Having moved off at first light in artillery formation, the Battalion left its overnight billet and proceeded south down the straight roman road towards Reumont. By 4.00am they had crossed the Cambrai-Le Cateau road, when they received orders to halt. Colonel Brett and Major Doughty were called away to a conference with Brigadier-General Rolt; commander of 14th Infantry Brigade. A few moments later, Lord Douglas Malise-Graham, the Aide-de-Camp to the Divisional Commander; Major-General Sir Charles Fergusson, C.B., M.V.O., D.S.O., informed Major Peebles, the most senior officer present, “You are going to fight it out here” The battle of Le Cateau was about to begin.
Around 6.00am, the first enemy troops were seen. A patrol of Uhlans (Lancers) appeared over the brow of the Cambrai-Le Cateau road but, after a short burst of fire from the batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery; which were in the rear of the Suffolk positions, they immediately retired. After this first salvo had ceased, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel C.A.H. Brett, D.S.O., (above) went around the positions and impressed upon the men that the ground was not of his choosing, but there was to be no retirement.
At around 7.30am, the enemy artillery was becoming heavier and it was soon clear from observation that the German infantry now occupied the high ground north-west of the Suffolk positions and around 10.00am, enemy infantry began to offer itself as a target. Coming on in larger numbers, the forward Suffolk positions were still delivering sustained and accurate rifle fire, but ammunition was running short.
Around this time, a German spotter plane was seen circling overhead for the first time. It dropped bombs of different coloured smoke to direct their artillery towards the Suffolk position. The enemy was by now pushing through in large numbers on the right flank - closest to Le Cateau itself, and it was moving round to enfilade the Suffolk positions.
At around 9.00am Lieutenant-Colonel Brett was mortally wounded and conveyed from the battlefield. By 11.00am, the situation became critical and just before noon attempts by 2nd Manchester Regiment and 2nd Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders to reinforce the Suffolk position failed. Major Doughty and Captain Cutbill were both severely wounded at this time.
The Suffolks and Argylls were now alone. They were in a “worse plight” than ever, having been fighting for nearly six hours. Around 2.00pm Lieutenants George and Burnand on the right flank were in a precarious situation. With the enemy both in front and now behind them, they were forced to turn their men about to meet an attack from both the front and the rear.
Between 2.30 and 2.45pm, the end came. The Germans had by now amassed a considerable amount of infantry in the shelter of the Cambrai road, and in one final major attack they fell upon the Suffolk position from the front, the right and, nearest Le Cateau itself, from the rear. The enemy assault on the frontal positions was repulsed vigorously with the Suffolks and Argylls keeping up withering fire bringing down man after man until there was no more ammunition left.
The official history stated “They had for nine hours been under an incessant bombardment which had pitted the whole of the ground with craters, and they had fought to the very last, covering themselves with undying glory.”
Their day was done. Those that could get away did, but there wasn't many of them. In the hours that followed, the full extent of the ferocity of the action would become apparent...
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.