I would like to comment on the stirring letter you reproduced from George William Short to his mother on 13th May 1915. George, of course, is describing what became known as the Battle of Aubers Ridge, which took place at Richebourg l’Avoué, on Sunday, 9th May 1915 – and was an unmitigated disaster.
My grandfather’s younger brothers, Harold and Wilfred Linfield, also joined the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (RSR) and would have known George because they embarked for France on the same troop ship on 4th January 1915. Luckily for Wilfred, as it turned out, he was invalided home in February with trench foot so he missed the battle which, he always claimed, probably saved his life. Not a single goal was achieved that day, not an inch of ground was won and the casualties were enormous – including Harold, who was mown down by German machine gun fire as soon as he climbed out of his trench at 5.30am. He was 21.
Not surprisingly, the scale of the disaster was kept quiet from the British public. A serious shortage of munitions meant that the initial bombardment was absurdly short – only 40 minutes – so that the wire entanglements in front of the German trenches remained uncut. The Germans had concealed machine guns in deep emplacements, strategically sited to rake every yard with bullets and scythed down the advancing British soldiers. Faulty ammunition and worn gun barrels caused some of the artillery to fall short of their targets, causing further British casualties.
When the roll call for the 2nd Battalion RSR was taken in the evening, it revealed two officers killed, nine wounded and three missing; in the ranks, 101 were dead, 118 ‘missing’ and 329 wounded. It was a bad day for Sussex, especially as the 5th Battalion RSR was also there supporting the 2nd in the trench behind. Final casualty figures were 458 officers and 11,161 men, the vast majority within yards of their own front line.
Interestingly, Aubers Ridge did achieve something positive – it brought to a head the scandalous shortage of munitions and the ensuing political row led to the formation of the Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George.
After months of uncertainty, it wasn’t until September 1915 that Harold’s body was recovered and his devastated parents informed. The awful reality is that several thousand corpses remained where they had fallen, left to slowly decompose in the mud because it was too dangerous to retrieve them. At least Harold has a grave with a headstone – most of the soldiers killed on 9 May (some 93%) have no known grave and are recorded on the endless stone panels of the cemetery at Le Touret. George Short was a lucky man to survive, but how sad that he was killed in September at the Battle of Loos.
Malcolm Linfield, West Chiltington