DOWN MEMORY LANE: Sussex by the Sea
William Ward-Higgs was a solicitor who for a time lived in South Bersted.
He spent the working week at his London office in Mincing Lane, returning home on Friday evening and joining his three daughters for a weekend of cricket on the beach, games of tennis and croquet, or picnics on the Downs.
In the evenings they would gather round the piano in the drawing room and listen to songs he himself had composed.
One such evening in 1907 a new song was introduced and to its rousing chorus the girls marched round the room like soldiers, with walking sticks over their shoulders as pretend rifles.
“Now is the time for marching,” it began.
For this song he had written for his wife’s sister who had married an officer in the county regiment.
He called it Sussex by the Sea.
It was to become an anthem for the county and more than a century later still stirs the crowds at Brighton football matches and Sussex county cricket games.
But its true claim to fame is as a marching song in the first world war, galvanising the men on the long, weary marches to and from the front line trenches on the Western Front.
Now, as we approach the centenary of the beginning of the war in 1914, interest is already building in the story of the Great War, and so it is timely to look again at the regiment and the county that inspired William Ward-Higgs, the Bognor composer, to write his famous song.
We are lucky here at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester to have the regimental archives of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
A collection rich in letters and diaries that speaks to us both of the courage and self-sacrifice of those who served their king and country and of the endurance and heartache of those they left at home in the towns and villages of Sussex.
At the beginning of the war, when Lord Kitchener made his famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ appeal, volunteers poured into recruiting centres across the county, anxious to see action in case it was ‘all over by Christmas’.
In Chichester, Colonel Osborn raised the first ‘Pals’ battalion for the county regiment.
Within a few weeks 1,500 had come forward, including 327 from Chichester and Midhurst, to form the 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment.
Brothers would enlist together.
The Chichester Observer reported a royal message sent to Edward Squires of Ockley Road, Bognor, who had five sons and a son-in-law in the Army, five of them in the Royal Sussex.
David Yorke of St James Road, Chichester, had six sons and even two daughters in the services.
Workmates joined up, too. One Friday afternoon in August 1914, 17 employees of Shippam’s factory enlisted together.
By the end of the war the number had risen to nearly 100.
This benevolent family firm sent them regular despatches of cigarettes, potted meats, writing paper and socks.
In return the men wrote letters home to Chichester to Ernest Shippam telling of their experiences on the front line ‘somewhere in France’.
The letters, now in the county archives, offer a graphic insight into the world of the trenches.
Ralph Ellis, the Arundel artist, joined the 7th Battalion.
His story of life on the Western Front is written in descriptive and sensitive prose, embellished by pencil and watercolour illustrations, in five large volumes, presented to the Record Office by his daughter.
The catastrophic losses of the trench war had a devastating effect on local communities.
Sidney Ede was one of many Sussex boys killed in action at Aubers Ridge on May 9, 1915.
He was the son of Charles and Kate Ede who lived in Ivy Lane, South Bersted.
He had been a member of the Church Lads Brigade in Bognor and was a grocer’s assistant with Mr Hother in Bersted Street.
He enlisted for the 2nd Battalion at a recruiting meeting in Queens Hall, Bognor, in September 1914.
His mother was told the tragic news of his death in a letter from a chaplain at the Front. He was just 20 years of age.
Withering machine gun fire across No Man’s Land accounted for some 200 killed or wounded on that Sunday morning.
Of these, 55 had enlisted in Chichester.
One of those killed in action was Private James Harper, who lived at 4 East Walls.
Aged 44, he was a veteran of the Boer War.
He is named on the Le Touret Memorial for those who have no known grave.
Others lie in cemeteries meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission across the battlefields of France and Flanders.
Nearer home, around 90 are buried in war graves at Portfield, Chichester, many of them having died from their wounds while at Graylingwell War Hospital.
Some families were dealt a particularly heavy blow. Walter and Fanny Irish of The Hornet in Chichester saw their two sons embark for France with the 2nd Battalion in August 1914. Just over a year later both were dead.
In Bognor, Frank and Mary Olive Powell of Bersted Street, lost three sons, all named on the war memorial plaque in South Bersted Church.
The Regiment expanded to more than 20 battalions during a war that took them not only to the Western Front but also to Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, India, and even northern Russia.
The archives offer a remarkable glimpse into the reality of war as it affected our local boys and the loved ones they left behind.
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