Following their gallant actions on 31st July in the attack towards Pilkem Ridge, 8th Suffolk were rested for five weeks behind the lines to “render it fit for the further offensive.” At the beginning of October it moved forward and on 9th October, it was in new positions along the canal north of Ypres in readiness for a forthcoming attack on the village of Poelcapelle.
On the night of the 11th October in heavy rain, the Battalion attempted as best as it could to assemble in preparation for the attack the following day. Through a storm of gas shells and through shell holes filled with water, they finally reached their allotted forming up position at ‘Rose’ Trench, which was by then completely filled with water. Until ‘zero’ hour, the men would have to stand, up to their waists, in icy water. Battalion HQ was situated in the completely wrecked ‘Pheasant Farm’ which was only accessible by crawling on all fours through the muddy deluge.
At 5.25am on the 12th, the Allied attack commenced along a front between the Ypres-Roulers railway and the Houlthulst Forest. An hour later, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel G.V.W. Hill, was ordered to advance in the rear of the attack by 55th Brigade. The Battalion’s advance was to follow as close as possible, the route of the Brigade in front, with the right hand Company grazing the left hand edge of the village of Poelcapelle.
The going was tough from the outset. Men with frozen limbs from a night in water, were ordered forward. No sooner had the remains of the Langemarck-Dixmude road been crossed, the enemy brought down a heavy artillery barrage upon them. Enemy machine guns sparked into life and the Company Commanders were forced to split their men to avoid its fire.
As the offensive action drill could not be enacted in such terrain, the men were forced to go to ground in numerous shell holes and wrecked trenches in the area. The Regimental History recalled that; “The whole ground was pock-marked with shell-holes, often so full of water that the men had to struggle to prevent themselves drowning.” Signaller Sydney Fuller recalled his position as the dawn broke; “Soon it began to grow lighter and we could see where we were. The large shell hole that I was in, had apparently been used by the enemy, at some previous time as a machine-gun or sentry post. In it was the remains of a shelter, roughly made with timber and covered with mud. At 7.00am we got the order to move forward. We moved forward in artillery formation to the edge of what had been the village of Poelcapelle, of which nothing remained , but heaps of rubbish and the ex-enemy pill-boxes. On reaching the village, Batt. Hdqrs. stopped at a big pill box and the Coys formed up for attacking”
Their fortunes were as at Pilkem, fated. “Misfortune, however, presents itself” wrote their Battalion History; “a situation precisely similar to that of the 31st July again resulted. The assaulting troops could make no headway, and it was the task of the Battalion to take in hand the immediate situation, and gain what ground it could as quickly as possible.”
Fuller continues: “Before long, we heard that 55th Brigade, which had attacked first, and through which we were to continue to advance, had failed to reach their objective, and that our own men were losing heavily in trying to assist them by capturing the brewery; and enemy “strong point” with the unusual pill-box defences”
The failure of their colleagues out in front, and on the flanks, soon became apparent. Dangerous gaps in the Allied lines soon became apparent, but despite the terrain, the line had to be kept as complete as possible.
"Our CO and the Adjutant were up in the thick of it with the men” wrote Fuller “we were heavily shelled all day, some of the shells coming from our left”. As the day wore on, movement was kept to a minimum. By nightfall, Fuller and two other Signallers managed to crawly slowly to a nearby pill-box for cover. They were surprised when the finally managed to get to it; “There was quite a crowd. – three Batt Hdqrs – the RWK’s, of our Div. and the Kings Own of the 4th Division, as well as our own Batt. Two men inside had been blinded by mustard gas, and seemed to be suffering great pain.”
After being relieved on the night of the 13th, they marched to ‘Tunnellers Camp’ at Poperinge. It was a chance to rest and revive the Battalion after “the hardest battle in which they had ever been engaged.” Twice in three months, they had stood alone and held the line where others had failed, yet despite this gallantry, their very existence was now in question.
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.