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Stoner 9th May ‘We are for it’. Then he describes the advance. ‘the 2nd bde is nearly cut up first bde have relieved us…one of the worst times the 2nd bde have had. Even the coffins can be seen blown up but there is a cross the lord of it on the wall never been touched with all the shelling…coal box holes all around it but that as never been touched”
The battle of Richebourg is now known as the Battle of Aubers Ridge. We were at Richebourg; the Germans were on Aubers Ridge, which we wanted to capture. However at the time the men and the press referred to it as the Battle of Richebourg.
The Battle of Aubers Ridge was one of the major campaigns of the First World War for the Royal Sussex Regiment and one in which they suffered catastrophic losses that had a devastating impact on communities and families throughout Sussex. The regiment was nicknamed iron regiment by the Germans.
Richebourg has a particular place in the history of the 2nd Battalion and in the memories of men. They had fought on the Aisne, in Polygon and Chateau Woods and the attrition on the La Bassee Canal but Richburg was something different. It was also a battle which they fought side by side with their fellow Sussex men in the 5th Battalion
Aubers Ridge by Edward Hanccock
Pincer movement to secure Aubers Ridge, sever the La Bassee and Lille road, a vital supply route. Aubers ridge is barely 20m high but still an advantage point over flat countryside. Criss-crossed by drainage ditches and dykes. The Germans were to keep it until summer 1918, with well-built and defended trenches etc. Following the limited success when the Allies took the village of Neuve Chapelle it was felt that on the experience of this to break through would be possible with suitable guns and sufficient ammunition. It took place when it did to support French operations further south at Vimy ridge. However there was ammunition shortage due to operations still going on in Ypres area.
Overview of the battle
The Famous 9th of May: The Battle of Aubers Ridge by Rhodri Lewis
The Battle of Aubers Ridge was one of the major campaigns of the First World War for the Royal Sussex Regiment and one in which they suffered catastrophic losses that had a devastating impact on communities and families throughout Sussex.
The main objective was to capture the German trenches and redoubts on the plain at the foot of Aubers Ridge and then occupy the high ground. The day began at 3.30am with an issue of tea and rum before the offensive commenced at 5.00am with a heavy bombardment for thirty minutes. The noise of the 600 guns was deafening and the ground trembled under the men’s feet. The sight of debris being flung up in the air from the German defences would have been a welcome one to the infantry waiting to charge. Unfortunately, the hope that this would have engendered was false.
The infantry was told to expect little resistance but the artillery failed to destroy the enemy trenches or cut their wire. The men would not have known this when they were told to fix bayonets just before the attack commenced and, although nervous, they were in good spirits.
The 2nd Royal Sussex along with the 1st Northamptonshire were the two assaulting battalions from the south and the 5th Royal Sussex was one of the battalions in support. The front was around 400 yards wide and to reach the enemy lines the men had to cross flat terrain, raked by carefully sited machine guns. The men were slowed down by the weight of their equipment, some of them carrying sandbags and barbed wire in preparation for defending the ground that would be taken.
As soon as the two assaulting battalions went over the top they were met by German machine gun and rifle fire. The men who were not hit straight away advanced towards the German lines. The flatness of the terrain doubled with the fact that the Germans had a clear view of the advancing British forces left them terribly exposed. It was now clear that the artillery bombardment had failed and had served only to make the enemy aware of an imminent attack. The 2nd Battalion was peppered with machine gun fire from both left and right, and the German marksmen were successful in targeting the Royal Sussex officers.
Although their role was intended only as support, most of the first three companies of the 5th Battalion swarmed over the top to join the 2nd Battalion from the beginning of the battle. “Where the Iron Regiment go, we go too”, was the cry. They quickly caught up with the rear companies of the 2nd and the men from each battalion began to merge as they came under severe machine gun fire. The men were left exposed for around sixty minutes before they were recalled. More attacks were ordered that day with the same inevitable result.
In his account of the battle, the popular commander of the 5th Royal Sussex, Colonel Langham, described what he saw “the most murderous rifle, machine gun and shrapnel fire opened… people say the fire at Mons and Ypres was nothing to it.” He was obviously proud of his men, saying “no end of brave things was done, and our men were splendid but helpless”.
The bloody one day battle was a disaster for the British Army and it is doubted if it had any effect in its aim of assisting the main French attack 15 miles to the south at the Second Battle of Artois. Over 93% of the 2nd Battalion men killed on that day have no known graves and their names, together with those of the 5th Battalion who died on that day, are recorded on the Memorial at Le Touret.
How the battle went
On the 7th May orders were given for the assault to take place the following morning. The men were, paraded then told it had been postponed for 24 hours. At 7pm on the 8th they moved to Richebourg with orders to move by Le Tourette and Chocolate Menier corner. The latter was so named because a stock of chocolate left by the Germans had been left there. Near to it they came in for some “overs”, probably from machine guns. Captain de St Croix and two or three men were hit about the legs. Dispositions for the next day were given out: Fire & support trenches – 1st Northampton & 2nd RSR; 2nd line 2nd KRR and 5th RSR; 3rd 9th KLR and 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire; Section 7 mounting battery RA; Section 1 half in mortars; Section 4in mortars
Eve of assault: infantry going down to trenches, Robert Nichols 1893-1944
Downward slopes the wild red sun.
We lie around a waiting gun;
Soon we shall load and fire and load.
But, hark! A sound beats down the road
“Ello! Wot’s up” “let’s ’ave a look!”
“Come on, Ginger, drop that book1”
“Wor an ‘ell of bloody noise!”
“It’s the Yorks and Lanc meboys!”
So we crowd: hear, watch them come
One man drubbing on a drum.
A crazy, high mouth-organ blowing.
Tin cans rattling, cat-calls, crowing…
And above their rhythmic feet
A whirl of shrilling loud and sweet,
Round mouths whistling in unison;
Shouts: “O’s goin’ to out the ‘Un?
“Back ud up, mates!” “Gawd, we will!”
“Eave them shells at Kaiser Bill!”
“Art from Lancashire, melad/”
“Gi’ em a cheer, boys; make ‘em glad”
“Ip, ‘urrah!” “Give Fritz the chuck”
“Good ol’ bloody Yorks!” “Good-luck!”
I cannot cheer or speak
Lest my voice, my heart must break
Battalion diary account
Many first hand descriptions of the battle have been written. Starting with the Battalion diary: Frontage of B about 400 yards, Bombardment commenced 5 am. 1st line breastworks C company right, D company left
2nd line breastworks A company right, B company left. At 5.30 C & D companies advanced. From right to left – 9 platoon (2nd Lt Fewtrell) 11 platoon (Sgt Reeves) 15 platoon (2nd Lt Robert) 16 platoon (Sgt Wray), and were closely followed by 10 platoon (Sgt Hartup) 10 platoon (2nd Lt Taylor), 13 platoon (2nd Lt Child) 14 platoon (Sgt ?ower).
The advance over the parapet was made in line except by 14, 15 & 13 platoons which crossed the parapet at a particular spot which afforded some cover. At same time A company advanced from 2nd line – two in front 3 platoon (2nd Lt Shaw right and no 6? (Sgt Cappole) l followed by 4 (Lt Wick) distance of about 50 yards whole of A followed by C and B followed D – these were Platoon 6 (2nd Lt Miller) and Platoon 5 (2nd Lt Jukes ).
Behind them were the 5th Royal Sussex and 1st Royal North Lancashire. On the right 1st Northants, behind them 2nd KRRC and 3rd Kings Liverpool, on left cinder track 2 Royal Munster Fusiliers and behind them 1st Gloucester (one company) 2nd Welsh Regt. Then the Indian army Dehra brigade – 1 coy 6/Jats and 2/2nd Ghurkas, 4th Seaforths, 1st Seaforths and behind them the 1/9th Ghurkhas. Maxims were the heaviest machine guns. What the men faced on the other side of no man’s land was a ditch dug in front of a raised breastwork filled with barbed wire. One lone soldier reached parapet before being shot.
1/5th Royal Sussex started forward at 5.40 am from reserve positions behind breastworks along the Rue de Bois under heavy artillery fire –and C company piled into the advance trenches just as the last of 2nd Battalion were leaving. Men still in no man’s land were ordered back often helping wounded and they struggled against the Loyal North Lancs moving forward. They were then ordered to remain in advance line for an afternoon offensive. ‘The groans and cries of those isolated and wounded assailed their senses amidst the explosions billowing smoke and sprays of mud continually drenching them. Indian artillery manned by Sikhs with turbans
The afternoon attack was led by the 1st Black Watch with bagpipes. Men of the Sussex regiment who had lain trapped throughout the day rose to join the Royal Highlanders as they surged forward.
A letter Private Short to his mother printed in SWN 20/5/1915 describes events ‘Well, on Saturday night we moved up to the place we had to charge. On Sunday morning, at 4.30, our first gun spoke, and fired a few ‘coal-boxes’ till 5.00, and then all the guns started. The earth seemed to shake and tremble, shells flew over our heads, and you couldn’t hear what the next man said to you if you tried. It was like one continual roll of thunder. We all thought there could not be one possible man left alive in front of us. Smoke and dust and all manner of things were flying about over the German lines. Then after half an hour of this we had the order to charge. We all streamed out over our parapets and lined out beautifully. We advanced until we got just over a hundred yards from the Germans, and then their machine guns started on us. They absolutely mowed our chaps down, and we flopped down and remained as still as mice. We daren’t even lift a finger. Poor old P Smith was next to me and he got hit in the arm. Tell Mrs Smith not to worry. The next two on my left were wounded and the next poor fellow was dead. Our officer got up to advance and was shot in the leg… we’d laid there for a little while, and then we started to make a hole to dig ourselves in. Our entrenching tool was our real pal. We remained there all day with shells and bullets flying over us. Our company which went out with 260 men or more and 5 officers has as many as 200 casualties’
Private Arthur Goodacre wrote to his mother (as passed on to the SDN 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.’ The story is continued by an officer’s account in the Daily Mail 25/5/1915 ‘At night patrols searched the front to bring in the wounded; the dead they left – the living must come first. Our patrols were not the only ones out; close to the enemy’s lines the Germans were patrolling for the wounded and the dead. Many wounded were brought to our lines; some were able to crawl, some we found would have crawled in but that they did not know which were our lines and which the Germans. We showed them the way and off they started, helping one another. Until Friday night (May 14) this went on, and then we were sure that none remained out except the dead, and from these we took discs and personal belongings to be sent to their relatives.
On Saturday 15th the regiments who had been in reserve for the Battle were sent into the attack. Some German trenches and ground was captured, and more on Monday 17th when fresh infantry pushed on. He ends with ‘The ground was dearly bought’.
The SDN officer
25/5/1915 SDN Richburg battle: officer’s vivid story (in reserve during the attack).
Half-past three and quiet light. ’The guns begin – it is light enough for the observers to see their targets. A steady boom, boom, goes on – a loud crack from the field gun to lower boom of “mother” and other heavy guns. They are ranging – a few shots from each gun and there is no error – every shot straight on the parapet of the trench. Between half past four and five there is a lull – aeroplanes hum overhead and rock perilously in the gusty wind. When will they start? Five o’clock – then from everywhere around us arise the various reports from guns of all sizes. For two hours the bombardment continues – one gets used to the noise and pays no attention to it. Its intensity dies slowly away, but a continuous bombardment till goes on. There is another attraction now; the motor-ambulances are returning, rushing along with their wounded men to the field hospital. A few men appear walking with heads bandaged or arms in slings – all going the same way. ..crowds surge around these to obtain news, but they were wounded early and cannot give much news…at night patrols searched the front to bring in the wounded; the dead they left – the living must come first. Our patrols were not the only ones out; close to the enemy lines the Germans were patrolling for the wounded and the dead. Many wounded we brought to our lines; some were able to crawl some we found would have crawled in but they did not know which were our lines and which were the Germans. We showed them the way and off they started helping one another, until Fri night (May 14) this went on and then we sure none remained out except the dead, and from these we took discs and personal belongings to be sent to their relatives
(This officer then took part in a further attack on the 15th)
From the Regiment’s diary as published in the SDN
Began 3.30am with issue of tea and rum and then attack. The machine gun officers ordered machine guns to go forward with leading companies line one from each flank and the other two guns were to advance in the same manner with the support companies only to be moved up is substantial progress met. Only right guns went forward, except one moved about 15 yards to one front and fired for 15 minutes before withdrawn to original place.
8 platoon advanced and a section of lowland company RE on top of the ground reached left portion of first line of breastworks just after 7 platoon. Misunderstanding resulted in an order that the sappers should advance over the breastworks – many did so before being recalled – several casualties. Platoon 8 carried sandbags barbed wire for making good the enemy’s position if taken.
‘Before our support companies were clear of the first line of breastworks the 5th RSR arrived many of them going straight over the breastworks and becoming mingled with our men’
Bombers of 14 and 16 platoons were to collect at VI when enemy’s first line was reached with intention to bomb the enemy out of the communication trench in rear. C companies were distributed one with each of sections B cos bomber were with their platoons except that of no 8 attached to platoon 6. A company’s bombers were grouped with their respective platoon comm. The leading C & D companies carried bridges? Ladders D c & 8? 2nd Lt Fewtell leading Cs first line advanced to within about 40 yards of the enemy wire, also reached by Cpt French? A company 2nd Lt Shaw was wounded whilst leading his platoon and was subsequently killed whilst endeavours were being made to bring him back. The right of our line was subjected to enfilade fire from machine gun
The left suffered very severely from enfilade from an angle in the German trench opposite the Mur? Fusiliers the early retirement of this leaving our left flank in the air.
In general the centre of gravity of the assault troops did not get much more than 150 yards or about half way to the German breastworks though a portion succeeded in getting within about 40 yards of it and one man appears to have reached the parapet itself.
Flags were carried to show the position of the companies
The Germans fired from loopholes low down in the parapet
At 6.30 am orders given to withdraw behind our first breastworks under cover of reopened bombardment. C company never got the order. Several men managed to get back during the day but some remained till dark a few joining in the assault by the 1st Brigade relieved in the afternoon
The two machine guns on the right were got back and three out of four machine guns and what remained of the battalion were relieved to a line of breastworks behind the Rue du Bois the 4th machine gun remained by request up in the first line till late in the afternoon
By 18:00 the remnant was marching back to Le Touret singing 'Sussex by the Sea"
Sussex by the Sea
Sussex by the Sea
Now is the time for marching,
Now let your hearts be gay,
Hark to the merry bugles
Sounding along our way.
So let your voices ring my boys,
And take the time from me,
And I'll sing you a song as we march along,
Of Sussex by the Sea!
For Sussex by the Sea!
Oh Sussex, Sussex by the Sea!
Good old Sussex by the Sea!
You may tell them all that we stand or fall,
For Sussex by the Sea
We're the men from Sussex,
Sussex by the Sea.
We plough and sow and reap and mow,
And useful men are we;
And when you go to Sussex,
Whoever you may be,
You may tell them all that we stand or fall
For Sussex by the Sea!
Up in the morning early,
Start at the break of day;
March till the evening shadows
Tell us it's time to stay.
We're always moving on my boys,
So take the time from me,
And sing this song as we march along, Of Sussex by the Sea.
Sometimes your feet are weary
Sometimes the way is long,
Sometimes the day is dreary,
Sometimes the world goes wrong;
But if you let your voices ring,
Your care will fly away,
So we'll sing a song as we march along, Of Sussex by the Sea.
Light is the love of a soldier,
That's what the ladies say,
Lightly he goes a wooing,
Lightly he rides away.
In love and war we always are
As fair as fair can be,
And a soldier boy is a lady's joy In Sussex by the Sea!
Far o'er the seas we wander,
Wide thro' the world we roam;
Far from the kind hearts yonder,
Far from our dear old home;
But ne'er shall we forget my boys,
And true we'll ever be
To the girls so kind that we left behind
In Sussex by the Sea
Sussex by the Sea was written by the musician, composer and songwriter William Ward-Higgs in 1907, while he was living at Hollywood House in South Bersted, near Bognor, West Sussex. Ward-Higgs's grave is in Bersted churchyard. As well as being adopted by Brighton & Hove Albion (1910), it was also the official song of the Royal Sussex Army Regiment (1914) and has now been adopted as a county anthem.
From War Report
9th May Richbourg L’Avone began 3.30am with issue of tea and rum and then attack
548 rank & file killed & 14 officers.
‘In general the centre of gravity of the assaulting troops did not get much more than 150 yards or about half way to German breastworks though a portion got to about 40 yds and one man appears to have reached the parapet itself
Sussex News 25/5/1915 Not dead! Brightonian’s letter
Miss Coldwell 10 Powis Rd Brighton has received letter from nephew Pvt Coldwell C company 2nd RSR
Hoping it will receive her before casualty list as he had been reported dead, In his letter he says ‘Just a few lines to let you know I am safe and fairly sound but in hospital suffering from severe shock and giddiness after being hit by a large piece of earth on the back of my head. I am very lucky to be alive …about 4am our artillery bombarded the enemy’s trenches for a long time to destroy the barbed wire etc. Then C company was ordered to advance, we reached the barbed wire but no farther. The wire entanglements were not destroyed and as our fellows tried to get through they were shot down like sheep, shells dropping around us like peas. My platoon sergeant told what was left of us to dig ourselves in. I only had time to make a small hole just large enough to put my head in (which I did) when the Germans opened rifle fire and machine guns on all lying about dead or alive. I lay in the open, exposed to the guns, all the morning, and never got hit at all. One of our fellows lying near to me with a bullet in his arm, and his leg nearly off, rolled just in front of me. . Instantly he received another in the head. He did not move again. It was his body that saved me. I cannot tell you all. It makes me quite faint to think of it, seeing bodies flying through the air, without limbs, and expecting to be blown to pieces any minute. I did not dare to move to get a drink of water out of my water bottle. When it had become quite dark I started to crawl back to our trench, but had not gone many paces when the enemy threw up lights to see if we were advancing. At last I got about 25 yards from the trench. Then I made a dash for it – I am sure I never ran so fast in my live before – got through our wire waited for a breather and then climbed on to the top of our trench, and just as I was going to drop down a piece of shrapnel hit me in the shoulder; nothing much to speak of. I wandered on and knocked up against my platoon sergeant. I thought he had gone under. We trudged on together and were told our regiment had been relieved that afternoon and gone about 6 miles down the road. They made us some tea and food; then we had a good sleep; and then were taken in a cart to the regiment; and reported ourselves. It was then 3 o’clock on Monday afternoon, the sergeant and I are reported dead.
He later wrote to say his head was still not right and that he was not yet fit for the regiment. He had volunteered to help dispatch the wounded to the base and he was assisting in given German POWs their rations
Private Frederick Collins
There was another account in Sussex News on 12/6/1915 by Private Frederick Collins youngest brother of Mrs F J Mills of Easebourne. He was in D company. “We started about 5.30 and got over a quarter of the ground between our lines and the Germans. We had shell, machine gun and rifle fire. It was the hottest place I have ever been in. We had no chance of taking the trenches for we had lost a lot of officers and all the corporals but one, and the men poor chaps…I was carrying bombs to blow the Germans out of the trenches, but that didn’t come off….I laid in my dug out for over 15 hours. I waited for it to get a bit dark, and then made a bolt for it and I thanked God that I got out without being hit, although I was fairly done up. We went back to our billets the best we could in ones or twos and when we got there they served us out with ta and rum and then we had to turn in until they called us out on roll call. What a time, one and another asking news of others. “Private Collins served in the South African War and his eldest brother Horace had been home some time badly wounded
2nd Battalion Sgt Major WF Rainford recorded in diary “casualties streamed back to dressing station, stories of impossibility of advancing, officers rallying troops for further advances in small groups under hail of bullets. In an hour it could be seen the attack had failed
Fazan of 5th Battalion
Fazan of the 5th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment ‘I remember seeing Capt. Grant holding a huge marking flag - directing his company (B). They should have been behind us, & it was seeing him get his men over that made me let the 'A' men go over & follow myself - although none of us should strictly speaking have gone until all the 2 Sx were over. However, it was a good fault and pleased the 2 Sx. to find us all amongst them. Heard afterwards that Grant led a charge of the 5th and 2nd Sussex.’
Fazan goes on: The fire was very hot. The distance between the German trenches & our own varied from about 150 yds to 400 yds, I think my little lot got about 1/2 way and the front line of the 2 Sx. about 3/4 way. Hobart was close to me. Bissenden lay with his head at my heels. Immediately to my [right - crossed out] left was Pte Kemp, 2 Sx. He & I exchanged baccy and Horlicks malted milk tablets under fire…The rifle fire was very hot round us & very close to the ground (across the hollow of our backs) - so we got closer to the ground. I had earth in my mouth & in my eyes. Most of the men round me were 2 Sussex. They were very proud that the Fifth were in among them. We were waiting for the bombardment to lift at 5.40 AM & for the front line to whip over the German trench to wh. they were very close. We could not understand why the bombardment went on and on for hours past the time.
The front line were really held up by barbed wire incompletely cut & by rifle fire (wh. the bombardment was expected to beat down entirely). After a time we thought all the front line of the 2 Sx. must be killed. Nearly all the men round me were hit and many killed.
Hobart got back alright & later a message arrived that all the Sussex were to try & crawl back. I passed this as far as I could to R and left and advised the men to throw off their equipment as I had done mine
At this period only 160 of the Battn could be mustered.
Some men were 300 yards out from our parapet, many dead and some even on fire; and in two cases, men of ours who were burning alive, committed suicide, one by blowing out his brains, and another cut his own jugular vein with the point of his bayonet."
Captain Feris Nelson Grant killed. Standing on parapet he hailed his men “England expects. You know the rest. Come on “B” company (5th Battalion)
Why did it go wrong?
What went wrong? First - the bombardment failed to breach the German wire and demolish the parapets of their front line trenches. Why? Certainly because there were too few guns deployed and too little ammunition available. It was also claimed that many of the shells were duds and failed to explode - even perhaps that they were American shells filled with sawdust.
Second - the confusion of the battlefield. Eric Fazan's account makes clear that the second wave of the assault started before the first had been completed, so that our men in the 5th Sussex got into trenches of the 2nd Sussex that had not yet emptied - adding to the confusion.
Third - almost certainly the failure of communications. Fazan tells of Capt. Grant holding up a huge marker flag - making himself an obvious target for the Germans; of messages hoped for and in the end arriving - or not as a matter of chance. Telephone communications were unreliable and often non-existent: they relied on cables laid on the ground - and easily destroyed by artillery shells - either German or our own.
The end results - stalemate and trench warfare continued.
19.30 Left in the brigade 2nd Sussex 100, Northamptons 100, 5th Sussex 150 Rifles, 500 Lancashires, 480 Liverpools 600. 8pm going to be relieved by 2nd div. wounded soldiers lying along the road. Can’t get them away quick enough, its pitiful to hear them moaning
Robert was wounded in action on 9 May, a gunshot wound to the buttock. He was sent to hospital in Rouen on 12 May, and then to Harfleur to join reinforcements on the 21st May. Report of his wounding received 26/5/1915 and appeared on the daily list 12/6/1915
In 1915 on the front one had a 1 in 45 chance of being a casualty and spent a third of the time in front line.