"I Slung My Rifle On My Back, Discarded My Gas Mask, Put My Wallet In A Waterproof Ammunition Case And Walked Into The Water"
By 3.15 pm, on the afternoon of 10th April 1918, the enemy onslaught had been checked by the men of the 11th Battalion south of the river Lys at Erquinghem and the line had been completely re-established between the original position (near Bac St. Maur) and the right Coy in Erquinghem Switch Trench. Holding on valiantly, by 3.30pm, an order was received that they were to retire to positions north of the river Lys.
The 9th Northumberland Fusiliers on their left, sent a message to Colonel Tuck that they would need some two hours to retire. Tuck therefore decided to hold his Battalion in place as long as possible to allow them to retire. His decision though gallant, led however to more casualties being inflicted on the Battalion during this time.
“The Battalion held off repeated attacks of the enemy until 5.00pm, when the troops on the left had withdrawn”. Now alone and fighting valiantly on three sides, before seeing that they were alone, the CO gave the order to retire.
Crossing the river with what remained of a broken bridge, most of the men stripped off and swam the river, leaving their equipment and gas masks behind. The wounded were left helpless on their stretchers along the banks as Private Frank Hornesy recalled: "Clothes and equipment also lay everywhere here which only too plainly told us if we wanted to go on there was only one way and that was to swim. Some badly wounded chaps lay on stretchers. They had been carried as far as possible. They needed help by they had to be left. We we're the extra stragglers of the retreat. Perhaps we had been sacrificed on purpose to try and hold the enemy if only for a few hours. I don't suppose we were expected to be alive by this time if the truth was known. Lower down several men could be seen swimming through the dark cold water. Many were drowned while attempting to swim this canal. We must soon think about it. Bill was cursing. Just then a violent burst of machine gun fire broke out not many hundred yards away from us. The Germans were in the village we had just left. That decided us who wanted to stop to be taken prisoner or killed. Let them stop who like - we were going through the water".
Stripping down to the bare minimum in the middle of a battle, Hornsey and his chum Bill got ready to cross: "I slung my rifle on my back, discarded my gas mask, put my wallet in a waterproof ammunition case and walked into the water, Bill following me. We were soon in deep water, the current very strong. Thank goodness we could both swim well. My clothes hung like lead. Once again I was almost giving up when my feet touched the bottom and we waded out".
The remains of the Battalion re-grouped in the vicinity of a hamlet called Waterlands where it formed a defensive square, preparing to fight on all fronts. Patrols were sent to the north-west and soon it was established that the enemy were in strength pressing further north along the cover of the railway line on the Battalion’s left flank.
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.
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