From Christmas 1915 until mid 1916, 1st Suffolk were almost constantly in the front line in the hills above Salonika in an area of the front line given the nickname of "The Birdcage."
The Birdcage was a defensive line across the open ground about 20 miles north of the Greek city of Salonika. The Allies were keen to establish a front line in a campaign that had none when they arrived.
By establishing a position as far north as they could, operations and advance in Bulgaria, would be easier. It also meant that the port of Salonika could be better defended for it was the main disembarkation port for the British Salonika Force and, if withdrawal from the campaign (which was still a possibility) was required, the land in-between it and the front line would acts as a time buffer to halt the enemy and get the bulk of the force evacuated.
The 84th Brigade of which 1st Suffolk were part, advanced north-east along the Serres road, around 15 miles from the port of Salonika, where they came to the first great ridge of mountains. Turning westwards towards a mountain village called Gnoina, the Battalion dug-in in an area that came to be known as "Little Gibraltar." Unlike the European campaign, the trenches ran along the northern side of the mountain range, allowing the Allies to use the crest of the ridge behind for observation. By sighting their trenches on the further side, the occupiers could see everything that lay before them over the marshy swampland to the north.
The terrain was quite different to that they had known in Flanders. The Greek soil was but 18 inches deep, under which was hard bed rock which was backbreaking to get through with pick and shovel. Soon too, logistical problems began to present themselves. There was a lack of heavy materials for trench building. Timber, angle iron and corrugated tin were in short supply, so the troops took to using age old methods of building dry stone walls and wicker hurdles to initiate the defensive works.
Starting from scratch was a tough job alone, but coupled with the mosquitos...
4 Suffolk Regt
Feby 19 1916
I am indeed grieved to have to convey to you the sad news that your boy was killed on Thursday the 3rd inst and I expect by this time you have had confirmation of this from the War Office. By reason of a change of company commanders at the time of your son being killed, it was omitted to write to you to give you the first information so I am writing to save further delay.
Your son was killed by a shell and his death must have been instantaneous. The same shell wounded Pte Bunn severely and Cpl Driver slightly. We were in support at the moment and moving up to the firing line when your son was killed. In fact the Germans were shelling heavily at the time and we thought they might be intending to attack. Your boy was buried the same night near not far from the spot where he fell in a quiet spot. Sgt W Smith, his platoon Sgt and 2 of his pals buried him last night. Sgt Smith with another pal went to put a wooden cross over the grave with a proper inscription.
Your son was a real good lad, always bright and willing, and we all miss him very much. After being wounded once it does seem bad luck he should have been killed this time. He deserved better fate but one can rest assured he has given his life gallantly and for a righteous cause. I well know what his death must be to you all and I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my very sincere sympathy with the family. Your boy was very popular with the other men and I know they, with Capt Pretty, have the same feelings as myself.
Yours very truly W H M Pattisson Lieut
The letter above was written to Mrs Webb, concerning the death of her son, Stephen, who was killed in action at Loos. Lieutenant Patterson had not long arrived in France. After the death of Lieutenant Colonel Cruddas in January, Captain E.P. Clarke assumed command and then on February 11th, Major A. Gilson Taylor returned from Divisional School and took over command of the Battalion from Clarke.
One of Taylor's first decisions as CO, was a complete reorganisation of the Company and Platoon commanders. He moved around some officers who had been with the Battalion since it arrived and gave command of two platoons to newly arrived subalterns 2/Lieutenants Woods and Pattisson.
Slowly, the Battalion was being made good again. Its performance at Neuve Chapelle was behind them. The wilderness months of 1915 had gone. Colonel Cruddas had made the Battalion a professional fighting unit, seen again in the eyes of their superiors as a unit that could be trusted under fire. Tough times were ahead.
In mid-February 1916, the official War Office telegram fell onto the door step of No. 4 School Cottages, Smart Street, Ipswich.
Mrs Georgina Webb learned the saddening news that her son Stephen, had been killed in action on the 3rd February.
That day, in the front line trenches around Loos, the 4th Battalion were manning the front line. Around mid-morning, the enemy artillery rained down upon the leading Company's. It continued unabated until mid afternoon when at one point shells were landing on the Suffolk positions at a rate of 50 per minute. The War Diary noted that they produced "a wonderful and spectacular effect."
Lieutenant K.W. Turner; who had been a member of the 1st Volunteer Battalion, prior to the creation of the Territorial Force in 1908, showed great gallantry in bringing up men from 'B' Company from their reserve positions in the cellars of Loos, to the front line.
The immense shelling had reduced the communication trenches to a mass of wounded and hampered any progress in getting fresh troops up to the front line. The shelling had severed communications to the Battalion HQ and the signallers had all been wounded. Two signallers from the nearby Connaught Rangers, did great work in kneeling upon the parapet under heavy fire to use their signalling flags to relay messages. By early evening, both had been wounded, but would subsequently be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The shelling continued into darkness, claiming many more casualties. It was not until early the following morning that the 8th King's Own Scottish Borderers arrived to relive them.
For nearly 17 hours, they had been under continuous shell fire, yet despite this ferocious onslaught, the men stood up to it well. Front line dug-outs had meant that deaths were that day, comparatively light.
One of those who fell that day was No. 2888, Private Stephen Webb of B Company. He had enlisted around the 20th November 1914; most probably in the wake of seeing his mates and relations depart for service in France. He would have most probably walked across town from his mothers house at Smart Street, to the Drill Hall at Great Gipping Street, to enlist in the 4th Battalion (T.F.), The Suffolk Regiment.
In the photograph above, taken most probably in early 1915, Stephen had managed to get one of the last remaining suits of khaki service dress that remained in the drill hall stores, but has missed out on a stiff topped service dress cap. He has instead been issued with a Winter Service Dress cap or 'gor blimey.' The issue of this piece of headgear was restricted in early 1915 for troops proceeding overseas only, so this may have been one of the last photos taken in Britain of Stephen before he went overseas.
He arrived in France on 28th February 1915 and within a few weeks, he was fighting with the Battalion at Neuve Chapelle. He most probably met his end in the congestion of the trenches, caught by the bombardment. Ipswich born and bred, Stephen's old home can still be seen today. It's occupants worked in the school directly opposite which still stands today.
With thanks to Paul Horne via Facebook for the image of Stephen Webb.
In early February a young fresh-faced 2/Lieutenant arrived at the Reserve Battalion of 4th Suffolk at Halton in Buckinghamshire. His name was Charles Cobden Stormont-Gibbs.
Gibbs had only recently left the Sixth Form of Radley College to join the Battalion. He had previously attained the rank of Cadet Sergeant in the Schools Cadet Corps. Gibbs, along with fellow school leaver, Kingsley Christopher Shuttleworth (who had previously left Forest School in London) were commissioned at the same time.
Gibbs was a typical commissioned subaltern of the new armies era. A keen and enthusiastic young man who had received a good education. He would show himself to be a most able and efficient platoon commander, winning the Military Cross later in the war and becoming the Battalion Adjutant. Gibbs however, left one of the few surviving accounts of the Battalion's actions from its battle at High Wood on the Somme in August 1916, to the Armistice in November 1918.
A quiet and unassuming man who later became a preparatory school teacher, one of his former pupils published his diaries after his death, revealing an amazing insight into the Battalion in the second half of the war. The Rt. Hon Enoch Powell, who wrote the forward to the diary when it was published in 1986 proclaimed that Gibbs account was an "unvarnished narrative of irrestistible sincerity." We shall hear excepts of it in the months to follow.
Early in February 1916, news trickled home that the commander of the 4th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Cruddas had died of wounds received in action.
Cruddas has arrived as commander of 4th Suffolk following Colonel Garretts departure in February 1915. He came from the 41st Dogras; an Indian Regiment in the Jullundur Brigade, to lead the Battalion through the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, and for the remainder of the year as they moved first south, then north, before returning to the Givenchy sector in the new year.
On the morning of 19th January 1916, the 4th Battalion were manning the line in the Loos sector when around dusk, the Germans detonated a mine front of their lines. Though casualties were slight, the men wasted no time in rushing forward over no-mans-land to capture the crater before the Germans could get there. Colonel Cruddas was absent at the time in the Field Hospital suffering from a "feverish cold," but upon hearing the news, he was anxious to get back to his men and to see what the situation was at the front.
Arriving after midnight on the 20th, fellow officers persuaded him twice not to venture out to the crater and that everything was under control, on the third attempt they were unsuccessful.
"The third time he went out" so ran a letter that was published in the Statesman "was about 3 o'clock when he went right across to the further side of the crater and in his usual absolutely fearless way, stood upright within 20 or 30 yards of the German front line and started giving instructions to the officer who was with him. He was evidently seen and machine gun and rifle fire was opened up on him and he was hit in the lower part of the stomach"
The Colonel crumpled to his feet. Captain Ling who heralded from Framingham, slung him across his shoulder and made off for the Suffolk trenches. He managed to get the still conscious Colonel onto a stretcher, where a cigarette was lit for him. The contemporary account above, described him as being "quite cheerful. On someone offering sympathy, he smiled and replied "C'est la guerre!" - a favoured expression of his" He died shortly afterwards.
Hugh Wilson Cruddas was 48 years old. He had already been wounded three times before and had recovered successfully from each injury to return to lead the Battalion. Such was his popularity amongst his men, they they insisted that they be allowed to bury him themselves rather than leave it to the usual Pioneers. "He was a wonderful man, and it is entirely due to his extraordinary personality that the Suffolks have been kept up to the mark these long months. The men all say that they would have followed him anywhere, and the reason they give is 'that he never asked anyone to go anywhere or do anything that he wouldn't do himself'"
Cruddas's passing, marked the end of the old world and the beginning of the new for 4th Suffolk. His second in command at Neuve Chapelle, Major F.W. Turner, then commanding the Reserve Battalion at Halton, near Tring, wrote a letter to the Leiston Observer which was published on 5th February;"England has lost many valuable lives during the present war; some known, other comparatively obscure. Among the latter, one of the most perfect soldiers the world has ever produced (I don't think I am putting it too strongly) is Lieut.-Col. Hugh Wilson Cruddas, D.S.O. His first thought when he joined us was to get to know the officers and men, and it was my first duty as his second-in-command to take him round the different company headquarters and introduce him to the officers. It was an anxious time for us because we might have got a very unsuitable man, but that first day relieved me of all anxiety, and within a very few days, he was one of us and every man in the regiment knew it, and loved him for it"
The article also carried a section of verse form a Leiston Boy serving with the Battalion Signals Section. It ended:
And now that he'd give to his last long sleep,
God grant that his soul in peace may keep,
And help us follow his noble lead,
To help our country in this hour of need.
With grateful thanks to Kelvin Dakin for the excerpts above from the Leiston Observer.
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.