The Day Sussex Died
Alan Riches commemorates the tragedy of two thousand South Downers who went 'over the top' with catastrophic consequences.
In September 1914 Colonel Claude Lowther, the owner of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex and MP for the Eskdale constituency in Cumberland, received permission from the War Office to raise a battalion of local men.
He set up recruitment offices all over Sussex, but principally in the seaside towns of Hastings, Bexhill, Eastbourne, Brighton, Worthing and Bognor. Recruitment started on 9 September. Within two days 1,100 men from all walks of life had volunteered.
Originally designated the 9th Royal Sussex, they later became the 11th, otherwise known as the 1st South Downs Battalion. A further two battalions were raised by the end of the year, most of whom were from true Sussex stock. These became the 12th and 13th Royal Sussex, respectively the 2nd and 3rd South Downs Battalions. All original enlistments were given an 'SD' (South Downs) prefix to their regimental number.
Training took place at Cooden Camp, near Bexhill, from November 1914 until July 1915. At this stage the War Office took over direct control of the South Downs Battalions and they moved to Detling Camp, near Maidstone. In September 1915 the Battalions moved to North Camp, Aldershot, and the following month, together with the 14th Hampshires, they formed the 116th Brigade of the 39th Division. The 39th Division had been formed at Winchester in August 1915 but concentrated at Witley Camp in Surrey in October/November 1915. From this date until March 1916 the South Downs Battalions stayed at Witley Camp.
The 39th Division sailed for France in the first week of March 1916. The South Downs Battalions arrived at Le Havre on 5 March and proceeded to the Fleurbaix sector of the front line for further training and instruction in trench warfare. Two weeks later they began taking over the trenches in the Fleurbaix sector themselves. For the next three months they held the front line around Fleurbaix, Givenchy, Festubert and Cuinchy before moving to the Ferme du Bois sector near Richebourg L'Avoue in mid-June.
The Boar's Head was a salient in the German lines around the tiny village of Richebourg l'Avoue. The trenches here were once part of the German support line; following meagre British success at the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915, new front line positions were established which would remain the same until April 1918. 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. 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 attack on the Boar's Head was one such operation.
The plan 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 their good reputation and cohesion as a unit. The 11th Battalion 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 Battalion, 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. 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. Grisewood is said to have told his brigade commander "I am not sacrificing my men as cannon-fodder!"
The attack had to go in regardless, and Major General 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.
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 Offensive was changed to 1 July because of poor weather, so the date for the attack on the Boar's Head was likewise modified to 30 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.
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