The High Weald in East Sussex is an area of outstanding natural beauty which extends across Sussex, Surrey and Kent. It is a patchwork of ancient woodlands, farmland, sunken lanes and historic villages that spans the undulating landscape of the South East of England. I know many of these villages well, as it is where I grew up and where I am lucky enough to still live.
Whilst all of these small communities felt the effects of The Great War, the village of Wadhurst, has a particularly strong link. In the cemetery of St Peter and St Paul Church, tucked away behind the High Street, is a grave which hides a story of the permanent bond between this small Sussex village and a forgotten battlefield of The Great War. On first glance, the grave looks like many others that stand in silent sentient in church yards up and down the country. The careful observer may notice a military reference – Lieut. Gilbert Roy Fazan, who fell in the Second World War, although there is no mention of The Great War. Yet the Fazan family’s link to War is symbolic of the sacrifice of many families in Wadhurst and indeed Sussex.
The grave in question is that of Eric Alfred Charles Fazan. He was the family doctor in Wadhurst who passed away in 1969. Also commemorated on the grave is his son, Gilbert Roy Fazan. Gilbert Roy died at Normandy, where he was serving with The Royal Sussex Regiment, the same regiment with which his Father Eric, and Uncle Roy served during The Great War.
Eric and his Brother Roy were from a middle class family, their Father Charles was the local Doctor in Wadhurst and both his sons had been well educated, following in their Father’s footsteps by going on to study medicine. The Fazan Brothers had decided to join the local Territorial Battalion before the outbreak of war. The ‘Territorial Force’ as it was called, was formed in 1908 with the aim of increasing the size of Britain’s land forces. Civilians would be encouraged to join as ‘part time soldiers’ to bolster the size of the regular Army, whilst avoiding the need to introduce conscription. These battalions would ultimately be commanded by the war office, but organised and administered on a local, regional level. As such, they were full of local lads who became in many respects the original ‘Pals’. Recruits to the Territorial Force would sign up for a 4 year stint, although this was left flexible enough to give men the option to leave early should they need. Their commitment would be to visit their local drill hall regularly and attend an annual training camp for 1 or 2 weeks a year. Unlike the Reserves today, the Territorial Force were not obliged to serve overseas, with their primary aim being to support the regular Army on UK shores, enabling a greater number to travel to fight abroad in the event of a conflict – although many men were encouraged to voluntarily sign up to overseas service upon joining.
The Royal Sussex Regiment formed 3 Territorial Battalions – the 4th, 6th and 1/5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion – named after the 5 historic Sussex ports. The 1/5th was the local battalion for the Fazan boys, recruiting from Wadhurst, Crowborough, Battle, Lewes, Hastings, Ore, Rye and the vast number of small, rural communities in between these larger towns and villages. Capt Eric Fazan commanded A Company whilst his brother Roy was an officer in B. By February 1915 the battalion was in France serving alongside the 2nd Royal Sussex, a regular battalion whom many of the men knew well. It was in March of that year at Festubert in the Artois region of France, that both Eric and Roy had their first experience of the front line.
1915 had brought fresh hope for the Entente forces. With German efforts focused on the Eastern Front with Russia, the French were keen to take advantage of their diverted attention with great hopes of breaking the German lines and so the first offensive actions of the war for French and British forces were planned in Artois. The German front line at Festubert ran along a small ridge up to the village of Aubers. The land in this area is virtually flat, so each small ridge brought a great strategic advantage to those occupying it which in spring of 1915 was the Germans who had invested a great deal of time in strengthening their defences in the area – with machine gun positions placed to inflict the utmost devastation on any advancing troops.
On the evening of 8th May 1915 the Fazan boys moved into position at Richebourg, awaiting the start of what would become known as the Battle of Aubers Ridge. It is one of the forgotten battles of The Great War, and yet over 11,000 British soldiers became casualties. The assault, the objective of which was to remove the Germans from their positions on the ridge, was a complete failure due in the main to a lack of effective artillery fire in the initial bombardment and sheer confusion on the battlefield. Men were mown down by undisturbed German machine guns as they tried to advance, most aimed directly at knee height so as to be almost unavoidable. This murderous fire was coupled by intense shelling, and the ever present threat of snipers. As the waves of the attack advanced and were unable to pass through the unbroken German defences, more and more men were forced into the hands of death in no mans land. Scenes were unimaginable as men continued to pile out of their trenches only to become stuck – unable to move forward and unable to move back, pinned down by withering machine gun fire. Lt Col Langham of 1/5th Royal Sussex recounted the horror of the scenes above the parapet a few days later as he described:
‘many dead and some even on fire; and in two cases, men of ours who were burning alive, committed suicide, one by blowing out his brains, and another cut his own jugular vein with the point of his bayonet’
The events of the day were also recorded in Eric Fazan’s diary, which gives us a first hand account of the last moments of many of Sussex’s bravest men. The failure of the attack on the 9th was catastrophic for The Royal Sussex and other regiments who took part. From the 850 men of the 2nd Battalion, around 280 were killed and a further 270 or so wounded. The 1/5th had 85 men killed out of 230 casualties, in what was truly a baptism of fire in their first action on the Western Front for these part time soldiers from the fields and villages of Sussex.
Among their losses was Roy Fazan and 24 other men from Wadhurst – all killed on that fateful day in May. For a small community this loss must have been felt so strongly. One can imagine the worry that families felt, as telegrams began to arrive in the village. The shared grief of sons lost among neighbours, shop keepers and of course, the family Doctor. Eric Fazan returned but Roy remained in France along with his fallen comrades. A piece of Sussex, forever imprinted on the ground around Aubers. So keenly was this connection felt that 85 years later in 2000, a Charter was signed officially twinning Aubers with Wadhurst, a reminder for all time of the sacrifice made by this small village.
Eric Fazan eventually took over from his Father as the local Doctor in Wadhurst and named his son in memory of his Brother, Gilbert Roy. In a cruel twist of fate that rivals the saddest of Shakespearian tragedies, Gilbert Roy Fazan’s final resting place would mirror that of his Uncle, as he was killed during operations in Normandy some 29 years later. And so, whenever I pass through Wadhurst now and have a spare 5 minutes, I take some time to visit the Fazan’s grave and leave some flowers if I can, for them and for all of Wadhurst’s lost lads in 1915.