The attacks upon the village of Thiepval were continuous throughout late September 1916, but for 8th Suffolk, their day of fame came on 26th September.
The plan for the attack was that the 1st wave, consisting of sections of ‘C’ and ‘B’ Company’s together with a section of “moppers up” from the Norfolk Regiment, were to head directly for “Bulgar” trench which ran north-east from the ruins of Thiepval, and move onto “Zollen” trench beyond which ran away eastwards towards the “Zollern Redoubt.” They would be passing directly through the ruins of the village itself and into the open ground beyond.
The artillery barrage commenced on time at 12.35pm which was the signal for the men in the front line to fix their bayonets. As the men waited, the usual pre-attack ration of run was not distributed. Instead, the men watched the barrage creep forward. From just in front of them, up hill towards the German lines.
Sidney Fuller, a signaller in 8th Suffolk wrote in his diary of the closeness of the fire; “I found it difficult not to keep ducking.” Six minutes later, whilst the barrage crept on, the first waves advanced. “The first wave went over immediately” continued Fuller “then the second, then the third, all within a few seconds interval, and then the fourth, which included D Company, Coy Hdqrs and ourselves (Signals). Now we had to shout in each others if we wanted to speak. The barrage was like a wall of smoke and dust, topped by white smoke from shrapnel bursts. It (the barrage) was now two hundred yards away.”
Having fanned out into extended line, the successive waves slowly walked on behind the barrage. “Away we went, at a steady walk, carrying our rifles at the “high port” – bayonet pointing upwards and to the left – to avoid accidentally “spiking” one of our own men. I saw men stop, light a cigarette, and walk on again as if walking along a street. There did not seem to be many bullets flying about us, but no doubt the noise of the guns prevented us hearing them.”
However, the Germans were already on the attack. A series of large shells were fired in amongst the Suffolk advance. One blew the foot off a man walking beside Fuller, and another riddled a comrade with shrapnel. Fuller and a fellow signaller, dragged him into a nearby shell hole and paused to patch him up before proceeding on and leaving him for the Stretcher Bearers to collect.
The first objective, “Schwaben” Trench, was reached within minutes. Having vaulted the parapet, the leading company’s split and routed the Germans from their dug-outs along the line.
A determined group of defenders in a section of communication trench put up a brave resistance, claiming some men wounded, but they were soon silenced. In general, as the first waves moved on further towards the German second line, helpless Germans, dazed by the bombardment, emerged to surrender.
As they advanced onwards, the Suffolks came across more and more shell-shocked and dazed former defenders of the German front line. Fuller recalled; “Another was lying, buried almost to the neck by a shell which had dropped near, but still alive. I shall never forget the expression on that mans face – ghastly white, his eyes staring with terror, unable to move, whilst our chaps threw bombs past him down the dugout stairs, and the enemy inside threw their bombs out.” Whilst some came out to surrender, most were killed inside.
As the leading waves were now into the ruins of Thiepval village, the first swarms of dazed enemy ran towards the Suffolks lines to surrender. A contemporary account recalled the scene; “In the midst of desperate fighting one batch of Germans in Joseph trench suddenly ran through our artillery barrage and the leading waves of the 8th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, to surrender and save their lives before we could assault them. They were shouting in terror, half dressed, unarmed, holding their hands in the air, they passed to the rear and became prisoners, while the Suffolk’s moved steadily forward and captured their objective.”
By 1.21 pm, less than an hour after they had attacked. Men of the Battalion were seen in “Zollern” Trench. The “moppers-up” were busy bombing many dug-outs in the ruins of the village and dealing with the Germans who were still emerging from deep underground dug-outs to fight. As this was going on, to the north, just coming into the village, was a new weapon that no-one in the Battalion had ever fought alongside; a Tank.
Though useless, this lumbering box rattled along the road at a snails pace firing spasmodically at all sorts of targets. Though of no great practical assistance, its appearance on the battlefield was a massive morale booster to 8th Suffolk. It eventually breached itself in a shell hole and had to be abandoned.
The objective had been reached, but the enemy fire was still heavy and prevented further advance. Fuller recalled; “We had to stop and dig ourselves in, using our entrenching tools for this purpose. Every time we tried to go on, the machine gun and rifle fire started again, so it was of no use doing anything but dig in. The bullets kept knocking up the dust around us while we worked at this.”
Around 5.00 pm, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill, received a hastily written message from Captain Sanctuary out in front with C Company; “Only Norfolk officers on our left. Suggest Hannaford gets a telephone forward here. Can you possibly send us up more picks and shovels?”
The attack was all going according to plan. Shortly after he received the message from Sanctuary, another message arrived form Captain Ainger out front with A Company. He felt the situation sufficiently secure to allow 2 platoons to withdraw, leaving the other two holding the line, but they were ready to move on again if required. “I am withdrawing 2 of my platoons” he wrote “from the front leaving out the other 2 as a covering wave ready to move forward if possible. We are clearing up Zollern trench ready for splinter shelters. Will you sent up the necessary material for this work – wire and stakes.”
But it was not all success. Captain Keats, who had a famous redoubt named after him earlier in the war, was out to the east commanding D Company. His message back to HQ told that; “Parts of A and D are held up by machine-gun fire from ‘Midway’ and ‘Bulgar’ trenches.” The barrage had by this time halted, but for the men in the forward positions, the shells bursting overhead caused a few casualties.
As the afternoon wore on, every once in a while, the British artillery scored a direct hit on one of the numerous ammunition dumps dotted around the village. Each hit reigned down timber and earth on those up front. Those who could, had dug-in in the ruins of the village. Fuller and two close colleagues, lay for two and a half hours in a shell hole, before withdrawing to “Zollern” trench.
Back at Battalion HQ, the CO sent news to Brigade that fire was still being brought upon the Battalion from “Bulgar” and “Midway” trenches, but that they were gradually being overcome by elements of the 6th Border Regiment on their flank. News continued to come in from positions up front as darkness came. Lieutenant Mason had been killed and 2nd Lieutenant Ballantyne was wounded. Keats still however had about 60 able men under his command.
In the darkness, reserves were brought forward with ammunition and supplies. As they changed places with those who were up front, the day had for once been a success with all the objectives being reached.
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