French Flanders: Armentières to La Gorgue Part Three – A Return to Suffolk Cemetery (La Rolanderie Farm)

It’s only a little place, Suffolk Cemetery (La Rolanderie Farm), but it will forever be dear to my heart.  And I suppose, for personal reasons, this is up there with the most important of the close-on nine hundred posts that have been published on this website since late 2010.

Not the nicest of days, as I began the muddy walk into the teeth of the rain across the field towards the cemetery.  But I don’t actually care one jot, because I’m just happy to be back, and I know what I’m going to find.

Trench maps of the Erquinghem area, the River Lys meandering its way through the top left above, Erquinghem-Lys Cemetery Extension in pink, and Suffolk Cemetery (La Rolanderie Farm) the small orange oblong further south,…

…tucked into the corner of an orchard, it would seem.  Today the cemetery contains just forty three burials, thirty five of whom are identified, and of these all but four are men of the Suffolk Regiment (the cemetery plan, thank you CWGC, can be found here).  La Rolanderie Farm itself was used as 121st Brigade headquarters between 8th & 10th April 1918 and was heavily shelled at the time, but unlike other farm buildings we have encountered in Flanders where it was not possible to rebuild on the same spot due to tunnelling in, and shell damage to, the old cellars, it has been possible to rebuild the new farm on its old foundations, as its place in the firing line was relatively brief.

As we walk, there’s some background information that is pretty essential for a proper understanding of this post, and all is explained, in great detail, in the post covering our previous visit to this little cemetery.  If you remember, or have reacquainted yourselves since last post, all well and good; if you’ve forgotten, or have only just discovered this website and wish to delve deeper, I seriously urge you to spend a few minutes reading the previous post first.  A bit more than a few minutes, if I’m honest.  So go on, click the ‘previous post first’ link – it’ll open in a separate browser, so you won’t lose your place – and I’ll see you back here in a while.

Those of you who have now read the first Suffolk Cemetery post, welcome back; those of you who didn’t, your choice.  Let’s continue.

There was nothing remarkable about the fact that the rain stopped as I reached the cemetery entrance,…

…but the fact is that it did,…

…and for ten minutes I was alone and dry, here under this glowering, cheerless, sky, with my thoughts and my camera and these forty three men – a few less and the bodies in this little cemetery would almost certainly have been removed after the war and reinterred elsewhere, and the cemetery would have been erased from the face of the earth.

So here’s the story, the abridged version.  When I first visited this cemetery a few years back, it had been accepted for many years that it was used for a ten day period in April 1918 and that the majority of the burials were men thought to have been killed on 19th April, as their headstones testified.  Once I began to look into the Suffolk men buried here, I soon came to the conclusion that this simply could not be the case.  By 19th April 1918 the Suffolk Regiment, and the Germans, were some miles the other side (north) of the River Lys, making the date and place of burial of these men incompatible, unless, as I deliberately, and absurdly, postulated at the time, someone swam back across the river with two dozen bodies to bury them in German territory.  Quite impossible, clearly.

This map shows the gains made by the Germans on the first two days of the Battle of the Lys in the area immediately south of Armentières (top right).  Armentières itself was not attacked directly but was heavily gassed in the days prior to the attack, the German forces then advancing to both to its north and south, the British choosing to evacuate the town before the end of the first day to avoid complete encirclement.  The front lines at the start of the battle can be seen in the bottom right hand corner, pretty much where they had been for the previous three years, the red line shows territory on the right flank of the German attack that was captured on the first day (9th April), and the green line in the top left corner shows the German advance by the end of the second day (10th April) – in other words, the whole of the area covered by this map had fallen to the Germans by the end of 10th April, apart from the top left corner.  Erquinghem-Lys is marked near the centre top, and to its south east I have marked Suffolk Cemetery as an orange dot; the thicker magenta line shows the positions of the men of 11th Bn. Suffolks on the morning of 10th April according to the Abridged Chronology of the 11th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, which states, ‘Holding right flank between Gris Pot and Bois Grenier. Line just behind Hollebecque Farm.’, before they were ordered back across the Lys at about five o’clock that afternoon.

By 11th April the Suffolks had retired from the whole area shown on the map, so I then set out to find documented proof that the given dates of death for each of the twenty five identified 11th & 12th Bn. Suffolk men buried here were incorrect, and that these men must have died on 9th or 10th April, but no later.  The first La Rolanderie post that you have all now read outlines much of the documentary evidence, all of which, with advice from my friend Jack Thorpe in Erquinghem, and his contact at the Arras CWGC, was presented to the CWGC in Maidenhead in September 2017.

A week before Christmas 2017 the following email was received from the CWGC in response: ‘Reference your email dated 28th September. You will be pleased to hear that we have finally received an adjudication on this case from the National Army Museum.  They have agreed based on the information provided and after further research that the dates of deaths for the attached 25 casualties should be amended to the following date range – 9th-11th April 1918. A request to amend the headstones will be submitted shortly.’

And that, my friends, is what is known as a result!  After which it was a case of waiting until I was informed that the headstone amendments had been undertaken, and then getting over there to see for myself, which brings us up to date (appropriately, perhaps, these latest photos of the cemetery were taken over Armistice weekend 2018).

So allow me to introduce you to these men, ‘my’ Suffolk men (how self-righteous of me), although just before I do, the man buried on the far right in Plot II Row B in the foreground above, Private T. Huddleston, East Lancashire Regiment, mentioned more than once in the previous Suffolk Cemetery post, is one of the four non-Suffolk men buried here – the others are all machine gunners – and his date of death, 16th April, remains wrong (he was not part of my research because, at the time of presentation to the CWGC, I did not want to complicate the issue).  Next to him, in the centre,…

…Private Arthur Bunting has a brand spanking new headstone, with the dates 9th-11th April, as opposed to 19th, now inscribed upon it.  Quite why he has a new headstone, as opposed to an altered one, is up for question, because his previous headstone was in good enough condition (inset).  Perhaps a stonemason’s tap was a tad too hard, who knows.

Seven of the eight unidentified men buried in the cemetery are to be found in this row, and the two graves behind the flowers are both unidentified, that on the left totally, that on the right partly – he’s a Suffolk man, but that’s all we know.

Moving along the row, three more unidentified soldiers, two from the Suffolks and one machine gunner,…

…and at the end of the row two more unidentified Suffolk soldiers, on either side of…

…Private Leonard Graham, the date on his headstone nicely changed to 9th-11th April.

In the row behind, Plot II Row A, all ten graves are Suffolk Regiment men, and seven have had their dates changed.  The first two burials on the left are Privates Joseph Saberton & Robert Goodrum, and both headstones have had their dates altered from 19th to 9th-11th April.  Next to them Lieutenant Edward Bolton and Second Lieutenant George Duddy have always had a date of death of 10th April, so no changes required to their headstones,…

…and moving along the line, Privates Harry George Jeffreys & Joseph Newman have had their dates of death neatly changed, from 19th to 9th-11th,…

…as have the final three men in the row, Privates Mark Woods, Higham Pearson & John William Fisher.

Looking due north towards the farm buildings,…

…before we move on to Plot I.  In the background to the left you can see the three graves of Plot I Row C,…

…all of whom are Suffolk casualties whose headstones have been changed to the new dates, with varying degrees of skill, it would seem.  But they’ve been corrected, which is the main thing.  From left to right; Private Harry Howlett, Serjeant George Gaute, & Private Herbert Maynard.  Private Maynard is one of three 12th Bn. (originally a bantam battalion, but who knows their make-up by the spring of 1918) Suffolk men buried here, all of whom had an original date of death of 12th April, closer to the truth, but still not possible, who have now had their headstones changed to 9th-11th April.

Private Harry Howlett enlisted in March 1916, initially serving with 5th Suffolks, then, on arrival in France in September 1917, 9th Suffolks, before joining 11th Suffolks in February 1918.  During the German attack on 9th April he was working as a stretcher bearer, making numerous trips from aid post to No Man’s Land and back again, when he was hit by shrapnel, subsequently dying of his wounds.

Behind, in Plot I Row B, Privates Charles Woolmer, John Edward Thompson & Frederick John Hollingworth all now have the new dates of death on their headstones, Hollingworth being another of the three 12th Bn men whose dates has been changed from 12th April.

Lance Corporal Thomas Pither’s headstone, on the left, with a date of death of 10th April, had no need of change, but Private Henry William Chapman’s headstone, on the right, has been changed.

Looking roughly west, Plot I Row A nearest the camera,…

…the first five headstones of which…

…have all been changed.  Left to right; Private Percy William Lock, Private Frederick Wilkinson, Private Abraham Smith MM, Private Percy Partridge MM (the third of the 12th Bn. men to have their date of death changed), and Private George William Edwards,…

…and more of the burials in the row, left to right; Private Harold Charles Howlett*, another whose headstone appears to have been completely replaced, and Privates Thomas Mayo, Henry Arthur Plummer & Frederick William Swain, all of whose date of death has been changed from 19th to 9th-11th April.

*whether any relation to the other Howlett buried here I don’t know.

You have now met all twenty two 11th Bn. and three 12 Bn. Suffolk Regiment men whose headstones, which have borne an incorrect date since their deaths in 1918, have now, at last, a hundred years later, been corrected.

A quick potted history of the 11th Bn during the Great War: The regiment was formed in late September 1914 under the auspices of the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire as a Kitchener Battalion of men from Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, and duly embarked for France on 7th January 1916 as part of 101st Brigade.  After a brief period at Bois Grenier, near Armentières, where, as you all know if you read the recent series of post on Generals, their first casualty was their G.O.C., Brigadier-General Hugh Gregory Fitton D.S.O., shot by a German sniper, the battalion moved south to the Somme, attacking near La Boisselle on 1st July, and remaining in the line there until mid-August.  Returning to Armentières, they then participated in the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917, followed by a period of time near Peronne before they headed for Flanders and Third Ypres.

Winter 1917-18 was spent in trenches at Croiselles, south of Arras, and in March 1918 they once again returned to the Armentières area, this time based at Erquinghem-Lys, before the Germans attacked; they would be involved in the next two weeks of retreat, and they would be present when the villages along the Lys, including Erquinghem, were liberated later in the year, before ending the war near Cambrai.  They suffered 970 men killed during the war, 456 of whom have no known grave.  This included 190 on the first day on the Somme, only 42 of whom have known graves, and 103 during the failed attack on the chemical works at Roeux on 28th April 1917, 79 of whom have no known grave.  49% of the eleven hundred men who went to France in January 1916 would fail to return.

So, after five posts in total over the last few years on the two Erquinghem cemeteries, you might think that our business in this area is done.  Not a bit of it!  We shall return again, this year or next, to see what else might be going on around Erquinghem.  Who knows what we might be reporting by then (well, I do, and I ain’t saying).

And then, and there’s nothing remarkable about this either, it began to rain again.

Appendix One: 11th Suffolk Bn. War Diary 9th-11th April 1918

(Photos and occasional italics are mine, everything else isn’t)

Night of 8/9 April. 16th Bn Royal Scots (17 Officers & 785 Other ranks) were billeted in reserve in Erquinghem, two companies being disposed on the western edge of the town near Rue Dormoir and two in the town near the church.  Whole battalion had been on a night digging party near Bois Grenier and returned to billets at about 2.00a.m.

9th. At 4.00am enemy started intense shelling. Erquinghem was heavily shelled, Bn HQ & the remaining companys were got out in front of village in trenches in Artillery formation awaiting orders to avoid artillery fire. Same with the Royal Scots. Down fire heard on right front. Attack anticipated. 9.25am C.R.E. ordered to erect emergency bridges across the Lys. 5.30 Royal Scots fighting patrols find Fleurbaix strongly held by enemy, small encounters taking place on village outskirts, Scots take 8 prisoners. By evening it is clear that this is a major attack.  Battalion ordered to form up facing Fleurbaix with 103rd brigade on the left and 16th Royal Scots on the right. Battalion moved forward under orders, picking up elements of the 12th Suffolk, and became front line. By evening the line was established in touch with both flanks.  For the remainder of the day enemy attempts to advance were repulsed. During the evening right flank of 16th Royal Scots near the river was considerably harassed and threatened by parties of the enemy who had worked east over the north bank of the Lys and were shooting into the backs of our men.

10th. 7.00am Enemy attack and break through between Right 12th Suffolks and Left 16th Royal Scots, cutting off the portion of the Royal Scots in the neighbourhood of Rue Dormoire, who fought on entirely isolated under major A. E. Warr (missing). 12th Suffolks fall back. Situation critical, as gap now between right of 11th Suffolks, holding fast, and left of Royal Scots, which was swinging back, and the right of the Suffolks might be surrounded before reserves could arrive. On receipt of this news, the reserve company at La Rolanderie Farm dispatched to counterattack the enemy and fill the gap between right of 11th Suffolks & left of Royal Scots. The Germans seem not to have realised, or at least failed to exploit, the gap north of the river, creating a temporary gap at the west end of Erquinghem (church spire in background above – photo shows the old barn at La Rolanderie, replaced since this visit by the steel monstrosity pictured background below), as only a few men were pushed through.  By 8.45 am the enemy were driven back and the gap was filled and touch was re-established. This left the battalion with no Reserves whatsoever except battalion HQ personnel dug in just west of La Rolanderie Farm. During the morning the enemy pushed forward infantry, machine guns and field guns (probably our own).  Troops on the right began to give way slowly as the line was gradually pushed in around Erquinghem. 2.00pm enemy attacked the whole battalion front, except the left coy, very heavily. About 2.30 the troops on the right of the battalion withdrew and the enemy obtained lodgement in the centre of the line held by the battalion.

The 2 right coys withdrew to Erquinghem Switch under cover of outposts and got in touch with a party of Duke of Wellingtons on right (they arrived in time to prevent the Germans entry into Erquinghem), the troops in the centre whose position had been penetrated were rapidly reformed on a line joining Bn HQ personnel west (in front of) of La Rolanderie Farm to right of the left coy, with outposts in front. By 3.15 the enemy onslaught had been checked and the line completely re-established (Rolanderie Farm – Erquinghem Switch – south east end of Erquinghem). Left Coy and original position and right of Right Coy in Erquinghem Switch. 3.30 Orders for Battalion to be withdrawn north (left bank) of River Lys, holding off repeated attacks until 5.00 pm to allow 9th N.F. on the left to withdraw first. By now Left Coy,where N.F.s had withdrawn, were heavily engaged on three sides, while the centre of the battalion was heavily pressed by the enemy with numerous machine guns.  At 5 to 5.30 Bn withdrew across Lys and took up position with outposts on all flanks facing in every direction.  The Battalion was, in accordance with orders, in support for Brigade holding the rest of the Lys defences, but as the right of the Brigade appeared to be up in the air and the Bn was subjected to machine gun fire from L’Estrade & L’Hallobeau and there was the sounds of firing from the direction of Le Veau, patrols were sent out to get in touch with any British troops in the neighbourhood (they found the right of the Royal Scots, and captured the NCO in charge of a German trench mortar detachment) and to find out positions of the enemy.

11th 2.00am Battalion formed rearguard to the brigade who were withdrawn to Nieppe (above). Battalion took up position along Armentieres Bailleul railway facing south west, 103rd brigade on left, 16th Royal Scots on right. Outposts and patrols were pushed forward, in afternoon 103rd brigade were attacked, but not Suffolks. Battalion withdrew towards La Creche and spent night in farm near Blanche Maison (the battalion would continue a fighting retreat until being relieved on the night of 17th-18th April).

Appendix Two

11th Bn. Suffolk Regiment – Amended or Replaced Headstones 2018

BUNTING, ARTHURPrivateNone09/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
CHAPMAN, HENRY WILLIAMPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
EDWARDS, GEORGE WILLIAMPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
FISHER, JOHN WILLIAMPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
GAUTE, GEORGESerjeantNone09/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
GOODRUM, ROBERTPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
GRAHAM, LEONARDPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
HOLLINGSWORTH, FREDERICK JOHNPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
HOWLETT, HARRYPrivateNone09/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
HOWLETT, HAROLD CHARLESPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
JEFFREYS, HARRY GEORGEPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
LOCK, PERCY WILLIAMPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
MAYO, THOMASPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
NEWMAN, JOSEPHPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
PEARSON, HIGHAMPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
PLUMMER, HENRY ARTHURPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
SABERTON, JOSEPHPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
SMITH, ABRAHAMPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
SWAIN, FREDERICK WILLIAMPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
WILKINSON, FREDERICKPrivate10-04-191809-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
WOODS, MARKPrivate10-04-191809/19-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918
WOOLMER, CHARLESPrivate10-04-191810-04-191819-04-191809/11-04-1918

Appendix Three

12th Bn. Suffolk Regiment – Amended Headstones 2018

MAYNARD, HERBERTPrivateNone8/12-04-191812-04-191809/11-04-1918
PARTRIDGE, PERCYPrivateNone8/12-04-191812-04-191809/11-04-1918
THOMPSON, JOHN EDWARDPrivate10-04-191812-04-191812-04-191809/11-04-1918


Our French Flanders tour continues here.

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7 Responses to French Flanders: Armentières to La Gorgue Part Three – A Return to Suffolk Cemetery (La Rolanderie Farm)

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    I think congratulations are in order, fantastic work Magicfingers! Absolutely outstanding research, as ever. An immense thing to have been responsible for my friend.
    That’s quite some rate of attrition, a 50:50 chance of making it home. Brave men all.

  2. J Gill says:

    Q. So just how have the stone masons managed to change the dates from ’19th’ to ‘9th – 11th’ – managing to lose the curves of the ‘9’; have they used a filler material of some kind?

  3. Sid from Down Under says:

    Bravo! And I know you will be so rightly pleased with getting the dates corrected. Personally I prefer the replaced headstone – the date is balanced centrally rather than to the left side.

    Another incredible post

    • Nick Kilner says:

      I suspect the imbalance is down to a computer (or user) error at the point of milling, and was presumably too expensive to correct. Theres no way that any stonemason would hand carve everything off to one side like that. As the saying goes “to err is human, but to foul things up completely requires a computer”. The ones that have been modified are all reasonably new stones, which had presumably been installed not too long before Magicfingers submitted the correction. I was there in May 2018 when a few of the stones had been altered, and its quite obvious looking at the photos I took that the stones were quite fresh then. I would bet good money that the headstones which have been completely replaced and have the new date were scheduled to be replaced anyway (or close enough that it was worth doing). It’ll be a long time now, but hopefully those with offset dates will all get straightened up eventually.

  4. Morag Sutherland says:

    amazing research – as always – and a fine result….

  5. Margaret Draycott says:

    And now M the mystery of the Suffolk’s that you eluded to in November has been revealed and well done you a brilliant result. Perhaps originally in the mayhem of war a clerk somewhere wrote down the wrong date. I get your like a dog with a bone once you start on something again well done.

  6. Magicfingers says:

    Thank you all! As you can imagine, I’m a bit of a smug git right now.

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