A UNIQUE DAY-BY-DAY REMEMBRANCE, 2014 - 2018
follow below, the great war service of the suffolk regiment,
from mobilisation to the armistice
from mobilisation to the armistice
The Seven That Survived
For the 2nd Battalion, they had come through. It was they that had fought the longest. For a Battalion that had left the Curragh in August 1914, they had evolved beyond all recognition. From a pre-war generation of officers and men who had been lost or captured at Le Cateau, a new generation had emerged. Through Ypres in 1915, they evolved to take the Bluff in March of 1916 before they entered the Somme offensive in July. At Longueval they had done well, but later at Serre they could make no headway. Into 1917 they ‘enjoyed’ a haighly successful first day at Arras, before they entered the melting pot of Third Ypres. Taking Zonnebeke with great speed, it was a great victory but those who followed, lost it again. As the tide turned in the March Offensive of 1918, they held their ground near Arras, but were pushed back, but in the Hundred Days offensive, they continually pushed the Germans back over the Canal du Nord back to the their old fighting ground close to Le Cateau.
As the Battalion prepared to move from La Longueville, a cadre was formed in preparation for a move into Germany. It was expected by all that until the enemy were brought to the peace table, in order to keep the peace, an Army of Occupation would be needed.
As preparations were made to have the Colours brought out to the Battalion from their wartime home at the Depot at Bury St. Edmunds, the clerks worked out the strength of the Battalion. It soon became known that of the entire Battalion, just seven men had survived from that first draft that set foot in France in August 1914.
The East Anglian Daily Times newspaper noted in an article a few days later “The following originally went out with the 2nd Battalion, and have returned with the cadre: R.S.M. O. Parkinson, M.C., Sergt. W. Searle, Corpl. J Sparrow, Lance-Corpl. W. Denton, Lance-Corpl. W. Stone, Pte. A. Dorking, and Pte. W. Lant”
William ‘Buller’ Searle (above) was one of that seven. He was born in 1897 and enlisted into 2nd Suffolk in 1912. Wounded at Serre in late 1916, he returned home on leave and married his fiancé Nellie Hunt from Wiltshire, in Cambridge in January 1917 (above). A distant relative of Ronald Searle, the cartoonist, Buller's daughter Olive, would later marry a Suffolk soldier who fought with the 1st Battalion in Normandy.
The Suffolk Regiment was always part of their family.
One Man When Awakened To Be Told The News Grunted, “Nice Thing, Waking A Bloke Up To Tell Him He’s Out Of Work” – Turned Over And Went To Sleep Again!”
No Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment were in combat on that last day and there was all but the expectation of the inevitable that the end had come. Signaller Sydney Fuller, who had started his career with the 8thBattalion but had been fighting with the Cambridgeshire Regiment since May, recalled the moment that the news came through: “At 1 am we were awakened by the man doing night duty on the telephone. He said “All over boys, he’s signed it” One man when awakened to be told the news grunted, “Nice thing, waking a bloke up to tell him he’s out of work” – turned over and went to sleep again!”
Captain W.N. Nicholson, who had been commissioned into the Suffolk Regiment in 1914, was a staff officer at the time of the Armistice. Waiting in a front line trench near Cambrai, he recalled the final few hours of the War: “A German machine gun remained in action the whole morning opposite our lines. Just before 11 am., a thousand rounds were fired from it practically a ceaseless burst. At five minutes to eleven the machine gunner got up, took off his hat to us, and walked away. At. 11 am, there came great cheering from the German lines and the village bells rang. But on our side there were only a few shouts. The match was over; it had been a damned bad game.”
In far away Salonika, Lieutenant Victor Farmer already knew the war was over, but that day held special memories for him: “We were all in bed when the telephone bell rang in the adjoining room. Barry Higgins said “Tomson, answer the telephone”. Tomson duly complied and reported that the Quartermasters Stores had not received our ration of jam and marmalade tins. A few minutes later the telephone rang again “Tomson answer the telephone”. Tomson demurred saying it was farmers turn this time. So I got our of bed and went sleepily to the telephone. I heard the message and said “Hrsmph” and went back to my bed. Higgins asked me what the message was this time. I replied laconically “The German Forces have signed an Armistice with the Allies. Hostilities will cease at eleven o’clock”. We turned over and went to sleep.”
In the Middle East, a Captain Wolton of the 5th Battalion recalled the news arriving “we were preparing for a lengthy stay when news of the armistice with Germany came to hand, and Christmas at home seemed possible and even probable. The news was celebrated by a display of very lights and coloured flares and a salvo from our trench mortar battery.”
The “Kaisers War” was over. Now there would hopefully be peace.
And so in the language of the day, the guns fell silent. The Armistice came into effect at 11.00 am on the 11th November 1918. The day was dull and the air was thick with fog but for the 2nd, 4th, 11th, 12th and 15th Battalion’s of the Suffolk Regiment who were serving in France, this was the end of their fighting.
When the artillery stopped, men heard for the first time in years, the sound of birds singing along the front line and soon, cautiously, those Battalions that still occupied defensive positions, cautiously peered out into the fog to see if the armistice was real.
Though they did not know it, the Suffolk Regiment had played its part in defeating the most deadly superpower of its day. They had brought the military might of Imperial Germany to its knees and had forced its Kaiser to the conference table. Though the ‘Tommy’ at the front groused, his German counterpart was very close to starvation and his country no longer had the industry to support his efforts. An effective allied blockade saw sandbags made of curtains, equipment made from cardboard, and clothes of woven paper. They knew they could not go on much longer and peace was now called for by both soldier and civilian in Germany. They had supported his war in 1914, but now, close to starvation, they turned upon their leader in revolution. The Kaiser in defeat, fled into exile in Holland.
From a Regiment that had evolved to increase its strength ten-fold and expand from 6 Battalions to 24, they had had achieved greatness and had written another epic chapter in the history of the ‘Old Dozen’. Soon, the Regiment would add ‘Le Cateau’ ‘Neuve Chapelle’ ‘Ypres 1915 ’17 ‘18’ ‘Somme 1916 ‘18’ ‘Cambrai 1917 ‘18’ ‘Hindenburg Line’ ‘Macedonia 1915-18’ ‘Landing at Suvla’ ‘Gaza’ and ‘Arras 1917 ’18’ to the ancient Battle Honours of ‘Dettingen’ ‘Minden’ ‘Seringapatam’ ‘India’ ‘South Africa 1851-2-3’ ‘New Zealand’ ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘South Africa 1899-1902’.
"The General Form Will Be To Push On As Rapidly As Possible Behind The Cavalry. There Will Be No Bounds Laid Down”
To the men of the Suffolk Regiment, serving on the Western Front, little did they know that they were hours from an armistice with Germany.
Those fighting on other fronts already knew with much certainty that the end was in sight. Elements of the 1st Battalion has already become part of a "Gallipoli Occupation Force" and had for almost a week, been working with the defeated Turkish forces to remove the breech blocks from their artillery pieces that were stationed in the Dardanelles. They knew the end had come and with a return to Salonika and much spit and polish, the signs of peacetime soldiering were now creeping back into Army life.
The 2nd Battalion were repairing the roads near Frasnoy when on the 10th November, they were ordered to march to La Longueville, being the advance guard to the 3rd Division’s advance. La Longueville was on the other side of the town of Bavay where four years before, they had fallen back through during the retreat from Mons.
It was known to the Adjutant, Captain William French Burman and the Commanding Officer, Major Bill Chandler, that the Armistice must be imminent, for on the night of the 9th, orders were received concerning their march to La Longueville which contained the first mention of it.
“Whether an armistice is signed by Monday or not, the advance will take place and will be covered by a Brigade of Cavalry. If the armistice is signed the march will be at an ordinary pace. If the armistice is not concluded, the advance will be carried out in constant readiness for battle. The general form will be to push on as rapidly as possible behind the cavalry. There will be no bounds laid down”.
It seemed now that there were no bounds and that anything would be possible. At the current rate of advance, German soil seemed the goal to many and although the Brigade Commander was worried about resupplying a rapid advance, he knew that they should not hold back. “Rationing will be a difficulty, he wrote the Brigade will probably march with extra rations on the man. Men must be impressed with the urgent necessity of economising food as much as possible.” All non-essential kit was to be dumped at La Longueville, and the wagons were not to be overloaded. “Q.M.’s will only carry a few extra pairs of boots should they be in possession. Shoemakers tools will on no account be dumped”.
Just as Le Cateau four years before, the movement was to be done on foot. Then they had footslogged in retreat, but now they would footslog into victory. As Battalion HQ was the last for fall-in to the marching column, the Drums beat up and the Battalion set off.
It was 18 miles to La Longueville and the men were in good cheer.
"Whilst He Talked Of Owen, I Am Now Sure That He Was Thinking Equally Of His Friend James Gaston"
As the final days came, news reached the 4th Battalion of the great flu pandemic that was sweeping the world. The 'plague of the Spanish Lady' was coming dangerously close to the Suffolk Regiment.
For 4th Suffolk, they were dangerously close to an outbreak of it as Captain C.C. Stormont-Gibbs, the Adjutant of the Battalion recalled: "A message had come that there was a bad 'flu outbreak at a village two miles away and could we send a doctor. The Doc had refused to go and I said he ought to and we had our only row. I left him thoroughly fed up".
As the Medical Officer, Captain Gaston set off, little did Gibbs know it would be the last he would see of him. "Some days later I heard from Pip when I was in Rouen. The Doc, he told me had taken a dangerous short cut from the Aid Post to the Mess to avoid being late for lunch and being cursed by the 'old man'. A shell had caught him and taken off both legs. His last request was not to be tied up but allowed to die quickly."
In the twilight of their fight, the loss of the M.O. was a bitter blow. James Gaston was a pre-war doctor in Cloughmills, Co. Antrim, but when was broke out he was in practice in Durham. He gained a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps in December 1915, and went to France the following May, attached to the 5th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (K.O.Y.L.I.).
Wounded in France in September 1916, upon recuperation he was transferred as M.O. to 4th Suffolk where he was awarded the Military Cross in January 1917. His citation noted that: "He attended five other units besides his own throughout the day. The next day, he led a party out in front and recovered twelve more wounded who were lying out. Throughout he set a splendid example to all".
The loss of Gaston was bitterly felt by Gibbs, especially since it was but days from the end of their war. Gibbs, who later became a teacher, recalled to his biographer, Richard Devonald-Lewis, how affected he was in later years at the loss of Wilfred Owen, the war poet who was killed the dat before (4.11.18). Lewis, who spent much time with him in his later years, noted that: "whilst he talked of Owen, I am now sure that he was thinking equally of his friend James Gaston".
"A Draft Of 167 O.R.'s Received"
As November came, an eerie calm descended upon the fighting Battalion's of the Suffolk Regiment on the Western Front.
Though the guns could still be heard and the fighting was still taking place, to the east of Cambrai, close to the old fighting grounds at Le Cateau, the 2nd and 11th Battalions were in a state of flux. Though all knew that it was only a matter of time before the Germans would be sue of an armistice, they steadfastly refused to give in.
For the 11th Battalion, the "Cambs Suffolks" had fought their final major battle at Vendegies and had in the days afterwards, advanced beyond the river Escallion. On 1st November, they Stood-To to support an attack across the high ground beyond the village of Sepamaries and onwards towards the village of Villers-Pol, but the attack by their colleagues in the 9th Northumberland Hussars, was successful and in the afternoon, the Battalion, less 'C' Company who had remained, were withdrawn into billets in Somaing.
Then came a day of rest and bathing. "A draft of 167 OR's received" wrote the War Diary and training and games were continuing and that afternoon, the Divisional Concert Party arrived. On the 5th November "SBR inspection by Bde Gas officer" was held and small box respirators were checked and rechecked. Gas was still a threat and was used, though briefly, for the last time against the Battalion at Vendegies.
For the 2nd Battalion, that which had fought the longest, the first days of November were also ones of rest. They spent the first day of the month in rest billets at Carnieres. They had after their final great attack at Escarmain, received two drafts of men, and with a depleted number of officers, the primary concern of the the Battalion Commander, Captain Lummis, was to integrate these men as soon as possible, should the Battalion be called to attack once more.
Though the sound of gunfire could still be heard, the movement of men back and forth from village to village every closer to the Germans, convinced many that the end was very close. For Captain Lummis, he ensured the Drums of the Battalion were played as much as possible and that the appearance of the Battalion was kept high. 'Refitting' was the name of day.
Far to the north, the 4th Battalion were also in limbo around the border village of Howardries. Their serious fighting had ceased in late September when they had attacked to take the railway line south of the village of Epehy. Their colleagues in the Cambridgeshires, took the village itself on the 18th but there was a heavy force of the enemy along the railways to the east of the village.
For the 12th (Bantam) Battalion, they were further north still in Flanders along the river Scheldt. They had been reformed in England earlier in the year and had returned to the fight fresh in the summer. As the British attacked over the river Lys in late October, the Battalion occupies the line on the Scheldt between Warcoing and Espierres. As the advance moved on, they too experienced a period of 'inactivity'.
The final fighting Battalion on the Western Front was the 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion. It had since its battles towards Templeux-le-Gerrard in September, been withdrawn to the border region in Flanders where they had been in the line at Neuve Chapelle. From here they were taken south to lille where the Germans were withdrawing beyond the City. From there, a swift advance took them to the west of Tournai, where they were set to take the town in early November, but as Germans resistance slackened, a large scale attack upon the town now seemed not necessary.
The fighting days of the Great War now seemed to gently fade away for 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.