Happy New Year folks. Let’s return to the Nursery.
Suffolk Cemetery, La Rolanderie Farm, can be found in the middle of the fields a few hundred yards south of the town of Erquinghem-Lys.
It’s a bit of a trek from the road to get to it…
…and if you ever get the chance to visit…
…I wouldn’t advise taking your car up the track all the way to the cemetery even on a decent day; park at the farm buildings and walk the rest of the way. Serious fighting took place in these fields in April 1918 – the title of this post uses the word ‘Nursery’, and we are indeed in the area thus known, but the reason this cemetery exists bears no relation whatsoever to the term, and has everything to do with the extreme violence that broke out here over a few days that spring – and the walk to and from the cemetery gives you a few minutes to contemplate the fact.
The farm buildings at La Rolanderie had suffered considerable damage from German artillery by the spring of 1918. On the face of it, and according to the CWGC Casualty List, a single Machine Gun Corps private was the first to be buried here in the fields to the south of the farm on 9th April, joined by one of his colleagues and six men of the 11th Bn. Suffolk Regiment the following day, and a further five more men over the next week, but the majority of men buried here were Suffolk men killed on 19th April. Or at least that is what the dates on the online Casualty List, and on the headstones, tell us. We shall see (and before we go on, I ought to mention that you will find somewhat more detail at certain points in this post than usual, and by the time we get to the end, it will, I hope, be clear why).
At the beginning of April 1918 the 11th Bn. Suffolk Regiment had been holding the line a few miles east of here at Nouvel Houplines, on the eastern outskirts of Armentières (see map below). Although a relatively quiet sector, conditions in the spring of 1918 were so poor that flood water had made the British front line untenable, the troops holding the support trenches instead; patrols were unable to find any trace of enemy movement, their front line trenches appearing to be derelict as well. It’s worth remembering that the word trenches in this area was somewhat of a misnomer, and involved not a lot of digging, as a result of the high water table, but an awful lot of above-ground construction, with the obvious dangers involved.
This map from September 1917 (nothing much had changed by the spring of 1918) shows Erquinghem-Lys, just a small village at the time, to the immediate south of the River Lys as it meanders its way towards the town of Armentières. The front lines (German trenches in red) can be seen on the far right of the map, their north-south orientation beginning to change to a north-east to south west direction at the bottom of the map. It’s worth noting (for later) the railway line, crossing the map just south of Armentières, and leading to Bailleul, several miles away past Trois Arbres in the top left corner of the map.
On 5th April the Suffolks were ordered to proceed the few miles to La Rolanderie, just south of Erquinghem; interestingly, and most prudently, as they were familiar with the terrain and it would have made no sense to move them elsewhere, personnel attached to the Royal Engineers and tunnelling company were left where they were. Following the move the battalion spent the following day resting and refitting.
On 7th April 1918 the Germans launched their Georgette Offensive (or, as it became known to the Allies, the Battle of the Lys), the second of four, smaller, offensives to follow the much larger Operation Michael, which had opened on 21st March on the Somme and had ended on 5th April, after a forty mile German advance, outside the city of Amiens. Georgette’s objective was to capture of the City of Ypres (Ieper) and drive the British Army in Belgium and northern France back to the channel ports and, effectively, out of the war. The German bombardment began on 7th April, and on 9th April the German infantry attacked along a fifteen mile front between Armentières to the north and Festubert to the south, pushing the Portuguese and British troops along a five mile front in the south of the attacked sector back more than nine miles over the next two days, until British reserves halted the advance at Estaires.
To compound the British problems, on 10th April the Germans launched another offensive (the third Battle of Messines) to the north of the River Lys, where they succeeded in capturing the village of Messines itself, advancing nearly two miles and prompting Haig to issue his famous ‘backs to the wall’ order. But to the north of the first attack south of the river, at Armentières and Erquinghem, the Germans were having a far harder time of it and their advance was proving far more problematic, and it is the action that took place here, and its relation to this little cemetery, that the narrative that follows a little later will explore.
The cemetery consists of four rows of headstones, split into two plots, with a further three headstones (hidden by the Cross) at the far, north eastern end. Twenty eight of the thirty five identified graves here are men of the 11th Bn. Suffolk Regiment. Here’s the Cemetery Plan, courtesy, as ever, of our friends at the CWGC.
Seven of the eight unidentified men buried here are to be found in Plot II Row B (foreground) immediately on entering the cemetery, and five of these are known to be Suffolk men. On the far right is the grave of Private T. Huddleston, East Lancashire Regiment, one of only four non-Suffolk men among the identified burials here.
Plot II Row B (foreground), with Row A behind.
Unidentified Suffolk man at the start of Plot II Row B,…
…and three more unknown soldiers in the centre of the same row, on the left another Suffolk man, in the centre a Machine Gunner, and on the right, one of only two totally unidentified soldiers buried in this cemetery.
Plot II Row A, all 11th Bn. Suffolk men.
Plot I, Row B, in the foreground, contains three men of the Machine Gun Corps among the Suffolks, the one on the far right,…
…Private Percival Harold Syms, just nineteen when he died (and buried here next to twenty three year old 11th Suffolks officer, Lieutenant Reginald Theobald M.C.). Along with Private Huddleston, whom we met earlier, these three machine gunners are the only non-Suffolk burials among the identified men in the cemetery.
Plot I Row A, with the second totally unidentified soldier on the far right.
Back to the day of 7th April 1918, which passed peacefully for the 11th Suffolks, the battalion even finding time for a church parade. That night, however, the Germans commenced an intense gas shell bombardment of the area in the neighbourhood of Armentières, from Houplines through Nieppe to Laundries, south of the Armentières-Bailleul railway. The bombardment lasted the whole night as German artillery projected thousands of gas and high explosive shells into the British front and support lines and the rear area beyond (the majority of gas casualties were among the British artillerymen), but no infantry attack followed, and the following day passed relatively quietly. During the night of the 8th April the majority of the Suffolks were in Divisional reserve at Erquinghem, (along with the 16th Bn. Royal Scots), with three companies at La Rolanderie Farm. The Scots had arrived that night, two companies being disposed on the western edge of the village near Rue Dormoire, and two in the village near the church.
At 4.00 am on the morning of 9th April, the Germans once more unleashed an intense artillery barrage on the British lines and support areas, Erquinghem itself being so heavily shelled that both the Suffolks and the Scots in the town were dispersed into trenches in the adjoining fields to avoid the shellfire. Small arms fire could also occasionally be heard, and it seemed as if a German attack was imminent, if not already under way. As the barrage continued Canadian Royal Engineers were ordered to erect emergency bridges across the River Lys should the men be forced to withdraw north of the river, and Germans were soon reported to be advancing in large numbers all along the front. In the early evening Royal Scots’ fighting patrols were sent forward and found Fleurbaix strongly held by Germans, small encounters taking place on the outskirts of the village, and it was now clear that this was indeed a major German offensive.
The 11th Suffolks were ordered to form a new front line facing Fleurbaix, establishing links with 103rd Brigade on the left, and 16th Bn. Royal Scots on the right, which they managed to do, picking up elements of the 12th Suffolks as they moved forward, and by evening the new line was stabilised. For the remainder of the day enemy attempts to advance were repulsed. Later that evening the right flank of 16th Royal Scots near the river began to be considerably harassed and threatened by parties of Germans who had worked their way east over to the north bank of the Lys, and were shooting into the backs of the British troops. Unfortunately for the Scots, there were “no men spare to eject these, and the Division on our right seemed to have withdrawn, and the position was therefore a very uncomfortable one.”
The three headstones of Plot I Row C (above & below). Private Herbert Maynard (far right) is one of just three men of the 12th Bn. Suffolk Regiment buried here, all of whose date of death is given as 12th April. They are the only casualties from that date to be found in the cemetery.
By 7.00 am on the morning of 10th April, German attacks had penetrated the British line, cutting off those of the Royal Scots in the neighbourhood of Rue Dormoire, who fought on doggedly despite being entirely surrounded. The situation was critical, as a gap now existed between the right of 11th Suffolks, holding fast, and the left of the Royal Scots, which was swinging back, exposing the right flank of the Suffolks, who risked being surrounded themselves before reserves could arrive. The reserve company at La Rolanderie Farm was immediately dispatched to counterattack the enemy and fill the gap between the Suffolks and the Royal Scots. The Germans seemed not to have realised, or at least failed to exploit, the temporary gap at the west end of Erquinghem, as only a few of their troops were pushed through before British reserves arrived, the Germans driven back, the gap plugged and the line re-established.
The 11th Suffolks, however, were now left with no reserves whatsoever, except the Battalion Headquarters personnel dug in just to the west of La Rolanderie Farm. During the morning the enemy pushed forward infantry, machine guns and field guns (the Battalion War Diary dryly notes, “probably our own”). Troops on the right began to give way slowly as the line was gradually pushed in around Erquinghem itself.
At 2.00 pm the Germans attacked along nearly the whole of the 11th Suffolks’ front, forcing the men on the right of the battalion to continue their slow withdrawal, covered by outposts as they retired, whilst also obtaining a footing in the centre of the Suffolk line. The retreating men on the right made contact with a party of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, who had arrived just in time to prevent the Germans from entering Erquinghem itself, while the troops whose position had been penetrated by the Germans in the centre were rapidly reforming, along with the battalion Headquarters staff, on a line just west of La Rolanderie Farm, again with outposts in front of them to give warning of German attacks.
By mid-afternoon the German onslaught had been checked and the line re-established from La Rolanderie Farm to the south east end of Erquinghem itself. Attacks continued, however, and the troops south of the river were ordered to withdraw to the northern bank, covered by the 11th Suffolks. By about 5.00 pm, by which time the Suffolks’ left flank was heavily engaged on three sides, and German machine guns were sweeping the men in the battalion’s centre, the Suffolks themselves crossed the river, immediately setting up outposts on all flanks, according to the War Diary “facing in every direction”.
In the chaos of the battle, as night fell, and with the battalion now being harassed once again by German machine guns, and the sound of firing even coming from the direction of Le Veau, away to the north west, patrols were sent out to get in touch with any British troops in the neighbourhood, which they did by finding the right flank of the 16th Royal Scots, and to establish the current positions of the enemy.
Very early in the morning of the 11th April the Suffolks were ordered to form the rearguard as the brigade withdrew to Nieppe (see trench map), the battalion taking up position along the Armentières – Bailleul railway facing south west, 103rd Brigade on the left, 16th Royal Scots on the right. Outposts and patrols were pushed forward, and in the afternoon 103rd Brigade was attacked, but not the Suffolks. The battalion then withdrew towards La Crèche, spending the night in a farm near Blanche Maison. In the photograph above the outskirts of Erquinghem-Lys can be seen in the background, as well as the church spire, just to the left of the trees in the centre, where we were last ‘Nursery’ post.
The next few days were days of hold and retreat, “the enemy again pushed forward infantry machine guns and trench mortars and harassed battalion positions considerably. Enemy aeroplanes flying very low were firing continuously on our troops during the whole afternoon and seriously interfered with any movement”, of heavy German artillery bombardments, and constant attacks by considerably superior German forces.
Twice on the 14th the Suffolks were “very heavily shelled by own artillery causing many casualties.” Patrols showed the Germans to be some 1000 yards away to the south west. The 15th was another critical day. The Officer Commanding 11th Suffolks reported; “Position in front is very serious. O.C. 2/6th North Staffs in person reports his battalion, and probably his Brigade, broken. I have patrols out in front. Stragglers coming through, freely, mostly without arms or equipment.” Exhausted men of 59th Division were making their way back to the British lines in large numbers, and the Suffolks once more found themselves in the front line.
More heavy shelling continued throughout the 17th, the Germans on the receiving end too, as they advanced through Bailleul and dug in on the outskirts. Finally, for the Suffolks and the 16th Royal Scots, alongside them throughout the battle, the early hours of 18th April brought a halt to the fighting, as they were relieved by 17th & 19th Bns. King’s Liverpools, moving into reserve positions, before being further relieved by the 133rd French Division on the night of 20th/21st April, both battalions marching to bivouacs just east of Boeschepe, some ten miles away to the north west. The 11th Suffolks’ total casualties during the month of April 1918 would amount to 23 Officers & 471 Other Ranks killed, wounded or missing, those of the 16th Bn. Royal Scots 13 Officers & 554 Other Ranks.
Operation Georgette would continue until 29th April, the Germans making further advances before the effect of French reinforcements, whom Marshall Foch had agreed to send to the Lys sector on 14th April, and the steadily rising casualty rate (we shall visit some of the German cemeteries in the area later this year), caused the German High Command to call off the offensive.
Which leaves us with one tiny problem as far as the cemetery is concerned. Take a look at this map. Both Erquinghem cemeteries are clearly marked, Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard Extension in pink, and Suffolk Cemetery, La Rolanderie in green in the fields to the south; Rue Dormoire, mentioned a couple of times in the text, is on the left of the map. As we have seen, the 11th Suffolks finally crossed to the northern bank of the river at about five in the afternoon of 1oth April, and by early morning of 11th April were holding positions to the north of the Armentières-Bailleul railway line (which I told you to note when you perused the previous map, and is not the railway line crossing the one above, which is the line to Merville and has nothing whatsoever to do with anything – you can, however, just see the one I am talking about to the very top right), a good mile north of both the river and Erquinghem-Lys, and from there, slowly but surely over the next few days, as we have seen, they were forced to withdraw further. Which leaves us with a cemetery full of men, the vast majority of whom are supposed to have died more than a week after their battalion had left the immediate area, and two days, give or take, after they had been relieved by the King’s Liverpools and moved into reserve positions. Twenty two headstones in this cemetery, all 11th Suffolks, give a date of death of 19th April, which cannot possibly be true. Some research required, methinks.
And it didn’t take long. These are the two Graves Registration Reports for the cemetery, both shown here courtesy of the CWGC, and, as I looked, admittedly knowing roughly what I was hoping to find, it was still quite a moment when I realised that the solution to the problem was staring me in the face.
It’s easier to point out how the mistake, or mistakes, arose using the second document. Look at the dates next to all but the first man in Plot 2 Row A (and therefore all the dittos too), and against Private Bunting, one from the bottom of the page, and Private Graham, in the centre. All appear to have a crossed out 9 replaced by a 19, hence the date on the headstones. But all is not as it appears, is it? What it actually says, I suggest, is 9/19, i.e. ‘these men died between 9th & 19th April, but we’re not sure of the exact date’. But I reckon that you and I do, certainly to within two days. As the battalion was north of the river by the early evening of 10th April, unless someone kept nipping back across the river into German territory to bury people for the next nine days (I don’t mean to sound facetious, but give me another explanation), we know that they must have died on either 9th or 10th April, and no later. Similarly, next to two of the three 12th Bn, men on the first document it says 8/12, i.e. they died sometime between 8th & 12th April, and as we have seen, men of the 12th Suffolks were picked up 11th Bn. during the battle on 9th April, so once again these men must have died no later than 10th April, as they would have withdrawn across the river with the men of 11th Bn.
Some of the names on the second Graves Registration Report re-appear on this undated, but certainly later, Headstone Inscription form, and, as you can see, the 9/19 has now been interpreted as a definitive date of death of 19th April. The mistake has now been made, and it’s never been corrected. Because in fact, whatever the regiment, it is inconceivable that any of the burials were made here after 10th April, and for your information, and unlike other burial grounds in the region, this little cemetery was not re-opened when the Allies advanced later in the year. There were no further burials here, and although it is possible, before you ask, that some of these men might have been buried by the Germans, there isn’t much logic in the argument, and it doesn’t change the parameters of their dates of death.
So, as we make our way back to the farm and the car, what to do next? Take some advice, I suppose, because I’m not so sure that I can leave this one alone. What do you reckon?
In the meantime, and as a fitting footnote, the cemetery was originally called La Rolanderie Ferme Military Cemetery until 1925, when the name was changed on the request of the late O.C. of 11th Bn. Suffolk Regiment. You can actually see, on the Graves Registration Reports, that the new name has been added in pen and dated, on the first form, May 1925 (it is also the reason that we know that the Headstone Inscription form is later than the other two forms, as it bears the new cemetery name at the top). And I gather that Basil Rathbone, who served as an officer with the Liverpool Scottish and gained a Military Cross in 1918, was billeted at La Rolanderie Farm at some point during the war. Finally, did you notice, according to the second of the Graves Registration Reports, that the name of Private Huddleston, whom we have mentioned a couple of times during the post, should be spelt Huddlestone? Of course you did.