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.
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.