At 4.15pm on the afternoon of the 29th September 1915, the world came to an abrupt end for 2nd Suffolk in the front line at Hooge.
To the immediate right of the Suffolk positions, the Germans detonated a gigantic mine under the British front line, causing many casualties and much confusion. As the dirt settled they came on. 4th Middlesex took most of the attack and the Germans successful gained the British front line in their sector. In an attempt to gain it back, a party of bombers from A Company bombed their way forward but superior German forces pushed them back. A counter attack was planned by the surviving elements of 4th Middlesex and 2nd Royal Scots but with insufficient supplies of bombs and night was fast approaching, the attack was called off. The gates were pulled down and the trench was sealed off by deliberately collapsing the sandbags at the junction between the front line and the communication trench. They waited expectedly for the German counter attack, and all ears craned for the sounds of pick and shovel during the night but the Germans were ominously quiet.
The following morning; the 30th, was spent in the line with support troops bringing up the much needed supply's of bombs for the counter attack which was planned for 3.15pm. The artillery bombardment which was the precursor to the infantry going in would commence at 3.00pm, and right on que they began, however after its conclusion, it appeared to have been largely unsuccessful in destroying the enemy positions.
A Company went over first commanded by Captain E.C. Smith. A within hail of machine gun fire brought down Smith and many others, but undeterred, Captain J.V.R. de Castro, who was just behind, pressed on and successfully reached the western edge of the crater. Halted by barbed wire, he lay flat in the open to cut at it. Major C.H. Turner, who was in command of the attack, was killed along with Lieutenant Thill. The bombers were desperately needed, but their officer, captain Dealtry was badly wounded and no senior NCO survived in their party to assume command. Enfilading machine gun fire from the flanks, saw a calculated withdrawal. The survivors fell back, consolidating the positions the Germans had taken the previous evening. They cut a new trench across their own linking it with the edge of the crater. men of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) worked tirelessly to build up the defence as the exhausted survivors crawled back in.
De Castro, last seen at the German wire was later confirmed as being killed by machine gun fire as he continued to cut the wire. He'd pushed the men on and showed great personal courage in going out alone to cut the wire.
By the end of the day, the Battalion had not much to show for their efforts. They held the same ground again, give or take a few feet, yet again the enemy denied them the battlefield. They had shown great courage and lost many men. The reborn phoenix now needed a desperate transfusion of men.
Around 2.00am on the morning of the 27th, Captain Packard’s company were relived by elements of The Coldstream Guards and were withdrawn and ordered back towards Vermelles.
Owing to the late hour and the fact that the men had been on the go for almost 24 hours, a halt was made along the Vermelles road, where the men bivouacked here for the night before proceeding to the Brigade encampment at Sailly La Bourse, later that morning.
When the roll was called, remarkably, losses had been quite slight. One officer had been killed and six wounded. Nine men killed, two died of wounds, 81 wounded and 45 missing. The remainder of the day was spent resting. Blankets were brought up for the men, since most of their equipment and their greatcoats inter ditched large packs, had been left strewn across the battlefield. For the 9th Battalion, the Battle of Loos was over.
Captain C.T. Packard’s actions that day in taking over command of the Battalion and rallying it back to their start lines was reported to the Brigadier the following morning and Packard was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for his actions. Military Crosses were also awarded to Captain G.B. Steward and Lieutenant Beyts for the same action. Sergeant Bollinbroke, Privates Mann and Haynes were all awarded the DCM for their part that day.
Late on the afternoon of the 26th September 1915, 9th Suffolk had reached the limit of their advance.
In positions just to the further side of the Hulluch-Vermelles road, they dug in consolidating what they could of the German rear line positions the had just captured.
In shallow scrapes and taking fire from the village of Hulluch to the north and the german machine guns behind them in 'Chalk Pit' wood. The advance had veered widely south during the afternoon sweeping through an area which was to to have been taken by 11th Battalion, The Essex Regiment, who had themselves veered further south as well.
Over some 2000 yards, they advanced, but by the time the crossed the main Hulluch road, they had become disjointed and fragmented. As the shrapnel fire descended, the advance broke up. These tired, citizen soldiers had been thrown directly into battle and without acclimatisation to the conditions they were to face, they had understandably, run out of momentum.
The advance had ground to a halt. With enemy shrapnel taking its toll, what survivors remained, took cover in shell holes and ditches. Unable to hold on and with no reinforcements immediately available, as ammunition began to be expended, a retreat was unfortunately, inevitable.
In one of these shell holes, a lonely sergeant still fired gallantly at the enemy, even when all around him had long since retired. Sergeant A.F. Saunders, armed with a Lewis machine gun, continued to fire at the advancing enemy, allowing his comrades to retire. Watching his actions from a nearby shell hole, a wounded officer of the 6th Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders saw Saunders solo defence. He wrote:
"I saw the lines of the 24th Division moving forward and the Germans running back. The Suffolks came through where I was and seemed to be going well. Then they wavered, and to my horror I saw them and the troops on both sides of them doubling back and leaving me isolated again. But one stout fellow, Sergeant A. F. Saunders, refused to retire. He had a Lewis gun he had picked up with a full drum on it. He crawled over to me and said he'd stay and fight. He made to crawl over to the next shell-hole and as he did so a shell landed and blew part of his left leg off about the knee. I crawled over and got him into the shell-hole, putting a tourniquet on his leg and giving him my water bottle, as his was empty. I crawled back to my hole and a few minutes later on looking over the top I saw a fresh wave of Germans advancing. I was wondering what to do - whether to lie doggo or open fire. There seemed no point in opening fire as there were perhaps a hundred and fifty enemy advancing rather diagonally across our front. To my amazement I heard short sharp bursts of Lewis gun-fire coming from the shell hole on my right. This was Sergeant Saunders more or less minus a leg! The Germans were taken by surprise and bunched up, so I joined in and between us we took a heavy toll and the rest retired out of sight. I took down Sergeant Saunders's number, name and regiment. Stretcher-bearer parties from the RE got me and Sergeant Saunders on to stretchers but shells dropped close and we were abandoned. We were lucky, a stretcher-bearer party from the Scots Guards picked us up and got us to an Advanced Dressing Station, where emergency surgery was carried out. Sergeant Saunders, now without a leg, was awarded the VC, while I was given the MC. He and I correspond regularly.”
Arthur Frederick Saunders was born in Ipswich in 1878. The 13th child to Thomas and Ann Saunders, he joined the Royal Navy in 1893 at the age of 15 and went for training on board HMS Warspite, then moored in the River Thames. Serving for 12 years, he left the service in 1906, returning to Ipswich to marry his wife Edith in 1908. He joined the notable town engineering company of Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries and was still working for them when war was declared in August 1914.
After enlisting as a Kitchener volunteer, he found himself in the 3rd Battalion, but when his previous service was discovered, he was quickly transferred to the 9th (Service) Battalion and given the rank of Sergeant.
Following his recovery from the wounds received at Loos, he came home to Ipswich to receive a real heroes welcome. He was presented with a gold watch, an armchair and £30. In edition, the townsfolk of the borough had organised a collection for their hero, which enabled him to purchase a house in the town, where the family lived for the rest of his life.
An Honorary Freeman of the borough, he became a JP in 1928. During the Second World War, he returned to service again as Quartermaster of the 11th (Ipswich) Battalion, Suffolk Home Guard. He died in 1947. His widow Edith, presented his Victoria Cross (the actual medal shown in the previous post) to the Suffolk Regiment Museum in 1989 on the occasion of he 99th Birthday.
The officer who wrote the above account of the action was Second Lieutenant Christinson, who would later rise to become General Sir Philip Christinson, CBE, CB, DSO, MC. He kept in touch with Arthur throughout his life and insisted that he be made an Honorary Cameron Highlander. His account of Arthurs actions was a more factual than the official polished citation. A man of a Service Battalion, who had never been in action before, had won the Regiment the first of its two Victoria Crosses. The day, though one of failure, was also one of gallantry.
Around 5.00 am on the 26th, the 9th Battalion were ordered to leave the positions they had dug during the night and fall back some 600 yards to the German second line, which they had passed over the previous night.
Here they remained and awaited orders. At 11.25am, Lieutenant-Colonel Brettell received down the line, a hand written order that they were to advance at 11.00am. Clearly late on the start, he rallied the Battalion immediately and ordered the advance. “Without hesitation each section mounted the parapet and began pushing forward under heavy artillery fire towards the objective of the previous evening.” The situation was however, one of chaos. The immediate departure had not allowed platoon commanders to keep an eye on their advancing men. It was impossible to organise the line since many platoons had rushed on ahead, only to be caught in the hail of shrapnel fire. Brettell shouted orders but to no avail. The Suffolk line was becoming fragmented and dispersed. “A” and “C” Company’s on the left had raced ahead, leaving “B” and D” on the right, lagging behind. The men had advance over a great distance, but were absolutely exhausted. The War Diary noted that a decision was made to ditch the men’s packs and these were taken off. One can only assume that the first 600 yards were completed with large packs upon their backs. No mean feat to advance at a rush for this distance, for an unfit, citizen battalion carrying everything that they had been issued with.
Packs ditched, the advance continued. At around 5.00pm when the leading Company’s were astride the Hulluch-Lens road, heavy enemy fire caused a second halt. Such was the ferocity of the fire on the right, the majority of which was coming from the area of “Chalk Pit Wood’ which
was still in enemy hands, that the Company’s here began to retire. On the left too, men were falling back. Heavy enfilading fire was reported from the area south of Hulluch and with the CO and his Adjutant, Captain Hedges, now wounded, a retreat was ordered back to the German second line - the spot from where they had begun their attack from that morning. Until the very last minute, a sergeant on the right flank kept a couple of the Battalions machine guns in action and rallied the men around him, Though wounded twice, Sergeant Saunders’ actions ensured that the majority of the Battalion could retire under covering fire. When the situation was hopeless, Saunders rallied the survivors and retired. His actions had temporarily, halted the enemy advance.
At around 7.00pm, what remained of the Battalion, which amounted to just 3 officers and 100 men, now under the command of Captain Packard, started to consolidate the old German second line against attack. The parados was raised and the parapet lowered. Around 8.00pm, Captain Packard also received news from another group of Suffolks who had survived the attack. A group of men under the command of Lieutenant Church were in another section of the German line to the north.
Another day had passed in the history of the Suffolk Regiment - one that had gained the Regiment that most coveted of accolades; A Victoria Cross.
At 4.00am on the morning of the 25th September, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel R.V. Brettell, was summoned to a meeting with his Brigadier. He was ordered to assemble the Battalion at 7.00 am and be ready to move up to the front line. After a delay of several hours, at 11.30am, their orders were finally received to move.
Via Vermelles, a journey of around 7 miles, the Battalion arrived, after a halt at their destination, a mining pit with accompanying slag heap know as “Fosse 9” (Pit No. 9) near the cross roads at Corons de Rutoire along a trench line called “Quality Street.” Here they received orders that their Division (24th) was to act in support of the major attack which was going in against the enemy by the 9th (Scottish) Division. The 21st Division would be on their right.
Forming the first line that would attack first were 9th Suffolk and 11th Essex. The second line behind them would be formed by 9th Norfolk and 8th Bedfords.
In the failing light of the autumn evening, the Battalion left their trenches and advanced at 8.00pm. Their objective was the village of Venden le Veil on the eastern side of the Loos-Haisnes road. Battalion orders inferred that the action would not be heavy and that those men who were wounded in the advance who could walk, were to proceed to Vermelles on foot, for treatment.
“A” and “B” Company’s would lead the attack, with “C” and “D” in the rear. The Battalion advanced in this fashion until they had reached the German second line trenches which had been taken that morning. Here they halted and dug in.
Neither the Regimental History or the Battalion War Diary made any mention as to any enemy action during the advance. Just what would the next 24 hours bring the Battalion?
Closer, mile by mile, the 9th Battalion were getting up to the front. Exhausted and carrying full kit, the going was tough for these citizen soldiers.
From Matringhem, via Ham-en-Artois to Le Gornet, then to Bourdois, onward the exhausted men marched. Past Bethune to within earshot of the guns, they knew they were getting close to the front. The major British offensive of 1915, was hours away from starting.
In the deadlock that evolved in late 1915, the British were keen to take the offensive, but many in the General Staff knew that the British would not be in a position to take on the might of the Germany Army until it could equal it in numbers, even though this would mean waiting until the 1917 at least. However being the junior partner in a fighting coalition, the French pushed the British Commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, into taking the offensive late in 1915.
In an area not of his choosing, the coalfields of Artois were to be the place.
The town that 9th Suffolk were marching towards had an ominous and chilling name 'Loos' it seemed that failure hung heavy in the air.
The 9th were by the morning of the 24th completely exhausted and sodden though for rain had fell four nights continuously. Their patience stretched, that morning on the march, they fell out beside the road without command. Exhausted, the fatigue-struck men lay drinking from their water bottles when a senior Major of the Battalion shouted to them to get up and carry on "You darned rotten lot" he cried to be met a tirade of abuse. His fiery nature was well known and he took the salvo of insults with good humour. After a mug of tea, they were off again.
Just a few miles from their allotted start position for the forthcoming battle, it was becoming clear that a rest was needed if they were to be at their best the following day. Young, old, infirm, fit, keen and apprehensive, the men of this battalion covered and illustrated every walk of life. The acid test for these citizen soldiers drew near but the nickname of the "rotten mob" had stuck hard that day and in years to come, men would meet and ask "were you one of the rotten mob?"
For the men of the 9th Battalion, newly arrived in France, their days of waiting for action were drawing to an end.
On the 21st September, they left their camp at Alette where they had been since 1st September, and proceeded by route march, the distance of 21 miles, to Matringhen, where they would rest, before proceeding on again further towards the front.
That day of departure from camp also brought a change of command. Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Henry Denne Stracey who had been with the Battalion since early June, departed to take command of the 9th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. The men were sorry to see him go. He had got them ready for war and had taken them to France, but in his place, a new leader emerged in the form of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Vernon Guest Brettell.
Brettell, who had come from the 9th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, was a professional pre-war soldier. He's started his career in the East Surrey's as a young subaltern in 1899, joining them at Jhansi in India. Rising through the ranks, he was a Captain by 1910 when his Battalion were stationed at Plymouth and by 1913, he was Major. At the outbreak of war came a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel. It would be Brettell that would take them into action for the first time.
The men were in fine spirit and were ready to have a crack at the Bosche, yet the forthcoming days would be ones of long route marches, which brought them step by step, closer to the front. These tiring journeys would sap the mens morale and test them almost to breaking point before all was asked of them.
"Another dawn, another day" someone wrote in later years, "and always just one more mile to go." Carrying all that they possessed, would these men be in a fit state to fight when the great day came?
The 9th (Service) Battalion it is believed, were the first Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment to arrive on the Western Front with a form of identifying cloth insignia, or 'battle patch' already in use within their Brigade.
The 9th had shed its 'Kitchener Blue' uniforms at Shoreham near Brighton on 10th March 1915, and moved into khaki immediately afterwards. It is believed that in these early days when everyone wore blue uniforms, and cap badges were not on full issue, that the authorities instigated a simple system of coloured patches one backs of the recruits jackets to quickly identify who they were when around camp.
This kind of system was not unique to the 9th Battalion. Sydney Fuller of the 8th Battalion, wrote early on in his diary, that just after he arrived with the Battalion, they were given a piece of yellow cloth for them to cut out the shape of a castle from, and sew it to the arms of their civilian clothing to identify them as 'Suffolks.'
The 9th arrived in France still wearing their 'field badge' - "a triangular patch of Cambridge Blue, worn below the collar on the back of the jacket" It was recorded later in a 1917 survey, that it measured 3" across the base and 2 1/2" on each side. For early battle patches it was incredibly large.
Though still in use throughout the latter months of 1915, by Christmas it had all but disappeared.
In the Gallipoli peninsular the 1/5th Battalion were holding the lines around Hill 60, but already, their time at Gallipoli had become one of entrenchment.
The complex of trenches around the hill resembled in miniature, the Saleint around Ypres. The Turks as usual, commanded the high ground, with the Suffolks in deep trenches around its slopes. The trenches needed to be deep for the Turks on the 'pimple' could pick off men at will in shallow trenches below. Here in places, they were 12 feet deep to allow men to move along them without fear of snipers, but a Turkish shell landing in the line, could bury men in the soft sandy soil in seconds. The situation was precarious and tense at all times.
In a effort to combat this fear, every 20 yards or so, a defensive redan was constructed. Normally these were a pile of empty water tins or ration boxes, supporting a plank with sandbags on top. If the enemy attacked, the men could rush into the redan, kick out the tins causing the wall to collapse and thus stop the enemy advancing further by creating a defensive redoubt from which to fight from. An archaic medieval tactic, but one that was much suited to the confinement of the Gallipoli campaign.
In their new front line, the Battalion had for new neighbours, a battalion of Australians on one side, and a mixed battalion of Sikhs and Gurkhas on the other. In one respect they had the tough fighting colonial troops from the east, who pride and smartness was much to be beholded, whilst on the other, the relaxed Antipodens in their vests and slouch hats were a different breed.
In mid September, the Turks began to roll the corpses of the dead of the previous battles down the slopes of the hill. The high summer heat had started to make their laying in the open unbearable for both sides. The swarms of flies the corpses attracted, forces the Allies to venture out to try and cover them over to stop the flies. The Turkish sniper caused many deaths to the Battalion in this period, leading to the creation of another ‘Suffolk Cemetery.”
“About this time” the Regimental Gazette ran, “disease began to be rife amongst the men and scores had to leave with dysentery and enteric. This was not to be wondered at, millions of flies were a veritable plague, the stench from the dead was fearful. The hot climate and the hard living lowered the men’s vitality. That there was a scarcity of that most necessary commodity of life, water, which was of doubtful quality.”
The days of early September had for the 2nd Battalion, been ones of yet more casualties. On average 2 men a day were being wounded in the area behind the lines where the Battalion were stationed on Pioneering work.
They had been withdrawn from the front line in late August and had been working on repairing the roads in the area around Ouderdom, between Ypres and Poperinge. Daily, shells were fired into their area causing casualties. The strain must have been too much for one member of the Battalion for on the afternoon of 15th September, the HQ Company Cook, No. 6972, Private Clements, was found dead behind the Cookhouse in an area near the Kuisstraat. He had committed suicide.
His end was met with shock by many who had seen his posting to the Cookhouse the previous month, as the first step on the road to recuperation. He had been with the Battalion since June and was one of the first to arrive after the battles at Bellewaarde Wood, but long periods of front line service had caused him to begin to crack and his platoon commander, seeing that a breakdown was inevitable, arranged to have him temporarily transferred to the Cookhouse, to get him away from the action for a rest.
Officially, Charles Clements death was an embarrassment. He was an old reservist, called back after his service had ended, but he had missed numerous drafts to the front in early 1915, due to his poor eyesight. He joined the Regiment in 1904 and was considered a steady hand by many. His death was a clear sign that the war was taking a mental toll on many a hardened old Suffolk Soldier.
Initially he was denied a place on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, but after much campaigning by the then C.O., Colonel A.M. Cutbill (who was at the time Clements died, a PoW in Germany), his name was added as an addendum to the last panel on the memorial. War made the unlikely, heroes, and the hardened, tame, but 100 years on, he is not forgotten.
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.