Henry James Stevens
Died: 18th June 1916
Born in Ridgewood, Uckfield, Sussex in 1885, Henry James Stevens became known to all his friends as ‘Harry’. His parents were George and Sarah Ann Stevens who moved to Ringmer and at one time lived in Pest House Cottage. They then moved to Brick Yard Cottage, Middle Broyle, Ringmer and were still there at the time of their son’s death in 1916.
Harry was working on the railway at Haywards Heath pre-war and it was from that town he enlisted into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. His home was by then no longer in Ringmer as he had moved to Firle where two of his sisters lived. Harry trained with his Battalion until 31st August 1915 when it was sent to France. The training had been prolonged due to a chronic shortage of qualified instructors, uniforms and equipment. Initially formed on 13th September 1914, it took for example until July 1915 before the Division received its full allocation of rifles. Private Stevens, number G/3321 landed on 1st September at Boulogne with ‘C’ Company of the 9th Royal Sussex, one of the twelve Battalions of the 24th Division.
They were plunged straight into the war at the Battle of Loos on 25th September and suffered very severely with 379 of their number being casualties. Exhausted from continual marching and lack of sleep owing to the din of the artillery bombardment, the Division fared badly in the Battle and received much unfair criticism.By March 1916 the Division was in Flanders in the Neuve Eglise area about nine miles south west of Ypres. They took their turn in front line trench duties in what was at that time a quiet sector. In mid-May Harry was granted a short home leave and returned to Sussex to see his family.
On 17th June the Germans launched a gas attack, which was not however followed up by an infantry assault. The gas lasted about 40 minutes in three continuous waves. The men wore their gas helmets for one hour and twenty minutes. In addition to the gas, the Germans bombarded our trenches with artillery and machine gun fire. A large number of men suffered the effects of gas, as the protection offered by the masks of the day was limited. They also severely restricted the vision of the soldier and were therefore unpopular in close combat.
Harry was one of the many to succumb to the effects of the gas released in the early hours of 17th June. He was taken to a Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul, but did not recover and died there the following day. Initially the War Office advised his parents that he had died of wounds but a follow-up letter from the Chaplain confirmed that he had indeed died from gas poisoning. He was aged 31 when he died and is buried in the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, his medals being sent to his parents in due course.
Adapted from Valiant Hearts of Ringmer by Geoff Bridger: Ammonite Press, 1993