For the men of 1st Suffolk, the middle months of 1918 in the mosquito-ridden swampland of the Struma valley in Macedonia.
For Victor Farmer, a young subaltern who had been commissioned into 1st Suffolk from the Artist's Rifles, he was soon to join his Platoon in the first of a series of raids into the enemy territory. Farmer was in a curious twist of coincidence, to command 12 Platoon, D Company, the same platoon that 35 years later, his son Robin would command in Malaya.
For endless weeks, he was involved in raid after raid, across the swampland seldom coming into contact with the enemy, though encounters with the wild feral dogs living on the plains were commonplace. He recalled one of his early forays into the valley: "We had gone about two miles I saw my right hand man suddenly run in towards his next man; I ran across to him with the Corporal of the section and asked him what he had seen. He was too dumbfounded to say anything so the Corporal and I circled about in the long grass, but we saw nothing. There were numerous escaped dogs in the plain and I thought he had seen or heard one or more of these. I was afraid of being left behind in my post so that, after pausing for a few seconds, I gave the order to go on forward."
He continued: "Barry Higgins (the Company Commander) had a trench coat, a kind of belted raincoat, which was part of an officers kit in those days. His trench coat was barely khaki in colour, it was almost white and seemed to have a translucence all of its own. When the battalion assembled on the bank of the river for a raid, Barry Higgins, as we all did, wore his trench coat. It seemed to glow like a beacon in the bright starlight, and it seemed to us, would be seen for miles like a kind of beacon light."
When they returned to the Suffolk lines, it became known that two Bulgarian soldiers had surrendered to the Cheshires. "I heard, months later" wrote Farmer, "that the man who ran in from the extreme right had actually seen these men but had been too frightened to report them. He was very new and raw recruit to the Battalion and perhaps I, or my Sergeant, were at fault for placing him in this position. I did in fact, change him over immediately after the incident, putting a more seasoned man in his place. So, inspite of Barry Higgins bright and shining trench coat, we all arrived back safe and sound."
As the Allies on the Western Front, stretched themselves and prepared for a final push on the German Armies in the west, the war still continued in all the far flung corners of the world.
The 1st Battalion were still in the land of Grecian gods, manning a section of the line in Macedonia near Elisan in the Struma Line. The Battalion had spent much time u in the line in the high areas where snow was almost permenently on the ground. The front line at that time consisted of a series of pill box, which were manned by two British Battalions at a time, alternating every few days with two Greek units. When they came down into the valleys below, the sunshine was hot, but the mosquitos were vicious.
For one young officer, Lieutenant Victor Farmer, he recalled being sent into the Struma Line: "I was assigned to 'D' Company, under Captain Barry Higgins, a rather wild Irishman. I was provided with a batman (officers servant) and a bivouac in which to sleep. The bivouac consisted of two waterproof ground sheers buttoned together end to end, and propped up in the middle by two small sicks and a crossbar stick. Inside the bivouac was a fitted mosquito net. I had a bivouac to myself but the men shared theirs two by two. One rigorous part of our lives was a daily bivouac inspection and woe betide the occupants of any bivouac when a hole was discovered in the net."
Lieutenant Wyndham Barry Higgins was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe in October 1914. The following year, he was with them in France, being wounded in September 1915. He went with them to Salonika in late 1915, and for several months in 1917, he was Acting C.O. when Captain Oakes was seconded to the training of another British unit in the area. Farmer remember being taken into the Struma Line, then swamped with Mosquitos: "My sergeant took me to a rise where i could see most of the Struma River from the Rupel Pass down to the estuary Marshes. He pointed out to me where, formerly, our front line existed in the middle of the plain - Single Elm, Barakli, Barakli Dzum (little Barakli) and the small township, now deserted, of Ormouli." Soon Farmer would take his place in the daily routine of trench raiding, the one highlight that the stagnation of the campaign presented...
Image courtesy: IWM.
By mid-May 1918, the 15th Battalion had arrived in France from Egypt. Slightly under strength for War Establishment, they numbered 36 officers and 756 other ranks. After a period of some weeks training in numerous villages behind the lines around Bethune, they were brought into the front line at St. Venant in the Robecq sector of the line.
On 9th July, the Battalion took over from the 2/5th Worcesters late at night. ‘C’ and ‘B’ Company’s were placed in the front line with ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company’s in reserve behind in the “Amusoires – Haverskerque Defence Line”.
The front line was in this sector was at this stage, fragmented following battles their earlier in the year. It was almost a complete line again before the Battalion arrived and a few days work, finally got the line into a semblance of order. “After consolidation” detailed the War Diary “it was considered desirable to readjust the distribution to only hold the front line very lightly with one coy and keep two in the reserve line”.
By the 17th July, ‘B’ Company had been withdrawn leaving just ‘C’ Company in the front line. ‘B’ Company instead moved northwards to try and improve the line in the north near Calonne where the line was held by the Royal Sussex. “The line was not in a good state of upkeep when taken over and a lot of work had to be done which necessitated all ranks being up all night, which made the period an exceedingly tiring one, although in other respects, it was very quiet”.
In this period of quietness, the enemy seldom made an appearance and apart from the odd shot in the early hours or aircraft overhead, there was no real presence of the enemy. The Battalion therefore sent out numerous patrols to gain information on the enemy that confronted them. “Patrols were sent out every night but they never encountered any hostile ones: the Bosches seemed to rarely come out beyond his wire – owing to the standing crops it was exceedingly difficult to locate their patrols, if they had any out so as to try and ambush them”.
With Battalion HQ at Carvin Farm; about half way between the rear defensive line and the frontal positions, the C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel F.W. Jarvis, was much further forward than many of his contemporaries. The only casualty that the Battalion suffered at this time was a tragic one.
On 14th July, Private George Hawes of ‘D’ Company, was killed by accident as he jumped back into the front line trench after being out on a working party. “While working outside his trench the enemy opened fire with machine guns and Pte. Hawes jumping back into his trench impaled himself on his bayonet”
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.