THE BATTLE OF AUBERS RIDGE
A talk given on 18 May 2004 by the Chairman of the Wadhurst History Society Michael Harte
[with additional material]
On the ninth of May 1915 at 05:00 an artillery bombardment began of the German lines between Neuve Chapelle and Festubert along the Aubers Ridge. At 05:30 men of the Royal Sussex Regiment went ‘over the top’. By 11:30 the remains of the Royal Sussex Regiment crawled back to their trenches – at this stage only 160 men and one officer were mustered. By 18:00 the remnant was marching back to Le Touret singing ‘Sussex by the Sea” and leaving behind 25 Wadhurst soldiers dead in the field. On Sunday May 9 2004 we marked the event with a Memorial Service and parade; we now look more closely at the events leading up to that disaster.
I make no claim to be an historian – and even less to being an expert in the History of the First Great War. But I have an enduring interest in that terrible conflict and have visited many of the battlefields and cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France. And I agree with the man who wrote: “To quote from one is plagiarism – to quote from many is research”
So – first: my sources: the most complete record of the battle on 9 May 1915 can be found in the diary kept by Captain – later Colonel – Eric Fazan, who served throughout the War and was the one of the few officers in the Regiment to survive the Battle of Aubers; his diary is held by the Royal Sussex regiment. Next John Mackenzie and the pupils of Uplands, whose collective project on the Battle led to our twinning with Aubers. Then the French Ministry of Defence and the Commune of Aubers, who have kindly lent all the display panels around the hall; these cover the battlefields and Commonwealth War Graves across the region and repay close study.
Ken Jones – an old Wadhurst resident – has provided the details of the soldiers from Wadhurst who died in the campaign and David Wakefield, Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, who promoted the parade on Sunday 9th, has given the History Society the material he collected to support that event.
THE START OF THE WAR
The origins of the First Great War are still the subject of argument amongst historians. Was it a war of revenge – or of German imperial expansion? Did it simply reflect internal conflicts in the German state between politicians and the military? Was it simply unavoidable because the German military machine started mass mobilisation and was unable to stop the juggernaut?
Whatever the reasons, it was clearly seen by the Germans as inevitable and the campaign was therefore well developed. The Schlieffen Plan, completed in 1906, saw a rapid German attack across Belgium almost to the Channel Coast and then to the south of Paris. It had to be completed fast, because of the realisation that a war in Europe would inevitably involve Germany fighting on two fronts – and the western front was seen as the easiest to secure fast. Under the plan Paris would be taken by D+39. It nearly succeeded.
On August 1 1914, German forces moved into Luxembourg; by the end of the next day the entire Grand Duchy was occupied. At two minutes past 8 on August 4, German troops crossed into Belgium; on August 9 the first of the British Expeditionary Force arrived in Rouen. On 16 August, Liege fell; on 20 August Brussels. From August 20 to 24 there was fought the ‘Battle of the Frontiers – across the whole of the Western front from Lorraine to the southern half of Belgium; by its end the French were in retreat and Namur had fallen. On August 25 Louvain was burnt to the ground and the retreat continued; by 1 September the Germans were 30 miles from Paris. But a German officer, who had been through the Belgian campaign, commented: “Our men are done up. They stagger forward, their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags. They look like living scarecrows.”
On 6 September began the Battle of the Marne – the first significant German defeat, which led to their retreat to the Aisne, the race to the sea for the possession of the Channel ports, the fall of Antwerp and the first Battle of Ypres, where officers and men of the BEF held their ground, fought literally until they died and held the Germans in Flanders
Then came winter and the stalemate of trench warfare – from the North Sea to the Swiss border.
THE RUN UP TO THE BATTLE OF AUBERS RIDGE
Spring 1915 brought new hope. To the Allied High Command, the possibility of a frontal assault with the massive use of artillery that could be transported from one location to another by train seemed attractive. The re-grouping of Allied forces that placed the BEF on the left flank close to the coast made it attractive to plan for a campaign in the Artois salient.. If the British struck from the north and the French attacked from the south at Vimy Ridge, there seemed to be the chance of a breakout.
But on 22 April, in the north of our sector, the Germans began what came to be called the second Battle of Ypres, lasting until 17 May. And with it the first use of gas in the first World War.
Key to a successful frontal assault was the massive artillery bombardment essential to make substantial breaches in the German barbed wire. For this to work enormous tonnages of artillery shell would be needed – and herein lay one of the causes of the repeated Allied failures.
By April 1915, the strength of the BEF had increased from 100 000 at the Battle of the Marne to over half a million – far in excess of what had been expected before war broke out. Before 1914 it had been thought that Britain’s contribution to a European war would be to keep the seas free for Allied use and for the French to man the land battle. With a small volunteer army, we lacked the great arsenals and war establishments needed by the continental nations for their conscript armies. British artillery from the Boer War produced shrapnel which was almost ineffective in breaching German wire and, although munitions production was increased nineteen fold between August 1914 and April 1915, there was never sufficient to keep pace with consumption – and much was of the wrong type and sub-standard. It would have been prudent to wait until sufficient stocks had been built up but Sir John French was a man who believed in taking the initiative and keeping up the offensive. On 10 March at Neuve Chapelle, the Indian Meerut Division was heavily involved: after an inadequate preliminary bombardment, much of the barbed wire in front of the German positions remained uncut with resulting heavy casualties especially to the Middlesex Regiment and The Cameronians – by 14 March a couple of kilometers had been gained.
To the north and east of Ypres, Slide 5 Hill 60 mining under Hill 60 had started in December 1914; by April five chambers had been excavated and charged – the northern pair with 2000 lbs of powder each, the southern pair with 2700 lbs each and the central chamber with 500 lb of gun cotton. At 7:05 on the evening of 17 April the mines were blown in pairs followed by the single one at ten second intervals. After a further artillery bombardment, C Coy 1st Bn Royal West Kents took the position. German counter attacks, including the use of gas, followed over the next three weeks until on May 5 the Germans regained the hill; despite valiant counter attacks by the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the hill remained in German hands.
We now narrow our focus.
The German front line and the British ran along the line of the shallow ridge north east to south west from Aubers to Festubert. The ground is virtually flat but, as seems nearly always the case, the Germans held the higher ground. The plan of attack involved a pincer movement by parts of IV Corps: 7 Div and 8 Div were to attack from the north between Fromelles and Aubers; the Meerut Division and 1 Div from the south In the sector of immediate concern to us, according to Eric Fazan’s diary, 2nd Royal Sussex – a regular battalion – was on the west of the line with the Northamptons to their right; immediately behind was the 5th Royal Sussex – a volunteer Territorial battalion with the 60th Rifles to their right; further back the Loyal North Lancs and the 9th Liverpool Territorial Battalion.
5th Royal Sussex were recruited across the county and were well known in Wadhurst, having annual camps in the area, using the old Drill Hall – now Kingsley Court, and attending church parades through our High Street. Capt Eric Fazan commanded A Coy and his brother Roy was an officer in B Coy; “C” Coy was commanded by Capt. Courthope; many local men were volunteers in the battalion.
In February 1915, the officers of the 5th Bn were on duty at the Tower of London, guarding a German spy – Fritz Lodi: Capt Courthope back left, next Eric Fazan and then Roy Fazan.
The Battalion disembarked in France on 19 February and moved to Allouagne near Bethune, joining the 2nd Brigade of 1 Div. They were in reserve for the battle of Neuve Chapelle and went into the front line at Richebourg l’Avoué on 27 March in the snow. In the evening of 8 May 1915 they moved to the Rue au Bois. The official record for the day of 9 May begins: 03:00 issue of tea and rum. But let us now follow the battle through the diary written – some days after the events – by Capt Fazan.
“In the Field 8 : 5 : 15
In case I am killed or die, finders please give the envelope marked X in pocket at end of this book to a brother officer to post to my wife. Of my personal effects out here I should like each surviving officer in ‘A’ Coy to be given some slight memento. Also my brother Roy [crossed out – Deceased May 9 EACF], the present Sergt Major, Company Sergt Major Heather, Capt Dawes servant & my servant BEALE (my new safety razor) [crossed out – believed deceased May 9 EACF]. Perhaps the senior surviving officer of ‘A’ Coy will kindly see to this?
E A C Fazan Capt. ‘A’ Coy 5 R. Sx R
– in the early hours of Sunday 9 May ..hot fire going in under cover of darkness – some difficulty in finding correct position for our companies. Understood that the deliberate bombardment would start at 5 AM and continue until 5.30 AM. The intensive bombardment from 5:30 AM to 5:40 AM or alternatively 9 AM to 9:30 AM and 9:30 AM to 9:40 AM respectively should the early morning be too misty.
CO, Adjutant, Courthope, Dawes and I and Headqrs servants all slept in the same dugout. Read mother’s letter before going into action, wh. I received first before marching off. Understood that as soon as front 2 Coys of 2 Sx. left front fire trench our front 2 Coys should begin to move up to their trench, & as soon as all 2 Sx were over, our leading platoons of C and A were to get over.
Bombardment started at 5 AM. Had previously placed cotton wool in my ears & distributed some also. The time table with regard to the deliberate bombardment was adhered to and the intensive commenced at 5.30 AM. About that time the 2/ Sussex were seen to be getting over the parapet of their trench and our companies rushed by platoons from our reserve trenches to the front ones. We had to pass an intermediate line of brest [sic] works en route. Most of the platoons went across the open under shrapnel and rifle fire. One platoon of “C” Coy lost heavily from shell fire.
Appended is a map I made previous to going into action to help our men understand the relative positions of 5 Sussex Companies in support of the Second Sussex [This version from the Uplands project – like Capt Fazan’s own has North to the bottom – and suggests that 5th Royal Sussex were to the side of the regular battalion rather than behind]
When we got to the front fire trench there was great enthusiasm, & our fellows started getting over before all the 2 Sx. were out over the parapet. Nos. 2, 3 & 4 Platoons of “A” got over & No. 1 was stopped. Perry was hit early by machine gun fire. Some of the bullets struck the bombs he was carrying & these undoubtedly saved his life. Other officers wounded early were – Major Langham, Napper, and Dodd. Practically the whole of B & C Coys. got over our front parapet. Capt. Courthope & his servant were blown back into our trench by a shell from the top of the parapet. This probably saved their lives.
Fazan went on:
I went with Hobart and remember calling to some of the “A” lads to follow me – including L/Corpl Laughton (who I fear was killed soon afterwards). As I was crossing the bridge over the stream in front of our trench a mongrel brown & white dog crossed towards our trench from the German lines. I spoke to it & believe I patted it. 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. I remember seeing him make B Coy wheel to the right under fire – wh. was the intended direction for them to take. He was very cool & they followed him splendidly. The distance between the German lines & ours was much greater than we expected. I fancy we laid down when we were tired and then made another rush forward.
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. On my right was Sergt. Bassett, who was soon wounded in the leg. I managed to pass him some morphia & atropine. Behind me was Martindale, who discovered that little Bissenden was dead. I had jokingly told him to take cover behind my heels, & he was very cheery. [David Wakefield later pointed out that Capt. Fazan was noted in the Regiment for the size of his feet and boots – so the comment is also serious]
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 & I kept on shouting to each other to know if we were alright and to various men. We could hardly raise our heads the fire was so hot, sighted at 800 yds for fear of hitting us, kept on firing over our heads.
At last I heard a cry from Hobart, & I feared he was badly wounded. He was hit in the back. I told him to lie flat till I could get to him. I found he was not bleeding much so told him to lie quiet. Later he recovered from the initial shock, so I told him to throw off his equipment & crawl in. I could not go with him as I had no orders. I told him to ask them to get us out some orders. We had heard our front line trench was now empty (quite incorrect). & I feared we might be cut off.
H. 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 after Kemp got one through his haversack. I was now behind Kemp & was afraid he was dead. After waiting to get the message as far as possible we started to crawl down some furrows. When I turned round the distance back to our parapet seemed about 100 yds. Young H. had left me his revolver – but as the fire was still hot I deemed it wise to discard everything. I wormed along a furrow throwing my hat in front of me, Martindale on my L. As they seemed to have a mark on me, I left my hat eventually as a decoy, & it seemed to act. I remember I wondered if the Sergt-Major could see me & would approve of the way I was crawling!
At the end of my furrow I came across a body wh: I feared was Sergt Twine, and I could not bring myself to pass it, so got into another. Now think it must have been Marriott (Twine is safe). Fancy I got in between 10.30 AM & 11 AM. Found front trench occupied by Highlanders. Kemp came in safe soon after me. Attended to a 2 Sx. officer shot through the temple. Told our Battn had been sent back to Reserve brestworks [sic] out of it – and rejoiced. Found there were various reports that I had been hit in the leg & had been killed. Understood that there had been a specially heavy 10 mins. bombardment for us to retire in – but we never got the message. Many of the men in front still out there. Delighted to find Dawes & Roe safe. At this period only 160 of the Battn could be mustered.
|I had great fears for Roy & Grant with B Coy. About mid-day the CO told me poor Roy was killed. I could find out no details till later.Heard D Coy were alright, as they had been stopped from getting over the parapet. Our Brigade was now under orders to make another assault, but when they found out our losses the 1st Guards Brigade we told off for it. The Black Watch & Scottish assaulted in the afternoon after a very prolonged fresh bombardment and got onto the trench but could not hold it. The Coldstreams were in support. I met Major Egerton, of the Coldstreams, who asked after Paget. The Highlanders got back several of our fellows, but many had to lay out till dark. In the evening we were relieved by the London Territorial Division & were told to march back to LE TOURET where a staff officer would meet us & direct us to billets. We were directed first to LA COUTURE & then to PONT AVALETTE.On the march back we found that the following officers had been wounded:- Major Langham, Lieut Napper, Dodd, Perry, Hobart. Missing:- Capt Grant, [Lieut -crossed out] Capt. Stewart-Jones, Lieuts. Haigh, Dennison and Powell – most of whom it was feared had been killed. We now think (13:5:15) that several of them were brought in wounded, but can get no details. ‘C’ Coy came out of the action the weakest. They only had one officer (Capt Courthope) left – and had about 16 killed, 40 wounded & 40 missing. B suffered next, and then A. All poor old Roy’s men say he was very cool & shouted “come on boys”. I have not yet heard what happened to Beale, my servant – who was also Captains’ orderly of ‘A’. Fortunately the Battn went into action very weak both in officers & men. They can only have had about 500 to 600 rifles. It subsequently transpired that our casualties were close to 200 – there being (fortunately) a large proportion of wounded. ‘B’ Coy had no officer left when they came out of action.”|
On 14 May Lt Col Langham, Commanding 5th Royal Sussex wrote:
“We had, therefore, to mop up on the front of the two assaulting Battalions and it means sending up a third Company to follow the KRRs and ‘mop up’ behind the Northants. After a bombardment of 40 minutes to break up the German barbed wire and smash up the parapet, the advance began. Three Companies of the 2nd Battalion and all the Northants went out over and got to from 40 to 80 yards from the German lines. “C” Company, less one platoon, “A” Company , less one platoon and the whole of “B” Company, went out in the second line, and two Companys of the KRRs. Then the most murderous rifle machine gun and shrapnel fire opened and no one could get on or get back. People say the fire at Mons and Ypres was nothing to it. No end of brave things were done, and our men were splendid but helpless. They simply had to wait to be killed. After some considerable time, we got – orders to retire, but this was easier said than done. 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.”
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.
THE WADHURST DEAD
For Wadhurst – a roll call of the valiant dead: [where there is a link, follow it for more detail]
George Allen – Private aged 24 – son of an agricultural labourer: in 1912 he applied to join the Metropolitan Police but was turned down for ‘lack of weight’. He has no known grave.
Alfred Ernest Anscombe – Private aged 22 – son of a police constable. Immediately before the war he was a carpenter living in furnished accommodation in the High Street. He has no known grave.
Sydney John Baldwin – Private aged 22 – son of an engine smith. He has no known grave.
Alfred Charles Barrow – Private aged 20 – son of a journeyman painter. He has no known grave.
Albert James Dence – Private aged 21 – son of a farm labourer. He has no known grave
Richard Frederick Edwards – Private aged 32 – son of a farm labourer. He has no known grave
Hubert James Ellis – Private aged 18 and 6 days – a gardener’s son. He has no known grave
Roy Fazan – 2nd Lt “B” Coy – aged 23 – son of a doctor and studied medicine at the Middlesex Hospital. He has no known grave
George Fillery – Private aged 23 – son of a master butcher. He has no known grave
Albert Freeland – Company Sergeant Major “C” Coy – aged 44 – son of a railway guard, and married a throstle spinner from Preston and served at the old Drill Hall before the outbreak of war. He died of tetanus at Shorncliffe and was laid to rest in Wadhurst Churchyard on 18 May with full military honours – leaving a widow and ten children of whom seven were under ten.
Harold Edward Goldsmith – Private aged 18 – son of a journeyman carpenter. He has no known grave
Percy Thomas Goodsell – Corporal aged 21 – son of a general labourer. Died on 10 May and lies at rest in the Longuenesse Cemetery St Omer
Albert Hawkins – Private aged 20 – son of a general labourer. He has no known grave
William Hawkins – Private aged 23 Albert’s elder brother. He has no known grave
George Albert Kenward – Private aged 34 – a general labourer and son of a shoe maker. He has no known grave
Charles David Mankelow – Private aged 25 – son of a general labourer. He has no known grave
Arthur Jesse Pilbeam – Private aged 19 – son of a blacksmith. He has no known grave
George Henry Pilbeam – Private aged 18 Arthur’s younger brother. He has no known grave
Richard Henry Powell – 2nd Lieutenant “C” Coy aged 31 – journalist with The Times, married to George Courthope’s daughter Barbara and son of a London merchant. He has no known grave
Frank Saunders – Lance Corporal aged 26 – son of a journeyman bricklayer. He has no known grave
William Henry Thorpe – Private aged 18 – son of a general labourer. He has no known grave
Alfred Edwin Thompsett – Private aged 20 – son of a general labourer. He has no known grave
William Vidler – Private aged 19 less 5 days – son of a general labourer. He has no known grave
Thomas Wodehouse Williams – Lieutenant 3rd Battalion Northamptonshire Regt – born in Wadhurst and son of a schoolmaster. He has no known grave
William John Wright – Private aged 18 – son of a gamekeeper. He has no known grave
All but Freeland and Goodsell are commemorated in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Le Touret near Aubers, and all are remembered in the Church of St Peter & St Paul and on our War Memorial.