By Brian Green
Years ago, I had a great friend who had fought near the Somme in 1916. His spell there was fairly short, his regiment, the 2nd Battalion The First Surrey Rifles were redeployed to Salonika and then to Egypt and Palestine. I remember him describing to me the scene when he first went into the line at Anzin, close to Ypres, in July 1916. The battalion had been drafted to France after only a few weeks of training and had relieved a Highland Brigade. It was not a pretty sight, especially for a young and inexperienced soldier. He recalled that when they passed the Scottish regiments they could not see where their tunics ended and their trousers started, they were so covered in yellow mud. My friend was also horrified to see that they were also covered in lice. He would shortly have the same unpleasant experience. He was one of the lucky ones. Although a bullet grazed his helmet on his first day in the line, he survived. Only recurring bouts of malaria which he picked up when his battalion was sent to the Middle East returned to trouble him over the years.
I was living in Dovercourt Road at the time and my next door neighbour was W J Hahn who had been the Camberwell Borough Chief Librarian. He was also a leading member of the FSR Association and had actually fought in and survived the battle of High Wood. Most of his comrades in the 1st Battalion of the First Surreys were not so lucky. The 1st Battalion formed one of the battalions of the London Regiment whose war memorial stands outside the Royal Exchange. Another was the Queen’s (Royal West Surreys) who recruited at Kennington (the First Surreys were based at Flodden Road, Camberwell). One hundred years ago, on 15 September 1916 they shared the same attack in which the First Surreys were virtually annihilated at the battle for High Wood.
The First Surreys continued afer WW1 as a Territorial battalion and were reformed as an anti-aircraft artillery regiment in WW2. Afterwards, it was gradually wound down and finally disbanded. Jeffery James is one of the few remaining members of the FSR Association and its archivist and is keen that this anniversary does not go unmarked, especially as the association is to close in two years time. He writes :
‘Several years ago I embarked on a quest to discover what did happen to the 1/21st London Regiment - The First Surreys, on the afternoon of 15th September 1916.
You may have the impression of another waste of young men on a battlefield in France, part of the Somme offensive. The true story is one of heroism and denial, by their regiment, of those who took part, the recognition of a feat of arms.
It may surprise you to learn the ‘Official History’ of the Great War was not completed until 1948! In correspondence, in June 1935, with the Official Historian, Brigadier General J E Edmonds, the commanding officer of the Royal West Surreys, Colonel Parker, writes about the very battle involving his regiment and The First Surreys.
He said, ‘ ….in an operation which involved two armies, seven corps, sixteen divisions and thirty-five brigades, it is significant that only the Brigade Commander 124th Brigade and the 122nd sent his Brigade Major up, in each case with the happiest results. Future generations….will probably comment…of the sixty Commanders of the various formations higher than Battalions, only one took a personal part in the battle. I am convinced had any senior officer of the 47th Division been on the spot, the disastrous attack of the 1/21st and 1/24th down a forward slope in broad daylight and in plain sight of something like one hundred German Forward Observation Officers, would never have been ordered’.
To close a gap between the British troops who had occupied High Wood, at great cost, the day before, the First Surreys were ordered to attack. Alone and unsupported, they captured Starfish Redoubt - a fortified German position - and part of the Starfish Line, part of the Flers-Courcelette battle,
Others watched them go in. An extract from the War Diary of 1/15th Battalion (The Civil Service Rifles) records : ‘6pm 21st London Regiment attacked from High Wood on West Half of Starfish and Cough Drop Practically annihilated by Artillery and Machine Gun fire’.
Starfish was the fifth item on their orders issued by Lt Col Kennedy,the FSR’s Commanding Officer. The Cough Drop was a secondary objective. There is no mention in the First Surreys regimental history, published Christmas Day 1927 of either. The attack is recorded as an, ‘ill-fated venture’.
In the 111 Corps ‘Summary of Operations’ for the day, ‘The 21st Battalion, after suffering heavy casualties, captured the Starfish and a small portion of the Starfish Line to the west of it, but were unable to capture the Cough Drop’. The 47th Division book published 1921 says, ‘the capture of the Starfish Line was considered essential and about 6pm the 21st and 24th Battalions attacked with this object….On the right the 21st Battalion (FSR) attacked the Starfish Line and captured Starfish Redoubt itself, but their attempt to get onto the Cough Drop did not succeed’.
The First Surreys dead, and with several hundred wounded, were eight officers and one hundred and twenty-five other ranks. A further nine died of wounds. Their names are recorded at the following cemeteries, Adanac Military Cemetery, Miraumount, Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval, Thiepval Memorial and Warlencourt British Cemetery, Pas de Calais.
One was 2nd Lt Harrison Edkins, age 20, who went to Dulwich College and is buried at Adanac. At Caterpillar Valley lies Rifleman Frederick Clarke, age 22 from West Norwood. At Thiepval, is Rifleman Frederick Evers, age 19,from Landells Road, East Dulwich, The First Surrey Rifles Association is due to close in 2018. A representative will lay a wreath at the Cross on Sunday 18th September, assembly for 12 noon.
If you pass by St Giles Church, Camberwell you will see the First Surreys’ Memorial Cross. Remember the men who gave their lives.’
Brian Green writes:
To commemorate the regiment’s sacrifice at High Wood, a detachment from the Dulwich Air Cadets, accompanied by their Chaplain, the Reverend Maria Coulter, vicar of St Clements with St Peter’s, East Dulwich will visit High Wood and lay a wreath there on the 100th anniversary of the battle.
The history of the 47th (London) Division, 1914-1919 vividly describes the battle.
“We never saw anything quite like High Wood... it was a wood only in name,
ragged stumps sticking out of churned-up earth, poisoned with
fumes of high explosives, the whole a mass of corruption
Imagine Hampstead Heath made of cocoa-powder, and the
natural surface folds further complicated by countless shell-holes,
each deep enough to hold a man, and everywhere meandering
crevices where men live below the surface of the ground, and you
will get some idea of the terrain of the attack."
High Wood, had been almost occupied at great cost the previous day but a gap existed between two of the British brigades of the Division. The closing of the gap in what was named the Starfish Line, was considered essential. Tanks had been used at High Wood for the first time in warfare. The terrain of shell holes and the stumps of blasted trees made their use largely ineffective and several had broken down. It was the presence of the tanks that determined that there would be no creeping barrage of artillery when, at about 6 p.m.(other accounts say 4pm) the 21st(First Surrey Rifles) and 24th Battalions attacked without artillery support. This disastrous decision exposed the assaulting troops to concentrated machine gun fire and they suffered fearfully, the 21st Battalion (FSR) having only 2 officers and 60 other ranks left unwounded out of 17 officers and 550 other ranks who attacked.
So is Jeffery James correct in his belief that after the war, the details of the catastrophe were glossed over in the regimental history? It is only in very recent times that individuals have been held to account or blame be apportioned for some military disaster or failure. My opinion is that the First World War was so terrible and so futile - the FSR lost over 1100 dead in total, that the enormity of the losses was beyond human understanding.
In the summer of 1917, the FSR launched a monthly regimental magazine, its masthead stating: ‘published on active service’. While it did not hide the regiment’s losses - it reported 28 killed on 25 May 1917 and dozens wounded throughout three of its four companies, it nevertheless adopted a jocular tone in articles and cartoons, highlighting the eccentricities of some its officers and senior NCO’s. It was as if the war itself was some incidental farce, a treatment so brilliantly typified in the musical, “Oh, What a Lovely War”. When days got bleak, humour switched on. Even the tragedy of High Wood was parodied - the rotting stench of corpses persuading E A MacIntosh to put new words to a song which was made popular at the time by music hall star Gertrie Miller called “From Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green” to become - “From High Wood to Waterlot Farm”. Oddly, you can still listen to the original song today on YouTube.
High Wood to Waterlot Farm
Tune: "Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green"
There is a wood at the top of a hill,
If it's not shifted it's standing there still;
There is a farm a short distance away,
But I'd not advise you to go there by day,
For the snipers abound, and the shells are not rare,
And a man's only chance is to run like a hare,
So take my advice if you're chancing your arm
From High Wood to Waterlot Farm.
High Wood to Waterlot Farm,
All on a summer's day,
Up you get to the top of the trench
Though you're sniped at all the way.
If you've got a smoke helmet there
You'd best put it on if you could,
For the wood down by Waterlot Farm
Is a bloody high wood.