Archive for May, 2017

In the counties of East & West Sussex only East Wittering qualifies as a ”Thankful” village, a term coined by writer Arthur Mee in the 1930’s to signify a settlement from which all members of the armed forces survived the Great War. For Rotherfield, like all other towns and villages in the county, the Great War would signify 4 years of heart breaking tragedy. In 1914-18 the parish lost over 6 times more soldiers & sailors compared to the Second World War equating to nearly 3% of the entire parish population at the time.

The majority of men who enlisted (voluntarily or later by conscription) joined regiments from the Home Counties, primarily various battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment or Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. The Royal Sussex Regiment was an Infantry Line Regiment dating from 1881. By the outbreak of the war it comprised 2 Regular Battalions (1st & 2nd), with 2 Territorial Battalions mobilised in August 1914 (1/4th & 1/5th) and a further 6 Battalions raised in September from volunteers who answered the call to join Kitchener’s New Army. (More on these men in a future article/s).

The 2nd Battalion moved to France in August 1914 and was attached to the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the crème de la crème of the full time professional British army dubbed “The Old Contemptibles” after the Kaiser’s ill-judged remark and one he would rue at the Battle of Mons that month when the coordinated accurate rifle fire of the British “Tommies” inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans attacking in massed ranks more akin to the Napoleonic Wars 100 years earlier.

4 days after Mons, Private Walter Ebenezer Coomber disembarked on French soil. Coomber was born in Three Bridges in 1887 but by 1901 his widowed mother had moved back to her place of birth of Rotherfield living in Station Rd. Young Walter moved in with his Grandparents on Cottage Hill and worked as a farm labourer at Dewlands farm however by 1911 he had taken the King’s shilling and joined the army aged 23. He began his career as a Bandsman playing the bassoon with the 1st Bn before transferring to the 2nd Bn. Musicians were trained in first aid and their task in war time was a dangerous one being assigned a stretcher bearing role requiring them to roam the battlefield under fire, administer first aid and bring the wounded back to their own lines. A high proportion of Victoria Crosses during the Great War were awarded to stretcher-bearers such was the dangerous nature of their role. Coomber was joined by more Rotherfield men amongst them 29 year old Private George W Hodges born in Rotherfield and resident of Crowborough. He had joined the army in 1903 and was called up as a reservist when war broke out. The two may have seen peripheral action with the Battalion that year during the retreat to the Marne, and the battles of the Aisne and 1st Ypres. As winter set in, both sides dug in setting the scene for trench warfare for the next 3 years. During winter, all Regiments were reinforced and amongst the growing Rotherfield contingent joining the 2nd Bn was 21 year old Private Thomas Ernest Diplock a labourer from Catts Farm, Town Row who arrived on 29th November 1914. He had lived in the parish all his life, first at Stile House Cottage, Mark Cross then Town Row Cottages before Catts Farm. 6 weeks later 18 year old Private William Henry Thorpe originally from Wadhurst but subsequently residing in Rotherfield also joined the Battalion.

A new offensive in spring saw a renewed assault on the German lines at the battle of Neuve-Chappelle, west of Loos & Lille in March 1915. Despite breaking through the German lines the British forces failed to exploit the success and after a series of German counter attacks forced the British artillery to expend all of its ammunition the operation was postponed. During this engagement the 2nd Bn was held in reserve and thus being at full strength, was selected to participate in the next major offensive.

At dawn on the 9th May 1915 the 2nd Battalion was in position in the forward trenches on a 400 yard frontage. Their objective was Aubers Ridge about 5 miles east of Neuve-Chappelle. The men had been issued tea and rum at 3.30am. Ahead of them lay 300 yards of “no man’s land” in front of the German trenches heavily reinforced with concrete bunkers or “Stützpunktlinie“. At 5.00am the British artillery barrage commenced designed to soften up the German lines. The British guns were still critically short of artillery shells. Worse, many of the rounds were duds and there were too high a concentration of shrapnel as opposed to high explosive rounds. The artillery pieces themselves were also in a poor state with many of the gun tubes worn out. The result was that after just 30 minutes the guns fell silent and the German lines remained completely intact and unscathed. As the order was given to go “over the top” the infantry expecting that the artillery had done its job left their trenches to form up and advance in an orderly fashion over no-man’s land. The German machine guns wasted no time opening up on the men with devastating effect as they scrambled over their own trenches. Many did not even manage to climb off their own trench ladders before being cut down. The Battalion war diary states “assaulting troops did not get much more than 150 yards, or about half way to the German Breastworks, though a portion succeeded in getting within 40 yards of it (where they found the wire intact), and one man appears to have reached the parapet itself”……. After just 30 minutes the attack had completely stalled and at 6.30am orders were given to withdraw. Many of the men were caught in the open and with no chance of making it back to their own lines, took what cover they could all the while being picked off by enemy fire. In the afternoon another attack was launched where some of the trapped survivors joined in. The result was the same, heavy casualties and no impression made.  After enduring what must have been an unimaginable horror trapped in the open waiting for the bullet that would signal your end, darkness finally allowed the survivors to creep back to their own lines.

Aubers Ridge before the battle. British trenches in the foreground, German lines on the ridge obscured by the tree line.

This battle was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. In the aftermath of the failure, the Times war correspondent sent a telegram with the headline on 14 May 1915 “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France“. This was the catalyst for the political scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915 that almost brought down the Government.

More than 11,000 British casualties were sustained, many within yards of their own trench. Mile for mile, Division for Division, this was one of the highest rates of loss during the entire war. For the 2nd Battalion the result was shattering. Of 852 men, 562 were casualties; over 90% of the 224 killed or missing were never recovered and have no known grave. Walter Coomber, George Hodges, Thomas Diplock and William Thorpe were among the dead and are now commemorated “in the corner of a foreign field” at Le Touret memorial in Richebourg, panels 20-21.

More misery and tragedy would befall families from the parish during the war. Many of those to perish were the same men photographed in the village about to join up in Sept. 1914 and who were posted to the three Royal Sussex “Southdown” Volunteer Battalions. But that’s another story…….

The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Claire Lockley regarding background research of the fallen. Further information about them and other men who gave their lives from the Parish can be found in Nigel Allison’s Book “Crowborough, Jarvis Brook & Rotherfield War Memorials” available from local bookshops and the Courtyard Café, Rotherfield.