Sydney Fuller, 8th Suffolk, noted in his diary on 21st May 1917; "We passed through the ruins of Boyelles, and halted on the open ground near the Arras-Albert railway. Here we made bivouacs, with our groundsheets. the men who had been on "detail" were there - as brown as berries. they were a strange contrast to the men who had been in the line, who were sallow and tired-looking. rainy night. We got a bit wet, as our "waterproof" roof leaked in places.
Sydney and his chums would have been issued back in England, though most probably worn out and replaced since, a single 6ft by 2ft waterproof panel of rubberised canvas. You could choose to sleep on it, to keep the damp from coming up from below, or sleep with it over you, to keep the rain from coming down on you. Along all four sides, it had a series of eyelets, which could be joined to a fellow chums groundsheet with a spare bootlace. With the aid of a piece of twine, it could be strung between two trees, or with two stout twigs, it could be guyed into a simple tent. Ineffective, crude and impracticable, the Army took much time to realise that something better was desperately needed and in mid-1917, a version of the groundsheet was modified to include an extra panel and a collar so that it could be properly worn as a waterproof cape. Buttons and buttonholes replaced eyelets to that a better seal could be made with a chums cape when making a rain tight shelter.
The hot conditions that had erupted on the Somme earlier that month led to men acquiring the most unusual suntans. In days without any protection from the sun's glare, the standard "Somme-tan" as it was known was to have bronzed arms up to about three inches above the elbow - where the shirt sleeves were to be ruled to in shirtsleeve order. Sometimes it went a little higher when the sleeves were hacked off the shirt, but both were accompanied by a tanned 'v' shape under the collar where the bib-front of the regulation grey flannel shirt was rolled in.
It was quite unique to the Western Front with its scorching hot days and damp, drizzly nights. Mens faces to took on a bronzed appearance, so much so that on occasion's chums joked to one another "Hello Johnny Turk!"
On the night of the 5/6th May 1917, 12th Suffolk; the Bantams, were in the front line close to the French village of Villiers-Plouich, about 15 miles south of the town of Cambrai.
That night the Battalion were to participate in a trench raid against the enemy trenches opposite near the hamlet of La Vacquerie. The morning and most of the afternoon had been spent relatively quiet, but in the still darkness, the men awaited the artillery barrage that was the precursor to their advance.
At 11.00pm, the barrage erupted and 'A' and 'D' Company's setting off to follow it across no-mans-land. No sooner had they advanced, than heavy enemy machinegun fire erupted from their front line. Leading 'A' Company forward, Captain Crump, was wounded in the thigh and foot and had to be evacuated by stretcher. Pressing onwards, 'D' Company also suffered heavily from enemy grenades. They had come up against a new form of wire entanglement that could not be cut with the cutters that they had. Like sitting ducks, they crouched behind it in whatever cover was available, but as they were within striking distance of the German front line, its occupants hurled grenade and grenade at them, causing terrible casualties.
Whilst the bulk of 'D' Company were held up by this wire, a party managed to find a gap to the right that had been cut by the artillery barrage, and pressed onwards to the German front line. Sergeant Lovell and a party of some 7 men, got into the German line and set about getting a few prisoners. A patrol of about six Germans were taken, but as the party set off back to their own lines with their haul, they became lost.
In the darkness, Lovell and his men could not find their way back though the wire. In desperation, a route was taken back through a sunken lane to the south east, working on a compass bearing rather than memory. On the way back, the patrol was accosted by an enemy sentry along the lane and he too was taken prisoner. Thankfully however, he agreed to show them the way back to a place where they could cross into the Allied lines. When they arrived back and handed over their prisoners for interrogation, someone pointed out to Lovell that he had been wounded. He had been shot twice through the arm.
Though not bathing themselves in glory, the patrol had successfully brought back a sizeable number of prisoners, much intelligence and a great haul of information. For Lovell, the award of the DCM would come in due course, being announced two months later in July, but the medal itself, was not officially bestowed upon him until Sunday 4th August 1918, when he was home on leave from the Front.
The Mayor of his hometown of Sandy in Bedfordshire, presented it to him along with a posthumous MM to another townsman's widow. Mr. E.T. Leeds-Smith J.P. made the presentation after Mr Mark Young, Chairman of the Parish Council, made an address. He stated that "This day four years ago, with no warning, the Germans marched their hordes through Belgium to attack France and expected to be in Paris within a few days. The battle of the Marne was fought and Paris was saved and Europe was saved thanks to such men as you see before you" He concluded by saying that if this had been a sermon, he would have chosen for his text "Remember and Rejoice"
On 3rd May, a Suffolk officer was posted missing whilst serving with the 5th Battalion, Prince of Wales Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment.
Born at Abbey Oaks, Sproughton, near Ipswich, Captain Charles Harvey Churchman was originally commissioned into the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, T.F., in August 1914. The youngest son of the tobacco giant Sir Arthur Churchman, he was educated at Rugby, and later Pembroke College, Cambridge, where upon the outbreak of war, he volunteered for war service and was promoted Captain in July 1916. He had prior to the outbreak of war, spent six months studying in Germany, where he had become fluent in its language.
Retained in England, for the 6th Battalion did not serve overseas, he was keen to see action and volunteered to transfer to the West Yorkshire Regiment, joining them in France in January 1917. On the day he was lost, he was leading his men into cation around the village Bullecourt. He had not originally been detailed to be part of the attacking wave, but such was esteem in which his men held him, that they specifically asked for him to lead them over everybody else. He wrote home the night before of how proud he was and how glad to go with his men into action.
Leading his platoon forward, they reached their final objective but were almost immediately cut-off by a savage enemy counterattack. With no chance of reinforcements of resupply, they bravely fought on. only when Captain Churchman was killed, did his platoon bow to the inevitable, and surrender. He was 22 years old when he died.
His Colonel wrote, a few days before his death to his parents at Sproughton; "Charlie is a perfect Officer, always cheery and absolutely reliable. His Company Commander relies on him above all others, and, better still, the N.C.O.s and men have a very great confidence in him, and he has proved himself a leader in every way. He has been through some very hard and trying conditions with them all, and has never failed for a moment."
A brother Officer wrote of his last moments gallantly making a dash for the German front line; "He and I are great friends, and we have worked together all through. One could not have wished for a better Subaltern than Charles. Nothing was too great for him to tackle, and he had the love and respect of his men. The whole Company followed him to a man."
Stricken by grief at his loss, and not having a grave to visit, his parents commissioned a portrait in his honour to hang in the family home. Using what scant photographs they had of their son, the original artists charcoal sketch is shown above. Whether the portrait ever reach reality is unknown.
With grateful thanks to Taff Gillingham for the above image.
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.