Signal flag, 1916 (RSR Mss 2/77)

09 RSR Mss 2-77

Chosen by Clare Snoad, member of staff

The 2nd Battalion of The Royal Sussex Regiment fought throughout World War 1 on the Western Front, and in the autumn of 1916 took part in the Battle of the Somme. This signal flag was used by them during that time and it’s surprising it survived and is now in the archive. Over one million men were killed or wounded during the battle. One of these men, killed on the very first day – 1st July 1916 – was my great uncle, Private John William Garner of the York and Lancaster Regiment. This year sees the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme; it’s important we remember the sacrifice made.

Sergeant F M Packham of the Royal Sussex Regiment’s 2nd Battalion also fought in the Battle of the Somme; unlike my great uncle, he survived the battle and the war. His ‘Memoirs of an Old Contemptible’ vividly recall the horrors and chaos of what would become the longest battle of World War 1 on the Western Front.

We began to hear of an attack that was being carried out by the Allies on the Somme. The grape vine told us what to expect: deep German dugouts and deadly machine gun fire and uncut barb-wire… My orders [were] to send two Lewis sections over with the attacking force and I was [to] keep two sections in our front line, and wait for orders, and only to move forward if they were needed up front. The attack went off to a good start, and we soon knew that they had been successful. We were anxious for news, and soon the wounded began to arrive in the trench. We did not have to wait long for news as a wounded came over to us and said that we had better get on over to the front at once as there were no Lewis guns in the line… Almost [at] once I saw what I thought was a piece of fur flying past me. I saw the man in front of me fall, and as I passed by I saw that the top of his head had been blown off, the sight of it was to make me panic for the first time, and I made my way for the nearest shell hole, but when I reached one I saw that it was full of dead and wounded, and the sight brought me to my senses and I made my way to the captured trench… I think that this was the worse trench that I had ever been in. It must have been captured and retaken several times before we got there. Dead bodies had been used to patch up the sides of the trench, and the smell was awful. One of my gunners was using one body to rest his gun to fire from so I moved him to a more suitable position. The Germans had pits just to hold one man, just in front of the trench. I was walking along the trench when I heard a moan from one of these pits, and I looked in and saw that it was a German who was wounded. I saw that he had a shell cap in his chest. I pulled it out and put some iodine on the wound and bandaged it the best I could… As soon as it was dark some troops came up and dug a communication trench and a support trench, ready for the next attack….This had not been a very good one for me. I had lost some good men and that meant training more men for the Lewis Gun teams.

‘Memoirs of an Old Contemptible 1912-1920’, Sgt. F. M. Packham, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. Copy provided by Imperial War Museum (1989).
WSRO ref: RSR Ms 2/54

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