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The Day Sussex Died
June 30th, 1916

Alan Riches commemorates the tragedy of two thousand South Downers who went 'over the top' with catastrophic consequences.

Casualties in 1916
Casualties awaiting admission to a Casualty Clearing Station in 1916

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.

Men at Cooden Camp
Men of the 13th Battalion (3rd South Downs) at Cooden Camp, 1915
(©Paul Reed)

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.

Map of Neuve Chapelle front line 1916
Map of the front line around Neuve Chapelle in 1916, including the sectors
held by the South Downs Battalions.

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.

The story continues - click below

See part two of this story >

William Alfred Bennett

Sussex WWI recruitment poster

William Alfred Bennett was born in Steyning in 1889, the second of four children of Alfred and Fanny Bennett.

Alfred Bennett, a bricklayer, married Fanny Coombes, a laundress, in 1884. Their first child, Miriam Jane, was born in 1886, followed by William Alfred in 1889. The 1891 Census shows the family living at 6 Sir George's Place in Steyning. Fanny had another daughter, Beatrice May, in 1896, but sadly the toddler died two years later.

The 1901 Census shows Alfred, Fanny, Miriam and William still living at 6 Sir George's Place; Alfred was still working as a bricklayer, while Miriam had left school and was a dressmaker's apprentice. Eleven-year-old William was still at school.

In July 1905, at the age of 46, Fanny gave birth to her fourth child who was christened Kathleen Mary. However, four months later Fanny died, perhaps as a result of complications arising from childbirth, leaving Alfred to bring up the family on his own.

In 1910 Miriam, who already had a two-year-old son, married Alfred King, a farm labourer, and the three of them set up home at 15 Sir George's Place. Shortly afterwards Miriam's father Alfred and her five-year-old sister Kathleen moved in with them. At the end of the year Miriam gave birth to another boy, and the 1911 Census shows all six of them living at 15 St George's Place

There was no room for William Bennett who was living in digs with Henry Joyce and his family in White Horse Square. William, now 21 years old, worked for a garden nursery; according to his obituary, he had been employed by the business since he was a boy, rising to the position of foreman.

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, William Bennett volunteered for Kitchener's New Army, and in January 1915 he enlisted at Hove as SD/3288 Private Bennett in the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, otherwise known as the 3rd South Downs Battalion.

William Bennett's
story continued >


Links


Old Frontline
Battlefields of WWI

This web site is dedicated to the history and battlefields of the Great War. Paul Reed, historian, provides information about the war itself and on how to visit the battlefields in France, Flanders and Gallipoli and what to see. His impressive research includes details of the Royal Sussex Regiment. There is more information about the 13th Battalion here and an article about the Battle of the Boar's Head here.

Webmatters

Simon has been visiting the battlefields of the Western Front for over twenty-five years and moved to France in 2003. Explore the countryside in pictures as well as Simon's well researched history. The Battle of the Boar's Head appears here.

The Day Sussex Died
by John A Baines

This book, published in June 2012, is available from the Royal Sussex Living History Group. Their website is also an excellent resource with articles and a wealth of details on the Battle of the Boar's Head and much more.

The War Graves
Photographic Project

The original aim was to photograph every war grave, individual memorial, Ministry of Defence grave, and family memorial of serving military personnel from WWI to the present day. The website has now extended its remit to cover all nationalities and military conflicts and make these available within a searchable database. All this is done by volunteers. William Bennett's grave is pictured here.


John Stanley Purvis

See our article about the author of the Steyning poem, Chance Memory and another famous poem, High Wood. These poems from the First World War have increased in popularity during the past one hundred years, particularly since the true identity of the poet has become known.

 

Terrible Times Link