On 28th October 1916, a little over one month after the 8th Battalion's gallant and distinguished action at Thiepval, the first of the awards to the Battalion were published.
Signaller Sydney Fuller note that day in his diary that "Eight of the 'Sigs' appeared in 'orders' as having been awarded the military Medal for 'devotion to duty' etc., during the attack on Thiepval" It was till then, the largest single haul of MMs to a single unit of a single Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment for the same action.
Instituted on 25th March 1916, the Military Medal was the other ranks equivalent of the Military Cross. Made in solid silver, it bore on the reverse, the title "For Bravery In The Field" surrounded by a wreath of laurels. To the obverse, was the reigning Monarch's head.
Recipients were entitled under it's charter, to bear the post nominal letters "MM" after their name, but few seldom did. It had its own old comrades club; the Military Medallists Association and by the end of the conflict, over a hundred had been won by men of the Suffolk Regiment's various Battalions.
“In All The Many Thousands Who Have Fallen For Their Country, None Have Shown Or None Will Ever Show, Greater Devotion To Duty Than Your Husband....The Very Best Type Of An English Gentleman"
The loss on 15th September at the Quadrilateral of Lieutenant-Colonel A.P. Mack, was much mourned by his superiors.
Arthur Paston Mack came from a military family. He had himself been a member of the Suffolk Militia back in the 1880s and had retired from its service at the rank of Captain in 1886. Like his contemporary, Charlie Brett of 2nd Suffolk, he travelled much in his wilderness years between postings and Mack went to Egypt where he became known as something of a "Pioneer" in the desert, trying his hand at archeology, oil exploration and mining.
When the Austrian Archduke was assassinated, he saw that war was coming ever closer, and abandoned his business ventures in Egypt and returned home. Upon the eve of war, he was once more back in uniform, this time khaki, and given back his old retired rank of Captain. Ready for action, he signed the "Imperial Service Obligation" the same day he re-enlisted, and was soon at Brighton where in September, he was given command of a Company of the newly created 9th (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.
By January, promotion to Major had come and by June of 1915, a further promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel, and command of the Battalion. Crossing with it to France, he slipped from the gang plank upon disembarkation, injuring his foot; an injury that spared him action at Loos, but from then onwards until the day he was killed in action a year later, there was seldom a time he was not with the Battalion. His holding together the Battalion in the face of vicious artillery fire and deadly poisoned gas in December 1915 at St. Jean, earned him high praise from his superiors.
Mack's loss was a blow for the Brigade. Upon hearing the news of his death, his Brigadier wrote to his wife stating that “In all the many thousands who have fallen for their country, none have shown or none will ever show, greater devotion to duty than your husband. He was known by all, by none better than me, as being a very gallant officer, a splendid soldier, and, if I may say so, the very best type of an English gentleman. He did so much for the brigade by his unswerving devotion to duty and his unceasing labors. He did not know what fear was. He made a name for himself at the time of the gas attack on my brigade on the 19th December 1915”
Lieutenant-Colonel Mack was Mentioned-in-Dispatches in January 1917 by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, for gallant and distinguished service in the field (his actions at the Quadrilateral). Though his loss was mourned within the Battalion, it's new commander; Mayor F. Latham DSO, was keen that the fight must go on and within days, the depleted Battalion were back in action on the Somme at Bernafay Wood, showing that they still very much possessed the fighting spirit.
The savage action at Bayonet Trench affected many communities across the county of Suffolk. In neighbouring Cambridgeshire, the small village of Stuntney, near Ely was perhaps, hit the hardest of all. The tiny Fenland village had already seen over ten men volunteer for service in the armed forces, but it was following the action at Bayonet Trench that one family felt the full, tragic effects of war.
Thomas and Sarah McGee gave all four of their sons for the Army. Bert, and his brother James, were both early members of 7th Suffolk, having first enlisted in Ely, to be sent onwards to Bury St. Edmunds in August 1914. Their younger brother, Thomas, also enlisted and found himself in the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Their older brother Edward, would also serve but with the Northumberland Fusiliers
On 12th October, Bert (above left) and James (above centre) were killed in action with 7th Suffolk, but in the confusion of the battle, they were first listed as "missing." That same day, their brother Thomas (above right) died of wounds he had received two days before in a field hospital. Thus, in the days that followed, Mr and Mrs McGee, received three telegrams; one informing them that their son, Thomas was dead, and two others to say that their other sons, Bert and James, were missing.
Thomas and Sarah, distraught at the news, appealed for information through the International Red Cross, and soon news came back from a comrades of Bert's in the Battalion. Private H. Jackson, who had been wounded in the attack and was now in hospital, wrote to Bert's parents: "We made our advance towards evening, and I saw Pte. Bert Parker McGee killed by a high explosive shell in No Man’s Land.” No news was received of James.
After the allotted time, it was concluded that James was regretfully dead and that all three died on the same day; the 12th October. It was a crushing blow, not only for the McGees, but for the community as a whole. The tiny village was plunged into mourning.
The local newspaper at nearby Ely proclaimed in the weeks that followed; “Three In A Day” Letters however, still arrived from Edward. Their only surviving son was for now, safe.
With most grateful thanks to the Stuntney Village website for the above photographs.
The losses of the 12th October were staggering to the already depleted 7th Battalion. They had fought gallantly on the 3rd July in the advance into the village of Ovillers, but had suffered the consequences for their enthusiasm as their advanced became overstretched, but at Bayonet trench, the fire mowed down men from every single Company of the Battalion. One of those to fall early on in the attack was the newly promoted 2nd Lieutenant Charles Edward Catchpole.
Catch pole, was one of nine children. He heralded from the village of Kessingland, just south of the Suffolk coastal town of Lowestoft where his father ran a highly successful and prosperous fish selling business, where Charles was employed as a clerk.
An early Kitchener volunteer, he joined up in October 1914 and soon found himself at Shorncliffe as part of the 8th Battalion. His skills as a competent leader saw him promoted to Lance Corporal in early November whilst still in training. Crossing with the Battalion to France in July 1915, he was promoted shortly afterwards to Corporal and later that year, to Sergeant.
It was as Sergeant that he was awarded the Military Medal on the 19th July 1916, for the Battalions gallant actions at Longueval where 8th Suffolk attained partial success in pushing the British front line forward in the centre of the village. His award was formally gazetted on the 10th August 1916, and five weeks later, he received promotion in the field to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
Killed leading the men of his platoon forward, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. A splendid example of the rapid promotion that war gave the most able, he had risen from private to Second Lieutenant in two years. As one contemporary commentator wrote: "it was such a shame that such magnificent men never came through to the end."
Late on the afternoon of the 11th October, orders were received that the 7th Battalion would attack “Bayonet” Trench the following day and if possible, advance onwards to capture the ruins of Luisenhof Farm.
The 12th (Eastern) Division, strengthened by the attachment of the Newfoundland Regiment for the attack, were given several objectives to take and consolidate that day. 35th Brigade were allotted guns poured forth fire from every angle. Machine gun nests stationed at intervals along the German wire and out into no-mans-land, fired incessantly at the advancing Suffolks. The War diary of 7th Norfolks (on the Battalions left flank), noted that; After advancing about 50 yards, the Hun opened fire with machine-guns from both flanks and from in front. Our troops continued to advance but before reaching the “Bayonet” trench (for 7th Suffolk), “Scabbard” Trench (for 7th Norfolk) and “Hilt” and “Grease” trenches (for the Newfoundlanders).
In the darkness of the night, the Battalion moved forward into positions from which they would spring later that afternoon. Into the various shell holes and the partly dug remains of trenches they clambered awaiting the signal to advance. The Battalion Commander, Major Henty moved Battalion HQ forward at around 10.00 am in preparation for the advance.
As the artillery commenced at around 1:45 pm, the men in their forward positions awaited the command to advance. Such was the ferociousness of the barrage, that the men hoped that the wire would be cut and that their path forward would be unbarred. It was sadly not to be the case. Just as at High Wood, the attack was scheduled to start in the early afternoon. At 2.00 pm, the attack began. Four waves went across with every Company of the Battalion being involved in the opening phase; an unusual decision on the part of the Brigade Commander.
In theory, the staggered platoons of each Company would go over at allotted intervals, but due to all Company’s being forward, no sooner had the whistles blown, than chaos ensued with men bunching up and running for the German wire. Some platoons, that were not even supposed to be advancing until later, ran forward in the opening phase. It was complete chaos.
No sooner has the advancing waves got up and walked forward, before they were struck by devastating cross fire of every descriptions from all directions. German machine guns poured forth fire from every angle. Machine gun nests stationed at intervals along the German wire and out into no-mans-land, fired incessantly at the advancing Suffolks. The War diary of 7th Norfolks (on the Battalions left flank), noted that; "After advancing about 50 yards, the Hun opened fire with machine-guns from both flanks and from in front. Our troops continued to advance but before reaching the enemy’s trench, ran into barbed wire which had not been cut. The wire coupled with the M.G. fire prevented any further advance, and our men lay down in shell holes from where they brought rife fire to bear on the Germans, who were then standing up in their trenches shooting at them.”
On the left flank, the newly arrived Lieutenant Silver was killed in the open. He came from Cheapside in London and had only joined the Battalion in September. On the right flank, Lieutenant Herbert Sawyer was killed at the wire. He had been commissioned into 9th Suffolk the year before and was only transferred to the Battalion following the losses at Ovillers in July. Remarkable gallantry was shown by the officers and men of the Battalion that day, but it was to no avail. The preceding artillery had failed to cut the wire and those who did manage to reach the German wire found it in tact and completely impassable. It was four hours later before the first real news was received at Battalion HQ in “Grass Street” trench. It told of the complete failure of the attack, and soon afterwards, they survivors and the wound returned backing up the reports of failure.
Practically erased from Regimental History, the events of 12th October 1916 were later described later as a “calamitous day” for the Suffolk Regiment. Every single officer was a casualty. 11 officers and 111 other ranks were killed, with over 390 wounded. Not since 1st July has one single Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment suffered such severe casualties.
By the end of the attack, the 7th Battalion, had lost almost three quarters of its ranks. It would not be back up to fighting strength until early 1917.
in the years following the Great War, the 1st Battalion's gallant advance on 3/4th October 1916 in the Struma Valley was immortalised in oil by the renowned Australian artist, Will Longstaff.
Longstaff's painting, commissioned around 1923-24, depicted men of the Battalion advancing that day with the assistance of armoured cars. As the forward Company's can be seen advancing, men in the rear bring up additional ammunition and supplies. The allied artillery can be seen pounding the village of Mazirko in the foothills of the mountains in the centre, which was to be occupied later by the 1st Battalion. It showed too, the baron, featureless terrain that the men of 1st Suffolk crossed that day.
Longstaff's painting was a prize piece of regimental property. It was carried by the 1st Battalion on campaign abroad from the 1930s, until the final days of the Regiment in Cyprus. It was always hung in a prominent position in whichever Mess the Battalion took over when on Foreign Service, as seen above at Xeros Camp, Cyprus, in 1957. Here it hung on the wall of the Officers Mess, behind the Colours of the Battalion which had been specially uncased to celebrate the marriage of a young subaltern.
Today, its whereabouts are unknown, but it is believed to still be in the possession of our successors, the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Miles from the Western Front, the 1st Battalion were still fighting in the hot, dry, dusty lands of Macedonia.
On the 3rd October 1916, a large attack was planned to advance the British line along the Struma Valley. The French and their counterparts, the Serbs, were mounting a joint attack against the Bulgars around the village of Monastir, but were held up by stubborn resistance.
In an attempt to make the situation more fluid, a second attack was to be put in further downtime Struma valley by three British Divisions with the aim of holding the Rupel Pass; through which the enemy could pour reinforcements to assist in pushing back the Franco-Serbian advance.
The 27th Division began their attack on 3rd October at first light on the left flank by taking the villages of Karajakoi Zir and Karajakoi Bara, and then pressed onto the village of Yenkoi. 28th Division of which 1st Suffolk were part, pushed forward on the right along the Salonika-Seres road, advancing over half a mile unmolested to link up with the troops of 30th Brigade at Yenkoi.
The attack was in part assisted by armoured cars which made the infantry's job much easier with a mobile force of machine-guns. The attack continued, making the most of the opportunity to advance. At around 5.30am, A Company, under the command of Captain Owen, moved off quickly with the armoured cars. B Company under the command of Capatin Stubbings, moved up as close as possible behind. By 8.00am, they had reached a point along the road about a mile from where they had originally begun their advance. C Company under Lieutenant Clemson, and D Company under Captain Eley, were working together and consolidating the village of Mazirko on the left. All was going well and the losses, were at that point, slight, and were mainly as a result of artillery fire. As the Suffolks dug-in, their counterparts in the Brigade, started wiring out their new positions and making good their newly won positions.
In the afternoon, the enemy launched a determined counter-attack against the village which threatened to drive a wedge between the wiring parties on the flanks and the Suffolks in the village itself. The counter-attack was repulsed, but at the cost of many casualties. After a ferocious artillery bombardment on the village around 4.00pm, a planned partial withdrawal was necessary. In the darkness the Suffolks fell back some 200 yards, and held a defensive line parallel to the road. The Bulgars, came on but were met with a hail of fire from the guns of C Company.
Holding them temporarily, the Company Commander, Lieutenant Edward Clemson, ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Their gallant charge inflicted many more casualties on the enemy who retreated into the darkness at the cost of only a few men of the Company. The enemy now withdrew some four miles towards his edge of the valley but, in the darkness, shattered and unable to get reserves up, the Suffolks could not exploit this advantage. They instead returned to the village of Mazirko to dig-in. The day was on the whole a success and succeeded in moving the line forward somewhat from the stagnant position it had been in for many weeks previously. The Regimental History wrote in 1927 that "Unfortunately, we were not strong enough to follow up our success." However the day undeniably belonged for once, to the men of 1st Suffolk.
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.