Harry John Evans
Died : 30 June 1916
Another of our lads whose body was never recovered and identified was Private Harry John Evans, number G/1638. He was posted as missing [in action] on 30th June 1916, yet it was a full year before the War Office officially conceded his death.
On 4th September 1914, in response to the fervent call for volunteers to join Kitchener's New Armies, young Harry travelled to Lewes to enlist. His training was brief as he was not to be assigned to one of the newly created service battalions. Instead he was sent as part of a replacement draft to the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. He joined 'D' Company early in 1915 and as such was entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War & Victory Medals.
Harry had been born on 7th April 1896 in Ringmer and baptised there six weeks later on 24th May. He attended Ringmer School from 5th June 1899 until 19th April 1909 and on leaving became a farm labourer. His parents Jesse, himself a labourer, and Mary Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry Turner, originally lived in New Road, Ringmer. They moved twice within the village around 1915, first to Rushey Green and then to Goat Farm Cottages, Goat Lane.
The British and French had been planning a major new offensive since December 1915 to try and break the deadlock on the Western Front. It was to be a co-ordinated attack by their two powerful armies on either side of the River Somme and take place in the summer of 1916. On 21st February 1916 the Germans caused a major upset to the grand strategy. They unexpectedly attacked the French with overwhelming forces at Verdun. This was a key position in the French defences, which they were determined to safeguard at any price. As France rushed almost every available man to stem the invading hordes, she left few to spare for their part in the Somme offensive. In deference to the French predicament General Sir Douglas Haig was persuaded to start his 'Great Push' ahead of schedule. His armies were also to bear the brunt of the attack. The French had withdrawn all but five of the forty Divisions originally promised for the forthcoming battle, in their defence of Verdun.
During the 18 months or so Harry was in France he was granted just one short leave period of rest. He was back at the Front on 13th June 1916 and within a further two weeks was at eternal rest.
As part of the overall plan it was intended that several diversionary attacks would occur up and down the British lines. One of the areas we held was in the region of Lens and it was this sector that was assigned to, among others, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. In this area were two long, almost parallel embankments made from pre-war coal mining spoil. They were each 1,200 yards long and over 50 feet high. The tops were 25 feet across and well defended. In an otherwise almost flat landscape they had a vital strategic importance. Running from south-east to north-west they were originally in German hands but following a bitter battle in the autumn of 1915 part of the northern embankment was seized and retained by our forces. These embankments were known as the 'Double Crassier'. With the southern arm of the Double Crassier in German possession the opposing soldiers were, in places, less than 50 yards apart. It was a very unpleasant place to be. The object of the diversion in this area was to seize all the Double Crassier.
The fighting was violent and intense from 21.10 on 30th June 1916 until a withdrawal back to our own lines was ordered at 01.15 the next day. Despite much valour during the course of hand to hand fighting and the throwing of hundreds of grenades, we had been unable to force the intense machine gun fire of the enemy. He too displayed much bravery and advanced ahead of supporting gunfire to counter attack with grenades. Sometime during this bitter struggle Private Evans was hit and on withdrawal his body was left behind. In such a densely occupied area it would have been buried with all haste by the Germans without any regard to identification. There is no known grave and instead Harry John Evans is commemorated along with nearly 36,000 others on the Memorial to the Missing in Arras.
Adapted from Valiant Hearts of Ringmer by Geoff Bridger: Ammonite Press, 1993