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  • Mark Forsdike

Remembering Neuve Chapelle

Today, I am reminded of the 4th Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment’s actions at Neuve Chapelle and how over a three-day battle in March 1915, they advanced to take and hold positions south of the defensive strongpoint ‘Port Arthur’ in front of the ‘Bois de Biez’ to the south of the village of Neuve Chapelle itself.

Here in the cold, muddy, sludgy ground, a conference of officers was called to determine the next phase of the advance. Whilst individual companies remained in command of Sergeants or junior subalterns, the CO gathered his officers in a shell hole beside the road. Virtually no photographs survive of that period, except a few taken by Ipswich MP, ‘Jack’ Ganzoni. What we have instead is in my opinion, one of the finest ‘action’ paintings of the Great War.

That painting, entitled “4th Suffolks at Neuve Chapelle” depicts the scene that day. It was commissioned by the officers of the 4th Battalion in 1919 and was executed in oil by Fred Rowe, R.I., who completed it from the memories of those who where there and in the shell hole can be seen the faces of many of the officers who fought there that day.

On the left is Major Charles Turner, the Second in Command, next to him, Captain Frank Pretty, whose widow would later buy Sutton Hoo (famous for its Anglo-Saxon burial boat), in the middle Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Cruddas (wearing his ‘trademark’ monocle) and to his left, Major Cockburn; the Adjutant of the Battalion (he later had his arm amputated as a result of wounds received that day), and beside him, Captain Rodwell (whose son was also a member of the Battalion and later was an early paratrooper). With their backs to the artist were Lieutenants Frere and Mason.

Why is particularly lovely about this painting is the detail. Officers and men in greatcoats, with officers wearing other ranks equipment, and large packs being worn as had been normal in the first week months of the Great War.

The initial cost of the painting was offset to a major degree by Regimental Funds and by a generous payment from the ‘Sphere’ magazine who wished to obtain the publishing rights to it. It was published by them in full colour in 1920. Later, it was given to the Ipswich Art Galleries under the Cobbold Bequest (Though in the late 1960s it was loaned to the Suffolk Regiment museum to be displayed in their new Museum in the Keep at Bury St. Edmunds). It’s been on display in Ipswich Museum for some years now and I look forward to visiting there after lockdown to see it once again.


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