The Hero of Aubers Ridge

Cpl. Charles Richard Sharpe. Image Courtesy of Bourne Civic Society, used with permission

At 5am on the morning of the 9th May 1915 British artillery shells shook the ground of Aubers Ridge.

For six days and nights every man for miles had born witness to the percussion of allied ordinance being directed at the German lines around 25km away at Vimy Ridge in preparation for the second battle of Artois.

This new bombardment however, was targeted at German lines just a hundred yards away from the Allied Troops waiting in assembly trenches near Neuve Chappelle and Rouge Bancs.

It would last 40 minutes.

The British troops – made up of English, Irish, Scottish, and Indian regiments – knew that when it stopped they would attack.
They had no way of knowing however, that their attack would prove, mile for mile, one of the deadliest of the war; or that in less than 24 hours, they would have suffered over 11,000 casualties.

 

Charles Richard “Shadder” Sharpe was born in Pickworth in 1899, one of the 15 children of Robert and Charlotte Ann Sharpe.  After leaving school he worked as a labourer before joining the Lincolnshire Regiment at the age of 16.  By 1908 he was a Lance- Corporal of the 2nd Battalion.

At the outbreak of the First World War his Battalion was stationed in Bermuda.
Immediate plans were made for the men to be returned to England, and on 6th November 1914, after only 48 hours leave, Sharpe was in France, where the battalion came under the command of the 25th Brigade on the 8th infantry division.

As such, Charles was one of the men who gathered in the trenches that morning in May to wait out the heavy artillery fire.

At 5.40am the bombardment culminated in the detonation of mines which had been tunnelled under the German lines.
The combined munitions however were ineffective, and as the soldiers of the 25th Brigade began to emerge from their trenches, they did so into German machine gun fire, and were facing largely intact barbed wire and defences.

The German troops were presented with a “solid wall of khaki men, British and Indian side by side”, they received the order – “fire until the barrels burst”[1]

Within minutes No-Man’s- Land became a graveyard, the cries of men, wounded just meters from their own trenches, drowned out by the return of German artillery and the blasts of rapid fire.

Two companies of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment, along with brigades from the Royal Irish Rifles and the 2nd Rifle Brigade, under the command of Brigadier-General Lowry –Cole, advanced towards Rouge Bancs.  They suffered heavy losses but were able to press forward launching an attack on the German front line, but it soon became  apparent that they would be unable to advance.

Map of Aubers Ridge area. The action Cpl Sharpe took part in was at Rouge Bancs (circled). Public Domain image

The battlefield was now in chaos. British troops were retreating, against orders, back to the British trenches.  With them came German prisoners attempting to find shelter. The retreat was mistaken for a counter attack by the British forces, and the fleeing men were fired on by both sides.

In an attempt to turn the fleeing soldiers Lowry-Cole climbed up to the parapet of the British trench and bellowed orders to his men.  He was successful in turning the troops, however, in doing so was shot and killed.

Sharpe, now acting Corporal, was leading a blocking party charged with attacking a section of the German lines with grenades.

As the report of his actions in the London Gazette records:

he was the first to reach the Enemy’s position, and using bombs with great determination and effect, he himself then cleared a trench 50 yards long” [2]

 

By this time Sharpe was alone, the rest of his blocking party either wounded or killed. He was joined by four other men, at least three of whom, Privates D.Bills, W. Dunderdale and J.F. Leeman were from his own Regiment.
Sharpe taking the lead, they continued pressing forward, clearing a further 250 yards of trench.

Ultimately the heroism of Charles Sharpe, and so many other men that day would be in vain.  Along the lines the British attack had failed.

A renewal of British Artillery bombardment in the afternoon served to do little but kill or injure men trapped in No-Man’s-Land.  The huge numbers of casualties, prevented the sporadic successes from being held, and under the cover of night the few hundred British soldiers holding positions in the German trenches made the perilous retreat back to the Allied lines.

By 3am on the 10th May all surviving Allied troops had been withdrawn from the German lines.  It would take three days for all of the wounded men to be moved from the battlefield to field hospitals.

It is reported that throughout the duration of the Second Battle of Artois, from the 9th May – 18th June 1915 there were 32,000 British, 102,500 French and 73,072 German casualties.

It would not be until 1917 that Allied troops, this time Canadians, would succeed in taking and holding Vimy Ridge, in a battle that is considered to be one of the greatest military successes in Canadian History.

Charles was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V at Windsor Palace on the 24th July 1915.  The men supporting him were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals.

Following his investiture he spent some time travelling Lincolnshire promoting army recruitment.

He later returned to France and the front lines, until he was seriously injured in a bomb blast.

He continued to serve with the Lincolnshire Regiment until 1928, finishing his military career in India with the rank of Master Sergeant Cook.

 

Commemorative plaque installed as part of national WWI centenary commemorations. Image courtesy of Bourne Civic Society. Used with permission.

Back in Lincolnshire he met Rose Ivy Sibley, a widow with four children from her first marriage.  She and Charles had three children together before marrying in 1936.

He worked as a physical trainer at the Hereward School Remand Home for boys in Bourne, later working at BRM, and as a gardener for Bourne United Charities – maintaining among other things the war memorial gardens, where a plaque commemorating his service can now be found.

During the Second World War, he served in the home guard and once more worked in army recruitment. He was injured by shrapnel during the bombing of the Hereward School.

Charles died in 1963 shortly after moving to Workington to live with his daughter-in- law. He was buried at Newport cemetery, Lincoln with full military honours.

Throughout his life he was modest about his act heroism saying:

“A British Soldier will never glorify his own deeds, I only did my duty”[3]

 

 

 

 

References

 

[1] Gilbert, M. (2014) ‘The First World War, A Complete History’ Rosetta Books
as viewed https://bit.ly/2yTrCzk 31/10/18

[2] London Gazette, June 29th 1915 Issue 29210, pg 6270  as viewed https://bit.ly/2Pd9uKB 31/10/18

[3]  Pickworth Local History Group ‘Charles Richard Sharpe VC’ as viewed http://www.pickworthvillage.co.uk/www.pickworthvillage.co.uk/local_history_pages/charles_sharpe.html  31/10/18

Simpson, C.R. (1931) ‘The History of the Lincolnshire Regiment 1914-1918’ , The Medici Society pg. 91-96

The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross – Charles Richard Sharpe
http://www.vconline.org.uk/charles-r-sharpe-vc/4588198429
Accessed 31/10/18

Grantham Matters’ ‘Sharpe, Charles – Lincs Regiment Soldier won VC’
http://www.granthammatters.co.uk/sharpe-charles/
Published 23/8/12, As viewed 31/10/18

Memorials to Valour ‘VC615 Charles Richard Sharpe’
http://www.memorialstovalour.co.uk/vc615.html
As viewed 31/10/18

The Royal Anglican & Royal Lincolnshire Regimental Association ‘The Victoria Cross – Charles Richard Sharpe’
http://www.thelincolnshireregiment.org/vc.shtml#sharpe
As viewed 31/10/18

Yves Le Maner  ‘The Second Battle of Artois (9th May to 18th June)’ History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France
http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/history/battles/the-second-battle-of-artois-9-may-to-18-june-1915.html  
as viewed 31/10/18

The Wartime Memories Project ‘2nd Batalion, Lincolnshire Regiment during the Great War’
https://wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/allied/alliedarmy-view.php?pid=6561
As viewed 31/10/18

The Long, Long Trail ‘The Battle of Aubers’
https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battles/battles-of-the-western-front-in-france-and-flanders/the-battle-of-aubers/
As viewed 31/10/18

The Canadian War Museum ‘The Battle of Vimy Ridge’
https://www.warmuseum.ca/the-battle-of-vimy-ridge/
As viewed 31/10/18