After four long years of conflict, the Great War was entering the twilight of its existence. In these days, there was rapid advances with many prisoners taken. Everywhere the German's were being beaten back. Now in curious twists of fate, the last two fighting Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment were within a few miles of one another east of Cambrai, close to that town of magical, mystical and historical importance to the 2nd Battalion; Le Cateau, where four years before, their were to fight their first major action against the enemy.
No more than five miles away from them, on the 22nd October 1918 the 11th Battalion were in billets south of Cambrai. The Battalion has spent the preceding days in much training. Though the usual training continued in drill and their was the usual inspections of arms, trench stores and SBR's (Small Box Respirators), there was also a new drill that had not been practiced for some time - ceremonial. There was maybe a though or too in someones mind that soon a formal parade would be necessary.
There was no denying that every day that passed, came news of more great leaps forward. Surely they would be news soon that the enemy were to ask for an armistice? The CO had that day, sent a billeting party on ahead to the next posting of the Battalion and all blankets had been stacked and returned to stores. The Adjutant C.V. Canning, had sent the staff of Battalion HQ on first on bicycles, whilst he and Lieutenant Williamson, remained to hand over the billets and all its contents to the next unit.
Though they were to proceed to a village some 9 miles away; St. Aubert, just prior to the move, the CO received news that they were to move instead to positions along the river Escallion, from where they once again, advance to take another village, over another stream. It was very much business as usual. As one 11th Suffolk soldier had noted some weeks before as the war continued, "luck deserts us..."
As the autumn days came and the daylight shortened, it was a grey and miserable existence to the men of the 1st (Reserve) Garrison Battalion stationed on the Isle of Grain in Kent.
The 1st Garrison Battalion came into existence in the Spring of 1916 and had already furnished a Company for overseas service - which was still serving in France, but from early 1918, they were transferred into the Reserve Army and were confined to garrison duties at home.
From late August 1917, they were spread all along the Grain Peninsular in Kent occupying several bleak, lonely outposts guarding the gateway to London against enemy air activity, but especially, from enemy naval activity as German U-Boats tried to penetrate the Thames to the north, and the Chatham dockyards to the south.
With platoons at Cliffe Fort, Allhallows, Harty Ferry, Coal House Fort, and a further two platoons over the water at Tilbury and Pitsea in Essex, the Battalion, which was at that time almost 1800 strong, guarded this lonely stretch of land.
As men came and went to furnish drafts for other units of the Suffolk Regiment, many who were either too young, infirm, or not of the required medical grade, remained. One solider who found himself here in late 1918 was a young man of Italian and French parentage, Giovanni Battista Barbirolli, known later as Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the famous Halle Orchestra.
Already an accomplished musician, the young Barbirolli had been conscripted in February 1918 into the Suffolk Regiment. Enlisting under his christian name, it caused much confusion when the roll was called as he later recalled: "The Sergeant-Major had great difficulty in reading my name on the roll-call. 'Who is this guy Vanni?' he used to ask, so I chose John".
John Barbirolli was to remain at Grain for some months yet and, with the onslaught of the bleak winter, he became part of a small orchestra that was formed from within the ranks of the Battalion. It was here that he was to try his hand at conducting for the very first time...
In far away Macedonia, the 1st Battalion were in a malaise.
The inactivity of the previous few weeks had led to a curious mood arising "The whole Battalion became sullen and "non-talkative" recorded Lieutenant Victor Farmer in his diary, "It is a well known fact that British soldiers have a passion for children and dogs. Naturally on active service it is not possible to develop a group of children who attach themselves in some way to a regiment, but, in Salonica, we had a large number of dogs of all descriptions which had joined up with our men and which followed the men with utmost devotion. Our own CO, Colonel Joicey had two pedigree pointer dogs of whom he was very proud."
The pace slackened in late September following the Bulgarian Armistice on September 30th and the Battalion were engaged for a fortnight on salvage work, clearing the battlefields before them of abandoned materiel and weapons, before they started a skilled and leisurely withdrawal from the edge of Lake Doiran, back some fifty miles to the town of Salonika.
Here, it soon became apparent just how overlooked this front of the war had become in the last eighteen months. Whilst it had always been known that the major battle that would eventually defeat the Germans, would be on the Western Front, the fronts elsewhere in Macedonia, Gallipoli, Egypt and East Africa tied up valuable Allies to Germany diverting them from joining the battles in the west.
At Guvesne, some twenty miles from Salonika, on 13th October, a roll call noted strength of the Battalion as being fourteen officers and 250 other ranks. It was a quarter of the strength that had departed for France in January 1915.
For 1 Suffolk in Macedonia, their war was drawing to a close.
For 2nd Suffolk the pace of war had suddenly quickened. After the advance to Rumilly, their next allotted objective was to take the village of Seranvilliers.
The attacks of the past days caused casualties which necessitated the reorganisation of the Battalion. The Adjutant, Captain William French Burman, was promoted to Second in Command of the Battalion and Lieutenant Coote, a young subaltern was pressed into the role.
Looking out from Battalion HQ, 2/Lieut. Bailey could see the position in the valley below him. “The Companies were seen in position by 2/Lt. W.G. Bailey. 3 Coys in front ‘’X’ on the right in touch with 2nd Rifles, ‘Z’ in the centre, and ‘Y’ on the left in touch with the Kings Liverpool, with ‘W’ Company in support”.
At 4.30am, Zero hour, the advance began. “The Red Line was captured without much resistance” and the Battalion pressed onto the second line objective, the “Green Line”. In fact the advance was so swift that just after 10.00am, they were close to the village of La Targette; almost the entire distance covered from the Canal du Nord to Rumilly in one great advance. “A number of prisoners were taken in the village and in shell holes” wrote the War Diary. Then, orders were received to work around the south of the village and wait for a fresh attack by the Battalion in the north to go in, and they would then rejoin them on the other side of the village.
Then came a counter order, to withdraw back 200 yards from La Targette and collect the troops on the left, who had floundered. “These orders came up just in time but there was no barrage and heavy casualties resulted. The enemy shelled our forward positions very heavily for some hours. At dusk the fire died down and the enemy retreated leaving a few machine guns in La Targette.” Remaining where they were, the 1st Gordon Highlanders took the village with relative ease the following morning at daybreak. Later that day, the Guards took over the Suffolk positions and retired back to Havrincourt.
The day had not been without loss. Ten other ranks killed and 104 wounded. The highest loss rate for some months. One of those to fall was No. 23464, Private Bert Robinson. A 27 year old from Cambridge, he was typical of those conscripted in 1917 into the Army. By those days of 1918, the largest majority of men in the ranks of 2nd Suffolk were conscripts.
Officers too suffered heavily depleting already thin ranks. Out in front with their men, five were wounded in the attack: 2/Lieut. Pridcock, Lieut. Percy, Lieutenant Cooper, Lieut. Raven, Lieut. Thursby. With the exception of Thursby, who had been with the Battalion since July, all the other had joined the Battalion in the last few weeks. Now, there were more 2/Lieutenants and lieutenants, than Captains and Majors. Three of the four Company’s were commanded by Lieutenants.
With thanks to www.ww1cemeteries.com for the image of Bert
As the fifth autumn of war came to the men of the 11th Battalion, they found themselves again in familiar territory when in late September, they were close once more to the village of Erquiringhem, near the Belgian border near Armentieres.
In the curious fate of war, they had been here before. The boomerang of conflict saw it stationed here in 1916, then again at the time the March Offensive, and again now, in the evening of the conflict.
On 26th September, an operational order was received to give dispositions to the Battalion, should an immediate enemy withdrawal occur. The Germans it was known, would at some point, start to withdraw once more and it was imperative that the Battalion was able to exploit its gains and keep hard at their heels.
"In the event of the retirement of the enemy from his present positions" ran the order "the advance brigade will make for the following objective: Road Junction: Croix Rouge - Flerbaix - Erguinhem. the 11th Suffolk Regiment will be ready on receipt of orders to move the present outpost line of resistance, taking over the present disposition of companies in support."
Captain C.V. Canning, Adjutant of the Battalion issued orders that they were to move as soon as a withdrawal was seen, supporting the units in front of them; the 1st East Lancashire Regiment and the 9th northumberland Fusiliers. One Company of the Battalion was to remain in reserve.
As the six copies of Canning order were distributed, those reading them could hardly fail to read the inference that an end to the conflict now seemed to be in sight, but until then, business must continue as normal. For men like Raymond Felstead, above, he was serving a third autumn in the front line. His first was with the Cambridgeshire Regiment and the two following with 11th Suffolk.
As the battles of the last hundred days picked up momentum, the month of October opened with another battle for the 2nd Battalion.
Quick to exploit the gains they had made crossing the Canal du Nord and the capture of the village of Flesquieres, on the last day of September, orders were received to person and take the village of Rumilly.
Rumilly was a village a few miles south of Cambrai, midway between the town and the fork in the road at Lateau Wood. The attack was from the west pressing on directly towards the village. The 8th K.O.R.L., who had been comrades in the same Brigade since before the battles at Ypres in 1917, were to take the right hand of the village, 2nd Suffolk were to take the north. The Gordon's were behind in the centre, assisting where necessary.
'X' Company were to take the right flank of the Battalions advance, with 'Z' Company behind. They were to keep in contact with the Lancasters on the right. 'W' Company were on the left with 'Y' behind. There were no reserves. At this late stage of the war, such was the movement that vast distances were being covered, and it was useless to have reserves so far back. The entire Battalion was committed and all went forward together. Zero hour was 6.00am.
"On reaching Rumilly trench" wrote the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Carpenter "it was found to be strongly held any the enemy and severe fighting took place. Rumilly Support trench was found to be full of Germans and over 300 were taken prisoner and many killed. This latter trench was full of machine guns."
The logistics of such vast prisoners was a problem for the advancing troops. They were quickly ushered back under the scantest form of escort - most being eager to surrender. There could be no denying that the end did now seem in sight. However as always a few staunch survivors remained, determined to deny the Battalion their trenches which they were being forced to extricate. As the barrage moved on, the age old task of 'mopping up' had to be continued. "The left Company came undermost intensive machine gun fire from the flanks and front inflicting severe casualties and making further advance impossible. The right Company, however, was shielded by the ground from flanking fir and reached the village, pushed right and through it reached the trench line killing and taking prisoners many of the enemy."
The distance was vast. Almost half a mile covered and the men exhausted. Communication had been lost with the artillery barrage which carried on ahead of them. When consolidation began, pockets of enemy resistance in the village suddenly came to life form the rubble: "Further machine guns were encountered east of the village" continued the C.O. in his report, dictated to the Adjutant, Captain W.F. Burman, that evening under intense shell fire in his dug-out "These retired behind our barrage but eventually trickled back and prevented further advance, as they were working round the flanks of X. Coy. which was separated with from the K.O.R.L. on the right, and 2nd Div. on the left."
By late afternoon, one Company of 2nd Suffolk was to the east of the village, with three in its outskirts and to the south. Orders came up mid-morning to state that a bombardment of the village would begin imminently to dislodge the machine gunners once and for all. At the same time, 2 Companies of the Gordons came up to assist 2 Companies of 2nd Suffolk to the south, to advance into the village and 'mop up'. The barrage, which was to start just before 6.30pm, was to advance at 100 yard leaps every 6 minutes, a long gap for such a short dash, but it allowed a careful and measured advance and allowed those of the flanks to keep up.
"Both attacks were successful and the village was cleared" wrote Carpenter "leaving about 80 prisoners in our hands. The Battalion was then reorganised with one company in trenches astride the road (north-south)".
By 4.00 am, ‘Z’ Company was reported to be on the other side and in their assembly area south of Knights Bridge. Shortly before 4.30 am, ‘W’ and ‘X’ Company’s moved off but whilst they were in the canal itself, the enemy launched a heavy barrage, causing casualties to these two Company’s in the bed of the canal and on the far bank, but by zero hour (5.20 am) they were both in position alongside ‘Z’ company awaiting the order to advance.
The two other battalions in the Brigade; 1st Gordon Highlanders and 8th King’s Own Royal Lancaster’s (K.O.R.L.) moved off first. ‘Y’ Company was to follow the K.O.R.L. in the south, and shadow them onto their objective which was the village of Ribecourt, whilst ‘Z’ Company in the north, were to follow the Gordon’s and head towards the village of Flesquieres. ‘W’ Company remained in reserve “ready to assist the attack on any part of the Brigade front”. They were to establish a position if possible, in Ravine Avenue, which ran between Havrincourt and Ribecourt, north to Flesquieres.
Considerable fighting was experienced by both ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ Company’s before they got to the Red line (mid-way between the old Hindenburg Line and the Hindenburg Support Line) and the K.O.R.L.s started to become fragmented.
Seeing that a large gap was developing in his sector, the commander of ‘Y’ Company; Lieutenant Cook, decided to split from the K.O.R.L.s and veer right south of the railway towards Ribecourt. “He therefore on his own initiative” wrote the C.O. “moved his company south if the railway and filled this gap and fought his way forward under the barrage to the western outskirts of Ribercourt. He advanced conjointly with a Company of the Royal Fusiliers which had lost all its officers and was very ably commanded by its C.S.M. These two company’s overcame heavy resistance all the way taking many prisoners and established themselves on the brown line, south of the railway”.
‘Z’ Company under Lieutenant Teverson, were up close to the barrage and were by now fighting their way through Flesquiers village and had reached Ravine Avenue Trench on the east of the village where they were halted by heavy enemy fire from Station Avenue Trench about 100 yard in front of them.
‘X’ Company, under the command of Captain Lummis, could by now see that ‘Y’ Company were heading off to fill the gap, and they moved northwards up behind the K.O.R.L.s who were heading towards Flesquieres.
Heavy fighting was encountered around the Hindenburg Support Line (south of the village), but reaching Ravine Avenue, they paused to re-group before digging in just beyond it. Behind them, ‘W’ Company were in the southern end of Ravine Avenue between ‘Z’ in the north and ‘Y’ Company in the south. As the majority of his Battalion were far in front of him, the C.O. Lieutenant-Colonel G.C. Carpenter (above), moved Battalion HQ forward to the crossroads at the west of Flesquieres following the route of ‘Z’ Company’s advance.
“At this time the Battalion was very mixed up” wrote Carpenter “but W. X. and Z Coys. were soon located although I could get no news of Y. Coy. At this time the enemy were still in Scull Support and Station Avenue and Flesquieres-Ribecourt road and vicinity was under M.G. and artillery fire. I then ordered Z. Coy. to clear Skull Support and station Avenue and try and get in touch with the Guards in Beet Trench”.
Carpenter believed that ‘Y’ Company were still complete and with the K.O.R.L.s out in front, but it was not until their C.O. appeared at Battalion HQ, that he learnt how scattered they were. Carpenter then issued verbal orders to him that he was consolidate his company in Station Avenue Trench. Battalion HQ was moved once more in the afternoon, to a new position at the crossroads west of Flesquieres.
Late in the afternoon, orders were received at Battalion HQ to move forward and consolidate Kaiser Support Trench with two Company’s and keep the other two back in Ravine Avenue. Later that evening, the Gordons relieved ‘Z’ Company out in front at 7.30pm.
Carpenter wrote later “It is difficult to estimate captures but several hundred prisoners were taken, one field battery and about 50 M.G. The material however is not inclusive to this Battalion owing to the mix up of units. The attack was carried out with very great dash and determination by all ranks who all pressed on irrespective of who they were with after they had lost their platoons. I am forwarding a list of recommendations for gallantry, but I wish to give special prominence to the very fine leadership and initiative shown by 2nd Lieut. Cook, Captain Lummis and 2nd Lieut. Teverson. I think these three Coys. played a very large part in the capture of the Brown Line. They were quite out of my command from zero and had to act entirely on their own”.
Image courtesy: The Adam Park Project (www.adamparkproject.com)
On 26th September 1918, 2nd Suffolk were positioned in a sunken lane on the west bank of the Canal du Nord. At 3.45am the following morning (27th) ‘Y’ Company moved off to cross the canal. “The bed of the canal was dry” noted the Regimental History “with steep bricked sides, which could only be negotiated with the help of ladders, and during the night, it was decided that this obstacle should be crossed before zero hour”.
Cannon William Lummis, then Lieutenant Lummis, was commanding 'X' Company. He recalled the preparations "The orders were that the Battalion was to be in position on the west side of the canal and cross at Zero hour. All the Company Commanders were strongly of the opinion that this was a mistake and liable to lead to disaster. Immediately the enemy realised it there would be a barrage of shells and m.g. bullets into the canal and near it, making it difficult and perhaps impossible to cross to the other side. We advocate that we should cross before Zero and line up on the opposite bank where there would be cover as well as giving a good starting point."
Agreeing to this, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Carpenter, ordered the first two Companies crossed into the canal. Unfortunately, just as Lummis was moving forward with his, the third Company, Zero hour came and down came with it the Allied artillery barrage. Within a minute came the counter barrage from the enemy.
“I got over with mu H.Q., but on looking back saw to my dismay that none of the rest of my Company had followed. In spite of the shells dropping into the canal and machine-gun fire C.S.M. Wiggett went back and brought the four platoons over, together with my only subaltern – 2nd Lieutenant Hunt, of the Hunts Cyclists – who was in the rear of the company. My men were mostly transfers from the South Staffords with 6 months service. Very good fellows, but it was their first taste of being in action. Also Hunt had only recently joined from England and had seen no service.”
For the 5th Battalion, awards came rapidly for their actions at 'Observation Hill'.
A Military Cross, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and eight Military Medals were awarded for the attack. For the Battalion Commander; Lieutenant-Colonel William Campbell, he added a Distinguished Service order to the Military Cross he had been awarded from his gallant escape from captivity in Germany the previous March. He also, as a token of esteem, was awarded the order of the Nile (3rd Class).
Perhaps however the finest honour bestowed upon not only the 5th Battalion, but the county of Suffolk as a whole, was the joint honour bestowed upon the Commander-in-Chief of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Allenby.
The victor of the Middle East campaign, Sir Edmund Allenby was promoted Field Marshal in 1919, and given a peerage. As 1st Viscount Allenby he was given later that year, the official title of "Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe in the County of Suffolk".
The whole county was pleased of such an association and after his death in 1935, the town erected a memorial garden in his honour. Though he maintained no great link with his titled town, it was a signal honour felt most proudest by those of the 5th Battalion who has served under him in the desert campaigns. Though the majority of 5th Suffolk men came from the south-west of the county (Hadleigh, Sudbury, Haverhill), all felt proud that such an honour had been bestowed upon their county.
Image courtesy: National Portrait Gallery
On 19th September 1918, the last major offensive by the British Army in the Middle East began; the Battle of Megiddo.
For 5th Suffolk, their principal task in the overall battle was attack and occupy ‘Observation Hill’ - a rocky outcrop, a lofty 650 metres above sea level. It was 1800 yards in front of the British lines. The hill was of such strategic importance since it commanded an uninterrupted view of the country around. However the route of the Battalion’s advance was not a straight forward one.
First, the Battalion had to advance down into a 500ft. deep ravine that ran 800 yards in front of their line. Then, up the other side for a further 800 yards, before they assembled, for the final attack upon the Turkish lines. To complete such an operation in daylight would have been difficult enough, but to perform such a task at night and in complete silence, was a tall order. To compound this, the Turkish front line was on a rocky lip about 400 yards short of the actual hill itself.
“The general attack on the whole front was timed to commence at 4.30 a.m.” wrote a commentator, “The moon was 4 days before full and consequently set at about 2.30 a.m. At 11.30 p.m, on the 18thSeptember the Battalion moved out from their bivouacs under cover of two strong patrols picking up Lewis guns, bombs etc. which had been dumped by the “nucleus” just inside our wire.”
“Scrambling down these rock sin the moonlight and attempting to move quietly was no easy work especially as it was advisable to avoid certain points which had been registered by the enemy’s artillery as night lines. However the deployment along a line previously marked with a broad white tape, and with wires leading to each flank was successfully carried out, and zero hour was impatiently awaited.”
With split second precision timing, at around three seconds to zero, the boom of heavy guns was heard and the Allied artillery was pounding the Turkish positions on the lip of the hill opposite. “The enemy’s lines were bombarded from Jaffa to Jericho and at the same moment the advance commenced.”
Five minutes later, the first Suffolk patrols went into action. Lieutenant G.G. Oliver at once rushed the Turkish frontal positions and secured them with little loss. The majority of wounds being caused by the dense plantation of cactus trees that the Turks had planted to supplement their meagre defences.
“The order of advance was not strictly in accordance with any drill book” wrote a commentator in 1924. As their guns thundered overhead, B Company, under the command of Captain Fox entered the ravine, followed immediately by C Company under Captain Kilner MC, and D Company under Captain Maris. “By this time the whole ravine was filled with smoke and dust and direction was most difficult to maintain.”
Now came the final advance. At the point of the bayonet B Company and D Company passed through and after scrambling up the rocks and pausing briefly to catch their breath, they pressed on and took the Turkish positions. C Company made a flank attack and caused a great many of the enemy to surrender, and many reinforcements being sent to bolster the positions, turned and fled. The whole attack had taken just over 25 minutes, with only the loss of 2 officers and 5 other ranks killed. 1 officer and 28 other ranks were wounded.
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.