27th April 1915, saw 1st Suffolk in the front line east of the village of Zonnebeke. To their left were the 12th Londons and to their right, were the 2nd Kings Own.
After 48 hours in the front line, the Battalion was drained. Enemy action had claimed a continuous stream of casualties including Lieutenant D.E. Grose-Hodge.
Educated at Marlborough College, Dorrien Edward Grose-Hodge had joined the Cambridge University OTC whilst he read the Classics at Pembroke College in 1912. Gazetted into 3rd Suffolk in September 1914, he had only joined the Battalion in Belgium a few weeks before.
By the 29th April, the Battalion had been pulled back in Brigade reserve near the small village of Frezenberg along with the elements of London's and the Welch. Here they received news on 5th May that they were due for relief on the 8th May.
With its strength gradually decreasing and the last of the pre-war regular members of the Battalion gradually disappearing, just how much longer could they hold out? Its numbers were falling rapidly. By early May, the Battalion only numbered some 470 men. If an attack were to come, would they be in any fit state to meet it?
On the 29th April 1915, 2nd Suffolk were relieved from their front line trenches by the 4th Middlesex regiment.
As they departed, they marched back to their billets behind the line. As they passed through the junction known as "Confusion Corner" near the Ypres-Comines canal, the Germans unleashed a deadly bombardment of high explosive and shrapnel shells onto the cross roads causing several casualties.
One man wounded that day was Lieutenant A. J. Lowther, when a shard of shrapnel nicked the top of his ear, knocking off his glasses and grazing the side of his head. Though it looked gruesome, the wound itself was not serious.
The War Diary duly noted his injury and paraphrased it by a rather pompous note stating “Son of The Speaker” - a rather tongue-in-cheek remark referring to his illustrious family lineage and the fact that at that time, his father was the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Arthur James Beresford Lowther was born in 1888 and volunteered for service in early August 1914. He didn't remain a private soldier for long for he was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment on the 1st September 1914, and arrived in France on 4th February 1915, joining the 2nd Battalion then in the front line at La Clytte.
Arthur’s father, James William Lowther, 1st Viscount Ullswater, of Campsea Ashe in the County of Suffolk, GCB, PC, JP, DL was Speaker of the House of Commons throughout the Great War, coining the immortal parliamentary phrase “Stand up. Speak up. Shut up” The family, which had direct lineage back to William the Conqueror, was one of the noblest in the land.
Captain, the Honourable Arthur James Beresford Lowther, was himself educated at Eton and was before the war, a barrister of the Inner Temple. After his Great War service, he went on to become Assistant Commissioner for Kenya (1918-20) and later Aide-de-Camp to the Governor of Southern Rhodesia in 1923. He never married and died in 1967.
At 9.00pm on the evening of 22nd April 1915, news was received at the 2nd Battalion in the front line between La Clytte and Resninghelst, that to the north near Ypres, the Germans had used poisoned gas for the first time.
The war diary made mention of this ‘obnoxious gas’ and that it “hurt men’s eyes” It was the first use of gas warfare against the Allies during the Great War.
In the first instance, handkerchiefs and socks soaked in urine were the most basic of protection. Shortly afterwards an appeal went out to women in England and the Empire to make small facemasks filled with cotton wool and fitted with tapes to allow it to be tied around the wearers head. Separate rubber goggles were issued to cover the eyes against its effects.
It was however quickly discovered that the wool pads, when soaked in repelling liquid (normally sodium thiosulphate and glycerine), it formed a complete mass and made breathing through it impossible. Quickly the cotton wool was changed to cotton waste which did not form a solid mass. The first basic gas masks were christened ‘black veiling’ respirators on account that black silk crepe from old mourning dresses was the best material to use. This simple ‘gas mask’ continued in service for a further two months until a better solution was found to the problem.
In the third week of April 1915, the Illustrated London News published the first official obituary of Captain Ernest Nevill Jourdain who was killed serving with the 1st Battalion at near Ypres earlier that year.
On 16th February, Captain Jourdain, who was then in command of C Company, went out to try to retake ‘O’ trench in an area along the southern edge of the Ypres-Comines canal, which had previously been captured by a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and later held by the Buffs. However, during the previous night, the Germans had beaten them out and re-occupied the position. Upon upon arrival, Jourdain was greeted by a hail of fire from well-entrenched Germans and could do nothing to dislodge them without reinforcements and bombs. He sent word back to HQ asking for both, but before his message was received, he was shot by machine-gun fire.
Two platoons under Captain C.S. Wilson were dispatched to assist the position, which was between the wood and the canal, but by the time they arrived, Jourdain was already dead. Enemy machine guns were in constant use and it was decided that any further attack would be futile until the guns could be dealt with.
To the right, Captain Wood-Martin in ‘N’ trench was also fighting bitterly to hold his position against this withering fire. At 2.00 am, a planned attack by the Cheshire's was called off and what remained of C Company in between 'O' and 'N' trenches, were pulled out of the front line, their position being occupied by a battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Only was it when they were withdrawn, did the full extent of the action become evident. Captain's Wood-Martin and Harris, Lieutenant's Ffoukes and Smith and 19 other ranks were killed. Captain's F.S. Cooper and J.A. Campbell, Lieutenant's Day and Payne were wounded, along with 53 other ranks. 171 other ranks, including Jourdain were however listed as 'missing.' Those who knew of his fate had themselves been captured and the uncertainty as to his fate remained for several weeks, until early April, when without news of him, he was officially listed as killed.
Commissioned into the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in 1898. He was promoted to Lieutenant upon joining the 1st Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment in December 1899. He served in South Africa with the 1st Battalion and was with them in Egypt when war was declared.
The youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Jourdain, he was educated at Haileybury College, he was a competent and notable athlete being for three consecutive years in the final pool in the bayonet-fighting competition at the Naval and Military Tournament at Olympia. A Captain of the 1st Battalion's hockey and cricket teams, he also held an Army gymnastic instructor’s certificate from Aldershot.
Sport ran through Jourdain's blood. On his mothers side of the family - the Nevill’s, was a young Lieutenant serving in the East Surrey Regiment. 15 months later, he would kick a football over the top during the battle of the Somme making him forever immortal.
After Neuve Chapelle, many serious questions were asked regarding the conduct of the 4th Battalion during the battle.
First however, came praise from the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, who when addressing them on 17th April commented of their "splendid patriotic conduct," however amidst the celebrations within the Battalion, investigations at Brigade level were routing deep into the part they played in the action.
Firstly it could be argued, that the Battalion suffered from a lack of exposure to battle conditions. Other than a 'scrap' at La Touret in early February, they had had virtually no real combat experience since they arrived in France in November. Other than single Company's supporting other Battalion's in the Brigade in the front line, no real close-quarter combat action was seen by 4th Suffolk until the battle itself. They had not been gradually eased into action, but appeared instead, to have be thrown head-first into it.
Secondly perhaps, one could argue that they had also suffered from a certain degree of 'mollycoddling' brought about by the personal care and attention their officers and NCOs had lavished upon them. An almost family-like concern to their wellbeing had already resulted in the Battalion Commander, Colonel Frank Garrett being invalided home with a complete nervous breakdown. He had lavished much resources upon them in peacetime. With a lack of these comforts in battle, their morale was dealt a blow. It was a severe case of familiarity having bred contempt when the men saw his invaliding home in February as nothing short of a desertion. The burden of command had fallen heavy upon him, but despite his departure, his own 'H' Company (now 'C' company) from Leiston and East Suffolk, were to be the most gallant of all the Battalion's Company's, winning three of the four DCMs awarded to the Battalion for actions during the battle.
Colonel Frank's replacement, Major Turner, was viewed by his superiors as only a temporary measure until an new CO could be brought in. Turner himself noted in his diary of the time of when, after a conversation with the Brigade Commander, he was given a small booklet of hints on how to command men. Clearly this was a polite hint that they thought him not up to the task of commanding the Battalion. Turner himself however, being a director of an engineering company, a pillar of Ipswich community and an early founder of the Church Lads Brigade, viewed himself as a more than suitable candidate for the Colonel's job.
Although the previous 'action' at La Touret had dealt a blow to morale, it had not depleted the ranks by any great amount. The loss of over 800 men prior to, and during the battle, was and still is, the most difficult question to answer.
Of the 973 all ranks that left the UK in November 1914, just six are recorded as being killed between 1st December 1914 and the 10th March 1915* Therefore taking into account the 222 killed, wounded or missing during the battle itself, and the 173 remaining ranks mentioned in the Battalion War Diary, just where were the other 572 ranks that were not involved in the action?
There is no mention of them in the War Diary or Official History. Were they held in reserve somewhere? or had they been cut off somewhere by shell fire? We shall probably never know.
The Battalion's inability to hold their specified frontage of trench due to these depleted ranks, caused considerable strain on the other Battalion's in the Brigade. The War Diary noted twice that no progress was made by the Division on the left, but they were in fact being stretched far beyond their acceptable limits, due to 4th Suffolk's reduced ranks. The mention too of a spy in both Turners diary and the official history, was much laboured on, but no evidence exists of how such a person could relay reports back to the enemy. Accurate shelling at "Windy Corner" on the morning of the 12th could be put down to the flat, unobstructed terrain of the battlefield; ideal for the German artillery observers high up in the trees of the Bois de Biez, who had an unobstructed view to Windy Corner - a mere 1 mile away across the cross roads at "Port Arthur."
For all these questions, their answers were not, and are still not, very forthcoming. The new Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Wilson Cruddas, had much hard work to do in making these "Saturday Night Suffolks" into professional, efficient fighting soldiers. They had to loose the air of a 'weekend camp' that many still possessed, and realise that this was a real, bloody, ferocious war.
For the remainder of 1915 they would be placed in backwaters, away from the great actions of the war. After Neuve Chapelle, they had to prove themselves once more to their superiors. They may have had the spirit, but what they badly needed was the experience.
*Source: CWGC website, however they may be a further 18 more not listed by Battalion.
Early on the morning of the 12 April, the 1st Battalion were leaving their billets in Dranoutre, and were heading for the town of Poperinge some 4 miles away. The march would take them through the small village of Westoutre, where at that time, the 2nd Battalion were billeted.
Knowing of their imminent arrival, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifford, rode out with his Adjutant, Captain Williams to meet the 1st Battalion’s Commander; Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace. As the 1st Battalion entered the village, a halt was made, when after men from the both Battalions mingled and chatted. Old chums who had enlisted and trained together, met up and relieved old times. Men who had served in Egypt, Malta, South Africa and Ireland, shared a smoke and exchanged banter.
The officers from both Battalions got together. Lunch was held in a small makeshift mess in an estaminet overlooking the church. After lunch was over, Captain W.B. Higgins produced his pocket camera and it was decided that a picture should be taken to record this momentous event.
Crossing out from their mess, the officers stood in front of the village church and had their photograph taken. Present from the 1st Battalion were; Lieut.-Col. W.B. Wallace, Captain D.V.M. Balders (Adjutant) Captain Arnold, Lieutenants Wood and Bradley and 2/Lieut’s Harrison, Lloyd and Chandler. From the 2nd Battalion were Lieut.-Col. H.F.H. Clifford, Captain Williams (Adjutant), Lieutenants Oakes (survivor of Le Cateau) and Sparkes, 2/Lieut’s Trollope, Bunbury, Lowther, Vesey and Pickard-Cambridge. Also present were a number of recently drafted officers in both Battalions from the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion in England.
After the photograph, as time was pressing, the 1st Battalion formed up and moved off north to Poperinge. Higgins used his precious stock of film to take two more photographs; one of a fellow officer in the 1st Battalion looking back over his shoulder and another of a 2nd Battalion man chatting to an old chum in the 1st Battalion as he marched away.
Despite an official Army Council Instruction banning the use of private cameras, Higgins left us these three photographs as the only legacy of that momentous event. It was momentous for the Home Service and Foreign Service Battalions of The Suffolk Regiment met together only three times during the entire 274 years the Regiment was in existence.
Within six weeks, one C.O. would be captured and within 18 months, the other would be killed. It would be another 12 years before the two Battalions would meet again. Luckily it would be in the sunnier peaceful air of Gibraltar.
The perils of the close intensity of trench warfare were beginning to show in the early spring of 1915.
In those early days bayonets were often kept fixed, especially in the front line. Eighteen inches of ‘cold steel’ permanently attached to the end of an SMLE rifle (like that of the Suffolk soldier left) was both deadly to the enemy and also its owner.
In addition to the routine casualties suffered by the 1st Battalion during their time in their trenches around Dranoutre in early April, the War Diary noted the first accidental wounding of a soldier of the Battalion.
On the night of the 4th April, the 7th Battalion Notts and Derby Regiment were due to relieve 1st Suffolk at midnight. However due to their machine gun section getting lost in the dark maze of trenches and scrapes, relief was not completed until 4 a.m. the following morning. In the confusion to exit the line, No. 8977 Arthur George Baker of C Company, was accidentally bayoneted by a stumbling colleague.
Losing their footing exiting the front line, the comrades' bayonet slipped and tore through his right shoulder. Though painful, it was not decreed serious and Baker was patched-up and sent off to hospital to recuperate, rejoining the Battalion later that year in October.
One of the original draft of men who arrived in France in January, he had joined the Regiment in May 1914 and was soon serving with the 1st Battalion after they returned to Britain from Egypt in late 1914. Arthur's wound drove home the lesson that no matter where they were, they had to be alert at all times, not only for their own sake, but for their comrades.
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.