Source: Interview with Hermann Luttmann Designer of Miracle at Dunkerque from Legion Wargames

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 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

F G Room VC a4

Frederick George Room 1895-1932

100 years ago today

THE LONDON GAZETTE – Oct 17th 1917

No.8614 Pte (actg L./Cpl) Frederick G Room, 2Bn R.Ir. Regt. (Bristol)

“For most conspicuous bravery when in charge of his company of stretcher bearers. During the day the company had many casualties, principally from enemy machine guns and snipers. The company was holding a line of shell holes and short trenches. L./Cpl. Room worked continuously under intense fire, dressing the wounded and helping evacuate them. Throughout this period, with complete disregard for his own life, he showed unremitting devotion to his duties. By his courage and fearlessness he was the means of saving many comrades lives.”

3rd Ypres – Passchendaele – Frezenberg 16 Aug 1917


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.


September 15 is the day officially celebrated as “Battle of Britain Day” the climax when the German Luftwaffe launched some of its largest concentrated attacks (principally against London). About 1,500 aircraft from both sides took part and at the end of the day, RAF Fighter Command had successfully managed to break up most of the enemy formations stopping them from inflicting major damage. When Hitler heard of this latest setback, he postponed Operation Sea Lion, (the planned German Invasion of Great Britain) and although the battle raged for another 6 weeks the intensity lessened as his attention focused east towards the Soviet Union.

A month earlier, Rotherfield had already experienced the battle first hand when a German Messerschmitt Bf110 was shot down in a fireball at Bletchinglye Lane. Exactly a month later, another German aircraft was about to make its own fiery appearance.

On September 15th, Luftwaffe Bomber…

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