Family History

This July I am planning to visit the World War I battlefields and war graves in Flanders. Amongst those I hope to remember there are two great uncles born and bred in Sussex. I have researched as far as I can their lives before the War and their war time experiences and deaths. This is a much abridged account and my full articles can be found on my website or by e-mailing me

War August 4 1914! The following day Great Uncle Robert Hill reported for duty at the barracks of the Royal Sussex Regiment in Chichester. The Chichester Observer 12/8/1914 described "It was nearly 10pm when at last they left the barracks but large crowds awaited them in North and South Streets and all the way down they were greeted with cheers. This batch numbered just 400. Another left on Thursday". Robert was a reservist so he had been mobilised immediately. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion.

Robert Edward Hill was born 6 January 1889 in Headkeepers Cottage UpPark. His father Henry Hill was head game and deerkeeper and Robert joined a family of brothers, William and Joseph (my grandfather) and sisters Bessie and Rosa. Tragedy soon struck. Henry died on 13 October of the same year from asthma and his widow Bessie and children moved to The Ship Inn, South Harting where Bessie had grown up. On the 1891 census Bessie is recorded as housekeeper for her half-brother Fred Wild the landlord. However Fred married soon after which probably is the reason why Bessie took over The Royal Oak in Walberton on the Arundel to Chichester road. She was landlady here until 1894 and on 23/12/1891 remarried, her new husband being John Hughes a labourer from Walberton, some 13 years her junior. Robert subsequently had half-brothers John and Len and a half-sister Ethel.

Robert first went to Walberton school, where the attendance of the Hill children was not good. The family moved to Westergate in July 1895 and he attended Eastergate school for two weeks left of the summer term and the autumn term. In January 1896 another move, to Yapton and Yapton school. On the 1901 census the family was living in the hamlet of Bilsham, south of Yapton village and stepfather John and brother Jo were threshing machine attendants, possibly working on the machines rented out by Sparks, the biggest employer in the village. Robert’s first job however was as a bricklayer’s labourer. This isn’t surprising as brothers Jo, John and Len all became builders. There was a lot of housing development along this part of the south coast at the time. By 1914 the family were living at Black Dog Cottages in the village centre. These had been Yapton workhouse.

On 1 December 1905 Robert enlisted in The Royal Sussex regiment, 1st Battalion, in Chichester. It was a big surprise for me to learn this. Fortunately some of Robert’s service records, now in the National Archives, have survived, although badly damaged in parts. I have never seen a photo of Robert but the enlistment papers describe him as 5 ft 4 inches, 132 lbs, brown hair, blue eyed and fresh complexion. He probably increased in height as he was only 16 then, though he gave his age as 19 years one month. On the 4 March 1906 he embarked from Dover for India and he was to remain there until he left the 1st battalion in February 1913. During Robert’s time in India life for the 1st Battalion seemed to be uneventful and to have followed the same routine each year. The information on it has come from ‘The Record of the Services of the 1st Battalion’ in West Sussex Records Office. Winters were spent in garrison in Ambala and from 1908 Rawalpindi. For the hot season, usually April until October/November the headquarters and half the companies would move to cooler locations in the Himalayan foothills; Solan, Gharial or Upper Topa. In 1912 for the first time the whole Battalion went to Gharial. Apart from this there were usually a couple of Battalion or Brigade training exercises a year as well as rifle shooting and other sporting contests. On 28 January 1908 Robert was appointed a Sergeant, on 18/2/1908 he passed his training for mounted infantry but in June 1909 was demoted to Lance-Corporal, then on 16 June 1910 he reverted to private at his own request. I wonder what was behind this? He was discharged on 27 February 1913 and became a reservist. I don’t know what work he did back in civilian life, perhaps bricklaying with his brothers? In August 1913 and February 1914 he had medical inspections which passed fit for service, ready as we now know for The Great War.

The Reservists spent a week at a training camp in Woking before embarking for France on the 12th from Southampton. At both they were waved off by crowds. For Robert’s war I have found the archive collection for the Royal Sussex regiment in the West Sussex Record office invaluable (and the archivist very helpful). Particularly useful and moving are the eye witness accounts in the ‘Newspaper Cutting book ‘which covers mobilisation to November 1915. Anyone who had a relative in the Battalion at this time might well find him mentioned. There is also the Battalion’s War Diary and personal accounts by several former members.

After 10 days encamped at L’Etreux they moved on and on the 23rd heard the guns from the Battle of Mons, their first indication of what was ahead. On Sunday 13 September the order was received ‘to make good the Aisne’, thus their first battle. One Battalion member was to write that the battles always started on a Sunday. This and the ensuing weeks introduced them to trench warfare. Robert was wounded for the first time in the trenches at Troyon on 28 September. There was no big engagement, but bombardments were recorded for the day. Usually one or two of the other ranks were killed or wounded each day in such circumstances, but their names were never recorded.

There is no surviving record of what his injury was, where he was sent or when he returned to his Unit. For his sake I hope it wasn’t in the following six weeks when the Battalion was entrenched near Ypres, during the first Battle of Ypres, in Coal-Box and then Pig-Stye Woods. Hopefully it was the latter half of November and most of December when the Battalion was resting at Hazebrouck. It returned to trenches on 21st, though Christmas Day was spent in Hamel, a place of great significance for my other Great Uncle as will be seen, with an early morning service held in the public house. On Boxing Day they took over trenches at Cuinchy near La Basse canal and were here for the next month with brief respite in Bethune for bathing and clean clothes, which were very necessary and welcome as these trenches were particularly muddy, Most of February was spent at Allouagne with training in different aspects of warfare such as bomb throwing and there was also ground for several football pitches. March and April was spent in trenches, mostly at Neuve Chapelle, with spells in billets. Easter was spent in billets with football Good Friday and a sports day on Easter Monday.

On 7 May they were ordered to take part on the assault on the German line at Richebourg, which opened with a gun barrage at 4.30 Sunday 9th. Many men of the Battalion were slaughtered, mown down as they went forward; one company of 220 men had 200 casualties. Private Arthur Goodacre wrote to his mother (as passed on to the Southern Daily News 2/6/1915) ‘I have however, never experienced anything like the 9th May – that was perfect hell. I must say that when our boys mounted the parapet they were singing ‘Sussex by the Sea’, and I felt that more than anything else.’ One could almost say that Robert got off lightly with a gunshot wound to the buttock. He was sent to hospital in Rouen rejoining the Battalion on the 21st the day after it resumed trench duty. Mining was very intense so the noise was intense. Some relief was the sports day organised with the 5th Battalion on Monday 14 June. Most of July was spent in training, with August and September spent alternating trench duty and being in reserve. Two highlights were the horse show on the 5th August and a concert on the 12 September.

On 11 August Robert was a day into six days training at Labourse when thousands of miles away at Holdsworthy military camp outside Sydney another young Sussex man William Henry, Harry, Blunden was enlisting. Harry was born 23 April 1887 in Slindon. His father William Blunden was establishing a small timber merchant’s business and his mother Ellen nee Downer came from a family which supplied many workers for Dale Park, Slindon. He had an older sister Nellie Jane (my grandmother) and a younger brother Charlie. When he was two the family moved to Bittle (Biddle) Side Farm on Slindon Common, next to Jimmy Dean, the well known diarist and columnist for the West Sussex Gazette. My grandmother used to say there were passages from the house leading to the ‘Dog and Partridge’ the notorious haunt of smugglers. In 1900 he may have seen Jimmy Dean’s cottage burn down, fortunately with no-one being hurt. A greater tragedy was on 24 April the following year when his mother died of gangrene poisoning. Apart from this the only facts I know about his life in Slindon were that he attended the National School, played bass drum in the village band and was also called Buck. If only I had asked my grandmother more!

According to information supplied by his father Harry emigrated to Australia when he was 24 but I haven’t been able to find details of his passage on the available passenger lists for 1911 or 1912. His Army record papers (Australian army records are complete and available free on the Australian National Archives website) record he was working as a gardener and groom for William Morewood at Rushholme, Merrivale Rd, Pymble. Pymble is a suburb of Sydney and William Morewood emigrated there in July 1912 on the Beltana. Could he and Harry have been on the same ship? The Ku-ring-gai Historical Society has kindly provided me with information on the Morewoods, but unsurprisingly they could find nothing on Harry.

Why had Harry waited a year to enlist? A reluctance to be drawn into a war in the old world just left behind or that he was just under the 168 centimetres required to enlist when war broke out? As with Robert no photo exists but his medical history form tells us he was 5 foot 5 and three-quarter inches, weighed 9 stone 5 pounds, with brown hair and dark complexion. He was enlisted into the 13th battalion and did cyclist training up to 20 December 1915 when he left Sydney on HMAT Aeneas. As Harry started the long sea journey back to Europe Robert was lying in a hospital bed again.

A mostly quiet September for Robert ended with the Battle of Loos on the 25th, of significance for being the first time the Allies had tried using gas. It was a failure as the gas was blown back onto our soldiers, even though Command had been warned the wind was in the wrong direction, and those who did reach the German wire were killed or wounded. Following this Battalion remained in trench duty in the Loos area and Robert was at Hulloch when he received a shrapnel wound to the scalp. This was serious enough for him to be shipped back to England on 27 December, and he was in hospital in Chichester until 24 January. On 1 February he was enlisted in the 7th battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, and embarked for France again on 1 March. However prior to that he was deprived of three days pay and confined to barracks for eight days for being absent without leave from 9.30pm on 20 February until 4 am 28 February "on learning he was be sent overseas". Can we blame him? He took up active service on 20 March. The battalion was in the area known as the Hohenzollern craters, so called because of the craters caused by the constant shelling and mining. On the 20th it was put in support trenches and from them called upon for fatigue duties. This might have been what Robert was doing when on 23 March Harry was admitted to the 3rd Australian General Hospital in Egypt. This was with fanners (mild) – whatever that is, can anyone help? His cohort had joined rest of the Battalion which had served in Gallipoli.

23-27 March the 7th Royal Sussex was in the front line, followed by rest at Annequin and Bethune until 7 April. In Egypt Harry rejoined his battalion on the 2nd April at Serapum (I have not been able to establish where this was). 8 April the History of the 7th Battalion describes "The next day [8th] passed quietly until 6.30pm when the Germans blew a large mine west of Crater A. west face and the mine shafts were then blown in, 17 miners being buried in the shaft and the dug-outs. All these miners were extricated except one man, who went mad under the strain of this ordeal and shot himself. The support company (D) was at once ordered to reinforce B which was holding the position affected…our casualties were heavy… [an officer] 8 other ranks killed and 39 wounded". Robert was killed when a mine detonated under trenches in the Hohenzollern Redoubt. His body was never found; at first he was declared missing but a few weeks later his death was accepted as being on the 8th for official purposes.

Meanwhile Harry is still in Egypt. On 5 May he was put on charge for being absent 6am 29 April to 6 am 1 May. He forfeited three days pay and was confined to barracks for four days. Finally on 8 July he left Alexandria, disembarking at Marseilles on the 14th. Until the 27 August he was with the 1st Anzac Cyclist battalion. Was his transfer back to the 13th battalion a result of breaking out of billet without a pass on 6 August for which he lost 21 days pay? This was in Etaples where there was a great concentration of camps for soldiers arriving and the wounded. As things transpired Harry would have been much safer staying with the Cyclists. As it was he entered the front line on 28 September near Flers on the Somme and on the 21st October was shot in the right hand, rejoining his Unit on 10 November. On 4/5 February 1917 the Australians launched an attack at Stormy Trench Gueudecourt and on the second day of battle Harry was hospitalised with gun shot wound to the face and bruised back and hip. He was sent to hospital in Boulogne, then convalescence in Etaples before rejoining the 13th on 10 March. A month latter, 11th April the Battalion was involved in the ill-fated Battle of Bullecourt where the Australians suffered very heavy losses, due largely it was felt to the failure of the British to provide the promised tank support. Harry was wounded in the neck and this time went to hospital in Rouen before being transferred to Etaples.

IN June 1917 Harry probably took part in the battle of Messines, arguably the most successful local operation of the whole war. Then 25- 27 September 1917 the battalion was involved in the battle of Polygon Wood, part of the 3rd battle of Ypres. Once again Harry was wounded, this time a gunshot wound to his left arm. A spell in Etaples was followed by one in Trouville. One hopes he benefited from time by the sea. His Christmas present for that year was being marched out to rejoin his unit on Christmas Eve, arriving 29 December. March and April saw the Battalion helping to stop the German spring offensive at Dernancourt. By the time the summer came the Australian forces were not at their best, thinned by influenza and a decrease in recruits but those that remained were experienced with high morale. The battle of Hammel on 4 July 1918 was a great military success but resulted in 1062 Australian casualties. Amongst these was Harry. He suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the neck and leg and died the same day in the 5th Casualty Station and was buried at Crouy British Cemetery, Rev G.E. Wheeler officiating.

Harry Blunden was one of 13 men from Slindon who died in the Great War as commemorated in the parish Church and on the memorial cross. In Yapton Robert and 24 other men are commemorated. Before starting this research I knew something of the horrors of World War I, and reading eye-witness accounts has deepened my understanding. What I didn’t realise was that there must have been many men like my Great Uncles who were wounded time and time again, patched up, sent back until they eventually received a fatal injury.

My middle name is Roberta, after my uncle, Robert Hill, who in his turn was named Robert Henry after his two uncles killed before he was born. My son also has Henry as a middle name, so in us, in a small way the great uncles have not been forgotten.