"I Have Seen Him Stand Cool And Motionless In The Light Of Very Flares. For His Conduct On These Occasions, I Twice Recommended Him And He Was Awarded Both The Military Medal"
For his actions at Hinges, Private Meeks of 'X' Company was awarded a Bar to his Military Medal. Meeks later went on to become an in-pensioner at Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Following his death in 1974, Canon William Lummis, who has then been a Lieutenant at Hinges remembered him: "He was one of the bravest and coolest men in action that I have ever known. i first met his acquaintance when I took over command of 'X' Company, 2nd Battalion, before going into action in front of Hinges. He was Company runner. Standing a few yards in front of meI noticed him quietly pull out a New Testament from his pocket and, after reading to for a while, place it back. It was this action that induced me to form a Bible Class in the Battalion, which he and many other attended. He was particularly good at guiding companies into positions and in bearing messages to and from Bn. HQ. I have seen him stand cool and motionless in the light of Very flares. For his conduct on these occasions I twice recommended him and he was awarded both the Military Medal and Bar."
The photograph above, published courtesy of the Suffolk Record Office, shows William 'Bill' Meeks MM and Bar on the right. His chum sitting left, can be seen with the coloured right-hand epaulette of 2nd Suffolk, which varied in Colour depending on which Company he was serving with. On his left forearm is a stripe of coloured material denoting his trade (Mortar, Signals, Lewis gunnner etc.). Meeks served with the Signal Section. In close up, the ribbon for the Military Medal bears the rosette of the Bar awarded at Hinges.
The month of June was a quiet one for the 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.
Having arrived the previous month from the Middle East, they had throughout June been in a period of acclimatisation to the Western Front in a ‘quiet’ sector near Penin. Early in the month, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Jarvis, left for several days to tour the trenches in a nearby sector, occupied by the Australians. Whilst he was away, the men started training with tanks in the large scale open warfare that their colleagues in the 7th and 9th Battalion’s had used to great effect the previous year.
Despite this earnest training, the Battalion was always at 9 hours notice to move. The lessons of the German March Offensive were that they blow could come at anytime, anywhere, though many now firmly believed that due to the lack of enemy activity of late, they had played their last card, but were not yet ready to leave the game.
At this time, the strength of the Battalion was 39 officers and 914 other ranks, but the acute man-power shortage of 1917, that had been made worse in March 1918, meant a further reorganisation and a reduction in the size of the infantry Battalion. On 17th June the War Diary noted: “A GHQ letter was received showing the new organisation of an infantry battalion. The strength was reduced to 900 O.R.s. Each platoon was to consist of 3 sections instead of 4. The Lewis gun section being reduced to 1 NCO and about 10 men. The Stokes, two sections with rifle sections of 1 NC0 and 6 OR each. No platoon was to go into action stronger than this.”
When the CO returned, he was made aware of the new organization. Frederick “Freddy” Weston Jarvis had already served with distinction in the Suffolk Yeomanry since 1882. Born into nobility in 1866, he was destined to have pursued a career in the families flourishing legal practice, had he not have become involved with his local troop of yeomanry in his early teens.
During the Boer War he had served with the Imperial Yeomanry and on detachment to the 13th Hussars at Elandslaagte and after the peace was signed, he remained in South Africa serving with the South African Constabulary. Already in his 50s when he look the Regiment to Gallipoli in 1915, he had been with them ever since.
By late May 1918, 2nd Suffolk was back to full strength following the losses it had incurred at Wancourt in late March.
The C.O. Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Stubbs, together with his Adjutant, Captain 'Val' Russell, had ensured that during the quiet time much emphasis had been placed upon training and upon inter-company co-operation.
On the night of 14/15th June,the Battalion went into action in front of the village of Hinges. The plan was to push the enemy back as far as possible and force them back over the La Bassee canal that ran through the village, so that a defensive line could be made along its southern bank.
Moving off in the darkness after midnight, the weather conditions were fine. The advance was ironically, too regimented and men moving across no-mans-land into the rubble of the village, they moved in column of file, passing several concealed German positions, before the enemy fired on them from behind. These enemy outposts were however, soon death with and the advance continued. "The centre company was held up for a time in this way" wrote the Adjutant (Russell) "The platoon commander, Lieutenant Franks, being killed in dealing with one of these posts on the assault course, there was confusion and on Ford Lane being reached, there was a gap between the centre and the left coy. with the Bosche in-between".
Concerned that the Battalion may be divided; as could have happened at Wancourt, the C.O. ordered up a platoon under Lieutenant Bennett, who promptly filled the gap. "The right company was held up on their left by a post with a machine gun" continues Russell, "The platoon commander and a Sgt. being wounded and the Coy. Commander shortly afterwards, when dealing with the situation. This left a Bouche post still holding out in the practice trenches just south of Ford Lane. 2nd Lt. Cook commanding the right front platoon had reached his objective on Ford Lane having himself shot a German Machine Gunner and put the remainder of the post out of action and was digging in when he received news of the situation onto left. He assumed command of the Coy, and organised a bombing attack and cleared up the resistance. His prompt action is most commendable."
Using the bridges still in situ, 'Y' and 'Z' Companies crossed the canal and made the other bank. Now touch was remade all along the Battalion's frontage and with the battalions on the flanks. Now, the reserve company could come forward and bring up supplies of small arms ammunition and more desperately needed Lewis gun magazines or "drums". The enemy artillery was "pretty feeble" and much of it now fell into the canal behind the Battalion.
"Signalling communication by telephone and Lucas Lamp though not through until dawn was effective from that time onwards. A message rockett (rocket) was sent from the forward post, but was not recovered though seen by the look out man. Medical arrangements worked well and the wounded were quickly cleared by the R.A.M.C. bearers. Number of prisoners unknown - about 50. Several L.M. Guns, about seven, were captured and are in use while ammunition last in the posts."
The following night, the Battalion extended its front line positions by 'X' Company under the common of Lieutenant Lummis, being brought up to take over the front line at L Pannerie on the left flank, that had previously been held by the 1st Gordon Highlanders.
The Battalion was in a good strong position. Young officers such as Lieutenant Cook, had shown not only courage but great initiative. The Battalion was now, with the exception of the CO, the Adjutant and 2 Company Commanders, staffed by young subalterns, most of whom were under 25 years old, and had only joined the Battalion in the past six months. It had come a long was since Le Cateau.
"This Was A Bad Day For Us, As We Had Lost Our C.O. And There Was No Prospect Of Getting Him Back, Ever Again”
After a long and glorious career, the 7th (Service) Battalion suffered the fate of its contemporaries, being reduced to cadre for disbandment..
The 7th Battalion was the first of the New Army ‘Service’ Battalions to be formed in 1914 and had proved itself well over the three years of War it had served at the front. On Sunday 19th May came it’s official disbandment and its merger with the 1/1st Battalion, the Cambridgeshire Regiment, who ranks were also depleted following the March Offensive.
It was a happy union not only because of their close geographical locations, but because since time began, the Suffolk Regiment had always looked after the administration of their neighbours across the border. The merger met with no disapproval.
For Sydney Fuller, who had started his career in 8th Battalion, then been transferred to the 7th Battalion, now he was on the move again to the Cambridgeshire’s. Officially entered onto the "book" those who had opted for service with the Cambs, waited in their current positions, whilst those who had chosen to remain at Base, marched away into history. It seemed like the absolute end to some and the Battalion Commander came around to cheer those who had remained before he himself departed.
“The CO and Major Bull left us, shaking hands with all of us before leaving" wrote Sydney Fuller "The C.O. told us that if we got into trouble, or required any help, we were to write to him and he would do his best for us. The Cambs marched into Acheaux and took the place of the Suffolk’s as ‘reserve’ batt. of 35th Brigade. “Cambs” cap badges and numerals were issued to us and deficiencies in our kits were noted for replacement. This was a bad day for us, as we had lost our CO and there was no prospect of getting him back, ever again”.
The men of the 8th held their C.O. G.V.W. Hill in almost saintly status. A soldiers soldier, he had always had their interests and well-being at heart. The men respected him for this and for his paternal care of them. They were truly sorry to see him leave.
Two days previously, Fuller had seen the leaning Virgin on the battered spire of the Basilica in Albert, brought down by shell fire. So the legend stated, when it fell, the War would end. Fuller like many hoped that there was not there much more of this to go?
The continual reorganisation of the British Army continued well into the spring of 1918. Though the threat of German advance in the west had passed, the losses inflicted on the B.E.F. in those crucial weeks of March and April had taken their toll.
In the 7th Battalion rumours abounded that yet another disbandment might be in the offering. The Battalion has already taken drafts of men from the 'B' and 'D' Company’s of the 8th Battalion in January and their old commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill has assumed command of the 7th Battalion, leading it through the tough times it had in the March Offensive.
By May, they still found themselves in the Somme sector in the north near Mailly. Signaller Sydney Fuller noted on 7th May in his diary that: “A rumour which had been floating about for some time, to the effect that the Batt. was to be disbanded, was confirmed. Apparently, the 1st Cambs. (Territorials) were to take outlet place, absorbing part of the Batt., the remainder going to the base. Our C.O. gave Sigs the option of joining the Cambs. or going to the base, and we chose the former, as being the least trouble. Orders issued for the next day were for the Batt. To be prepared to move at half-an-hour’s notice, as Fritz was expected to attack in the morning”.
The acute manpower shortage of early 1918, had lead the War Cabinet to explore all options as to where it withdraw its manpower to concentrate on the final offensive of the Great War.
It had been General Haig who had prophetically said in 1915 that the decisive battle to defeat the Germans would be on the Western Front and in his three years as Commander in Chief of the B.E.F., he had seen all the great 'sideshows' of the war amount to no softening of the German Armies on the Western Front.
There had been limited successes in both Palestine and Macedonia, and the Italian campaign was at last, yielding results, but East Africa and Gallipoli had been failures. The March Offensive necessitate a withdrawal of every available man from these theatres, back to France for the final offensive.
To this end, with the capture of the holy city of Jerusalem and their successful part in the Middle Eastern Campaign now over, the last Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment to fight on the Western Front arrived in France.
The 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion set foot on the dockside at Marseilles on 7th May 1918. Their journey from Alexandria had been one of great excitement when in the 5th May, a German U-Boat was seen and depth charges were fired. The War Diary noted that this was believed sunk, and indeed records showed that UB 70 was lost that day, east of Gibraltar.
Setting foot on the dockside, the Battalion dressed for an infantry war, must have looked curious with its puttees wound from top to bottom instead of the other way round. The older yeoman in its ranks, proudly hung onto the old traditions. Badges and shoulder titles too, were cherished. Those joining in France were issued with standard titles and cap badges. Those who 'been out east' fiercely hung onto their originals.
Upon arrival, they marched to a transit camp before on the 9th, they travelled by train to Noyelles. Here after a brief halt, they went onwards to a training camp at Lamotte-Buleux near Abbeville. Here they spent days in training and acclimatisation to the style of warfare they would experience on the Western Front. A lecture on the "Importance of the Bayonet" was met with scepticism for they had scarily seen their enemy in the desert and had only on a few occasions, ever come enough to him to fight him hand-to-hand with a bayonet. Most of their fighting had been at distance, with only on a handful of occasions, a tussle with "Johnny Turk".
Of just over 450 men who had set foot ashore at Walkers Pier, Gallipoli on 11th October 1915, there were still at least 20 men in its ranks who had been all the way through from the beginning. The strength of the Battalion was noted on the 15th May as 31 officers and 786 other ranks. In France, they would be bolstered further with new men from England, men who "didn't know one end of a horse from the other!"
Soon they would be in the front line.
In the chaos of the retreat of 11th Suffolk at Erquinghem, the Battalion lost its most heroic of members.
As the battalion fell back to the river, those not wounded formed a defensive line with their backs to the water. On the left flank, closest to Armentiers itself, a small pocket of men from 'D' Company held on courageously. Just as they prepared to retire, they were met with a hail of fire, causing a great man casualties.
One of those men who was to be wounded was Lance Corporal Sid Day, who had just eight months before, won the Victoria Cross at Malakhoff Farm. Shot through the right hand, as Day fumbled in great pain to apply his field dressing, the enemy came on and he was taken prisoner. He was now 'in the bag'.
Day, who had been serving with 14 Platoon in 'D' Company, had his hand treated to before he and his colleagues were sent by train to Germany, where in due course, they found themselves at their new home at Langensalza PoW camp near Leipzig.
At first, he was listed as missing and it was not until June 1918 that he news was finally received from him and he was officially listed as a prisoner of War. Day was like many of his fellow 'caged birds' depressed by the thought that the Germans had them onto run in April, but as the weeks wore on, trapped in their camp, they were oblivious to the fact that German was exhausted. Their planned last great thrust in the west had achieved only partial success and though great amounts of Allied prisoners had been taken, these additional mouths to feed were a real burden in a country now on a strict system of rationing, where meat was only on the menu in restaurants two days a week.
For Day, life in the camps was an unending round of cheerful concerts, party games, and the usual daily working parties. At an all English pageant held in the camp theatre, Day took the part of a glorious war hero with much gusto. His fellow comrades made for him, a replica VC from the zinc lining an old tea chest, which he proudly wore during the show (above).
Soon, they knew, the tide would turn.
"I Slung My Rifle On My Back, Discarded My Gas Mask, Put My Wallet In A Waterproof Ammunition Case And Walked Into The Water"
By 3.15 pm, on the afternoon of 10th April 1918, the enemy onslaught had been checked by the men of the 11th Battalion south of the river Lys at Erquinghem and the line had been completely re-established between the original position (near Bac St. Maur) and the right Coy in Erquinghem Switch Trench. Holding on valiantly, by 3.30pm, an order was received that they were to retire to positions north of the river Lys.
The 9th Northumberland Fusiliers on their left, sent a message to Colonel Tuck that they would need some two hours to retire. Tuck therefore decided to hold his Battalion in place as long as possible to allow them to retire. His decision though gallant, led however to more casualties being inflicted on the Battalion during this time.
“The Battalion held off repeated attacks of the enemy until 5.00pm, when the troops on the left had withdrawn”. Now alone and fighting valiantly on three sides, before seeing that they were alone, the CO gave the order to retire.
Crossing the river with what remained of a broken bridge, most of the men stripped off and swam the river, leaving their equipment and gas masks behind. The wounded were left helpless on their stretchers along the banks as Private Frank Hornesy recalled: "Clothes and equipment also lay everywhere here which only too plainly told us if we wanted to go on there was only one way and that was to swim. Some badly wounded chaps lay on stretchers. They had been carried as far as possible. They needed help by they had to be left. We we're the extra stragglers of the retreat. Perhaps we had been sacrificed on purpose to try and hold the enemy if only for a few hours. I don't suppose we were expected to be alive by this time if the truth was known. Lower down several men could be seen swimming through the dark cold water. Many were drowned while attempting to swim this canal. We must soon think about it. Bill was cursing. Just then a violent burst of machine gun fire broke out not many hundred yards away from us. The Germans were in the village we had just left. That decided us who wanted to stop to be taken prisoner or killed. Let them stop who like - we were going through the water".
Stripping down to the bare minimum in the middle of a battle, Hornsey and his chum Bill got ready to cross: "I slung my rifle on my back, discarded my gas mask, put my wallet in a waterproof ammunition case and walked into the water, Bill following me. We were soon in deep water, the current very strong. Thank goodness we could both swim well. My clothes hung like lead. Once again I was almost giving up when my feet touched the bottom and we waded out".
The remains of the Battalion re-grouped in the vicinity of a hamlet called Waterlands where it formed a defensive square, preparing to fight on all fronts. Patrols were sent to the north-west and soon it was established that the enemy were in strength pressing further north along the cover of the railway line on the Battalion’s left flank.
At 4.00 am on the morning of 9th April 1918, 11th Suffolk were in Divisional Reserve behind the British front line south of the river Lys. Two Company’s were positioned in Erquinghem, with the other two Company’s in La Rolanderie Farm.
At 4.00am, a large-scale enemy bombardment came down along the front line. As it intensified, it crept towards the rear areas and the village itself. Sensing that something was happening and preparing to meet a possible enemy attack, the C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Tuck, moved his men from the village and the farm and into trenches between the railway line and the village.
At 11.15 am, the shelling was still intense and Tuck received orders to move the Battalion to west to the village of Bac St. Maur. The enemy had broken the front line to the south and were fast approaching Erquinghem from the direction of Fleurbaix in the south east. No sooner had he hurried everyone together, when new orders were received to not move to Bac St. Maur but to form a defensive line facing Fleurbaix. Tuck placed three of his four Company’s in frontal positions which stretched from Streaky Bacon Switch Trench on the left, to meet up with 103 Brigade, on the right. Soon it became clear that out in front of them, the fighting was getting heavier and when the 40th Division started to form a defensive line on the Battalion’s left flank, they knew that the enemy was close. 40th Division contained within its ranks, 12th Suffolk and together with 16th Royal Scots, they established a defensive line stretching west to Fort Rompu close to the river. It was noted that “For the remainder of the day enemy attempts to advance were repulsed”.
On 10th April at 7.00 am, the enemy attacked and broke through between right 12th Suffolks and left, 16th Royal Scots. The 12th Suffolks fell back. Upon hearing this, the CO rushed the Reserve Company from La Rolanderie Farm, south to fill the gap. By 8.45 am, the “enemy were driven back and the gap was filled and touch was re-established”.
The front line was now very thin and the men of the Reserve Company were now stemming the advance and supplementing the weakened ranks in the defensive line. This left the C.O. with all but a skeleton staff at Battalion HQ. Tuck requested assistance from 4th Duke of Wellington’s, but they did not arrive until mid afternoon, and as soon as they arrived, they were then ordered to withdraw. “During the morning the enemy pushed forward. The continual harassing caused troops on the right of the battalion to give ground slowly”. The right hand Company of 11th Suffolk, now alone, held their ground and stemmed the tide.
At 2.00 pm, the enemy came on in strength along the whole Battalion’s frontage. The fire was intense, but the line was for the moment, holding. Intense shelling caused the unit on the Battalion’s right, to break and start to fall back in complete retreat at about 2.30 pm. Their rout caused a gap in the front line which the enemy was quick to exploit. The right Company now started to fall back towards the village of Erquinghem and the switch trench which ran in front of the village. “The troops in the centre whose positions had been penetrated were rapidly reformed”.
At the height of the March Offensive, as the 7th Battalion fought desperately to fend off the enemy around Albert, an order was received that men could now wear chevrons on the lower right sleeve to signify their length of service.
For those who have been ‘Out since Mons’ a red chevron was worn for service in 1914, followed by a blue chevron for each year of service overseas thereafter.
They were not however free as Signaller Sydney Fuller notes in his diary: “Got some new clothing from stores, and “put up” three blue chevrons. These cost 5d. Each.” Fuller who had joined up in 1914, arrived in France in 1915 with the 8th Battalion, thus earning three chevrons.
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.