Richebourg 1916

A forgotten battle

On the 19th July 1916 the Battle of Fromelles commenced. For the British participants it was over that evening; whilst the Australians, in their first battle in Europe, endured until the following day.

Fromelles Fromelles : 19 July 1916

The whole thing had been a disaster and had made little impact on German troop movements heading for the Battle of the Somme not yet three weeks old and grinding into a semi-stalemate.

Fromelles had been a diversion to keep the Germans on their toes and those of us with a general interest in the battles of the Great War have at least heard the name: Fromelles - Australian military history's bloodiest encounter.

Of the calamitous diversion at Richebourg on the 30th June 1916 you will find hardly a mention.

The carnage that befell so many families from Sussex (in the south of England) was swept under history's carpet as July 1916 ensured that curtains were drawn not just across the Kingdom but across the Empire.


The Boar's Head

The 116th Brigade of the 39th Division was made up of Sussex men in three battalions: the 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex. The three were Kitchener Pals battalions known as the 1st-3rd South Downs or (to their members) as Lowther's Lambs (in honour of Lt Colonel Claude Lowther who had raised them on the outbreak of the War).

They had arrived in France in March 1916 and were assigned to sectors north of La Bassée.

It was there, whilst in the line at Festubert, that the war poet Edmund Blunden (author of: Undertones of War) joined them in May 1916.

By the summer of 1916 it was hardly news to the Germans that the Allies were going to launch an attack. The French were suffering at Verdun and the guess at German High Command was that it would be the British that would carry the brunt of any assault, but the question remained where.

The Boar's Head

The Boar's Head - showing part of the trench systems

Following the Battle of Aubers Ridge on the 9th May 1915 the system known as the Boar's Head had become a thorn in the side of all the British soldiers posted to the sector. The shape of the feature (which had given it its name) allowed the Germans to pour enfilading fire into the British trenches at will.

The Germans had strengthened their defences creating numerous machine gun nests and strongholds.

As a candidate for a diversionary battle before the Battle of the Somme it had the practical aspect in that it would nip out a tiresome German salient.


A warning voice

And so, on the 23rd June 1916, and having been chosen as the unit to carry out the attack, the 116th Brigade came out of the trenches and began training behind the lines. Although they were working with a replica of the ground that they would be crossing, none of the units involved were totally familiar with the terrain.

It also needs to be understood that in an area where water is invariably just beneath the surface, that the trenches were more often than not shallow affairs with a strong parapet built up of sandbags.

The initial concept for the attack was that the 11th Battalion would lead alongside the 12th Bn whilst the 13th Bn followed up in reserve.

However, Lt Colonel Harman Grisewood commanding the 11th Battalion took an immediate dislike to the plans that had been handed down from Brigade. Sending untried men over unfamiliar ground was a recipe for disaster he told Maj General Dawson.

As hundreds of thousands of untrained men were about to embark on the largest British enterprise to date, Grisewood's sentiments may well have had merit, but they were out of place and he was sent home on leave. His battalion was also relegated to Reserve and the honour of leading the attack now fell to the 13th Bn.

Bad weather had forced a postponement of the opening of the Battle of the Somme to the 1st July and the three Surrey battalions found themselves hanging on in the front lines waiting for the new Zero Hour scheduled for the small hours of 30th June 1916.

Opposite them the Germans had erected banners wanting to know when Tommy was coming. The barrages in the area had given the game away.


The Attack

The Boar's Head

The Boar's Head - direction of the attack

At 0250 hours on the 30th June the preliminary bombardment of the German positions began and fifteen minutes later the leading troops climbed over their parapet and began the assault on the Boar's Head.

On the left the 12th Battalion moved out into the smoke screen that was supposed to help keep them covered but tended to add to the confusion as opposed to alleviating it.

As soon as the bombardment had finished the German defenders were up and out of their trenches, machine guns at the ready.

As officers began to fall CSM Nelson Carter continued the advance encouraging the men on through the uncut wire and into the German positions. They managed to take the front line trenches and pushed on to the German support trenches.

Private John Searle

Private John Searle, 15 years

Here they thought that they would find the 13th Battalion but the right flank of the attack had already failed. CSM Carter and his men managed to hold out for thirty minutes in their exposed position before being forced back by German counter attacks.

The smoke had completely thrown the attacking waves of the 13th Battalion and instead of advancing against the German lines, some had initially wheeled right and were badly caught with their flanks open to the murderous fire of the machine guns. The attacking soldiers could not see where they were going in the smoke and the defenders were not intent on picking people off. All they had to do was fire for all they were worth out towards the British lines.

Those soldiers that did reach the German wire found, as had the 12th Bn, that it had not been cut by the bombardment.

Behind them, the disgraced 11th Battalion in reserve had provided its D Company as a carrying party. Few of them survived the morning and amongst the officer casualties was Grisewood's younger brother, Francis (He is commemorated on the Loos Memorial).

The cost of this diversionary attack was a hint of things to follow on the morrow. 15 Officers and 364 Other Ranks had been killed and a further 21 Officers and 728 men injured.

That would amount to about 60% of those who had actually gone over the top only five hours before hand.


CSM Nelson Carter VC

Having been forced back towards his own lines CSM Carter now spent much time carrying in the wounded. On one such mission he was fatally wounded himself.

He was later recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross and his citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery. During an attack he was in command of the fourth wave of the assault. Under intense shell and machine-gun fire he penetrated, with a few men, into the enemy's second line and inflicted heavy casualties with bombs. When forced to retire to the enemy's first line, he captured a machine-gun and shot the gunner with his revolver. Finally, after carrying several wounded men into safety, he was himself mortally wounded, and died in a few minutes. His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.

Initially buried in the immediate area his grave was moved following the war to the Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard at Laventie. He is buried in Grave: VI C 17.

RIR Graveyard Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard

As a footnote to the story, Lt Colonel Grisewood returned to the front the moment his enforced period of leave had finished. By then the Brigade had been torn apart by the folly of the attack and Grisewood was sorely aggrieved that his words had been so prophetic.

His Divisional Commander was not quite certain as to what to do with him, especially as Grisewood himself made it plain that he was either given a command or he would demand an enquiry to explain the refusal.

Ultimately he was posted to the 17th Bn Manchester Regiment in 1917, and remained with them until he was severely injured by gas.

Remembering Remembering the Boar's Head

St Vaast Post St Vaast Post Military Cemetery
Rue des Berceaux Rue des Berceaux Military Cemetery
The Somme 1916 The Somme 1916