“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
Sunday, 18 March 2018
March 28, 1918, the Spring Offensive, outside Arras: the great battle’s crescendo approaches… Sam observes the killer in himself, amid it all wonders whether there existed “any plausible excuse” for war, and releases the doves – not of peace, but carrying the tragic message of his Company’s and his Battalion’s demise back to HQ in case they were interested…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… the Western Front took over from the politics and skirmishing on the Eastern as the focus of attention – because of the variously named Spring Offensive/Operation Michael/Kaiserschlacht/First Battles Of The Somme 1918 (the last so dubbed by the British Battles Nomenclature Committee – imagine! – a body I’d never heard of before). The German strategy involved driving a wedge between the British and French armies, then pushing the British into the Channel.
The opening Battle Of St Quentin (March 21-3), prefaced by the war’s greatest artillery bombardment – 3.5 million shells in a day, maybe one in five of them gas – saw the German Army, reinforced by troops freed from fighting the Russians, wield a 3-1 manpower advantage. Soon the British were conducting “a fighting retreat” which became a more fragmented defence as the Germans advanced under cover of heavy fog.
Quickly, the Germans commander, General Ludendorff, swung the attack about 30 miles northwest for the Battle Of Bapaume (March 24-5). On the first day, after heavy shelling, the British evacuated the town and retreated. But the defeat began to look less decisive on day two as the British held a line from Bazentins and High Wood north to Arras (where the full German onslaught had not yet begun – and where my father FootSoldierSam and his comrades awaited developments under the usual massive bombardment, see below and the last several blogs). The German troops, meanwhile, got bogged down on those terrible old Somme battlefields.
The French came under lesser attacks in Champagne, near Verdun, and in Lorraine, plus the psychological threat of the “Paris Gun” firing its (relatively small) shells 75 miles from Crépy-en-Valoison… to Paris. Alarming Field Marshall Haig, the French commander Pétain seemed to be thinking of splitting his forces away from the British – something the Germans had not yet achieved – to prioritise defending his capital.
Action elsewhere looked minor by comparison, but the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, at this point in the shape of Anzac engineers and cavalry, pressed on from earlier gains to cross the Jordan and advance miles beyond it – under fire, they built five assorted bridges over three days (March 21-3) at a place called Makhadet Hilja.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion. An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations and prepare for more of the same (he was 19 while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train for a commission, but Sam detested ordering men around so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance may have brought about his “reversion” to Private, but perhaps he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. Come November/December, he enjoyed what proved to be the final home leave of his military career – and assured his family of his firm conviction that he would survive. In December/January 1917/8, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ in Arras, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away. But by mid-March he found his own Essex Battalion; they moved into the trenches on March 19…]
Last week*, on March 28, 1918, after my father Signaller Sam Sutcliffe took the midnight order from HQ which meant that C Company, and much of the rest of 2/7th Battalion Essex Regiment had to fight to the last man and bullet, he, his good Signaller friend Neston, and all their comrades stuck to their posts – despite the absence of any effective leadership above Sergeants and Corporals.
The relentless artillery barrage of the gathering Spring Offensive/Operatiion Mars onslaught left them battered, but as yet unable to get a sight of enemy soldiers… so they just stood there in the trenches waiting for what seemed like an age. “If this continued for much longer I guessed I’d explode from within,” Sam wrote. But Neston and he held themselves together around a tacit vow to “Stick together no matter what”…
But now the man-to-man battle is truly joined:
[* These excerpts had to step away from the blog’s usual 100-years-ago-this-week sequence because my father wrote at such length about the battle at Fampoux.]
‘One has read of “wave upon wave of German infantry” advancing upon our depleted forces…
When, suddenly, the artillery barrage lifted from our area, the relief we felt was quickly replaced by amazement at the sight of rows of huge, grey-clad men methodically taking over No Man’s Land, the space between the opposing armies’ most forward positions.
Their battlefield method obviously similar to our own, they came on in lines, each numbering only 20 to 30 men, advancing in sections with first a forward-in-line movement, then swinging 90 degrees on the axis man at the end. Their officer in charge controlled movement by hand and whistle signals.
Without waiting for orders — orders from whom, anyway? — we commenced firing. Thereafter, we paused only to reload our rifles and, in the mist, our targets appeared huge and unmissable. Our training, repetitious and at times seemingly unnecessary, was at last justified. We selected our targets, aimed so that the tip of the foresight was level with the shoulders of the back-sight, and sighted low on the human target.
Germans fell, each possibly victims of more than one British marksman. Since they still came onwards, steadily, but so far not getting to close quarters, we just fired, fired, reloaded and fired again…
I will here describe an incident the memory of which has remained with me, clear and vivid in every detail; so much so that it affected an important decision I had to make 20 years later(2).
In the desperate situation and amid the unnatural excitement, nervousness, and recurring moments of fear then being endured, one thing was proved beyond doubt – namely, that the intensive training one had undergone at various times during the past four years had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton. Loading — transferring a bullet from its position in a clip of five in the magazine to its position in the firing chamber by working the bolt back and forth – took only a fraction of a second; a moment to sight the gun correctly on a target; squeezing, not pulling the trigger – well, no time really. Result: a man killed, wounded horribly maybe, and so bereavement in some family, or else sorrow over a son made an invalid or a cripple for life, all caused by one man’s impersonal automatic action.
One target I dealt with was a man running not towards me but across my line of fire, about 50 yards distant.
“Snapshooting at a moving target” on the firing range; back come the instructions, “Maintain normal aim, moving with the target, then increase movement of rifle till daylight appears between target and rifle then ‘Fire’”.
The soldier fell… a comrade ran several yards to help him, appeared at the tip of my rifle fore-sight after I had rapidly reloaded, and I squeezed the trigger. As he too fell, the utter automatic callousness of my action registered somewhere in my brain and doubt nagged then and forever after about there being any plausible excuse for such murderous conduct.
“If you hadn’t killed him he might have killed you”?
Time seemed to be suspended… My ammunition pouches now empty, I took one bandolier of 50 from around my neck, laid it out before me on the parapet, opened its snap-fasteners and reloaded from it.
Neston had no bandoliers so, when he ran out of ammo, I let him heave my other one off my shoulder.
At one point he yelled, “Duck! Jerry half-right!” and in a split second I’d seen this tall German coolly standing a few yards away with his rifle trained on me, so down! quickly and phutt, the bullet just missed my helmet. A cautious peep revealed the tall Jerry, confident and careless man, sprawled on the ground facedown.
Now I knew at last the feelings that take over when soldiers sense they have an equal chance in battle – that is, in the final face-to-face struggle. True, this feeling endured but briefly; as long, in fact, as we had a supply of bullets. But it was wonderful while it lasted – while we felt we were doing a soldier’s job reasonably well.
The older man to my left died suddenly and painlessly; he was firing steadily, apparently devoid of any feelings of excitement. A strange noise near my left ear caused me to look at him; a sort of “cloink” it was. A neat hole towards the front of his right temple had appeared, but he remained standing briefly. I felt joy for him for a second, lucky man, life’s problems all solved now… But my rifle bolt had become over-heated and it was jamming – his gun rested across the parapet where it had fallen from his hands, so I took it.
Men were moving along in the trench below and behind us looking for and calling for ammunition. I fired my last round. Neston had finished his lot and we could obtain no more.
We made our own decision as to our next action. With difficulty, we forced our way through the milling mob – our defenceless comrades – in the direction of our dugout, because we intended to compose that final message and attach a copy of it to each of our lovely fantail pigeons.
I collected several bruises, I guess, as one or two of our men seemed to resent our moving past them and I also suffered a couple of shocks – over and above the great prevailing shock, I mean. Looking upwards as we shoved and pushed I caught sight of one of our junior officers wandering aimlessly out in the open; half his face appeared to have been blown off and he vanished from sight and must surely have been riddled with bullets almost immediately.
Then I saw a German not far from our trench, arm raised, about to throw a stick-bomb in my direction. I turned away, hoping to avoid the murderous thing, and it exploded on the parapet above me. This, I felt, was my lot, for with the shattering explosion came a stinging blow to the back of my neck. I clapped my hand over the injured part and gripped hard, determined to hold my head on at all costs.
I raced after Neston, urging him to hurry to the shelter before I collapsed. Soon we were scuttling down the steps. Safe in the dugout, I withdrew my hand and was almost surprised that my head remained in place. Just a little blood in my palm – and a small, sharp bomb splinter lodged in the skin of my neck; I pulled it out easily.
We found our basket and the pigeons all intact. The message we two devised had to be brief. It read, I believe, as follows: “No ammunition left. Almost surrounded by the enemy. Good-bye.” There followed details of our Company and Regiment.
Excited by the novelty of the situation, we took turns to hold a bird while the other inserted the quite tiny roll of fine, thin paper into the little sheath attached to the ring on its leg. Then we climbed the steps back up to the trench, flung the lucky birds upwards and watched them circle then fly to the rear of our position. Soon they would be in the Divisional loft, the message read and, one hopes, a little regret felt for the men who had been sacrificed… for, no doubt, some good military reason.’
(2) My father wrote this passage on a separate sheet after completing his description of his final battle; he headed it “Murder” and added a note on the main manuscript instructing me to insert it at this point; the decision he took 20 years later, when he was 41 and World War II loomed, was to join the Civil Defence in London as an ambulance driver/first-aid expert, and not to enlist in the Army again – to save life, rather than kill, he told me.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam faces his Company CO pointing a pistol at him before running away, then “Germans, hundreds of them, charging in my direction bayonets fixed… ”
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.