WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


Lowther’s Lambs Go To War

11 Bn Witley 1916

A century ago this weekend the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th (South Downs) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were on their way to France, finally about to begin their active service. They were part of the final wave of Kitchener’s Army making its way to the Western Front and for many men it had been a frustrating wait to do their ‘bit’ since enlisting in September 1914 in some cases. Raised by Lieutenant Claude Lowether MP they had been known locally in Sussex as ‘Lowther’s Lambs’ and were the Sussex equivalent of Pals battalions: the more than 3,000 men in the battalions represented almost every village and town in Sussex.

Lance Corporal Bob Short, of the 11th Battalion, recalled the reaction to being told that ‘this was it’:

“… Colonel Grisewood called the men on parade and told us we were going to France. Everyone cheered. This was it; we were finally at war!”

First to board their ship were the 11th Battalion, on S.S. ‘Viper’, and Lance Corporal Bob Short remembered being handed some tea in his Dixie as he mounted the steps up onto the ship. Meanwhile, the 13th Battalion were kept hanging around as Private Albert Banfield, from Hove, recalled:

“  The train ran right up to the quay. We got into  a large shed, where [there] was a canteen; here we could obtain hot coffee… and as we did not have to embark until 5.30pm we were at liberty to walk about the Docks.

There were two large Union Castle liners in the Dock, converted into Red Cross ships, having large red crosses painted on the sides and funnels. We also saw an armed merchantman, with several big guns.

About 5.30pm, we marched aboard and were taken down into the hold, which was low pitched, having fixed tables and forms. I did not stay there long – it seemed rather stuffy, so went on deck and had my last look at England. It was rather misty in the dusk, and I naturally wondered when and under what conditions I shall see it again.”

Researching the South Downs battalions have occupied more than thirty years of my time now; back in the 1980s I interviewed the last remaining veterans, Bob Short and Bert Banfield quoted here for example, and spent thousands of hours in archives and on the battlefields following their long war.

This year is not only the centenary of their active service but also their destruction at Richebourg on 30th June 1916 and on the Somme; thirty years ago in 1986 I self-published a little booklet about them, now long out of print, and for the centenary will be doing the digital version and release an e-book entitled ‘From Sussex to the Somme’. More details of this soon.


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New WW1 Local Books From Pen & Sword

Pen & Sword Military have begun a new series of WW1 Centenary books looking at various towns and cities in the Great War. The first two reviewed here relate to Sussex in WW1.

105218Bognor In The Great War by Clifford Mews (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78346 282 7, 128pp, illustrated, paperback, £9.99)

Bognor was a seaside town on the Sussex coast and was a favourite of royalty including Queen Victoria. Pre-war there was a Bognor Company of the 4th (Territorial) Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment and the books begins in 1914 with the mobilisation of the town. It then follows the war year by year before it moves on to specific aspects of how the conflict impacted on the town such as the effects of the losses and the aftermath, including the war memorials. It is a well researched and written account, and there are good illustrations throughout.

The book is available on the Pen & Sword website.

104957Hove & Portslade In The Great War by Judy Middleton (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 783303 643 1, 224pp, illustrated, paperback, £12.99)

Hove was a middle class town on the Sussex coast, close to Brighton. This publication has been written by a local librarian using the extensive material the locality collected during and after the conflict, especially on Hove men who died in the war. It looks at themes rather than following a chronology and subjects such as military hospitals and women at war are well covered. The losses among local men are also discussed along with many case studies. Again the book is well illustrated and these are two excellent titles in a growing series which shows much promise.

The book is available on the Pen & Sword website.

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WW1 Centenary: Beyond The Veterans

The Great War Centenary in 2014 will be the first major anniversary without the presence of veterans. On the occasion of the 90th anniversary the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ Harry Patch was still alive as was RNAS/RAF veteran Henry Allingham. Their voices were the last beacons in the dark; both men a fascination for the media and public alike for whom veterans of the Great War were as strange and compelling as if they had been from Mars.

The question of what we should make of the war now there were no veterans of course was asked many times when Harry and Henry both died in 2009, but the difference with the upcoming centenary is that a constant stream of media interest is likely to begin with 2014 and the last voices in the dark and the many before them are all too easy to forget. Those who knew and interviewed veterans, and there are really all too few, in many respects have a debt to repay for that friendship during 2014-18; they must ensure that these voices are not simply seen as the ramblings of old men but are put in the context they deserve.

Work by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald firmly put Great War oral history on the agenda and that has been superbly continued with work from Imperial War Museum oral historian Peter Hart and author Richard Van Emden. Technology and the internet enables those of us with photographs, transcripts and recordings all relating to veterans we knew are duty bound to share them during the centenary – at least I would hope so. When I look at the photo above of the last surviving men of Lowther’s Lambs in 1979, I see the faces of old men I knew and who transport me back to their memories of Richebourg, the Somme and Flanders. But there has to be a way to ensure that others see that too and for recordings, online services like Soundcloud make the sharing of interviews with veterans easier than they ever were; below is one such with E G Williams, a Liverpool Pal remembering the Somme whom I knew back in the 1980s.

The veterans have faded away and while many are to be found in the pages of books, there is still much new material hidden which will hopefully come to light as the centenary period unfolds.