From this vast altar—pile the souls of men
Sped up to God in countless multitudes:
On this grim cratered ridge they gave their all.
John Oxenham (1852-1941)
Part of a poem on the dedication stone at the Newfoundland Memorial Park in Beaumont Hamel, France.
When the 2nd battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment arrived in France with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division on 13 August 1918, they received a heroes’ welcome before firing a single shot.
“It was a glorious time for us,” Private Harold Morley wrote home to his family in Arundel, describing how French people crowded around them, giving them food, cigarettes and drinks.
His next letter described the Battle of the Aisne on September 14.
“The battalion that morning walked right into a death trap,” he wrote. “The German artillery were firing on us at a range of 450 yards. Shells were bursting over us like drops of rain.”
There were 213 casualties that day.
A year later, the battalion was on the front line to launch the biggest allied offensive of the year in the Battle of Loos in the vicinity of the iconic Lone Tree, which still stands today in the middle of what was No-Man’s Land. It was the first time poison gas was used by the British, but a weak wind spread it no further than No-Man’s land, resulting in limited visibility and actually killing some British soldiers – including one Sergeant Archibald Cleare, from Chichester.
For two days the British were easy, open targets for the Germans and although ultimately the town of Loos was captured, it came at a cost of more than 60,000 men, including three major generals and the only son of Rudyard Kipling.
The Day Sussex Died
Worse was to come for the three Southdowns Battalions, who had been raised by MP Colonel Claude Lowther, the owner of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex.
Lowther had been granted permission from the War Office to raise a battalion of local men and in September 1914 set up offices all over Sussex, notably in Worthing, Bognor, Brighton, Bexhill, Eastbourne and Hastings.
Within two days, 1,100 men had volunteered and they became the 11th battalion, the first Southdowns Battalion. Two more battalions from mostly Sussex families were raised by the end of the year, and the three battalions, the 11th, 12th and 13th, became known as ‘Lowther’s Lambs’.
Lambs to the slaughter. They didn’t know they were part of a diversionary force that was intended to take attention away from the main Battle of the Somme – but that horror, in which more than 57,000 men became casualties, 19,000 of them dead, happened a day later.
The diversionary salient began at 3am on 30 June at the Boar’s Head, Richebourg L’Avoue, to the north of the Somme.
The Germans knew they were coming.
Bridges had been laid out to help the soldiers cross drainage ditches – but this made them even easier targets for the Germans. Some were trapped in a dyke that they hadn’t known about, and eventually the fighting became brutal, hand-to-hand savagery.
Five hours after the Southdowns Brigade went over the top, it had lost 17 officers and 349 other ranks. Half of the 12th battalion were killed, the 13th almost entirely wiped out. More than 1,000 men were wounded or taken prisoner.
June 30 has come to be known as ‘The Day Sussex Died’, yet there were still two years to go and many, many more losses.
The men who remained of the three Southdowns Battalions were sent to the Somme mid-August, where at one stage they had to hold the trenches for five weeks with no relief.
“We were never intended to have to face such warfare,” said Private George Sydenham in a letter home to Haywards Heath.
There are 7,302 names inscribed on memorial panels in the Regimental Chapel of St George, Chichester Cathedral.
The names comprise 39 officers and 6,912 men of other rank.
Demobilisation in France did not begin until mid-December, and although a few made it home for Christmas 1918, a great many did not finally make it back to their loved ones until June 1919.
They were the lucky ones.