"The second barrage started at the scheduled time and place - 12.30pm near Glencourse Wood. Thanks to the failure of the 30th Division, we were not anywhere near our proper position and the barrage was therefore of no use to us. Nethertheless, the Batt. carried on from where they were and did what they could"
It was evident that the great advance had been halted and that Pilken Ridge was but a dream to achieve. "The task was made more difficult by the lack of artillery support" wrote the Battalion's own history "which had been arranged to accompany further operation, and which, therefore, was incapable of dealing with the new situation which had suddenly arisen".
Low on artillery ammunition, pandemonium now began to reign. Some units stayed put, valiantly holding their hard won ground. Some were pushed back, then just the Battalion were thinking of retiring, the heavens opened and a deluge of rain poured down upon the Battalion.
For almost two hours, it fell, bringing the fighting to a close. Only as darkness came, did any form of movement become possible. As the forward elements retreated back to the edge of the Menin Road, and consolidated, them men huddled into whatever shelter the could find. "We went down the road towards Ypres for about 250 yards" wrote Fuller in his diary "stumbling over dead bodies, barbed wire and "Pave" setts etc. falling into shell holes every few steps. Our padre was with us and he said to one man referring to the shelling, “warm isn’t it?” The man replied, not noticing to whom he was speaking to in the darkness and confusion, “Huh, It’s ---- hot, I think!”
Fuller ended his day in the battered remains of Ridge Trench" where in the drizzle of the night, he and two comrades covered over a shell hole with three stretchers they had found abandoned and tried to get some sleep. Managing to get some fresh water from a dump nearby, it was the first drink they had had all day. "One signaller" wrote Fuller "when filling his water bottle, discovered there were two bullet holes in it. He had during the day, been cursing the "---who had pinched his water" No doubt he got a bullet through the bottle on our way up through Sanctuary Wood, and did not notice the water leaking away".
The Battalion, had advanced nearly a mile in the 18 hours of fighting it had endured. and made a hard but unavailing fight to get still further, now dug themselves in. The battle of Pilckem Ridge as it came to be known brought to an end the first day of the third battle of Ypres; a battle that was to continue for some months to come.
"Trunks of trees were lying almost obliterated by the heavy fire of our guns. Trunks of trees were lying across them, anyhow, the whole of the ground had been pulverised by our shells. One badly wounded German lay writhing in agony on the ground near where we stopped. He was evidently past help"
By now, the 8th Battalion got as far as the Menin road near its famous spur to the north east called "Clapham Junction". The advance however did not stop here for within minutes, they were over the road and had advanced several yards behind it. "After a short rest to get our "wind" again" wrote Sydney Fuller, "we went on, still through a storm of bullets to "Stirling Castle" which was more shelled from the enemy fire. Another short rest, and we again went on, stopping finally on "our" side of the bank, on top of which was the Menin Road. We then discovered that we were at the limit of our advance - the first division (the 30th) had not captured anything like the amount of ground allowed to them, hence the reason why the enemy shelling and machine gun fore had been so deadly when we advanced"
"The attack practically finished here" wrote the regimental History, "as by this time the enemy were in great strength round Glencorse Wood." All the tanks allowed to assist the battalion had been either destroyed had become bogged down. "Brian" "Bori" "Boomerang" "Bentley" and "Britannia" as were they names, now lay abandoned on the battlefield. Enemy aerial activity now became more frequent and the germans fired white Very lights into the Suffolk positions to signal their location to the aircraft.
Major Fache, the Adjutant (above) crawled for along the Menin road with his runner to try and link up with those out in front. In the midst of the battle with shells landing everywhere, a cock pheasant was suddenly seen to rise into the air around 15 yards in front of them. The runner, quickly rose and fired, bringing the bird down. Crawling forward, he nabbed the bird and tied it to the end of his rifle. Bemused, the Adjutant waited politely until he had finished his task and the pair continued onwards on their journey. It was noted that "It was possibly not the first time he had killed game without a licence".
The fire was now hotter than ever as Fuller recalled; "I saw one “C” Coy man who had been wounded in the hand and had had a hole drilled through the side of his tin hat by one bullet. He said that his tin hat was blown almost off his head by the explosion of a shell, and as he put his hand up to pull the hat straight again, the bullet smashed his fingers and passed through the tin hat, without however, injuring his head"
At around midday, news was received up front that a second barrage was to begin. The Battalion Commander, Major G.V.W. Hill, had by now crawled forward and was with the men in the front line, ready to advance. The objective, wild as it was, was the high ground along the Pilkem Ridge to the north and the site of an old racecourse in Polygon Wood.
The men now awaited the artillery.
"The Scope Of The Operation Was Bigger, And Altogether More Ambitious Than Any Previous Attack In Which The Battalion Had Been Involved"
"About 3 1/2 hours after the barrage started (Zero) the Batt., according to plan, formed up in "artillery formation" and began to advance, to take up the advance from where the Div. in front had halted" wrote Sydney Fuller, but as they began to advance, the enemy directed his fire upon them causing many casualties; "As soon as we began to move" wrote Fuller "we were heavily shelled by the enemy, 4.2"s and whizz-bangs, and many of our men were killed and wounded. It was evident from the way this shelling was done, that we could be seen by the enemy - it was the troops out in the open, to the left of Sanctuary Wood, which were shelled the worst and as they continued to advance, the enemy's shelling followed them".
Lieutenant Bolingbroke, who was out in front with the Battalion Scouts, was trying desperately to find a way to keep going on. As they reached the outskirts out "Sanctuary Wood" they came under fire from a well conceived sniper, who claimed the lives of at least three of the Scouts before his position was located and he was killed. Just after 6.00 am, Bolingbroke sent word back to state that he observed that the 30th Division were on the north side of the Menin road and into "Chateau Wood".
As the troops advanced into the splintered remains of Sanctuary Wood, it was evident that they artillery fire here was "broadcast" and spread indiscriminately along a wide expanse of ground. It was quite different to the accurate shel fire that the enemy had brought down in the advancing Suffolks. "This was not as planned" wrote Fuller "for the Div. in front of us should have by now captured the whole of the first ridge in front and the enemy should therefore have been unable to see the ground we were advancing over. However, we pressed on, and soon reached the german front line of a few hours before. This was not a "trench" in the ordinary sense of the word, being "banked up" instead of being "dug in" owing to the marshy nature of the ground. Here we came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, the air seeming full of bullets".
Back at the far edge of the wood, a platoon of “B” company under Lieutenant Chibnall, was the first to make contact with the remaining scouts and Lieutenant Bolingbroke. These two Officers decided to combine forces and attack the Second line in an areas around a destroyed farmhouse called "Surbiton Villa". With as many troops as they could muster, they advanced. No sooner had they got up from cover, the enemy spotted them and directed their fire upon them.
The line was however taken, but Lieutenant Chibnall and Sgt. J. Mason were killed and Lieutenant Bolingbroke severely wounded leading his platoon forward. Gallantry was seen also at "Surbiton Villa" by Pte F.J. Read who, with a small party of “A” Company, rushed a German machine-gun, killing the whole team.
In Sanctuary Wood, the Battalion halted, caught its breath and awaited the next move.
"Reached the ruins of Zillebeke about 12.30am. A good deal of gas was in the air, smelling something like mustard, but it did not appear to do much harm" Signaller Sydney Fuller of 8th Suffolk wrote in his diary on the morning of the opening day of the Battle of Third Ypres.
Fuller and his fellow signallers had arrived in the village ahead of the Battalion, who were in a very few hours, to take part in the next major Allied offensive in Flanders. The signallers were led wrongly by their guide into a series of trenches south of the village, getting them hopelessly lost. Only minutes before the preceding artillery barrage was to begin before the infantry attack, they stumbled into "Wellington Crescent" where they came across the Battalion HQ.
At. 3.50 am the barrage started just as it was getting light. "The tanks looked very queer as they crawled from their clumps of bushes and other hiding places and went forward. From the top of our trench we could see the country behind our lines for miles, and every bush seemed to be hiding a gun - the flashes were to be seen everywhere."
“C” Company who were advancing up to the front line through the wreckage of the village of Zillebeke, were caught in an enemy artillery barrage. A shell burst amongst them, killing or wounded virtually all those in the vicinity. As the Battalion waited in their front line positions, they awaited news that those in the first wave had been successful in reaching their objectives and that they were good to proceed behind them.
However, as before, chaos had ensued out in front. the 30th Division who had been allowed the initial objectives of the advance had veered wildly off course when they started their attack, tragically mistaking "Chateau Wood" for "Glencorse Wood". This mistake now drove a dangerous wedge in the British front line around "Glencorse Wood" which was still in enemy hands and allowed the Germans to inflict deadly enfilading fire on those in the first wave.
Viewing the carnage from the Suffolk lines, Sydney Fuller saw the pitiful sight as a tank tried to come to the assistance of those in front: "A tank came forward on our right ran right over some of the men in front who were lying on the ground either either dead or wounded. We shouted ourselves hoarse, but it was of no use - the men in the tank could not hear us, and the tank was over the men in a minute".
As fire came down on the Suffolk positions, casualties began to mount. One man complained that he had been stung and upon removing his tunic, it was discovered that a bullet had entered at his shoulder, and passed under the skin and exited out of his chest. Another man wounded was R.S.M. Goody. "He had a bad cut in his upper lip - cut through by a shell splinter apparently. He was wearing an Iron Cross ribbon in his buttonhole".
As Goody's wounds were treated, the Battalion readied itself to advance.
On 24th July 1917, Signaller Sydney Fuller wrote in his diary; "The Archbishop of York gave the 53rd Brigade an address or sermon, his "text" being part of the 20th verse of the 6th Chapter, 1st Epistle to Timothy - "Keep that which is committed to your trust" he said "you must all do your best in the coming operations, which may, if successful, bring about the end of the war in a short time."
The Archbishop's sermon was preached from the rear of a G.S. Wagon drawn up in the centre of a hollow square. For some there, his words brought comfort, to others, they meant little. Some of those men of the 8th Battalion had now, seen almost three years of war. Some has turned their back upon religion, others had turned towards it for comfort and guidance.
Such a high profile figure, signified to the Battalion than the next great push was drawing very close. The Battalion's move from old Somme battlefields north into Belgium gave an indication of where the next major offensive would be launched. The following day, Fuller and the rest of the Battalion's Signallers, Pioneers and Drummers; those who were not going into the line, were moved into a Brigade rest camp, where the following day, they were shown maps of where the attack would be launched.
As that day drew near, final checks were made of signalling equipment and last minute courses were hurriedly rushed through to ensure that all signallers were proficient. As the artillery build-up began prior to the infantry's advance, Fuller noted that "our guns were very active."
On the night of 24th - 25th July 1917, 9th Suffolk were relieved in the front line near Arras by the 6th Sherwood Foresters.
Though the exchange of positions passed uneventfully, the administration of handing over the front line from one unit to another was a massive administrative undertaking, which the Adjutant was expected to perform every time the Battalion entered or left their positions.
The change over was usually preempted by a visit form the relieving Battalion. In this case, a party of the CO and all Company Commanders of the 6th Sherwoods, arrived late on the afternoon of the 23rd to check over their new positions. "The Coy. Commanders and 1 N.C.O. per Company will remain with the Coy's until relief" wrote instructions in the War Diary.
For those leaving the trenches, in this case, 9th Suffolk, they had to provide "Tunnel Warders" to assist the new Battalion in reaching the front safely and securely through the maze of tunnels that linked the front line to the rear areas in Arras. In advance to this, plans were already be enacted to ensure that those leaving the line, had sufficient billets to return to. "A Billeting Party" continued the War Diary "consisting of the Quartermaster and 4. C.Q.M.Sgts. and Sgt. Dent will report to the Secretary MAIRIE (Town Hall) by 24th inst., and will await Battalion."
Back in the front line, everything the Battalion were leaving behind for the relieving Battalion, had to be checked and indented for, "All trench stores, S.A.A. (Small Arms Ammunition), grenades, etc., in line; secret maps, photographs, defines schemes and documents dealing with the area will be handed over. Receipts will be forwarded to the Orderly Room by 10. a.m. 25th inst. 3 Trench Store cards attached. One to be forwarded to Adjutant by 12 noon 24th inst., one handed over, and one as above. Great care must be taken in the checking and listing of all stores."
The instructions continued as to the loading and checking of officers kit, the caretaker left in charge of it, the allotted lorry for extra kit, its rendezvous with the Battalion, and the route it would take. Strict discipline was to be observed by the Battalion Transport Officer, special points being noted as; "no overloading, no unauthorised personnel with the transport. Any parties accompanying the transport will be marched in formed bodies properly armed and equipped." The detailed instructions continued; "All cooking utensils and Coy. store now in trenches, will be sent down to transport on the night of 23/24th inst. the minimum of officers kit and messing to be retained." Finally perhaps was the most important and final item onto list was; "Relief complete to be wired to Battalion Headquarters by B.A.B. code."
"BAB" codes were contained in the pocket manual "S.S.524 - Trench Codes" The booklet detailed a series of short, usually 3 digit codes to signify important events. Introduced in May 1917, the code could be transmitted using the now commonplace "Fullerphone" - a device that could transmit and receive messages via either telephone to morse key. It interrupted the harsh signals of field communications that had to be earthed to be transmitted, into a softer tone. All earthed communications could be read by the enemy if he had sufficient listening apparatus, but by muffling the signal, it became harder to read. By adding a code, it became virtually impossible. However, like the Enigma machine that followed in the Second World War, the operator at the other also needed S.S.524 to understand and decode the message.
On 14th July, Signaller Sydney Fuller of 8th Suffolk paraded for a respirator inspection near Cassel on the Belgian border. He wrote in his diary: "Respirators were inspected. Mine was condemned - a defective eyepiece. Each man was issued a small tube of "Glasso", a preparation for cleaning the eyepieces. Heavy gunfire in front and to the left of us."
The "Small Box" respirator had been introduced in the early months of 1916. Though some were in service at the opening of the Battle of the Somme, it was not until October that they began to be issued in large numbers to the men of the Suffolk Regiment, with the 4th Battalion being issued them first.
The design was a breakthrough following the last evolution of the over-the-head hood variety of gas mask known as the PHG; a helmet treated with phenate and hexamine which had an externally mounted set of goggles attached.
The Small Box Respirator was now in-line with the German design, a mask that sealed around the face. A tube was mounted to the front which led down to a filter that contained layers of treated filters in-between charcoal. Inside the mask, a rubber mouthpiece allowed the wearer to grip the end of the tube in his teeth, and underneath the tubes external outlet was a on-way filter, identical to those on the smoke helmets. It could let air out, but not in. The filter was contained in a compartment of a haversack satchel that could be worn on the chest in an 'alert' position, or slung over a shoulder when not in use.
Two day later, Fuller was given a new respirator in exchange for his condemned one.
Of the gallantry that shown by many men of 2nd Suffolk during the actions around Infantry Hill, one stood out.
Captain William ‘Bill’ Simpson of Bury St. Edmunds, who was then a Company Commander, had shown exemplary courage and skill during the attack to Infantry Hill, and whist there, he show great zeal in getting the positions reversed as soon as possible to make them defensible. Passing orders himself, be went from platoon to platoon in their new positions, ensuring they were ok and personally overseeing their defences. On more than one occasion he had been the target of snipers. When their positions were attacked on the 18th June, Simpson found himself surrounded in a front line sap with 14 men; all that survived of his platoons. They fought off the fire of the enemy until one side of the defences was strong enough to break out and retire to safety.
It was said of Captain Simpson that the C.O. recommended him for the Victoria Cross, but he was awarded instead a Military Cross. The Regimental History noted that “In the counter-attack on infantry Hill A/Captain W.L. Simpson played a conspicuously gallant part and was considered by many to have deserved a V.C. He was, however, subsequently awarded a military cross”
Educated at Haileybury, Captain Simpson was a Chartered Surveyor before the war. His citation for the Military Cross gave a vivid indication of what he and the Battalion had suffered in the fight for Infantry Hill;
“He led his company with the greatest skill and daring, and on reaching the objective moved up and down the captured trench in the open, regardless of snipers. He afterwards withstood no fewer that four counter-attacks, on one occasion, holding his own with fourteen men, although almost completely surrounded. His gallantry so encouraged his men throughout the five days during which he held the advanced line that it was possible to maintain a difficult position which enabled the troops on his left to re-establish posts which they had abandoned”
Within a year, the actions of Simpson and his Battalion, would be the focus of the nations eyes once more.
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.