As Victor Farmer readied himself to take his men to join the 1st Battalion, the Battalion itself was in static positions in the line around Butkova.
The men remained in the front line longer on the Macedonian Front than their counterparts on the Western Front, due to the longer periods of inactivity. The daily routine was set and like the first year of the war in Flanders, there was an element of 'live and let live' between the two opposing forces.
Young enterprising officers took out bombing parties on patrol, occasionally bagging a prisoner, but more importantly perhaps, a brace of Woodcock!
The Regimental History noted; "Sport in this neighbourhood was excellent, the woodcock flying down from the hills across the Battalion lines every evening at duck. In the morning large flocks of geese, both white-fronted and grey-legged, flew along the line and many were brought down by rifle and lewis gun fire before this agreeable practice was forbidden".
As the weather took a turn for the worst in early January, the inactivity of the front line continued. For officers, there became a feeling of the pre-war days on Foreign Service. A day with the local hunt or shoot, followed by drinks in the Mess, however, these unofficial patrols sometimes met with injury as the Regimental History noted; "Another 'patrol' spending the weekend at Butkova lake, enjoyed excellent sport, the bag consisting of sixty duck, of many different species, twenty geese, besides teal, snipe, woodcock and a few partridges, and a pheasant. The patrol's casualties only consisted of one officer, wounded in the nose with No. 8 shot".
In Summer Hill Camp overlooking the Greek port of Salonika, Lieutenant Victor Farmer and his draft of men destined to join 1st Suffolk in the front line in Macedonia, experienced the extremes of the Grecian climate. "One day, the 3rd January" wrote Victor "we had torrential rainfall which softened all the ground; then we had a tempest of wind, the Verdon Wind, which blew on to Salonica does the great valley of the Verdon River. The wind blew down the marquees and most of the tents and by nightfall came a heavy frost which effectively prevented the re-erection of the tents; then came the violent blizzard of heavy snow and when we woke on the 4th January we emerged from our fox holes to find a tumultuous area of heavy snow. The officers then did a sort of treadmill march across the snow finding tents with bodies in them which were dragged out. nobody was hurt in this episode and eventually the ground thawed and we were able to put all the tents up again with stouter pegs. The camp cooks also produced hot tea and hot soup. It was not long after this that our quarantine came to an end and we prepared to get to our respective regiments".
"I Have Since Heard Of Such “Top Secret” Hidden Bars, On Stage And Elsewhere, But Here I Actually Saw It For Myself”
Late in December 1917, Second Lieutenant Victor Farmer and his detachment of men for the 1st Battalion in Macedonia, finally set foot in the Greek port of Salonika.
From Dovercourt to London by train, then onwards to Le Havre, then overland to Marseilles, they finally bordered the old Austrian passenger ship “Huntspell” for their journey through the Mediterranean. Under the escort of a Japanese Destroyer, they steamed onwards towards Christmas. The men that Farmer was taking to War, were from the Worcestershire Regiment, but they were ultimately destined to become members of the Suffolk Regiment. Pausing in Milo, where the destroyer left to hunt submarines, they waited until the destroyer re-appesred and they proceeded onwards to Greece.
“Eventually we docked alongside at the port of Salonica and were disembarked in an orderly fashion” wrote Victor “We were met not be a Royal Field Marshal, but by a very invincible British Port Transport Officer who insisted on keeping his large warehouse empty. Somehow I met him privately and he explained that if he allowed one package to be left overnight he would have his warehouse cluttered up with unclaimed cargo. He invited one or two of us into his office and opened a drawer of a filing cabinet marked “Highly Confidential” from which he produced glasses and a bottle of whisky, which he very generously offered to us. I have since heard of such “Top Secret” hidden bars, on stage and elsewhere, but here I actually saw it for myself”.
From Salonika, the numerous drafts of regiments were to march to their new home at a tented encampment about five miles outside of the town. Leaving his man servant to arrange for the collection of his kit, Victor fell in with his men as the column prepared to moved off; “We had a disastrous start to the march” he wrote “a Rifle Regiment was in the lead and they started off with their famous quick-step which the County Regiments quite failed to follow; confusion resulted. We were reformed with the two Rifle Regiments in advance, marching on their own, while the others set off in the conventional marching time”.
Upon arrival, the camp it was soon discovered, was not the most luxurious of establishments. Though they had complained bitterly of the wooden hutments at Felixstowe throughout the autumn of 1917, they were a veritable palace compared to this. The ground was hard and rocky, strewn with numerous stones which made it most uncomfortable to sleep on without weeding the ground first. An area of parade ground had already been cleaned off and defaulters were kept busy on boulder duty.
“Summer Hill was a large plateau on which had been set up rows of bell tents, and several marquees, one of which was an officers mess. I shared a tent with three other officers and between us we dug out the inside to a depth of about a foot and so made ourselves some shelter from the chilly nights. In the camp we kept up a system of parades and exercises and, in addition we had a cordon of sentries around the perimeter of the camp to keep out possible intruders and to keep in quarantined troops. One day I was Orderly Officer and, in touring the perimeter with a welsh Sergeant, I came up to a sentry and asked him his duties. He replied in incomprehensible jargon and the Sergeant explained that the man only spoke Welsh. I made a show of putting the usual questions and the sergeant gave me all the correct answers, but I had no means of knowing whether the sentry really understood his duties!”.
Christmas came and went for the men of 5th Suffolk in the front lines around Jerusalem. The city had fallen but the Battalion were still manning the line.
On 31st December, Captain Hubert Wolton, one of three brothers who served in the Battalion, was writing a letter home form a former Germany Colony in the Middle East called 'Wilhelma':
"Well, Xmas has come and gone. As I foreshadowed in my last letter we spent it in the front line, but recently we have given Johnny Turk such a thrashing that he was only too pleased to leave us alone. So the only thing we have had to contend with was the weather which poured with rain most of the day making things very uncomfortable, especially as it had been wet for days previously so that transport of rations was difficult. However, we do not do so badly as one night suppose as we got a date duff made for the men. In this we were fortunate as we found some wheat nearby which we ground up by mill stones exactly similar to those uncle William collected. The day after Boxing day we were relived and are now billeted in real houses (just think of it!) forming a German Colony. We are appreciating the change. What a contrast in the way we treat inhabitants as compared with the German methods in villages in France. We are most careful of private property and in each house we have collected all the furniture for safety and we live in the remainder of the house. Eric and I brought a fat pig which we gave to our respective Companies. We brought them off the inhabitants very cheaply as they seemed to think that otherwise we should steal them! I suppose they judges us by themselves but they told us that the German General Von Kress had told them to remain in the village as the English would treat them well".
The Battalion looked forward to the New Year with much anticipation. Like their counterparts in Europe fighting on the Western Front, they hoped for a breakthrough, or perhaps for relief to another theatre of war, perhaps one that had less dust. For the Battalion, there would still be much to do, but though they did not know it, the end was in sight.
"Not That I Really Minded Joining. I Was Convinced That Thousands Of Others Had Done And Were Still Doing - I Could Do"
"I was just one of more of thousands who had reached 18 years of age, and had to enlist under the Conscription Act. I was fair haired, tall, strong and well built and a picture of health - as is usual when following an outdoor occupation" so wrote newly conscripted Private F.H. Hornsey, who was soon to be posted to a holding Battalion on the East Coast of England.
"A few brief minutes in the medical officers room was sufficient to pass me A1. Half an hour later, I was in an ill fitting suit of khaki. It was made to fit me later with the aid of a needle and thread, a kit bag with a spare suit and other items which help to make a soldiers outfit complete, and still later i was marched down the street to the station armed with a railway warrant - booked to a training camp on the east coast. not that I really minded joining. I was convinced that thousands of others had done and were still doing - I could do. I arrived at my destination".
Born in Wellingborough, Frank Hadyn Hornsey, was ultimately to join 11th Suffolk in Fance in March 1918. He left behind one of the very few personal accounts of the last year of the War. Like Charles Gibbs of 4th Suffolk and Sydney Fuller of 8th Suffolk, his writings are one of a just a handful of writings, made by a soldiers of the Suffolk Regiment.
"Christmas came and went and we got our four days" wrote Hornsey, "Home for four days; breakfast in bed; a score of friends to see; my best girl to give a whirlwind visit; dances and the pictures; and before I knew where I was I had arrived back with my unit".
December saw a change of location and a change of command for 2nd Suffolk. The first Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment to join the fight, they had been 'out since Mons' in 1914 and now they looked set to spend a fourth Christmas in the front line.
After the capture of the village of Zonnebeke in September; an action for which they never received the fullest recognition, the village fell once again by those who relived them. It was later to be retaken by the Anzacs in a blaze of glory eradicating the Battalion from history.
In late November, the Battalion was removed from the Ypres Salient and sent south to the Arras Sector in anticipation of a possible German breakthrough. The success at Cambrai was immense, but shaky. If the Germans continued with their counterattack, that 7th and 9th Suffolk felt the brunt of on 30th November, they could drive a wedge between the Allies and press on for Paris. Thus by early December, the 2nd Battalion were in the line at Bullecourt.
The Battalion was tired but still they soldiered on. They slogging match in the Salient had taken its toll on the men and precious few of the old 'Le Cateau' mob survived. On the 14th, a German Lance Corporal was seen 'wandering' in the Allied wire. Hopelessly lost, he was shot and later after his body was brought in, he was identified as being part of the 14th Bavarian Regiment. Shelling was intense and for an already tired Battalion, the men desperately needed a break.
Every four days throughout December, the Battalion was 'in' and 'out' of the lines changing places with the 1st Gordon Highlanders. The men hated the monotony and slackness in personal discipline led to unnecessary casualties.
However for all the rigmarole of trench warfare, their new positions were probably the safest and most well-constructed they had ever inhabited. The learning curve of the British Expeditionary Force over five years of war, had expounded the need for decent defensive positions with adequate provisions for sleeping, medial aid, stores and sanitation. New materials had been used replacing wood and tin that corroded and rotted under extreme weather conditions and enemy fire. Steel angle iron and expanded metal grille or "expamet" as it was known, now replaced timber in all the heavy duty construction of British trenches. A deep 18 inch well under the grill floor, ensured that water drained away leaving the men as dry as possible and not spending prolonged periods in water.
Advances in signalling and electronic alarms meant that klaxons and buzzers were positioned along all the trenches at intervals. Gas alarms would be triggered in a moment by anyone and special wicket gates, could be pulled down at intervals along the line to seal in the enemy in a specific section of trench if he ever broke in.
On the 19th, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Likeman, returned home and in his place, Major Nichols assumed command. Lineman had led the Battalion through the great battles of Third Ypres and now needed a rest. Nichols was an officer of the 3rd Battalion, who had like his brother obtained a commission in the Suffolk Regiment at the outbreak of war. Charles Brian Nichols was to steer the Battalion through the 'quiet period' before Colonel Stubbs returned.
Like all Battalions of the Old Twelfth on the Western from that Christmas, many wondered whether the New Year would bring peace.
In the Middle East, the capture of the El Arish redoubt by 5th Suffolk was a decisive factor in the overall success of the Third Battle of Gaza.
With sweeping success, the Battalion pressed onwards to wards its overall goal. The Holy city of Jerusalem and the then capital of the Midde East. Its capture had become a point of fixation and fascination for the then British Prime Ministers who was determined that it should be captured as soon as possible before Christmas Day. Like a latter-day crusader, he wished to capitalise on the success of the initial stages of the Cambrai offensive (where he had ordered church bells to be rung in England in jubilation) and announce the news of its capture by the Allies, giving as he said in Parliament, a "Christmas Present for the British People'"
5th Suffolks part in the overall assault on the city started in a heavy rainstorm which soaked the Battalion positions making it very uncomfortable for the men. At midnight of the 20th November, ordered were received that the Battalion was to provide a Guard of Honour in preparation for the final assault and eventual surrender of the great city. Hastily the CO selected his best and smartest looking men and the party under Captain E.D. Walton, set off for the city. "The Turk had decided to put up a fight for Jerusalem" wrote Wolton, and so within 24 hours, they had returned.
Placed in reserve, the Battalion could see the city from its new positions and all seemed to be intact. on the 26th the advance continued. Shelling and fire from the flanks, as well as from overhead by enemy aircraft was high and no anti-aircraft guns were readily available. Early December, saw the Battalion back in reserve, being kept they hoped, for the final advance upon the city but regretfully it was not to be.
On the 9th December, two Sergeants of the 2/19th London Regiment met the official delegation with the note of the city's surrender and two days later on 11th December, as the Battalion took over new positions at Beit Nabala, General Sir Edmund Allenby proudly marched into the city to formally accept its surrender.
The Battalion's part in the final advance may have been small, but in the initial stages, they paved the way for the advance to continue. They had given that present to the people and for an unfortunate administrative error, they would have been rewarded for it, but for a careless clerk at Brigade HQ, who mislaid over 25 recommendations for Honours and Awards for the Battalion.
Modest to the end; as was the trait of the Suffolk soldier, 5th Suffolk sought no glory, they were just proud to have been part of it. The motto of "Stabilis" or "steady", lived on.
The losses of the counterattack on the 30th caused many men of 7th Suffolk to become prisoners of war.
One man, Percy Watts of ‘A’ Company, was shot through the chest and subsequently captured. However, the boredom of his captivity, sparked an interest in cookery that was to land him an important job in the post-war years.
Percy enlisted into the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe in May 1915 and was soon transferred to the 7th Battalion who were heading off to France. Upon his release from captivity in 1918, he decided to re-enlist and joined 2nd Suffolk at Colchester, shortly before they were to be posted to Ireland. By 1921, he was promoted Lance Corporal and remained with the Battalion as it went to Shanghai in 1927.
In the time in between, he had entered numerous Army cooking competitions and was part of a team from the Battalion that came third in the 'Army Cookery Shield' in 1925. In 1928, he left the Army having been demobbed at the Depot at Bury St. Edmunds. He was discharged on medical grounds as a result of the wound he suffered at Lateau Wood.
Almost immediately though, he became the Officers Mess Steward, a civilian role but one that kept him with his Regiment. For 35 years until the Depot was closed in 1963, Percy was the “Mess Superintendent” and along with his wife whom he married in 1929, the pair cooked, cleaned and ran the Officers Mess until it closed.
Percy was a man of remarkable memory like the doorman of a London club. He knew virtually every officer and his wife by sight and even when retired officers visited, he could remember virtually every one of them. When the Second World War came and the supply of lemons became difficult (Gin and Tonic appears to have been a popular tipple in the Mess), Percy grew from seeds, a lemon tree on the Mess kitchen windowsill.
Later, when it was strong enough, the sapling was transferred to the Depot Greenhouse behind the Officers Mess, which was tendered to by German Prisoners of War. Percy had great affinity with them having been a prisoner himself, and often made them up sandwiches from the leftovers to take back to their camp when their work at the Depot ended each day.
Percy retired and was later awarded the Imperial Service Medal for his long and honourable service to the Suffolk Regiment.
“Enemy Counterattacked. 13 Officers And 219 O-Ranks Missing. HQ And 'A' Company Surrounded And Captured"
Following their initial advances at the Battle of Cambrai, the 7th and 9th Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment had cause to celebrate. Their gains had been nothing short of spectacular. Ground taken, minimal casualties and vast amounts of materiel and prisoners taken.
As they consolidated their gains; the 7th around the rear of Lateau Wood and the ground that dropped off it is rear, and the 9th, around the bridges and the hills to the east of Marcoing, they felt that they had thoroughly routed the Germans and that this might be well on the way to a large scale breakthrough, but this was not the case.
Early on the 30th December what seemed like the impossible happened. After a ferocious artillery barrage, the Germans counterattacked and broken through in a number of places along the Allied front line.
Forging a wedge below Lateau Wood, they drove westwards between 7th Suffolk in Reserve lines near Pam Pam Farm, and their counterparts to the north, then swung round and retook the wood. In minutes the Battalion were in retreat and moving southwards. Those who had been wounded in the barrage had to be left. Everybody was pushed in a disorganised retreat heading southwest towards Gouzeaucourt. The day’s entry in the Battalion War Diary, probably the most complete dairy of any Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, noted the chaos of the day with a brief entry; “Enemy counterattacked. 13 officers and 219 o-ranks missing. HQ and A Company surrounded and captured. Enemy broke through the division on the right and attacked Battalion in the rear”
For 9th Suffolk, they had been more fortunate in that they only had two Company’s in the front line when the German attacked in their sector. C Company were routed from a post they occupies, but after regrouping, they retook the position. The Transport lines, which were not far behind the position, feared a full breakthrough as was being reported all along the line, and withdrew to safety near Ribecourt. Luckily for 9th Suffolk, the German attack against them, lacked the ferocity that their counterparts to the south had suffered and they held on, being reinforced hour by hour repelling the invaders.
The Battle of Cambrai, though successful in the initial stages, was woefully ill-planned for the following build-up to secure the gains that were made during the first day. Supplies were not brought forward, reserves were pitifully sparse and the tank; the saviour of the battle was not much good when sand bags and small arms ammunition were needed for men in the trenches. The ‘poor bloody infantry’ took the brunt as usual.
Though many of those 232 men of 7th Suffolk would within days, be confirmed a prisoners of war, the losses encountered that day, were the biggest since the attack at Ovilliers on the Somme almost 18 months before. For a Battalion that had started the campaign so successfully, it was a crushing blow.
The morning of the 24th was misty and visibility was poor, but the large number of low-flying Allied aircraft did much to inspire confidence in the men. At 6.30 am the tanks advanced disappearing off into the haze and mist.
The advance was however slow, and though the mist hid their lumbering progress, the tanks were averaging less than 50 yards a minute. The infantry kept up close behind them, but gradually one by one, the tanks broke down or got stuck in the sunken lanes.
The infantry was becoming mixed up. Heavy fire came from ‘Bleak House’ and beyond it at ‘Pam Pam Farm’ To add to this fire, the enemy around Le Quennet Farm to the north, started to fire across the Division’s line of advance.
As the Battalion advanced, it encompassed a Company of Norfolks who had floundered on the right flank and together, the attack continued through the R. Berks positions.
Within minutes, they were at the Hindenburg Line and were pushing through the gaps made by the available tanks. Onwards they pushed to the Hindenburg Support line, which was taken with almost complete effect. The Battalion pressed onwards along the high ground to the north of ‘Pam Pam Farm’. The farm itself, was still in enemy hands and several machine guns were very active in its ruins. A pair of tanks were slowly brought up and the farm fell shortly afterwards. Now the only opposition lay from Lateau Wood itself, about 150 yards onwards from ‘Pam Pam Farm’. The 6th Royal West Kent’s attacking from the north were held up by fire at La Quennet farm and their Battalion Commander had been killed and their Adjutant wounded and taken prisoner with a great number of men. Their support was essential to the taking of the wood in a pincer movement.
However, with the assistance of 6th Queens, the Battalion with the CO leading the way, pushed on and took the wood. The enemy had several heavy artillery pieces on its eastern edge and had no time to move them. They and their crews were taken in the final rush.
The advance was one of speed combined with new, if slightly inefficient technology. The Battalion, much changed since Loos, had been scythed on the Somme, but now made great advances in the final breakthrough of 1917.
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.