On the morning of the 8th May the Adjutant of the 1st Battalion; Captain D.V.M. Balders came up to the front line from the reserve line bring an urgent message to the Battalion Commander. The message informed the CO that heavy German shelling in the rear areas had cut off the telephone communications with Ypres and had blocked all road communication into the city. Balders intimated that from intelligence gathered at Brigade, that another full scale enemy attack was imminent and that 1st Suffolk should be prepared to meet it.
The CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W.B. Wallace, in No. 1 dugout astride the Frezenberg Ridge, was on the right-hand flank of the Battalions frontage. To his right was a spur of the Haanenbeek river and from this position, the CO could see the village of St Julien to the north and the village of Frezenberg to the south.
The Adjutants warning, for all its worth, arrived too late at the forward lines and just as Balders arrived, the German attack began. At 10.00am a short, sharp bombardment, followed by a heavy German gas attack, was launched against the British front line. Luckily for 1st Suffolk, most of the cloud of gas passed to the south. However as soon as the gas cloud had passed and 1/Suffolk ‘Stood To’ in their trenches, the Germans brought down a terrific artillery bombardment which lasted for almost an hour. After it ceased, it effects rendered the occupants of the front line completely bewildered.
One man who was in the epicentre of this terrific bombardment was Signaller Harry Clarke who was in Colonel Wallace’s dug out. He remembered: “I was in the dugout with the CO and the adjutant, working the telephone. Then No1 dugout next to us was struck by a shell, burying all the men. Our dugout lasted about another 10 minutes, then a shell exploded. We hardly knew what was happening. The telephone, table, chair, had disappeared, with a hole a few yards in circumference staring at us in their place. We cleared out into the emergency trench, which had been dug in the rear of a ditch and which turned out far worse, because we were up to our waists in water, with shells raining all around. They had also dropped one on No3 dugout, shattering a beam which struck Cpl Pugh and smashed his right leg just above the ankle and also wounded him in the head and left arm. It was the hottest shop I had ever been in. Not one of us knew what was happening in front but we had a fair idea that the line had given way. After a bit we could see men retiring on our right, so we had to get out of the trench and we struggled back on our chests to the dugout but all of us were in a helpless condition and we had not a weapon amongst us.”
Clarke and his comrades had crawled back almost 150 yards over the ridge to a spot close to the hamlet of Verlorenhoek. Exhausted, they needed to get back further for the Germans were hard on their heels, but the East Surrey’s, who had previous occupied this position, had already fallen back and within seconds, the Germans had Clarke and his comrades surrounded: “They were good fellows all round that captured us. They kept us from fire as much as possible by making a parapet in front of us, as well as for themselves. They also gave us meat and bread and coffee and did their best for our wounded. At 1.30pm we were all put in a dugout. Two guards stayed with us and then their line began to advance towards Ypres.”
The vastly superior German artillery, with an almost unlimited supply of ammunition, made it impossible for the British to reorganise their front line after the initial gas attack. One by one, the Battalion’s dug outs and trenches were steadily destroyed by the Germans. The Colonel was seriously wounded and taken prisoner and most of his Platoon Commanders had been killed or captured, but despite this, two small pockets of Suffolks held on refusing to yield. Enfiladed by fire from both the front and the right hand side, their positions gradually became untenable.
Around 2.00pm in the afternoon, the battle so far as 1st Suffolk were concerned, was drawing to a close. Those who could escape, had done so, leaving only the wounded to fall into captivity. A group were still fighting in a defensive position in the centre of their original line, but when all hope of reinforcement was abandoned, the last Suffolks surrendered. About a mile of ground was taken by the Germans, but so far as the advance was concerned, 1st Suffolk had by their gallant stand, halted their advance.
By 5.00pm, the remnants of the Battalion had retreated as fast as they could across cold water-logged fields to the other side of the village of Wieltje, over a mile and a half away from their original positions. There was just 3 officers and 27 of them left, and these, 11 were wounded.
The 'First Dozen' had ceased to exist.
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.