SUFFOLK BRANCH, 1916 TOUR, SEPTEMBER 2016
In September 2016, fourteen branch members spent three days in France on the third of our centenary tours to commemorate the Suffolk Regiment’s service in the Great War. We arrived on the Somme a hundred years and a day from when 9/Suffolks (now 71 Brigade, 6th Division) had the grim task of advancing against the impregnable Quadrilateral, first on 13 September and again on the 15th, the first day of the Battle of Flers Courcelette. Walking the ground of their attempted advance from the outskirts of Ginchy, it was easy to see what a terrible challenge the battalion faced and why they sustained 117 casualties on the 13th and a further 196 killed and wounded (and countless missing) on the 15th, the day their commanding officer, Lieut. Col. Mack, was also killed. Before leaving the sector we visited Colonel Mack’s grave in Guillemont Road Cemetery to pay our respects. Moving on to the Le Transloy sector, we followed the attempted attack on Bayonet Trench on 12 October by the 7/Suffolks (35 Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division), an attack which, in the face of devastating machine gun fire on both flanks and uncut German wire, failed to achieve its objective and resulted in over 500 casualties, including every officer.
On our second day we began with Delville Wood and the failed attacks there, by the 8/Suffolks (53 Brigade of 18th (Eastern) Division) on 19 July (238 casualties) and the 2nd Battalion (76 Brigade, 3rd Division) on the 20th, the latter tasked with clearing the village of Longueval and sweeping N.E. to attack the northern corner of the wood. The 2nd Battalion’s advance started at 3.35 a.m. Amidst darkness, mist and the rocky terrain of a bomb-damaged village, concealed enemy machine guns wreaked a terrible toll and the survivors had to remain in place for the whole day, until darkness would shield their retirement. Decimated at Le Cateau in August 1914 and mauled at Hooges in 1915, this battalion, with its 130 casualties, had suffered again. By the end of the Battle of the Somme, there would be few regular soldiers left in this unit. On the edge of High Wood we walked the ground of a more successful attack, the 4/Suffolks’ (now 98 Brigade, 33rd Division) advance on 18 August to Wood Lane Trench to the right of the wood. This territorial battalion had struggled to be battle-worthy at Neuve Chapelle in March of 1915, but by now was a well-trained unit and in this engagement fought bravely and successfully in the face of heavy enemy fire and with their flanks exposed. Eventually, however, they were forced to retire. Stormont Gibbs’s account of that day gave us a very clear picture of the events.
In the afternoon we followed the actions of the 8/Suffolks on 26 September in the Battle of Thiepval, following on from their costly and failed attempt at Longueval in July. Our study of the battle was facilitated by the diary for the day of Signaller Sidney Fuller. The battalion had to advance at midday through the ruins of the village and then N.E. to take Bulgar and Zollern Trenches. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, they reached their objectives, but further advance, given heavy enemy fire, was impossible. Nevertheless, the day was a great success for the battalion, although it incurred almost 200 casualties.
Our final day opened with 1 July and closed with 13 November. The 11th Battalion –‘the Cambridgeshire Suffolks’ – (101 Brigade, 34th Division) was the only Suffolk battalion to go into action on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Their attempted advance, east of La Boisselle and across Sausage Valley, was halted after only half an hour by the intensity of German fire, the survivors having to wait out in no-man’s-land until darkness fell. The casualties sustained that day were the highest in 34th Division: 691, including 19 officers. (Of the 190 killed, a staggering 148 have no known grave.) Moving on to Ovillers, we learned of the attempt on the village by the 7/Suffolks two days later, an attack that began (at 3.15 a.m.) very well, with the leading troops reaching the third German line; however, they had been too speedy and in the darkness the enemy were able to cut off the leading troops and regain their second position in considerable force, enabling them to fire on the troops ahead and on those coming forward. The battalion suffered over 470 casualties. We lingered in Ovillers Cemetery, where many of them are buried, although only 44 are identified.
Before heading north for Calais and home, we finished our tour at the most appropriate place, Sheffield Park, the site of the failed attack on Serre by the 2nd Battalion. Loss of direction in the thick early morning mist and smoke (which also made the creeping barrage invisible), the state of the ground, the large amount of wire still uncut and rifles caked with mud were all contributory factors, although portions of the leading companies did reach the enemy second line. There were 272 casualties, including all the officers. In Luke Copse Cemetery, where many of the dead lie, we laid our wreath for the men of all ranks of the Suffolk Regiment who gave their lives in the Battle of the Somme.
We were fortunate to be guided again by Taff and Mark, whose knowledge of – and passion for – the history of the Suffolk Regiment is phenomenal. As on the previous occasions, several of the group also gave us moving accounts of the experiences of relatives, or of others whose stories they have researched, and we were able to visit the graves of some of these men and honour their sacrifice. Derek (Lay) told us the story of his great uncle, Frederick Lay, wounded at the Quadrilateral on 13 September (and who would die from flu in 1918); Kelvin not only told us the stories of some of the Bramford men, but also took us to the headstone of his relative William Garlick of the Canadian infantry, killed in the Battle of Flers Courcelette. Kelvin’s and Derek (Pheasant)’s ‘Lest We Forget’ entries in the branch briefings this summer have also helped us to learn about many local men killed in action in the Battle of the Somme. One moving visit we made was to the little-known cemetery of Bronfay Farm where, alongside one another, are the headstones of three 8/Battalion drummers, killed by a shell while billeted at the farm at the beginning of June 1916. A rewarding moment was Dennis (Francis)’s visit to a grave in Hebuterne Cemetery. Dennis has had Sergeant Sidney Ablewhite’s medals for over thirty years but this was his first visit to the grave – to find a cross and photograph left by the soldier’s family. Dennis now hopes to make contact with them if at all possible.
Our attempts to physically trace the advances that took place were facilitated by Taff’s and Mark’s intimate knowledge of the ground, by the excellent layered maps prepared by Anthony (Bryant), and by the generally fine weather. Fortunately, most fields were ploughed but not yet sown, although some heavy rain as we stood between Lochnagar Crater and Sausage Valley left us all rather muddy on the final morning of what had been a moving and memorable tour. We can unreservedy recommend the Ibis Styles hotel at Assevillers and - even more – the Bistro d’Antoine in Peronne, where we enjoyed an excellent and convivial meal on our first evening. We don’t recommend, however, that you try driving a full minibus up Sausage Valley …!