On 26th January 1915, a detachment of officers of the 2nd Battalion who were in the front line near La Clytte, ventured via road to Merris some 11 miles away to find their counterparts in the 1st Battalion who had recently set foot in France. It was the first, although partial meeting, of the two Battalions on active service for some years.
Lieutenant-Colonel Clifford, commanding 2nd Battalion, met Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace, commanding 1st Battalion and lunched with him at the 1st Bn HQ Billet.
Others in attendance were Captain and Adjutant of the 1st Battalion, D.V.M. Balders and Lieutenant and QM Godbolt.
The 2nd Battalion's entry that day in their War Diary noted this historic meeting and remarked that men of the 1st Battalion were "decorated with little yellow castles below the collar on their backs” - was this the first instance in the Regiment that a distinguishing battle patch was worn?
24th January 1915 was a momentous day for the 1st Battalion in the front line at Vierstraat, southwest of Ypres.
The War Diary noted that “Very Pistol with long barrel issued to the firing line. First instalment of pumps for the trenches received.”
Until that point, movement in the front line trenches in Flanders was both difficult and dangerous.
The bad weather that the newly created Service Battalions had experienced at home, was also being felt on the continent.
The first primitive trenches which were dug without revetments in Flanders, were prone to flooding due to the Flanders water table. The men could not dig more than a few feet without encountering water, so all positions had to be build up above ground rather than below it.
Hours spent up their knees in water had a detrimental effect on the men’s morale, not to mention their kit. Pumps, although hand operated, were at least the first step in getting the problem under control. Within weeks, specially constructed trenches of timber and steel would begin to reinforce the hasty built ad-hoc ones already in existence.
The training of the Cambridgeshire Battalion was gathering pace.
By New Year over 1300 men were under arms and by mid-January, the Battalion was at full strength.
Supplies of uniforms were not forthcoming. Other than the basic suit of blue service dress and boots, hardly any other clothing arrived. The men could survive in their own shirts, but essentials such as gloves were urgently needed.
In an attempt to look after their men, enterprising young officers, many of whom had been Cambridge undergraduates until just a few weeks before, sent letters out to many prominent local people asking for their assistance.
Lieutenant R.C. Grey, who was later to become Adjutant of the Battalion, sent the above letter to a family friend asking them for assistance: “Dear Day, Could you by hook or crook possibly procure me 70 pairs of mittens for my men? RCG” His call was duly answered and by 27th January 1915, a total of 30 pairs of gloves had been sent to him.
Photography was a new concept when it came to warfare.
Although images had been taken of fighting men as far back as the Crimean War of the 1850s, there was never an instant appearance in the press like that of today.
It was not until the Great War, that the technology had advanced so far that a photograph taken in the morning, could be developed in the afternoon and be back in London the following day. From here it could be transferred into a printing block and be in print in a national newspaper that afternoon.
The first real time that The Suffolk Regiment experienced this new media war was in January 1915, when a photographer from the Daily Mail captured men of the 1st Battalion huddling around their braziers in the railways sidings at Rouen. By the following day, it had appeared in the press in England, less that 48 hours after it was taken.
"The Great European War" as the picture was entitled, showed 2/Lieutenant E.D.C. Hunt, Captain P.S. Walker, Captain P.C. Harris and Corporal H. Theaker, warming their hands in the intense cold; shown by the fact that the men are wearing their newly issued goatskin jackets over their greatcoats.
At 1.30pm on January 16th 1915 the 1st Battalion arrived at Southampton Docks.
At 2.00pm embarkation began to get the Battalion onto their transport.
By 4.00pm all loading was completed and at 5.00pm, the SS Mount Temple weighted anchor for France containing the Battalion, the Headquarters of 83rd Brigade and 103rd Battery, Royal Field Artillery.
First stop was an overnight stay at St. Helen's on the Isle of Wight, from where they would pick up their destroyer escort in the channel and proceed to France. From the dust of Egypt to the cold snows of the Western Front, another Battalion of Suffolk soldiers were off to war.
January 15th 1915, the War Diary for the 1st Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment noted that at last mobilisation was complete. 25 officers and 996 other ranks were ready to go to war.
At Battalion Headquarters, Movement Orders were received from Brigade HQ instructing the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel W.B. Wallace to gather the men from their billets in Winchester to proceed via a directed route, to their embarkation port of Southampton.
The Battalion would assemble in Jewry Street and proceed via the High Street out of the town southwards. Their route was planned to the minute with scheduled stops for ten minutes every hour. From Winchester, to Otterbourne, through Chandler’s Ford and onto Southampton Common. Here a scheduled halt would be made and any deficient horses would be replaced with those from the Remount Department which would have a temporary stable in the north-east corner of the common.
From here via St. Mary's Road, St. Mary's Street, Freefield Lane and Lattimer Street, they would arrive at No. 2 Dock gate, where they would embark on transport for Le Havre. The orders were strict; “The times given in the March Table must be strictly adhered to, and units must preserve strict march discipline” If need be, there would be no stops if the Battalion was behind time. Any man falling out from the column was to be left with instructions to proceed to No. 2 Dock gate where he would be directed to his Battalion’s berth. The column would
Originally the Battalion was to bring up the rear of the column with 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers and 2nd Cheshires in front of them, but at 8.15pm; just as the final loading of stores and equipment was being completed, the Battalion received an amendment to the Movement Order stating that the start time was to be advanced by five minutes and the order of column changed. Instead of being last, they would now be second behind the Northumberland Fusiliers. With this amendment came the Embarkabion table. For the first time, the C.O. knew which ship they were to sail to France upon; the S.S. Mount Temple.
The Mount Temple was one of the ships that came to the assistance of the sinking R.M.S. Titanic three years before. It was rumoured that she ignored the Titanic's distress rockets and that she could have arrived sooner to assist the sinking ship. Irrespective of this, the most important thing at present was to get a good night's sleep and be ready early in the morning for the final march to war.
The 1st Battalion upon their return from Egypt had been billeted first at Lichfield, then Felixstowe, before finally in December, being sent to Hursley Park near Winchester.
Whilst here, the final stages of the Battalion's mobilisation was completed. The men's surplus uniforms and equipment were packed into their kitbags and placed in store. The oil bottles in the butts of their rifles were filled with oil and their field dressings were sewn into their pockets in the service dress jackets. The Quartermaster stood by to get the men to their embarkation port, and for this undertaking he drew four bicycles and eight pocket watches from the Army Ordnance Department to ensure that all would run smoothly.
Unlike the 2nd Battalion on Home Service, whose War Establishment of 1000 men was completed in less than 72 hours, the 1st Battalion’s mobilization took a little longer. Depleted of officers, senior NCOs and men who had been syphoned off to other units. Their mobilization took weeks rather than days.
On December 7th two drafts arrived from the 3rd Battalion; 225 in one draft, 40 in the other. On January 4th another 30 men arrived from the 3rd Battalion, but the weather was still awful and their camp was nothing but a “sea of mud.”
The decision was made, just as with the 9th Battalion at Brighton, to put the men into billets in nearby Winchester. From here, they could march the 13 miles to Southampton and onto transport to France. By the 13th January rumours abounded that they would soon be off. Captain Jack Alexander Campbell, who joined the 1st Battalion in Malta in 1906, instructed his groom to put his beloved charger on the train home to Suffolk and ordered his servant pack his kit and label it 'Havre' - there was no doubting their final destination.
2nd January 1915, Private Sydney Fuller, 8th (Service) Battalion, wrote in his diary:
"Bayonet fighting practice. The 'enemy' was represented by bags stuffed with straw, and we literally knocked the stuffing out of them!"
It was the first time since 26th December that the men of the Battalion had been able to train outside due to the inclement weather. They had done plenty of bayonet fighting practice before, but only using dummy rifles with spring bayonets.
This was the real thing.
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.