DOWN MEMORY LANE Battalions’ men mown down in battle disaster

Reader Maurice Ayling got in touch to relate a very sad wartime tale.

Maurice, of Elizabeth Avenue, Rose Green, says:

The article in the Observer on June 2 about Capt Toye VC prompts me to suggest that attention be drawn to the anniversary, on June 30, of one of the saddest days in Sussex history – although it includes another Sussex VC.

It is now little known as it was overshadowed by the horrifying events of the following day on the Somme.

A Boer war veteran, Lt Col Lowther of Herstmonceux Castle, was reluctantly given permission to raise a battalion of Sussex men which he hoped to command – although he never was given command.

He eventually raised three which became the 11th, 12th, and 13th battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment.

Because of their origins, they were known as the South Downs Brigade. This was before conscription was introduced. These battalions were renowned for their smartness, drill and spirit.

However, in the spirit of the day, enthusiasm and courage were jeopardised by a woeful lack of professional battle training.

They were sent to France in early 1916 and, after some fairly quiet time in the trenches, were selected for an action to ‘straighten out the line’ by assaulting a bulge in the German lines at Richebourg near Bethune in Flanders.

The assault was preceded by an artillery bombardment meant to destroy the German wire and was covered by a smoke screen. It started at 4am.

Not only was the wire pierced in only a few places where the men bunched to be mown down, but the smoke confused them, and it was soon apparent that, because of poor security, the Germans were expecting them.

Nevertheless, some managed to reach the German third line but, as they were so few, and casualties had been so heavy, the recall order was given.

It was when guiding the recall that Company Sergeant Major Carter of Brighton was shot in the neck and killed.

For his gallantry in shepherding the remnants of his men back to safety, he was awarded the VC.

Only the half of the 11th Bn which had been held in reserve, was unscathed.

By 8am the survivors were back where they had started, having suffered nearly 400 men killed, and many more missing, wounded, or taken prisoner, and the South Downs Brigade ceased to exist, the remnants eventually forming one battalion.

The panels in the Royal Sussex chapel of Chichester Cathedral record the names of the men lost on June 30, and war memorials across Sussex indicate the losses of various communities, which were devastating in small ones.

There is a war cemetery in the village of St Vaast, near Richebourg, in which I found row upon row of Royal Sussex headstones, all dated June 30, 1916, most known only to God.

I was sobered by the thought that my uncle Norman, who is recorded as having no known grave, was perhaps among the others of the 13th Bn.

This action, and that of the Somme, was one of the last actions of the ‘old pals’ battalions, as the casualties had such a detrimental affect on morale at home.

My father, who was conscripted in 1917, was of the new army which was properly trained after the lessons of the Somme, but his is another story.

It would be well for Sussex to remember its ill-fated South Downs Brigade.