“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, 22 April 2018
New POW Sam swiftly succumbs to the necessary obsession with food and starts improvising with snaffled scraps; continuing his quest for comrades not yet degraded and broken, he comes upon an inspirational Sergeant from his own Essex Regiment…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The German Western Front onslaught which began with the Operation Michael battles in March, continued in only slightly lower key through the later stages of Operation Georgette (April 7-29), aimed at pushing the British Army back to the channel ports via attacks starting further north in France and western Belgium, with the Allied railway hub at Hazebrouck a particular target.
The week began with relatively smaller fights around Albert, Robecq and Wytschaete (April 22; the first two in France, the third in Belgium, but all three in a rough line of battle running southwest from Ypres). What turned out to be the final exchanges of the offensive ensued: the Second Battle Of Villers-Bretonneux (24-5; further south and due east of Amiens) saw the German Army use tanks for the first time – ergo the world’s first (small) tank battle – and take the village initially then yield it back to British and Australian troops (Allied casualties 15,500, German 8-10,000); the Second Battle Of Kemmelberg (25-6; in Belgium, about six miles southwest of Ypres) where the Germans successfully stormed French troops who’d relieved the British on Mount Kemmel, but achieved no major breakthrough.
Meanwhile, British naval raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend in occupied Belgium (April 22) sank ships to block the exits for German submarines based in Bruges.
On what had been the Eastern Front the rather wild mix of politics and military action unfolded further with the United Diets of Baltic Provinces “asking” the German Government to unify them as a monarchy under the King Of Prussia, namely Kaiser Wilhelm (April 22; inverted commas mine). A little further north the German and Finnish Armies combined, rather than fighting, 30 miles north of Helsinki (26), and down in the Ukraine German forces approached Sebastopol.
The Turks took their chance – post Treaty Of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and the Axis Powers – to pick up some pieces, occupying Bayazid, Armenia (April 23), and Kars in Georgia (April 27; that same day Georgia declared its independence).
[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)… untilofficialdom 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 andprepare 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 near Fampoux, about six miles east of Arras, on March 19… just in time, it turned out, for the opening artillery bombardment of the German Spring Offensive and a last stand by the Battalion on March 28 which left 80 alive and OK out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, taken prisoner.]
Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, taken POW at the end of the 2/7th Essex Battalion’s fight to the last bullet against the Operation Mars segment of the Spring Offensive, experienced the first of many makeshift prison camps he was to encounter before Armistice.
This one, at Denain, introduced him to the “dirty, unshaven, stinking” condition of prisoners who’d been there for even just a few weeks – and the fear-cum-knowledge that he would inevitably slide into the same broken state. Here he starts to adapt and take any possible measure to hold on to his own character in a situation in which everyone tended to lurch towards the feral. But he does find one man who inspires him to believe that dignity might be possible to some degree:
‘Nourishment for that second day as a prisoner had consisted of a litre of coffee substitute (mainly roasted and crushed acorns) and a piece of sour, dark-brown rye bread, which yielded two slices. I was to become familiar with these items during the coming months. The only daily addition to this, now that we had entered some kind of makeshift war prisoner camp, was a litre of stewed root vegetables – swedes, turnips and mangoldwurzels(2) – doled out every evening. Some old horsemeat may have been cooked with them, but none came our way; the under-fed Germans saw to that.
This diet just kept me alive. Now, even in these earliest days, I too started to become hollow-eyed, emaciated.
First priority was to acquire an empty tin can in which to collect your liquid rations. I managed that quite soon and, with a penknife which had eluded the Germans who robbed me on the battlefield, I began shaping a spoon out of a piece of wood.
Finding some potato peelings one day, I washed them at a stand-pipe in the ex-factory building, put them in my can and filled it with water, gathered wood shavings, straw and odd bits of floorboard for a fire, cadged a light and cooked them. Without any seasoning they tasted awful, but down they went.
Prisoners had no work to do there in Denain and laying about in that unsavoury, crowded place took its toll of morale as well as of physical fitness. I soon formed an opinion that death in the battlefield would have been preferable to this sub-human existence… But, meanwhile, I must somehow manage to survive, difficult though this was looking. Small possibility now of my dying of “gunshot wounds” (a favourite military description of damage caused to a soldier’s body by shot, shell or aerial bomb), but we faced new enemies: starvation, chronic diarrhoea, and weakness resulting from diet deficiency.
Of the hundreds of men around me, no single one now looked worth an attempt on my part to form a friendship. Of course, I don’t know what I looked like, having no mirror, but my uniform had become soiled, my boots mud-encrusted; I seldom washed, never shaved. I guess I looked like the rest of them with their sunken cheeks, and purposeless shuffling hither and thither.
Hope revived, though, when a Sergeant of the Essex Regiment, miraculously clean and robust compared to the rest of us, came along and quietly told those of us who wore the Essex shoulder badge – including me, although I had not known him before – to make our way to the entrance gates. Goldberg(3) had told him the Jerries were moving a certain number of men to another town and that the Sergeant could select them and go with them. Naturally, he gave preference to his own chaps; when we lined up, the count revealed a small deficiency in numbers and volunteers scrambled for the chance to join us.
A small bunch of Liverpool men and a few from Brum, pushing types, made up the quota and so, after a nourishing meal(4) – a slice of bread and a can of so-called coffee – we shambled off.’
Armed Germans, about six of them, walked on either side of us. By then we had passed from the hands of fighting soldiers and into the care of the more elderly Landsturm(5) – mostly sour, stern old codgers, steeped in anti-British dislike, and with a determination to make us suffer. These guards prevented any attempt to walk on the footpath in search of scraps of food such as discarded cabbage leaves or stumps, potatoes, or indeed anything at all which could be eaten.
Even so, if a prisoner spotted any such trifle, and risked a beating by breaking ranks to pick it up, half a dozen starving blokes would pounce on him, hoping to grab it first, until one or more guards drove them back into line by prodding or bashing them with rifle butts. These pouncers were usually the northern group who had forced themselves on the Sergeant when he was getting his party together.’
(2) “Mangoldwurzels” might be unfamiliar word to some – also spelt “mangel/manglewurzel”, it’s a chunky root vegetable mainly cultivated for cattlefeed.
(3) Goldberg appeared last week as a Tommy who spoke German; he had ingratiated himself with the guards and, as translator, issued orders to the prisoners – his unpopularity not diminished by the era’s undercurrents of antisemitism.
(4) In case you’ve missed it, my father was a dead-pan sarcastic so-and-so at times, hence his “The Pisstaker” soubriquet in the Somme trenches a couple of years earlier.
(5) Landsturm: 3rd-class infantry, comprising any male aged between 17 and 42 who wasn’t in the standing Army, the Landwehr.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and comrades move into a pit village called Marchiennes; they sleep 10 to a shelf, their latrine open to the world – Sam sticks with his Essex Sergeant and Tommies in hopes of clinging to vestiges of humanity for as long as possible…
(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.