Remembering the Battle of Boar’s Head

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On Thursday 30 June, our Museum Lab in Brighton Museum will host a Discovery Day on the Battle of Boar’s Head. As the UK prepares to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, historian and museum Visitor Services Officer Amanda Scales tells the story of the battle and its impact on the people of Brighton.

The Battle of Boar’s Head is a largely unknown battle of the First World War, significantly overshadowed by the Battle of the Somme and its devastating impact on the British nation.

The Battle of Boar’s Head took place on 30 June 1916 and was primarily a planned diversionary tactic to draw German troops away from the Somme battlefields the day before the main battle began.

Aerial photo showing Boar's Head salient, c1916. Courtesy Paul Reed
Aerial photo showing Boar’s Head salient, c1916. Courtesy Paul Reed

‘When are you coming over then Tommy?’

The Germans had been subjected to a weeklong bombardment, and were very aware that an attack was imminent. To show they were ready and waiting, they erected signboards on their parapets asking ‘When are you coming over then, Tommy?’

As would be seen the following day on the Somme, the bombardment not only gave advance warning of the attack, but also failed to signifcantly weaken the enemy defences. The German lines were left mostly undamaged with barbed wire still largely intact, making advances into the trenches almost unachievable.

Although British soldiers were able to make some initial gains into enemy trenches, the attack was a disaster. In less than five hours the majority of the men were either dead, injured, captured, or forced to retreat.

When asked the next morning what he thought of the attack, one General replied that it was ‘like a butchers shop’.

The Day Sussex Died

Sussex men in the 12th and 13th battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment spearheaded the attack and paid the price for this attempt to bite out the bulge of the salient known as the Boars Head. The casualty rates were extremely high:  for 366 men this was the ultimate sacrifice, and over 1000 other soldiers were either injured or reported as missing in action – later it was found that many were taken as prisoners of war and spent the remaining years of the First World War in German prisoner of war camps.

BH600824.3bThe 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Sussex Battalions were together known as ‘The South Downs’ Battalions’. They were ‘Pals’ battalions, made up of men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside friends, neighbours and colleagues. When such batalions suffered a high casualty rate in action, it had a devastating effect on the towns and villages that the men came from. 70% of the men killed at the Battle of Boar’s Head were known to have been born in Sussex, and many more would have been residents. 30 June 1916 passed into local public consciousness as ‘The Day  Sussex Died’, a comment which originally came from a veteran of the battle.

What of our city, made up then of the towns of Brighton, Hove and Portslade? Like other Sussex men, young local men had also responded to a recruitment drive from Lt Col Claude Lowther MP. Friends, workmates and brothers had bravely responded to the call to arms and joined ‘Lowther’s Lambs’. Over 850 men from Brighton and Hove were recruited into the South Downs’ Battalions; at least 61 of those men were killed at Boar’s Head, with many others injured or taken prisoner.

The Battle of Boars Head and its huge losses resonated in all local people in 1916. For every soldier dead, injured or missing there was a mother, a father, maybe siblings, cousins, grandparents, friends, work colleagues, maybe a team mate, an old school friend. Whole communities were struck with grief: from my research into the addresses of those killed at the battle, many lived in the working class areas of east Brighton and the Hanover area, and Poets’ Corner in Hove.

New recruits of 11th South Downs Battalion in training at Cooden Camp, 1915. Courtesy Paul Reed
New recruits of 11th South Downs Battalion in training at Cooden Camp, 1915. Courtesy Paul Reed

Later in the war, ‘Pals’ battalions were no longer to be seen as a positive way to recruit, given the overwhelming aftermath of failed advances such as Boar’s Head. The first day of the Battle of the Somme which commenced on 1 July 1916 would become known as the British Army’s ‘bloodiest day’, and became a point of trauma and grief for the enitre nation. But for the people of Brighton, Hove and Portslade the Battle of Boar’s Head the day before had a more immediate impact.

On the 100th anniversary of the battle, the Museum Lab at Brighton Museum is holding a commemoration day which will include information on the Brighton and Hove Boar’s Head casualties, First World War film footage, access to handling collections, and talks by WW1 reenactors. The Royal British Legion will visit at 3pm with local Councillors. At 5pm a memorial service will be held at the nearby Old Steine, while five churches across the city will toll bells for a 15 minute period. Chichester Cathedral will conduct a full three hour toll to finish at 5pm.

We will remember them.

Amanda Scales, Historian and Museum Visitor Services Officer

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