"This Was A Bad Day For Us, As We Had Lost Our C.O. And There Was No Prospect Of Getting Him Back, Ever Again”
After a long and glorious career, the 7th (Service) Battalion suffered the fate of its contemporaries, being reduced to cadre for disbandment.
The 7th Battalion was the first of the New Army ‘Service’ Battalions to be formed in 1914 and had proved itself well over the three years of War it had served at the front. On Sunday 19th May came it’s official disbandment and its merger with the 1/1st Battalion, the Cambridgeshire Regiment, who ranks were also depleted following the March Offensive.
It was a happy union not only because of their close geographical locations, but because since time began, the Suffolk Regiment had always looked after the administration of their neighbours across the border. The merger met with no disapproval.
For Sydney Fuller, who had started his career in 8th Battalion, then been transferred to the 7th Battalion, now he was on the move again to the Cambridgeshire’s. Officially entered onto the "book" those who had opted for service with the Cambs, waited in their current positions, whilst those who had chosen to remain at Base, marched away into history. It seemed like the absolute end to some and the Battalion Commander came around to cheer those who had remained before he himself departed.
“The CO and Major Bull left us, shaking hands with all of us before leaving" wrote Sydney Fuller "The C.O. told us that if we got into trouble, or required any help, we were to write to him and he would do his best for us. The Cambs marched into Acheaux and took the place of the Suffolk’s as ‘reserve’ batt. of 35th Brigade. “Cambs” cap badges and numerals were issued to us and deficiencies in our kits were noted for replacement. This was a bad day for us, as we had lost our CO and there was no prospect of getting him back, ever again”.
The men of the 8th held their C.O. G.V.W. Hill in almost saintly status. A soldiers soldier, he had always had their interests and well-being at heart. The men respected him for this and for his paternal care of them. They were truly sorry to see him leave.
Two days previously, Fuller had seen the leaning Virgin on the battered spire of the Basilica in Albert, brought down by shell fire. So the legend stated, when it fell, the War would end. Fuller like many hoped that there was not there much more of this to go?
The continual reorganisation of the British Army continued well into the spring of 1918. Though the threat of German advance in the west had passed, the losses inflicted on the B.E.F. in those crucial weeks of March and April had taken their toll.
In the 7th Battalion rumours abounded that yet another disbandment might be in the offering. The Battalion has already taken drafts of men from the 'B' and 'D' Company’s of the 8th Battalion in January and their old commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill has assumed command of the 7th Battalion, leading it through the tough times it had in the March Offensive.
By May, they still found themselves in the Somme sector in the north near Mailly. Signaller Sydney Fuller noted on 7th May in his diary that: “A rumour which had been floating about for some time, to the effect that the Batt. was to be disbanded, was confirmed. Apparently, the 1st Cambs. (Territorials) were to take outlet place, absorbing part of the Batt., the remainder going to the base. Our C.O. gave Sigs the option of joining the Cambs. or going to the base, and we chose the former, as being the least trouble. Orders issued for the next day were for the Batt. To be prepared to move at half-an-hour’s notice, as Fritz was expected to attack in the morning”.
The acute manpower shortage of early 1918, had lead the War Cabinet to explore all options as to where it withdraw its manpower to concentrate on the final offensive of the Great War.
It had been General Haig who had prophetically said in 1915 that the decisive battle to defeat the Germans would be on the Western Front and in his three years as Commander in Chief of the B.E.F., he had seen all the great 'sideshows' of the war amount to no softening of the German Armies on the Western Front.
There had been limited successes in both Palestine and Macedonia, and the Italian campaign was at last, yielding results, but East Africa and Gallipoli had been failures. The March Offensive necessitate a withdrawal of every available man from these theatres, back to France for the final offensive.
To this end, with the capture of the holy city of Jerusalem and their successful part in the Middle Eastern Campaign now over, the last Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment to fight on the Western Front arrived in France.
The 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion set foot on the dockside at Marseilles on 7th May 1918. Their journey from Alexandria had been one of great excitement when in the 5th May, a German U-Boat was seen and depth charges were fired. The War Diary noted that this was believed sunk, and indeed records showed that UB 70 was lost that day, east of Gibraltar.
Setting foot on the dockside, the Battalion dressed for an infantry war, must have looked curious with its puttees wound from top to bottom instead of the other way round. The older yeoman in its ranks, proudly hung onto the old traditions. Badges and shoulder titles too, were cherished. Those joining in France were issued with standard titles and cap badges. Those who 'been out east' fiercely hung onto their originals.
Upon arrival, they marched to a transit camp before on the 9th, they travelled by train to Noyelles. Here after a brief halt, they went onwards to a training camp at Lamotte-Buleux near Abbeville. Here they spent days in training and acclimatisation to the style of warfare they would experience on the Western Front. A lecture on the "Importance of the Bayonet" was met with scepticism for they had scarily seen their enemy in the desert and had only on a few occasions, ever come enough to him to fight him hand-to-hand with a bayonet. Most of their fighting had been at distance, with only on a handful of occasions, a tussle with "Johnny Turk".
Of just over 450 men who had set foot ashore at Walkers Pier, Gallipoli on 11th October 1915, there were still at least 20 men in its ranks who had been all the way through from the beginning. The strength of the Battalion was noted on the 15th May as 31 officers and 786 other ranks. In France, they would be bolstered further with new men from England, men who "didn't know one end of a horse from the other!"
Soon they would be in the front line.
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.