On 27th August at 5.00am; the day after the battle of Le Cateau, the remnants of the Battalion arrived at St. Quentin.
They called the roll and it soon became apparent that the action had been more costly than it was originally thought. The War Diary for that day noted just who was left:
"Officers (Captain Blackwell and Lieutenant Oates) 1 Medical Officer (Captain Phelan R.A.M.C.) A Coy - 31, B - 19, C - 38, D - 16, Attached - 7. Total 114"
The first major engagement of The Suffolk Regiment was a costly one. The losses to the Battalion in killed, wounded or captured, were a staggering 88%; so high in fact that the Battalion could never be reformed from its remaining ranks.
It would become a single company of the East Surrey Regiment, only being re-embodied the following spring. "Le Cateau" would soon rank beside Dettingen, Minden and Gibraltar as a major Battle Honour of the Regiment.
Having moved off at first light in artillery formation, the Battalion left its overnight billet and proceeded south down the straight roman road towards Reumont. By 4.00am they had crossed the Cambrai-Le Cateau road, when they received orders to halt. Colonel Brett and Major Doughty were called away to a conference with Brigadier-General Rolt; commander of 14th Infantry Brigade. A few moments later, Lord Douglas Malise-Graham, the Aide-de-Camp to the Divisional Commander; Major-General Sir Charles Fergusson, C.B., M.V.O., D.S.O., informed Major Peebles, the most senior officer present, “You are going to fight it out here” The battle of Le Cateau was about to begin.
Around 6.00am, the first enemy troops were seen. A patrol of Uhlans (Lancers) appeared over the brow of the Cambrai-Le Cateau road but, after a short burst of fire from the batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery; which were in the rear of the Suffolk positions, they immediately retired. After this first salvo had ceased, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel C.A.H. Brett, D.S.O., (above) went around the positions and impressed upon the men that the ground was not of his choosing, but there was to be no retirement.
At around 7.30am, the enemy artillery was becoming heavier and it was soon clear from observation that the German infantry now occupied the high ground north-west of the Suffolk positions and around 10.00am, enemy infantry began to offer itself as a target. Coming on in larger numbers, the forward Suffolk positions were still delivering sustained and accurate rifle fire, but ammunition was running short.
Around this time, a German spotter plane was seen circling overhead for the first time. It dropped bombs of different coloured smoke to direct their artillery towards the Suffolk position. The enemy was by now pushing through in large numbers on the right flank - closest to Le Cateau itself, and it was moving round to enfilade the Suffolk positions.
At around 9.00am Lieutenant-Colonel Brett was mortally wounded and conveyed from the battlefield. By 11.00am, the situation became critical and just before noon attempts by 2nd Manchester Regiment and 2nd Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders to reinforce the Suffolk position failed. Major Doughty and Captain Cutbill were both severely wounded at this time.
The Suffolks and Argylls were now alone. They were in a “worse plight” than ever, having been fighting for nearly six hours. Around 2.00pm Lieutenants George and Burnand on the right flank were in a precarious situation. With the enemy both in front and now behind them, they were forced to turn their men about to meet an attack from both the front and the rear.
Between 2.30 and 2.45pm, the end came. The Germans had by now amassed a considerable amount of infantry in the shelter of the Cambrai road, and in one final major attack they fell upon the Suffolk position from the front, the right and, nearest Le Cateau itself, from the rear. The enemy assault on the frontal positions was repulsed vigorously with the Suffolks and Argylls keeping up withering fire bringing down man after man until there was no more ammunition left.
The official history stated “They had for nine hours been under an incessant bombardment which had pitted the whole of the ground with craters, and they had fought to the very last, covering themselves with undying glory.”
Their day was done. Those that could get away did, but there wasn't many of them. In the hours that followed, the full extent of the ferocity of the action would become apparent...
On Sunday August 23rd, the inhabitants of Mons were off to church as usual. Major Peebles was accosted by one local man who asked him whether in view of their being there, he should leave his cows out in the field! Peebles (left) reassured him and the man went on his way.
Early on in the morning, orders were received to reinforce the 1st East Surreys who were coming under enemy artillery fire along the bank of the Mons-Conde canal. Major Doughty took C and D Company’s from their position near Haine, across the canal, where almost immediately they came under heavy enemy artillery fire.
Upon arrival, Doughty reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Longley of the East Surreys who ordered Doughty over the canal bank to reinforce Captain Benson who was holding the bridgehead on the far bank. Sharp fighting was already taking place, with the enemy’s infantry coming on in greater numbers. Captain Benson of the East Surreys was killed shortly afterwards, along with Corporal Page and Privates W. Flack and S.G. Goddard; the first recorded Suffolk Regiment deaths in the “Great European War.” A Suffolk officer, Lieutenant Phillips, was wounded and subsequently captured, the first Suffolk Prisoner of War. All casualties in this first engagement belonged to C Company.
At this stage II Corps were holding the front line in parallel with the canal with the left-hand end; where the 5th Division were positioned.14 Brigade, of which 2nd Suffolk were part, were on the extreme left hand of the line in the area around Pommerouil-Thurlin. To their right were 13 Brigade with 15 Brigade in reserve around the area of Wasmes.
Around noon, Peebles, who had been constructing a bridge across the canal near Haine, came under fire from a German sniper. Although two men were wounded, none were serious. The sniper was a pretty poor shot! In the early afternoon, German artillery concentrated on the gap between the 3rd and 5th Divisions and having pushed them back, they were soon over the canal in strength in the centre of the action.
The Suffolks were ordered to retire from their positions on the far bank. Pulling back across the canal, they were soon in retreat. Destroying what bridges they could with their meagre demolition materials, they used an old iron footbridge near Hanin to get across. Throughout the retire, the Germans sounded retreat bugle calls, trying to fool the British that they were retiring.
By this stage of the action, Sir John French had already decided to abandon the offensive and instead commence the strategic withdrawal of the BEF that was later to be called the Retreat from Mons.
100 years ago today, the first of the Service Battalions of The Suffolk Regiment was born.
On 20th August 1914, Major C.D. Parry Crooke left the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion; then at their war station at Felixstowe, and proceeded to the Depot to raise the 7th (Service) Battalion.
After the great call to the nations men to come and fight was made by Lord Kitchener in the early days of war, thousands of men started appearing at the Depot in Bury St. Edmunds volunteering for service. By the 20th August there was enough to form a Battalion and Major Parry Crooke took his new recruits by train to Shornecliffe in Kent, where they were to form part of new a Brigade being formed which was ironically, commanded by Brigadier-General C.H. Van Straubenzee, who had seven months previously, relinquished his command of 2nd Suffolk in Ireland.
The first few weeks, were as to be expected occupied by “drill, drill, drill and drill again” before the rudiments of basic musketry and field craft were taught and learnt. Such was the call to arms that uniforms and equipment could not be found in any great numbers. With the Reservists being called back to the Colours, the Depots around the country had exhausted their stocks and what additional spare suits of service dress and equipment were to be found, had disappeared rapidly. Territorial stores were raided for anything that could be issued to these keen enthusiastic young citizen soldiers and many old and obsolete sets of 1878 and 1888 pattern white buff leather equipment was pressed into service along with an assortment of out of date and antique calibre weapons such as the .577/450 Martin-Henry rifle – last used in action in limited quantities in Natal in the 1880s. The first uniforms to arrive were manufactured in blue serge, made from the vast stocks of cloth readily available for postmen and bus drivers uniforms. in It would to be several months before khaki serge was available in large enough quantities to be issued universally to the entire Battalion.
A notable young officer who joined the Battalion in Kent, was a young Lieutenant Charles Sorley, later to become a famous war poet. His service with the Battalion was regretfully not to be a long one.
Following mobilisation on 5th August 1914, the strength of the 2nd Battalion was recorded as being 998 all ranks. it composition was as follows: Officers: 27, Other Ranks: 563.
Reservists joining with nine years with the Colours, three on the reserve: 154, Reservists joining with eight years with the Colours, four on the reserve: 49, Reservists joining with seven years with the Colours, five on the reserve: 27, and finally Reservists joining with 3 years with the Colours and nine years on the reserve: 178. It was noted that of those being called back to the Colours, 172 were found to be unfit and were therefore discharged. Had they have been well enough, Battalion strength would have been 1170 men.
In the early days of war, the primary concern of the the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel C.A.H. Brett, DSO, was to get these reservists with a variety of former service, into a functioning battalion. The following days were spent in intensive training. The War Diary noted that the “reservists settled down well, despite many having left the Colours a long time” Some men had left the army in 1905 and needed 'knocking back into shape' but by the 13th August, just 8 days after mobilisation the Battalion was equipped and ready to go to war.
Issued with iron rations; designed only to last a few days, 120 rounds of ammunition, and carrying greatcoats and not blankets, on the afternoon of the 13th, part of Battalion Headquarters and half the Battalion left the railway siding at the Curragh Camp for North Wall Dublin and embarkation on the S.S. Lanfranc for Le Havre.
The first stage of deployment to France had begun.
Strictly following Regimental Orders, at The Depot in Suffolk, the plan for the mobilisation of The 2nd Battalion began to be put into operation.
To all those on the Reserve List, they would soon receive their "personal invitation to participate in the Great European War" in the form of a telegram asking them to report to The Depot as soon as possible in the morning.
By first light, the first of the Reservists were arriving. At the same time Lieutenant Bittleston and his cadre of senior NCOs, arrived from Ireland having travelled on the overnight boat from Dublin with the Colours of the 2nd Battalion.
After tea, a haircut and a medical inspection, the Reservists were taken into The Keep and up the stairs to the first floor. Here in the "Reservists Clothing and Equipment Stores" they were issued with their khaki serge service dress, 1908 pattern web equipment and boots of brown reversed leather. Having filed along the counter, they went onwards to the Armoury to collect their No. 1 Mk. III charger-loading Lee Enfield rifles; a weapon unknown to some Reservists.
After a hot meal, they marched off to the station to entrain for the Midlands, and eventually, Liverpool, where, sailing overnight, they would be in Dublin just after 5.00am.
There was no fuss, no panic. The careful and diligent following of the Mobilization Orders ensured that within hours, the 2nd Battalion was at full "War Establishment" - a process that was being re-enacted all over Great Britain in over 30 Regimental Depots.
On the afternoon of 4th August 1914 at 5.18pm, a telegram was received at the Orderly Room of the 2nd Battalion at Curragh Camp, Dublin. It read: “To Commanding Officer, 2nd Suffolk - Mobilise” - The Great War had started for The Suffolk Regiment.
Immediately, the carefully laid down plan for the mobilization of the Reservists began to be put into operation. Captain and Adjutant, A.M. Cutbill took from the Battalion safe, Army Form C.2118 – the “War Diary” and started straight away to record the Battalions activities.
At the same time, Lieutenant N.A. Bittleston; the Battalion's machine-gun officer, left the Curragh with the Colours of the Battalion, to be placed in times of emergency, at the Depot at Bury St. Edmunds. Along with Lieutenant Bittleston were five senior NCOs who were to assist in the organisation of the reservists who were being called back to the ‘Colours.’
At the same time as this was happening, all across the country, Regimental Depots were checking their ledgers for contact details and addresses of the thousands of Reservists. These men, who were still on the reserve list, were liable in times of emergency, to be called back to the Colours, would shortly receive telegrams ordering them to report to their respective Regimental Depots. Some of these men had left the Army almost nine years before and were almost at the expiry of their reserve limit. Within hours, they would be soldiering again with their old chums...
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.