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On the 22nd after the Battalion received orders it move at 5pm it only took them 20 minutes to turn out. Each man was issued with 50 extra rounds of ammunition. The battalion went to Mauberge and then Villiers sur Higgle, which was reached a midnight with considerable difficulty. Not much sleep as at 3.15 am there were sudden orders to move at 4am. They bivouacked at Bouvaroi at 5.30. At 3pm they went into village and billeted and the men were on standby until 9.30 when they advanced towards Mons and bivouacked by roadside. As we will be shown heavy artillery was heard all day.
Although not directly involved in the Battle of Mons (it was in support of two brigades in front) where the first shots of the War took place the Battalion was in a position to witness it. At 6.30am on the 23rd the battalion set out for Mons. The SDN printed a letter on 17th October 1914 from Private D Bray who was writing from Netley hospital with an injured foot, ‘crossed the Franco-Belgian frontier on Saturday 22 August. We were marching day and night and arrived at some place on the right of Mons. The battle had then already started and we had a fine view here all Sunday afternoon and evening. Three towns were blazing. We were escort to guns and shells were falling in hundreds, but just as we were getting interested and it was dark, we got the order to retire…’. Similarly Lance Corporal Frederick Barnard writing in the Eastbourne Gazette 13th January 1915 ‘I witnessed one of those sights which it does not fall to everyone’s lot to see – an artillery battle which I shall never forget” The soldiers couldn’t believe the Germans had taken Liege and Brussels as it was commonly believed the French would soon be at the Rhine. Whittington’s diary reported that on the 23rd ‘8pm we stood by to go into action and the artillery were firing all afternoon and with great effect. It was very distressing to see the men women and children fleeing to some other towns. German guns are inaccurate, ours good so far 8.30 pm moving back through Moburon. Shelling very high. Refugees fleeing’
Two memories of Mons. ‘I fired the first shot’ by Sergeant E Thomas ‘the strange thing about the episode was, as far as I can remember - and it seems as clear to me as if it took place last week that I had not the slightest feeling of being in battle…it seemed to me like an ordinary action taking place in peace time manoeuvres, until the bullets starting whizzing round me… ‘They were already flying around when he fired first shot, shooting a cavalry officer who had come upon them. He was actually a drummer in the 4th Irish dragoon guards. ‘How I lived through the first hours at Mons’ ‘The countryside was not unlike one of our own mining districts…smoky, grimy and hear and there great heaps of slags or disused pits and quarries; gaunt into iron stems carrying great wheels and heaving machinery barely an hour since first shot was fired and now by 10 o’clock practically every gun and every rifle of the British force was blazing away. But mostly didn’t have a target to fire at. Little town of Binche was abandoned – the first enemy success’.
The BEF had no alternative but to retreat to save themselves. Private Bray on the retreat “The Germans were too many for us, but we stopped and had a go at them nearly every day, being on several occasions very lucky. For three days our Regiment was almost cut off…we were worn out, getting no food and very little food, but we kept up a good heart – at least I did. I was nearly two days without food and sleep and shared my tin of meat but I thought this was a case of emergency. Nevertheless the day we got five days punishment….we were about 20 miles from it [Paris] and then the sausages started running back. Of course we were after them’ . The usual practice on the retreat was a 50 minute march with a 10 minutes rest each hour. Decided one day that great coats could be left in a barn with 12 guarding them. They were never seen again.
Whittington and Scutt’s diary give a detailed account of the retreat
Monday 24th under German fire at dawn but very inaccurate – retired in safety – hanging about 2 to 3 hours eventually made away to where dug trenches but after watching artillery shrapnel fire ordered to pack up and leave trenches. Walked on seven miles to big town and billeted in manufactory works – pleased as practically no sleep for three days, washed and shaved.
Tuesday 25th retired for 15 miles rained best part of way, billeted in empty house. Attack just before arrival which led to stampeded – 5 men killed (3 French, 2 English) [On 25th Sgt AJ Hitchman was the Battalion’s first casualty, a thigh wound from the French by mistake]
Wednesday 26th: Left 6.30 and marched with clothes still soaking wet and equipment soaking and stiff. After 5am halted in field with numerous apples and pears. Left 5pm – arrived 7.30 to rest place
Thursday 27th: off 6.30 but standing by at 2.30– came under artillery fire – came to large town - got cigarettes, cigars and tobacco – in centre of town for one hour, fired at aeroplane, but too high and fast. Had to move fast as German cavalry only 3 miles behind – 10pm billets
Friday 28th: moved off 2.30. Dug trenches to await large force of Germans – 8.45 patrol German cavalry – one shell but they got away over skyline. 12.00 retired and went to town – again heavy shelling – arrived 12 midnight ‘a good few fell out including myself. I was fairly done’
Saturday 29th: 8 rest day. Heavy artillery fire to the north
Sunday 30th: Sunday 4.30 am start – S.E. – by noon very sunny and terrible heat. Civies still moving. Halted outside lunatic asylum for one hour and nurses very good in finding drink, wine, coffee, pears & bread. At 1 halted again for two hours and teas but had no dinner. Between 4 and 5 2 miles into town Pinon – billeted empty houses – plenty of filberts
Monday 31st 4am breakfast 5am moved to Villiers Lotterets 20 miles from previous billets Passed through Soissons. Exceedingly hot sun, men falling out and even dropping down. Issue of rum when arrived which livened men up. Fair food but without dinner for five days
Tues 1 Sept 4.30 start SW, rumour of going to Paris, 15 miles and bivouacked in field. Outpost as rumour of Germans – but nothing. Turned in 10pm. 11.45pm start – 9 miles – quarter hour halt – went on again and then entrenched as heard and saw German artillery in hill 3 miles away. Had to stay and cover if necessary the transport getting away. Then to La Ferte – billeted in empty houses .My chum Scutt went into hospital last night with fever [He was eventually discharged 18th August 1917]
Tues 1st 3.30 start – to Jouarre – 5 hrs halt – people very good, eggs, bread, butter, pears, apples, peaches, tobacco and cigarettes. Halted by Marne – our engineers getting ready to blow up bridge. 5 pm up steep hill – billeted in cornfield except his platoon which had to go on piquet duty at crossroad.
Friday 4th 5.30 start – 5 miles – billets 11 to 2.30 = entrench artillery fire exchanged – 3 men wounded, shrapnel. 7.30 into billets and rations. 10.30 turned in
Saturday 5th 12.30am – SW – came upon body of dead German cavalry man [nearly 20 miles] to Bernay – 4 hours rest in field – billets 1.30 pm
There are many other accounts of the Retreat, both in the war diaries and by individual soldiers in their diaries or accounts written later. For example the diary of the 15th brigade, after describing the terrible congestion on the road, where infantry, guns and motor transport were almost inextricably mixed up adds significantly 'it looks like the break-up of an army'. Men moved singly or in bunches in threes or fours, different regiments mingled. Men lay exhausted by the roadside, packs off, nibbling biscuit, looking hopeless. Officers despaired. Many of the troops had given away identifying cap badges and shoulder tags as souvenirs. Ammunition and kit was abandoned. Roads were crowded. Spirits were low, men were sleep walking. 'this dreadful phenomenon came on us like a creeping disease. It develops gradually...men slept whilst they walked and they dreamed as they walked. They talked of their homes, of their wives and mothers, of their simple ambitions, of beer in cosy pubs, and they talked of fantasies. Common place sensible remarks turned into inane jabbering. The brains of the soldiers became clouded, while their feet marched automatically. But then the 5 September order to march north came 'the effect on the spirit was all too marvellous. Men at once began to march, no longer desponding, but cheerily signing and whistling. (Lucy There’s a devil in the drum p147).
From A Coldstream’s Subaltern’s recollections of the retreat from Mons ( Sir James Horlick Stand To No 80) ‘From then [the Battle of Le Cateau 26 August] until August 29th all I can recall are refugees, very long marches and very hot weather. An attempt was made to keep the men going by telling them that 20,000 Uhlans were after them, but this was only received with great satisfaction and applause as they reckoned they would have a first class shoot and get a bit of their own back – prod of their high morale. We learnt how to sleep anywhere (my own preference was a pile of finely broken road metal) how to save one’s strength on the line of march and the men you could reply on. …this was the day we must have marched over 30 miles and the thermometer must have been nearly 90 degrees. We started at about 5am along roads crowded with refugees ; marched 300 yards halt; marched 400 yards halt for the first two or three tiring and frustrating hrs until we shook ourselves free and got into our three miles an hour with a 10 min halt every hour. The packs were heavy and though by this time we had jettisoned our greatcoats 200 rounds of SAA are by no means light and every now and then a man would collapse. All company commanders walked of course and used their horses to carry the kit of men too tired to hump it any longer’…every jolt and again a dropped rifle rattled on the road as a man collapsed. The gunners behind picked them up…
Since the opening of hostilities and up to 5 September the Battalion only has one casualty recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Private C E Smale who died on the 25th August and who is buried in Hastings. As he is not mentioned in UK Soldiers Who Died in the Great War and there is no medal card for him I assume he never went to France.
Two men had been wounded on the retreat. However the luck of the Royal Sussex men was about to run out.
Battle of the Marne
“At last we flung them back, along their drenched and smoking track. We hurled them back, in blood and flame, the reeking way by which they came” (C.G.D. Roberts on the Battle of Marne quoted in the Regiment’s History)
Lance Corporal Frederick Barnard ‘And on the retreat ‘It was on a Sunday – about the 6th September – that we were told the good news that we were going to do the charging. One day our brigade captured 40 Germans mostly officers – who were all drunk in a village.
Whittington’s diary continues Sunday 6th: 8am – SE – small village – halted – artillery fire 4pm, another village, cornfield for night
Monday 7th: 3.30 breakfast – through village – stopped in field 3 or 4 hours – through village again – another part of the previous cornfield. Till 8.30 or 9am – then on NE road slow as artillery in front. Kept halting all day, between 8 & 9 got to sleeping place
Tues 8th: 3.30 and breakfast, 20 rounds fired at aeroplane, 9.30 start – into village of Foury-sur-Marne – until 11 – after several miles and halts – came on dozens of dead horses and bicycles left by Germans and rubbish. Heavy artillery fire from east. Thunderstorms. Couldn’t tell one sound from other
Wed 9th: up at daybreak. Heavy fire from north from dawn. Sergeant Allcorn takes up the events on the 9th writing that they stopped at Calon sur Marne.
Thurs 10th. Moved off 2 and 3 in the morning. The battalion was in the advance guard. The first shells fell on the regiment at Priez. The shelling led to stampedes amongst the horses.
Battle of Priez
This was the Regiment’s first serious action. The Diary says the Battalion was the advance guard for the brigade. They reached the village of Priez at 9am. The enemy was on high ground on the other side of the village. As it was raining the men were wearing their waterproof sheets. Unfortunately these were grey and our artillery mistook the men for the enemy and started shelling them. One officer was killed, two wounded, Sergeant Major Cleave killed, 17 ORs also killed, 83 wounded and a number missing. Four horses were also
Killed, two wounded and one SAA (small arms ammunitions) cart blown up. The writer felt we wound have been more successful against the Germans if the Battalion had been covered by mounted troops. Also our guns had been in the wrong position
Thursday 10th: Night was spent in a cornfield with rations of bully beef, biscuits and ten loaves. Small fires were lit and raids made on nearby fields for potatoes, vegetables and there was more than enough fruit with apple trees being particularly numerous.
Friday 11th: They were on the move again in the rain at 4am next morning and could hear the Marne battle raging.
Saturday 12th: Both pursuers and pursued were near the Aisne, a perfectly horrible day, dark with torrents of rain turning roads into seas of mud ankle deep.
During the Battle of the Marne 6 – 12 September the Battalion lost 21 men. Worse was to come.
The men who fell
This is taken from numbers given in the war diary and names taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions (CWGC) website. This and other lists later on in Robert’s story are not completely accurate. For example some men which the CWGC list as dying on a day would be from wounds not killed in action
10/9/14 Captain Antony Edward Jemmett-Browne; RSM William Cleare (New Malden), 1 sergeant - William Henry Kettle (Maidstone), 1 corporal - Thomas Edward Chessell,(Brighton), 3 lance corporals - Edward Cato (Chichester); G W Davey (Worthing); Charles Henry Pankhurst 8 privates - Stephen Alfred Funnell (Southborough, Kent); Frank Enticknapp (East Grinstead); John Hancock (Manchester); Frank Edward Heasman (Laughton); Henry Isaacs (Salisbury); Charles Edward Wheeler (Epping); George Norman Piper (Peasmarsh) 2 drummers - George Benjamin Whittington (Washington); Samuel Richardson (Brighton) )and more died of wounds later
11/9/1914 1 lance corporal, 3 privates - Frederick James Ansell (Angmering); William Ernest Ellis (Graffham); Percy Inkpen (Brighton); John Martin; James Martin 13th high ground positions beyond Mousins and heavy artillery duel death by shrapnel Pte Swain and several wounded (1 other p killed). Thomas Swaine died on the 13th
Most of these were buried at Montreuil-Aux-Lions British Cemetery or Priez Communal cemetery
13/9/1914 Frank Fowle (Brighton)