Lest we forget: Six South Downs places where we remember
For Armistice Day, SDNPA’s Anne Bone looks at five places where we remember those affected by war in the National Park
There are many places across the South Downs National Park where I pause to reflect on the impact of wars, both past and present.
The last war to be fought on these shores was the English Civil War, when communities and even families were split by their allegiance to crown or Parliament. On 28 March 1644 the Parliamentary army of 10,000 men. on their way to besiege Winchester, camped overnight near Cheriton village in Hampshire. Meanwhile the Royalist army was marching from the south west with 5,000 men and camped near Alresford. Early on the following morning the two armies met in the woods and fields around Cheriton. Their battle was fought at close quarters along hedged lanes of countryside, with muskets, pikes and swords. The Parliamentarians routed the Royalists, losing some 6o men. The fleeing Royalists left some 300 dead behind them.
1916 was the worst year for casualties in the Royal Sussex Regiment, which recruited mainly in the county and the 11th, 12th and 13th Battalions were known as the Southdowns. The 30th June 1916 is known as the “Day Sussex died” after an early morning offensive on the German lines at the Boar’s Head salient left 366 men dead and more than 1000 wounded or captured.
The poet Edward Blunden, an 11th Battalion Royal Sussex officer, witnessed men trapped in ditches, with insufficient training. . It was later revealed that this was a diversionary skirmish before the battle of the Somme started the next day. The story of Lewes and its people in World War 1 is shown in an exhibition in the town’s shop windows “Stories seen through a glass plate II” running until 20 November and the “Story behind the Poppy” in Lewes Town Hall.
Mill Hill, Shoreham and Seaford Head
The South Downs have often been used as a training ground for wars elsewhere. People from across the nation and the Commonwealth have marched, dug trenches and learnt to shoot here – as some still do today. If you walk on Mill Hill near Shoreham, or Seaford Head imagine 12,000 men arriving to camp in bell tents on the Downs to learn their military skills.
The camp at Shoreham covered 350 acres in total and included convalescing wounded soldiers and others waiting to be demobbed. Canadian and South African forces were amongst those based at Shoreham, whilst the camps at Seaford saw many Caribbean troops. The camps were densely packed with huts replacing tents as living accommodation. The war artist David B Milne captured views of Seaford camp from the Downs and a weary soldier in a snowstorm.
The coastline of the National Park has been much defended against the threat of attack by sea or from the air. The World War II pill boxes in the Cuckmere valley are part of a defence system put in place to protect the area from a possible German invasion. They were later equipped to create a decoy, drawing German planes away from the strategic port at Newhaven. For the people who manned these pill boxes it must have been a lonely and cold place in winter months, their ears constantly straining for the roar of planes overhead.
The South Downs played a key role in D-day as a training area holding the thousands of men about to be sent to Europe. In May 1944, Field Marshal Montgomery, addressed the Royal Ulster 2nd Battalion Rifles, based at Grenville Hall, outside the village. “Monty” stood on his jeep’s bonnet to talk to the troops who clustered around their hero. Droxford then hosted a secret meeting of the War Cabinet in June 1944 where Churchill and others met on the Royal train to agree to delay D-day by one day.
Anne Bone leads on Cultural Heritage for the South Downs National Park Authority.
Find out more
- Battle of Cheriton
- The Day Sussex Died
- Reeves WW1 exhibitions and events in Lewes
- Shoreham Army Camp
- David Milne, Canadian war artist
- Cuckmere Haven war defences
- Droxford War Cabinet
- Monty’s visit to Droxford
Also find out about Lynch and the Chattri memorials – Lest we forget