As elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the Volunteers received enthusiastic support in Suffolk. It was likely that up to six to seven thousand Volunteers had enrolled in Suffolk during 1914-15. Early in 1915 a County Volunteer Association was formed by the Lord Lieutenant under the command of Lieut. Col G.L. Bence-Lambert , C.M.G., and the Volunteers were organised into six battalions:
1st Battalion – Ipswich District (Commandant Col. F.G. Bond V.D.)
2nd Battalion – Bury St Edmunds District (Commandant Sir George Agnew, Bart., M.P.)
3rd Battalion – Lowestoft District (Commandant Major H.R. Tamplin)
4th Battalion – Woodbridge District (Commandant Lord Rendlesham)
5th Battalion – Sudbury District (Commandant Brig.Gen. J.A. Coxhead, C.B.)
6th Battalion – Saxmundham District (Commandant Col. Abdy Collins, V.D.)
Lieut. Col G.L. Bence-Lambert was given command of the 3/4th Suffolk Regt. soon after and was succeeded by Earl Cadogan. The Suffolk Volunteers were lucky in having Territorial Drill Halls placed at their disposal. A small number of short Martini-Metford rifles were obtained and uniforms of grey cotton issued, the War Office having barred the use of wool and khaki dye to the Volunteers. It was remarked that had invasion taken place, the Volunteers in their grey uniforms and conspicuous red brassards would have been obvious targets to the Germans.
In the summer of 1915, GOC Eastern Command Gen. Smith-Dorrien recognised the value of the Volunteers – “...probably I alone have been able to gauge how enormously their work has added to the efficiency of my scheme for a protection of our coasts”. As a result of this favourable review, the Volunteers were allocated guard duties on various bridges on the Great Eastern Railway and munitions stores at Ipswich.
During the summer of 1916, Volunteers of 1st Battalion spent their Sundays enlarging the Bixley Heath Rifle Range and “C” and “D” Companies of the 3rd Battalion assisted the Norfolk Volunteers to lay out the ground at the new air station at Pulham.
In the summer of 1916, the War Office finally took over the Volunteer Training Corps, volunteers being attested under the old Volunteer Act of 1863. Certain equipment was now issued and a small grant promised from army funds for expenses. Following an inspection of the Volunteers at Gyppeswick Park on October 22, Lord French on dwelling on the possibility of invasion remarked that the Government was prepared to equip the force fully but that Volunteers would have to sign on for the duration.
In December the Volunteer Act of 1916 was passed. One part of this Act was the classification of men – section A for men over military age, section B for those of military age, section C for boys of 17 and section D for those unwilling to sign on for the duration (i.e. retaining the old Volunteer right to resign on 14 days notice). Section D was later revoked. Drills were fixed at 14 one hour drills per month.
Early in 1917 whole time adjutants and regimental sergeant-majors were appointed to the Volunteer battalions and the Volunteers were armed with 1914 pattern rifles. Full equipment and uniforms were issued to those who passed the medical. Home Service battalions were instructed to provide instructors for the Volunteers in their neighbourhood. The course of training included close-order drill, physical training, musketry, bombing and bayonet fighting on two evenings and Sunday mornings of each week. Courses were established for Volunteer officers, attendance being essential. In the summer of 1917 Hotchkiss machine guns were issued to the Volunteers at four per battalion.
By January 1918 the Volunteers nationally numbered 289,137 in 313 battalions. During this month arrangements were made for a test mobilization with 36 hours notice but this was never carried out. During March, as the German Spring Offensives kicked off, the Volunteers were on the brink of mobilization. Lord Scarborough, Director-general of the force, was in favour of calling up the Volunteers for a months training. But as he remarked “....the wobblers have now drawn back again and do not mean to call up the Volunteers. I suppose our fool of a War Cabinet think that untrained recruits are just as good”.
However the War Office did recognize the value of the Volunteers and a scheme was set up where officers returned from the front were attached to battalions to supervise training, each officer looking after two battalions. The Volunteer strength was much depleted at this time as many previously exempted men were called up to replace the losses suffered as a result of the German Spring Offensives. A recruiting drive was targeted at farm labourers who had been exempted in large numbers, the 3rd Battalion for example recruiting 155 farm labours in 12 recruiting meetings.
The Volunteers were given definite roles in defence schemes – the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces noting in a special order dated May 10th 1918: “The isolated Volunteer Training Corps as they existed two years ago have developed into an organised, armed and equipped Volunteer force....has rendered it is possible to allot the Volunteer force a definite position in the defence force of this country.” The Volunteers manned coastal strong points and road blocks in the supporting line. The 3rd Battalion was allotted seven strong points in Lowestoft and four in the Southwold district, together with four road-blocking works in the rear of these, requiring garrisons amounting to 10 officers and 305 men.
Towards the end of May, things were looking serious on the Western Front, and troops remaining in the United Kingdom for home defence were much reduced after large scale reinforcements had been sent over to France. The mobilisation of the Volunteers was again considered but in the end the War Office decided to ask the Volunteer Force to find 15,000 to serve for two or three months on the coast until American forces were sufficiently ready to take their place on the Western Front and alleviate the crises. Suffolk was asked to find 330 officers and men.
A War Office circular described how these men would serve. These volunteers would be formed into Special Services companies each consisting of 114 officers and volunteers. The companies would serve on the north and east coasts. They would serve under the King’s Regulations and receive normal army pay and allowances.