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The 2nd Battalion’s fight with the Germans at Priez, on the march to the Aisne was its first military action of the war. This and the action on the Aisne are best told by several accounts which survive in the West Sussex Records Office.
Sergeant Packham’s account - On 10th September to the front, stopped at Prize [Priez]. They had to get over small brook- some jumped, others waded, then across a field, up a slight rise. At the top they saw Germans taking cover behind grain stooks, our men were ordered to lie down and open fire ‘we had a swell time firing at them as they dodged from one stook to another. But then Germans found range. Blinding flashes of shells bursting and shouts and screams of men hit, ordered to retreat. He got hit in shoulder as stood up.
A Goodsell 2nd (WSRO RSR/2/61) wrote that on the night 9/10 September there was a very nasty drizzle as they got into Priez and saw the 4th Lancashires making for the ridge. Two companies were to the left and two to the right. The distance between leading companies and rear companies was about 100 yds. Soon as D company [his] came out of orchard the Lancashires passed over the ridge. When they got to the haystacks they came under heavy fire from right machine guns and artillery. Heavy losses were incurred. The man on his right Veness was shot in the throat. [However Veness seems to have survived]. Our own artillery fired on our men as they were wearing grey ground sheets
S Petter recalled they had to storm a hill but on reaching brow met with a hail of bullets and shells. RSM Captain Jennet Brown and Lt Blakeney killed. They had to fall back and wait for reinforcements
Private Ives on Priez – ‘it was a case for everyman for himself. You could hear the coal boxes coming, they made a terrible hissing sound. On hearing one I darted for a bank and lay flat on my stomach. The shell burst a few yards away with a terrific noise and 10 or 15 yards away lay two of North Lancashires killed outright and a horse with its four legs blown right away. . I then started to go across country and about 100 yards from spot where shell landed. I found a hoof of the horse. It had been blown that distance’. Private Ives was wounded in his left arm
Lance Corporal Charles Guy C company said ‘they allowed us to advance near the ridge before they opened fire on us. They had pretty well got us in a trap and we had no artillery supporting us (reported in SDN 26/11/14)
Lance Corporal Jarvis who came from Reading told the Westminster Gazette in its 24th October 1914 issue ‘when we got close to them they showed the white flag and we ceased firing. The Germans walked towards a corn stack and my company went to disarm them. Having reached the stack several shells burst among us. It was another white flag trap but we captured 120 prisoners, not a bad morning’s work for one company later we located the enemy’s guns and captured 12 of them. The Germans attacked us twice in an endeavour to retake them but our rifle fire and machine guns mowed them down as fast as they came up’.
By the 13th September they had crossed the Aisne
The 14th September saw the battle for the sugar factory. Possession of the sugar factory atop the eastern section of the ridge (Chemin des Dames) would have allowed the corps to sweep westwards. If the Chemin ridge was to be taken then the Factory had to stormed and held. It lay at the junction of the Chemin and the road that runs north-south from Cerny village on top of the plateau to Troyon on the Aisne-side slope. It provided superb observation and had been made into a fortress filled with machines guns and flanked by two field gun batteries. A battery of heavy 11ins howitzers lay in the Ailette valley behind. Trenches stretched for quarter of a mile on either side. Starting at 3am 1st Loyal Lancashires, 2nd Royal Sussex and KRRC preceded by the 9th Lancers climbed through the rain and a storm of fire , gathered below the crest, rested briefly and then charged over open ground towards it. Survivors entered the factory, a savage struggle with hand to hand fighting took place. Scraps of the Sussex and KRRC cleared the batteries on either side, some Cold Streamers and Sussex men even managed to advance over the ridge and fire on German positions below and beyond Ailette however came under German artillery bombardment and energetic counterattacks
Private S Petter after being in Wandsworth hospital with a wounded arm spoke to a Sussex Daily News reporter at his brother’s home in Petersfield and the interview was printed on the 17th October. 14th “At daybreak we advanced across a field of mangel at about seven paces apart and orders given to fix bayonets and charge up hill. As soon as we got over the brow up went the white flag. Col E R Montressor and second in command went forward to receive them when Germans opened machine gun fire killing both men and casualties to third of battalion .We captured about 60 prisoners.” On following day the Royal Sussex, Northants and North Lancashires could only muster 600, rained heavily and wounded compelled to lie on battlefield through Monday until Tuesday morning. Rains made roads so bad that the supplies couldn’t get through. The battalion was on short rations. He had three biscuits and a tin of bully for three days. He was then wounded in the right arm.
Another account of the 14th was given by Sgt Burrell of A company in the SDN on 28th October 1914 at his home on the High Street Chichester. He was goalkeeper for the Regiment’s football team. The report ran “About 2 O’clock they were roused out of their billets and ordered to advance from the factory they had occupied. It was foul weather misty and rainy, and scarcely had they proceeded more than a couple of miles than shrapnel began to burst on all sides of them in the darkness. Captain Cameron of A company was wounded, Lt Dann had been killed and 2nd Lieutenant Hughes was also hors de combat by the shells and Sgt Burrell had assumed command of his platoon when a shell exploded near to him, injuring him the chest and fracturing his right collar bone. ‘I laid 14 hours in my wet clothes but many fared much worse than that and after we had been placed in the ambulance quarters we could not be moved for four days on account of the shell fire. On the fifth day however they were able to move us….During the fight on the 14th September the chimney stack of the factory outside of where we were fighting made a beautiful mark for the German guns and one shot got it right in the centre and toppled it right over. 500 hundred prisoner taken and shells fell among them too’. That was when he got struck. ‘But we held on to the position and ultimately the Coldstream Guards and the ‘jocks’ came up and reinforced us. What happened after I can’t say, but from what I gathered from the other men I believe we captured the German guns. We kept on advancing and retiring; it was like a butcher’s shop there. Throughout the fighting the food was excellent; it was that which kept the men so fit and well; but the spirits of the troops was wonderful too”
Lance Corporal Frederick Barnard was wounded on the 14th “I must have been insensible for a time; but the next thing I remembered was a German officer pointing a revolver at my head and wanting to know where our fellows were, I replied I do not know. He told me in good English he would shoot me but I did not tell him. Anyhow another officer came up and caught hold of his arm and they both went away!’ At night German artillery came and ran over the dead and wounded by the way up a bank. Only he and a Coldstream guard survived Frederick’s service record recorded him as being ‘wounded slightly’. He was to survive the war and serve as a policeman with the West Sussex Constabulary. .He had joined the 2nd Battalion in 1906 and left in 1911 with the rank of corporal in the regimental police As soon as he was mobilised when war broke out he was promoted to sergeant and later became company and then quarter sergeant major after his transfer to the 3rd Battalion. He was later transferred again to the 1st Battalion in India.
The Battalion diary records that high ground was captured above Troyon and NW of Vendresse, 250 German prisoners were taken under heavy fire causing considerable loss. It was ordered to hold position at all cost. A large number of men missing due to fact that the killed and wounded couldn’t be recovered due to snipers (79 wounded, 114 missing)
Britain’s greatest distance runner GW Hutson was non-commissioned officer with the Battalion and was reported missing since 14th September, the date on which he was wounded.
‘A few of those had previously cut their long trousers into shorts during the hot August weather and now they looked like slain schoolboys. This impression was enhanced by the peaceful and youthful looks on their dead faces. This low fire was a bloody business and most efficient – the sort of stuff we taught ourselves. I believe I was now beginning to get really afraid of these Germans’.
Joffre, the French commander, said on the 15th “it is no longer a question of pursuit but of methodical attack using every means at our disposal and consolidating each position in turn as it is gained”.
Sergeant William Jackson of 208 Bohemia Rd St Leonards who was in hospital with appendicitis, Dover wrote “Our men are all good. It does not matter how heavy have been our casualties they still keep their spirits and whistle and sing etc ready again for the next lot…there is more pluck in our littlest drummer than the whole German army” (RSR 2/63).However he went on to deplore the destruction he saw, as did other writers to Sussex newspapers, and he saluted the French courage.,.
Sgt Allcorn felt the Germans must have fallen back upon well-fortified positions on the river [after the battle for the Sugar Factory] as when the Regiment got onto two or three of the roads they were absolutely swept by machine guns. After two days the men were able to dig trenches which they were then in for 8-11 days without relief. Allcorn continues ‘I might say we never went short of our rations, they might reach us late but they always came’. Water was delivered at night. The Battalion diary records on the 15th September the enemy marched to within 600 yards of the Battalion’s position, they eventually retired though they came on again; 16th to 18th September saw bombardments and on the 19th September relieved and went to Paissy. Two days rest at Passy and new clothing there, but this wasn’t as intended as the trenches had to be re-taken and held by some of the men. Also Passy itself was shelled. . On the 20th the battalion experienced bombardments again in the afternoon with the men being concealed in caves, the Germans driven back but the battalion suffered 12 wounded (carried away on stretchers) and two others, Corporal Peacock and Private Boniface couldn’t be located. They were later found and buried by the Royal Artillery. 22nd saw them relieved again and the following day; 23rd to Moulins to support French in attack. 24th ‘This day was treated as a day of rest and much use made of the same’ September 23-26 was spent at Pragnam then trenches on the Aisne again. . Sergeant Allcorn’s account goes no further as he is wounded and returned to England, but it was continued by Private Wickens. Albert Tom Yeatman a brickmaker from Chichester was missing wounded in action missing, the company’s orderly saw him hit with a shell and badly wounded in the evening. On the evening of the 25th they went to Troyon and back to trenches. On the morning of the 26th a shell exploded which buried or part buried three men, one man was killed. A similar explosion buried Sergeant Butcher in the afternoon. Fortunately he was dug out unharmed after one and a half hours. So Robert would have become acquainted shrapnel, a shell containing small metal balls, also a term used for the iron casing when it exploded into fragments. .
The War Diary just gives the day’s activity as bombardments. – a battalion machine gun knocked out by a shell killing 3 gunners, two other men hit by stray bullet died the next day. One of these was William Henry Dawson (named on La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial), the other Alfred Griffith was buried in Troyon churchyard. Nothing after the war remained of Troyon church except for some bricks and stonework in the ground. 50 British were buried here in 1914 according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but their graves later destroyed, and remains moved to Vendresse Cemetery. Born in 1887 Alfred Griffith enlisted 31/5/1905 and left 9/2/1914. In 1911 he was in Rawalpindi with Robert. When he left it was with a sobriety certificate ‘I believe Alfred Griffith is thoroughly trustworthy and to the best of my belief has never been under the influence of liquor during the last three years of army service which expired 9/2/1914.
Before looking at Robert’s possible experience of medical services on the Western Front we will briefly see what happened to the battalion between 29th September and the 17th October
Whilst Robert was recovering the Battalion continued to have a tough time in Troyon. Losses occurred daily including on the 29th when five privates were killed by shrapnel shelling around the area where the transport was situated as well as eight horses killed. On the 3rd October Lance Corporal Wicks were shot trying to quieten a sniper. Dummy trenches were constructed with men of straw on the 4th October, one even reading the daily mail. It was found to have been shot 40 times by the 7th.
On the 13th the battalion was relieved by the French who were taking over all positions on the Aisne. Between 8th and 16th October eight more men were lost
Probably on the 15th Alfred and Mary Whittington of Rock, Washington, Sussex would have received the following letter
“The secretary, War Office, Whitehall London SW and marked on the outside
“Army form B104-82
Infantry Record Office, Hounslow Station
Sir It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the HQ QRS 3rd echelon notifying the death of (No) 9596 rank Dr (name) G Whittington (Reg) R Sussex which occurred at Priez France on the 10th of Sept 1014 and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the army council at your loss the cause of death was killed in action. Any application you may wish to make regarding the late soldier’s effects should be addressed to “The Secretary, War Office, Whitehall London SW and marked on the outside
“Deceased soldier’s effects.
I am Sir your obedient servant
(Capt for Col l/c Infantry records Hounslow
Officer in charge of records]
Infantry Records Office
Lloyd’s weekly news war bulletin Sunday 20/11/1914 – has list of men in hospital. Headline: Germans bombard Rheims Cathedral. Revenge for inability to capture the town. Crown Prince still in retreat ; allies advance…the issue of the mighty battle which for 8 days raged along the course of the River Aisne still hangs in the balance, but the Allies are steadily if slowly advancing and ‘Chancellor on war against Barbarism’ (RSR 2/62)
92 Royal Sussex men were lost on the Aisne, and the battalion was not in the upper quartile for losses
Here is the toll which the Battalion suffered. I have included this as Robert would have known many of the men from his previous service in the Regiment.
I have tried matching the number of men listed as killed in the Battalion war diary and the men recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
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)
14/9/1914 79 wounded, 114 missing. Men in front of British trenches couldn’t be brought in due to close quarter fire from Germans. Those recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website are Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Henry Montresor (mentioned in dispatches)Major Eden Cookson Mostyn; Captain Leonard Slater Lieutenants William Sladen Hughes; Charles Edward Daun; Lieutenant & Adjutant Honourable Herbert Lyttelton Pelham, son the Earl of Chichester Lance Corporals – George Henry Baker (Margate); H J Chatfield (Hove);Alfred Archibald Rowberry (Sittingbourne) Sergeants - Alfred Ernest Clarke (Brighton); John Joseph King (Woking); George William Hutson (Tunbridge Wells); Thomas Butfoy; Corporals Henry William Hider; George Henry Baker. Privates William Townsend (Harrow); Harold Ernest Glyde (St Leonard-on-Sea); Frank George Price; Ernest Alfred Pelling (Hailsham); Frederick Harry Powell (Ticehurst); Daniel Shirley (West Bromwich); William Peters (Newhaven); George Sageman (West Lavington); Ernest Saunders (Tunbridge Wells); Charles Ernest Stoffell Walworth); Thomas Still (Lindfield); Thomas Swaine (Rye); Henry George Tree (Ashford, Kent); Alvah Trussler (Easebourne); Ernest Tween (West Croydon); Edward Waller (Tunbridge Wells); Francis Henry Gibson Willey (Haywards heath); Albert Tom Yeatman (Wyke); Henry Baldwin (had served in South African campaign); William John Baker; Dennis Sydney Hilton; John William Kember (Hastings); Arthur James Lassetter (Preston, Brighton); Jesse Luxford; Samuel George Colbran; Henry Harry Edwards (Lewes); Albert Greenfield (Eastbourne); William Haylor; James Frank Ballard (Ore); Ernest Funnell (Tunbridge Wells); Ernest Keates (Chichester); James Baker (Redhill); Victor Amos Letchford; Alfred Charles Dedman (Reading); John Hodge (Tunbridge Wells); Sidney Kenward (Lewes); George Blackman (Worthing); Albert Denyer (Angmering); Arthur Pullen (Plumstead); Charles William Sygrove (Eastbourne); William James Heaste (Handsworth, Warwickshire); Sydney Chappell (Brighton); James William Fraser (East Grinstead); Thomas Deacon (Eastbourne); William Henry Shoosmith (Meads); Harry Arthur King (West Hoathly); George Tomlin (Chichester)
Most men are commemorated on La Ferte-sous-Jouarre memorial and five buried at Vendresse cemetery
15/9/1914 1private , James Walker (Chichester)
16/9/1914 1 p Commonwealth War Commission has Harry Brown A cy on the 17th
W H Shoosmith (CWGC and Soldiers Who died sites)
17/9/1914 none recorded in diary but on CWGC Harry Brown 30 on La Ferte
18/9/1914 2 sergeants George Breeds; W Balcombe), 2 corporals Andrew Henry Smith; Stephen Hickmott (Eastbourne), 3 privates Alfred Broadbridge (Canterbury), Ernest Henry Kenward (Arundel), W H Shoosmith
Meanwhile at home William Charles Smart aged 45 died, buried in Chichester cemetery
19/9/1914 CQS Edward Thomas Bish (Dover), 1 p George Bryant
20/9/1914 1 corporal (Francis Joseph Peacock) 1 private Albert Boniface
21/9/1914 1private C Kenward
22/9/1914 1 p Arthur Thomas Willins 35
23/9/1914 Lance Corporal Charles John Jones 28
26/9/1914 1 private A G Payne
27/9/1914 1 lance/corporal Gordon Murray Henderson, 6 privates W Sansome, Fredrick Charles Yeates, Robert Croft, William John Fissi, George Day
28/9/1914 William Henry Dowson; Alfred Griffith
29/9/1914 Wm Wells
30/9/1914 2 privates CWGC lists Corporal C Williams, private C D G Wyatt
3/10/1914 l private J Wicks
4/10 6 killed Alfred West, Harry Walter Poole, Harry Theobold, Walter Gumbrill, Ernest Edward Funnell, Sydney Spencer
710/1914 Captain Reginald John Petty Aldridge, Lance Corporal J Mustchin, Privates J Askew, A Doe, W E Maccabee, William Tarling
8/10/1914 CQS T Diplock, 3 privates Charles Turner, Frederick Charles House, Thomas Henry Ward,
12/10/1914 1p John Bradford
13/10/1914 1p Henry Augustus Howard
14/10/1914 1p Albert Edward Chatfield
16/10/1914 1 p A E V Newnham
92 men were lost on the Aisne, but the battalion was not in the upper quartile for losses!