“Enemy Counterattacked. 13 Officers And 219 O-Ranks Missing. HQ And 'A' Company Surrounded And Captured"
Following their initial advances at the Battle of Cambrai, the 7th and 9th Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment had cause to celebrate. Their gains had been nothing short of spectacular. Ground taken, minimal casualties and vast amounts of materiel and prisoners taken.
As they consolidated their gains; the 7th around the rear of Lateau Wood and the ground that dropped off it is rear, and the 9th, around the bridges and the hills to the east of Marcoing, they felt that they had thoroughly routed the Germans and that this might be well on the way to a large scale breakthrough, but this was not the case.
Early on the 30th December what seemed like the impossible happened. After a ferocious artillery barrage, the Germans counterattacked and broken through in a number of places along the Allied front line.
Forging a wedge below Lateau Wood, they drove westwards between 7th Suffolk in Reserve lines near Pam Pam Farm, and their counterparts to the north, then swung round and retook the wood. In minutes the Battalion were in retreat and moving southwards. Those who had been wounded in the barrage had to be left. Everybody was pushed in a disorganised retreat heading southwest towards Gouzeaucourt. The day’s entry in the Battalion War Diary, probably the most complete dairy of any Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, noted the chaos of the day with a brief entry; “Enemy counterattacked. 13 officers and 219 o-ranks missing. HQ and A Company surrounded and captured. Enemy broke through the division on the right and attacked Battalion in the rear”
For 9th Suffolk, they had been more fortunate in that they only had two Company’s in the front line when the German attacked in their sector. C Company were routed from a post they occupies, but after regrouping, they retook the position. The Transport lines, which were not far behind the position, feared a full breakthrough as was being reported all along the line, and withdrew to safety near Ribecourt. Luckily for 9th Suffolk, the German attack against them, lacked the ferocity that their counterparts to the south had suffered and they held on, being reinforced hour by hour repelling the invaders.
The Battle of Cambrai, though successful in the initial stages, was woefully ill-planned for the following build-up to secure the gains that were made during the first day. Supplies were not brought forward, reserves were pitifully sparse and the tank; the saviour of the battle was not much good when sand bags and small arms ammunition were needed for men in the trenches. The ‘poor bloody infantry’ took the brunt as usual.
Though many of those 232 men of 7th Suffolk would within days, be confirmed a prisoners of war, the losses encountered that day, were the biggest since the attack at Ovilliers on the Somme almost 18 months before. For a Battalion that had started the campaign so successfully, it was a crushing blow.
The morning of the 24th was misty and visibility was poor, but the large number of low-flying Allied aircraft did much to inspire confidence in the men. At 6.30 am the tanks advanced disappearing off into the haze and mist.
The advance was however slow, and though the mist hid their lumbering progress, the tanks were averaging less than 50 yards a minute. The infantry kept up close behind them, but gradually one by one, the tanks broke down or got stuck in the sunken lanes.
The infantry was becoming mixed up. Heavy fire came from ‘Bleak House’ and beyond it at ‘Pam Pam Farm’ To add to this fire, the enemy around Le Quennet Farm to the north, started to fire across the Division’s line of advance.
As the Battalion advanced, it encompassed a Company of Norfolks who had floundered on the right flank and together, the attack continued through the R. Berks positions.
Within minutes, they were at the Hindenburg Line and were pushing through the gaps made by the available tanks. Onwards they pushed to the Hindenburg Support line, which was taken with almost complete effect. The Battalion pressed onwards along the high ground to the north of ‘Pam Pam Farm’. The farm itself, was still in enemy hands and several machine guns were very active in its ruins. A pair of tanks were slowly brought up and the farm fell shortly afterwards. Now the only opposition lay from Lateau Wood itself, about 150 yards onwards from ‘Pam Pam Farm’. The 6th Royal West Kent’s attacking from the north were held up by fire at La Quennet farm and their Battalion Commander had been killed and their Adjutant wounded and taken prisoner with a great number of men. Their support was essential to the taking of the wood in a pincer movement.
However, with the assistance of 6th Queens, the Battalion with the CO leading the way, pushed on and took the wood. The enemy had several heavy artillery pieces on its eastern edge and had no time to move them. They and their crews were taken in the final rush.
The advance was one of speed combined with new, if slightly inefficient technology. The Battalion, much changed since Loos, had been scythed on the Somme, but now made great advances in the final breakthrough of 1917.
After weeks of training with the newfangled tanks, on 24th November, the 7th Battalion stepped forward to play their part in the battle of Cambrai.
The Battalion, as part of the 12th (Eastern) Division, would be the rear battalion in their Brigade's attack. Two battalions would make the initial advance to the Hindenburg Line; 5th Royal Berks on the left, 9th Essex on the right. When they has breached the outer defences with the assistance of tanks, 7th Suffolk would then ‘Leapfrog’ over the 5th R. Berks and continue onwards to the main defensive line. 7th Suffolk were to advance from behind four sections of tanks.
Their task was initially to mop-up the enemy’s machine gun emplacements which may have been missed by in the wake of the advancing tanks, before starting their allotted advance. The terrain was sunken roads and fields, over which and along the tanks would have to travel. The infantry were not to follow them but to proceed ahead and await their arrival at the main line of defences. Machine guns from the 235th Company, M.G.C., would give covering fire from the south along the ‘Banteau Spur’ and would fire along the axis of advance; the straight road towards the farmhouse at ‘Bleak House’
Special signalling devices of coloured discs were to be used by the infantry to signal to the tanks for help and assistance. A green disc indicated “wire cut” (or trampled) and red disc, meant “wire uncut” and both together meant “objective reached”. For the infantry, hand signals using rifles were also to be employed. A helmet placed aloft on the end of a rifle meant “tank wanted” its seems a little ludicrous gesture in the heat of battle. No 7. Company, Tank Corps were to work closely with 7th Suffolk. All their tanks names began with a ‘C’ and were named “Curmudgeon”, “China”, “Cape Colony II”, Ceylon”, Caithness”, Culloden II”, “Clyde II” and “Canada”
At 6.20am the attack commenced. An eye witnesses noted “Suddenly from everywhere behind us blazed forth our artillery fire. Such a sight can never be forgotten. There was not a part of the line that seemed untouched. How anyone could live under such tornado of fire passed comprehension”.
At around 4.00am on the 24th, orders were received that an enemy counter-attack may be imminent. The Battalion Commander, Lieutenent- Colonel Eardley-Wilmott; an officer of the York and Lancaster Regiment, therefore arranged his forces to deal with it.
By 6.00 am, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Company’s were in positions along the Cambrai road between the villages of Anneux and Graincourt, under the command of the CO of 20th Middlesex. ‘C’ Company were in shell holes to the north facing eastwards towards Bourlon Wood.
‘A’ Company were in reserve close to a wrecked factory along the road. Contemporary trench maps noted that it was once a “Balloon Shed.” Around 10.00am, Battalion machine gunners retired from their positions close to ‘C’ Company in the shell- holes. In their relief, two Lewis gun teams and one platoon from ‘C’ Company took their place. Shortly afterwards, orders were received to attack the village of Bourlon. The CO decided to keep ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies up front ready in position for the advance, and to use ‘B’ on the right and ‘D’ on the left, with two platoons of ‘C’ Company as fro support. ‘A’ Company were brought up from their positions near the factory to be in reserve. Battalion HQ moved into the quarry between the Cambrai road, and the spur to Bourlon village.
At 3.00pm, the attack was launched. ‘B’ Company advanced to the village on the right flank, gaining its southernmost point in around ten minutes. ‘D’ Company on the left, were held up by machine-gun fire from the centre of the village, which caused them to halt and seek cover on the outskirts of the village.
Seeing the left flank halted, the CO sent up ‘A’ Company to assist. ‘C’ Company moved up to reinforce ‘B’ Company. On the right flank, a Battalion of the Green Howards, who had advanced northwards from the Cambrai road, were reported to be in the wood in strength. By 5.00pm, ‘B’ Company, were on the edge of the wood and along the road that encircled it. By this time, virtually all the wood to the east of the Battalions final positions, was in Allied hands, and consolidation was already commencing with the first line of shallow fire trenches being dug along the edge of the wood that touched the village.
Shortly afterwards, the Battalion’s right flank on the edge of the wood (‘B’ Coy), was relived by the 20th Middlesex, and they retired. ‘D’ and ‘C’ Company still held the left flank, though the enemy’s fire had by now slackened. By 7.00pm, the East Surrey’s and 2 company’s of the Kings Own, had relived the two Suffolk Company’s and they were withdrawn to the sunken lane about 250 yards in the rear. Just afterwards, a heavy enemy counter- attack was launched on three sides of the wood, but was repulsed.
“The outskirts of Bourlon” wrote the Green Howards History “had been effectually cleared and organised, and all resistance swept away. The village itself was then cleared with a good deal of hand-to-hand fighting. By 8.00pm, the Germans considered the Bourlon position lost and began to bombard the place, then commencing a series of counter-attacks from the front, from the northeast and from the north-west. The line was taken over by cavalry, the relief being completed soon after midnight.”
Thought not major, the Battalions actions that day were decisive. Their advance to the village, ensured that other elements advancing from the south could take the wood with the minimal of casualties.
The action was the first major victory for the 40th Division since their entry into the war the previous June. Later, when a Divisional badge was designed, it incorporated a bantam in recognition that is members were from ‘Bantam’ Battalions and a sprig of oak leaves in honour of their actions to take Bourlon Wood.
By a curious fate, command of the 40th Division was at that time, under the command of Major-General John Ponsonby, who after his retirement in 1928, became Colonel of the Suffolk Regiment. His father had been an officer in the 2nd Battalion in the 1860s, and his grandson was to complete his National Service with them in 1950s.
“The Divisional Commander Congratulates All Ranks On The Fact That The Division Has Captured All Objectives"
Lieutenant Taylor went in advance with about half a Company, and got to within 300 yards from Marcoing. Along the way he had found other parts of the Company’s on the left who had managed to reach the valley along the river between Ribecourt and Marcoing.
Lieutenant Bryant was soon with them, having moved his men along the railway that ran beside the river. Virtually all of the Battalion were now beyond the first belt of enemy defences and were in the land between the Hindenburg Line and the Hindenburg Support Line that was approx. half a mile to its rear.
As these two elements of the Battalion edged towards Marcoing, they were heavily snipped at, causing a great deal of casualties. However, the Battalion moved quickly into artillery formation and continued the advance. Soon the enemy’s positions were overcome and a solitary sniper extracted from the rubble of a cottage on the outskirts of the village.
Turning east, they entered the remains of the village. The enemy had all but disappeared and “resistance was nil” as the War Diary noted. Lieutenant Taylor and one platoon remained in the vicinity of the ruined church, and to systematically mop- up any enemy that remained in the cellar and ruins of the village. Lieutenant Hopkin continued the advance and pushed eastward through the village toward the St. Quentin canal and held the bridges across it until the 29th Division passed through.
By now the remains of ‘C’ Company, accompanied by tanks, were at the church and within a few hours, other units arrived to strengthen the positions in Marcoing. The Battalion now fell back to the Hindenburg Line near Battalion HQ. The day had been one of unqualified success. It was by far, the largest advance any Battalion of infantry of the Suffolk Regiment had made since the beginning of the war; almost five miles. Practice and close co-operation with the tanks had been the key to success, but so had been the drive and initiative of the young subalterns who could see that the way was clear to advance to Marcoing and continued to take the village.
One other rank was killed and wounded in the village itself, and a haul of over thirty prisoners had been taken in the village, with over a hundred more in the advance through the Hindenburg Line itself.
A message was received later that evening at Battalion HQ: “Divisional commander congratulates all ranks on the fact that the Division has captured all objectives, taken 16 officers, 700 OR prisoners including two Battalion Commanders. This is the best bag for the day. Three guns have also been captured. The brigade commander adds his congratulations on the very successful issue of the days fight”
On 20th November 1917, 9th Suffolk advanced to attack the Hindenburg Line. As part of the 6th Division were to advance to a section of the Hindenburg Line between the villages of Beaucamp and Villiers Plouch. Two Companies would be in front support three tanks each (1 Platoon per), with two Companies behind.
‘A’ Company was to go first on the left, with ‘D’ in two waves behind them. On the right, a section of tanks supported by ‘B’ Company were to move first, with half of ‘C’ Company behind them. The other half of ‘C’ Company were behind ‘D’ Company in support. By 1.00am on the 20th all Companies were in position, and the men slept in their start positions close to the tanks they were to follow into battle. Zero hour was set for 6.20am, but about ten minutes before, the tanks roused the Battalion into life as the started their gentle lumber forward to their start positions.
At zero, the barrage commenced fully. “Suddenly” wrote the Regimental History “a German machine gun rapped out a few rounds and as the sound soon died away in the mist, a thousand British guns thundered forth in answer”. Soon the ground began to shake as large numbers rumbled forward and with them the infantry that followed in their correct formations. Second Lieutenant Fyffe, followed “Helen II”, Second Lieutenant Farland, followed “Huntress 10” and Second Lieutenant Philips followed “Heiland Laddie” in the forward wave of the attack.
In the middle Major Huntback brought a company of infantry forward, and in the rear of him, the second formation of tanks and infantry followed; Second Lieutenant Ferguson followed “Hermit”, Second Lieutenant Maycock followed “Hornets Beauty” whilst Lieutenant Davis followed “Harvester”.
The plan worked like clockwork and the advance continued at a steady pace. At about 200 yards short of ‘Plush Trench’ – the first real belt of the Hindenburg Line defences, the Battalion fanned out into extended order and advanced at a steady pace to take the first line of the enemy’s trench system. ‘Plush Trench’ was soon passed and the infantry continued onwards. However they were now beginning to outpace the tanks, who were now some 200 yards in the rear.
Out on the right flank, two of the three tanks advancing with ‘B’ Company were knocked out in no-mans-land and the third, lost direction due to a shed track and barred the infantry’s advance through the wire into the Hindenburg Line. In the land in between, the enemies shell fire caused many casualties. Though the barrage was “ineffective” it was concentrated causing the casualties. ‘A’ Company meanwhile, was making good its clearance of ‘Plush Trench’ and the other elements of the Battalion were close to taking their objectives in the Hindenburg Support Line.
At 9.05am, runners were bringing back messages to Battalion HQ that their objectives had been taken. “Enemy resistance had been futile and casualties slight. Coys were in touch with flank battalions”. Pleased with this news, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Latham, moved Battalion HQ forward into ‘Plush Trench’. Lieutenant Bryant who commanded ‘C’ Company, managed to get into contact with ‘B’ Company and its tanks on the left, and moved the half of the Company he had, to the northeast and proceed with the tanks towards the village of Marcoing.
On the 4th November 1917, 1/5th Suffolk took over all off the El Arish Redoubt which they had played an instrumental role in capturing two days before.
Two days later, the Turks, seeing that major consolidation was taking place, reigned down a heavy barrage of shells into the position they gad been forced to vacate.
"It was quite impossible to move about the trenches during the afternoon" wrote Captain Wolton, "But by this time owing to the hard work put in by the Battalion we had good cover, and there was not a single casualty of the result of the firing".
A further advance was planned for the following day, and despite very lights been seen in the distance, at daybreak, the Turk seemed to melt away. At last it seemed that he had "been decisively and effectively defeated".
As the line moved on, more and more of the Turks lines in front of Gaza were taken by the Allies. These new positions displayed an unusual and amazing amount of improvisation which showed just how logistically challenged the Turkish forces were. Their trenches were lined with every conceivable piece of timber which could be scavenged from the town. Wooden lintels of ornate carving, looted from public buildings, propped up sandbagged revetments in their front line. Their sandbags were made from all types of materials available to them. "Gay coloured cloths of all kinds having been sewn according to the rumour by fair hands in the harems of Stamboul" wrote one commentator.
As the line went forward, the Battalion started the important task of salvage. Anything and everything that could be taken for salvage was removed. An entire enemy Minenwerfer, a gift of Germany for her Turkish lies, was abandoned in the redoubt and by hook and crook, it was removed an pulled the 800 yards yards back across the desert to the nearest narrow-gauge and loaded onto a train for Cairo, where complete with proud sign "Captured by 1/5 Suffolk Regt. at Gaza, 2.11.17", it was repositioned outside Abbas Hilmi Barracks.
As they left the line on 7th November, the Battalion "having collected a certain amount of salvage, marched to Marine View, covering their helmets with the many-coloured sandbags from the Turkish trenches". Next objective was the holy city of Jerusalem, to be taken if possible, before Christmas.
On 7th November 1917, 7th Suffolk were behind the lines near the village of Blagny. The had marches there the previous day to begin a special new type of training with tanks.
The forthcoming attack which was to be mounted later that month called for the large scale use of tanks to punch a hole in the Germans defensive bulwark; the Hindenburg Line. The infantry would advance in close co-operation with them and rush through the gaps the tanks created and press on to take the second line.
The plans were bold and audacious. They required total secrecy and the the need for much training of the infantry. The tanks had already been witnessed by the Suffolk Regiment with no great success. 8th Suffolk mistrusted them after their poor direction and performance at Thiepval on the Somme, and 4th Suffolk disliked them as for a lack of petrol, they could have changed the outcome of the the battle of Fitzclarence Farm at Ypres. However now, many tens of tanks would be brought up ad used right along the line, so it was important that they infantry knew how to work with them.
Each subaltern in the assaulting waves was issued with an allotted tank. He would then train his men to work in cooperation with its crew. They memorised signals of coloured flags and discs so that they could call their tank to stop, move left or right or carry on as they commanded. The platoon would followed behind in close formation. Like sardines, sections of men they had to bunch up in to neat rows behind each track, with a third section spaced back in the centre.
Over specially constructed hurdles of wire in the training area, the tanks and infantry practiced. The tank would cut the gap in the wire, then moved on just a few yards to allow the infantry to fan around its side and break left an d right. The tank would continue and the follow on troops would come up quickly and assume the positions of those just vactated.
7th Suffolk had not experienced tanks before, but every day throughout early November, they trained, and got better and better at their craft. Each day however, the orders would change and a new method would be employed. Then the signals were changed and a new set had to be learnt. Quite clearly, the powers that be were changing the requirements of the attack on a daily basis.
On 10th November, training with the tanks introduced a new aid; the sledge. Of the three tanks making the initial break in the line, the three that followed towed sledges packed with small arms ammunition and bombs. The assaulting waves would have exhausted theirs as the consolidated the front line and would need more as the second wave came to the cut wire, however a hit from German artillery would destroy them. On the 11th the orders were changed again so that men following the tanks with sledges, had to advance 100 yards in their rear to avoid being destroyed if the sledge received a direct hit.
The artillery and their smoke barrage would be all important to cover them to the wire. The training continued.
"Tanks were also advancing. These had silencers and moved very quietly over the sand. But either the tanks or the troops had been seen over on the skyline at Sampson's Ridge, and a heavy shrapnel fire was opened on them causing many casualties".
Just after 3.00am on the 2nd November 1917, the men of 5th Suffolk advanced from their forward positions towards the Turkish front line opposite them at El Arish Redoubt. In the darkness, the Turks opened up on the shapes looming up from them through the blackness, but luckily their fire was wild and mainly inaccurate.
Behind a tank, the Battalion continued its advance. The Allied artillery was pounding the Turkish front line as the men moved forward and soon they were at the Turkish wire, which had thankfully, been completely destroyed by the artillery. The barrage continued, moving slowly forward and as the men reached the wire, it had carried onwards and was now pounding the enemy's front line trenches. "So steady and accurate was it that several sections pushed on right up to the wire. The barrage lifted and the line dashed forward, meeting with little resistance" wrote Captain Wolton.
As the men dashed in over the sandbagged parapet into the Redoubt, small pockets of resistance held out in the inner citadel. One small party of Turks on the right flank, mortally wounded Captain Rowley who was gallantly leading his men forward. First into the trench, he met the brunt of the enemy's initial, deadly fire. Captain Catchpole advancing on the left, met a similar fate. Both men were carried away but died the following day.
"The second line was captured and likewise the third, but having no support on the flanks the troops were withdrawn to the second and proceeded to consolidate it. The Turk seemed thoroughly surprised and during the morning opened very little fire on the trenches or no mans land." The men now dug-in feverously and made good their new positions as daylight came. The Battalion the left had not been so successful. They had met 'serious' opposition. The Battalion following the Battalion, soon passed through them into the enemy's second line, and pressed onto the third, but they lost direction and became mixed up in the Redoubt.
By 6.oo am, Lieutenant-Colonel Wollaston, moved Battalion Headquarters forward into the Redoubt and went round to every position to asses the situation. He "reorganised the different sectors and fragments of Battalions, and reported the situation in the sector as very good".
A decisive success for 1/5th Suffolk and a turning point in third Battle of Gaza.
At dusk on 1st November 1917, 1/5th Suffolk moved with the rest of their Brigade into their jumping off positions for the forthcoming attack in Gaza.
All day the Turks had fired shrapnel high up above the Suffolk positions without inflicting any great harm on the men below. Though there was a fear of such fire, cork sun helmets were still worn in the front line for they offered better protection form the piecing sun, than from shrapnel.
Quietly in the darkness, they reached 'Fusilier Ridge' about 7.15pm and started to dig-in. The march forward had been one of much tension. The men, expectant that the Turks had been watching the line and the pegged wire roads, felt sure that suddenly the cat would be let out of the bag and deadly fire brought down upon them, but amazingly, nothing happened.
"We moved up into our jumping off points" wrote Captain Wolton "reaching the allotted positions without incident about 7.15pm. Everyone then had a short sleep". At around 11.00pm, the Turks brought down a heavy barrage along the line in retaliation for an successful attack on nearby 'Umbrella Hill'. The bombardment continued until around 1.00am in the morning, after which the Suffolks were stood to to await a counter-attack, but again it did not materialise.
"At 1.ooam" continues Wolton "after a mug of tea from a thermos dixie, we went over the top, across the bridges, through eight gaps in the wore, and followed the line of pegs previously set out. We then deployed in eight lines, the front one 300 yards from our own wire, and about 700 yards from the Turkish front line"
'D' Company under the command of Captain Hubert Wolton and 'B' Company under Captain Joshua Rowley went first as the two attacking Company's. Following behind was 'C' Company under Captain Kilner and 'A' Company under Captain Catchpole. For the advance, steel helmets had been issued to replace the sun helmets.
Thus, in deathly silence, the Battalion arrived in their new positions at 'Halfway House' where at 2.00am, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Wollaston, went along the line to check that everybody was where they should be and whether there had been and casualties during the advance. Everyone wa sin position and all was well. The rum was distributed at 2.15am to section leaders and the men stood by to move again.
Zero hour was fixed for 3.00am.
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.