"What of Bedwell?" The CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Copeman asked following the 4th Battalion's attack on High Wood. Bedwell had, like many others, fallen in the attack.
Victor Leopold Stevens Bedwell was born in 1894 at Saham Toney, Thetford, to the Rev. Thomas Bedwell and his wife, Mary. Educated at St. John’s Leatherhead, he received a classical scholarship to attend Exeter College, Oxford, where the Bedwell prize is still given in his honour. A keen cricketer, at the outbreak of war, he signed up to join the university officers training corps which allowed him for a few months at least, to continue his studies. He received a commission in 4th Suffolk in May 1915 and was posted to Halton Camp near Tring in Hertfordshire.
A contemporary of Lieutenant C.C.S. Gibbs, they arrived in France in May 1916, joining the Battalion near Bethune. After the briefest of interludes, the Battalion were rushed south to the Somme, where on 15th July, they were thrown into their first major action near the Bazentins.
During the attack on Wood Lane trench at High Wood, Bedwell was the last remaining officer to reach the forward lines. The Germans has positioned a machine gun in the edge of the wood, whose arc of fire cut down many of the Suffolks advancing that day. Bedwell, the last surviving officer, pushed his men on gallantly getting them into the trench at Wood Lane, but then he himself, fell to the machine gun's deadly fire. His body was never found.
Lieutenant Charles Cobden Storming Gibbs, who left the only real first hand account of that ferocious battle, wrote of him; “He carried the Iliad about with him. What a magnificent type of man compared with the officers we got later from secondary schools or from the ranks.”
The day following the 4th Battalion's gallant action at High Wood, the roll was called.
At that point, 3 officers had been killed and two wounded. 29 other ranks were killed and 102 were wounded. Missing at that time, were around 50 men, but this figure would rise in the days to follow as missing men failed to arrive or be accounted for. The Battalion was now reported to be at a third of its original strength since arriving on the Somme.
When back in the Front line, the stories of how gallantly the Suffolks had fought, came out. Once story stood out of how Lieutenant Pawsey (above), shot through the neck by a German sniper, ran on directing his men all the way to the German lines, where he finally collapsed and died. He had run over 400 yards in this state refusing all aid.
4th Suffolk had acquitted themselves well. Again they had been forced to retire in the face of heavy enemy fire, and again, the inability to bring up reserves and a lack of communication, meant a retreat was inevitable. They had shown great courage in pushing onwards with the attack when all officers had been either killed or wounded and the senior NCOs who had commanded their men well in the face of fierce fire, were to be praised for their offensive spirit.
From the interim positions between ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company in the front line, Gibbs could not see anything of the men out in front. His own Company (‘B’ Company), had left the jumping off trenches shortly after ‘C’ Company had gone over. They were now forced to ground in a series of shell holes and culverts around half way between the leading Company’s out in front, and the jumping off trenches behind. Gibbs recalled; “I got my men digging like fury to consolidate the position. Just where were we? I didn’t go back to the jumping off trench in case a few yards retreat meant more and I failed to hold them.” A runner appeared with a message for Gibbs from Battalion HQ to state that he must dig in and consolidate. He scrawled over it “have been doing so for some time” and sent it back with the runner!
By around 4.00pm, narrow scrapes had joined the shell holes into a captured German communication trench. From here Gibbs and his surviving men, could get up to the new front line to find out the situation. After crawling, barging and pushing himself forward, he came upon men of the Battalion. Asking for his fellow officers, he was confronted by senior NCOs, who were now in charge, who informed him that they had all fallen.
In a period of eerie silence at the height of the battle, the Stretcher Bearers crawled out and were able to collect some of the wounded. Gibbs went out across no-mans land to assist in the collection. One stretcher bearer he remembered, had ventured further afield “crawling about with bandages, iodine and a water bottle.”
As German bombers pushed back yard-by-yard from the north and south, a great many casualties occurred in the front lines. As the Suffolk frontage of trench was gradually squeezed, there was now no hope of reinforcement until dark. Two Lewis guns were brought forward and did much to stem the attack for an hour or so, but as dusk descended, with Gibbs, the only officer in the front line, the decision was made to retire. In the darkness, via the route of shell holes and half-dug intersecting trenches, the remnants of the Battalion retreated back to ‘Seaforth’ trench where there were safe.
At 2.45pm, the Battalion advanced. ‘A’ Company on the left, with ‘D’ Company on the right, moving eastwards towards the wood. To the left flank, 2nd Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders advanced just in front of them and shortly afterwards, they succeeded in getting into the south-west corner of the wood.
With the Argyles clearing positions inside the wood, it allowed 4th Suffolk to press on further unhindered with the extreme left of ‘A’ Company touching the wood itself. To the right of 4th Suffolk, 4th King’s Regiment (Liverpool) had made it to the German lines astride the main road to Longueval. However, this advance was not without loss. No sooner had ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company’s left this forward position, they were caught in vicious enemy artillery and machine gun fire from both the wood, which was not fully cleared, and from the village of Longueval itself.
The men of the Battalion immediately went to ground but continued advancing, partly at the rush, partly at the crawl. The one advantage to the Battalion here, was the total loss of barbed wire. As the positions recently captured were in land that was previously behind the German line, no wire entanglements had been laid.
As the elements of ‘C’ Company arrived at the jumping off line, they could see the first stragglers and wounded coming back in. “A struggling line of men” wote Stormont Gibbs, “running in a sort of staggering run. Some running, some dropping. The first few got level with me and as I looked at them I saw in their eyes that wild look of men mad with fear.”
Despite this, elements of both ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company’s had reached their objective. The War Diary noted “The assault was carved out with determination.” ‘A’ Company’s advance ground to a halt due to resistance from concealed German machinegun positions inside the wood itself. Whilst they were held up, ‘C’ Company moved round to fill their position in the attacking line. ‘D’ and ‘C’ Company’s reached the German front line which ran south from the wood, towards Longueval about 100 yards past the road. Here they started to consolidate their gains and awaited the picks and shovels to start to dig-in. Seeing that the line had been reached, the Battalion Commander sent over ‘B’ Company to assist them in getting the position strengthened.
However, to get this far, the Battalion had paid a high price. Every single officer in the attacking waves was either killed or wounded, with one exception; 2/Lieutenant V.L.S. Bedwell, who was then subsequently killed reaching the German line. Across a frontage of around 150 yards, the Battalion held on, but as the King’s Liverpool's met a strong German counter attack in the south, they fell back leaving ‘D’ Company enfiladed from the right flank. To the north, the Germans brought reserves out to the edge of the wood, and then advanced in rushes across into the Argyles newly won line, forcing them back. 4th Suffolk were now alone in the centre.
Late in the afternoon of the 18th August 1916, the 4th Battalion, still recovering from its costly battle at the Bazentin's the previous month, was once more thrown into the heat of battle.
Their objective was the dark, sinister and foreboding amass of shell-scarred trees known as 'High Wood.' This natural defensive redoubt, was criss-crossed with deep elaborate trenches which had been started in early 1915, by its defenders. At the height of the Somme summer, foliage and thicket covered these positions, camouflaging their occupants, and confusing the attacking forces as to the true strength of the enemy that lay within.
The plan of attack for 4th Suffolk was that ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company’s would go over first, with ‘C’ Company would be behind in the centre. ‘B’ Company was to be in reserve. They would advance with picks, shovels and trench building equipment as soon as the observers saw the frontal company’s reach the German front line.
The leading Company’s would advance from a section of jumping off trench which was in advance of the then front line. By doing this, it was hoped that the bulk of the enemy artillery (aimed at the advancing waves) would fall to the rear of them, allowing them to advance behind it.
From observation the previous day, the Germans fully expected an attack and had from mid-morning onwards put down a heavy barrage. In the early stage, it acted to the advantage of the Battalion in that it screened the leading company's as they moved into position, but it did however, cause a great many casualties to these Company’s before the attack had even begun.
Waiting in the front line with his men was 2/Lieutenant C.C. Stormont-Gibbs. The chaos of wounded dragging themselves in from the barrage around them, was causing a jam in the front line trenches. He recalled; “We got wedged in a traffic jam for some minutes and it seemed touch and go whether they (his men) could be kept in a frame of mind to follow on. Especially was this so when the result of the jam became evident in the shape of strings of wounded coming down from further forward. Amongst these was young Suttle with all the fingers of one hand hanging by shreds of skin. He held up his hand as he passed me with a grimace but he knew his wound had saved his life.” A month later Gibbs would see his photograph in the Daily Mirror under the inscription “This heroic young officer received seven wounds.”
Early in the afternoon, the men got ready to advance. They were ready and confident of a success, but they knew that it would not be easy.
As August wore on, news filtered out of the losses of July. Men who were wounded were now fit enough to write home and those who had been taken prisoner, were now in camps and had the time to put pen to paper to write home.
For Corporal Young of 'X' Company, 2nd Suffolk, who was taken prisoner at Longueval, he was now, after interrogation, interred in a PoW camp at Minden in Germany. After celebrating a rather surreal Minden Day, where guards and prisoners alike celebrated a battle 157 years previously, where once they had been allies against the French, Young now had time to write home of his actions on the Somme. Young was beside Lieutenant Evans when he was killed in the attack of 20th July, and via the Regimental Depot at Bury St. Edmunds, he managed to get a letter through to Evans family. "Lieutenant Evans I am sorry to say, got killed in an attack on the 20th July, whilst giving me instructions, and died within a couple of minutes of being hit in the head with a rifle bullet. No one is more sorry that I that he got killed as he was a good officer, and died a true soldiers death. The incident took place in Delville wood and in all probability, he was buried by the Germans or by shell fire."
Lieutenant Arthur Leslie Evans was born in Leytonstone, London and educated at at Bancroft School. His father, like many generations before him, was a stockbroker in the city. His uncle, also Arthur Evans, purchased in 1886, the popular weekly periodical "Vanity Fair" for a considerable sum of money. The rights to its valuable picture archive were transferred to his wife upon his death and now form the bulk of the Mary Evans Picture Library. At the outbreak of war, Evans enlisted as a private in the London Scottish; a prestigious territorial regiment, but by early 1915, his potential as an officer was noted and he took a place on an officer training course being commissioned into 2nd Suffolk in March 1915. A "keen, immensely likeable man" his body was never found and his is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
The 4th August 1916 dawned with men of 4th Suffolk returning from a wiring party into no-mans-land.
Tired and hungry, the men returned to the trenches before first light to get cleaned up. They had spent the early hours banging in iron pickets, muffled with sandbags to bolster the defences opposite their positions.
Throughout the day, training continued at Mericourt with gas drills taking place in the afternoon. Around 3.00pm, a message was received from 2nd Suffolk to ask the officers to come to dinner. In the pre-war era, such an occurrence would not have taken place for regimental etiquette - where a regular Battalion invited the Volunteers to dine. However, pleased at not having to cook, a party of 6 officers set off once more to Mericourt for dinner.
Having consumed a fair amount of homemade fruit cake, sent out from England, and bottle of liberated wine, the officers of the 4th Battalion returned to their billets in the early hours. For a brief few hours, Suffolks, regular and territorial, talked of home and of the recent battles past. Regimental tradition and snobbery was forgotten.
Minden Day 1916, met many Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment serving across the Globe.
On the Western Front, the 2nd Battalion assembled at Mericourt for formal parade and march-past in front of Major-General Haldane, C.B., D.S.O., who then commanded the 3rd Infantry Division, and who took the salute. The War Diary noted that "Officers and Other Ranks who could obtain them, wore roses in their hats." The Regimental History some years later also noted that "Everyone bedecking himself as best he could with the roses of Picardy in honour of the regimental day."
In the afternoon, a sports day was held, harking back to the old pre-war days of foreign service. Though there were then, less than 30 men still serving who had seen pre-war service; the majority of the old Battalion having being captured at Le Cateau or lost in the battles of 1915, despite this, the old spirit was still there.
Later that afternoon, a detachment of men of the 4th Battalion ventured across from nearby Dernancourt to join in the festivities. The 4th Battalion had been granted a half day holiday and many men decided to march the 9 miles to Mericout to engage in the days festivities. A water polo match was played in the afternoon, which resulted in the 4th Battalion beating the 2nd Battalion.
In far away Salonika, the 1st Battalion were leaving the Struma Valley to move up into the hills. In the sweltering heat, the Battalion trudged along the Salonika-Serres road. There may have been roses worn in their service dress caps that day, plucked from the wayside hedges of a dusty Macedonian road, but whether or not there were, the spirit of the "Minden Boys" lived on.
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.