On 27th October 1918, the 11th Battalion (Cambs/Suffolks) were ordered to advance once more. They had only just recovered from their tough fight on the 24th to take the river banks north east of the village of Vendegies, when they were ordered to attack again over the river Rhonelle and establish a firm base on the high ground beyond.
‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies were to advance first. Advancing up to the river over the undulating ground, the enemy were found to be in strength on each bank of the river. Heavy machine gun fire came down on them and both companies were forced to go to ground. ‘A’ Company who had been behind them in support, immediately moved round on the left to try and outflank the machine gunners.
In the face of close-range fire, a platoon under the command of Corporal S.F. Staden MM, worked valiantly to silence the guns. In a final gallant attack, Staden told the rest of his party to go back and alone, he went on, firing his Lewis gun. He was last seen fighting amid a large party of Germans. He was killed shortly afterwards.
A few days later when the enemy were driven back, the Battalion pressed onwards and passed over this ground again. Here they found the grave of Corporal Staden who had been buried by the Germans in the back garden of a house along the banks of the river.
The grave was marked with a wooden cross that had his identity disc nailed to it. The cross was inscribed with a poignant epitaph “Zu Einem Sehr Tapferen Engländer” – “To A Very Brave Englishman”.
A native of Bury St. Edmunds, Stanley Staden had enlisted on 8th August 1914 and was posted to the 8th Battalion. He won the Military Medal in February of 1918 when the Battalion were in the St. Floris sector of the line. In February 1920, Corporal Staden’s grave was moved to Cross Roads Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Fontaine au Bois.
As the 2nd Battalion rested after their successful advance, the 11th Battalion, just to the north of them, were preparing for their last major attack of the Great War.
On 24th October, they were to advance to take the ground east of the village of Vendegies. The Battalion’s frontage was no wider that they had been used to in the three years of war they had known, but once they had crossed the river, they were to spread out to a frontage of 400 yards and advance to their objective.
On the right ‘A’ Company would advance over the high ground. On the left, ‘B’ Company, would advance into a downhill dip running towards the Cambrai road on the other side of the village. ‘C’ Company would advance behind these forward Companys and would where necessary fill in the gaps if the advance faltered. In reserve, were ‘D’ Company.
The advance was swift, Where the enemy were seen, within minutes they were either surrendering or running away. It was clear that their morale was now all but broken. Zero hour was fixed for 4.00 am and by 5.45 am, all objectives had been taken. The advance of ‘A’ Company had been relatively easy as they didn’t enter the village itself, and soon they were digging-in along a tributary of the river Escallion that was their objective.
To the south, ‘B’ Company had advanced to the village of St. Martin, but then met a carefully concealed enemy machine gun on the banks of the river. Captain Baguley distracted its fire with some skilful bombing from a flank, allowing the remainder of his platoon to advance and silence it.
Advancing further, ‘B’ Company had been temporarily held up clearing a small orchard on the right of the main road but they overcame it swiftly routing the enemy. At the crest of the hill where of the stream ran across the Battalion’s frontage, more concealed machine gunners were encountered. Captain Baguley once more ‘cheered’ his men forward, and they took the guns shortly afterwards. For his actions that day, he was to receive a well-earned Bar to his Military Cross.
By 5.45 am, the stream was breached. Prisoners taken during the advance, were two officers and 98 other ranks, yet as men consolidated their positions, the enemy counter-attacked. ‘B’ Company, who advanced past the edge of the village, took the brunt of the enemy’s assault. The Brigade on their flank was held up advancing through the village and were some yards in the rear. ‘B’ Company’s were 'holding the fort' out in front but the counter-attack was too strong and they were forced back some 200 yards.
With the flank Battalion not making any progress in the village and with ‘B’ Company forced back, the enemy were poised to breakthrough and split the Battalion in two. “The left rear of the leading coy (B)” wrote the Battalion War Diary “who were forced to form defensive flank as left Bde completely hung up and unable to enter Vendegies”. ‘C’ Company (the Reserve Company) under Captain S.W. Turner, pushed through and strengthened the front line between ‘B’ Company and ‘A’ Company on the right. The enemy attacked several more times during the day, but each attack was successfully repulsed.
By early evening, the village had been cleared. As the light started to fade, one final effort, pushed the enemy back beyond the stream so that by the end of the day, they now reoccupied their original positions from that morning.
From its creation in 1914, through to its baptism on the first day of the Battle of Somme, onto the great victories at Arras in 1917, and now in the final successful advance of the Hundred Days, they had come through. The end was surely now but days away...
At 7.30am on the 23rd, 2nd Suffolk went forward again for what was to be their last major action of the Great War.
The forward Companies advanced from their positions and set off for the village of Escarmain and their first objective: the “Red” Line. ‘Z’ Company, were on the left, ‘Y’ Company, were on the right. By 8.40am they had crossed it and were advancing onwards in a north-eastern direct towards the village of Arret de Vertigneul. The first objective had been taken successfully.
‘Z’ Company continued the advance through a series of orchards, keeping a steady pace, whilst on the extreme right of the Battalion’s frontage, ‘X’ Company came up to broaden the Battalion’s frontage.
Behind ‘Z’ Company, ‘W’ Company came forward. However, as they tried to move on, the enemy brought down a gas barrage between them and the frontal companies. Lieutenant Mann, the Company Commander was himself hit and had to be evacuated. In his place, C.S.M. Fayers took command.
However, despite the gas shelling, enemy resistance on the ground was at first slight. “No opposition was met with” recorded the War Diary and “2 enemy machine guns posted in an orchard were abandoned by their crews without firing a shot. An enemy M.G. firing from W.17.d. (trench map reference) central was dealt with successfully by concerted action of Y and X Coys and N.Z.R.B.”
‘Z’ Company now headed for a crossroads to the northeast. Here they were greeted with a remarkable sight. 3 German officers and over fifty ranks, sheltering in a sunken lane waiting to surrender to them. Now, with the K.O.R.L. safely protecting their left flank, all of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ Companies continued the advance to the southeast corner of the village of Escarmain and by 11.45 am, they were close to a sunken lane near running into the village from the southeast. From here, the enemy could be seen retreating and moments later the “Green" line was taken, The second objective had been taken successfully.
Seizing the moment and seeing that he could exploit the enemies disarray, Captain Lummis, who had by then, come forward, ordered a continuation of the advance. ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ Companies to press onto the “Green Dotted" line some five hundred yards in front. The advance however was slowed by the Allied barrage falling short. “Our barrage dropped short on green line and continued dropping short all the way causing several casualties to our own men”. However, having crossed the open ridge, the frontal companies now were observed by the enemy artillery gunners who were firing at them across open sights. Machine gun fire now came from the right front, causing many casualties, but soon, they were over the small river St. Georges and were close to the enemies artillery. Dashing on ‘Y’ Company, found several enemy artillery pieces abandoned in their temporary scrapes. The enemy had “taken the breech blocks with them”.
By 1.30pm, Lieutenant W.G. Bailey MC, left the newly repositioned Battalion HQ at Le Trousse Minon, and went forward to find Captain Lummis. Finding ‘W’ Company on the left in disorganisation with every officer killed or wounded, he took command of it and alone, he pressed forward under heavy shell fire. For his actions that day, he was awarded a Bar to his MC. The “Green Dotted" line was reached at 2.00pm. The third objective had been successfully taken.
As consolidation began, ‘X’ Company, sent a patrol onwards towards Le Sablonnaire which seemed lightly defended. Though they were confident that they could take the small hamlet, the Allied artillery was again dropping short and causing many friendly casualties.
With the enemy now in disarray, there was a further chance to press on to the “Brown" line which lay beyond it. By 2.45pm, Captain Lummis ordered the advance to continue again. However, the artillery was still a problem and again, many friendly casualties were suffered.
‘W’ Coy under Lieutenant Bailey, who were on the left, went forward first with ‘X’ Coy, on the right. Though the Battalion could have advanced just after 2.30pm, they dared not start as the barrage was not moving. “Advance could not commence earlier as our barrage dropped short. Some 30 men of ‘W’ Coy and Coy Commander of ‘X Coy (Lieutenant Rolfe) were wounded by our own barrage. Up to this time our casualties had been extraordinarily few”. Lieutenant Streeter assumed command of ‘X’ Company.
Pressing towards a cluster of houses at Fond de L’Arbrisseau, enemy machine gun fire now came down upon the frontal companies. As the went to ground, enemy artillery now fired upon them as well, Lummis was forced to retire ‘W’ and ‘X’ Companies back to the sunken lane, but with the Northumberland Fusiliers behind them and not seeing their retirement, they pressed forward and became mixed with ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ Companies. However, the "Brown" line has been reached at the sunken lane.
All four of the Battalion objectives allotted that day had been taken. It was a rare and unique moment. Never had such an occurrence happened during the entire war.
On 22nd October 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel G.C. Carpenter, commanding 2nd Suffolk, departed the Battalion for the Casualty Clearing Station, having sustained a head wound from shrapnel in the afternoon. Now, in his place came another great Battalion Commander to follow behind Brett, Stubbs, Likeman and Carpenter.
Captain William Lummis now assumed command of the Battalion. He was by now, the longest continuously serving officer in the Battalion. He joined it on 26th March 1916 and had recently been awarded the Military Cross for his gallant actions as a Company Commander at Gomiecourt.
Now, Lummis was quite deservedly commanding the Battalion that he has so loyally served for over two and a half years. Often overlooked - as in the photograph here taken in 1926, where he is overshadowed by younger subalterns in Gibraltar, now on the eve of victory, he was to finally lead the Battalion into battle in what would be its last major action on the Western Front.
After four long years of conflict, the Great War was entering the twilight of its existence. In these days, there was rapid advances with many prisoners taken. Everywhere the German's were being beaten back. Now in curious twists of fate, the last two fighting Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment were within a few miles of one another east of Cambrai, close to that town of magical, mystical and historical importance to the 2nd Battalion; Le Cateau, where four years before, their were to fight their first major action against the enemy.
No more than five miles away from them, on the 22nd October 1918 the 11th Battalion were in billets south of Cambrai. The Battalion has spent the preceding days in much training. Though the usual training continued in drill and their was the usual inspections of arms, trench stores and SBR's (Small Box Respirators), there was also a new drill that had not been practiced for some time - ceremonial. There was maybe a though or too in someones mind that soon a formal parade would be necessary.
There was no denying that every day that passed, came news of more great leaps forward. Surely they would be news soon that the enemy were to ask for an armistice? The CO had that day, sent a billeting party on ahead to the next posting of the Battalion and all blankets had been stacked and returned to stores. The Adjutant C.V. Canning, had sent the staff of Battalion HQ on first on bicycles, whilst he and Lieutenant Williamson, remained to hand over the billets and all its contents to the next unit.
Though they were to proceed to a village some 9 miles away; St. Aubert, just prior to the move, the CO received news that they were to move instead to positions along the river Escallion, from where they once again, advance to take another village, over another stream. It was very much business as usual. As one 11th Suffolk soldier had noted some weeks before as the war continued, "luck deserts us..."
As the autumn days came and the daylight shortened, it was a grey and miserable existence to the men of the 1st (Reserve) Garrison Battalion stationed on the Isle of Grain in Kent.
The 1st Garrison Battalion came into existence in the Spring of 1916 and had already furnished a Company for overseas service - which was still serving in France, but from early 1918, they were transferred into the Reserve Army and were confined to garrison duties at home.
From late August 1917, they were spread all along the Grain Peninsular in Kent occupying several bleak, lonely outposts guarding the gateway to London against enemy air activity, but especially, from enemy naval activity as German U-Boats tried to penetrate the Thames to the north, and the Chatham dockyards to the south.
With platoons at Cliffe Fort, Allhallows, Harty Ferry, Coal House Fort, and a further two platoons over the water at Tilbury and Pitsea in Essex, the Battalion, which was at that time almost 1800 strong, guarded this lonely stretch of land.
As men came and went to furnish drafts for other units of the Suffolk Regiment, many who were either too young, infirm, or not of the required medical grade, remained. One solider who found himself here in late 1918 was a young man of Italian and French parentage, Giovanni Battista Barbirolli, known later as Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the famous Halle Orchestra.
Already an accomplished musician, the young Barbirolli had been conscripted in February 1918 into the Suffolk Regiment. Enlisting under his christian name, it caused much confusion when the roll was called as he later recalled: "The Sergeant-Major had great difficulty in reading my name on the roll-call. 'Who is this guy Vanni?' he used to ask, so I chose John".
John Barbirolli was to remain at Grain for some months yet and, with the onslaught of the bleak winter, he became part of a small orchestra that was formed from within the ranks of the Battalion. It was here that he was to try his hand at conducting for the very first time...
In far away Macedonia, the 1st Battalion were in a malaise.
The inactivity of the previous few weeks had led to a curious mood arising "The whole Battalion became sullen and "non-talkative" recorded Lieutenant Victor Farmer in his diary, "It is a well known fact that British soldiers have a passion for children and dogs. Naturally on active service it is not possible to develop a group of children who attach themselves in some way to a regiment, but, in Salonica, we had a large number of dogs of all descriptions which had joined up with our men and which followed the men with utmost devotion. Our own CO, Colonel Joicey had two pedigree pointer dogs of whom he was very proud."
The pace slackened in late September following the Bulgarian Armistice on September 30th and the Battalion were engaged for a fortnight on salvage work, clearing the battlefields before them of abandoned materiel and weapons, before they started a skilled and leisurely withdrawal from the edge of Lake Doiran, back some fifty miles to the town of Salonika.
Here, it soon became apparent just how overlooked this front of the war had become in the last eighteen months. Whilst it had always been known that the major battle that would eventually defeat the Germans, would be on the Western Front, the fronts elsewhere in Macedonia, Gallipoli, Egypt and East Africa tied up valuable Allies to Germany diverting them from joining the battles in the west.
At Guvesne, some twenty miles from Salonika, on 13th October, a roll call noted strength of the Battalion as being fourteen officers and 250 other ranks. It was a quarter of the strength that had departed for France in January 1915.
For 1 Suffolk in Macedonia, their war was drawing to a close.
For 2nd Suffolk the pace of war had suddenly quickened. After the advance to Rumilly, their next allotted objective was to take the village of Seranvilliers.
The attacks of the past days caused casualties which necessitated the reorganisation of the Battalion. The Adjutant, Captain William French Burman, was promoted to Second in Command of the Battalion and Lieutenant Coote, a young subaltern was pressed into the role.
Looking out from Battalion HQ, 2/Lieut. Bailey could see the position in the valley below him. “The Companies were seen in position by 2/Lt. W.G. Bailey. 3 Coys in front ‘’X’ on the right in touch with 2nd Rifles, ‘Z’ in the centre, and ‘Y’ on the left in touch with the Kings Liverpool, with ‘W’ Company in support”.
At 4.30am, Zero hour, the advance began. “The Red Line was captured without much resistance” and the Battalion pressed onto the second line objective, the “Green Line”. In fact the advance was so swift that just after 10.00am, they were close to the village of La Targette; almost the entire distance covered from the Canal du Nord to Rumilly in one great advance. “A number of prisoners were taken in the village and in shell holes” wrote the War Diary. Then, orders were received to work around the south of the village and wait for a fresh attack by the Battalion in the north to go in, and they would then rejoin them on the other side of the village.
Then came a counter order, to withdraw back 200 yards from La Targette and collect the troops on the left, who had floundered. “These orders came up just in time but there was no barrage and heavy casualties resulted. The enemy shelled our forward positions very heavily for some hours. At dusk the fire died down and the enemy retreated leaving a few machine guns in La Targette.” Remaining where they were, the 1st Gordon Highlanders took the village with relative ease the following morning at daybreak. Later that day, the Guards took over the Suffolk positions and retired back to Havrincourt.
The day had not been without loss. Ten other ranks killed and 104 wounded. The highest loss rate for some months. One of those to fall was No. 23464, Private Bert Robinson. A 27 year old from Cambridge, he was typical of those conscripted in 1917 into the Army. By those days of 1918, the largest majority of men in the ranks of 2nd Suffolk were conscripts.
Officers too suffered heavily depleting already thin ranks. Out in front with their men, five were wounded in the attack: 2/Lieut. Pridcock, Lieut. Percy, Lieutenant Cooper, Lieut. Raven, Lieut. Thursby. With the exception of Thursby, who had been with the Battalion since July, all the other had joined the Battalion in the last few weeks. Now, there were more 2/Lieutenants and lieutenants, than Captains and Majors. Three of the four Company’s were commanded by Lieutenants.
With thanks to www.ww1cemeteries.com for the image of Bert
As the fifth autumn of war came to the men of the 11th Battalion, they found themselves again in familiar territory when in late September, they were close once more to the village of Erquiringhem, near the Belgian border near Armentieres.
In the curious fate of war, they had been here before. The boomerang of conflict saw it stationed here in 1916, then again at the time the March Offensive, and again now, in the evening of the conflict.
On 26th September, an operational order was received to give dispositions to the Battalion, should an immediate enemy withdrawal occur. The Germans it was known, would at some point, start to withdraw once more and it was imperative that the Battalion was able to exploit its gains and keep hard at their heels.
"In the event of the retirement of the enemy from his present positions" ran the order "the advance brigade will make for the following objective: Road Junction: Croix Rouge - Flerbaix - Erguinhem. the 11th Suffolk Regiment will be ready on receipt of orders to move the present outpost line of resistance, taking over the present disposition of companies in support."
Captain C.V. Canning, Adjutant of the Battalion issued orders that they were to move as soon as a withdrawal was seen, supporting the units in front of them; the 1st East Lancashire Regiment and the 9th northumberland Fusiliers. One Company of the Battalion was to remain in reserve.
As the six copies of Canning order were distributed, those reading them could hardly fail to read the inference that an end to the conflict now seemed to be in sight, but until then, business must continue as normal. For men like Raymond Felstead, above, he was serving a third autumn in the front line. His first was with the Cambridgeshire Regiment and the two following with 11th Suffolk.
As the battles of the last hundred days picked up momentum, the month of October opened with another battle for the 2nd Battalion.
Quick to exploit the gains they had made crossing the Canal du Nord and the capture of the village of Flesquieres, on the last day of September, orders were received to person and take the village of Rumilly.
Rumilly was a village a few miles south of Cambrai, midway between the town and the fork in the road at Lateau Wood. The attack was from the west pressing on directly towards the village. The 8th K.O.R.L., who had been comrades in the same Brigade since before the battles at Ypres in 1917, were to take the right hand of the village, 2nd Suffolk were to take the north. The Gordon's were behind in the centre, assisting where necessary.
'X' Company were to take the right flank of the Battalions advance, with 'Z' Company behind. They were to keep in contact with the Lancasters on the right. 'W' Company were on the left with 'Y' behind. There were no reserves. At this late stage of the war, such was the movement that vast distances were being covered, and it was useless to have reserves so far back. The entire Battalion was committed and all went forward together. Zero hour was 6.00am.
"On reaching Rumilly trench" wrote the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Carpenter "it was found to be strongly held any the enemy and severe fighting took place. Rumilly Support trench was found to be full of Germans and over 300 were taken prisoner and many killed. This latter trench was full of machine guns."
The logistics of such vast prisoners was a problem for the advancing troops. They were quickly ushered back under the scantest form of escort - most being eager to surrender. There could be no denying that the end did now seem in sight. However as always a few staunch survivors remained, determined to deny the Battalion their trenches which they were being forced to extricate. As the barrage moved on, the age old task of 'mopping up' had to be continued. "The left Company came undermost intensive machine gun fire from the flanks and front inflicting severe casualties and making further advance impossible. The right Company, however, was shielded by the ground from flanking fir and reached the village, pushed right and through it reached the trench line killing and taking prisoners many of the enemy."
The distance was vast. Almost half a mile covered and the men exhausted. Communication had been lost with the artillery barrage which carried on ahead of them. When consolidation began, pockets of enemy resistance in the village suddenly came to life form the rubble: "Further machine guns were encountered east of the village" continued the C.O. in his report, dictated to the Adjutant, Captain W.F. Burman, that evening under intense shell fire in his dug-out "These retired behind our barrage but eventually trickled back and prevented further advance, as they were working round the flanks of X. Coy. which was separated with from the K.O.R.L. on the right, and 2nd Div. on the left."
By late afternoon, one Company of 2nd Suffolk was to the east of the village, with three in its outskirts and to the south. Orders came up mid-morning to state that a bombardment of the village would begin imminently to dislodge the machine gunners once and for all. At the same time, 2 Companies of the Gordons came up to assist 2 Companies of 2nd Suffolk to the south, to advance into the village and 'mop up'. The barrage, which was to start just before 6.30pm, was to advance at 100 yard leaps every 6 minutes, a long gap for such a short dash, but it allowed a careful and measured advance and allowed those of the flanks to keep up.
"Both attacks were successful and the village was cleared" wrote Carpenter "leaving about 80 prisoners in our hands. The Battalion was then reorganised with one company in trenches astride the road (north-south)".
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.