The 11th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment
Defensive Action on the River Lys
The German Perspective
The Lys offensive is probably best described by the man who authorised it - Marshall Von Hindenburg. The following description comes from his autobiography "Out of my Life", a fascinating tome first published in 1920:
"On April 9th, the anniversary of the great crisis at Arras, our stormtroopers rose from their muddy trenches on the Lys front from Armentieres to La Bassee. Of course they were not disposed in great waves, but mostly in small detachments and diminutive columns which waded through the morass which had been upheaved by shells and mines, and either picked their way towards the enemy lines between deep shell-holes filled with water or took the firm cause-ways. Under the protection of our artillery and trench mortar fire, they succeeded in getting forward quickly in spite of all the natural and artificial obstacles, although apparently neither the English nor the Portugese, who had been sandwiched in amongst them, believed it possible. Most of the Portugese left the battlefield in wild flight, and once and for all retired from the fighting in favour of the allies.
It must be admitted that our exploitation of the surprise and the Potugese failure met with the most serious obstacles in the nature of the ground. It was only with the greatest difficultythat a few ammunition wagons were brought forward behind the infantry. Yet the Lys was reached by the evening and even crossed at one point. ... the next day ... depite the fact that the enemy evacuated Armentieres progress became slower, it soon came to a stop on our left wing, while our attack in the direction of Hazebrouck was slowly being paralysed."
Map showing 34th Division position just South of Armentieres 9th April 1918. The green line is the British front line and the red one is the German front line. The orange line is the extent of the German advance during the subsequent days.
The British Perspective
Early on the 9th April 1918 the 11th Suffolks were not in the front line 101st Brigade was in Divisional reserve with the Cambridgeshire men billeted in and around La Rolanderie Farm (top left corner of trench map below). The following description of the start of the assault is taken from Lieut. colonel J. Shakespeare's "The History of the Thirty Fourth Division 1915-1919":
"After a quiet day and night, at four fifteen a.m. on the 9th April, the Boche guns to the South of our position spoke in an unmistakeable manner. The volume of sound was so great that it could only portend an attack on a considerable scale, and as the hours passed and there was no cessation to the din, we all realised that yet another "day" had arrived and all units and parties "stood to". The bombardment did not effect our front line, but our back areas got more than usual shelling. ... at 8:05 a.m. the 101st Brigade was ordered to stand to ... at 9 a.m. General Nicholson heard from the 40th Division that the enemy were in the front line on thier right flank. An hour later came an order for the 101st Brigade to march to the south of Bac St Mar, and to act on the orders of 40th Division, as the Portugese front had broken ... the orders did not reach 101st Brigade HQ until 11:20 a.m. ... Bac St Mar was found to be in the hands of the enemy and the Brigade took up a defensive position near Fort Rompu ".(Off below map North West corner - say 2 miles).
Trench Map dated 24th September 1917 - the trench line configuration remained virtually unchanged until April 1918
Meanwhile the 40th Division (see map above) was forced back and the 12th Suffolks of that Division in particular found themselves fighting in Fleurbaix. The 11th Suffolks found themselves fighting alongside their sister regiment and the ensuing action is described in the Suffolk Regiment - Official History thus:
"Thus the first troops of the 34th Division to enter the general engagement were those who, almost up to that very moment, had formed the corps reserve, a rare tactical anomaly. Terrific fighting followed. On the 10th April the 11th Suffolks, having formed a defensive flank, beat off attack after attack. Twice the Germans broke through, but on one occasion the breach was closed by Captain Rodwell and his company, assisted by Major Wright.
At 3:20 p.m. Liut.-Colonel Tuck received orders to withdraw behind the Lys. Speaking on the telephone, the officer commanding the battalion next on the left, which was still in the front line, explained that he could not possibly get clear in less that two hours. Colonel Tuck replied that in these circumstances he would do his best to hold on until five o'clock. He did so; and though the casualties in those two hours were heavy, this noble imposition helped materially to save two brigades.
Thus without intermission the struggle continued. On the 14th Brig General R.C.Gore, C.B., C.M.G., who had commanded the 101st Brigade since it's arrival in France, was killed in action. He was succeeded by Brig General W.J.Woodcock, D.S.O. The next day the 59th Division having been overwhelmed, the 11th Battalion once more became part of the front line. On the night of the 17th-18th the Battalion was relieved, moving at first into reserve trenches and three days later back to Boeschepe."
Remains of a British bunker at Fleurbaix. Picture taken in 1999.
The 11th Suffolk's casualties in this action were severe. Nearly five hundred, including the following officers.
2nd Lieut. G.L.A.Duddy
2nd Lieut. R.C.Foster
2nd Lieut. R.Theobald M.C.
Died of Wounds
Captain W.E. Harrison M.C.
2nd Lieut. R.E. Cook
2nd Lieut. H.A.Reed M.C.
2nd Lieut. W.H.Roxbrough M.C.
2nd Lieut. W.P.Anness
2nd Lieut. G.L.Bryant M.C.
2nd Lieut. J.E.Garnett
2nd Lieut. G.W.Harvey
2nd Lieut. H.D.S.Page
2nd Lieut. S.H.Phillips
2nd Lieut. H.E.Rowe
2nd Lieut. G.D.W.Thacker
Lieut. and Quartermaster H.Cranfield
Prisoners of War
Captain L.H.Rodwell M.C.
2nd Lieut. G.S. Keightley
2nd Lieut. G.T.Lloyd
2nd Lieut. R.S. Shepherd
2nd Lieut. J.A.Simmons
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|The story of a Swavesey man killed in this action - Harry Howlett|