Late on the 28th January 1918, sad and bitter news came to the Orderly Room of the 8th Battalion, then stationed in a camp at Rousbrugge near Poperinge. The Battalion was to be disbanded.
The battles of the latter part of 1917 had sapped the British Army on the Western Front of virtually all of its strength. After the battles of Third Ypres and Cambrai, the Army suffered a manpower crisis. The losses of these great battles forced the Commander in Chief and the Army Council decided that a complete restructure of the Brigade system was needed and that one Battalion in four would be disbanded and its members redistributed.
“Paraded at 11 am and were addressed by the CO” wrote Signaller Sydeney Fuller in his diary for the 29th January. “The C.O. started "What I have to say is nothing very pleasant, so I might as well tell you straight out. The Army Council has decided that a certain number of battalions are to be disbanded, and, unfortunately, this battalion is one of them” The C.O. went on to say that Brigade and Divisional Staffs had had nothing to do with choosing the Batts. to be disbanded, otherwise, we might be sure our Batt, would not have been chosen. He was very much upset over the business, and so were we all”. For men like Fuller, who had been in since the fall of 1914 and who had been right through, the news was sad.
Saddest most perhaps of all those there, was the Battalion Commander himself. Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill, who although himself an officer of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, considered himself, and was considered by the men he commanded, to be a true Suffolk. Though he never changed his badges during all the time he commanded them, they still respected him as being one of their own.
Gerald Victor Willmott Hill much respected the close geographical links, the Battalion had with the county, even though in the latter months of 1917, drafts arrived from many other units that had no connection to it. Prior to disbandment, he was making great personal efforts to ensure that the men who were under his command, were redistributed to other Suffolk units after the break-up. Through his actions, ‘A’ Company transferred to 1/4th Suffolk, ‘C’ Company transferred to 2nd Suffolk and ‘B’ and ‘D’ Company’s to the 7th Suffolk.
The Battalion had shown throughout its existence, great courage and endurance. A spectacular success was seen upon the Somme in September 1916, but their campaigns in Flanders at Third Ypres, were marred by the failure of their counterparts to exploit their gains. They had shown great courage not once, but twice, and their actions had held the tide of the enemy’s advance and checked their advance, yet always they seemed to be denied the true recognition for their actions.
“We gave him three of the best, but he was too much upset to reply properly” concluded Fuller “The C.O. said we were not to get drunk and smash things etc., but were to still be 8th Suffolks while the Batt. was still whole. Also that we were to have a good time while we were here – “We've got some sorrows, but we’d better drown them”
In late January 1918, a photograph on the front page of the Daily Mail showed a group of recently escaped Prisoners of War who had successfully eluded capture and had made it back to England. One of those pictured was Sergeant Thomas Bloomfield.
Born in Norton near Woolpit in 1887, No. 7789 Sergeant Tom Bloomfield joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1908. Captured at Frezenberg on the 8th May 1915 with the majority of the 1st Battalion, Bloomfield had valiantly fought on, rallying those around him until he was hit by shrapnel in the shoulder. Getting up to shout to a fellow NCO, he was shot through the ribs. Left alone, badly wounded and loosing blood fast, the line fell back in retreat. As the shrapnel rained down, he suffered a broken arm to the barrage before minutes later, he was taken prisoner.
By train, the Germans coveyed him to the Military Hospital at Remschield where he was operated upon no fewer than six times. It was not until early August, nearly four months after the was wounded, that he was passed fit enough to leave and was taken immediately to Friedrichsfeld Prisoner of War Camp.
Situated at Wessel around 25 miles from the Dutch border, it’s close proximity to the neutral country of Holland made escape a tempting prospect. However between the camp and Holland was the formidable river Rhine, and with every bridge guarded, any would- be escapee would have to find a different route to freedom.
Senior NCOs like officers, were not permitted to work under the Geneva Convention, however the men had to. NCOs however, had to escort the men to work in the various factory and lumber mills in the vicinity of camp and it was on these numerous visits out, that Tom started to study the locality and plot a route of escape.
On the 7th January 1918, with the assistance of an chum, Sergeant Davis of the Border Regiment, their made their break. “We walked out of the camp at 7.30” wrote Bloomfield “dressed in a pair of black trousers from which we had taken the yellow stripes and put in red stripes. The Germans gave us overcoats with the buttons cut off. We had two of these coats and we got German buttons put on and made epaulettes. We had two Broderick caps which are very like German caps, and we forged a couple of passes. We showed the Germans our passes and walked on. They though we were German censors, for their was a party in the camp”. Amazingly, they were out.
Moving fast the first night, they covered over ten miles on foot, through mainly marshy conditions. Heading due north, they used a compass they had traded from a fellow prisoner to circumnavigate the town of Bocholt. Travelling by night on the third day, they crossed the Dutch border south of the town of Winterwijk and into freedom.
Sent to a temporary camp at Didam, here they remained for twelve days whilst they were given new clothes and theirr passage to Rotterdam was organised. During this time, a representative from the British Embassy in the Hague arrived with Money for them and the news that they would be taken with a destroyer escort to England in the next few days.
Safely back in the England, they basked in the media attention of their exploit. In 1919, Tom extended his service and was allocated the new Regimental number of 5819210. In 1920, he was officially gazetted with the award of a Military Medal "in recognition of gallant conduct and determination displayed in escaping from captivity."
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!”.
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.