Corporal 5/2233 'C' Coy. 5th Bn., Royal Sussex Regiment
|Percy Thomas Goodsell - picture taken from the 'Sussex Express'|
Percy was born on 31st April 1893 and baptised at St Mary's church on 30th July. Percy's mother's name was Annie Elizabeth; she came from London and was the daughter of William George Kingham. His father, Thomas was a gardener on the Higham estate about a mile to the northeast of Salehurst church, owned at that time by John Stewart Odiarne Robertson-Luxford J.P. and the family lived at 3 Cackle Street Cottages. Percy was not the first Goodsell child to be baptised at St Mary's, his elder brother Herbert, who would also die in the forthcoming conflict, had been christened there eighteen months previously.
Percy started school in Robertsbridge on 7th March 1898 when he was five. He left three years later on 28th February 1901, along with his christening partner Reginald Watson, to move up to the junior school. The move was short-lived however, an entry in the log dated 14th June 1901 states that Percy and his brother Herbert were removed from the school register 'having left the parish,' because his father had gained employment as a gardener to Mr P Mainwaring. Consequently the family moved over the Sussex border into the Weald of Kent to 'The Laurels', Ruck Hill in the village of Horsmonden, where the boys continued their education at the nearby school in Brenchley.
His schooldays behind him, Percy followed his father into gardening, eventually moving back into Sussex by becoming an under gardener at Mr Charles Percival Foster's property, 'Woodside' located just outside Frant.
He had joined the 5th (Cinque Ports) Territorial Battalion in March 1910, when he was seventeen. In the four years leading up to the war he trained regularly and won both a Silver Cup and Medal for shooting. As a Territorial Reservist Percy followed the same route to war as Frank Robinson in the previous chapter and was on Salisbury Plain at mobilisation. He subsequently went to Dover Castle and then the Tower of London - where in November he was promoted to the rank of Corporal - before sailing for France on 18th February 1915.
Percy was in 'C' Company. When the battalion went into the front line trenches for the first time on 18th March, it was the misfortune of this Company to suffer the first Cinque Ports Battalion fatality of the war. The following day Private Percy Vince, from Sparrows Hill, Wadhurst and just twenty years old, was shot through the head by a German sniper.
Two months later during the evening before the attack on Aubers Ridge, and as the fatally injured Frank Robinson was being carried to the rear, Percy was waiting uneasily with the rest of his Company for orders to march up the line. It was the morning of 9th May and the preliminary bombardment had commenced at 4.00 a.m. The battalion had orders to attack at 5.40 a.m. following a final ten minutes of 'intensive bombardment' on the enemy trenches. Their objective was to be the remains of two farms, du Bois and Cour D'Avove, both German strong points. The 5th was in support of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex attacking in front of them. Their task was to follow on as closely as possible behind the main advance, clear any hostile trenches that remained occupied and round up and despatch prisoners to the rear.
The key to the forthcoming battle was seen to be effective and intense artillery. The heavy guns had been massed to fire on concentrated targets in an attempt to carve a path for the infantry through the dense coils of barbed wire strung before the German trenches. This approach had achieved a degree of success at the battle of Neuve Chapelle in March; but during the intervening period the Germans had reinforced their defences considerably. It was difficult to appreciate the full extent of their work from across the flat ground, as aerial reconnaissance was in its infancy. It was clear that the belts of wire were thicker than before, but the full extent of the defences beyond this remained hidden. The parapets to the German trenches had been built up seven feet and widened to twenty feet across. The excavations created by this reinforcement were themselves filled with sunken barbed wire, invisible and all but indestructible. In the trenches themselves heavily sandbagged shelters protected their occupants from all but a direct hit from the heaviest calibre shell, while machine gun posts were positioned every twenty yards in such a way as to provide a maximum field of fire against any advance.
If artillery was going to provide the breakthrough at Aubers Ridge the bombardment would need to be heavy, sustained and accurate to stand a chance of smashing the intricately prepared defences. A combination of obsolete guns and the shortage of shells meant that the artillery failed to dent the German defences to any significant extent, and it would be the infantry who would pay dearly for that failure.
During the course of the preliminary bombardment 'C' Company, with Percy moved under the cover of darkness into the second line of trenches. The men of 2nd Sussex were in the advanced trench about 250 yards in front of them. The plan was at the moment of attack, 'C' Company would advance into the front line trenches recently vacated by the 2nd and thenceforth into the open ground of No Mans Land in support of their sister battalion.
It was Sunday morning and dawn broke bright and clear on what was to become one of the bleakest days in the history of the county as two battalions of Sussex men simultaneously rose from their trenches to cover the 300 yards to the German lines. It became immediately apparent that the promised destruction of enemy wire and trenches by the preliminary bombardment had not occurred. The attack was little short of a disaster. The Germans had sighted both their machine guns and artillery with great care in anticipation of the advance. The failure to destroy them meant that when the attack did come they were deadly in their effectiveness. The battalion diary detailed the hopeless situation in which they found themselves:
'The enemy's fire, particularly from machine guns, made it impossible for anyone to advance. The men out in front were being hit constantly, the whole ground in front of the breastworks and behind them was under an extraordinarily heavy shell fire.'
'C' Company lost many men before even reaching the advanced trench vacated by the 2nd Sussex. The Germans knew that troops would be moving up in support and had concentrated extremely heavy rifle, machine gun and shrapnel fire accordingly. Apparently undaunted, 'C' Company leapt over the front line parapet and 'advanced most gallantly' in support of the 2nd Sussex, who were already beginning to falter under the weight of the enemy's fire.
They were truly walking into a death trap, under such murderous fire no attack could possibly succeed and few got even to within 100 yards of the German line. The attack was called off at 7.00 a.m. when it became clear that any chance of advance was hopeless. Those who survived lay pinned down in 'No Man's Land' while the enemy guns shelled both them and their trenches behind, causing further chaos, not least when the First Aid Post suffered a direct hit. An order to retire was received at 10.30 a.m., the diary records that:
'Orders were received to retire and those men who could began to come in, many of them wounded, some risking their lives to help wounded comrades. Sergeant Roberts went out three times.'
They remained in the front line trench for the next six hours regrouping, anticipating counter attacks, and evacuating the wounded until 2.00 p.m. Later they retired to D line to support a further ill-fated attack by the Black Watch at 4.00 p.m. All through the following night men crawled in from the battlefield under the cover of darkness. The main body of the Cinque Ports Battalion had however left at 6.00 p.m. marching, the battalion diary noted, 'in fours through a considerably disorganised mob of men from other regiments,' singing Sussex by the Sea. Colonel Langham later wrote of that day:
'No end of brave things were done, and our men were splendid but helpless. They advanced with the utmost steadiness as if on parade, and when they lay down to take cover were aligned as though on a field day. A very small proportion of those who went over the parapet succeeded in getting back unwounded.'
In the eighty minutes during which the 5th Battalion had been in action during that Sunday morning on the 9th May, some 200 men had been killed, wounded or remained missing. Percy's 'C' Company suffered the heaviest battalion casualties that day. In a letter home, Private H Ford said that of the150 men in the Company who went over that morning, only forty-two came back.
Later in the war the effect of mass casualties among men from a relatively deffined geographical area was to be epitomised by the 'Pals Battalions' such as those from Barnsley, Hull and Accrington. Men, who had lived and worked together, signed up, fought and died together, leaving devastated communities to grieve back home. The fate of these battalions overshadowed somewhat the equally localised losses suffered by the Territorial units earlier in the war. Individual Companies were formed around population centres - in the Cinque Ports Battalion for example 'B' Company comprised almost entirely of men from Battle and Robertsbridge. Consequently if a particular Company suffered heavy casualties the effect on these communities could be profound. The events of May 9th plunged much of the Sussex Weald into deep mourning; in one parish alone twenty-one men had been killed that day. And it was not just the dead; as far as Robertsbridge was concerned Frank Robinson had already been killed, but later reports emerged concerning James Duck, a footballer of some note and previously a telegraph messenger at the Post Office now in Guildford Hospital with an injured right wrist. Frank Waghorn, son of Eber Waghorn formerly of The Ostrich Hotel was also wounded in his left side. Alec Akehurst, from Station Road and whose brother would later die in the war, was in hospital in Birmingham. Now to add to the general air of gloom and despondency, Percy Goodsell was posted as missing.
The progress of the 'Cinque Ports' Battalion had been keenly followed and it was immediately clear to all that the battle of Aubers Ridge had been little short of a disaster. The Sussex Express reflected the general tone in a piece headlined "Covered in Glory":
'Lewes, in common with many East Sussex towns and villages has had a mournful week. The realities of war and its consequent sufferings and hardships have been brought home with terrible severity the casualties sustained have been heavy.
The doings of the Terrotorials since they sailed from England have been followed with interest by those at home. Their experiences at the Front proved varied and exciting, but they had nothing in the nature of a picnic. On the contrary, their work was of a strenuous character, but the Sussex boys bravely faced the hardships that faced them, and when there was fighting to be done they proved their worth.'
There follows an admirably accurate report of the events of 9th May, though the somewhat half-hearted and inaccurate concluding paragraph that followed barely hides the extent of the failure:
'Although the charge could not be carried through to a successful issue, we understand that the way was paved for others, and the concentration of the enemy on this particular part of the line enabled the French to gain a victory elsewhere.'
Personal testimonies followed from survivors who had written home, among them Private Maslin from Lewes:
'I still keep alive and I managed to get out of that turnout though I had several narrow escapes. It was about twenty to five in the morning when our guns started to play havoc with the German lines. Our shells knocked their trenches to blazes, sending sandbags, dirt and wreckage sky high. One could hardly hear themselves speak. All along their lines was a yellow and greenish haze and it seemed as if nothing could live. 'Coal Boxes,' shrapnel, pig-squeaks and high explosive shells were falling in their midst at every few yards. When we got the order to charge we went over the top of the trench with a yell like we do on bonfire day. We got three parts over the 'no man's ground,' when they opened a terrible fire with machine guns, and we lost heavily. More men kept coming out to assist us but it was no use, and we had to lay there. It seemed terrible laying there, not being able to raise your head, and your mates being knocked over and needing your help, and you could not move. One chap got hit and I handed him my water bottle, and a bullet whizzed past my ear, hitting my haversack. There were shells dropping behind us and their deadly machine gun fire in front of us, and we did not dare hardly move. I laid out there for two hours and then chanced my arm. By short crawls on my belly I managed to get to our barbed wire. I then crept through the wire and came to the parapet, and then I though 'heck or nothing.' I just got to the top when a bullet hit my putty, going right through the putty, sock and pants, and just left a mark on my legs. Didn't I shake hands with myself when I got there. After I got over it and got my breath, I helped to get the wounded in and bandage them up.'
Private William Skinner, wrote to his sister:
'Just a few lines to let you know I'm quite well except a small wound on my back caused by a piece of shrapnel coming through my trench tool, but it is nothing much. We are back from one of the biggest bombardments known, and it is a wonder I am alive to tell the tale. 'C' Company is nearly wiped out. I am the only one left out of nine in Section 4. It was something awful. We tried to capture the trenches, but as soon as we leaped over the trench the enemy had machine guns trained on us. We had to lie down. I partly buried myself by using my bayonet. I had to stay there from 6.30 in the morning until 8.30 in the evening. It was terrible, two chaps from Burwash were killed, one on each side of me. One bullet went through my haversack and another through my waterproof sheet. Well, I won't write more this time. I cannot bear to think about it.'
Also included within the Sussex Express' account is a letter from Percy's 'C' Company Commander, the wounded Captain G. L. Courthope, M.P., to the vicar of Wadhurst. The letter, which must have been written very soon after the action clearly conveys the shock, bewilderment and in parts, desperation felt at the course of recent events:
'You have doubtless heard that we have been in a big fight and lost heavily. My poor Company lost four officers and 102 N.C.O.'s and men in the assault out of the 154 whom I took into action. They covered themselves in glory. Will you and other kind friends help me to notify the families? We are continually on the move and I am overwhelmed with work, and can for the moment do no more than send the list of casualties in the platoon, which nominally comes from your parish. It may be weeks before I could write to anyone myself. We hope to find the majority of the missing in some of the many hospitals, as they passed through the dressing station without a record being kept, so great was the pressure.'
In the list that follows Percy's name appears as one of the missing. Captain Courthope's hunch with regards to the dressing station proved correct. Percy had passed through unrecorded, wounded but still alive. We have no details as to the nature of his injuries, but Private L. Mitchell of 24th Field Ambulance later wrote that he'd never seen 'any attack with so many men who had bullet wounds as at Aubers Ridge. The Germans just mowed them down and most of the bullet wounds were through the legs. We had a lot of splinting to do, splinting, splinting, splinting.' Whatever the nature of his injuries, Percy managed somehow to crawl back to the British trenches. He was bandaged up and dispatched thirty odd miles back to the major hospital centre at St Omer - the town that was also the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. At some point during this journey however Percy died from his wounds. He was buried at Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery, which had grown up along a main road on the western outskirts of St Omer around the various field hospitals in the area. He was twenty-one years old.
Confirmation of Percy's death finally appeared two months later in the Sussex Express dated 9th July 1915.
What remained of Percy's family returned to Robertsbridge for the unveiling of the public war memorial in 1921. His parents Thomas and Annie now lived at 'Streatley', in Loose Road, Maidstone. The war had claimed two sons from them and accordingly the wreath they laid that day read:
'In loving memory of two dear sons and brothers, Herbert and Percy, from Mum, Dad, Daisy, Evelyn and Frank.'
After the war the Commonwealth War Graves Commission erected a headstone above Percy's grave; one of a long line of headstones which border the cemetery next to the now busy St Omer to Abbeville road. The Goodsell family had now moved to Maidstone and from their house, 'Streatley', in Loose Road they would have chosen and supplied the verse, which is inscribed onto the base of the headstone where it remains today. It simply reads:
Shall ever linger
Round the spot
Where he is laid'
Percy's pre-war employment just outside Frant resulted in his name being also included on the Wadhurst war memorial.
The above information has been provided by Clive Mayhew, who would be more than happy to advise others searching for information on First War combatants. He can be contacted by e-mail