“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, 5 June 2016
Sam on the Somme: “Machine-gun bullets spattered around me” – digging a trench in No Man’s Land at night. And sorting out a decent kip while you’re there…
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A hundred years ago this week… immediately after the Battle Of Jutland, the British war effort was shaken by the death of “Your Country Needs You” poster hero Field Marshall Lord Kitchener – at sea, oddly enough, when cruiser HMS Hampshire, carrying him to Russia, hit a mine off Orkney (or perhaps was torpedoed by a U-boat whistled up by disguised on-board German spy Fritz Joubert Duquesne… whose account of events has been questioned).
In France, the deadly back and forth at Verdun continued, with the German Army’s attacks largely repulsed (Vaux Fort and Damloup June 5, Hill 304 9, Thiaumont 11), while the Battles Of Ypres and Mount Sorrel likewise proceeded inconclusively.
The Brusilov Offensive, the Russian Army’s greatest military achievement some say, developed favourably as they pushed the Germans back at Lutsk, Dubno and Czernowitz (June 6, 10 and 11, in present Ukraine). And further south, the Italian Army started its counterattack against the Austrian Strafexpedition invasion of Trentino and gained ground around Monte Cengio (5) and Asiago (9).
Emphasising that, within certain longitudinal limits, this war did pretty much involve everyone fighting everyone everywhere, British-backed Sharif Hussein launched the Hashemite Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire with an attack on Mecca and the siege of Medina (both June 10, current Saudi Arabia), in Persia the Turkish Army drove the Russians out of Khanaqin (5) and the British took Kirman (12), and the invasion of German East Africa (current Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) continued via advances by Rhodesian (6), British (8-10) and Belgian (6) troops.
Meanwhile, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), had reached the Somme front as – unbeknownst to the soldiery – plans and preparations for July 1 developed. After a terrible winter in Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) had moved to France in late April. To their chagrin, at Rouen the Army disbanded the Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons and so swiftly he had no chance to say goodbye to his older brother and Fusilier comrade Ted, 19. That was on or about May 14…
Last week, my father learned more of the ways of the Western Front – sniper avoidance, how to dig a trench in No Man’s Land and such – initially in the Gommecourt sector front line at the northern end of “the Somme”, just outside the village of Hébuterne, and then, from May 28, in the reserve trench which ran through a nearby village called Sailly:
‘I really enjoyed life in that support trench for several reasons, the main one simply that I was getting rest and sleep, but also it ran through what remained of an orchard. The occasional tree, the fruit bushes, and wild brambles seemed to cut us off from the war – just because we couldn’t see much of it…
So the days and nights passed and soon came our turn to move back to our Reserve line. It ran through the outer, westward side of a small country town, much of it wrecked*. My section occupied the ground floor of what remained of a small, detached house…’
My father called this latest temporary set-up “comparative luxury: part of a house with part of a roof” – which I suppose it was, relative to a muddy trench. But he soon found that modest distance from the front line had little bearing on the hazards of their nightly labours in No Man’s Land:
‘… our night work became more difficult and dangerous – to mark our gratitude for favours received, perhaps.
Wearing light equipment consisting of belt, shoulder straps, ammunition pouches and haversack – worn on the back instead of at the side – with rifle carried in the right hand and a pick or shovel in the left, we moved up the long communication trench to the front, then straight “over the top” in a long line. Guides stationed out there already led groups of us to positions where a short length of advanced trench had to be dug as soon as possible.
Soon, all of us were hard at work – and the noise we made was frightening. Only too well aware that we must soon be heard and seen by Jerry, we picked and shovelled like madmen, hoping that German observers sending reports of our activities back to their HQ, and then senior officers deciding how to dispose of us… would all take a long time.
Fortunately for us, enemy reaction did prove slow and when, eventually, their wrath descended, we squeezed down into the hollows we’d dug and found we did have a few protective inches of earth above our precious bodies.
Machine-gun bullets spattered around me and I marvelled that I should lie there, hear and see them striking, yet remain untouched. But our semi-trenches afforded little protection when light field guns joined in and their shattering whizz-bangs** filled the air with noise and flying metal. One could only hug Mother Earth and wait for an order to retire, which didn’t come.
I heard the occasional muttered request for “Stretcher-bearers!” – brave fellows indeed, themselves not immunised from injury or death by their labours of mercy. Brilliant flickering Verey lights fired by the Germans revealed all movements; when one hovered near you, you froze no matter in what posture. I always looked down to conceal the whiteness of my face, though more in hope than conviction.
Later, after the firing had died down, the order “Dig like hell!” was passed along. We complied until, after a while, we reaped a further rich harvest of bullets and shell which compelled our officer to order a retreat. We stood not upon the order of our going***, and one still had to find a gap in the barbed wire to reach our frontline trench. But, having done that, one savoured the rich pleasure of having survived a risky piece of work.
Via such skirmishes and the general attrition of low-key fighting, the odd few casualties took toll of our men****. But no major battle had yet taken place during my few weeks around the Front in France, and our Company next moved yet further back. Even so, we still had to provide the occasional nocturnal working party.
One night, with six men I think it was, I was sent to meet a Sergeant of the Royal Engineers at a certain point in a communication trench. A very different job, this one. Thankful I was that my task only involved ensuring the men reached the rendezvous, and obeyed the Engineers’ instructions, then returned with me to our Company.
So, not trench-digging, but proper excavation this time: first, a tunnel sloping downward at a steep angle; then, when we got deep enough, we dug out a large hole and shored it up with pit-props – accommodation for a Brigadier and his staff, we heard.
While one man worked at the “face”, the rest of us formed a chain, passing buckets of “spoil” back up to the surface. Every couple of feet, we could all pause while the Engineers hammered a new wooden frame into position to support the tunnel roof and walls around us. We quickly reached a depth sufficient to require the use of a manual pump up above to drive fresh air through a tube and down to us.
During a pause for rest, I made my way to the very bottom of the tunnel. The noises of war faded to nothing down there. No interference, then, with the work the Brigadier and his aides would have to conduct during some coming battle. We gathered that another tunnel was being dug to serve the same headquarters; it started from some distant point unknown to me, the idea being that, if a German shell smashed one entrance/exit, the other, hopefully, would remain and provide an escape route.
Down at the bottom of our approach tunnel, I tried to make myself feel safe. I thought of the officers and men who would spend days and nights here, poring over maps and dispatches, considering reports and making decisions. They would, of course, have ample room, whereas I had only a very confined space, and realised that the sooner I climbed out into fresh air the better I would feel. Back up top, I reflected on which situation I would prefer if the area came under intense artillery bombardment – below ground or not – but I reached no conclusion.
Then, and since, I have wondered if any conceivable consideration could justify placing millions of men under the constant nervous stress that assails them in the battle areas of a static trench war. It may not have occurred to some people that, until full voting rights were given to all men in Britain, manual and clerical workers – generally of that level of society which is referred to as “working class” – had no avenue of escape from compulsory National Service in time of war. It was probably in 1911 that an Assistant Scoutmaster, aged about 24, told me he had at last become “a real man”, having just been given the “lodger’s vote”. Prior to that, only house owners could vote for a parliamentary candidate. Women, of course, had no vote until after that war*****.
However, regardless of my reflections in idle moments, there I was, a boy compelled to wear a stripe on each arm which gave him unwanted, albeit tiny, authority over his fellows; a boy who couldn’t get even a short break at home between the Middle East campaign and the now impending Battle Of the Somme******.
We soldiered on.’
As I’ve mentioned before, comparison between my father’s Memoir and the Kensingtons’ War Diary suggests that he did not recall these vivid front-line incidents in precise chronological order. The following is a story I’ve brought forward from its actual location in the Memoir because it sits naturally with these accounts of sallies into No Man’s Land (as editor, I didn’t change the order of events in the book itself at all). The WD notes my father’s A Company working in No Man’s Land on many occasions, May 26-7, May 30-June 1 and June 9-21:
‘One night, we had slunk across open country towards the front in one, long, single line – to reduce loss of men to the minimum if a machine gun or a shell found us – had re-entered the trench system, then found our work sites in No Man’s Land.
Our unfinished trenches aimed to join our existing front line to manned, advanced positions. I placed my merry lads at equal intervals in pairs, each with one pick and one shovel. Work got away to a good start, but after about three hours of this exhausting labour we needed food, drink and rest. However, on this occasion, the normal rations had been issued during the day and our Quartermaster and his stores lodged way back in the village. Even the cold water in our bottles tasted mouldy and, thereafter, all the heart went out of the work. As I walked the length of the trench, I apologised to all and promised I would personally see that food and drink would be available next time.
A little later that night, a man sent from the front-line trench came to fetch me. I found the Company officer in charge of that section having a chat and a cuppa in his dugout with another officer, based in our village*******, who was responsible for supervising the whole trench-deepening operation. He said he would make periodical inspections of all the groups involved in this work, including mine. So I told him of the men’s need of food and drink around midnight – to which his only suggestion was that, as the men were required to sleep during most hours of daylight, they should save bread, cheese and such for a meal during the night; water would have to suffice for drinking.
None of this would please our chaps – good workers if looked after, but capable of skilful toil-avoidance if displeased. I felt they were not being well treated and would be resentful. Yet, somehow, some work must be seen to be done. So I let it be known that if they did a good three hours graft, starting from our time of arrival, then the rest of the night could be taken easy, given that each man should grab a tool and be busy as soon as he heard my voice, for my coming would be a warning of the officer’s presence, doing his rounds.
Each night I found it necessary to conduct two or three of these hurried scrambles, talking loudly, even giving the occasional jab or shake to a slow waker-up. This meant we shifted a reasonable amount of earth and the men’s sense of grievance subsided – a satisfactory outcome, and I felt good because I had become acceptable to and even popular with a Platoon of men among whom I had so far felt like an interloper (apart from also being much younger than most of them).’
* My father never named these places, though I’m sure he remembered them, but my deduction from the Kensingtons War Diary is that this was Sailly.
** British soldiers nicknamed shells fired by the German 7.7cm field gun “whizz-bangs” because they travelled faster than the speed of sound, so recipients heard the “whizz” as they sliced through the air before they heard the “bang” made by the gun firing them; this meant they offered no early warning of their arrival, unlike larger shells from a more distant howitzer.
*** What good schooling my father had received! Although he had to leave at 14 because of his family’s poverty, here he is, writing in his 70s and quoting from Macbeth – studied more than 50 years earlier.
**** For example, the Kensingtons’ WD notes 11 “ORs” (Other Ranks) killed or wounded on May 27.
***** “Only house owners could vote for a parliamentary candidate”: that was under the Third Reform Act, 1884, though more explicitly it gave the vote to men paying annual rent of £10 or owning land valued at £10 or more – this is estimated to have still excluded 40 per cent of adult males; however, it seems that, despite the 1884 Act, many lodgers found themselves excluded from voting until a 1911 Court Of Appeal decision, which is probably what made a man of my father’s Assistant Scoutmaster back home in Edmonton; women (over 30 who met minimum property qualifications) won the vote in UK via the Representation Of The People Act passed well before the end of World War I, in February, 1918, and first exercised their new right later that year in the December 14 general election.
****** As he has mentioned in recent episodes, at this point Sam wanted nothing more than a week’s leave back home. It would have been his first since February, 1915. No such luck as yet.
******* Sailly or Souastre at this point.
NB: today, and throughout the summer, these blogs will be unusually long, simply because Sam had such vivid memories of and so much to say about his experiences a hundred years ago on the Somme. I hope you’ll agree there’s not too much wasted verbiage and plenty of truth and substance.
All the best – FSS
Next week: After a terrifying cock-up in No Man’s Land Sam and comrades get some rest a few miles back – baths, delousing… and some practice for July 1 on a mock battlefield (with only their officers and some German spy planes looking on).