The Day Sussex Died
by Robert Veitch
Looking back to the Battle of Boar’s Head, Robert Veitch tells the story of the troops going over the top, and of Nelson and Kitty Carter.
The 30th June 2016 is the centenary of the ‘Battle of Boar’s Head,’ which has become known over time as ‘The Day Sussex Died’. It was a prelude to the Battle of the Somme that began the following day.
The battle took place just south of Richebourg L’Avoué, 17 miles west of Lille and 12 miles north of Lens. The Boar’s Head was a salient, a piece of raised land that bulged out, providing a vantage point for the Germans, from which they were able to organise attacks on the British. The British mission was to remove the bulge at Boar’s Head.
Boar’s Head was planned as a diversionary tactic, although the soldiers were unaware of this. The plan was to weaken German resolve and defences in preparation for the Somme offensive.
Most soldiers were from 11th, 12th and 13th Southdown Battalions, of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Softening up of the German trenches and troop morale began six days before the attack, and thought to be highly effective. In reality, they were anything but, and the Germans were ready.
For Nelson Victor Carter it was time to write home to his wife. Nelson was born in Eastbourne in 1887, and educated in Hailsham. He had previously enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, and then worked at the Old Town Cinema in Eastbourne. He joined up again in August 1914. He was serving with the 12th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment when he wrote on the 28th June 1916…
My Darling Little Kitty,
It does seem a long time since I had a letter from you. How are you and young Jessie getting along? I suppose that you are having just as rotten weather at home in England as we are… like summer here one day it’s pouring with rain and the next it’s boiling hot just the right sort of weather to jolly the lads up but I suppose that we shall get a rest shortly and some of the poor devils need it too. I had a letter from home the other day it is the first one since I left England. Did you see my letter to M. Hollobans in the Eastbourne Gazette, that you sent me last week. Well Duck, I have devil of a lot to do before we move off tonight so I suppose that I must draw to a close.
With fondest love and kisses.
Your loving husband,
At 3.05am on 30th June 1916, the troops went over the top. Crossing the dyke slowed progress and made the soldiers easy prey for German guns. A smokescreen created by the British to confuse the Germans inhibited and debilitated their own forces, making them vulnerable targets instead.
Nonetheless, occupation of the German front line did take place and would last about four hours. The fighting was brutal, much of it hand-to-hand with bayonets. The second line was taken and retained for around half an hour, but the Germans counter attacked, forcing a British retreat.
Nelson Victor Carter would be killed during the retreat, but not before capturing a German machine gun, providing covering fire and then retrieving several wounded comrades from No Man’s Land. Nelson’s body is buried in the Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard in Laventie, some 5½ miles southwest of Armentieres.
The attack was a disaster although military bosses viewed it as a success. Lasting barely five hours it had cost 366 lives, with over 1,000 wounded or taken prisoner. 70% were from Sussex, including 12 pairs of brothers. Most of the fallen were buried nearby.
Mrs. Carter learnt of her husband’s fate in a letter dated 2nd July 1916… 2nd July 1916
Dear Mrs. Carter,
I am greatly grieved to inform you that your husband – Company – Sergeant – Major Carter was killed in action on the 30th June whilst gallantly performing his duty to King and Country… Your husband was a man beloved by all, a splendid soldier and it is a little consoling to know that He did his duty even to the last moment… May it somewhat help you to bear your burden to know that your husband’s death was instantaneous. Please accept the sincere sympathy of ‘A’ Company one and all.
Yours very respectfully
(CQM Sergeant ‘A’ Company)
If there was any solace for Mrs Carter, it came with her late husband’s Victoria Cross, awarded with the following commendation.
Victoria Cross Citation as published in the London Gazette 9th September 1916
Company Sergeant Major Nelson Victor Carter V.C. 12th Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment
Nelson Victor Carter, Company Sergeant Major 4th Company, 12th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. Date of act of bravery; 30th June 1916, for most conspicuous bravery. During an attack he was in command of the fourth wave of the assault. Under intense shell and machine gun fire, he captured a machine gun slot and shot the gunner with his revolver. Finally, after carrying several wounded men into safety, he himself was mortally wounded, and died in a few minutes. His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.
The irony of course is that by taking the German machine gun Nelson Victor Carter had killed a man in the process, wreaking upon that man’s family, the same grief his own family was also to endure.
In 1986 Nelson’s only daughter, Jessie, went to visit her father’s grave for the first time. She lived until 2001. The Royal Sussex Regiment was consolidated into other regiments in 1966 and the name disappeared. There is no memorial to the Battle of Boars Head in Sussex.
WEST SUSSEX RECORD OFFICE
The West Sussex Record Office is always looking for new material, so do get in touch if you think you have something suitable. And thank you to any families or individuals who have contributed information to these pages.
Telephone: 01243 753602