On the 13th November while 2nd Suffolk were still licking their wounds received at Longueval, they were pressed into another major attack on the German trenches opposite them at Serre.
The previous evening, all Company’s were in their allotted positions by 11.00pm, from where they would be moved to their start positions within a few hours. The recent heavy rains had made their journey difficult and owing to the waterlogged condition of “Rob Roy” trench - from where the attack was to commence from, so the majority of their journeys that night in the darkness, was made above ground.
After being roused and moved into their start positions, the men were to be greeted by a hot cup of tea, but the condition of the trenches meant that the ration party could not get forward with the dixies. When the tea did arrive, it was close to 4.00am and lukewarm.
Around 4.30 am the Commanding Officer, Major G.C. Stubbs, went around the frontal Company’s and made sure that they were in touch with their neighbours on the flanks. The objective for the forthcoming attack was a German trench on the left flank, known as “Serre” trench, which had a strongpoint at a junction of a communication trench called “Suffolk Avenue.”
At Zero Hour; 5.45 am on the 13th November, the leading Company’s advanced in a thick, eerie mist. ‘Y’ Company on the left in two waves, with the same on the right being carried out by ‘X’ Company. Bombers were to protect their flanks. In support were ‘W’ Company, with ‘Z’ in reserve to be called upon when necessary. Each company’s frontage was around 190 yards, which narrowed on a compass bearing to around 100 yards at the objective.
The mist covered their initial movements well, but caused the usual chaos within the Company’s. Direction was lost, and the advancing waves became mixed. The muddy ground caked their boots, and slowed their progress. The artillery barrage that they were closely following had cut the first belt of German wire in no-mans-land and it was passable in several places.
A large crater in no-mans-land which had been agreed upon as a pausing point, was found by the first waves upon their arrival at its lip, to be full with water. It could not be used for shelter, so they had to carry on. Disorientated, the advancing troops, veered leftwards. As the barrage slowed, the men reached the German front line. Its wire was still intact and was of a newer concertina style that was only recently introduced by the Germans. Though they tried in vane, it was extremely difficult to cut with wirecutters. Held up, the attack started to falter. The men were caught in the open as the Germans raked no-mans-land with machine-gun fire. Those who could retire, began to do so.
With no news arriving at Battalion HQ, the CO was getting worried. “At 6.20am” wrote Stubbs, “I heard a rumour that the Companies had fallen back and at 6.35am the Coy. S. Major of the Company in support on the right, came back to report the situation. All officers of the two right Coys except one had fallen and the men were all held up in front of the German 1st line. Some had fallen back to the outpost line. All men questioned speak of the German wire as concertina type being a considerable obstacle and the front Coys were held up on it and were bombed from the German 1st line as well as being fired on with rifle fire”
At 6.45am, Stubbs sent his Intelligence Officer, 2nd Lieutenant Vinden (who would serve later with 4th Suffolk in the war that was to follow), along to the front line to see what was happening. Stubbs himself, negotiated the waterlogged “Rob Roy” trench; which, he was informed, held some of his men who had retired. He found no-one except the first of the wounded and many dead.
Vinden was heading north in the direction of “John” Copse, where he eventually found Lieutenant Nicholls (the younger brother of Captain Nicholls who was captured with 2nd Suffolk at Le Cateau) with around 50 men. Nicholls had been commanding the right-hand leading Company (X) during the initial assault, and had held onto the right hand outpost line, before it became untenable and he was forced to retire.
Total losses that day were 3 officers killed, including Lieutenant Douglas Steel (above), 4 wounded and 4 missing. 14 other ranks killed, 90 wounded but over 157 missing. In the years that were to follow, 2nd Suffolk veterans talked of it being the worst battle of the entire war.
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.
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