The history of the 8th Battalion History, written in 1918 made mention to the Battalion's gallant actionat Thiepval:
“The attack on Thiepval in conjunction with 10th Essex, was a complete and immediate success. Close behind one of the finest barrages it was possible to imagine, advanced the attacking troops, who speedily overran the village, killing or capturing the entire garrison, and gained their objectives punctually, and with but small loss. The redoubtable fortress had fallen and the Battalion was everywhere on the summits, which for so long had looked down on the British lines.”
Perhaps a finer accolade to the Battalion’s performance that day, came in the form of a Christmas present from the Divisional Commander, Major-General Ivor Maxse, to the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill. A personal letter accompanied the gift of a popular print of the action published in the Illustrated London News in the Autumn. It ran; “My Dear Hill, Please accept this little sketch representing an incident during your Battalions fine attack on Thiepval, on which occasion the 8th Suffolk Regt so greatly distinguished themselves. Yours sincerely, F. I. Maxse”
The print and the letter hang today, in the Suffolk Regiment Museum.
The attacks upon the village of Thiepval were continuous throughout late September 1916, but for 8th Suffolk, their day of fame came on 26th September.
The plan for the attack was that the 1st wave, consisting of sections of ‘C’ and ‘B’ Company’s together with a section of “moppers up” from the Norfolk Regiment, were to head directly for “Bulgar” trench which ran north-east from the ruins of Thiepval, and move onto “Zollen” trench beyond which ran away eastwards towards the “Zollern Redoubt.” They would be passing directly through the ruins of the village itself and into the open ground beyond.
The artillery barrage commenced on time at 12.35pm which was the signal for the men in the front line to fix their bayonets. As the men waited, the usual pre-attack ration of run was not distributed. Instead, the men watched the barrage creep forward. From just in front of them, up hill towards the German lines.
Sidney Fuller, a signaller in 8th Suffolk wrote in his diary of the closeness of the fire; “I found it difficult not to keep ducking.” Six minutes later, whilst the barrage crept on, the first waves advanced. “The first wave went over immediately” continued Fuller “then the second, then the third, all within a few seconds interval, and then the fourth, which included D Company, Coy Hdqrs and ourselves (Signals). Now we had to shout in each others if we wanted to speak. The barrage was like a wall of smoke and dust, topped by white smoke from shrapnel bursts. It (the barrage) was now two hundred yards away.”
Having fanned out into extended line, the successive waves slowly walked on behind the barrage. “Away we went, at a steady walk, carrying our rifles at the “high port” – bayonet pointing upwards and to the left – to avoid accidentally “spiking” one of our own men. I saw men stop, light a cigarette, and walk on again as if walking along a street. There did not seem to be many bullets flying about us, but no doubt the noise of the guns prevented us hearing them.”
However, the Germans were already on the attack. A series of large shells were fired in amongst the Suffolk advance. One blew the foot off a man walking beside Fuller, and another riddled a comrade with shrapnel. Fuller and a fellow signaller, dragged him into a nearby shell hole and paused to patch him up before proceeding on and leaving him for the Stretcher Bearers to collect.
The first objective, “Schwaben” Trench, was reached within minutes. Having vaulted the parapet, the leading company’s split and routed the Germans from their dug-outs along the line.
A determined group of defenders in a section of communication trench put up a brave resistance, claiming some men wounded, but they were soon silenced. In general, as the first waves moved on further towards the German second line, helpless Germans, dazed by the bombardment, emerged to surrender.
As they advanced onwards, the Suffolks came across more and more shell-shocked and dazed former defenders of the German front line. Fuller recalled; “Another was lying, buried almost to the neck by a shell which had dropped near, but still alive. I shall never forget the expression on that mans face – ghastly white, his eyes staring with terror, unable to move, whilst our chaps threw bombs past him down the dugout stairs, and the enemy inside threw their bombs out.” Whilst some came out to surrender, most were killed inside.
As the leading waves were now into the ruins of Thiepval village, the first swarms of dazed enemy ran towards the Suffolks lines to surrender. A contemporary account recalled the scene; “In the midst of desperate fighting one batch of Germans in Joseph trench suddenly ran through our artillery barrage and the leading waves of the 8th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, to surrender and save their lives before we could assault them. They were shouting in terror, half dressed, unarmed, holding their hands in the air, they passed to the rear and became prisoners, while the Suffolk’s moved steadily forward and captured their objective.”
By 1.21 pm, less than an hour after they had attacked. Men of the Battalion were seen in “Zollern” Trench. The “moppers-up” were busy bombing many dug-outs in the ruins of the village and dealing with the Germans who were still emerging from deep underground dug-outs to fight. As this was going on, to the north, just coming into the village, was a new weapon that no-one in the Battalion had ever fought alongside; a Tank.
Though useless, this lumbering box rattled along the road at a snails pace firing spasmodically at all sorts of targets. Though of no great practical assistance, its appearance on the battlefield was a massive morale booster to 8th Suffolk. It eventually breached itself in a shell hole and had to be abandoned.
The objective had been reached, but the enemy fire was still heavy and prevented further advance. Fuller recalled; “We had to stop and dig ourselves in, using our entrenching tools for this purpose. Every time we tried to go on, the machine gun and rifle fire started again, so it was of no use doing anything but dig in. The bullets kept knocking up the dust around us while we worked at this.”
Around 5.00 pm, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill, received a hastily written message from Captain Sanctuary out in front with C Company; “Only Norfolk officers on our left. Suggest Hannaford gets a telephone forward here. Can you possibly send us up more picks and shovels?”
The attack was all going according to plan. Shortly after he received the message from Sanctuary, another message arrived form Captain Ainger out front with A Company. He felt the situation sufficiently secure to allow 2 platoons to withdraw, leaving the other two holding the line, but they were ready to move on again if required. “I am withdrawing 2 of my platoons” he wrote “from the front leaving out the other 2 as a covering wave ready to move forward if possible. We are clearing up Zollern trench ready for splinter shelters. Will you sent up the necessary material for this work – wire and stakes.”
But it was not all success. Captain Keats, who had a famous redoubt named after him earlier in the war, was out to the east commanding D Company. His message back to HQ told that; “Parts of A and D are held up by machine-gun fire from ‘Midway’ and ‘Bulgar’ trenches.” The barrage had by this time halted, but for the men in the forward positions, the shells bursting overhead caused a few casualties.
As the afternoon wore on, every once in a while, the British artillery scored a direct hit on one of the numerous ammunition dumps dotted around the village. Each hit reigned down timber and earth on those up front. Those who could, had dug-in in the ruins of the village. Fuller and two close colleagues, lay for two and a half hours in a shell hole, before withdrawing to “Zollern” trench.
Back at Battalion HQ, the CO sent news to Brigade that fire was still being brought upon the Battalion from “Bulgar” and “Midway” trenches, but that they were gradually being overcome by elements of the 6th Border Regiment on their flank. News continued to come in from positions up front as darkness came. Lieutenant Mason had been killed and 2nd Lieutenant Ballantyne was wounded. Keats still however had about 60 able men under his command.
In the darkness, reserves were brought forward with ammunition and supplies. As they changed places with those who were up front, the day had for once been a success with all the objectives being reached.
During the attacks on the Quadrilateral, some Suffolks managed to get close to the position, and one section under Lieutenant Macdonald managed to get into a shell hole just yards from the outer wire of the Quadrilateral, from where he and his men could ‘lob’ bombs into the position. This show of force was, regretfully not enough to dislodge them and just before lunch, as Macdonald exposed himself to throw a bomb, he was shot through the chest by a machine gun from within the position.
Watching from a shell hole nearby, fellow officer Lieutenant Ensor, saw Macdonald hit. In full view of the enemy, he left the safety of his shell hole and ran darting like a rabbit from shell hole to shell hole to rescue his wounded comrade. Calling out his name, he finally found him in the forward positions. He applied iodine to his wounds and patched him up with a shell dressing before running back for help to get him evacuated. However the fire was so great that they dare not venture out until after dark to bring Macdonald in.
That night Lieutenant Ensor went forward again with a stretcher bearer to try to locate him. He was exactly where they had left him. Fumbling in the darkness, they managed to get him onto a stretcher and set off back to the Suffolk lines. About 100 yards from safety, they were caught in the open by a German star shell. Immediately, the guns of the Quadrilateral caught them silhouetted in no-mans-land. The stretcher bearer was shot dead, and Ensor grazed in the arm by a bullet. Macdonald was thrown off the stretcher to the ground.
However, seeing just how close they were to safety, Ensor rolled over Macdonald and in one move got him up and onto his shoulder and ran for the Suffolk lines. Darting all the way, he succeeded in getting to the Regimental Aid Post, from where Macdonald was sent to hospital. Ensor had refused all aid for his arm, until Macdonald was safely evacuated. It was then that the MO was insistent that he too was to go to hospital.
It would take five years for Macdonald to fully recover. Ensor was lucky and within a few months he was fit and well again. His wound was the start of a blossoming friendship with the nurse who tendered to him for he would marry her after the war.
For his actions that day, Lionel Ike Ensor was awarded the Military Cross.
“During These Attacks, The Battalion Behaved Splendidly And It Is Regretted The Casualties Were Heavy”
Late in the afternoon of the 14th September, the CO received fresh orders for a further attack the following day.
This time the original objective was to be reached, bypassing the Quadrilateral. It was a point mid-way between the villages of Lesboeufs and Morval; around 1000 meters in distance. By pushing north-west, they hoped to advance past the strongpoint and thus suffer the minimum of casualties.
Early on the morning of the 15th September, the forward Battalions of the Brigade moved forward for the attack. 9th Norfolks and 1st Leicesters were to move first at 6.20am, and in support, 2nd Sherwoods 9th Suffolk were to move up in the second wave (both Battalions now being severely depleted in strength).
The initial attack went in, but was met again by accurate and determined enemy artillery and machine gun fire. Grinding to a halt, 9th Suffolk were called up to support 9th Norfolk who could advance no further.
It was now about 7.50am, and the enemy artillery had been constant for over an hour. This pounding fire along the Suffolk line prevented C Company advancing. They too could not even leave their trench due to the enemy machine gun fire from the Quadrilateral that kept sweeping the parapet.
Via a continual monitoring of the situation, the CO saw a chance around 8.30 am when for a brief minute or so, the fire slackened. A small group of men which included the CO, got up and made a dash into no-mans-land. They could get no further than 50 or so yards before the guns of the Quadrilateral barked back into life. Around 8.30am, the CO: Lieutenant-Colonel A.P. Mack was killed in the open. He had gone forward in this ‘lull’ with Battalion HQ to ascertain the situation. Aged 53 when he died, he was with the Battalion when it arrived in France in 1915, succumbing to a broken bone in his foot upon disembarkation. Born at Paston near Norwich, he came from a military family. His younger cousin would work on defeating the U-Boat in the Atlantic in the war that was to come.
The situation was however grim. No senior officer in the forward Company’s survived. Retreat was inevitable but, under the continuous shell fire, the forward elements of the Battalion succeeded in linking up with their comrades on the flanks. By 11.00 pm, relief of these men, was completed and elements of the 14th D.L.I. (Durham Light Infantry) came to replace the shattered and depleted ranks of the Battalion.
Seven officers had been wounded along with 90 other ranks. Four officer, including the CO and 35 other ranks were dead, and countless more were missing. Lieutenant Fitch was awarded the Military Cross for consolidating the position under heavy shell and machine gun fire, and Lieutenant and Adjutant Claude Allerton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his assuming command of the Battalion when Colonel Mack and all the senior officers had been either killed or wounded. Fitch would later be sent to America as part of a training mission and would later die of influenza on 1st November 1918.
The battles against the Quadrilateral were to be the first ones fought in close co-operation with tanks. The barrages that had crept forward in the opening phase of the attack on the 13th, should have left gaps, through which armour could pass, but the failure of the tanks to even get onto the battlefield, meant that the infantry were to fight on their own. This was again the case on the 15th, when if armour was present, with infantry co-operation the Quadrilateral might have been overcome.
The official history of the 6th Division wrote briefly in 1920 of the action; “In spite of the greatest gallantry, the Suffolks could not take the strong point.” The Regimental History also wrote in 1927 of the day in somewhat underestimated terms; “On September 15th the offensive was resumed...Thus opened the battle of Flers-Courcelette. The final objective assigned to the 71st Bde was the occupation of the ridge between Morval and Les Boeufs. But the task of the 6th Div on that day was an unenviable one and the goal beyond their reach; for immediately in front of them lay the Quadrilateral, still intact, bristling with machine-guns and absolutely barring the way”
"He Was A Fine, Big Fellow, Over Six Feet, And Nicknamed By His Comrades 'Long-Un.' He Was Full Of Fun And No End Of Practical Jokes"
Of those initial 15 other ranks killed during the first ill-fated attack on the Quadrilateral, one was Private J.T.B. Woodward.
John Thomas Branston Woodward, was born in London is 1891. His Great War service was remarkable in the history of the Suffolk Regiment, for wounded, he was invalided home, shipwrecked (twice) on the way, recovered and return to the Regiment to fight, and sadly die in action. Movies have been made of less amazing events.
John enlisted into the Regiment on 8th January 1915 at Wisbech, where his family were then living. In the recruiting area for the 11th Battalion, or the Cambridgeshire Regiment, he was however posted to the 9th battalion, then on the south coast near Brighton. He crossed with them to France in later August 1915, and was wounded at Loos in October. As he carried his injured colonel off the battlefield, so the story goes, he had his watch shot from his wrist but escaped all other injury. It was however the dreaded surge of static warfare; trench foot that invalided him home in late 1915, where he expected his military career to end with the amputation of his leg.
It was whilst on board the Hospital Ship "Anglia" bound for the UK, that the ship hit a mine, causing it to sink rapidly. Overboard and in the water, he removed his life vest and it and gave it to a young nurse in the water. His act of simple kindness would ultimately save the young women life. Reduced by an old tramp collier that was close at by named the "Lusitania" he had no sooner been hauled aboard, when she too struck a mine, forcing him back into the water again.
Hours in salt water, had helped his condition so that upon arrival in Englan the doctors decided that amputation was not necessary and let him recover for several months until he requested to be allowed dot return to the front. He volunteered for trench mortar duty and returned to France in the summer of 1916, as the Somme battle was reaching its height. He fell in action in front of the Quadrilateral on 13th September 1916.
In the memorial volume "Rutland and the Great War" fellow comrade George Phillips, wrote of his chum Tom that he was killed during the evening when a German high explosive shell known as a "coal box" burst inside the trench he was then occupying. "He was a fine, big fellow, over six feet, and nicknamed by his comrades 'Long-Un,'" he wrote. "He was full of fun and no end of practical jokes," said another chum "and was beloved by all who knew him."
Tom now lies in Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery; the largest Commonwealth cemetery on the Somme battlefields.
With grateful thanks to the 'Rutland Remembers' website for the above photograph and biography of Tom's extraordinary life.
As the Somme campaign rolled on another Battalion, as yet involved in its battles, stepped to the fore.
9th Suffolk were moved into the “Sandpit Area” in the small village of Guinchy. This village was in the southern sector of the Somme battlefield, to the south of Delville Wood. The Battalion had arrived form the Ypres Salient the month before, but had been at rest behind the lines, engaged in a comprehensive course of training at Louvencourt. Their training had however been interspersed with periods in the front line.
Later on the evening of the 12th September, they received their orders for an attack the following day. The objective was to be the German second line, but they must first cross a great expanse of open ground to reach it. This ground was aspied by numerous, well concealed, enemy machine gun nests. It would not be easy.
Unlike some of their counterparts, the attack the following day went in at the traditional time of dawn; 6.20 am, and not after lunch as units in the northern sector of the line had become accustomed to. 'B' and 'C' Company’s went over first, gaining within minutes not only the first, but the second line of enemy trenches. Their zeal and fighting spirit – the same spirit that had been seen almost a year before at Loos, which had resulted in the award of the Regiment's first Victoria Cross, was evident again as they advanced. However within minutes, that spirit was shattered with searing hot bullets from a carefully constructed and virtually impregnable fortification of linked machine-gun nests encompassed in several belts of barbed wire. This strongpoint was christened the “Quadrilateral.”
“The situation could not be cleared up” wrote the War Diary, in fact it dragged on all day, taking a steady toll on the Battalion. In desperation, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel A.P. Mack asked Brigade to withdraw what men he still had out in front to prevent further needless casualties. Instead came fresh orders that at 7.30 pm, a new attack was to be mounted against the Quadrilaterial by 'A' Company who had been held in reserve that morning. Though spirited, their attack was a complete failure. The machine-guns once more cut the men to ribbons as they tried to advance.
Using what they could of the German lines they had captured that morning, the jumbled survivors consolidated and started to dig to the north and south. As darkness enveloped them, contact was made on the left with the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, and on the right, with 8th Bedfords. “During these attacks the Battn behaved splendidly and it is regretted the casualties were heavy” continued the War Diary.
It was something of an understatement. Two officers killed and ten wounded, along with 15 other ranks killed and 185 wounded. Yet, despite this bitter drubbing, within 48 hours, the Battalion would though weak, be forced again to overcome the position. Would they be successful second time around or would the outcome be the same?
For an entire week in early September 1916, the war diary for 7th Suffolk used the phrase "All Quiet" to indicate that in their sector of the front line near Arras nothing much was happening.
Compared to weeks of relentless attacks and offensives on the Somme, this backwater was a less hotter spot than Ovilliers.
The Battalion spent the week in the trenches around a junction known as the "Haymarket." There were in fact no fewer than three known "Haymarkets" on the Western Front. One in the Salient, one on the Somme and another at Arras. All were junctions of intersecting trenches and lived up to their name.
On the 10th September, a trench raid was conducted against the Germans in front of them. A small selected party of men wearing minimal equipment, with blackened faces and balaclavas, set out in search of intelligence on the enemy that faced them. Armed with nothing more than a club or pistol, it could take over two hours to crawl silently through no-man's-land to reach the enemy line just a few yards away. A pause could be made in a shell hole, but moving inches at a time, careful not to kick an old bully beef tin or snag a woollen puttee on a section of wire was slow going. Patience was the name of the game.
Arriving at the German wire was the most difficult part. There was the choice of whacking an unfortunate sentry on the head, grabbing him and darting back, or entering the trench and gathering what they could in the form of intelligence. Either way, it was a risky business. The value of intelligence in wartime could not be underestimated. Everything was of value. An epaulette on a hanging greatcoat may give a numeral of the Regiment. A tunic button bearing a crest, could tell which state the Regiment belonged to. Stamping on the butt of a rifle, or the wrappers of a parcel from home, carelessly tossed aside, were all of importance to those on the other side.
The aim of this particular raid was to bring back a prisoner, but they were on this occasion unsuccessful. They would try again if it was possible, but alerted to their nocturnal activities, the Germans now kept an eye out for them, so the cat was well and truly out of the bag. It would be best to wait and try again in a week or so.
On the 1st September 1916, 8th Suffolk were still in training. Their efforts at Longueval on 19th July had resulted in the Brigade Commander 'recommending' them for a period of training in preparation for the next major offensive they were to be used in, which was planned for mid September.
Behind the lines, a pair of captured German flame throwers or "Flammenwerfers" were being demonstrated to the Battalion. These deadly instruments of war had first been felt by 11th Suffolk at La Boisselle on the first day of the offensive and they were now pretty much standard kit in most German units.
"The Flammenwerfers" wrote Sydney Fuller in his diary "were carried on the operators back, like a pack, and would throw a huge flame a distance of 15 to 20 yards for a short time. The only way to avoid the flame was to lie in the bottom of the trench - the flame could to be forced down to the bottom having a natural tendency to turn upwards, like a ordinary flame. These facts were demonstrated on the spot by playing the flames all over a trench in the bottom of which men were lying. They were unharmed."
It was a pretty rudimentary response to this deadly weapon, but like poisonous gas the year before, it was for the time being, the best method they had to meet its deadly force.
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.