On 28th November 1916, 1/5th Suffolk left their entrenched positions around the "Round-Hill" and returned to the Gazelle Heights in Egypt, not far from the Sphinx.
The Battalion had been in static positions for some weeks guarding the banks of the Suez Canal. Daily they mounted guard on its banks, routinely calling out the guard to check the numerous sailing ships that passed by. Here in this bare land, it was infiltration that they were specifically guarding against. Impossible though it was to police ever inch of the banks of the canal, the sand between the waters edge and the first defensive line of trenches (known as the "drag track") was so flat and baron, that though nothing could be seen or heard during the night, yet in the morning it showed the footprints of those who had passed along it in the darkness. Quite often the square toed boots of the Turk, could be seen alongside those of the barefoot native, yet nobody saw them or heard them during the night. It was a spooky and forbidding place during the darkness.
The Battalion had moved from the canal, the 15 miles across the desert to their new base at one of many carefully designed desert forts on the 14th November. Their new home was the "Round-Hill" - an interlocking system of trenches, dug into the sand around 350 yards in width. At its centre was a citadel around a small trench system known as "Middlesex Trench." This was shielded by wire on all sides with a gap at the rear to allow its occupants, if overrun, to retire into a further complex of trenches "New Brighton Trench," "Tranmere Trench" and "Winsford Trench" in an outer perimeter. If these were overrun, then its occupants could fall back to an outer defence position, form where the could bring fire upon the enemy within.
The official history noted that the men found it easier to march the entire journey to the fort from the canal in the searing heat, rather than the continual start-stop of the small narrow-gauge railways that sprawled across the desert, and the 'loop-the-loop' convoy of camels that carried the Battalion's baggage.
After an uneventful few days, they were withdrawn from the position on the 28th November. As they vacated the position, a new Padre came with them. The Rev. E.D. Rennison, replaced that day, the Rev. Charles Pierrepoint Edwards, who had gone home some days previously. Edwards had become a legend within the Battalion, winning an MC at Gallipoli.
Rennison, was an Irishman and arrived "bringing a distinct air of the emerald isle and a cheeriness that never deserted him." In the weeks that were to follow, there would be pleasant days before Christmas, prior to the Battalion being sent to Gaza in the New Year.
And so after 141 days, the battle of the Somme officially came to a close. It had been a mixed four and a half months for the six Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment involved in the campaign with tragedy, triumph, victory and defeat all being experienced at one time by each of the Battalions that fought there.
The 2nd Battalion had a tough time at Longueval, and later at Serre. The 4th Battalion showed great gallantry at High Wood, but could not exploit their gains. The 7th Battalion were hammered bitterly at Ovillers, and later, at Bayonet Trench. The 8th Battalion were knocked at Trones Wood, but arose gallantly to take Thiepval. The 9th tried in vain to take the Quadrilateral and failed, and the 11th Battalion took such a battering at La Boiselle on the first day, that they had not fully recovered by the end of the campaign.
There had been countless awards for gallantry. Senior commanders praised their efforts and actions, but by the end of the campaign, the Regiment was learning and learning every day. In a war of constant evolution, lessons learned during previous attacks were reviewed and analysed and suggestions made for future offensives.
By the end of the campaign, though tangibly no real great tracts of ground been taken, the German Armies had been dealt a blow from which they never fully recovered. Though it did not seem like it to many in the front line, their actions on the Somme, made the Germans realise that it would be impossible to stem such an army should it ever attack again, and by the end of the year, the German Chiefs had already consoled that a withdrawal back beyond their defensive bulwark; the 'Hindenburg Line' would be inevitable.
For fifty years, the actions of the British Army on the Somme have been portrayed as ones of bunging ineptitude. Of delusional, old-fashioned generals wilfully sending men off to die in ground pitted with shell holes full of mud. If our posts here over these past months have shown you anything, it is that is was in no way like this, and that we, one hundred years on, should never forget their deeds and sacrifices in this, the pivotal battle that turned the course of the Great War.
Sidney Appleyard, a Great War veteran with the Queen Victoria's Rifles, wrote in 1966 upon the 50th anniversary of the battle; "I think this anniversary will be the last. When it comes to 75 years, we'll all be dead, and the Somme will seem as abstract as Waterloo."
How wrong he was. They are not, and will not, be forgotten.
In the days that followed 2nd Suffolk’s attack at Serre, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel G.C. Stubbs, what asked by his superiors to provide a detailed and comprehensive report of his Battalions actions that day. His report, which was short, but concise, concluded by stating;
“I attribute the cause of failure of the attack:
1. To loss of direction and mixture of lines owing to the midst.
2. To officers falling early in the advance.
3. The broken and muddy state of the ground especially near the German trenches.
4. To a certain amount of wire of the concertina type perhaps put out the same night.
5. Invisibility of the barrage in the mist.
6. Strength of the Germans in 2nd line and machine gun fire.
7. Our rifles being caked in mud.”
It was perhaps the final comment that was the most damming. The conditions that the men had to fight through that day to get to the enemy wire, were atrocious. It meant that when they did arrive, they were so exhausted and caked with the mud of the ground they had just covered, that they could bring down sustainable small arms fire upon the enemy, because their rifles were unusable. Harsh lessons were learnt that day by the Battalion.
On the 13th November while 2nd Suffolk were still licking their wounds received at Longueval, they were pressed into another major attack on the German trenches opposite them at Serre.
The previous evening, all Company’s were in their allotted positions by 11.00pm, from where they would be moved to their start positions within a few hours. The recent heavy rains had made their journey difficult and owing to the waterlogged condition of “Rob Roy” trench - from where the attack was to commence from, so the majority of their journeys that night in the darkness, was made above ground.
After being roused and moved into their start positions, the men were to be greeted by a hot cup of tea, but the condition of the trenches meant that the ration party could not get forward with the dixies. When the tea did arrive, it was close to 4.00am and lukewarm.
Around 4.30 am the Commanding Officer, Major G.C. Stubbs, went around the frontal Company’s and made sure that they were in touch with their neighbours on the flanks. The objective for the forthcoming attack was a German trench on the left flank, known as “Serre” trench, which had a strongpoint at a junction of a communication trench called “Suffolk Avenue.”
At Zero Hour; 5.45 am on the 13th November, the leading Company’s advanced in a thick, eerie mist. ‘Y’ Company on the left in two waves, with the same on the right being carried out by ‘X’ Company. Bombers were to protect their flanks. In support were ‘W’ Company, with ‘Z’ in reserve to be called upon when necessary. Each company’s frontage was around 190 yards, which narrowed on a compass bearing to around 100 yards at the objective.
The mist covered their initial movements well, but caused the usual chaos within the Company’s. Direction was lost, and the advancing waves became mixed. The muddy ground caked their boots, and slowed their progress. The artillery barrage that they were closely following had cut the first belt of German wire in no-mans-land and it was passable in several places.
A large crater in no-mans-land which had been agreed upon as a pausing point, was found by the first waves upon their arrival at its lip, to be full with water. It could not be used for shelter, so they had to carry on. Disorientated, the advancing troops, veered leftwards. As the barrage slowed, the men reached the German front line. Its wire was still intact and was of a newer concertina style that was only recently introduced by the Germans. Though they tried in vane, it was extremely difficult to cut with wirecutters. Held up, the attack started to falter. The men were caught in the open as the Germans raked no-mans-land with machine-gun fire. Those who could retire, began to do so.
With no news arriving at Battalion HQ, the CO was getting worried. “At 6.20am” wrote Stubbs, “I heard a rumour that the Companies had fallen back and at 6.35am the Coy. S. Major of the Company in support on the right, came back to report the situation. All officers of the two right Coys except one had fallen and the men were all held up in front of the German 1st line. Some had fallen back to the outpost line. All men questioned speak of the German wire as concertina type being a considerable obstacle and the front Coys were held up on it and were bombed from the German 1st line as well as being fired on with rifle fire”
At 6.45am, Stubbs sent his Intelligence Officer, 2nd Lieutenant Vinden (who would serve later with 4th Suffolk in the war that was to follow), along to the front line to see what was happening. Stubbs himself, negotiated the waterlogged “Rob Roy” trench; which, he was informed, held some of his men who had retired. He found no-one except the first of the wounded and many dead.
Vinden was heading north in the direction of “John” Copse, where he eventually found Lieutenant Nicholls (the younger brother of Captain Nicholls who was captured with 2nd Suffolk at Le Cateau) with around 50 men. Nicholls had been commanding the right-hand leading Company (X) during the initial assault, and had held onto the right hand outpost line, before it became untenable and he was forced to retire.
Total losses that day were 3 officers killed, including Lieutenant Douglas Steel (above), 4 wounded and 4 missing. 14 other ranks killed, 90 wounded but over 157 missing. In the years that were to follow, 2nd Suffolk veterans talked of it being the worst battle of the entire war.
In early November 1916, a small memorial service was held in the Baptist church at Falkland Ridge, Nova Scotia to celebrate the life of a young man of the town who had recently fallen in action on the Western Front The service had been delayed by some weeks to allow all the members of his family travel to Nova Scotia from various locations in Canada and the United States.
At 8.00pm on the 3rd August 1916, the commanding officer of 11th (Service) Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment (Cambs) held a conference with his Company Commanders about the forthcoming attack the next day.
As the operational orders were read allowed, the enemy sent across a barrage of shells which landed close to battalion HQ. Four other ranks were killed outright, and one later died of wounds. Also killed was the newly arrived Second Lieutenant V.K. Mason.
Canadian by birth, Vere Karsdale Mason was born on 23rd October 1893 in Falkland Ridge in Annapolis, Nova Scotia. The son of the late Francis Mason, the family originally came from New Germany, Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia, where they had been prosperous farmers. He attended his local school where he carried off high honours in all subjects. His academic qualities ensured him a place at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, where he graduated in 1914 with honours in four subjects and an “A” in athletics. Described as “an enthusiastic athlete, making the football, hockey, baseball and track teams. He was of irreproachable character, and sterling worth, a characteristic gentleman and a favorite with all." He was a naturally gifted individual.
On 8th September 1914, he won a much-coveted Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. Generally accepted as one of the worlds most prestigious scholarships, it was established in 1902, by the great imperialist Cecil Rhodes. It was Rhodes goal to create generations of future young colonialists who would be a “moral force of character, with an instinct to lead.”
During his time before Oxford, he spent a few weeks with Friends in Montreal, where he enlisted into a unit of hospital volunteers being formed at McGill University. Inspired to join the war effort in Europe, he wrote to his mother on 22nd October 1914; “Tomorrow I am 21 and tomorrow I enlist.”
After travelling with the unit to Nova Scotia, they were ordered overseas in early 1915, and he soon found himself in England. He had been due to travel there they previous October, to take is place at Pembroke College, but he was destined never to study at Oxford.
He remained with this unit until March 1915 when it was ordered to France. Detained in England, Vere was anxious to do more. He volunteered for active service overseas and after a six week course at the “Military School” in Ipswich, he was commissioned into the 11th Battalion on 1st February 1916. Remaining in England until 30th June 1916, before he was ordered overseas to join the Battalion at the Front in France.
Upon arrival with the Battalion in early July, he wrote to his mother “ I have 25 men under me and I feel that I can back up against the whole German army.” He joined the Battalion as they were reeling from their courageous, but costly, attack at La Boiselle on the 1st July. “Knowing him as we do” wrote a friend “we know that during the strenuous days of July and August he was doing his “bit” and doing it well."
His last letter home to his mother in late July was prophetic. It ran; “I don’t want to be taken prisoner and I don’t want to be wounded. If I have to die I want to be killed outright.” Within days of her receiving his letter, she received the news of his death on the 3rd August.
Acadia University today, still awards the Vere Karsdale Mason Scholarship, created in his honour in 1918. It is traditionally awarded to first year students who have “combined academic achievement with citizenship and sporting behavior.” Preference is given still, to students from the farming community.
A soldier of the Empire, who found himself by the course of war, serving in the Suffolk Regiment, had he have lived, he would have most certainly risen to higher things; not only for Canada, but maybe, for the World.
Vere Karsdale Mason is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, France.
"The early hours of 5th November 1916 were hell for the 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. A small German force was pounding their trenches with artillery fire in a determined effort to over-run them by dawn. The ground shook with explosions.
Then Captain W.E. Newcombe saw an extraordinary white light that appeared to rise from the mud in no man’s land, forming itself into the figure of a British officer in a slightly dated uniform. The face looked exactly like the face from the Recruitment posters, the face of the former leader of the Suffolk Regiment who had died five months before: Lord Kitchener.
British flares lit the ground between the opposing forces and all could see the figure of Lord Kitchener walking along, parallel to the trenches, like a bizarre inspection. The spectral figure turned to face the enemy and for a moment the stunned Germans ceased their attack.
But the flares had signalled assistance from the British artillery and suddenly British shells were pounding no man’s land. The Germans fought back and in the ensuing chaos everyone lost sight of the ghost. By the time the smoke cleared, Lord Kitchener was gone. Captain Newcombe's formal report would become the stuff of legend."
Such was the above report published just a few years ago. It is for want of a better expression, complete nonsense. Upon the day in question, 2nd Suffolk were, contrary to the above, not in the front line trenches, but were engaged as "working parties on roads." They had been in the front line trenches the week before, at Courcelles, but by the 31st October, they were removed from the line to train and prepare for a forthcoming attack in the north of the Some sector.
Field Marshal, Earl Horatio Herbert Kitchener, had no formal link with the Suffolk Regiment, though his mother, Frances Ann Chevalier, was from a family whose members owned apple orchards in Suffolk and who were faimed for their cider. He was never the "former leader" of the Regiment. There is also no trace of Newcombe's "formal report."
Whilst there were numerous reporting's of ghostly apparitions, angels even medieval bowman, along the Western Front of which the press made much in the news of the day, there is absolutely no evidence that anything was encountered by the men of the Suffolk Regiment.
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.