War History: How ‘Saturday Night Suffolks’ found themselves on the front line

A scene from Neuve Chapelle in 1915.

A scene from Neuve Chapelle in 1915. - Credit: Archant

There’s a strong local link today as Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, highlights the role of Suffolk’s ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ in what was for most their first major battle

Lieutenant Francis John Childs Ganzoni, elected MP for Ipswich in the early summer of 1914, and who

Lieutenant Francis John Childs Ganzoni, elected MP for Ipswich in the early summer of 1914, and who was with the 1/4 Suffolks at Neuve Chapelle. He took a pocket camera to France in 1915 and chronicled the day-to-day life of the battalion. - Credit: Archant

The 1/4 Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, known as the 4th Suffolk, was a territorial unit recruited from Ipswich and East Suffolk. It mobilised at the Drill Hall on Portman Road, Ipswich, in August, 1914. The battalion was almost fully manned and its officers included many notable names from Suffolk’s county set. The Turners of Ipswich, the Prettys of Woodbridge and the Garretts of Leiston feature in the nominal roll of battalion officers, not forgetting the recently-elected Conservative member of Parliament for Ipswich, Lieutenant Francis John Childs Ganzoni.

In accordance with Army mobilisation instructions, the battalion was formed under the command of the Norfolk and Suffolk Brigade of the 54th (East Anglian) Division. Initially the territorial force was deployed on coastal defence duties, releasing regular army battalions to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. However, the 4th Suffolk would not be kicking their heels in England for long.

On November 6, 1914, the battalion was “entrained” at Colchester, and headed for Southampton and embarkation to France. They had a busy few days. Brand new uniforms were issued; new Lee Enfield rifles arrived, as did an issue of webbing equipment. Timings were tight and there was little time to train with any of the new equipment.

It was from this point their path deviated from the norm. The battalion was not attached to a regular British division as expected; it was ordered to reinforce the Indian Army Corps.

The Suffolks disembarked at Le Havre on November 9 and marched off to join the Jullundur Brigade of the 3rd (Lahore) Division. The battalion remained with their new brigade through the cold winter of 1914, taking their turn on the frontline in the area of Vieille Chapelle, Richebourg-l-Avoue. In February, 1915, they were near Le Touret, even occupying trenches at “Dead Cow Farm”. On March 6, the 4th Battalion was in frontline trenches between Richebourg and Neuve Chapelle.

The trenches were in a sorry condition; these were not extensive earthworks. In many cases they were simply extended ditches or linked shell holes. Winter weather had hampered any work to improve them. The sides often collapsed and drainage was practically non-existent.

Most Read

The Suffolks had to contend with long days stood in cold, icy water. We know about the conditions thanks to Francis John Childs Ganzoni, who had taken a pocket camera to France; he used it to capture the day-to-day life of the battalion. The images show the battalion from the CO down, generally looking like a crowd of mud-sodden scarecrows.

The battle of Neuve Chapelle began on March 10, 1915. As part of the Lahore Division, the men of the 4th Suffolk were destined to play a role in the battle. That morning, 4th Suffolk left their billets in the village of Lestrem, along with the rest of the Julladur Brigade and marched a mile to Vieille Chapelle, arriving about an hour later.

There was little time to ponder their fate. At 0730 hours the British guns opened up on German trenches around and behind Neuve Chapelle. 4th Suffolk were untried in battle, so not part of the initial assault. The territorials waited for the order to advance in support of the lead brigades.

The first few hours of the battle went well and, at 0840 hours, reports began to arrive that the German first-line trenches had been taken. Shortly afterwards it was reported the village church was in British hands.

Good news continued to filter back to battalion headquarters. At 1015 hours a report stated the German second-line trenches had been captured. All seemed to be going to plan and, close to midday, orders were received for the brigade to move to Richebourg and await further orders.

Because of the successes of the day the 4th Suffolk were not required to add their weight to the assault. However, they were to be ready to reinforce this great success the next day. Morale must have been high as they moved to their new position, passing groups of glum German prisoners being escorted to the rear and captivity.

Major WF Turner, from Ipswich, made his own appraisal of the prisoners: “They were rather a scraggy lot, some old, some young and some looked anything but bright intellectually.”

As darkness fell on March 11, the 4th Suffolks had still not been committed to the battle; they would have the chance to prove themselves the next day.

We will continue their story next week.

• If you would like to know more about the experiences of 1/4th Suffolks during the battle, take a look at the Neuve Chapelle Centenary lecture and study day being held at UCS Ipswich on March 28. The Friends of The Suffolk Regiment also have a superb website that is well worth a visit: www.friendsofthesuffolkregiment.org/operation-legacy.

• If you are keen to get out on the battlefields yourself, a new series of day excursions is now available online and there are seats available on a four-day guided tour of the Western Front travelling on May 1. Details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information. You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on Galloway’s Facebook page.