June 30th, 1916 – “The day Sussex died”

This post is about my great-uncle George Beale, who died in the Great War and is honoured with a brass plaque on the wall of the church in the village where he was born.

Although he was a Gloucestershire man, he was a member of the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. He signed up at Hastings, and the reason for his being there is a mystery which will remain unsolved.

When I was young, my family would visit every year from Leeds and stay at the Beale residence. “Granny Beale” was my great-grandmother, being the mother of my maternal grandmother. In my early days, before the King died, she was still alive although unable to look after herself. In the mornings her family would get her up and feed her, and if the weather was nice, they would put her outside on a chair to see what was happening in the village.

I remember her sitting there, watching my sister and I pass by, with a beautific smile on her face. She seemed perfectly happy, although she was completely helpless and incapable of speech by then. I believe she was born in 1875.

The information below is largely taken from two web-sites, “Battlefields” (1) and “Great War Photos” (2). I have extracted sufficient information to provide a coherent background, and worked the pieces together in order to have a better idea of the events surrounding his death.

The 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex Regiments were part of the 39th Division, which had been formed in mid-1915, and was trained at Witley Camp, near Guildford. These Regiments were also known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd South Downs battalions, and in Sussex as “Lowther’s Lambs” after Lt-Col Claude Lowther MP, who had raised them in 1914.

The plan was to destroy an enemy position which had a commanding field of fire and had restricted normal British operations for some time, tie down German troops that could otherwise be sent to the Somme, “and generally confuse the enemy”.

By a quirk of fate, the 3rd South Downs were meant to be in reserve to support the 1st and 2nd battalions, but were ordered to replace the 1st South Downs because a decision had been made that their commanding officer was not up to the task they faced.

The initial preparatory artillery bombardments were made, but the attack was then postponed due to bad weather, and the Germans put up sign-boards saying “When are you coming over Tommy?” Clearly, the element of surprise had been lost, and the Germans had time to prepare themselves.

The 3rd South Downs part in the attack is described thusly by Battlefields:

“On the 13th Battalion front the situation was even worse (than that of the 12th). The smoke bombardment there had drifted into the attackers, and the men had totally lost their direction. Some ended up advancing at an angle across No Man’s Land, exposing their vulnerable flanks to the Germans. Many were mown down in waves. A ditch existed in front of the British trenches, and carrying parties with small bridges had gone forward to assist in the crossing of it. These had been amongst the first to fall, and very few of the bridges were in place. Most had to scramble in and out of the ditch, as machine-gun fire swept up and down. On reaching the German front line, most of the wire was intact, and very few of the 13th ever made it into the German trenches. By the close of operations a handful of survivors made their way back to the British front line.”

As was the case with so many who died in “the war to end all wars”, George Beale’s body was never found.

He was just nineteen years old.

Jeff Goodall.

(1) – Read Battlefields here.

(2) – Read Great War Photos here.