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.
On the morning of the 18th September after a few days in reserve, the 15th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Battalion attacked once more towards the village of Templeux le Gerrard.
Heading for the “Green” line, ‘B’ Company were on the right, ‘C’ Company on the left, behind were ‘A’ and ‘D’. In a change of the tactics of previous Battalions in previous battles, all four Company’s were committed to the assault, with no reserve. Two platoons at a time, the leading Company’s advanced to the right of the village of Templeux le Gerrard, The advance was swift and well executed, though thick mist covered the ground. The moppers-up in ‘D’ Company kept up close with the assaulting Company’s to ensure that any enemy that remained, were taken quickly.
“Being entirely successful” wrote the War Diary “enemy surrender without much resistance but MGs nests held out determinedly. Dense fog, direction difficult to keep”. Within two hours the first object had been taken and consolidation began. Over 300 prisoners had been taken along with 30 machine guns.
The following days were spent in salvage collecting and the administration of prisoners. Called to support an further advance by the 10th Buffs on the 21st, the remaining days of September were in support or being called up to act as moppers-up for other Battalions advancing. Heavy enemy shelling caused nearly one hundred casualties, during their period in the line here.
Trooper M.H. Rushbrook was one of the casualties of the advance towards Epehy, dying of wound received on 17th September. As No. 320112, Mapes Harry Rushbrook was one of just a handful of men still serving with the Battalion who had landed at Gallipoli almost three years before (as No. 1617). Born at Witton, Norfolk, he enlisted at Hasketon. he remained with the Regiment until 1918 (when he was renumbered as 320112). Buried at Bronfay Farm Cemetery, he had been a domestic groom at Redisham Hall near Beccles before the war.
Image courtesy: Norfolk County Archives
“Letters Received From His Officers, Praise His Efficiency As A Soldier And His Death Is Much Regretted”
Onwards from Templeux la Fosse, the 15th Battalion continued their advance on 6th September.
At 4.00 am the advance continued again and in the dark night, the yellow line was finally reached and “occupied without opposition except from a few snipers”. Leaving the reserve Battalion, here, the Battalion pressed once more now aiming for the Red line. Less than an hour after the attack commenced, they had occupied it with a “few casualties.” remaining where they were until late afternoon, by which time, the reserve battalion had come up.
At around 4.00 pm, the advanced continued and by 5.00pm, they had reached their final objective. Immediately getting the men to consolidate, the C.O. pressed on with a personal reconnaissance, and established that the right-hand flank now looked virtually undefended. Passing this infomation back, 231 Brigade passed through them early the following morning advancing unopposed towards Epehy.
Their going was however slower than the Battalion’s the previous day, for they came across a maze of old and disused trenches and wire, with the ground much churned up by shell fire.
One of those killed as the advance continued was Trooper John Davey. He had been a member of the Loyal Suffolk Hussars since 1917, though he appears to have served before in the Regiment. He had not been drafted to join them in the Middle East but was killed on 6th September when the Battalion were advancing towards Epehy. The Bury Free Press noted of him that “Letters received from his officers, praise his efficiency as a soldier and his death is much regretted”.
In early September, the 15th Battalion found itself plunged for the first time, into a major battle on the Western Front.
Having been kept in reserve in the vicinity of “Hind Leg Wood" until the 3rd September, when they were moved into "Scutari Trench" to support 229 Brigade in the forthcoming attack.
On the 5th September, an attack was launched against the enemy between Templeux La Fosse and Curlu Wood in front of the village of Epehy. Two Company’s were moved up, with two remaining along the canal in Moislains.
“At 9.30 am the situation changed” recorded the War Diary, “and on receipt of a Bde Order, the Bn. was ordered to side-step behind 231 Bde, and take over from them on the southern half of the Div’n front”. At 11.30 am the attack began, but it was not until 1.15 pm that the Battalion moved off. “The advance on the 1st objective (Blue Line) was begun. The Bn. Passed through the 231 Bde, and pushed on. On approaching Larris trench, very heavy shell fire was experienced and met with a maze of barbed wire, causing a good deal of confusion”.
Larris Trench was occupied around 4.00 pm, and after the reserve Company’s came forward, the two leading Company’s pressed on and continued with the advance. Pressing onto their objective; the ‘Yellow’ line, “the whole of the line came under very heavy H.E. fire from the right causing a number of casualties in the leading coys. Shelling, H.E. and gas was also very heavy”.
However, running out of steam, the advance was slowing and the yellow line was not reached. The men were exhausted and suffering from the effects of an enemy gas attack. “The men were very tired” wrote the War Diary, “and wanted water badly." The C.O. decided to consolidate on line about 400 yards short of yellow line and try again after dark.
On the relatively few casualties incurred by the Battalion that day, was No. 320836, Private Bernard Mann. The son of Mr and Mrs Joseph Mann of Clapham Road, Lowestoft, he was killed on 5th September 1918 when the Battalion was attacking Templeux la Fosse. A Lewis gunner by trade, he was killed by shrapnel in the advance. He had previously been wounded during the advance to Jerusalem in November 1917. His officer wrote to his family “He did excellent work during our last engagement and his loss is keenly regretted by all of us”.
Another casualty of 2nd Suffolks attack on Gomiecourt on 23rd August 1918, was Lieutenant Davall.
A young man of remarkable character and said to have lived a charmed life like a cat being given nine lives, Cecil George Davall was wounded first at Polygon Wood, though not seriously. He was back with the Battalion within days. We was wounded again in the right forearm during the Battalion's successful attack on the Belgian village of Zonnebeke. Here, he commanded No.5 Platoon of ‘X’ Company, and after recuperation, he returned once more to the Battalion in January 1918 where he assumed the role of the Battalion Machine Gun Officer. Wounded again on 24th May whilst on a trench raid near Annezin, north east of Bethune, he recovered but sadly his luck gave out on 23rd August when he was killed by shell fire between the villages of Gomiecourt and Bucquoy.
Born in Ipswich in 1897, Davall's parents were both dead before 1909 and he was living with his sister at the house of a local engineering manager, into whose business, George was to enter. The family of Davall had over two hundred years before before, been displaced protestant cloth merchants from France who had settled in Spitalfields in London. They moved out to Suffolk in early Victorian times.
Today, Cecil lies beside his comrade, Peter Layard in Douchy-les-Ayettes cemetery. The photograph above, was taken on 13th August 1918: less than two weeks before his death and shows men of Davall's platoon in training. Not seen here is the detail of those around him. Very few of those captured by the camera exhibit anything more that two years service, yet nearly all men have a brass wound stripe visible on their lower left sleeves - some men even have as many as four; a testament to the tough fighting since the March Offensive that the Battalion had borne.
Image courtesy of Steve Farrant.
Of the many gallant actions by members of 2nd Suffolk, at Courcelles-le-Comte and Gomiecourt, perhaps none more so exemplified just how far the British Army had evolved than the award of the Military Cross to Lieutenant W.M. Lummis.
"For conspicuous gallantry and good leadership. Through thick fog he led his company, under complete control, to the objective. He personally rushed an enemy machine gun position and killed the crew. Later, he led his company forward with great determination, in the face of very heavy enemy fire. He set a splendid example determined courage to those under him."
Lummis, then commanding it is believed 'Y' Company, had risen through the ranks of the Army. From a humble county clerk in his home village of Coddenham near Ipswich, in 1904, he enlisted into the 11th Hussars (Price Albert's Own) - a regiment still very much recruited from Suffolk and the eastern counties. Promotion came rapidly to the model soldier who by 1911, a Lance Sergeant and responsible for the composition and setting of their regimental gazette.
Upon the outbreak of the Great War, Lummis, who was only 28 years old was the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant; the youngest man of that rank in the British Army and with them he went to France in 1914, fighting at Mons, and its subsequent retreat. In 1916 he was offered a commission and opted for his country regiment of Suffolk, joining the 2nd Battalion in March 1916 and remaining with Battalion until the Armistice.
Lummis was typical of many a 'temporary gentleman' brought up through the ranks to a commission, much swifter in wartime that in peacetime soldering. He was a man who learnt upon the job and saw the Battalion evolve much in the time he served with it between the battles at Longueval and Serre onto Somme, through the successful battles of Zonnebeke, and into the bitter defeats of the March Offensive. By the time he won his MC, the Battalion was by far, in its finest fettle. There were by a handful of men who were still serving with it the, that has been at Le Cateau, but many such as Lummis himself had joined it in the time in-between and had helped shape it into the fine fighting unit it had become by late summer 1918.
Within weeks, Lummis himself would be taking its command as the Battalion was to fight its last major battle upon the Western Front.
The attack against the village of Gomiecourt was successful for the 2nd Battalion, but it came at the cost of every officer, bar two, being either killed or wounded.
The village was at the apex of a deep salient in the German front line. The defensive ring of fortifications that the Germans had placed around the village, showed that they valued its commanding position high up on a cup-shaped valley, from where they could see for a considerable distance back into the Allied lines behind the railway line.
The position was considered by some to be impregnable, but as the Suffolks came close to the fortifications, the Germans, seeing that the situation was hopeless, started to turn and run, but not before some held on to the bitter end; keeping their forward machineguns firing against their attackers.
Of those two unwounded officers, one was Lieutenant Peter Clement Layard. He was tragically killed by a sniper when on his way back to bring more men forward.
In a small privately published memorial volume of his life, his father recorded the details of his tragic end: "Then at the moment of victory, the village captured and five hundred prisoners taken, came the end. Having rounded up his men, he came across a wounded German. Worn out with fighting as he was, he stooped to bind him up. That was the moment chosen by a German sniper to shoot him through the heart. Just four words he spoke: "I can breathe now" - and he was dead."
It was a unfortunate circumstance of war that his final letter home that had been written the day before, arrived with his parents the day after they received the official telegram notifying them of his death. It was a cheerful note explaining that he had lost his sponge bag and razor, and not to worry to send him another as he thought he could get one when next out of the line. The covering letter, sent by a brother officer, told of their son's end and of how they knew that the battle that claimed him, was a "desperate affair" and that "the odds in favour of death were enormous."
The C.O. wrote that: "He was killed after a successful capture of a village in which hw led his men with great gallantry. He was killed instantaneously while binding up a wounded German." The Adjutant wrote also that: "We were attacking Gomiecourt on the 23rd August, and the attack was extremely successful, and we were consolidating the positions won; your son was carrying on with re-organization of his platoon. He went back to see if he could find any more more, and on his way back he came across a wounded Bosche, whom he bound up and was talking to when he was hit through the heart by a sniper."
"Pete" Layard lies now in Douchy-les-Ayette cemetery. The dedication in his memorial volume was to his mother - "For of all people in the world, he loved her best."
Image courtesy: IWM.
For 2nd Suffolk, the 22nd August was spent in rest and refitting, before at 9.30 pm they were ordered back into the line to the positions they had vacated the previous day. Now they were to assemble along the railway for a forthcoming attack towards the village of Gomiecourt.
In the darkness of that night, the C.O., the Adjutant; Captain Burman and the Intelligence Officer, went out to reconnoitre the enemy positions. The Germans had counter-attacked that day, and the positions were slightly altered from those they had left earlier, so Colonel Stubbs decided to remain and to direct the battle from the front.
At 4.00 am on the 23rd, the Battalion advanced once more. Advancing on the right flank with 8th K.O.R.L. (King’s Own Royal Lancaster) on the left. 1st Gordons were behind the Battalion in support. For the advance to Gomiecourt, eight tanks had been brought up half an hour prior to Zero Hour (4.00am) and were just about in position when the Battalion moved off.
“‘X’ Company advanced on the right, ‘Z’ Company on the left, with ‘W’ Company behind ‘X’ and ‘Y’ behind ‘Z’.” Almost immediately after they had advanced, the C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Stubbs, still out in front, received word from the tanks that they could not proceed due to heavy fire from the Germans opposite the village.
Stubbs was therefore forced to move further northwards and attack the village from the northwest, rather than directly from the west as planned. He therefore swung a half-left, and crossed the railway below Courcelles, before regaining his original direction. The Battalion was now having to move fast over their new route as the barrage was creeping forward at 100 yards every four minutes, which was heavy going fully laden troops.
“The barrage was excellent” wrote Stubbs “and after a certain amount of MG fire from right rear in the initial stages, the advance was made unchecked and village taken and line ordered consolidated”. By 11.00 am as the Battalion dug-in to the southeast of Gomiecourt, other units were passing through the Battalion’s positions, pressing onwards towards to the east. The advance towards Bapaume was off to a good start.
Shell fire was intermittent and not particularly that heavy during the advance, but it was the machine guns and snipers along the railway line and in the ruins of Gomiecourt itself that caused the majority of the casualties that the Battalion suffered that day. 25 men were killed, 149 wounded and 5 missing.
On 21st August 1918, 2nd Suffolk moved off to attack the village of Courcelles.
Advancing at 4.55 am in an artillery formation, within minutes, all communication was lost between Company’s and the C.O. Lieutenant-Colonel G.C. Stubbs, due to thick mist. The C.O. decided therefore that he would instead advance in column of route and split platoons up at 50 yards intervals when advancing. This way they could just about see each other, but were far enough apart to cause any serious casualties to the shelling.
The village was reached without difficulty and consolidation began. “Here smoke barrage added to the confusion and it was necessary to keep to the village in order to keep direction” wrote Stubbs, “it was found that the village was still being mopped up. The Battalion on getting through the village turned south to get on its objective line where it found elements of 9th Inf. Bde some of whom were reported on the railway, but there was still a good deal of MG opposition”. When the mist lifted, at around 11.00 am, these machine gun positions were quickly dealt with.
Keeping in close touch with the other Regiment’s out in front (King’s Liverpool’s and the Northumberland Fusiliers) Stubbs now moved Battalion HQ forward. By now he had three Company’s along the railway line (running north to south) and one on the left flank, but as the Germans were still in number on the other side of the railway to the south, it made any further movement difficult.
Casualties that day included the Reverend G.C. Danvers M,C., C.F., (above) who had led the famous church service on Easter Sunday 1917 just before the Battle of Arras. He had gone forward with units of Battalion HQ and had been wounded in the process. He had done the same back in March at Wancourt when the great German Offensive broke their line. There he had won himself the Military Cross, his citation recording the bravery of the Battalion's padre: "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in caring for the wounded and collecting and burying the dead, and organising stretcher parties under fire. When owing to heavy casualties amongst them, no bearers were available, he went forward through a heavy barrage dress a man's wounds and thereby saved his life."
The Battalion remained on the western side of the railway until 9.00 pm when it was relived.
On the 18th August 1918, 2nd Suffolk were out of the line in a rest area at Sus-St-Leger. It was a Sunday and day had been like many in the rear areas, with an open air church service in the morning, followed an hour of relaxation, before the Battalion paraded for the presentation of medals by Brigadier-General Porter.
After the General had departed, a period of calm, before the training programme commenced once more in the early evening. The weather was fine at this time. That evening, the recently arrived young officer, Lieutenant P.C. Layard wrote an letter home to his mother.
"Still in rest, but I don't know how long this Elysium will last. I have spent a gloriously lazy afternoon - it being Sunday. I stopped writing this at about 3.15; then I lay on my bed and read to 3.30; then I slept till 4.30; then I couldn't fag to walk 3/4 mile to tea, so I made them, give me some bread and butter and coffee, and I scrambled two eggs myself - and your honey, which isn't finished yet, put the finishing-touch of joy to my tea. It is now 6 p.m. as I write, and when I finish this I shall read "Mary Barton" until 7.30 p.m. when I go to mess."
Layard had served previously with the 4th Battalion and had been wounded on or around the 18th June 1916 in a trench raid in front of the village of Bazentin-le-Petit, and it had taken almost 18 months to recover. Almost two years to the day, he was ordered back tot the front to serve this time with the 2nd Battalion.
Two days later, he wrote again to his mother that "We go into the line to-night, I believe. Our rest has been too lovely and welcome for words. We've had sweltering weather lately, but to-day has been dull, with an occasional drizzle..."
For the 2nd Battalion, a large attack was now imminent and they had been hastily withdrawn from the training camp and placed back in the front line ready for the next big offensive.
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.