During the early years of the war, March on the Western Front was a time of preparation for the spring offensives both sides knew would come as soon as the ground had dried out sufficiently to make a successful advance a real possibility. As a result there was only one Lewes casualty in March 1915 and two in 1916. March 1917 brought seven fatalities, but none of these was the result of a major offensive.

Nothing in the first three years of the war can have prepared families for the shock of March 1918 when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive on 21st March. For Lewes this meant 18 deaths in the last eleven days of the month as the Great War entered its final and bloodiest phases.

March 1915’s one casualty was Rifleman Bertie John Short, killed during a local counter-attack against the Germans at Saint Eloi, just south of Ypres on 15th March. The son of a bricklayer, he grew up in Soap Factory Lane and Spring Gardens, and is remembered on the St John’s-sub-castro memorial plaque.

Like many other Lewes youngsters from poorer households, he sought escape from the poverty and insecurity of his surroundings by enlisting in the Rifle Brigade as a professional soldier at the age of 18, when he was working for a local greengrocer.

Army life offered security and a steady income as well as the prospect of a modest pension. After initial training at Winchester he was posted to Colchester, then Ireland, before sailing with his battalion on the month long voyage to India on HM Troopship Dongola where they arrived on 20th February 1913 to take up their duties at Dagshai, near Simla, in North-West India.

The outbreak of war brought a premature end to this posting and the brigade was shipped back to England, which they reached on 19th November 1914, before being sent to France in late December, where Rifleman Short served 84 days before his death.

The two casualties of 1916 were Sergeant Henry Newnham, 2nd  Batttalion, Royal Sussex Regiment on 10th March, and 2nd Lieutenant Brian Edward Glover, of 8 Squadron RFC, one of Lewes’s few casualties in the air on 13th March.

Born in 1884, Henry Newnham, more usually known as Harry, grew up in South Street, where his father was a labourer and later a carter at the chalk pit at Southerham. By 1901 he was working as a bread baker but later joined the London Brighton and South Coast Railway and became a platelayer, based at Horsted Keynes.

An army reservist he was called up at the outbreak of war and was sent with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, to France in August 1914, serving with them until his death as a result of shellfire in the trenches near Loos on 10th March 1916.

His obituary notice referred to his having previously dug out three men of his platoon after they had been buried in a trench at Ypres by a German shell. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial in France, at Highbrook, West Hoathly and on the LBSCR Memorial at London Bridge as well as on the Lewes War Memorial.

The second casualty of March 1916, 2nd Lieutenant Brian Glover was acting as observer on a reconnaissance flight over enemy lines near Vis-en-Artois on 13th March when the BE2c biplane he was in was shot down, the 12th victim of the German ace Max Immelmann, known as the Eagle of Lille.

Brian Glover was the second son of Edward A Glover, a partner in the Lewes Portland Cement Company, established on the river bank just outside Lewes in 1902 and from 1909-22 a Lewes Borough Councillor. Like his brother Ben, who was killed in July 1916, Brian was educated at Thanet College, Margate, a small private school, before becoming articled to the County Surveyor of East Sussex. He played hockey for his county.

Enlisting as a private at the start of the war, Brian Glover was sent to France as a dispatch rider with the Signal Company of the Royal Engineers, being awarded the DCM “for conspicuous gallantry from 21st September to 1st October 1915 between les Brébis and Loos, constantly employed on carrying dispatches and operation orders over roads under heavy shellfire, and never failed to deliver his messages”, during which he sustained a minor injury. He also received the Medaille Militaire from the French.

On his recovery in England, he was trained as an officer and commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps where, like so many young airmen, he was killed not long after his arrival in France. He is buried in the Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery, next to the pilot of his plane, Lieut. Gilbert Dennis James Grune. Photographs of the crash and the military funeral accorded to both men by the German authorities survive amongst German archives. The man who shot them down, Max Immelmann, was himself shot down and killed in July 1916. 

On the Western Front, March 1917 saw the withdrawal of German forces to the newly-constructed Hindenburg Line, purpose built of reinforced concrete, which ran in an almost straight line along the crests of ridges from just south of Arras to near Soissons, reducing the front line by 50km and freeing up ten German divisions. Meanwhile the Allies were preparing for major assaults planned for April.

Seven Lewes men died in March 1917, three on the Western Front, two died in hospital in England of wounds and one at home from a war related illness, and one was drowned in the English Channel.

Privates Charles Christopher Weller age 30 and Albert Hare age 22 served respectively in the 9th and 11th Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, Weller killed in the trenches near Arras by a German shell on 28th March and Hare at a casualty clearing station, from wounds caused by shellfire whilst serving in the trenches at Observatory Ridge, two miles east of Ypres. The other battlefield casualty was Private George Edward Cooke age 38, 17th Manchester Regiment, killed at Neuvy Vitasse, 4 miles south-east of Arras.

All three were working men. Private Weller lived in the Cliffe with his parents and worked as a labourer, at one point in a corn store and later at the gas works. In 1911 Private Hare age 16 was a grocer’s van attendant living in Spring Gardens with his mother Amelia, a widow and caretaker at the secondary school. Cooke lived with his parents at 3 St Nicholas Lane and having served an apprenticeship, worked as a printer’s compositor for Messrs W E Baxter Ltd. His service papers survive, showing he was only 5ft 3½in when he enlisted in April 1916, when he was nearly 37 – evidence of an all too common effect of working class diet and malnutrition on his early growth. All three men were single.

Of the three who died in England, Lance-Corporal Oliver Haggar died of tuberculosis at 1 North Street, where he lived with L/Cpl and Mrs Charles Oakman, a Royal Sussex Regiment veteran who himself subsequently died of gas poisoning in 1920. He was born near Ipswich. A professional soldier, he had originally enlisted in 1905 at the age of 18 years 3 months when he was 5ft 4in tall and 8stone 1½ lbs, but six months of army exercise and diet saw this increase to 5ft 5½in and 9 stone 4lbs. The son of a general labourer, before joining the army he had been in domestic service. He served for eight years in Bermuda, South Africa and Mauritius before returning home as a reservist in January 1913.

Called up on the outbreak of war, he served with the 1st Hampshire Regiment in France from 22nd August 1914 until he was sent back to England on 10th January 1915. He had apparently been suffering from a cough each winter for several years and the medical board found that his condition had worsened as a result of his military service.

Oliver Haggar was discharged as medically unfit on 15th April 1915 with a small pension, increased to 25s a week in June 1916 when he was found to be too ill to work. This was reviewed on 7th March 1917 when he was found to have total incapacity and he died three weeks later. He was buried, after a military funeral, in Lewes Cemetery but his name does not appear on any war memorial although his grave is registered with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Private Gerald George Batchelor was born in Lewes in 1896 and was educated at Lewes Grammar School. The son of George Batchelor, a famous racehorse trainer of Chantilly, France, he joined the Sussex Yeomanry in early 1915 and was attached to the Royal West Surrey Regiment when he was seriously wounded on 24th February 1917, dying on 15th March 1917 in King George’s Military Hospital, London, shortly after being visited by his parents. He was buried in Nunhead Cemetery, Southwark.

Sergeant Edwin Stapley Ade 13th Royal Sussex Regiment was born in Lewes in 1877. He married in 1908 and lived with his wife and daughter Irene born in early 1914 at 17 St Swithun’s Terrace.  He was well known in Lewes where he was a clerk for Messrs Parsons, timber merchants. He was a keen billiards player and cricketer, playing for St Michael’s Cricket Club. He was also a keen vocalist and member of St John’s Church Choir Lewes Operatic Society and the Coronation Glee Singers.

A former member of the Lewes Volunteers and D (Lewes) Company 5th Royal Sussex Regiment, he was called up soon after the outbreak of war and served for a long time at home before being sent to the front in October 1916. He was seriously wounded at Ypres soon after his arrival in France, shattering his knee and causing his leg to be amputated. Returned to England he was sent to Napsbury Military Hospital, St Albans, where he was apparently making good progress when he developed pneumonia from which he died on 21st March 1917.

Finally Alfred James Jones age 24, a carter of Soap Factory Lane, Cliffe. He had only just embarked on a career as a professional soldier with the Royal Sussex Regiment in April 1914 when war broke out and he was posted to the 3rd Battalion on 9th August, transferring to 2nd Battalion with whom he fought in France from 23rd November 1914 until 27th November 1915 when, as a result of his wounds he was sent back to England, again serving with the 3rd Battalion until he was discharged as medically unfit on 5th December 1916. Returning to Lewes, he signed up as a stoker on SS Exchange, a transport ship carrying military supplies operating out of Newhaven, which was sunk by U39 30 miles north-east of Cayeux on the Normandy coast on 23rd March 1917. All eight crew members were lost.

Their names are recorded on the Newhaven HM Transports Memorial and on the Tower Hill Memorial to Merchant Seamen and Fishermen lost in the Great War. His father was evidently unsure whether his son’s death on a merchant ship would qualify him for inclusion on the Lewes War Memorial, so when he filled in the form he simply gave his son’s details as Private Alfred James Jones 10327, 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment, wounded and torpedoed in channel and drowned 23rd March 1917. Alfred is also commemorated on the Cliffe Memorial in St Thomas a Becket Church.

March 1918 brought 18 Lewes casualties, all but three of them on the Western Front, where the Germans launched their Spring Offensive on 21st March. Of those whose deaths were unrelated to those events, the fate of Lieutenant Sir John Henry Algernon Anson RN is particularly unfortunate. He died aged 21 on 2nd March 1918 on board submarine H5 which was mistaken for a U-boat, rammed and sunk by the cargo ship Rutherglen whilst on surface patrol in Caernarvon Bay. The master of the Rutherglen duly reported having sunk a U-boat and the crew were rewarded with the usual bounty for their action. Although the naval authorities soon became aware of what had actually happened, neither the crew of the Rutherglen nor the families of the victims were told, the details only emerging fifty years later.

Lieutenant Anson’s father, Rear Admiral Algernon Horatio Anson and his wife came to Lewes after his retirement from the navy and took up residence at Barons Down, a large house on Brighton Road, where they lived from 1911 until Admiral Anson’s death in November 1913. During their time in Lewes they took their place in local society and Admiral Anson soon became involved in a range of local organisations from the Boy Scouts to the Royal Surgical Aid Society and the National Service League. He was also a manager of St Anne’s School and Vice-President of St Anne’s Social Club and the local Elementary Schools football league.

Meanwhile his son John was already following in his father’s footsteps in a naval career. Born in London on 13th January 1897, he was sent first to Wychwood School, Bournemouth, which prepared boys for the navy, then to the Royal Naval College at Osborne, which he entered aged 12 in September 1909, becoming a midshipman in the Navy in May 1914. He became 5th Baronet Anson on the death of his cousin in a boating accident on the Thames in July 1914. At the outbreak of war he was serving on the battleship George V and by 1916 he was a sub-lieutenant on another battleship, HMS Barham, before transferring to the submarine service. A memorial plaque to the crew of the H5 was unveiled at Holyhead on 19th June 2010.

In complete contrast, Private Horace Stephen Botting, 5th Royal Sussex Regiment, who died of wounds, aged 29, on 9th March 1918, was a stretcher bearer with the Italian Expeditionary Force in north-east Italy. A former gardener at Malling House and subsequent employee of Messrs Kenward and Sons, florists, he had first seen service in France in July 1915, serving there until late November 1917 when the 5th Battalion was sent by train via Marseilles and Genoa to reinforce the Italian army along the Piave Front, a defensive line running along the River Piave from the Alps to just north of Venice. The Battalion took up their positions there in early December. Private Botting was fatally wounded whilst undertaking stretcher duties near Montebelluno, 40 miles north of Venice, four months later.

On 31st March 1918, the death of Lieut-Col William Horsley Dewe aged 65 at Fort Pitt Military Hospital, Chatham, deprived Lewes’s Royal Defence Corps of its commanding officer. Within days of the outbreak of war, Lieut-Col Dewe had been placed at the head of the Lewes Company of what was originally called the National Reserve, charged with the responsibility of guarding the railway lines through Lewes to ensure the safe passage of vital war supplies via Newhaven to the troops in France.

Originally issued with red armband with the letters NR in black to be worn over civilian clothing (only the officers having uniforms in khaki), men of the National Reserve and its successor, whose members were all given uniforms, were a familiar sight in Lewes for the duration of the war. A Reeves photograph shows the whole company drawn up proudly outside Lewes Railway Station with Lieut-Col Dewe at their head.

Made up of older men, often veterans, a combination of poor sight and hearing and limited agility led to several fatalities when men of the Royal Defence Corps and its predecessor strayed too close to the line whilst on night patrols and were struck by passing trains. One of Colonel Dewe’s more melancholy duties was therefore attending their inquests and funerals. Nevertheless they performed useful service, freeing up younger, more able-bodied men for service at the Front.

Lieut-Col Dewe was a well known and highly regarded local figure. He came to Lewes in 1908, having previously lived with his wife and daughters at Park Gate, Ringmer for 30 years, where he was captain of the local cricket club and chairman of Ringmer Conservative Association. He also rode regularly with the Southdowns Foxhounds and his wife bred prizewinning greyhounds. A long-time artillery man, he had served with the Carmarthen Artillery from 1871 until he resigned his commission in 1895.

In Lewes he and his wife lived first at Wharf House, Malling Street and, following her death in 1910, he moved to Colwyn, Prince Edward’s Road, with his daughter Gladys. He quickly involved himself in town affairs, involving himself in local politics, the Lewes branch of the Tariff Reform League and becoming Vice-President of the Lewes Wanderers Cricket Club and Lewes Rifle Club as well as attending various mayoral and other social functions. He also attended St Anne’s Church and took an interest in Lewes Grammar School.