Storrington Local History Group

Storrington, West Sussex – email storringtonlhg@outlook.com

St Vaast Post Military Cemetery

The cemetery lies near the village of Richebourg-l’Avoué, during the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, British soldiers began burying their fallen comrades near a forward dressing station which was located at the terminus of a trench tramway between the hamlet of Richebourg St. Vaast and La Croix Barbet. The cemetery was used by fighting units serving in the front-line and field ambulances until July 1917 and is the final resting place of over 70 men of the Southdowns battalions who were killed at the Battle of Boar’s Head on 30 June 1916.
In order to disguise the exact location and prevent the German forces from sending reinforcements to the Somme, the British High Command decided that a number of diversionary operations should be staged elsewhere along the front just before and during the main battle. One such attack took place early in the morning of 30 June and focused on the German lines opposite Richebourg L’Avoué, including the Boar’s Head salient. The salient had been formed during the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915 and gave the Germans a vantage point from which they could bombard the British forward positions with trench mortars and rifles grenades and fire on patrols and wiring parties working in no man’s land. The British units selected for the attack were the 11th, 12th, and 13th Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, otherwise known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd ‘Southdowns Pals’. Few of the officers and men had any experience of combat on the Western Front and they would be facing a well organised and determined enemy. The date of the attack had to be delayed due to the brief postponement of the main Somme offensive further south, but the Sussex men finally left their positions at zero hour just after 3.05 am on 30 June and advanced through the smoke and half-light towards the German positions. The men of the 12th and 13th battalions led the attack and immediately came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire. Some of them nonetheless managed to fight their way through the German wire and occupy the front-line trenches. They held this captured territory for about four hours before they were forced to return to their own lines in the face of fierce German counter attacks. Over the course of less than five hours of fighting the three Southdowns battalions suffered over 1000 casualties, over 360 of whom had been killed.

Sergeant John French served with the 13th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, died on 30th June 1916, aged 24 years. The eldest boy but third child born to Philip and Susan French, John was born 14th May 1893 in Pirbright Surrey where his younger siblings Albert and Eleanor were also born before the family moved to Sussex in 1899. Philip was a miller and by the time of 1901 census the family was living on School Hill, Storrington. John and his elder sister Lizzette entered Storrington School on 20th September 1899. The school registers note the children as leaving the school in Oct of the same year having “gone to Roman Catholics”

John was 17 years old at the time of the 1911 census and was working as a butcher. He is enumerated twice in the census – firstly with his parents at Laura Cottage, Storrington and secondly, where he boarded in Billingshurst, which is no doubt where he worked.

Private John Philby SD.3189, 13th Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. Killed in action during the assault on the ‘Boars Head’. 30th June 1916. Aged 29. Son of Robert & Elizabeth Philby of Hill Cottage, Houghton Bridge near Amberley. Born in Upper Marden and enlisted in Chichester.

 

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