Richebourg 30th June 1916
Men of the South Downs Battalions in training, 1914 (©Paul Reed)
" And so closed the youth or maturity... of many a Sussex worthy."
Edmund Blunden - Undertones of War
The Boar’s Head is not a battle honour you’ll find in any history of the Great War. It was an obscure salient in the German lines around the tiny village of Richebourg l’Avoue in northern France. Formed after the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915, the trenches here were once part of the German support line and following meager success new front line positions were established which would remain the same until April 1918, when the German offensive broke. 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 best known is the assault at Gommecourt, but it is largely forgotten that others took place as well. The 1st Division attacked the Double Crassier at Loos on 30th June (well recounted in Giles Eyre’s Somme Harvest) and in Flanders the 41st Division carried out some local operations at Ploegsteert. In northern France the 39th Division was allocated to a similar action at the Boar’s Head.
The 39th Division was a Kitchener’s Army formation, which had been formed in mid-1915 and trained at Witley Camp, near Guildford. It’s three brigades, 116th, 117th and 118th, consisted of a mixed bag of different regiments, but in the senior brigade (116th) there were three ‘pals’ battalions: 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. They were otherwise known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd South Downs battalions, and locally in Sussex as Lowther’s Lambs after Lt-Col Claude Lowther MP, who had raised them in 1914. Recruited from all over Sussex, there were specific companies drawn from Sussex towns - such as Bexhill, Eastbourne and Hastings – and as such represented a good cross section of the community from this part of the county. They had crossed to France in March 1916 with the rest of the division, and had served in the Fleurbaix and Festubert sectors before taking over the trenches at Richebourg. It was while in the line at Festubert that war poet Edmund Blunden (author of Undertones of War) joined them in May 1916.
The plan for the diversionary attack at the Boar’s Head 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 the good reputation and cohesion as a unit. The 11th 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 (1st South Downs) 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 (1). 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. One veteran, Bob Short, told the author that Harman Grisewood had instructed his brigade commander,
" I am not sacrificing my men as cannon-fodder!"(2)
The attack had to go in regardless, and Major General R.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. After a period in England, he was posted to the 17th Manchesters in 1917 and commanded them in the field until severely gassed.
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 practiced the operation at the divisional training ground. ‘Z’ Day for the Somme was changed to 1st July because of poor weather, so the date for the attack on the Boar’s Head was likewise modified to 30th 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 first sense of alarm came following the 12th and 13th battalions arrival opposite the Boar’s Head. Observing through trench periscopes, officers of the battalions 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. Final preparations continued regardless, and from interviews with survivors it seems few were aware of this fateful bit of intelligence.
At 3.05am on 30th June 1916 the attack began. The 12th advanced on the right, with the junction of the 12th/13th being the tip of the Boar’s Head, where an old communication trench ran from the British parapet across to the German front line. Going forward in the half darkness, the smoke bombardment intended to screen their advance drifted across the leading waves causing some confusion. Private Harry Finch, an Eastbourne man, was among the attackers. He recalled the events of the last few hours.
" We paraded at ten o'clock on the Thursday night for the trenches in full fighting order ready to go over the top the next morning. We all said the Lord's Prayer with our chaplain who addressed a few words to us and gave us the blessing. All night we were hard at work cutting the barbed wire in front and carrying out bridges to put over a big ditch in front of our parapet. The time we were to go over the guns started a terrible bombardment of the enemy's trenches. As soon as they started the enemy sent up a string of red lights as a signal to his own guns. I got a fragment of shell on the elbow about five minutes before our men went over... They blew our trenches right in at places." (3)
Not long after the British bombardment had ceased, the Germans had emerged from their dugouts and machine-gun fire had started to rake No Man’s Land. Officers in the leading companies were already beginning to fall and it was left to Warrant Officers and NCOs to take over.
One of these was CSM Nelson Victor Carter. From Hailsham, Carter had served as an old soldier before the war and settled in Eastbourne where he had worked as a cinema commissionaire at the first ‘picture show’ in Old Town. He joined the 11th battalion in September 1914, and was transferred as CSM of A Company in the 12th when that was raised in October. Armed only with a revolver, Carter led his men forward and took over when his company commander fell riddled with bullets. When they reached the German lines, the wire was in places uncut, but they managed to affect an entry in a few places. Carter led his men in, and succeeded in reaching the support line. Here he expected to find the 13th Battalion, but there was no sign of them. After a couple of hours, German counter-attacks forced them back and the whole position was abandoned with heavy losses. CSM Carter then 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. Captain H.T.K.Robinson had witness the whole event, along with numerous others. He later recalled,
" I next saw him about an hour later. I had been wounded in the meanwhile and was lying in our trench... [Carter] repeatedly went over the parapet - I saw him going over alone - and carried in our wounded men from No Man's Land. He brought them in on his back, and he could not have done this had he not possessed exceptional physical strength as well as courage." (4)
Carter was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross, which was gazetted in September. The citation reads:
Citation from the London Gazette No 29740, September 9, 1916:
"Nelson Victor Carter, Company Sergeant Major 4th Company, 12th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment. Date of act of bravery; 30th June, 1916, for most conspicuous bravery. 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."
CSM Nelson Victor Carter 1915 (©Carter family)
Buried close to the front line in a field grave with some of his comrades, Carter was moved to Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard near Laventie in the 1920s. His daughter Jessie, who was only three when her father died, often used to wear the VC at the annual Aubers Ridge parade in Eastbourne. She spent her whole life in the town, until her death in 2000. The VC still remains with the family, who often visit the grave at Laventie.
On the 13th Battalion front the situation was even worse. The smoke bombardment there had drifted into the attackers, and the men had totally lost their direction. Some ended up advancing at an angle across No Man’s Land, exposing their vulnerable flanks to the Germans. Many were mown down in waves. A ditch existed in front of the British trenches, and carrying parties with small bridges had gone forward to assist in the crossing of it. These had been amongst the first to fall, and very few of the bridges were in place. Most had to scramble in and out of the ditch, as machine-gun fire swept up and down. On reaching the German front line, most of the wire was intact, and very few of the 13th ever made it into the German trenches. By the close of operations a handful of survivors made their way back to the British front line.
The 11th 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 (5).
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 15 officers and 364 Other Ranks killed or died of wounds, and 21 officers and 728 Other Ranks wounded; nearly 1,100 South Downers.
These figures belie the full human tragedy of Richebourg. In 1919, His Majesty's Stationary Office published Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19, Volume 40 of which covers the Royal Sussex Regiment. This source 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 349 other ranks killed in action on June 30th 1916, Soldiers Died shows that 243 were born in Sussex; some 70%. The majority of the others would have certainly been residents of Sussex, but this source does not show place of residence if born outside the county. For example men like Regimental Sergeant Major May's son, Lance Sergeant George Edward May. He had been born in Kis, India, while May senior had been serving there in 1896. On the outbreak of the war, the May family resided at Linden Avenue, Bognor.
Again, using the information in Soldiers Died, it is possible to ascertain that seventy-seven towns, villages and parishes were affected by the fatalities of those shown as born in Sussex; the greatest number coming from Brighton and Eastbourne. The latter is not surprising, considering there were several companies of Eastbourne men in the 12th Battalion. The additional fatalities, men not shown as having been born in Sussex but residing there like the May family, may have brought this figure up to nearer a hundred communities affected by the dead alone. With over 700 wounded, there can have been few places in Sussex that were unaffected by the losses at Richebourg.
Among the dead were dozens of tragic stories. Corporal Percy Parsons of the 13th Battalion who had dodged a sick parade to ensure his part in the attack had died on the German wire (6). Lance Corporal Frederick Chandler of the 12th Battalion had written to his parents in Eastbourne claiming he would "... ‘get one in for Fritz' " to avenge his brother Stewart who had died at sea in 1915. Chandler was killed in the early stages of the attack (7). Private Harry Mercer had enlisted in the 11th Battalion at Hastings aged only sixteen; he died after a year and a half in uniform (8). Private James Honeyset of the 13th Battalion was killed at Richebourg aged 36, a veteran of the Boer War. His brother was killed alongside him (9).
Elsewhere, five other pairs of brothers lay dead on the battlefield. The Blaker family of Worthing, the Blurton family, the Bottings of Balcombe, the Bristow family of Wiston, the Sumners of Crawley; all had double bereavements. The Jackson family from Amberley joined them when on 3rd July both their sons died of wounds within hours of each other. Worst of all was the Pannell family from Worthing. They had three sons in the 12th Battalion and one in the 13th; William and Charles died with the 12th, Alfred with the 13th - having only enlisted in late 1915 to join his brothers - and the fourth son was taken prisoner. After the war, none of their graves could be found and their names were listed together on the Loos Memorial to the Missing; a sad testimony to one family's supreme sacrifice.
Many veterans of Richebourg spoke of this attack as the ‘butcher’s shop’. One, Albert Banfield, used to write to the author every 30th June, on the anniversary of the battle. In one letter he remarked,
"… truly, this was the day Sussex died." (10)
I have been researching the story of the South Downs battalions for more than thirty years now, and will be pub;ishing a history of them during the WW1 Centenary period; the book is in fact almost complete. If you have any material – photographs, letters or diaries – of men that served in these units then I would be pleased to hear from you. Please contact me on:
Email Paul Reed
Did you have a relative who served in the South Downs battalions or who fought at Richebourg? See my Research Page elsewhere on the site.
(1) Captain G.M.J.A.Grisewood. Died of
illness 27th March 1916. Buried Merville British Cemetery.
(2) Interview with author.
(3) Eastbourne Gazette 19th July 1916.
(4) Eastbourne Gazette 27th September 1916.
(5) 2/Lt Francis Grisewood, 11th Bn Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Commemorated Loos Memorial.
(6) Cpl Percy Parsons. 13th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez.
(7) L/Cpl Frederick Chandler. 12th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery.
(8) Pte Harry Mercer. 11th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery.
(9) Pte James G. Honeyset 13th Royal Sussex. KIA 30th June 1916. Buried St Vaast Post Military Cemetery. His brother Cecil is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
(10) From correspondence with author 1986.
©Paul Reed 2001-2013