On 20th March 1917, Captain William MacLeod Campbell of 2nd Suffolk made a daring escape from amoving train as he was being transferred to yet another PoW camp in Germany.
Wounded and taken prisoner at Le Cateau in August 1914, he had been in a series of PoW camps, many of which he had already tried escaping from. In desperation, the Germans transferred him, and several other 'die hard' escapees from their camp at Friedberg, to another camp deeper in germany. Campbell would however not make it.
He recalled; "We got orders to move on 20th March, when Friedberg was abandoned as a camp for British prisoners though we were not told our destination, I had excellent maps to Switzerland and to the Dutch frontier. One had been sent to me at the bottom of a biscuit tin; the other I got from a Frenchman. I got an electric lamp by bribery, and packed enough food for 10 days into a little knapsack. I had a second knapsack with my other things in which I showed when we were searched in a feeble sort of way before leaving the camp. We were being sent in three parties, 80 to one camp, 30 to a second camp, and 7 to a third camp.
The first camp was Clausthal; what the other two were I do not know. The sentry who was in charge of us had been on duty for 26 hours taking Belgians up to Friedberg to take our place. We entrained at 8 o'clock. On entraining, the names of al those who had tried to escape were read out, excepting mine, and these men were put into a compartment by themselves, closely guarded. That included my Friend, but I knew two other officers who would attempt to get away should an opportunity present itself, so I climbed in with them. By 11 o'clock, two of the three guards were asleep. We were in third-class bogey carriages with corridors but without doors. It was a slow train. All lights had been extinguished in the small stations, and in some cases the personnel had been reduced to one on a station, usually a women. We passed several dark stations.
It was the intention of the three of us to get away. In one small station where we stopped we made our mind up to get out. I was rather clumsy getting out, and the train just started as the second man got out. We both tumbled over a rail and lay down until the train pulled out. When it did so we were in a bright white light, but the person in the station did not see us and went off to the signal box. We ran up a bank. I was deficient of my blanket, and Captain Godsal of his waterbottle. Captain Godsal was in full uniform, but he had a dark blanket which he threw over his shoulders, and I was in engineers' overalls, a green coat and mufti cap. We went off through side roads and a couple of villages, and made 10 miles through fairly deep snow. During the day we lay up in a barn, burying ourselves deep in the hay. It was very cold and the water in my water bottle froze.
We managed however to sleep for about five hours, then at dark off we went again, marching by compass bearing. We got into a forest where snow was in deep drifts. I drank some cold water and fainted. Godsal helped me and we got into a barn. My electric lamp gave out and in climbing into this barn, I was very weak and fell about 10 feet onto a chopper. However I managed to get up again and slept all right."
That night they duo would be off again...
In March 1917, the officers of the Suffolk Regiment who were held captive in Friedberg PoW camp met to discuss the parcels situation for their men.
Captain W.M. Campbell and Lieutenant-Colonel W.B. Wallace, who had only recently recovered from pneumonia, held a meeting to decide on the best distribution of the mens parcels. In the preceding months, it had become clear that the food was gradually getting less and less from their captors, and that the men were forced more and more, to rely on the parcels they received from home to supplement their meagre rations.
There was however confusion. Men received parcels via the Red Cross from loved ones at home, but also from Regimental Committees in Britain. There seemed however to be no co-ordination between the two organisations. Some times men received as many as five parcels a month. Some men however, received just one. Campbell wrote; "The parcels are excellent, but there are a certain number of men who get their parcels through their regimental committees, and these parcels are not so good nor well executed and it would be much better if these men had their parcels through the central committee."
It was clear that the German war effort was beginning to falter. Through the wire of the camp, and the upper stories of their barrack block, Campbell could see the world outside. He noted that "Leather and most articles which can be used for military purposes, have been called in. Motor cars ate forbidden. A few taxis only being allowed in the larger towns. Only a few horses are in use. Draft horses are issued in teams to each town. Every man, woman and child, and all material of military or food value is under direct military control."
Food was not also the only gripe of Captain Campbell. The payment of officers wages through the Army Bank of Cox & Co. was perhaps a little bit too frequent for it as being used for gambling and the procurement of much wine by some. "Colonel Wallace is of the same opinion as myself" wrote Campbell "that too much money is being sent to the British and that it is being wasted in some cases on wine and gambling. A few rich men have as much as 20l. a month. Colonel Wallace and two or three others, spoke emphatically against drinking and giving dinners etc. but there are no means of enforcing discipline in these camps."
However Friedberg was being abandoned as a PoW camp and the men were being moved to other locations by train. Campbell and Wallace were to part company, but under rather unusual circumstances.
On 11th March 1917, 5th Suffolk started to move into new positions in the desert to prepare for the forthcoming offensive against the Turks.
From Mohamadeih, they marched in the sweltering heat to Rabah, then onwards to Khirba. Along the way, new drafts of men trickled in to join the Battalion, including a few who had recovered from wounds and illness picked up at Gallipoli.
Days before the Battalion packed up and prepared to move forward, they had seen in the desert, a new and wonderful machine of war they had heard had been used on the Western Front; the Tank. Captain E.D. Wolton wrote that: "On the 3rd, we reached Gilban, where the great "Tank" secret was learned. There had been rumours for some weeks, and, in spite of all official denials on the subject, it was fairly well known that they had been landed at Alexandria."
The tank has had a spluttering, but not exactly glorious entrance to war. Its first "trundling" to war was at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916 in the latter half of the Somme campaign. It met with mixed successes but there was no denying that it had a great fear factor in the face of the enemy. Now, it was this machine and this fear factor, that the Allies hoped would give them a kick start in the offensive that was to come in the weeks ahead in Gaza.
In early March, a German field gun was delivered to the Christchurch Art Gallery in Ipswich. It was one of several pieces that had been captured by units of the Suffolk Regiment in the actions of the previous month.
This particular gun, was believed to have been captured in the area of Boom Ravine; ground over which 8th Suffolk tough gallantly on the 17th February 1917. It was probably one of many enemy artillery pieces that were hastily abandoned by the retreating Germans as they fell back to the Hindenburg Line in early 1917.
Most grateful villages and towns who had contributed greatly to the war effort in men and materiel, were rewarded such items to do with as they wished and to inspire other to contribute to the cause. The fate of this piece is unknown, but it is highly likely that it was melted down for scrap at a later date, perhaps in a later war?
Following the ill-fated trench raid of the 14th February, repercussions abounded as to its failure. Captain C.C.S. Gibbs of 4th Suffolk, noted in his diary that just before Bennett and his men were due to set off on the raid that there was a slight change of plan.
"About dusk there had been a slight modifications of plans. A large half-caste looking fellow shoved his head in our HQ. He was the brigade trench mortar officer and specialised in shooting large bombs from near our front line into the enemy front line. He had been sent up to help the raid, he said, and had got an emplacement for his mortar or mortars at a certain point which he indicated. 'Can you be sure of reaching this point from there?' I said, indicating the spot where we were to enter the enemy trench. 'Yes, easily,' I wondered - I mistrusted the infernal machines. However, I sent the brigade officer up to 'B' Company HQ with a chit to Bennett and told him to discuss carefully with Bennett exactly what he was going to do"
Gibbs mistrust in the effectiveness of trench mortars seems to have been well-founded. He recalled of how he met the trench mortar office again some months later in the Ypres Salient; "I found this same cove hooking it from a Ypres battlefield when his services were most needed and he nearly got court marshalled. So I have little doubt that on this occasion he merely worked his machine regardless of where he was shooting. Bennett got half-way over then got one in the back from him."
Bennett was to succumb from his wounds received during the raid. He died the following day and is buried in Bray Military Cemetery. Soon 4th Suffolk would leave the Somme; a battlefield they had arrived upon seven months before. It had been hot then, cold, then in the past days, freezing, with men resorting to wearing white overalls when out on trench raids. Snow and ice were onto ground and the river was frozen. Soon they would move on for training, then onwards to another sector and another offensive. This might this one be successful?
As A Company of 8th Suffolk stepped forward into no-mans-land, to begin the attack in Boom Ravine, they encountered many deep muddy shell holes filled with icy water. This terrain was to greatly hampered the advance.
As the Company pushed on, the cat was completely out of the bag and the Germans, sensing that an attack was being made, sent up numerous SOS rockets along the front which as the landed silhouetted the advancing attackers to them. However, sensing that this was a large scale attack, they pulled back in the darkness allowing their artillery to fire over them into the area of their old front line.
About 4.00 am, B Company on the right flank were getting into position and had already made the link-up with elements of their sister Battalion in the Brigade, the 11th Royal Fusiliers on the right hand edge of the Battalion front. Shortly afterwards, a heavy barrage was brought down beyond the German line, which was "not conducive to produce steadiness and calmness with was really so necessary in this forming up." The men were getting twitchy.
A follow-up barrage ended at about 5.45 am, and the attacking waves went over. Sections from No. 5 and No. 8 platoons went first, followed by 7 Platoon and 6 Platoon. It was still dark and casualties were not too great as the Company advanced. Moving forward at a reduced rate due to the terrain, there was a tendency for the line of advance to veer off course. Captain Whitehead shouted over to Lieutenant Green as they advanced to keep the line straight, but Green was soon hit by machine-gun fire. The Sergeant behind him pressed on keeping the men up close and back on course to the left. Soon, they were affecting a link up with A company in the old German line. "Coffee" trench on the right was taken by B Company, as was "Grandcourt" trench on the left by C Company. It all seemed to be going to plan up until this point casualties reported had been "slight."
By 5.45 am, B Company was into the ravine. The "moppers up" now started to concluded their task. A Company had to deal with an enemy outpost that remained still active in the right flank. Perceiving that this would hamper the second wave of the attack, Lieutenant Walker with Sergeant Eaves, wheeled about their men, and took on the position with accurate and sustained small arms fire. Sergeant Rose appeared with a couple of Lewis gunners and soon the position was overcome. The Adjutant wrote later that "they had the satisfaction of seeing the Germans at once, throw up their hands and surrender."
B Company too a nest of machine guns which they had some trouble in silencing. An MG team in a shell hole fired on at the advancing men of B Company. Observation had shown that it was linked by a small trench to the German front line. Germs continually ran down the trench with new supplied of ammunition for the gun, and despite heavy Lewis gun fire being brought to bear, the post could not be silenced. Corporal Wade tried first to get forward, but was immediately beaten back by enemy rifle grenades. Whilst the nest was occupied by Wade's attack, Sergeant's Backhouse and Wiggett worked round on the flanks and barred the communicating trench. The nest surrendered a few minutes later.
In parallel, C Company were advancing too just after 5.45 am behind a barrage that delivered them into no-mans-alnd with minimal casualties, however as the barrage lifted near the German line, they were swathed by machine gun fore that caused many casualties. Lieutenant Jeffrey was wounded, and shortly afterwards, so was Lieutenant Walters. Captain Hull remained the only uninjured platoon commander of the Company.
D Company faired not much better. Advancing as fire company in the centre, they took many casualties as the barrage lifted. Sections of no. 15 and No. 16 Platoons took heavy casualties, as did 14 and 13 platoons immediately behind them. Captain Keats, who had a redan named in his honour, was wounded and Hubbard and Bird were killed. Immediately Sergeant Bailey assumed command of what remained of these platoon and pressed on towards the enemy line.
The fire was however too great and no progress could be made. A gap was spotted in the wire by Lance Corporal Savage, and he along with about seven men, made a valiant effort to charge the wire. He succeeded in getting through and shot four Germans, before going on to shoot many more and thus silence the machine-gun position that was causing so much damage. It was an amazing personal feat of arms that turned the outcome of the battle for the Battalion.
As D Company surged on, through the railway cutting and up the other side of the ravine, the enemy could be seen running away up the far banks. Dug-outs in the German line, were quickly checked before the Lewis guns were brought forward to training on the rear slopes of the ravine. As consolidation continued, Sergeant Bailey was himself wounded, forcing command of C Company to another senior NCO, Sergeant Sheppard.
By 8.00 am, the battle it was noted "had virtually ended and consolidation and final clearing up was beginning, but the action was progressing over the crest of the hill and there was still considerable sniping and MG fire coming from the east slopes of Boom Ravine and Miraumont"
The spires of Miraumont were in sight and it was clear that the attack had succeeded. Though rumours of an enemy counter attack abounded, by noon, support elements and engineers had already arrived to make good the Battalion's gains allowing the Battalion to retire as relief units arrived. The advance had been quite phenomenal. Over 1000 yards covered and the Germans back behind the river Ancre for the first time in any months, but the cost was high. 35 men dead with many score wounded. Yet despite this, the loss rate was greatly reduced from those the Battalion had experienced in the preceding months of the Somme campaign.
The German withdraw back into the village of Miraumont, was the first stage in their calculated retreat behind their defensive bulwark known as the 'Hindenburg Line'. It was the beginning of the end for the German Armies on the Somme.
On 15th February 1917, 8th Suffolk once again set forth to take their fight to the enemy. Capitalising on the great reputation they had acquired at Thiepval in September, they moved along the front line to the right, past Moquet Farm, and occupied new positions along 'Regina' and 'Hessian' trenches.
As the men settled down into their new positions, the Adjutant and the Brigade Major went forward to tape out the corridor of advance for the forthcoming attack. All that following day, the 16th, the icy ground continued to thaw, but it was slippery everywhere and the men, huddled in greatcoats, moved as little as possible, less one wrong move sent them into an icy, muddy lagoon from which they knew, there was no chance of rescue. Snow was still on the grounding places and it was very much winter.
That evening, the Adjutant and Lieutenant's Keen and Creagh, went out again to tape the passage for the second and third waves of the forthcoming attack. It was almost pitch black and with the new moon shining no light, work was able to continue virtually unmolested.
Whilst this was happening, the Battalion signallers arrived to wire in a "power buzzer" in 'Zollern' trench. It was an electrical device that could be operated by press button which sent a short screech signal to Brigade HQ signifying that assistance was required immediately. Depending on whether the line was cut, it saved the long, protracted and unpredictable use of runners relaying messages who could at any time, fall to enemy fire.
Shortly before 3.00 am, the rations and tea were brought up. It's distribution was somewhat delayed but the Company Commanders wished their men to have a hot drink before they went over. Thus A Company, who were to go over in the first wave, were delayed from proceeding for twenty five minutes.
After tea however, everybody was now fortified and ready to go...
“I shall always remember” wrote Stormont-Gibbs, Adjutant of 4th Suffolk, “waiting for the barrage to start. Not a sound all along the line. Then on the stroke of zero hour one solitary gun. Then in a couple of seconds hells on pandemonium let loose”
The artillery barrage continued right along the line in the Divisions sector and was taken up on the other side of the river by the French. Under the cover of this cacophony of destruction, Bennett moved forward. The barrage that continued for over half an hour was deafening and those who could, found a cubby hole or corner to shelter from the incessant noise and the trembling earth.
On the other side, Bennett and his party were through the German wire and had entered his trenches. Already he had established a headquarters where he entered their trenches and his men fanned out to clear the trench. The first party went right, gathering anything that could be of importance into sandbags. Shoulder straps were ripped off hanging uniforms, letters and documents were snatched cautiously from dug-out tables and cubby holes and stuffed into the sandbags so that Bennet and later the Intelligence Officer could examine them later. The official report mentioned; “Before they had gone far. They discovered a dug-out; they shouted to the occupants to come up and they did so, the first having an overcoat over his head. The party pushed on for at least another 40 yards, meeting little of no opposition, and did not find anything.”
The prisoners taken were escorted back to Bennett who in turn, ordered the two guards to escort them through the wire and across no-mans-land to the British lines for interrogation. However half way back, a mortar dropped right on top of them killing the two escorts and the prisoners. The Commanding Officers report continued callously; “A shell or mortar (believed to be one of our own) fell amongst them and killed them all (Their remains can be seen in the enemy wire this morning).”
By now some 45 minutes had elapsed and the CO sent over the second party, sending them though the same gap in the wire, but this time they fanned out to the left. Their going was quite difficult with the enemy having retired back to a bend in the trench to the north where they had erected a makeshift defence. The second party had quite a task to eject them and a heated exchange was made by both sides using bombs as rifle fire was impossible in the cramped conditions.
As this was happening, the third party under Lieutenant Hare made their way across no-mans-land and into the German line and were pushing northwards behind the second party. “2/Lieut. A.F. Hare, who was leading this party, pushed forward to discover what had happened to the second party. He succeeded in reaching a small latrine, from which he was able to throw bombs. He considers that altogether the second party must have inflicted considerable casualties I the enemy party, but they were only able to make slow progress up the trench, one reason for this being that the leading bayonet man of the second party had become a casualty. The enemy were throwing the majority of their bombs over the heads of the second party, into the third party who were crowded, but the throwing was bad and we sustained few casualties.”
In the confusion, Bennett ordered the third party to ease back so that they were a little less crowed. Shortly afterwards, Bennett himself became a casualty of the raid, being wounded in the thigh. Leaderless, parties one and two were contemplating a retirement when as if on queue, a bugle was sounded form the British lines, ordering them to retire. Dejected, they retired over no-mans-land back to the safety of the British lines carrying their bags of swag. Gibbs wrote; “The raid failed. The General cursed.”
On the night of the 13th February 1917, a trench raid was carried out by members of 4th Suffolk against the enemy trenches opposite them in the front line at Clery-sur-Somme.
By now, Lieutenant C.C.S. Gibbs; the only officer who had survived unwounded following the attack on High Wood in August 1916, was the Battalion Adjutant. The raid, which was ordered at the express wish of the Divisional Commander, was not viewed with enthusiasm when orders to carry it out were received at Battalion HQ as Gibbs later recalled; “On the following day, the divisional commander woke up with a bright notion that some little feat of daring would enhance the prestige of the division – and perhaps his own. The line was far too quiet for our fiery Major-General. What about a little raid and a prisoner or two for the corps’ cage? So he enquired after breakfast of his DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General) who was in the front line by the river. ‘4th Suffolk, sir’ ”
The decision was made that B Company would be given the honour of this raid, with Lieutenant L.P. Bennett would command it. Bennett was commissioned form the Inns of Court OTC in December 1915 into the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). He had been drafted to 4th Suffolk after the Battle of High Wood on the Somme when all the Reserve Officers from the training Battalion at Halton, had been expended and the Battalion desperately needed officers.
“My first real foul job as Adjutant” wrote Gibbs “was to select the company to make this raid, for it was tantamount to selecting the officer who would lead it. Actually of course, it was the CO orders but the Adjutant keeps the roster and advises and is in fact sort of ‘Secretary of State” as far as responsibility goes in some things”
Gibbs as Adjutant, spent the morning with Bennett going over the maps and intelligence as to what might affront them in the German lines. They were allotted a creeping barrage to cover the initial move and allow them to get into the German line. Though it all seemed ‘watertight’ both men had their reservations; “It was terrible” wrote Gibbs "because he was simply dithering with fright and neither of us thought he had much chance getting through. An officer stood a very poor chance anyway”
With as a he put it his “small part” done, Gibbs retired to Battalion HQ dugout. By 9.15 p.m., Lieutenant Bennett with Lieutenant Hare, and 53 other ranks, lay low in no-mans-land, waiting for the barrage to cover their advance...
At the beginning of January 1917, the last of the war-raised "Service" Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment came into being.
The 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion brought the Duke of York’s Own, Loyal Suffolk Hussars, under the wing of the Suffolk Regiment for the last 24 months of the war.
This unit had however, been fighting under its own title since the outbreak of war. It had landed on the Gallipoli peninsular on the 11th October 1915, and held the line through one of the worst periods of weather during the entire Dardanelles campaign. They like many of their counterparts in this ill-conceived operation, were pleased to leave the disease ridden scrubland in December, just two months after landing there.
This regiment of volunteer yeomanry could trace its origins back to the days of the Spanish Armada, and its first major battle was on British soil in 1667, when elements of the then "Suffolk Horse" repelled the Dutch at Landguard; the last invasion of the British mainland by an enemy force. It's creation date in the modern context, was however considered to be 1793 when the various units of volunteer fencibles that existed then in the county of Suffolk, were brought together, and administered from one central point by Arthur Young of Bradfield Combust near Bury St. Edmunds.
Via the island of Mudros, they moved to Egypt in 1916, where their were officially designated as a “Dismounted “ unit of yeomanry. No longer would they fight on horseback. In Egypt in early 1917, they became part of the 230th Brigade in the 74th (Yeomanry) Division, whose sign was the broken spur, symbolising their former mounted past. Outwardly, their appearance differed not form their counterparts in the 1/5th Battalion. They had spent their entire War so far, dressed in khaki drill with Wolseley sun helmets under a tropical sun. These men, like their counterparts in the other Service Battalions serving on the Western Front, heralded from predominately from Suffolk and had that same Suffolk temperament that made the fighting Suffolk a unique fighter.
Though now their administration was under the watchful eye of the Suffolk Regiment, their was a general reluctance to wear its badge. Though gradually as new men joined it, they would be issued the badge of the Suffolk Regiment, the old sweats of the "donkey wallopers" clung fiercely to their Hussars badges, proudly bearing the date of '1793' under a castle surmounted by a scroll bearing the words "Loyal Suffolk Hussars"
Welcome to our online 'blog' charting the history of the many Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment and the part they played in the Great War.
Starting back in March 2014, we have recorded the events of 100 years ago on the centenary of their happening.
Keep checking back to see how the Great War is progressing for the men of the Suffolk Regiment.