Learning about the Battle of Boar’s Head

I have no credentials as a military historian but my role as one of the volunteers researching the ‘Boys on the Plaque’ has led me down some interesting First World War paths. One of these involves Robert Ivermee and the Battle of Boar’s Head on 30 June 1916. Although little remembered outside the county and rarely mentioned in histories of WW1 – it was overshadowed by the Battle of the Somme which started the following day – the Battle of Boar’s Head became known as ‘The Day Sussex Died’.  It was also probably the day Robert Ivermee was wounded, dying two weeks later on 14 July 1916.

Corporal Robert Ivermee (not Private as stated on the plaque) joined the Royal Sussex Regiment, 13th Battalion between November 1914 and February 1915. I was unable to trace any army records for him (apart from documents relating to his medals and death) but it was possible to follow his army career through sources describing the movements of the Royal Sussex Regiment’s 11th, 12th and 13th battalions. These battalions were all raised by Lt Col Claude Lowther, MP and owner of Herstmonceux Castle, and nicknamed ‘Lowther’s Lambs’. They were also known as the Southdown battalions or Southdowners. Original enlistments were given the ‘SD’ (South Downs) prefix to their regimental number and, as Ivermee’s regimental number was SD/3375, this suggests that he enlisted shortly after the 3rd Southdowns was formed on 20 November 1914 (becoming the 13th Battalion when Lowther’s army was officially adopted by the War Office in July 1915).

After training in various camps in the south-east, the three Southdown battalions were shipped to France in March 1916, by this time a part of the 116th Infantry Brigade, itself part of the 39th Division of Kitchener’s New Army. By late June, they were near the Belgian border at Ferme du Bois and learnt that they were to attack German positions near the small village of Richebourg L’Avoué, in particular to ‘bite off’ the protuding piece of the German line known by the British, because of its shape, as the ‘Boar’s Head’. This was one of several diversionary tactics planned to confuse the Germans as to the true location of a massive attack being planned for the Somme, some 50 kilometres to the south.

Bad weather had delayed the start of the Battle of the Somme until 1 July so the Southdowners were kept waiting for their orders to attack. Meanwhile, there had been some preparatory bombardment of the German front line some days beforehand, so the enemy was prepared. The original plan was for the 11th Battalion to lead the attack, with the 12th on its right, and the 13th in reserve. But the commander of the 11th Battalion, Lt Col Harman Grisewood, was concerned that the plans were likely to end in disaster and is reputed to have stated “I am not sacrificing my men as cannon-fodder”. Grisewood was promptly dismissed and the roles of the 11th and 13th Battalions reversed.

The infantry attack began at 3.05am on 30 June 1916. The darkness was supposed to help the men, as was a smoke bombardment designed to conceal their advance but the smoke drifted into the path of the 13th Battalion who lost direction and became easy targets for the Germans. They were not helped by the fact that wires which should have been cut earlier were still intact and very few of the small bridges which should have placed across a ditch in front of their trenches were actually there. Few of the men of the 13th Battalion survived the enemy fire.

The battle lasted less than five hours, the British soldiers who reached the German trenches being driven out after fierce hand to hand fighting. The war diary of the 13th Battalion put the principal causes of failure down to

“a). The unfortunate incident of the smoke cloud.

b). The preparedness of the enemy.

c). The intensity of the enemy’s shell and machine gun fire.

d). The failure of the Artillery to cut the enemy’s wire on the left.”

In total, nearly 1100 Southdowners were wounded or died in the Battle of Boar’s Head: 15 officers and 364 Other Ranks were killed or died of wounds, and 21 officers and 728 Other Ranks wounded. The 13th Battalion was virtually wiped out, with over 800 men being killed, wounded or captured. Compared to the first day of the Somme, when there were 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths, the casualties at Boar’s Head were modest but for the people of Sussex, 30 June 1916 is still remembered as ‘The day Sussex died’.

Those who died are buried in a number of cemeteries in northern France. Robert Ivermee’s grave is in the Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery (grave reference II.C.40) in the Nord-Pas- de-Calais region of France, approximately an hour’s drive from Richebourg l’Avoué. Although official records just state that Ivermee ‘died of wounds’, he is named as one of the casualties of Boar’s Head in the book by John A Baines, The Day Sussex died: the history of Lowther’s Lambs to the Boar’s Head Massacre (RSLHG, 2011). A new edition of the book was published in May 2016, in time for the centenary of the battle.

Lyn Turpin (Volunteer researcher)

Find out more about The Day that Sussex Died at Brighton Museum’s Discovery Day: Battle of Boar’s Head today (30 June 2016). Robert Ivermee will be remembered at this event with an information display, along with other casualties of Brighton & Hove. Residents of Brighton & Hove are able to enter free with proof of address.

Cpl Robert Ivermee, died 14 July 1916. Buried at Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery, France.

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