On 30th June 1916 116th Southdown Brigade (39th Division commanded by Major-General R Dawson) took part in a diversionary attack near Richebourg l’Avoue. This action has largely gone unnoticed for almost a hundred years, no memorial has ever been erected but for the people of Sussex the day held great significance, the 30th June became known as “The day Sussex died”.
The brigade was made up from the Southdown battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment (11th/ 12th and 13th), and the 14th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment (also known as the 1st Portsmouth Battalion). Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Lowther, (Conservative MP for North Cumberland) owner of Herstmonceux Castle, received permission from the War Office to raise units of local Sussex men. Recruitment for the 11th Southdown battalion started on the 9th September with 1100 men recruited in the first 2 days. Recruitment for two further battalions followed.
The battalions are occasionally referred to as 1st, 2nd and 3rd Southdown Battalions, or ‘Lowthers Lambs’. All original enlisters were allowed to suffix their Regimental Number with the letters ‘SD’.
These “Pal’s Battalions”, part of Kitchener’s new army were made up of troops who had volunteered at the start of the war and who were therefore serving with men from their own towns and villages. Each battalion was approximately a thousand men organised into companies of about 230.
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 Southdowns 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 Southdowns Battalions stayed at Witley Camp.
On 6th March 1916 they left Witley Camp for Southampton then onwards to Le Harve, France. The sailing time took nine hours aboard the SS Viper and SS Australind and they arrived at Le Harve in a snow storm with the night spent under canvas at No.5 Rest Camp.
The Division was made up of 12 infantry battalions, 4 battalions per brigade (116th, 117th 118th) and within days of their arrival were introduced to the front lines and start “learning the ropes” of trench routine. In the following months the 116th brigade served in the Fleurbaix, Festubert and Cuinchy Brick-Stacks sectors of the British line before moving in the mid June to the Richebourg L’ Avoue which had witnessed heavy fighting in 1915.
The build up for the huge Somme Offensive was now in its final stages, although the 116th Brigade would not be directly involved in the fighting they would have a part to play in one of the side shows further north. They had built up a good reputation since arriving in France and had the confidence of the Divisional staff. Opposite the British lines was the German salient known as The Boar’s Head, a legacy of the Battle of Auber’s Ridge, fought a year earlier resulting in over 11,000 British casualties. This salient had been selected for the assault and would be part of a much larger plan that would unfold on the morning of the 1st July on the Somme. In order to draw attention away from the activity further south, three diversionary attacks would be mounted with Boar’s Head being one of them.
Sensing disaster in a plan that had given the troops little time to prepare and was to be carried out over difficult terrain which did not include details of a wide dyke that flowed through the middle of No Man’s Land, Lieut-Colonel Harman Grisewood, commander of the 11th Battalion, (who had replaced the founder, Lieut-Colonel Claude Lowther in May 1915) expressed his misgivings forcibly to Brigadier- General M.L. Hornby DSO (Brigade Commander) declaring that ‘I am not sacrificing my men as cannon-fodder’. Such questioning of command decisions was not to be tolerated and Grisewood was promptly relieved of his post and replaced by Major Harrison, a regular army officer. Grisewood had already lost one brother during the war to illness. He would lose another at the Boar’s Head. Major-General R Dawson, the newly appointed commander of the 39th Division relegated the 11th battalion into a supporting role of the attack. The 13th Battalion would now be part of the main attacking force.A preliminary bombardment by the artillery commenced on the afternoon of 29 June which alerted the Germans that the attack was soon to begin. The assault battalions (12th and 13th) with a third (11th) in reserve (now used as carrying parties for the leading waves) assembled in the area south of Rue du Bois at 01.30 and a preparatory artillery bombardment of the German line commenced at 02.50 and lasted for some fifteen minutes. The men waited further, as the shells crashed into the German positions opposite; the shrapnel hopefully cutting the thick wire. Above the din of the bombardment, those nearer to the Boar’s Head itself would have heard a short, louder crack, as the push pipe mine was exploded by Major Coulter (3rd Australian Mining Company) The 300lbs of ammonal explosive formed a smoking crater some sixty feet long, twenty feet wide and ten feet deep. Germans immediately replied and caused heavy casualties amongst the Sussex men assembled in their trenches for the attack. Private S.H. Tarrant, a newspaper boy from Horsham, had been out of the trenches before the attack cutting the barbed wire and recalled “… a good many were hit before they went over…At 03.05 the two attacking battalions advanced in waves at 50 yard intervals.
The 13th battalion crossed the 250 metres in an easterly direction into the dark, a flanking attack towards the head salient and the Ferme du Bois (Wood Farm). The British barrage then lifted from the front line to the German support lines allowing the German troops to man their parapets and opened fire with rifles and machine guns. The 13th battalion’s passage across No Man’s Land was accomplished with few casualties, the two right companies (C and D company) under the command of Lieuts. Whitely and Ellis succeeded in reaching their objectives gaining a footing in the enemy trenches, they then bombed their way to the left to link up with the advancing companies. However, the two left companies ( A and B company) came under heavy machine gun fire and found much of the German wire uncut, they only managed to penetrate into the German front line in one or two places.
Reorganising themselves they pushed forward to the support line. Bombing and bayonet men made their way down the German communication trenches, but at this point disaster struck on the 13th Battalion’s front, the Trench Mortar Battery’s smoke barrage designed to mask the advance drifted across and made it impossible to see more than a few yards. This resulted in all direction being lost and the attack developed into small bodies of men not knowing which way to go.
(view from the trenches)
The confusion of the smoke combined with heavy enemy machine gun fire cut down the men from A and B companies and broke the momentum of the assault. Some groups entered the support lines engaging the enemy with bombs and bayonets. Parts of the German front line trench were held for four hours and the German second line trench was captured for about half an hour where several counter attacks were repelled until the shortage of ammunition and mounting casualties necessitated a withdrawal.
It was a similar story with the 12th Battalion who were to spear-head the attack on the Boar’s Head position itself, flanked on the left by the 13th and with the 11th in support. German machine gun fire swept No Man’s Land, cutting waves of advancing men, while heavy and accurate shellfire turned the already shell-torn ground into a killing field, where it was almost impossible to either advance or retreat. Despite this, the enemy trenches were reached and in isolated pockets of resistance without officers and senior NCOs who now lay dead and wounded, the 12th hung onto their gains. By early morning having resisted determined German counter attacks they were compelled to withdraw in the face of superior odds. The reserve battalion (11th) sent D Company under the command of Captain Eric Cassels, with five subalterns – one of them Colonel Grisewood’s brother, Francis – and around 150 men but it too, suffered casualties. The other three companies of the 11th Battalion were held in the reserve lines. Among them in a position known as ‘Port Arthur’ was Second Lieutenant Edmund Blunden.
Assisting this attack was the 13th (Forest of Dean) Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, fulfilling its pioneer role. The battalion provided four parties in various parts of the line and when zero hour came, the Glosters moved out into No Man’s Land, attempting to dig their way across but the “… work was made impossible… owing to devil enemy wire which was not cut.”
Once out of the line the battalion roll calls were made, and the full horror of the losses suffered became known. In the 12th Battalion, few remained. Colonel Impey had been wounded during the attack, and all his company commanders had become casualties; six officers were dead, seven wounded and three taken prisoner – the only officers taken prisoner in the 12th Battalion for the whole of the war. Losses among the other ranks were fearful; 136 killed in action or died of wounds.
The 13th Battalion had feared little better. Colonel Draffen, who had survived the action, could only report that “… or losses were heavy “. Contemporary sources show nine officers in the 13th had been killed; among them the Adjutant Roger D’Arcy Whittaker, who Corporal Booth had seen hanging on the German wire. A further nine officers were wounded. Among the men, 169 were killed or died of wounds.
(Lieutenant Colonel Frederick George William Draffen, the 12th and 13th Battalions were temporarily amalgamated under his command)
‘D’ company of the 11th Battalion, had also suffered badly. It’s commander, Captain Eric Cassels was wounded, along with two fellow officers. Two subalterns of ‘D’ company had died in the attack; Second Lieutenant Aylett Cameron Cushen, a Hastings man with previous service in the Honourable Artillery Company who had only joined the battalion eleven days before Richebourg, and Second Lieutenant Francis Grisewood. Francis was Colonel Grisewood’s younger brother.
Those left in command of the 12th and 13th Battalion were asked to submit their accounts of the action and what they considered to have gone wrong. Colonel Impey of the 12th Battalion had been wounded and could not be contacted; Captain J.S. Casey, an acting company commander now temporarily commanding the battalion, therefore submitted a report on what limited information he could gather. He described briefly the opening phase of the attack and the almost immediate response from the Germans when “… many casualties were incurred from the enemy artillery fire.” He recounted the major problem of uncut wire which was “…practically undamaged and intact”.
Lieutenant Colonel F.G.W. Draffen gave a much fuller report of the fighting. He presented a very detailed picture of the attack, and the problems encountered in entering the German line; the darkness causing confusion, the smoke bombardment obscuring vision, the uncut wire in many places. The few men who had made their way into the support line found themselves isolated and the last remaining officer gave the order to withdraw. Draffen considered that this officer “… exercised a wise discretion in abandoning the ground gained “. He concluded that, in his opinion, the chief causes for the failure of the attack were,
(a) The unfortunate incident of our own smoke cloud diverted by the wind across our own front, and not in the direction of the enemy. This, added to the unusual darkness, was one of the chief causes as it resulted in loss of direction by the assaulting troops and ultimately, disorganisation.
(b) From the information I have learnt from a prisoner news had reached the enemy of an intended offensive on our part, and we came up against fresh troops,a relief having taken place on the evening previous to the assault.
(c) The intensity of the enemy’s artillery fire.
(d) The intensity and accuracy of his M.G. fire.
(e) The failure of our artillery to cut the wire effectively on the left of the Bn. frontage.This wire was well concealed in shell holes and hollows, and was probably not observed.
Draffen admitted that casualties amongst his own men had been severe and was keen to point out, “… whatever the reasons were that led to failure to hold the enemy support trench, one was not forthcoming, viz. any lack of the fighting spirit on the part of officers, NCOs and men.”
Following these accounts, Brigadier- General L.M. Hornby, and his staff compiled their own report. For the problems of uncut wire and artillery, Hornby and his staff felt,“… [the] bombardment and wire cutting by the artillery… appeared to be, on the whole, very successful.”
This contrasted strongly with the accounts submitted from the two attacking battalions. Hornby admitted that in certain areas “emplacements were still undamaged”, but “… this was not the fault of the artillery”. It was due “… to the fact that the guns available for the general bombardment were not sufficiently heavy “.
Aside from this Hornby’s report contains little constructive comment about the failure of the attack. Instead, he concentrated on phrases like “the greatest gallantry and determination” and “good discipline” when discussing the difficulties incurred by the attacking battalions. He also highlighted the estimated German losses, even stating “… I am of the opinion that [the] losses must have been well over 1,000 “. No source for this statement is given.
There was no mention of how little time the men had before the attack to train for it. There was no mention of the objections put to Hornby by Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood before June 30th. The whole action was buried in the files of 39th Division within twenty four hours of the attack, perhaps deliberately, perhaps because of the bigger events now looming close on the Somme.
Hornby had a surprise before the episode was finally over, Lieut-Colonel Grisewood reappeared at the Divisional Headquarters. Owing to an error, when he was dismissed from the 11th Battalion he had been only sent on leave; when the leave was up, he simply returned. Hornby was horrified, especially when Grisewood told him that “… if he were not posted to another battalion within one week, he would demand a Court of Inquiry. ” Grisewood’s anger was further fuelled by the loss of his brother, Francis, in the operation. No doubt he had hoped that with such a threat he would return to his old battalion, but orders arrived stating “… within a few days he [would] take command of the 17th Battalion the Manchester Regiment on the Somme.” Grisewood departed, never to return to the Southdowns.
The action at the Boar’s Head received little publicity outside the Sussex newspapers which were already listing the ever growing number of obituaries of those who had died. An official communique simply reported that, “… East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”
Having reviewed the papers sent him by Hornby, the XI Corps commander Lieutenant General R. King concluded,” The main objective of the operation was achieved because it was one of the small attacks about to take place… at this period… to hold the enemy in his line and distract his attention from the main battle to the south.”
Given the local recruitment of the Southdown battalions, the impact on Sussex was huge. The cost to the three battalions was terrible as in reality no ground was gained. The total causalities were 15 Officers and 364 other ranks killed or died of wounds and 21 Officers and 728 other ranks wounded. In total nearly 1,100. A conservative count of men killed coming from Eastbourne alone stands at 47, hardly a town in the county escaped without some casualties.
It was also at this battle that the Southdowns were awarded their only Victoria Cross. Company Sergeant Major Nelson Victor Carter, 12th Battalion, who was fatally wounded whilst bringing in the wounded his citation, reads:
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.
In additions to the VC, an officer was awarded the D.S.O., 4 other officers received the M.C., 8 D.C.M’s. and 20 M.M. were also awarded.
No ground had been gained and the flower od Sussex youth had been sacrificed in a diversionary attack that Divisional Headquarters referred to in an official communique as a “local raid”. Royal Sussex Regiment attack at Richebourg was a diversionary attack and not considered a separate action in the history of the Great War.
The following day the Battle of the Somme began and by sunset 57,470 men had become casualties, of which 19,240 were dead.