On the 31st May 1915, the 7th Battalion arrived at Boulogne. They were the first of the war-raised "Service" Battalions to set foot on the continent.
At 4.00pm the previous afternoon, they had paraded complete at Aldershot with officers horses, bicycles and limber carts. A photograph was taken to record the entire battalion before they left for war.
The Battalion had for several months now, been dressed in khaki, the only Service Battalion of the Regiment to do so. Their counterparts in the 8th, 9th and 11th all having been issued blue uniforms instead. There was it appears, an acute shortage of cap badges so many early recruits to the 7th Battalion were issued old obsolete Victorian ones instead and many continued to wear them throughout the war.
The Battalion had in the proceeding months been occupied in heavy training as part of the 12th (Eastern) Division and under the command of Major C.D. Parry Crooke, who had left the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe, they had excelled in their Brigade, particularly in musketry.
At. 5.40pm, one officer took half the Battalion by train from Aldershot to Folkestone to prepare for embarkation and 40 minutes later, the remainder of the Battalion left to join them. Upon arrival, the first draft boarded the “Invicta” and later that evening, the second draft boarded the “Queen.” By 4.20am on the 31st, both drafts had landed at Boulogne and were preparing to march forward to the railhead at Brignes to catch a train to take them to their concentration area at Lumbres near Acquin, just to the west of St. Omer.
A young fresh volunteer who was also setting foot in France that day, was Horace Hills from Chatteris (above). He joined 7th Suffolk in August 1914 and managed to convince the Recruiters at Ely that he was 19 years old. He was in fact just days past his 15th birthday!
Another Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment was off to war. They were now the fourth in France.
On the 30th May 1915, the War Diary for the 2nd Battalion - then in billets at Brielen in the rear of the front line near Ypres, carried a sober annotation: "Private Garrod was shot by accident. How it happened is unknown or whether the wound was self-inflicted."
A Suffolk man, Ardley Charles Garrod was born at Tunstall just north of Woodbridge. He had enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment in September 1914 and had been posted to the 3rd battalion being issued the No. 3/9091. He would have most probably landed with the Battalion in January 1915 and would have been in the front line during the Battalion's toughest times.
Had the actions at Frezenberg and Bellewarde caused his nerve to crack? had he tried to get himself that "Blighty" wound that would get him sent home for good? or had he been the tragic accident of a comrades nervousness? For whatever reason, the wound such as it was, was fatal and Garrod died of his injuries the following day. Self inflicted or not, Garrod paid the highest price.
Like Major Maycock, he was originally buried in the small "Burgomaster" or "Machine Gun Farm" cemetery where luckily, his original cross survived the war (unlike Maycock's) and he was reinterred in the larger "Ypres Reservoir" cemetery after the war.
One of those to fall on the 25th May 1915 was Major Frederick William Orby Maycock, D.S.O.
Killed by machine gun fire near Witte Poort Farm, his body was recovered and was originally buried in the tiny "Machine Gun Farm" cemetery nearby, but after the war, he along with the others who were buried there, were removed and reinterred in Tyne Cot Cemetery at Zonnebeke.
When transferred from his original resting place, Major Maycock could not be positively identified as his temporary wooden grave marker, erected in 1915, had been subsequently lost in the battles that followed.
Temporarily an "U.B. Off. D.S.O. Suffolk Regt" (unknown British Officer), he was however, successfully identified by "Crown, numerals and Ribbons D.S.O & G.S.A.F." still visible on his service dress jacket. Further evidence was discovered in a locket containing a photograph and the initials engraved inside "F.M."
A gallant and courageous leader both in Africa and on the Western Front, he did much to inspire the men under his command in battle. His leadership of 1st Suffolk had lasted just twelve days through the toughest time in its entire history.
On 24th May, the depleted ranks for the 1st Battalion were thrown back into battle against a determined enemy near the Belgian village of Bellewaarde.
The Battalion's objective was Bellewaarde Farm, a previously traditional square brick affair akin to a thousand Flemish farms but now almost totally destroyed by shell fire. The farm lay beyond a sunken road, covered on its banks, with hedgerows. However between this and the farm were approx. 200 yards of open fields with the fringe of a small wood partially covering the line of attack. The Battalion would have to cross this open ground before it reached the farmhouse; all in full view of the Germans who were deeply entrenched in front of the wood and in the farmhouse itself.
The two leading Company's moved up on the morning of the 24th into the sunken lane to attack the farm. Lieutenant Venning (on the left) and Captain Rushbrooke (on the right); both not long out from England, would lead the first wave, with Lieutenant Inskip and Captain Roxby following close behind. The Battalion was just over 400 in strength was still not fully reformed despite its decimation earlier in the month. Apart from the Battalion Commander, most of the officers had seen little or no combat experience.
All four Company's succeeded in getting into the frontal jumping off positions in the sunken road with the minimal of casualties was incurred during the move up. The Germans however, had been observing the Battalion getting into position and waited expectantly with their machine guns ready for an attack they knew would shortly come. The Battalion Commander, Major Maycock, satisfied that all was ready, ordered the men to fix bayonets, blew his whistle and gave the order to charge. No sooner had Captain Rushbrooke on the right started to hack through the undergrowth, than the Germans pinpointed his exit and poured forth deadly fire. The situation was similar along the entire frontage. Men desperately hacking through with shovel and entrenching tool became instant targets when they emerged. The machine gun fire was swathing from left to right, bringing down man after man. Maycock, wounded himself in the forearm, saw it was impossible and called off the attack ordering his men to retire to the cover of the sunken lane.
However, no sooner had Maycock had his wound dressed and the Battalion been consolidated, when the Brigade Commander, Brigadier-General Bols, arrived and ordered him in no uncertain terms, that Bellewaarde Farm was to be taken at all costs and 1st Suffolk must try again to take it.
Thus at midnight the Battalion again moved up once more to attack. Their start position had now been changed to the west of "Witte Poort Farm" - an attack from their previous positions would have been impossible as the Germans had it was believed, doubled their machine guns in this sector.
In the darkness, stumbling through a warren of bombed, waterlogged, unfamiliar trenches, Maycock found himself separated from both the unit on his left and his right. With no flanking troops, he was forced to extend his attacking frontage to about 400 yards, double that he had occupied the previous day. The Battalion were in the rear of their earlier starting positions but now had to get back into the sunken lane, which was now after the vicious machine gun fire of the morning now devoid of hedgerows.
The attack went in again. Two companies were put into the firing line on the extreme right, with the other two under the command of Lieutenant Venning, being held in support. "Again the order was given to charge, and the Battalion led by Major Maycock began to advance, but immediately came under a withering fire as on the previous occasion. Men fell in heaps everywhere, and within a few minutes the advance was definitely held. up. The attack, as a whole, failed"
Success came in a small part to Lieutenant T. Packard and C.S.M. Fred Pye, who with a corporal and six men managed to get to the sunken lane and dig in, but after their position became unsupportable, they were forced to retire.
Heavy shelling continued all day on the 25th so that by nightfall when the Battalion were relieved, they numbered just 3 officers and 181 other ranks.
Nothing was left of the "First Dozen" - in the space of a mere five weeks, the 1st Battalion had lost 1000 men.
On 13th May, Major F.W.O. Maycock DSO arrived from England to assume command of the reduced, but shortly to be reborn 1st Battalion.
In the days that were to come, the Battalion, which was by then in billets in the ancient town of Poperinge, had increased in size from just 3 officers and 27 other ranks, to 11 officers and 286 other ranks. Its re-birth was well underway.
Although the lions share of these new ranks came direct from England, many were pulled-in from the other depleted battalions in the 84th Brigade which had taken a battering along the Frezenberg Ridge on the 8th May.
Maycock, the man sent to take command, was a much admired and respected officer. Born in 1877, Frederick William Orby Maycock was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion in 1897. He had served out the years following the Boer War on secondment in South Africa, earning himself a DSO for actions in Kenya in 1907 whilst serving with the King's African Rifles.
A profound military scholar, he was when war was declared, stationed at the Royal Military College, Camberley, where two years previously, he had published his first book "The Napoleonic Campaign of 1805" which became an instant success and was at the time, the basis for British military teaching on the period. He followed this success with "Marlborough's Campaigns" in 1913 and just as war was declared, his third book "The Invasion of France 1814" was being printed.
Maycock arrived when the Battalion was being reborn. It would take many a month for it to become once more the superlative force it had been, but would Maycock still be there to see it returned to its former glory?
The day following the battle at Frezenberg saw a young Captain arrive from England to take over what remained of the 1st Battalion in Belgium.
Captain B.D. Rushbrooke had not long been commissioned into the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe, and was expecting to take command of a Platoon rather an entire Battalion.
When he arrived he was billeted near Poperinge and when the men he was due to command arrived, he was shocked to learn that the two officers, one NCO and 27 men that stood in front of him, were all that was left of the 1st Battalion. The officers; Lieutenants Venning and Hoggan, were themselves not long in France from England. Luckily for these three young men, Lieutenant and Quartermaster Godbolt was an old hand and did much to take the burden of command from these junior subalterns.
Benjamin Godbolt was a man who had built himself up from the ranks. He had joined the Regiment in the early 1890s and had already seen service in South Africa during the Boer War where he had been for some time the R.S.M. of the 1st Battalion. He had also for a while, been the R.S.M. of the 15th Battalion, Mounted Infantry. Promoted Lieutenant in 1914, he would remain in the Regiment for some years to come.
Exhaused, this cadre of the Battalion was sent into huts north of Ypres, where on the 11th a new CO arrived to take over from the enthusiastic, but inexperienced Rushbrooke. Captain F.M. Roxby's reign of command would be all of 24 hours before another more experienced officer would arrive to take over.
On the 12th May 1915, just four days after the 1st battalion's ferocious battle on the Frezenberg Ridge, Lance Corporal Ernest Chisnell was in hospital in Lincoln recovering from wounds he received at Frezenberg.
"I am going on pretty well" read his letter to his mother on the 12th May, "I have a wound or two - one in my right thigh and left foot and a small on in my left hand. I am rather lucky to get home so quickly as I was only hit on Wednesday near Ypres, and was home on Friday night and comfortable in hospital on Saturday morning"
Chisnell's withdrawal from the battlefield was a testament to the efficiency of the British casualty clearing methods of the day. Lessons learned in South Africa during the Boer War, of getting men away quickly had been put to good use in France and Flanders. Chisnell would recover from these wounds and rejoin the Suffolk Regiment later in 1915. He would not however rejoin his old Battalion for by then, they were proceeding overseas...
The action at Frezenberg had destroyed in a day, what remained of the 1st Battalion.
What men could, stayed and fought the onslaught of the German advance. Choked by smoke and poisoned gas, these gallant defenders fought on in small pockets of men stretched out across the ridge until, one by one, they were overrun.
Harry Clarke, a signaller who had been in the Battalion Commanders dug-out during the initial bombardment was taken prisoner late on the afternoon of the 8th. Exhausted and caked in mud, he had lost his rifle in the action. He recalled the first evening of his captivity: “We started back just before dusk. I simply could not estimate the strength of the Germans. Zonnebeke was crammed with them. We had to leave behind our two badly wounded men, Cpl Pugh and L/Cpl Game, apparently dying and left entirely on their own, but with no stretchers they had to We settled down about 10pm at a place called Beselare and were put in a church which they had made into something like a pig sty. But I was only too glad to lie down after such a day and then a march of four miles.”
Although the German advance had been deep - in some places up to two miles, 1st Suffolks stand astride the Frezenberg ridge, did much to halt the German advance in the central sector of the Ypres Salient.
Within days, news of the battle reached London. Desperate to make a gallant victory from a crushing defeat, the press rallied to the cause. The author Arthur Conan-Doyle noted rather poetically in the Times that; “The flank regiment on the right, the 1st Suffolk, were cut off and destroyed just as their second battalion had been at Le Cateau. At this time the 1st Suffolk was so reduced by the losses sustained that there were fewer than 300 men with the colours. The survivors of the Suffolks were crowded down the trench and mixed up with the 2nd Cheshires. The parapets were wrecked, the trenches full of debris, the air polluted with gas, and the Germans pushing forward on the flank. It is little wonder that in these circumstances this most gallant battalion was overwhelmed.”
Within the first nine months of war, the Suffolk Regiment's entire pre-war strength of over 2000 men (including reservists) had been either killed, wounded or captured. It took 2nd Suffolk six months to be reformed and reborn after Le Cateau. Could such a miracle happen to the 1st Battalion?
Early on the morning of Sunday 9th May 1915, Major William Oxenham Cautley, late of the 3rd Battalion who was serving with the 1st Northamptonshire Regiment was killed in the front line near the village of Aubers in northern France.
He was wounded while leading his men against the German trenches. No sooner had he got his men out of their trenches, when he was hit on the parapet by a bullet to the chest. As he was being bandaged up, another bullet struck him. The second bullet was fatal and Cautley died instantly.
Battalion Orders issued to the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe, by Lieutenant-Colonel Massy-Lloyd, on the 20 May, carried the following appreciation of Bill Cautley:
"It is with deep regret that the Commanding Officer has to announce the death of Major W. O. Cautley, D.S.O., killed in action. Major Cautley by the keen interest he always took in the welfare of the battn., endeared himself to all ranks, and in the end brought a great distinction not only to himself, but to the battn. to which he was so devoted. The Commanding Officer has lost a personal friend, and the Suffolk Regiment, a brilliant soldier."
On the morning of the 8th May the Adjutant of the 1st Battalion; Captain D.V.M. Balders came up to the front line from the reserve line bring an urgent message to the Battalion Commander. The message informed the CO that heavy German shelling in the rear areas had cut off the telephone communications with Ypres and had blocked all road communication into the city. Balders intimated that from intelligence gathered at Brigade, that another full scale enemy attack was imminent and that 1st Suffolk should be prepared to meet it.
The CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W.B. Wallace, in No. 1 dugout astride the Frezenberg Ridge, was on the right-hand flank of the Battalions frontage. To his right was a spur of the Haanenbeek river and from this position, the CO could see the village of St Julien to the north and the village of Frezenberg to the south.
The Adjutants warning, for all its worth, arrived too late at the forward lines and just as Balders arrived, the German attack began. At 10.00am a short, sharp bombardment, followed by a heavy German gas attack, was launched against the British front line. Luckily for 1st Suffolk, most of the cloud of gas passed to the south. However as soon as the gas cloud had passed and 1/Suffolk ‘Stood To’ in their trenches, the Germans brought down a terrific artillery bombardment which lasted for almost an hour. After it ceased, it effects rendered the occupants of the front line completely bewildered.
One man who was in the epicentre of this terrific bombardment was Signaller Harry Clarke who was in Colonel Wallace’s dug out. He remembered: “I was in the dugout with the CO and the adjutant, working the telephone. Then No1 dugout next to us was struck by a shell, burying all the men. Our dugout lasted about another 10 minutes, then a shell exploded. We hardly knew what was happening. The telephone, table, chair, had disappeared, with a hole a few yards in circumference staring at us in their place. We cleared out into the emergency trench, which had been dug in the rear of a ditch and which turned out far worse, because we were up to our waists in water, with shells raining all around. They had also dropped one on No3 dugout, shattering a beam which struck Cpl Pugh and smashed his right leg just above the ankle and also wounded him in the head and left arm. It was the hottest shop I had ever been in. Not one of us knew what was happening in front but we had a fair idea that the line had given way. After a bit we could see men retiring on our right, so we had to get out of the trench and we struggled back on our chests to the dugout but all of us were in a helpless condition and we had not a weapon amongst us.”
Clarke and his comrades had crawled back almost 150 yards over the ridge to a spot close to the hamlet of Verlorenhoek. Exhausted, they needed to get back further for the Germans were hard on their heels, but the East Surrey’s, who had previous occupied this position, had already fallen back and within seconds, the Germans had Clarke and his comrades surrounded: “They were good fellows all round that captured us. They kept us from fire as much as possible by making a parapet in front of us, as well as for themselves. They also gave us meat and bread and coffee and did their best for our wounded. At 1.30pm we were all put in a dugout. Two guards stayed with us and then their line began to advance towards Ypres.”
The vastly superior German artillery, with an almost unlimited supply of ammunition, made it impossible for the British to reorganise their front line after the initial gas attack. One by one, the Battalion’s dug outs and trenches were steadily destroyed by the Germans. The Colonel was seriously wounded and taken prisoner and most of his Platoon Commanders had been killed or captured, but despite this, two small pockets of Suffolks held on refusing to yield. Enfiladed by fire from both the front and the right hand side, their positions gradually became untenable.
Around 2.00pm in the afternoon, the battle so far as 1st Suffolk were concerned, was drawing to a close. Those who could escape, had done so, leaving only the wounded to fall into captivity. A group were still fighting in a defensive position in the centre of their original line, but when all hope of reinforcement was abandoned, the last Suffolks surrendered. About a mile of ground was taken by the Germans, but so far as the advance was concerned, 1st Suffolk had by their gallant stand, halted their advance.
By 5.00pm, the remnants of the Battalion had retreated as fast as they could across cold water-logged fields to the other side of the village of Wieltje, over a mile and a half away from their original positions. There was just 3 officers and 27 of them left, and these, 11 were wounded.
The 'First Dozen' had ceased to exist.
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.