The Lee in the First World War: July 1916

by Mike Senior

There can be no doubt that The Lee played its full part in the First World War. In July 1916 the Lee Magazine published a list of local men who had volunteered for service. There were 105 names in total. Of these, eight had joined the Navy; two were in the Royal Flying Corps and the remaining 95 were in the Army. By the end of the war over 160 men had joined one or other of the armed forces. Since the population of The Lee parish at that time was some 750 (the same as it is now) it can be reasonably assumed that all the eligible men in the locality had served in the war. Eleven of these men were decorated for bravery.

The Lee suffered heavily in terms of casualties. 30 young men were killed and a further 36 were wounded – a casualty rate of over 40 per cent. Robert Bignall, Walter Hearn and Percy Jennings were each wounded twice. These casualty figures were not spread evenly over the four years of war. Until July 1916 only one man had been killed. He was John Pearce of Swan Bottom who was reported as ‘Missing’ after the Battle of Festubert in May 1915 and whose body was never found. In July 1916, however, a major attack took place on the Western Front involving men from the village. It was the outcome of that attack that made July 1916 the blackest month of the war for The Lee. 

The Battle of Fromelles

The great Allied offensive of the Somme had been launched on 1st July. Information had reached Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, that the Germans had transferred troops from Northern France to act as reinforcements on the Somme. It was essential that such transfers should be stopped and it was therefore decided to make a diversionary attack some 40 miles north of the Somme to keep the German troops pinned down in that sector. The place selected for this attack was Fromelles, a few miles south of Armentières in French Flanders. The attack was to be carried out by two Divisions, one British (61st) and one Australian (5th). The British Division was made up of men from the South Midlands counties and among them were men from The Lee serving with the 2nd Bucks Battalion.

The assault began at 6:00 pm on the evening of Wednesday 19th July. The attack was over a front of two and a half miles and the immediate objective was to take and hold the enemy trenches. The task of the artillery, both British and Australian, was to demolish the German defensive positions and, to that end, artillery bombardments took place during the five days leading up to the attack. The British General in command of the attack was optimistic: “When we have cut all the wire, destroyed all the enemy’s machine gun emplacements, knocked down most of his parapets, killed a large proportion of the enemy, and thoroughly frightened the remainder, our infantry will assault, capture and hold the enemy’s line along the whole front”.

Critical failures

But these crucial artillery bombardments failed – the result of inexperienced gunners and poor weather. The most critical part of the attack front was towards the German strong-point known as the Sugar Loaf. Along the Sugar Loaf sector the Germans had built 75 concrete bunkers at 25-yard intervals. Each bunker housed machine guns that dominated the whole of the central area of the attack. It was later learnt that the British and Australian artillery had put only eight of these bunkers out of action.

The failure to destroy the Sugar Loaf defences proved to be disastrous for the whole operation and particularly for the 2nd Bucks Battalion and for the men of The Lee. The 2nd Bucks, along with the Australian 59th Battalion, were the assault troops whose objective was to take the Sugar Loaf. However, when they made their assault they were cut down in No Man’s Land by the German machine guns. It is unlikely that any of the Bucks Battalion or the Australian 59th Battalion entered the German trenches. Despite some success on the flanks of the attack, it became clear that if the Sugar Loaf could not be taken the operation would end in failure. While fighting continued through the night of 19th /20th July the attack was officially called off at 5:00 am and the Allied troops – those who could make it – were ordered back to their lines. Fierce spasmodic fighting continued until about 8:00 am. The operation therefore lasted some fourteen hours. During that time, the Australians lost 5,550 men and the British 1,550. The Germans lost fewer than 2,000. The trench lines were exactly the same after the attack as they had been at the beginning.

However, it is at least of some consolation that although the tactical aim of the attack – to take the German lines – failed, there is strong evidence to show that the Germans, fearing another attack in the Fromelles area, did not move troops from that sector down to the Somme for at least six weeks – a critical period at that stage in the Somme offensive. The sacrifice of these young British and Australian soldiers was not, therefore, in vain.

A place of sorrow

The 2nd Bucks Battalion, with casualties amounting to 322, lost half its men during the Fromelles attack. Among the casualties were nine men from The Lee. Ralph and Arthur Brown, brothers from Oxford Street; Sydney Dwight of Lee Common; Harry Harding of Kingswood; Arnold Morris from Field End Lane; Charles Phipps, the son of the Vicar; Harry Pratt, also from Oxford Street and Edward Sharp of Kingswood Cottages were all killed. Ivor Stewart-Liberty, wounded in the left leg early in the attack, was dragged back to the British line, but subsequently the wound became gangrenous and the leg was amputated. Two days after the Fromelles attack Harry Talmer of Lee Common, serving with the 1st Bucks Battalion, was killed near Pozières on the Somme.

The Lee hockey club of 1916

The Lee Hockey Club 1908-09, Arthur Brown and Ralph Brown back row second and fifth from the left.

Arnold and Emily Morris with two children 1915

Arnold and Emily Morris with two children 1915

Of the 30 Lee men who lost their lives during the War one-third were killed in the month of July 1916. The Bucks Examiner of 28th July carried the headline: “A Heavy List of Local Casualties.” The article noted that “The Lee casualties during the past few days have been very heavy… The Lee is a place of sorrowing”.

Ivor Stewart-Liberty

Nevertheless, The Lee, like many similar communities throughout Britain, carried on with determination and courage. As Ivor Stewart-Liberty (pictured left) later wrote: “They were indeed the saddest and the proudest of days”.

In the next part we complete our look at the first half of the 20th century.

Principal sources:

1. No Finer Courage by Michael Senior, re-published by Pen & Sword Books 2011 as Fromelles 1916.

Part 7: Non-conformist Lee
Part 9: The Liberty Legacy