‘C’ Company – 2nd Battalion
Died of Wounds – Bethune – 10th May 1915 – Aged 19
The First World War claimed the lives of millions of men, women and children across the globe. Like nearly every family in Britain, the Message family were to lose a member in this gory conflict.
Germany had invaded Belgium on the 4th August 1914, and having promised to defend the neutral country, Britain declared war on them. The major powers of Europe chose their corner to fight. Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Italy (later to switch sides) formed one group, and Britain, France and Russia allied against them.
Walter William Message had joined the Royal Sussex Regiment (2nd Battalion [having enlisted at Worthing] ) and left England to fight against the German Forces in Northern France, the Western Front of the War in Europe. By the spring of 1915, the conflict had reached virtual stalemate. Huge defensive trench networks ran from the Swiss Border up to the English Channel, and new inventions (including the machine-gun) made defence much, much easier than attack. Wave upon wave of troops fighting on both sides were ordered to almost certain deaths by their Commanding Officers, making very few gains. The acres of countryside in Northern France and Belgium covered in graves and tombstones form a moving, silent, but effective reminder of the losses each nation suffered.
The German forces were, in effect fighting two wars. In the West with Britain and France, and against the Russians in the East. Their tactics in 1914-1915 were to ‘dig in’ and defend the West, concentrating offensive efforts on the opposite side of Europe.
On 24th March 1915 the French Commander-In-Chief, Joffre, realising the Germans were moving troops across to fight the Russians, contacted his British counterpart Sir John French. He asked if a co- operative offensive could take place 5-6 weeks later to take advantage of the enemy’s lack of defensive manpower.
The response was positive, and on the 6th of April 1915, he issued the following initial details: “In the last days of April, the French Tenth Army, acting in concert with the British First Army, will undertake an important attack. with a view to piercing the enemy’s line” The French were to attack on the battle’s opening day, the British were to ‘go in’ the day after.
The Battle of Aubers (Southern Flank)
While the French Army attacked the Germans at Vimy, the British First Army were to be responsible for an offensive to capture Aubers Ridge, some 15m to the south of the border town of Lille. A bearly noticeable feature on the landscape, but strategically a very important one, as it looked down over the allied trenches.
Beyond the ridge, the country sloped gently away to Lille, and then the German Border. It lay one- and-a-half miles from the Allied front lines. The British forces divided to advance on Northern & Southern flanks, part of the latter included the Royal Sussex’s 2nd Battalion.
Elsewhere in the war, on the 22nd of April, North of Ypres, both sides used gas attacks for the first time. Although gas was not used in the battle of Aubers, its use had significance to the engagement.
As a direct effect of its use, elements of the First Army were moved or placed on standby to go to Ypres. Who knows if any of the moving of any ‘elements’ had an effect on the role the Royal Sussex troops were to play in the conflict. General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the First Army, had also requested to borrow more guns for the offensive from the Second Army, but they were committed to the fighting in Ypres.
The plan was that artillery would be used to sweep away the German barbed wire and front-line positions, while the heavier guns would pound known strong points behind the front line. The infantry would advance through no-mans land and once the ridge was captured, advance on the Haute Duele Canal some five miles away.
What actually happened was mile for mile, division for division, one of the highest rates of loss during the entire First World War. The Battle Itself The assault had been eventually scheduled for the 7th May 1915. However, heavy rain on the day before and dense mist on the arranged date meant postponement until the 9th.
As the British were ready, the step was taken to launch a simultaneous offensive with the French. Again, who knows if this decision was to have a direct effect on the (now doomed) young men of The Royal Sussex’s 2nd Battalion?
Having recently lost ground in the nearby battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Germans had furiously improved their defences in the area, thickening the barbed wire and adding machine-gun posts every 20 yards or so along their front line. It was reported that they even shouted across no-man’s land to the ‘Tommy’s’ letting them know they were expecting an attack. Over The Top, 0530 Hours 9th May 1915
Sunrise was at 0406 that morning, the peace being shattered just under an hour later when the British bombardment began on German defences. Field guns fired shrapnel in an attempt to rip the German barbed wire, while Howitzers launched high explosives onto the front lines.
At 0530, the bombardment intensified, and the first wave of British Soldiers climbed up from their trenches.
Although it was a fine and sunny day in Northern France, the ground would still have been damp from the recent rain as the Northants 1st Battalion and the Royal Sussex 2nd Battalion climbed up their ladders and parapet steps.
Heavy machine-gun fire cut down many men even before they even left their trenches.
The bombardment had little success in disabling the enemy’s firepower. Still the orders were obeyed with more and more troops making no ground at all. It is likely Walter, one of the first soldiers to enter the battle, never felt the soggy ground underfoot, or fired one shot in anger.
Within half-an-hour the advance had halted. Very few lanes in the barbed wire had been made, and hundreds of men were pinned down in no-man’s land unable to advance or retreat.
Only 100 troops made it through to the German lines, all of whom were killed or captured. Hundreds (if not thousands) more were already dead.
At 0615 a second bombardment by the British guns had been ordered, undoubtedly claiming the lives of some of their own troops trapped in the mud.
Major General Haking, Commanding Officer of the First Division, reported the failure of the offensive at 0720, suggesting sending more troops over the top would not be successful. But General Haig, hearing of French successes at Vimy (and with underestimated reports of losses at Aubers) ordered a renewed, mildly more fruitful, but ultimately disastrous, offensive later in the day. By the end of the battle the approximate equivalent of half Worthing’s population at that time, 11,000 had lost their lives. No ground at all had been gained.
General Sir Douglas Haig drew these conclusions from the battle; on the 11th May he wrote in his private papers that ‘a long and methodical bombardment’ will be necessary to destroy the enemy’s heavy artillery to make sure of flattening out the enemy’s ‘strong points’ of support, before the Infantry is launched’. A conclusion that took the loss & suffering of as many as over 10,000 families across the Commonwealth to draw.
The Fate of Walter William Message
Without medical notes or a personnel file to work from it is not possible to say what happened to Walter (my Great Uncle) but some details can help us have a good idea.
Firstly, he did not die at Aubers, but at Bethune, a medical centre where the wounded would have been taken. This, and the fact he died on the 10th of May, not the 9th, suggests he was hit by enemy fire and was lucky enough to make it to the hospital for treatment (many wounded did not) but eventually died of his wounds.
Secondly, he formed part of the ‘first wave’ of troops. Many of these men were hit by machine-gun fire and fell back into their trenches, where the lucky would have been taken to Bethune.
From this I assume Walter was one of them, as if he had made it onto the battlefield, the chances are very slim his injured body would have been carried back into the trenches. It took 3 days for some of the injured to make it to the hospital, such was the backlog.
From the facts I have obtained, I think Walter did not have a quick death. He would have suffered the pain of his injury (probably on the upper half of his body due to the machine-gun’s line of fire when he emerged from his trench) for at least 24 hours before his demise. He was one of 551 members of the Royal Sussex’s 2nd Battalion to die as a result of the battle, most of which within minutes of each other. He is one of over 3,000 buried in Bethune’s War Grave Cemetery, plot reference IV.B.84
Walter left an enigma behind. In the possessions returned after his death, there are two pictures of a woman who his parents, William & Caroline, then of 40 Cranworth Road, Worthing knew nothing of. The pictures were taken at Ottman’s studio in Worthing. Along with the pictures is a letter, blown into four pieces, I assume by the projectile that caused his fatal wound? Not much is comprehensible from the letter, only that it is from ‘Rose’ and that she lived at 24 Archibald Road, Worthing in 1914-1915. Was Rose a girlfriend? The letter is signed with love. Does anyone know of a Rose who lived at that address at that time?
W W Message’s name is engraved on Worthing’s Cenotaph, if a relative of yours died around the same time in the conflict, and he was in the same battalion as Walter, there is a good chance he died in similar circumstances.
A Mystery Solved.
An abridged version of the above was printed as a letter in the Evening Argus’ monthly supplement, The Sentinel in November 2003. Marjorie Tomsett of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire was sent a copy of the letter by her cousin who lives in Worthing.
Mrs Tomsett’s Grandmother moved to 24 Archibald Road, Worthing from Cambridgeshire at the beginning of the 20th Century, after her husband was killed in a farm accident. She moved with her children and had the intention of taking in lodgers at her new house. It is very likely she had billeted soldiers staying with her. Her name was Rose Moisey, but it seems highly likely that the Rose in Walter’s letter was her oldest daughter. She too was a Rose, and was 19 years old (the same age as Walter) in 1915.
Marjorie kindly sent me a copy of two pictures of her Aunt (who was also her Godmother) one of which, sent to her mother, luckily had some words written in a corner. From the signature I have come to the conclusion that the person who wrote that letter to Walter, signed ‘With Love’ has to be Rose Moisey. She and Walter would not have known each other long, but they obviously had feelings of some kind for each other.
Had Walter lived would they have married? Lived happily ever after? Possibly. One thing also occurred to me. If no one in my family knew who she was, did anyone tell her Walter had died? Did she have to read that he had been killed in a newspaper? If so, that must have been an emotional moment for her.
Rose eventually married and went on to become a nurse. She had a son named Daniel Joseph Sheehan. Like Walter, she died in tragic circumstances, when she was knocked off her bicycle near to Worthing Hospital. Daniel joined the Merchant Navy in World War Two, and died on the 19th of October 1940.
by Andrew Message
© Copyright 2001 Newsquest Media Group – A Gannett Company
We would like to thank Andrew for forwarding the final piece of the jigsaw to us, and also for his kind permission to reproduce the complete tale.