Faces identified in Royal Sussex Regiment photo mystery

A First World War photo found in a junk shop may well include Harry Wells, a soldier who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 4:37 pm

Harry served with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment and died aged 27 at the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915, having shown ‘the most conspicuous bravery’ and given a ‘magnificent display of courage and determination’.

Bev Pook, who came forward following our appeal for information, believes Harry can be seen in the front row of the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment photograph found by Anthony Ray in a junk shop in Rye.

Anthony said: “There’s something so sad about seeing the trappings of someone’s life cut adrift from their family. What I would love is to give it to someone who might recognise one of the faces.”

This photograph of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment was found in a junk shop in Rye

Bev’s great uncle, George Short, served with Harry and also lost his life in the battle on September 25, 1915.

Bev said: “My great uncle, along with something like 30 others from Southwick, joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in the first week of September 1914.

“He landed in France on January 4, 1915. The 2nd Battalion were already in France and had suffered very heavy losses. The shortage of replacements meant my great uncle was sent over very early in his training.

“He joined the 2nd Battalion on January 13, 1915, and they immediately moved into the frontline near Cuinchy.

Laying a wreath in 2018 at The Lone Tree, a well-known position on the battlefield where George and Harry died

“Harry Wells, had served before with the Royal Sussex Regiment prior to World War One. He returned as a reservist at the outbreak and immediately crossed the Channel with the British Expeditionary Force.

“During the losses at Aubers Ridge, he was promoted to sergeant and my great uncle would have fought at his side. I have a letter from George which he wrote to his mum three days after Aubers Ridge on May 9, 1915.

“On September 25, 1915, George, along with the 2nd Battalion and Sgt Harry Wells, took part in the Battle of Loos. Both lost their lives on that day and this is where Harry won his VC.

“The assault was under very heavy machine gun fire and all the officers had either been killed or were unable to continue. Harry rallied the battalion to advance three times and almost made the German wire, where he was killed.

George W Short died at the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915

“I like to think that George was with him on those rallying calls. George was killed and buried by a place called The Lone Tree. It was quite a well-known position on that battlefield, it was marked on all the maps at the time.”

George William Short was born in Southwick in 1896, the second son of Nathaniel Edward Short, an ugger at a yacht builders, and Martha Short née Strutt. By 1911, the couple had 11 children and the family were living in Albert Road, Southwick.

George was employed as a golf caddie when his older brother Nathaniel enlisted in the Territorial Force in April 1912 at the age of 17.

George enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment in Hove in the first week September 2014, a month after the outbreak of the First World War.

Private George Short died aged 18 on September 25, 1915

Bev said: “It is possible that he enlisted before his 18th birthday by misrepresenting his age. Having initially travelled to the regimental depot at Chichester, George and his fellow recruits began their basic training.

“It was envisaged that the first of the New Army infantry battalions would be available for overseas service after a period of 12 months of training.

“While the Territorials were absolved from overseas service by the terms of their enlistment, it had become apparent from the losses in France in the first months of the conflict that an immediate supply of manpower was needed to reinforce the fighting units until the New Army was deemed operational.

“The men were urged to volunteer to waiver their home service clause in favour of Imperial Service. On December 19, 1914, as George trained on the hills above the Sussex coast, his elder brother Nathaniel arrived in France to serve with the British Expeditionary Force.”

The winter was particularly harsh and the units in France suffered numerous casualties due to the conditions. The obvious source of fresh manpower was the New Army battalions in training and, as such, George was selected to travel to France.

As part of a draft of 210 men destined for the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, he travelled towards the front line via Annequin, arriving at 2.10pm on January 13, 1915.

The man believed to be Harry Wells, sat cross-legged on the ground, second right in the front row

Bev said: “The men were immediately moved into the front line trenches near the Cuinchy brick stacks, an area of the battlefield to the south of the La Bassee Canal 6. The young civilian soldiers of the New Army joined the seasoned professionals of the regular Army, many of whom had been fighting since September 1914.”

Where George joined his unit, the terrain was impermeable clay, rendered a quagmire by the winter rain, though brick kilns provided strategic shelter.

Bev said: “Conditions in the front line at this time were so arduous that the medical authorities advised that units should be rotated through the trenches in a 48-hour cycle.”

George was involved in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in February and the Battle of Aubers Ridge, the blackest day for the 2nd Battalion, in May 2015.

Come September, the battalion was marched to bivouacs near Verquin, before moving into trenches near Vermelles on September 24, the day before George and Harry fell.

Bev believes there are two people in the photo that bear resemblance to Harry Wells but after a close look, remains convinced he is the man sat cross-legged on the ground, second right in the front row.

Anthony had sent a copy of the photograph to Sussex Newspapers in the hopes of tracing family members, so he could pass it on to someone connected with one of the people pictured. He believes it was taken in Aldershot, where the battalion was in training prior to going overseas.

Anthony said: “It is probably quite early in the war, judging by their caps. Also, it suggests 1914-15, as the officer’s ranks are on his sleeves, not his epaulettes.

“They were a regular battalion based at Woking and went to France in August 1914. The chap on the far right is wearing spurs, so it’s definitely the transport platoon. Their forage caps, and the ‘old and bold’ age of many of them, also suggest they were the transport platoon, rather than a rifle platoon.”

Emma Matthews also came forward, following our article online.

She said: “My mum thinks, like myself, one of the gents in the back row may be my great grandad Jesse Cox. We are currently doing our family tree so this is greatly interesting.”

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Harry Wells was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Picture: West Sussex Record Office
Sergeant Harry Wells VC died aged 27 on September 25, 1915