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The Day Sussex Died
June 30th, 1916

Alan Riches continues the tragic story of two thousand South Downers who went 'over the top' with catastrophic consequences.

Map of British and German trenches, Boar's Head
Source: www.webmatters.net

The first sense of alarm came following the 12th and 13th Battalions' arrival opposite the Boar's Head on 28 June. Observing through trench periscopes, officers 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.

At 1.30 am on the morning of 30 June the assaulting battalions took up their positions in the front line trenches in readiness for the attack. At 2.50 am the artillery opened a final, intense bombardment of the German trenches, and fifteen minutes later the attack began. The War Diary of the 13th Battalion takes up the story:

". . . at 3.05 the leading wave of the battalion scaled the parapet, the remainder following at 50 yard intervals. At the same time the flank attack under Lieutenants Whitley and Ellis gained a footing in the enemy trench. The passage across NO MAN'S LAND was accomplished with few casualties except in the left companies, which came under very heavy machine gun fire.

"The two right companies succeeded in reaching their objective, but the two left companies only succeeded in penetrating the enemy's wire in one or two places. Just at this moment a smoke cloud, which was originally designed to mask our advance, drifted right across the front and made it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. This resulted in all direction being lost and the attack devolving into small bodies of men not knowing which way to go. Some groups succeeded in entering the support line, engaging the enemy with bombs and bayonet, and organizing the initial stages of a defence. Other parties swung off to the right and entered the trench where the flank party was operating, causing a great deal of congestion.

"On the left, the smoke and darkness made the job of penetrating the enemy wire so difficult that few, if any, succeeded in reaching the enemy support line, where they were subjected to an intense bombardment of HE and whizz-bangs. Captain Hughes, who was wounded, seeing that his company was in danger of being cut off, gave the order for the evacuation of the enemy trenches, and the remainder of the attacking force returned to our trenches.

"The enemy, who was evidently thoroughly prepared, now concentrated his energies on the front line, and, for the space of about 2½ hours, our front and support lines were subjected to an intense bombardment with heavy and light shells, causing a large number of casualties . . . The enemy casualties are also considered to have been considerable, large numbers of dead being seen in the enemy trenches. Ultimately the shelling ceased and to all intents and purposes the operations closed." (National Archives, Reference: WO95/2582/3)

It was a similar story on the 12th Battalion's front. The War Diary entry is brief:

"Battalion attacked enemy front and support lines and succeeded in entering same. The support line was occupied for about ½ hour and the front line for 4 hours. The withdrawal was necessitated by the supply of bombs and ammunition giving out and the heavy enemy barrage on our front line and communication trenches, preventing reinforcements being sent forward." (National Archives, Reference: WO95/2582/2)

As the attack developed, most of the officers were killed or wounded. Platoons, if not whole companies, ended up being led by NCOs.

Sergeant Major Nelson Victor CarterThe best remembered of these is Company Sergeant Major Nelson Victor Carter of "A" Company, 12th Battalion. When his Company commander was killed, CSM Carter took command of the fourth wave. Under intense shell and machine gun fire he succeeded in reaching the German second line with a few men and inflicted heavy casualties with bombs. When forced to retire to the German first line, Carter attacked a machine gun post which was causing particular trouble and shot the crew with his revolver. After the South Downers had withdrawn to their own lines, Carter 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. For his actions that day CSM Carter was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The 11th Battalion 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.

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 17 officers and 327 other ranks killed*, about 18 officers and 650 other ranks wounded (of whom 50 would die of their wounds within a month*), and 3 officers and about 100 other ranks missing (believed prisoners of war).

Altogether, of the 2,000 or so South Downers who went over the top on 30 June 1916, approximately 1,100 became casualties.

These figures belie the full human tragedy of Richebourg. Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19 (SDGW) 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 377 other ranks killed in action on 30 June 1916 or died of wounds within a month, SDGW shows that 267 were born in Sussex, some 70%. Most of the others would have been residents of Sussex, but this source does not show place of residence if born outside the county

Again, using the information in SDGW, it is possible to ascertain that about 80 towns, villages and parishes were affected by the deaths of those shown as born in Sussex, the greatest number coming from Brighton and Eastbourne. The additional fatalities, men not shown as having been born in Sussex but residing there, may have brought this figure up to nearer a hundred communities affected by the dead alone. With a further 600 men wounded and 100 missing, there can have been few places in Sussex that were unaffected by the losses at Richebourg.

Not without good reason did 30 June 1916 become known as "The day Sussex died." The following day the Battle of the Somme began and 20,000 men died on the first day. The Royal Sussex Regiment's attack at Richebourg, being just a diversion, is not even considered a separate action in the history of the war and remains largely unmentioned in any of the official histories.

Close up of Steyning church War Memorial Close-up of the War Memorial in Steyning Church.
William Bennett, Fred and Edward Bristow are recorded there.
All three died as a result of the action on 30 June, 1916 (see right).

Read the first part of this story - click below

See part one of this story >

William Alfred Bennett:
his story continued

William Bennett newspaper obituarySussex Daily News,
24 July, 1916

Private William Bennett was badly wounded in the arm and leg during the Royal Sussex Regiment's attack at Richebourg. He was taken to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) of No.132 Field Ambulance at Richebourg St Vaast Post whose War Diary records:

"21 officers and 634 NCOs and men passed through the ADS and Main Dressing Station . . . between 6am and 5pm on 30/6/16". (National Archives, Reference: WO95/2578/1)

William's wounds were so serious that he was driven ten miles to No. 7 Casualty Clearing Station at Merville with a view to evacuating him to hospital in England. Sadly, he succumbed to his wounds and died the same day.

William Bennett is buried in Merville Communal Cemetery along with thirteen other South Downers who died of their wounds at the Casualty Clearing Station.

William Bennett is commemorated on the War Memorial in St Andrew's Church, Steyning, one of three men from the town who died on 30 June 1916. The others are the two Bristow brothers: SD/3299 Lance Corporal Fred Bristow and SD/3300 Private Edward Bristow.

Fred and Edward Bristow lived at the Old Workhouse Cottages in Steyning with their widowed mother Anne and younger brother Walter. Edward was employed as a gardener at a garden nursery, most likely the same business as William Bennett.

William, Fred and Edward were undoubtedly acquainted; they enlisted together at Hove and were given (almost) sequential service numbers: 3288, 3299 and 3300.

Steyning Church War Memorial
The War Memorial in
Steyning Church

See part one of William Bennett's
story here>

Links


*
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.

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 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