Sulley, Lionel, Private, 20603, Somerset Light Infantry, 7th Btn, 16th Sept 1916, Age 22, Guards cemetery LesBoeufs, France
Lionel Sulley was born in 1894 in Weston-in-Gordano to Frederick and Matilda Sulley (maiden name Bessant, a prominent surname in the Gordano valley for hundreds of years). Frederick was the postmaster here for a while, living in the old post office. Lionel was baptised in our church on 14th July 1894 and at the age of 3 was enrolled at The National School Weston-in-Gordano on 15th June 1897 which he attended for 10 years, alongside his siblings Earnest, Kenneth, Connie, Herbert, Ethel, Cecil, Norah and Harold.
The curriculum of the day would have been rich with the military exploits of British heroes such as Nelson at Trafalgar, great victories at Agincourt, Waterloo, the Sudan and most recently the 2nd Boer War. At the height of Empire, school children were taught the virtue of serving one’s country and the boys were unambiguously indoctrinated with the spirit of doing their bit for King and Country, should the glorious opportunity arise. Just over the hill, Portishead National School had a serving sergeant who would attend the school and teach military drill to the boys for a morning, once a week.
The Sulley family and many others feature regularly in the school register for lack of attendance. Most families were agricultural labourers, frequently conscripting the children, to skip lessons to help in agricultural work, such as “bird keeping”, keeping birds off the corn. Harvest was a time of low attendance at rural schools, everyone of all ages working the fields, much to the frustration of the school mistress and local constable.
Having left school at 13, Lionel worked as an estate labourer, at which time his father Frederick was also working the land. Around the time of Lionel’s 20th birthday, the world was descending into war and millions of young men answered Kitchener’s call to join the colours. At some point in late January 1915 Lionel joined the Somerset Light Infantry as a Private, allocated the regimental number 20603, maybe on the same day as Reginald Crees from North Weston, who was given 20604.
By March, the 7th Somerset Light Infantry was on Salisbury plain training with over 12,000 other volunteers, practising drill and manoeuvres in their new khaki uniforms. While in training the battalion suffered 2 measles outbreaks and pneumonia also took its toll on the weary men.
After months of training, the 7th SLI embarked for France on 24th July 1915, just after Lionel’s 21st birthday. The green volunteers were soon put under the care of more seasoned troops, cutting their teeth holding the front line near Armentieres, under the watchful eyes of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. The Germans in the trenches were well aware of their new neighbours calling out “Hello, you Somerset cuckoos.”
As the months progressed the 7th SLI became used to the daily churn of trench warfare, rotated in and out of the line, carrying duties at night, shelled and sniped wherever they were stationed, but always in reserve of an attack, fulfilling a supporting role. While their sister battalion the 8th took part in the battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, the 7th watched from afar, the only casualty due to accidental discharge of a weapon. Nevertheless, the 7th was losing men, a steady attrition to snipers, shells and illness, the endless drudgery, poor conditions and constant threat of death weighing heavily over everyone.
The battalion were given 6 weeks of rest behind the lines in January of 1916, after 6 months of rotating in and out of the trenches. Regardless of positive respite to see in the year, 1916 would be a baptism of fire for the 7th. Kitchener’s army of volunteers was now sizeable and equipped enough to think about a major offensive of its own. The Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme took place along a massive front shared by the British in the north and the French to the south, a diversionary operation to draw German forces away from Verdun. Much attention is always given to the first day, 1st July, where the British failed attack resulted in 60,000 casualties, yet its often overlooked that the battle would rage for another 140 days until 18th November 1916 and claim over a million lives.
Within the Battle of the Somme, many large and small operations aimed to maintain pressure on the Germans, gradually taking land from the enemy by capturing villages or woods, which had been fortified for over two years. One such engagement was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which began on the 15th September 1916, rumour was rife of a new British secret weapon.
Captain Jones of the 7th SLI remarked, “We heard tales of a new landship, which would crash through wire entanglements and cross wide trenches and hopes of a sensational advance were raised.”
The 7th SLI were attached to the Guards Division for this assault, the objective in front of them several lines of German trenches and the fortified village of Lesboeufs. Lionel Sulley waited with his comrades for the order to go over the top. At 925am on 16th September 1916 the attack commenced. A Guards officer described the scene from his vantage point.
“A light infantry brigade over on the left attacked. It was a sight to gladden brave men’s eyes! For the little brown dots went creeping forward up the distant green slopes were swept away again and again, while across the valley echoed the loud stutter of German machineguns, yet succeeding lines went on. The tiny brown figures seemed literally to blow away, yet others struggled forward, wave upon wave, until they were lost to view.
Through the glasses one could see the wake they have left – little figures crawling about, hobbling, with stretcher bearers darting and ducking to and fro. All the valley now re-echoed to the roar of artillery.
The British supports were seen coming up through a heavy barrage, then the men began to trickle back down the slopes strewn with brown figures left in the trail of the advance. What had happened? No one knew. Had the attack failed? No one could say. Little by little the artillery fire slackened, some inquisitive aeroplanes came out and hovered over the scene.”
The 7th had done well, securing their valuable objective, but Lionel Sulley had been killed in action along with 175 men of the battalion who were killed or wounded that day.
He was 22 years old.
Lionel is burried in Guards cemetery, LesBouefs on The Somme, grave II.A.2