March 15th saw The Cambridgeshire Regiment in the trenches around Voormezeele with periods in the front line at St. Eloi.
The Battalion was gradually becoming acclimatised to the routine of trench warfare and would soon be going into to the line ‘on their own’ in the Salient.
On this day in the trenches in front of the Cambridgeshire's, the Germans were planning to attack. It would not be an offensive attack, but one of stealth and secrecy.
The Germans had unbeknown to the occupants of the front line, been mining deep into the Flanders clay beneath them and laying a series of mines, ready to be detonated prior to an infantry advance.
At 5.30pm, the Germans blew their mines. The Royal Irish Rifles who were manning this sector took the brunt of the onslaught. No sooner had the dust and mud settled on the newly formed crater, the enemy advanced. Captain Clayton, who had watched the explosion from their positions in the rear lines, saw the enemy advancing in great numbers. Aghast, he ordered the Cambridgeshire’s to open up with all they had in an attempt to stem the German advance.
It was a cruel baptism of fire for the Battalion. Ordered to fix bayonets, the men were rushed into the front line trenches to support the faltering troops there. Within minutes the Cambridgeshire’s were in the thick of the fighting.
Clayton recalled: “I remember Jenkins telling me to make my way to the right to watch if the enemy had worked round, and stopping on the way to tell a red-haired private to follow me. As I shouted to him a burst of machine-gun bullets sprayed his head into a pulp from his jaw upwards, and his brains splashed all over me and two other men…”
The battle raged on into the darkness of early evening. Machine guns were engaged against each other in a bitter spat. Cambridgeshire's scrabbled from shell hole to shell hole, from scrape to scrape often fighting by hand and by rifle butt along the way. One NCO, Sergeant Bowyer showed himself the epitome of courage by taking off his tunic, rolling up his shirt sleeves and manning one of the Battalions three Maxim machine guns as if on the range at annual camp. “Cool as the proverbial cucumber” he was later described.
Fighting went on throughout the night and by morning, as daylight emerged, a counter-attack by the British saw much of the lost ground retaken, and many valuable lessons learned.
Despite however their gallantry, no awards were given to men of the Regiment for their actions that day. They had however proved that they were not only ready for front line service, but that they were every bit the equal of their regular counterparts.
With thanks to the excellent Cambridgeshire Regiment 1914-18 website:
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.