In the front line trenches which ran through the village of St. Jean, a shell landed on the front line dugout of 'C' Company, 9th Suffolk killing 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Williamson, and severely wounding 2nd Lieutenant Kelsey and the two signallers who were sitting in the doorway.
It brought to an end, a relatively quiet four day period in the front line. The Battalion had since New Year been averaging four days 'on' and four days 'off' and in the last period, only one man had been killed and one wounded, it seemed that it was quietening down since the massive shrapnel and gas attacks of December, but many were beginning to realise that quiet periods, were never really that quiet.
Born 1889 in Liverpool, Alexander Williamson, became an Assistant Elementary School Teacher in 1907, and lived with his parents, Alfred and Jane Williamson at 9 Norwich Rd, Wavertree, on the outskirts of the city. He had joined the Battalion in January 1915 and was one of the original officers who crossed with it to France in August. He was 27 when he died.
At La Boiselle on the Somme, the Germans opposite the 8th Battalion, were on an intelligence drive.
Like the British, the Germans were keen to see who was opposite them and what strength they possessed. The men of the Battalion, grew to know that every artillery stonk was for a purpose and that conceivably in the minutes of eerie calm that followed, an enemy attack might come.
These periods were known as "Stand To" when men manned the parapet with rifles ready, safety catches off and bayonets fixed. Gas helmet satchels were left open; ready to be donned if need be. Be it bullet or gas, this dreaded silence was often the precursor to an enemy advance.
Sydney Fuller wrote in his diary of the afternoon's activities on 31st January 1916: "We stood to - equipment on, rifles and gas masks ready, etc., during this strafe, which continued until 5.15pm., when it suddenly stopped. We had felt the shock of a mine at 5.15pm, but it was not on our front. Although the enemy fired hundreds of shells during this "stunt" our Battalion did not suffer a single casualty."
When the fire ceased, news came that the Germans had attacked against their neighbours to the right of 8th Suffolk; the 10th Essex Regiment, and had taken over 15 prisoners. Though the German advance had successfully routed the 10th Essex, the Germans seemed not to be interested in keeping their newly won gains, but were content to withdraw with their newly captured prisoners. Intelligence was more important than land.
On the morning of 22nd January 1916, the world literally collapsed for 2nd Suffolk.
At "The Bluff” overlooking the German lines along the Ypres-Comines canal, the Germans detonated a large mine which disintegrated the British front line, causing many casualties.
The Bluff was a large man-made earthwork that straddled the canal. It was formed by the spoil which had been dredged from the canal where the road from Zillebeke to Wijtschate passed under it. By late 1915, the tunnel under canal for the road had gone and a single wooden plank bridge was lying in its place.
The Bluff was originally covered by trees, but 15 months of war had resulted in it becoming a muddy desolate mound of earth, devoid of any cover and a dangerous place to be seen on. Its height however successfully shielded British activities in bringing up troops to the front line via the nearby Ravine Wood. Late in 1915, the British started to tunnel into the Bluff itself, making progress in creating underground accommodation for newly arriving troops, before they exited into the front line. The Flanders water table however prevented them from going deep, so most of the tunnels were at ground level and above.
2nd Suffolk had been in the front line trenches along the foot of the Bluff since November 28th. Their stay here extended over Christmas, which passed quietly, and into the New Year. At 2.00am on the morning of the 22nd January, the Germans detonated their deadly mine.
Estimated to be the equivalent of almost seven tons of gunpowder, it had a deadly effect on the Battalion above. “A terrific explosion occurred. The ground shook violently and an immense column of earth shot up in front of the Bluff carrying away the south-eastern face of it. The explosion was not followed by any bombardment or attack and for the moment no one realised what happened. Men in the trenches next to the canal were buried several feet deep; ammunition boxes were hurled hundreds of yards; and all the surrounding trenches upon which the Battalion had spent so much labour, as well as the systems of tunnels within the Bluff, collapsed completely.”
Dazed and confused, command was quickly regained. The War Diary noted that "the garrison of trench 28 immediately opened rapid fire" as the men awaited the counter attack they felt sure would come. Lieutenant Dix, finding none of his men had survived the explosion, took what men he could find and immediately manned the right hand lip of the crater against attack. They waited for the enemy, but thankfully, they nor their artillery came.
The official figures for killed wounded or missing that day will probably never be known. The official figure now, is 45 Suffolk men killed that day; all of whom were privates and NCOs. No officers of the Battalion are recorded as being killed that day.
The Battalion received a special commendation for their actions that night by the commander of 3rd Division; Major-General R. Haldane, who described their actions in a Divisional Memo which was typed out and pasted into the War Diary by the then Adjutant; Captain H.C.N. Trollope. It concluded: "The conduct of the Battalion under these trying circumstances , was excellent, all ranks behaving in a soldier-like manner, so that their position, which might easily have become serious, was never in danger."
Of all the amazing incidents that occurred that night, perhaps the tale of No. 4142 Sgt Harry Bragg was probably the most courageous. The Regimental History modestly recorded his award of the DCM as being "for conspicuous gallantry" but the truth was far more amazing. Bragg and his men were manning the front line just yards from where the mine was detonated. Initially blown upwards, they were subsequently buried under almost four feet of earth. Bragg succeeded in digging his way out, then single handedly dug out four of his comrades; one of whom was wounded. They then manned the crater for the remainder of the day and what was describes as "hot fire."
The War Diary for the 2nd Battalion noted on 12th January, that its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel d'Arch Smith was invalided home to England. He had tripped over in the front line trenches when running for cover, and badly sprained his ankle. He managed to hobble to the transport lines in the rear of the Battalion's positions but after keeping the weight of it as much as possible over the next fortnight, it was getting badly swollen and he was invalided home to rest.
Harry d'Arch Smith's tenure as commander of 2nd Suffolk was to be a comparatively short one. He had assumed command in the wake of Major C.H. Turner's departure in September 1915. Turner having been killed near Sanctuary Wood near Ypres.
D'Arch Smith was commissioned into the Suffolk Regiment in 1894 and saw service in South Africa with the 1st Battalion. He served with them in Egypt in the years before, but remained in the UK when 1st Suffolk went off to France early in 1915. Instead, he took a draft of the 3rd Battalion out from Felixstowe to join the 2nd Battalion in Belgium later that year.
In his wake, Major Crossfield from the 4th South Lancs, arrived to assume temporary command. Harry would however, be back however to take the Battalion through another tough fight later on that year. His grandson and namesake, would also serve with the Suffolk Regiment, completing his National Service in Malaya with the 1st Battalion.
As Christmas passed and the New Year arrived in the small market town of Hadleigh, the full extent of the town's loss the previous year became apparent.
The majority of those who departed for war the previous year, were pre-war members of the 5th (Territorial) Battalion.
During the initial attacks at Gallipoli, the town lost no fewer than 15 men; almost 20% of the total number of men who had left from the town and its satellite town of Bildeston, for annual camp in Norfolk just over a year before. Of the 73 men who mustered for camp at Holkham, 15 would be killed in action in the Dardanelles.
Like King Guthrum who is rumoured to have been buried in the churchyard in Hadleigh, these men left a mythical legacy on the town they departed. The Hadleigh 'Pals' (as they have recently been called), have been remembered to this day. Their families still live in the locality. Today, you will find Bloomfield's, Chisnell's and Griggs still living in the town, honouring their forebears. Their loss is still mourned to this day.
22o8, Frank Bloomfield. 2400, Leonard Bloomfield. 1284, Herbert Chisnell. 2221, William Dunnett. 1287, Bertie Emmerson. 1872, Thomas Frost. 1499, John Green. 2313, Harry Griggs. 1275, Alfred Lambert. 1261, Arthur Maskell. 2217, George Revens. 1553, Stanley Scarff. 1250, Charles Ward. 1271, Ernest Ward. 1808, George Willis.
On Sunday 9th January 1916, the 11th (Cambs Suffolk) Battalion set foot in France as the penultimate Service Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment to take the fight to the Kaiser.
Two days before at Sutton Veny, the Battalion packed up its kit and prepared to move overseas as part of the 34th Infantry Division. One young officer, 2/Lieutenant Isaac Alexander Mack, began a log of letters that he would send home continually send home to his mother. His entry that day, described the frantic preparations to get ready to move:
“We frantically packed valises and vainly attempted to reduce them to something near the regulation 35lbs. At first one put in a wardrobe fit for Darius going to conquer Greece, which, when put on the scale, gaily passed its maximum of 55 pounds.
Then out came slacks, shoes, scarves, all sorts of things. The weighing was then repeated and further reductions embarked upon, the final result being about 45 lbs. However, we packed them up tight and they all passed all right. In the afternoon we bought all the things we thought we had forgotten. As everything was packed up a group of half-a-dozen of us assembled round the anti-room fire to attempt to obtain a little sleep. I had a chair and a great coat to go over me. The others slept on the floor with table clothes and such like things. We kept a huge fire burning all night, and, unfortunately, instead of going to sleep one could not help looking into its red depths and seeing the pictures of men and horses you always see in fires. Personally, I did not sleep at all, only rested and dozed.
At 3-30 we got up, 4-0 a hasty breakfast, 4-45 I began to go to the lines to fall in, 4-46 I came back for my glasses, 4-48 I return for my identity disc, 4-50 I return again for my day's rations, 5-0 I fall in a quarter of an hour late.
At 5-15 we march off in the dark saying good-bye to those that remain behind, and realising that at last our many months of training are over, and we are soldiers at last, proud of the fact and beginning to be proud of ourselves as we march down to the station. I was very much struck by the great send-off given us by the women of the cottages we passed who, despite the fact that they had seen thousands march out, all turned out at that early hour, and from their doorsteps wished us a very sincere and affecting God speed"
By 7.ooam on the 7th, the Battalion had reached the station, and within two hours, they were on their way to Folkestone. Battalion HQ, 'A' and 'C' Company's crossed to Boulogne that day, 'B' and 'C' Company's crossed the following day, owing to their locomotive having a fault and their narrowly missing the departing troopship. The following day, all four company's were together again at Renescure.
Another Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment was off to war.
"He Would Not Wait Until He Was Fetched, And He Deemed It His Duty As A Man To Help His King And Country"
Early in January, the Ely Standard published news that Private Henry William Saberton from Stuntney, had been killed in action.
The news was not really news, for his wife received the notification back in November when he had been killed in action whilst serving with the 7th Battalion at Loos.
The article ran; "As briefly announced in our last issue, Pte Henry William Saberton, 7th Suffolks, of Stuntney, has been killed in action, but beyond the bare official announcement, the widow has received no news of how he came by death which occurred a few weeks ago. Letters written home by Soham and Stuntney men leave no doubt that he was killed by a shell. The reason the deceased man gave for joining the forces was that he would not wait until he was fetched, and he deemed it his duty as a man to help his King and Country. He enlisted on 1st February 1915 and went out to France in August. Besides the widow, he leaves eight children under 13 years of age to mourn their loss."
Henry's story was not an uncommon one. Men trapped in the relentless toil of manual labour, supporting ever-increasing families, saw the Great War and the Army as an adventure to be taken before it was too late. For those desperate to enlist 18 months before, thinking it might be finished by New Year, it was now tuning into a long, drawn-out affair. Would 1916 bring them victory?
With thanks to the Stuntney Village Website
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.