Local Rotherfield wartime History #8 Rotherfield Southdown Pals part1

Posted: August 31, 2017 in local history

In May’s issue of the magazine, I wrote about a few local men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regt who had joined the army prior to outbreak of war as professional career soldiers. Although the Royal Sussex Regt had Regular and Territorial Battalions, the terms of enlistment for Territorials at that time was for home service only.  Kitchener had been opposed to the Territorial force since its creation in 1908 and had severe doubts regarding their value and readiness. But as the professional British Army was less than 1/10th the size of the rampaging German army, he decided he needed to recruit fresh volunteers who would enlist as regular soldiers on short service commissions for at least 3 years. Most of the men featured in the September 7th 1914 Rotherfield photographs served as part of Kitchener’s new army, joining the 11th Battalion (1st Southdown) Royal Sussex Regt.

Great War Rotherfield recruits 1

The departure of Rotherfield Volunteers (Kitchener’s Army) Monday Sept 7th 1914

Readers should note that two days before these photograph’s were taken, Stoker 1st class Charles Wenham had the dubious distinction of being one of the first local men to be killed in action. He served aboard the cruiser HMS Pathfinder that fell victim in the Firth of Forth to the first ever locomotive fired torpedo from German U-Boat U-21.  As the torpedo struck, the detonation set off cordite bags in the forward magazine causing a second explosion that broke the ship in two. HMS Pathfinder immediately sank not even allowing the crew time to launch their lifeboats. Of the 270 men on board, only 18 survived. Wenham was born in Rotherfield on the 7th Feb 1889 at Palesgate. He had been a bricklayer’s labourer boarding at Glencoe Villa’s, Crowborough before marrying sweetheart Eva and living at Rose Cottage, Marden’s Hill.

Whether any of the Rotherfield volunteers read about the sinking in the Times on the 6th Sep is not known but what is beyond doubt is that they could definitely hear from their Sussex homes on a regular basis the distant rumble of artillery shelling from over the Channel. Kitchener’s request for volunteers was energetically taken up by Claude Lowther M.P. of Herstmonceux Castle who asked Kitchener for permission to raise a local Battalion. In other parts of the country these units became known colloquially as “Pals Battalions” built on Kitchener’s idea that “Those who joined together, fought together” They were actively recruited from brothers, relatives, friends and neighbours. The 11th Battalion (1st Southdown) Royal Sussex Regt would be raised along these lines. What no one had considered was that if a Battalion were to take heavy casualties, the loss to the local community could be catastrophic. Lowther began recruiting in early September using local, well known and respected men to act as recruiters. Initially they began by knocking on the doors of individual homes in the parish, urging any men living there to sign an Army Form AF B2065 “Short Service – Three Years with the Colours” before moving to the next address. The chief requirement was for able bodied men between the ages of 19 and 36. As the campaign gathered momentum, recruiting posters were found to do the job as well. In the first 56 hours, 1100 men had volunteered, Rotherfield was one of the first villages to respond in numbers.

On Monday 7th Sep 1914 the 1st Southdown Battalion was officially formed. On that very day, the village was clearly in a state of excitement and patriotic fervour as men from the parish gathered to enlist. Official photographs were taken and the local press were also in attendance. The Courier stated “…some of the Rotherfield men who answered Kitchener’s call “Your Country needs you” are off to war. They assembled……..with relatives and friends to bid them Godspeed and a safe return” Another newspaper wrote “Rotherfield….has set an example which if emulated throughout the remainder of rural Sussex will mean a huge addition to Kitchener’s army”.

29 men were reported to have volunteered, 27 of them posed for an official photograph outside the Memorial Institute on North St and 25 were subsequently accepted as fit and of the right age. The following men in the photograph joined the 11th Battalion (1st Southdown) Royal Sussex Regt and were given the “SD” service no. prefix:

Great War Rotherfield recruits 3.5

7th Sep 1914 – Rotherfield volunteers for Kitchener’s Army. 1/3rd did not survive (Mr Pitts)

 

 

SD395 Edward Baldock, SD424 Frederick Hammond, SD425 Owen Ernest Holmwood, SD426 Harry Holmwood, SD427 Walter W Harman, SD437 James Philip Lelliott, SD438 George Longley, SD439 Walter Lacey, SD441 Richard W Mitchell, SD447 Frank Minns, SD448 George Minns, SD453 F “Bernie” Prowse, SD454 Thomas Paige, SD456 Ernest Potter, SD457 Charles Potter, SD458 Charles Packham, SD464 John Relf, SD468 Frank Rogers, SD479 Alfred R Turner, SD481 Charles A Unsted, SD1192 Walter Minns

Cooden

Cooden Camp 1914 L-R Owen Holmwood, Walter Harman, Bernie Prowse, Charles Unstead, Walter Lacey, Edward Baldock, Harry Holmwood, Thomas Paige

 

The volunteers were taken to Tunbridge Wells where the recruiters processed those who were accepted. They were then packed off to Cooden Training camp on Cooden Sea road Bexhill. Conditions were basic to say the least. The Eastbourne Gazette described the camp as “basic; bell tents for accommodation,…for washing they used wooden troughs and standpipes”. Furthermore, with equipment and uniforms in short supply, the new recruits were at first expected to train in their own clothes. This situation continued until the autumn when a consignment “Kitchener Blues” uniforms and obsolete Lee-Metford rifles were delivered. The “Blues” were almost as unpopular as wearing civilian clothes as it marked the men out as trainees and not fully qualified soldiers. Many of the rifles also had stamped on the buttstocks “D.P.” indicating that the weapon was for Drill Purposes only and should not be fired. The cause of the shortage of equipment was down to the sheer numbers of men who were volunteering that had caught the Army unprepared. But despite these shortcomings, in November the 12th Bn (2nd Southdown) and 13th Bn (3rd Southdown) were formed. They were now collectively nicknamed “Lowther’s Lambs” after adoption as Battalion mascot of an orphaned Southdown lamb named “Peter”.  The Rotherfield contingent also grew, the following table lists the known volunteers who are not featured in the Rotherfield photographs but are known to have enlisted in one of the 3 Southdown Battalions.

Other known local men who enlisted in the Southdown Battalion’s
SD # Name Bn SD # Name Bn SD # Name Bn
283 Frederick Baldock 11th 1261 William Robert Berwick 12th 2942 Percy Douglas Joy 13th
413 Reginald Filtness 11th 1299 Ernest Thomas Cornford 12th 2963 Herbert Maskell 13th
444 Frank Arthur Middleton 11th 1504 Fred Winter 12th 3328 David John Dadswell 13th
467 George Edward Richards 11th 1517 Iden Claude Bishop 12th 3689 William George Southon 13th
476 Harry Smith 11th 1930 Harold Hammond 12th 4225 Alfred Cyril Maskell 13th
591 Charles Fairall 11th 2215 Alfred Harry Finch 12th 5106 William Vince Awcock 13th
1099 Jesse Southon 11th 19518 Charles Paine 12th 202272 Joseph Wallis 13th

Despite a general improvement in conditions as tents made way for huts, the winter of 1914 was very wet and as spirits dropped with no sign of embarking for France there followed by an outbreak of meningitis that swept through the camp resulting in a handful of deaths. 23 year old farm labourer Private William Robert Berwick from Newland’s Farm, Boarshead was among them and was the first Lowther’s Lamb from the parish to die. He is buried in Crowborough graveyard Plot A.260.

In May 1915, at the time of the calamitous events unfolding with the senior 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regt at Aubers Ridge, the 3 Southdown Battalions were moved first to Detling, then Aldershot before receiving their Khaki uniforms at Witley Camp, Godalming. As the Summer of 1915 came to an end, training was almost done.

Author’s note – Although every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of the details contained within this article, owing to the paucity of official contemporary records, it is possible that there may be some inconsistencies. The author welcomes any additional detail or corrections regarding the list of men who served in the Southdown Battalions.

Next time – “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag”….Off to France

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