On 31st October 1917, news was received by 5th Suffolk in the front line trenches around Gaza that the nearby town or Beersheba had been taken.
Its capture, brought the next phase of operations in the Middle East closer to the Battalion. The preceding two weeks had been spent on much training and retraining, so that by the end of the month, all knew that another big attack was close at hand. "We were busy rehearsing the attack" wrote Captain Wolton, "preparing cover at the jumping off point, and improving communications. Frequent reconnoitring parties went out, and one ran into a large enemy patrol which was lying in wait in a widely extended crescent formation. Our party got within the semicircle before the patrol was discovered and came under fire from three sides. The were obliged to withdraw with the loss of two killed and one wounded".
For Wolton and his men, the sheer number of order arriving at Battalion HQ became unbearable. He continues: "The number of instructions and signals all ranks had to assimilate with regard to artillery, machine gun fire, tanks, aeroplanes, neighbouring and supporting units , and occupying of enemy positions, seemed to be reaching alarming proportions. But by the time fixed for the attack most of them had been learned, and we felt confident keeping touch and communication".
For the men, the training and re-training continued. Lewis gunners continually rehearsed their drills with such speed and accuracy that no orders of command needed to be given. The Adjutant was busy setting up his line of communications to the artillery and the runners were busy tending to a pair of mothy horses that had been procured from Brigade to speed up the relay of messages between the front line (when it advanced) and Battalion HQ, though large quantities of telephone wire had recently arrived, to be coiled out to the new frontal positions when they were taken.
Late on the 31st as news of Beersheba's capture came through, the Battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Wollaston, received the first batch of 'mosaics' - the photographic overlays of the ground his men were to cover and the positions they were to overcome in the forthcoming attack. Time was running out for 'Johnny Turk'.
At Poelkapelle on 12th October, Private Ernie Doy ran amidst the enemy shells to run messages between the CO out in front and the Adjutant in his shell hole astride the Dixmude Road. Badly gassed that afternoon, he never failed in his task. Stumbling with eyes watering, he always got the message through.
Doy was a Suffolk man through and through. Born in 1896 in Hasketon, he enlisted in 1914 going to join the 8th Battalion at Shorncliffe. At the attack on Thiepval in September 1916, he was to be awarded the Military Medal. At Poelkapelle, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallant actions and in the final battles of 1918, he gained a Bar to his MM.
He was a typically modest Suffolk soldier. He lived alone in his parents small cottage at Hasketon to which he had returned after the War. He seldom talked of his war, but was always present at the village war memorial every year. Until is 80th Birthday, he lived there alone with no modern conveniences. His toilet or the "Karsy" as he referred to it, was a small brick shed at the bottom of the garden with a broken door. Visitors had to bare all with a small tatty windbreak to cover their modesty. On one occasion in the deep snow, he made it out, but could not make it back. He remained there for several hours until the blizzard subsided and he could stagger back to the house.
When his eyesight failed in his late 70s; due to the gas he had suffered at Poelkapelle, he was forced to leave his cottage and go into care at Felixstowe, where he lost his sight completely. His good chum Harrow Haddow of the London Branch of the Old Comrades Association, secured him a place in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, but being a modest man, Ernie remarked "that place is for heroes, not blokes like me".
Soon he became wheelchair bound; a state of affairs that was not to Ernie's liking and his condition deteriorated. He moved to a care home at Wickham Market, closer to his home village, but he died in January 1984 aged 88. He was buried in Parham Churchyard.
With grateful thanks to Taff Gillingham for the above photograph.
Following their gallant actions on 31st July in the attack towards Pilkem Ridge, 8th Suffolk were rested for five weeks behind the lines to “render it fit for the further offensive.” At the beginning of October it moved forward and on 9th October, it was in new positions along the canal north of Ypres in readiness for a forthcoming attack on the village of Poelcapelle.
On the night of the 11th October in heavy rain, the Battalion attempted as best as it could to assemble in preparation for the attack the following day. Through a storm of gas shells and through shell holes filled with water, they finally reached their allotted forming up position at ‘Rose’ Trench, which was by then completely filled with water. Until ‘zero’ hour, the men would have to stand, up to their waists, in icy water. Battalion HQ was situated in the completely wrecked ‘Pheasant Farm’ which was only accessible by crawling on all fours through the muddy deluge.
At 5.25am on the 12th, the Allied attack commenced along a front between the Ypres-Roulers railway and the Houlthulst Forest. An hour later, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill, was ordered to advance in the rear of the attack by 55th Brigade. The Battalion’s advance was to follow as close as possible, the route of the Brigade in front, with the right hand Company grazing the left hand edge of the village of Poelcapelle.
The going was tough from the outset. Men with frozen limbs from a night in water, were ordered forward. No sooner had the remains of the Langemarck-Dixmude road been crossed, the enemy brought down a heavy artillery barrage upon them. Enemy machine guns sparked into life and the Company Commanders were forced to split their men to avoid its fire.
As the offensive action drill could not be enacted in such terrain, the men were forced to go to ground in numerous shell holes and wrecked trenches in the area. The Regimental History recalled that; “The whole ground was pock-marked with shell-holes, often so full of water that the men had to struggle to prevent themselves drowning.” Signaller Sydney Fuller recalled his position as the dawn broke; “Soon it began to grow lighter and we could see where we were. The large shell hole that I was in, had apparently been used by the enemy, at some previous time as a machine-gun or sentry post. In it was the remains of a shelter, roughly made with timber and covered with mud. At 7.00am we got the order to move forward. We moved forward in artillery formation to the edge of what had been the village of Poelcapelle, of which nothing remained , but heaps of rubbish and the ex-enemy pill-boxes. On reaching the village, Batt. Hdqrs. stopped at a big pill box and the Coys formed up for attacking”
Their fortunes were as at Pilkem, fated. “Misfortune, however, presents itself” wrote their Battalion History; “a situation precisely similar to that of the 31st July again resulted. The assaulting troops could make no headway, and it was the task of the Battalion to take in hand the immediate situation, and gain what ground it could as quickly as possible.”
Fuller continues: “Before long, we heard that 55th Brigade, which had attacked first, and through which we were to continue to advance, had failed to reach their objective, and that our own men were losing heavily in trying to assist them by capturing the brewery; and enemy “strong point” with the unusual pill-box defences”
The failure of their colleagues out in front, and on the flanks, soon became apparent. Dangerous gaps in the Allied lines soon became apparent, but despite the terrain, the line had to be kept as complete as possible.
"Our CO and the Adjutant were up in the thick of it with the men” wrote Fuller “we were heavily shelled all day, some of the shells coming from our left”. As the day wore on, movement was kept to a minimum. By nightfall, Fuller and two other Signallers managed to crawly slowly to a nearby pill-box for cover. They were surprised when the finally managed to get to it; “There was quite a crowd. – three Batt Hdqrs – the RWK’s, of our Div. and the Kings Own of the 4th Division, as well as our own Batt. Two men inside had been blinded by mustard gas, and seemed to be suffering great pain.”
After being relieved on the night of the 13th, they marched to ‘Tunnellers Camp’ at Poperinge. It was a chance to rest and revive the Battalion after “the hardest battle in which they had ever been engaged.” Twice in three months, they had stood alone and held the line where others had failed, yet despite this gallantry, their very existence was now in question.
After the village of Zonnebeke had been taken, the enemy launched several counterattacks. All of these were driven back successfully, but on the night of the 27th September 1917, Australian troops on the Battalion's right started to dig in in the open, despite Brigade orders which forbade them to. Such actions immediately brought and enemy barrage down, normally followed by a gas attack.
Captain L.J. Baker recalled later how he was caught in that barrage and of when a runner arrived at his shell hole with urgent message: "Inevitably we had casualties. The most unfortunate thing was that I accidentally wounded one of my own men. It was the same night, and it was bright moonlight and jerry had started to shelling gas. We had our gas masks on and were squatting in this shell-hole when a runner chap came along with a message, and he was standing up there silhouetted against the moonlight. I shouted ‘Come down!’- but, of course, he couldn’t hear me because of the gas mask, so I pulled him by the leg. Unfortunately, as he fell down into the shell hole, a bayonet leaning against the side went right through his thigh. It started to gush blood and I was absolutely horrified. I said, ‘I say I'm frightfully sorry about that!’ Well, this chap was grinning all over his face and he said, ‘Oh, that’s quite all right, sir – it’s a Blighty one, isn’t it?’ He was as pleased as Punch. Of course, I had to give him a note to the MO. I scribbled it on a piece of paper and said, ‘This is not a self-inflicted wound. I did it".
Born in the picturesque Suffolk village of Lavenham, Louis Baker was to remain with the Regiment. In 1939, as an officer of the 1st Battalion (above), he proceeded to France to join the second reincarnation of the British Expeditionary Force and was evacuated, through Dunkirk. In late 1941, he was to be transferred to the 5th Battalion and was subsequently captured at Singapore, spending three and a half years as a Japanese PoW. an active member of the 2nd Battalion Officers Dinner club, he along with Cannon William Lummis and Major 'Huppy' Hupfield organised their annual reunion dinners well into the 1960s.
"Most Of Our Troops Were Suffolk Men And We All Had The Same Temperament - Steady And Slow, Not Dashing And Daring. Reliable Men"
The actions at Zonnebeke were a textbook example of fighting combat. Men moved in close co-operation with the creeping barrage, using the terrain to their advantage. Captain Louis Baker later recalled the action; "We were just on the right of the village of Zonnebeke as you looked towards the Germans, in front of Zonnebeke Lake. Our objective was a place called Le Moulin, so it was marked on the map, but we couldn’t see a mill or any sign of one. We’d had no trouble getting up and there were tapes laid to show us our assembly positions. People say that the morale of the Army had gone down in those days- well, it hadn’t in our battalion. The idea of anyone refusing to go over the top was absolutely absurd. Of course, we were a regular battalion and although there were very few regular people left in it after the Somme, most of our troops were Suffolk men and we had all had the same temperament- steady and slow, not dashing and daring. Reliable men".
For Baker, and the Battalion, the casualties has been slight. In the advance, which was just short of a thousand yards, few men fell to the enemy's fire. Thick mist enveloped the advance up the hill from the river Steenbeek, towards the village brick kiln just to the right of the chateau. In those last few remaining yards, casualties occurred from the barrage which was gradually slowing.
Baker continues: "Well, we did it. We made it. We advanced about a mile, thanks to the mist. The trouble was that we couldn’t find this mill. I could see this patch of water and I said, ‘Well, that must be Zonnebeke Lake and that must be the church, what’s left of it’- for it was just a pile of rubble but I can’t see the Windmill. And then as I was looking round I saw a faint trace of a track with some white rubble at the end of the track, and that was it. That was ‘Le Moulin, just on the edge of Zonnebeke. We had no trouble, just the usual fighting, and we also had a shrapnel barrage which burst on top of the mist. You could see the flash going in front of us and it was very accurate, and we followed that all the time until we got to our objective. It was so easy that some people got wounded, because they went on so fast into our own barrage and through it".
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.