Monday, July 30, 2007

The South Downs Battalions

The declaration of war reached Australia on the 5th August 1914. Within days Colonel William Bolton of the 70th (Ballarat) Infantry had handed over command and had appointed a Recruiting Officer at Ballarat. Recruiting officially stated on 14th August 1914, thousands answered the call to arms and the 8th Battalion was formed a few days later.

Twelve thousand miles away, men were queuing all over England to enlist and sign up for new infantry Battalions. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War on the 15th August called for 100,000 volunteers.

On the Sussex coast in the town of Eastbourne, on the 2nd September, at the Town Hall a meeting was held to answer the request. Local land owned Claude Lowther, MP for Eskdale Cumberland who lived at Herstmonceux Castle, formed a countrywide committee and recruiting started. Within 56 hours some 1,100 men had enlisted and on the 7th September 1914, the 1st South Downs Battalion was formed. The recruits were trained at Cooden Camp, near Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, where conditions were basic; bell tents for accommodation, the mess halls were marquees and for washing they used wooden troughs and standpipes.

By the 3rd November the 2nd Battalion had been formed and a while later the 3rd Battalion. They too joined them at a newly constructed camp in Little Common and early 1915 saw them say goodbye to the Kitchener Blue jacket and trousers for the Khaki uniform and peaked cap. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd South Downs Battalions became known to all across Sussex as ‘Lowther’s Lambs’ after the Battalions were handed a orphaned lamb as a mascot in November 1914.

July 1915 and the Battalions were officially embodied into the British Army. The Battalion founder Lieut-Colonel Claude Lowther was replaced by Lieut-Colonel H.J.M. Grisewood. They were moved to Detling Camp, near Maidstone in Kent. The close of September 1915 saw them more to Aldershot and in November, together with the 14th Hampshire Regiment the formed the 116th Infantry Brigade of 39th Division. They were now known as the 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex Regiment, but all original enlisters were allowed to suffix their Regimental Number with the letters ‘SD’.

The 39th Division was stationed at Witley and stayed there until 5th and 6th March 1916 when it was transferred to France. It consisted of three brigades (12 Battalions), 116th, 117th and 118th. They started off at Le Harve and then onto Sailly-sur-Lys.

The first real action was on 30th June 1916 at a diversionary operation at the village of Richebourg L’Avoue in northern France. There a set piece battle had been planned to straighten out the line of a German position known as Boar’s Head, Paul Reed has written an excellent article on this attack, ‘The Boar’s Head.’

The Battle lasted over four hours and although initially the allied bombardment had successfully cut some of the wire, great parts of it remained intact. With smoke shells causing confusion, the attackers had to bunch together to get through the defences and this gave the Germans easy targets. When the front line was eventually breached, violent counter attacks pushed the British back. The cost to the three South Downs Battalions was terrible as in reality no ground was gained. The total causalities were 15 Officers and 364 other ranks killed or died of wounds and 21 Officers and 728 other ranks wounded. In total nearly 1,100. A conservative count of men killed coming from Eastbourne alone stands at 47 , hardly a town in the county escaped without some casualties.

It was also at this battle that the South Down Battalions were awarded their only Victoria Cross. Company Sergeant Major Nelson Victor Carter, 12th Battalion, who was fatally wounded whilst bringing in the wounded.
In additions to the VC for the work that day, an officer was awarded the D.S.O., 4 other officers received the M.C., 8 D.C.M's. and 20 M.M. were also awarded.

Afterwards the South Downs Battalions with new reinforcements fought at Festubert, Beaumont Hamel, and later in 1916, Thiepval. In 1917, Ypres, Passchendaele and St. Julien. In March 1918, the First Battles of the Somme and Battles of the Lys.
The 12th Battalion ceased to exist on 8th February 1918 and some of its surviving members were used to reinforce the 11th and 13th.

The 11th was then sent to North Russia in 1919.

For futher Information, see Paul Reed's website on : 11th Battalion, 12th Battalion, 13th Battalion, The Battle of Boars Head.


Anonymous said...

My Grandfather fought at the Boars Head as a corporal in 12th battalion D company. Victor Carter who won a VC that day was his Sergeant Major. Grandfather was wounded twice in that action, first by shrapnel in his left thigh and then by a bullet which actually hit the embedded shrapnel with such force that it put a deep groove in it and bent the bullet. I have seen both, as the surgeon that removed them gave them to Grandfater as souvineers. This action became known as "The day Sussex died".

Anonymous said...

My great grandfather fought with the 11th up til Nov 1917 when he was mortally wounded at the 2nd battle of paschendale, being shipped back to blighty to die of his wounds.

My great great uncle was also in the 11th and was seveley wounded at Cuinchy but survived.

My gradfather was in the royal sussex home guard and then my dad served with the royal sussex post 2nd world war.