First World War: Less than a fortnight after Britain declared war on Germany, The Second Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment found themselves in France
12:40 05 August 2014
Le Cateau, Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, the Somme, the Menin road, Passchendaele… The Suffolk Regiment was at the heart of the action during The Great War. And, as Steven Russell learns, it began early.
For many East Anglian families, The Great War began as soon as Germany was told its military aggression would not be allowed to continue. For when Britain declared war on August 4, 1914, the Second Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment was mobilised immediately.
By the 17th of August it was in France, with the British Expeditionary Force taking the fight to the Kaiser’s army.
Earlier that month, the battalion had been at the Curragh in Ireland – at an army base on the vast plain in County Kildare. War soon had it on the move.
In France, confrontation came quickly. The 2nd Battalion was in action near Mons. Later, on the 25th, there was fighting at Le Cateau, after British and French forces retreated from Mons and established defensive positions as the German advance continued.
“There the decision was taken to stand and fight,” explains Eric Lummis in his overview of the regiment’s history, produced in the late 1990s. Along with other British troops “they fought against overwhelming forces for nine hours before being overrun. Losses were over 700”.
Ron Murrell, a heritage officer with St Edmundsbury council, is giving a talk on Monday about the lead-up to the war and the Suffolks’ involvement.
He says: “The commander of 2nd Army Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, wrote a forward to part of the History of the Suffolk Regiment (1914-1927), in which he praises highly the units who held the German advance at Le Cateau, including the 2nd Suffolks; crediting the action as crucial in allowing the units time to reorganise themselves and possibly a major contribution in preventing the advance of the Germans on Paris.
“Certainly the casualties the Suffolks and other units in the rearguard action suffered saved far larger numbers in the BEF.”
The Second Battalion wasn’t the only Suffolk Regiment body to be involved in the early months of the war. The First Battalion – which had been in both Malta and Egypt – was in Khartoum that summer. It was dispatched to the Western Front, arriving in France in 1915 and becoming involved in heavy fighting in the Ypres area.
In the May, Eric Lummis states, it was nearly wiped out, having taken more than 400 casualties. “After further service in France it was moved to Macedonia, where it saw service until the end of the war.”
Meanwhile, the 4th (Territorial) Battalion was in France before 1914 was out. Neuve Chapelle marked its first major battle, in 1915. There were many more to come before peace was declared in 1918.
The 5th Battalion went to Gallipoli in 1915, followed by Palestine. “Also in Gallipoli and Palestine was the Suffolk Yeomanry, which became the 15th Battalion of the regiment in 1915 and went on to serve with distinction on the Western Front.”
In the spring of the final year of the war, the 2nd Battalion suffered badly at Wancourt – the first Battle of Arras, in France – during a German army push that March.
Eric writes: “Two companies, commanded by Captain WL Simpson MC [awarded the Military Cross, which was given for “exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy”] from Bury St Edmunds, and Captain LJ Baker MC from Lavenham, fought desperately, holding the German attack up in an action described by The Times: ‘There is a story, such as painters ought to make immortal and historians to celebrate, of how certain Suffolks, cut off and surrounded, fought back to back on the Wancourt-Tilloy road.’”
Two Suffolk Regiment soldiers who fought in The Great War received the Victoria Cross – the highest military decoration, given for valour “in the face of the enemy”.
Sergeant Frederick Arthur Saunders, of the 9th Battalion, received his for action at Loos in the autumn of 1915. Despite injuries that cost him a leg, his bravery allowed a badly-wounded lieutenant to survive, become a general, and live past 100!
Corporal Sidney James Day, meanwhile, was recognised for his bravery near Peronne two years later. In charge of a group clearing a maze of trenches held by the Germans, he killed two machine-gunners and took four prisoners. Not long after, a stick bomb dropped into a trench. He grabbed it and hurled it out, where it exploded – thus saving the lives of the men in that trench. Day also stayed at his post for 66 hours, enduring intense enemy fire.
“Five other battalions of the regiment, all raised in wartime, served in France,” Eric Lummis points out. “Eight battalions were involved in the Somme campaign of 1916.”
So many major, bloody, military confrontations…
“The eighty-one Great War battle honours, from Mons to Palestine… show their range.”
For more on the First World War commemorations, visit our special webpage