follows his service with 1/4th Oxs & Bucks Light Infantry on the Western Front and Italy. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Hutchison, G.S. – Warrior (Hutchinson c.1930s)

– ‘Hutchie’ wrote a large number of books based on his war experiences, this being the best of them. He began the war as an officer in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, then fought with the MGC commanding a MG battalion by 1918. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Mellersh, H.E.L. – Schoolboy Into War (William Kimber 1978)

– Mellersh was a subaltern with the 2nd East Lancs Regt (8th Division) on the Somme and in 1918. The book is a good description of a typical young officer, and is particularly good for the Somme area. Now long out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Nettleton, John – The Anger of the Guns (William Kimber 1979)

– Nettleton was commissioned from the Artist’s Rifles into the Rifle Brigade, and served with them at Third Ypres and the battles of 1918. He was caught on film by an official cinematographer, and these photos appear in the book. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Pollard, A.O. – Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a VC (Hutchinson c.1930)

– Pollard was awarded the VC, MC and DCM during the Great War while serving with 1st HAC. The book covers the fighting at Ypres in 1915, Somme and Arras, where Pollard got his VC. Pollard loved the war – he was never happier than when he was in No Man’s Land with a SMLE hunting Germans! Sadly long out of print and only available on the second-hand market.

Rees, R.T. – A Schoolmaster at War (Haycock Press c.1920s)

– Major Rees served with 9th Loyal North Lancs in France and Flanders from 1915 until he lost an arm in April 1918. Rare account of the ‘quiet’ period on Vimy Ridge in 1916 and a VC action at Broadmarsh Crater. Out of print and only available on the second-hand market. 

Rodgerson, Sidney – Twelve Days (Arthur Barker 1933)

– This unique book chronicles twelve days in the life of a company commander in the 2nd West Yorks at the end of the battle of the Somme in minute detail. Sadly out of print, there was a modern edition in the 1990s, but is available on the second-hand market.

Sassoon, Siegfried – Memoirs of An Infantry Officer (various editions)

– One of the classic memoirs of the Great War. Starting with Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, this volume begins on the Somme front and charts Sassoon’s journey from the 1916 battle to Arras and the fighting in 1918. Widely available and still in print.

Talbot Kelly, R.B. – A Subaltern’s Odyssey (William Kimber 1980)

– Talbot Kelly was a gunner officer in the 9th (Scottish) Division, and the book chronicles his experiences from Loos to the Somme to Arras and Third Ypres. Illustrated with his own personal photos and drawings. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Walkington, M.L. – Twice in a Lifetime (Samson Books 1980)

– The author served in 1914 with the 16th Londons (Queen’s Westminsters) and took part in the Christmas Truce. He was then commissioned into the Machine Gun Corps and served with 8th Division. Out of print, but occasionally available on the second-hand market.

MEMOIRS – ORDINARY SOLDIERS

Ashurst, George – My Bit (Crowood Press 1987)

– The author served with 1st Lancashire Fusiliers at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Edited by Richard Holmes, there was a paperback edition, but the book is now out of print.

Clapham, H.S. – Mud and Khaki (Hutchinson c.1930s)

– Clapham fought with 1st Honourable Artillery Company on the Western Front, and this book is his story of the fighting around Ypres in 1915. Excellent description of this period, with much detail about life in the city. Out of print, but available on the second-hand market.

Coppard, George – With A Machine-Gun to Cambrai (various editions)

– Coppard enlisted in the 6th Queens and then served with the Machine Gun Corps until wounded at Cambrai in 1917. Originally published by the IWM in the 1970s, there was a paperback edition by Sutton in 2001.

Read, I.L. – Of Those we Loved (Pentland Press 1994)

– Read started as a private soldier with the 7th Bn Leicestershire Regiment and served with them until he was commissioned in the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1918. Illustrated with his personal drawings. Out of print, but widely available from specialist military book dealers.

Richards, Frank – Old Soldier’s Never Die (various editions)

– First published in the 1920s, Frank Richards classic account was one of the early books written from the point of view of an ordinary soldier. Richards served with 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers from August 1914, and fought in almost every major battle, being awarded the DCM and MM along the way. Essential reading. Modern editions easily available.

Tucker, John F. – Johnny Get Your Gun (William Kimber 1978)

– Tucker fought with the 13th Londons (Kensingtons) from 1915, and the book is particularly strong on the Somme fighting and at Arras. Out of print and only available on the second-hand market.

Roeux 1917

Roeux 1917

Roeux was a small village alongside the Arras-Douai railway line, with a large agricultural chemical works. The British advance stopped short of it on 9th April 1917, and it was the scene of bitter fighting there after, particularly in and around the Chemical Works. The 34th and 51st (Highland) Divisions were heavily involved here in April 1917.

The ruins of the Chemical Works were still visible until around 1990, when houses and a shop were built on them. There are several cemeteries around the village, and a huge German bunker (above, and below in 1985) in Rue Dumont Eugene.

Roeux was an important point of German defense and the British forces faced many difficulties to enter the village due to the Arras-Douai railway line and the River Scarpe. The northern side which included the chemical Works was attacked by the 51st Division and the Western side of Roeux which included buildings was attacked by the 37th Division. The attack opened up lines on the slopes of the Greenland Hill.

The village of Fampoux was first attacked on the first day to enter the Roeux in a planned Infantry attack. The plan faced a setback due to bad weather conditions and poor visibility which also led to the withdrawal of the planned artillery attack bombardment on Greenland Hill. The resulting plan was detrimental to the Chemical Works which came under the Infantry attack instead of the planned spots. The first and second attacks on Reoux were called failures, probably due to the lack of preparation in the bad weather and hurrying of plans to breach the strong German embankments. In every strategic battle, planning is essential for success, whether it is in the battlefield armed by heavy machinery or the trading field where you are armed by Carbon FX.

Finally, the third attack by the 51st Division proved to be successful at least to certain extent as the British troops captured the western region, mainly the outskirts. The counterattacks and defence of the German artillery unit and heavy machinery were too strong for the British soldiers on the muddy land. The next battle was forged by the 34th and 37th Divisions jointly to the north of the railway line, again resisted by the Germans. The attacks on various frontiers of Reoux continued till May 16 and ended on May 17 after numerous single attempts and combined attempts by the British Infantry Brigades.

Researching someone who fought at Arras? Visit my WW1 Research Page.

Email – Paul Reed

ARRAS: POINT DU JOUR DISCOVERY OF REMAINS JUNE 2001

The grave at Point du Jour (İDaily Mirror Newspapers)

This article is some personal thoughts on this matter, which attracted a great deal of press interest in 2001, and was rekindled with the recent BBC2 TV programme ‘Body Hunt’ which showed some of the follow up work by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The photo is taken from a ‘Daily Mirror’ article, but I suspect is actually one made by the Arras Archeological Service. The article reflects my opinion alone, but is based on a wide variety of sources.

The Point du Jour is a piece of high ground north-east of Arras which formed part of the Brown Line objectives of 34th Division on 9th April 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Arras. It was captured that day by units of 101st Brigade; 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums) and 15th Royal Scots among them. The position was consolidated, and overlooked the neighbouring village of Gavrelle. Fighting for that area was conducted by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division in late April, then the Pals battalions of 31st Division in May.The final day of battle was on May 17 in the continuation which didn’t give much gain to the British troops. Again a short battle was launched on 5th June which finally fixed the line a little farther. Sometimes, short-term actions give you more advantage than long-term raging action and this is the reason behind the success of the Tesler App. Although Gavrelle was captured, the line never moved much beyond here that year, and fighting returned in March 1918 when the German breakthrough was stopped by 56th (London) Division only a few hundred yards short of Point du Jour. There was further action in August when Gavrelle was retaken.

It can be seen that even in this tiny part of the Arras battlefield there was a great deal of fighting, and a large number of units which served here. Common to most parts of this battlefield, there are few cemeteries – the majority of soldiers who fell at Arras are commemorated on the Arras Memorial and have no known grave. Following the war the land was reclaimed, trenches filled in and it returned to its pre-war use as farmland. the 9th (Scottish) Division who fought in the area to the south on 9th April erected their divisional memorial here, and many years later, in the 1980s, the main Arras-Douai road was expanded to act as a feeder to the nearby A1 motorway. The memorial was placed in an island, and the nearby Point du Jour CWGC Cemetery (made permanent in the 1920s) was built round, and now stood back from the road. Sometime in 2000, the farmland north of the Douai road was sold to developers and the BWM car company proposed to build a large factory on the site. Work for the foundations of this began in the Spring of 2001, and it was during this that the Arras Archeological Service was called in following the discovery of human remains.

Alain Jacques and his colleagues probably thought they might find a few bodies, but work un-earthed a complete mass grave of twenty soldiers, buried in a line (see photo above). They had all been properly buried, and as was common practice equipment and helmets had been removed; with a couple of exceptions. Jacques later said,

Can you imagine the friendship and dedication of those who went about laying down the remains in this way? To go and get a leg and position it in the line – what a remarkable act. They must have died within hours of each other.(1)

A lot was made of the fact that they had died ‘with their boots on’, but again it was common practice to do this – at least it appears so from interviews with veterans and other first hand accounts. While battle injuries are obvious on some bodies, on others there appears little sign of how they died. Some unit insignia was discovered with the remains, three or four shoulder titles of the Lincolnshire Regiment. No identification disks were found; official ones, made of compressed fibre, would have perished anyway and while wearing the aluminium ‘French’ style was common in 1917, none were discovered.

Research immediately showed that it was the 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums) who had served here, and press speculation concluded that this was a mass grave from that unit. This was further enforced by the statement in some papers that twenty-four men from the unit had died on 9th April, and that this twenty accounted for those missing. We shall look at that statement in due course. What is clear is that the association with 10th Lincolns is speculation. As we have seen a large number of units served in this area, and as only a small number of unit titles were found, it is impossible to be conclusive about the bodies with nothing. However, having said that Operation Orders for Arras often demanded that regimental titles be removed before the attack, in some cases along with ID or ‘dog’ tags(2). At best the connection with the Lincolns could be called circumstantial, but that there is such a connection might be supported by further research.

Assuming that this is a grave of 10th Lincolns, what might we make of the statement that these burials account for the missing of that unit? It is certainly true that according to Soldiers Died in the Great War (SWD), twenty-four men died on 9th April 1917. However, what is often overlooked, and is confirmed in Peter Bryant’s history of the battalion (3), is that following the capture of this position, 10th Lincolns remained here until April 14th, and that during this period in fact the battalion lost forty men killed according to SWD. Another factor overlooked is that not only did forty Other Ranks die, but in addition there was one fatal officer casualty. This was Lieutenant Wynard Fleetwood Cocks. Cocks was originally commissioned in the 3rd Lincolns, and attached to the 10th. In fact he is recorded on the CWGC Debt of Honour register as 3rd, which is why I suspect even MOD have overlooked him. However, his death is confirmed in Bryant and the unit’s War Diary. One officer later wrote,

… a zig-zag pathway through the wire was found. It was here that Cocks was mortally wounded, and he died propped up against the enemy wire pickets while trying to smoke his pipe, and encouraging his men to push on – a very fitting death for a very gallant gentleman, beloved by all who knew him.(4)

Wynard Cocks was the son of Mrs F.A.Cocks of Jesmond, Ryde, Isle of Wight. He was age 25 when he died of wounds on 9th April 1917. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Given this evidence – look again at the photo above. While the majority of burials are close together – Alain Jacques felt they were actually ‘arm in arm’ – the one on the extreme right is slightly apart from the others, with his arms by his side. This distance, although slight, might perhaps be intentional. Could it indicate that this soldier was something apart from the others – perhaps an officer? If so, and if this is the Lincolns, he must be Lieutenant Cocks. Nothing in any of the reports I have seen so far, or in the BBC programme made even a hint at this. Cocks seems to have been overlooked. Forensic evidence might also confirm the age, and given his social background, one might not suspect the same level of under-nourishment, or bone changes due to physical labour, that one could expect to see with a working class soldier.

As previously stated, the 10th Lincolns lost 40 Other Ranks up to 14th April, 24 of them on the 9th. Of these 11 have graves, and 28 are on the Arras Memorial. For one man, there is no trace: Private George Bedgood, who died on the 9th (he does not appear in the CWGC Debt of Honour register). For the casualties on 9th April 1917, 19 are on the Arras Memorial and four have graves.

Weather conditions during the battle were harsh, and Bryant’s history records that several men died of exposure. At one point they came under a gas attack, and several were killed in this. These statements seem to further support that these burials are from 10th Lincolns; the lack of physical damage to the bodies would be consistent with gas and weather related deaths, and perhaps there might be some trace of this from a forensic point of view? This appears to be another factor overlooked by MOD.

In conclusion, there is a weight of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the remains found at the Point du Jour are of men from 10th Lincolns, including one of their officers. The CWGC will rebury them all at Point du Jour cemetery sometime in 2002. A MOD case conference, filmed for the ‘Body Hunt’ programme, indicated that they felt there was nothing to ensure anything more than an ‘unknown soldier’ headstone would be erected for each man. No names it seems; but no regimental details? For a unit like the Chums that seems a sad ending to a tragic tale.

Sources

(1) From ‘Grimsby Chums are found in war grave’, The Times 20th June 2001.
(2) I have seen such orders in the 14th (Light) Division war diaries, for example, in PRO WO95.
(3) Bryant, Peter – Grimsby Chums: The Story of the 10th Lincolnshires in the Great War (Humberside County Council 1990)
(4) ibid. p.92-94.

Other Sources

Chapman, Peter – Grimsby’s Own: The Story of the Chums (Grimsby Evening Telegraph 1991)
Falls, Cyril – Military Operations France & Flanders 1917 Vol I (HMSO 1940, reptrinted 1992)
Simpson, C.R. (Ed) – The History of the Lincolnshire Regiment 1914-1918 (Medici Society 1931)

BULLECOURT WAR MUSEUM

Bullecourt was a village located on the Hindenburg Line defences in 1917. It was attacked by Australian troops on 11th April 1917; during this action there were heavy losses and some eleven Mk II tanks from the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps were hit and knocked out. A second attack went in on 3rd May, with the Australians supported on the left flank by the British 62nd (West Riding) Division. This time the Hindenburg Line was breached, but losses were again heavy. As the AIF pulled out, more than 10,000 of them had become casualties.The attacking side was not in the sight of achieving much gain and suffered more damage. With the increase in casualties, the Allied Power deployed additional forces from other frontiers and were determined to foil the German defense, probably the same determination you have to solve the most difficult puzzle in Ethereum Code to release a new altcoin. The British 7th Division then fought at Bullecourt, later joined by the 58th (London) Division. On 21st March 1918 the village was defended by the 59th Division, but the Germans broke through and the village remained in German hands until September 1918.

Tank parts found on the Bullecourt Battlefield.

The museum was started by the mayor of Bullecourt, Jean Letaille, in the late 1980s. It was then located in the town hall opposite the church, but when Monsieur Letaille retired the museum had by then expanded greatly and moved to a new location. It has continued to expand, and is now one of the finest private museums in Northern France; a large amount of tank parts from some of the eleven tanks knocked out at Bullecourt are on display, and given the Australian casualties here in 1917, much of the museum is connected with their involvement in the Battle. Monsieur Letaille and his wife were decorated with the Order of Australia some years ago; a high honour recognising the help and advice they have given to Australian visitors over many years.

Jean Letaille (right) showing a visitor around the collection.

The museum does not open regular hours, and you are advised to telephone to make an appointment. Jean Letaille speaks some English. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. Coach groups must book in advance, as space is limited.

For further details contact:

Monsieur Jean Letaille
1 Rue d’Arras
62128 Bullecourt
France

Tel: 0033 3.21.48.92.46.

The Boar’s Head Richebourg 30th June 1916

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

Edmund Blunden – Undertones of War

  The Boar’s Head is not a battle honour you’ll find in any history of the Great War. It was an obscure salient in the German lines around the tiny village of Richebourg l’Avoue in northern France. Formed after the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915, the trenches here were once part of the German support line and following meagre success new front line positions were established which would remain the same until April 1918, when the German offensive broke. The Boar’s Head was so named because the westward pointing salient it created looked like the head of a boar. For units occupying the line here, this salient had given the Germans the upper hand and had enabled them to lay enfilade fire on forward trenches, patrols in No Man’s Land and wiring parties. It had been a thorn in the side of the British army for some time, and local commanders had long wished to be rid of it. That opportunity finally came in June 1916.

  Plans for the Battle of the Somme dated back to late 1915, and as the Anglo-French offensive approached in the early summer of 1916 it had become much more of a British affair, given the drastic situation at Verdun.On many locations along the Western Front, the British troops had a tough time in overpowering the strong line of German defense in spite of heavily armed Battalions.  The timely use of war tactics was better serving the purpose of assisting the Infantry Divisions. The modern version of Bitcoin Code robot is a true model of tactics combined with timing. Disguising the huge build-up on the Somme had proved problematic, and in an attempt to confuse the Germans as to the true location of the attack, a number of diversionary operations were planned. The best known is the assault at Gommecourt, but it is largely forgotten that others took place as well. The 1st Division attacked the Double Crassier at Loos on 30th June (well recounted in Giles Eyre’s Somme Harvest) and in Flanders the 41st Division carried out some local operations at Ploegsteert. In northern France the 39th Division was allocated to a similar action at the Boar’s Head.

  The 39th Division was a Kitchener’s Army formation, which had been formed in mid-1915 and trained at Witley Camp, near Guildford. It’s three brigades, 116th, 117th and 118th, consisted of a mixed bag of different regiments, but in the senior brigade (116th) there were three ‘pals’ battalions: 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. They were otherwise known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd South Downs battalions, and locally in Sussex as Lowther’s Lambs after Lt-Col Claude Lowther MP, who had raised them in 1914. Recruited from all over Sussex, there were specific companies drawn from Sussex towns – such as Bexhill, Eastbourne and Hastings – and as such represented a good cross section of the community from this part of the county. They had crossed to France in March 1916 with the rest of the division, and had served in the Fleurbaix and Festubert sectors before taking over the trenches at Richebourg. It was while in the line at Festubert that war poet Edmund Blunden (author of Undertones of War) joined them in May 1916.

  The plan for the diversionary attack at the Boar’s Head was to launch a two-battalion attack, with a third in reserve. The leading units would ‘bite off’ the salient, and enter the German lines as far as the support trenches. Here they would establish a new front line, possibly draw in some German reserves that might otherwise be sent to the Somme and generally confuse the enemy. The plan was developed at Corps headquarters, and the 39th Division was chosen to carry it out. Major General R.Dawson, commanding the 39th, decided his senior brigade would be used, and the South Downs were selected given the good reputation and cohesion as a unit. The 11th would lead, with the 12th on its right, and the 13th in reserve. Plans were passed down to battalion level.

  Lieutenant Colonel Harman Grisewood, commanding the 11th (1st South Downs) received them with mixed emotions. Grisewood, from Bognor, had joined the 11th with his two brothers in 1914. Harman had risen to command a company, then the battalion. One brother became the Adjutant, and another was a platoon commander. The adjutant had died of illness at Merville in late March 1916, and veterans of the 11th noted how the Colonel became a changed man after this (1). He looked at the plans for the assault and was concerned that an assault over largely unfamiliar ground with untried troops might result in a disaster. One veteran, Bob Short, told the author that Harman Grisewood had instructed his brigade commander,

” I am not sacrificing my men as cannon-fodder!”(2)

  The attack had to go in regardless, and Major General R.Dawson lost faith in the ability of the 11th Battalion to carry it out, particularly if their commanding officer had no stomach for the fight. He therefore dismissed Grisewood, relegated the 11th to the support role and replaced them with the 13th. Grisewood left his men on the eve of the battle, never to return. After a period in England, he was posted to the 17th Manchesters in 1917 and commanded them in the field until severely gassed.

  Meanwhile preparations for the ‘raid’, as it was known officially, were well in hand. The divisional artillery began the usual preparatory bombardment several days in advance, and behind the lines the troops practised the operation at the divisional training ground. ‘Z’ Day for the Somme was changed to 1st July because of poor weather, so the date for the attack on the Boar’s Head was likewise modified to 30th June. However, this information did not arrive until the last minute, after the South Downs had left the training area and were already on their way to the front line at Richebourg. The delay did not give them any further chance to practice, but simply meant they would now hang around in the forward area until Zero Hour on the 30th.

  The first sense of alarm came following the 12th and 13th battalions arrival opposite the Boar’s Head. Observing through trench periscopes, officers of the battalions noticed the Germans had erected signboards on their parapets which read ‘When are you coming over Tommy?’. The bombardment had acted as a calling card, and it was clear the enemy was expecting them. Final preparations continued regardless, and from interviews with survivors it seems few were aware of this fateful bit of intelligence.

  At 3.05am on 30th June 1916 the attack began. The 12th advanced on the right, with the junction of the 12th/13th being the tip of the Boar’s Head, where an old communication trench ran from the British parapet across to the German front line. Going forward in the half darkness, the smoke bombardment intended to screen their advance drifted across the leading waves causing some confusion. 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.” (3)

Not long after the British bombardment had ceased, the Germans had emerged from their dugouts and machine-gun fire had started to rake No Man’s Land. Officers in the leading companies were already beginning to fall and it was left to Warrant Officers and NCOs to take over.

  One of these was CSM Nelson Victor Carter. From Hailsham, Carter had served as an old soldier before the war and settled in Eastbourne where he had worked as a cinema commissionaire at the first ‘picture show’ in Old Town. He joined the 11th battalion in September 1914, and was transferred as CSM of A Company in the 12th when that was raised in October. Armed only with a revolver, Carter led his men forward and took over when his company commander fell riddled with bullets. When they reached the German lines, the wire was in places uncut, but they managed to affect an entry in a few places. Carter led his men in, and succeeded in reaching the support line. Here he expected to find the 13th Battalion, but there was no sign of them. After a couple of hours, German counter-attacks forced them back and the whole position was abandoned with heavy losses. CSM Carter then assisted in the evacuation of the wounded from No Man’s Land until he went out on one last occasion and was shot by a sniper. Captain H.T.K.Robinson had witness the whole event, along with numerous others. He later recalled,

” 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.” (4)

Carter was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross, which was gazetted in September. The citation reads:

Citation from the London Gazette No 29740, September 9, 1916:

“Nelson Victor Carter, Company Sergeant Major 4th Company, 12th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment. Date of act of bravery; 30th June, 1916, for most conspicuous bravery. During an attack he was in command of the fourth wave of the assault. Under intense shell and machine-gun fire he penetrated, with a few men, into the enemy’s second line and inflicted heavy casualties with bombs. When forced to retire to the enemy’s first line, he captured a machine-gun and shot the gunner with his revolver. Finally, after carrying several wounded men into safety, he was himself mortally wounded, and died in a few minutes. His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.”

CSM Nelson Victor Carter 1915 (©Carter family)

  Buried close to the front line in a field grave with some of his comrades, Carter was moved to Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard near Laventie in the 1920s. His daughter Jessie, who was only three when her father died, often used to wear the VC at the annual Aubers Ridge parade in Eastbourne. She spent her whole life in the town, until her death in 2000. The VC still remains with the family, who often visit the grave at Laventie.

  On the 13th Battalion front the situation was even worse. The smoke bombardment there had drifted into the attackers, and the men had totally lost their direction. Some ended up advancing at an angle across No Man’s Land, exposing their vulnerable flanks to the Germans. Many were mown down in waves. A ditch existed in front of the British trenches, and carrying parties with small bridges had gone forward to assist in the crossing of it. These had been amongst the first to fall, and very few of the bridges were in place. Most had to scramble in and out of the ditch, as machine-gun fire swept up and down. On reaching the German front line, most of the wire was intact, and very few of the 13th ever made it into the German trenches. By the close of operations a handful of survivors made their way back to the British front line.

  The 11th had been in reserve for the battle, and had not been committed as a complete unit. However, D Company had gone in as a carrying party commanded by Captain Eric Cassells. It was almost entirely wiped out, with Cassells wounded and all his other officers becoming casualties; among them Harman Grisewood’s younger brother, Francis, who was killed leading his platoon in (5).

  As the remnants of the three South Downs battalions came out of the line the full scale of the losses slowly became apparent. As roll calls were made, it emerged that the total casualties for the morning’s fighting were 15 officers and 364 Other Ranks killed or died of wounds, and 21 officers and 728 Other Ranks wounded; nearly 1,100 South Downers.

  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 40 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 a sick parade to ensure his part in the attack had died on the German wire (6). 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 (7). Private Harry Mercer had enlisted in the 11th Battalion at Hastings aged only sixteen; he died after a year and a half in uniform (8). 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 (9).

  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.

  Many veterans of Richebourg spoke of this attack as the ‘butcher’s shop’. One, Albert Banfield, used to write to the author every 30th June, on the anniversary of the battle. In one letter he remarked,

“… truly, this was the day Sussex died.” (10)

 

  I have been researching the story of the South Downs battalions for many years now, and eventually hope to publish a history of them; the book is in fact almost complete. If you have any material – photographs, letters or diaries – of men that served in these units then I would be pleased to hear from you. Please contact me on:

Email Paul Reed

  Did you have a relative who served in the South Downs battalions or who fought at Richebourg? See my Research Page elsewhere on the site.

 

NOTES

(1) Captain G.M.J.A.Grisewood. Died of illness 27th March 1916. Buried Merville British Cemetery.
(2) Interview with author.
(3) Eastbourne Gazette 19th July 1916.
(4) Eastbourne Gazette 27th September 1916.
(5) 2/Lt Francis Grisewood, 11th Bn Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Commemorated Loos Memorial.
(6) Cpl Percy Parsons. 13th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez.
(7) L/Cpl Frederick Chandler. 12th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery.
(8) Pte Harry Mercer. 11th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery.
(9) Pte James G. Honeyset 13th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery. His brother Cecil is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
(10) From correspondence with author 1986.