“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, 8 October 2017
Somme Rewind 2 – “Machine-gun bullets spattered around me”… Sam enters the Western Front trenches for the first time… and leads a detail into pitch-dark No Man’s Land…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… Apart from Marta Hari being shot at dawn (October 15), the story on the Western Front was of Allied success in the Third Battle Of Ypres (July 31-November 10) fizzling in the mud. Triple-average rainfall meant that the Battle Of Poelcapelle attack (October 9) turned into a “defensive success” for the German Army largely because a lot of Allied artillery got bogged down and couldn’t get within range of the German lines (casualties Anzacs 7,000, British 4,500, German unclear). Then Field Marshal Haigh and General Plumer both optimistically believed misinformation that the attack had almost reached its objective, Passchendaele Ridge, and proceeded with the First Battle Of Passchendaele (12) – an attack on a six-mile front abandoned after one day “until the weather improved” (casualties British, French and Anzac 13,000, German unclear).
Further south, constant action between the French and Germans around Craonne (Aisne), Beaumont (both October 8; near Reims), Chaume Wood (9; Verdun), and the Champagne front (12) saw a slight advantage to the German Army emerge – again contrary to events of the summer and early autumn.
In the Baltic, the German Navy extended the relentless advance on Russia – still proceeding on land through Latvia – by taking various Baltic Islands belonging to their neighbour Ukraine (October 12-16; Ösel, Taga, Runo, and Abro).
And down in German East Africa, the territorially vast, scattered campaign saw further defeats for the German Army at the hands of British (October 9), Belgian (9) and Portuguese (10) forces.
[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, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then, around his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more. However, I’ve had to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago excerpts from his Memoir because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blog excerpts. So, through to late October, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy. The Gallipoli excerpts concluded two weeks ago. Now this is the second of five edited episodes from the Somme, April-late September, 1916, when Sam was 17-18… ]
Last week, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe and his 250 comrades, the post-Gallipoli remnants of the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers who made it to the Western Front via a break in Egypt, were disbanded.
Deeply bonded, at base camp in Rouen they’d trained like lunatics in hopes of persuading the Army they should form the veteran core of a refurbished outfit. Instead, bitter and disillusioned – even more so because they’d still had no home leave since February, 1915 – they found themselves scattered among dozens of other units along the Front.
Peremptorily dispatched, around May 14 Sam joined the Kensingtons at a village called Souastre, 7.5 kilometres west of Hébuterne where the Battalion did its front-line stints (opposite German-held Gommecourt on the northern end of the Somme Front). With time to talk to his new comrades he realised they were decent sorts, of course. They chewed over events at home (civilian wages shooting up, the new phenomenon of conscientious objection). He also quickly came to appreciate Army provisions unknown at Gallipoli such as solid, regular meals, steel helmets and gas masks.
His Signaller’s skills surplus to the Kensingtons’ requirements, when their break away from the trenches was over, he readily switched roles to plain Company A infantry Lance Jack – while as ever regretting that he still has any rank at all (he didn’t like ordering people around and, in part because of his age lie back in September, 1915, he craved anonymity along the mass of men).
We left the Battalion – probably on the evening of May 21 – marching towards the Front, initially led by their drum-and-fife band, then in silence as they reached the “ghost village” of Sailly-au-Bois, 3.4 kilometres west of Hébuterne. Here’s my father’s brilliantly vivid account of a Tommy entering a Western Front trench system for the first time:
‘Each Company remained cohesive, but the general idea, with enemy onlookers in mind, was to get lost visually.
Far away, we could see active “sausage” balloons, with baskets housing observers(1) suspended beneath them. I learnt that both sides now commonly used aeroplanes for observation purposes too, so we had to take great care to avoid being spotted, because artillery might open up and polish us off before we even reached the front line.
We spread out in small groups among the village’s remaining walls, or parts of same, all remaining within hailing distance of our officers. Our Company cooks demonstrated their efficiency as usual, for within half an hour we were enjoying a rich, tasty stew, a generous helping for each man. Obviously, they had prepared our meal on the road as we marched. Then, when we had our meal, they quietly cleaned the boilers, filled them with water and brewed tea, for they soon gave us a welcome drink of that morale-improver. In addition, most of us had little extras we’d bought earlier – chocolate, biscuits and the like.
The rumble, roar, and occasional extra-loud crump of a shell exploding nearby, offered constant reminders that some of us would have to pay for this present indulgence in blood and pain ere long. With the sun sinking, we were warned to pump ship, attend to all nature’s wants, and rest, in preparation for some trying hours of movement in darkness across open country, and then in strange trenches.’
(1) Observation balloons: their use peaked in World War I because artillery had been developed to fire at a range beyond sight of ground-level spotters; the observers – attached to balloons full of inflammable hydrogen – became the first aviators to use parachutes.
Soon they set off “across the plain”, as their Sergeant puts it – to Sam’s bafflement, being a new boy. But “the plain” was Tommy parlance for the stretch of land between Sailly and Hébuterne – as quoted in Alan MacDonald’s wonderfully detailed account of this part of the Somme battle, Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division At Gommecourt (Iona Books)…
‘Our Company, walking in twos, must have formed a considerable crocodile as we weaved around shell-holes and various vaguely visible humps which mystified me until ear-splitting explosions and skyward-leaping flame flashes, changing to brief red streaks and short-lived shrieks issued from one of them – British gun batteries, of course. Someone could have tipped me off – we were stumbling through such a concentration of guns as I had never imagined.
And I had no idea about the extent of this “plain”, but if these batteries were lodged to left and right of us, not to mention fore and aft, for distances which one could guess at as more and more guns opened up, then this was war on a scale to which I was a complete stranger. Sometimes we had to walk in front of and quite close to these artillery clusters and a fear assailed me that they might let fly at one of these moments. If they were sighted on distant targets we would be at little risk because the guns would point upwards, but if they were aiming to hit enemy positions only a mile or so distant the barrels would be lowered and the shells pass through us before exploding among the Germans…’
As they get closer, all the feelings of his Gallipoli experience rise up in him again:
‘“Into single file now.” This order passed quietly from man to man as we moved down a slight incline… and there I was once more in the confinement of a trench. I could perhaps move to left or right if self-preservation seemed to require it, but not far. After several months of freedom from this wretched situation, the whole, hateful, trapped feeling returned. Bursts of machine-gun fire, the crashes of bursting shells, sometimes singly, often in numbers, the whining of bits and pieces – fragments of metal. This was to be my life, night and day, for several weeks to come, or for longer if anything in the nature of attack and counter-attack developed…
As we approached the front, a stream of men passed us, going back the way we had come – happy, because we were relieving their burden of tense preparedness with no let-up, night or day. Always some part of the trench system was being damaged or destroyed, some danger threatened. Mates maimed, blown apart. So, as they threaded their way through our advancing line, they made quiet, little jests, wished us good luck, gave useful hints occasionally about special features of the terrain. Nice chaps going for a well-earned rest, bless‘em.’
The “nice chaps” they relieved – with Company A on the right of the Gommecourt front line – were members of the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment (details from the Kensingtons’ War Diary). As a novice in this terrain, Sam soon found a mentor – but not a good one:
‘We now halted and took over a small stretch of the front-line trench lately vacated. Nobody told me anything about procedure, no doubt because they had all done this routine on other occasions. I asked no questions, but chatted to an older man who sat on the firing step beside me. He had the unusual name of Smith, worked in a coal mine, he said, though his speech didn’t smack of Yorkshire or Wales or any northern area. On my other side sat a youngster who said little.
Soon a man whom I couldn’t see in the darkness detailed us off in pairs for lookout duty. This meant that the first pair would get up on the firing step and keep watch on the area between us and the German trenches for two hours and would rouse the next two when it was time to change over. Meanwhile, the rest of us could sit and doze if we wished. But, the enemy artillery being lively – salvos of shells roared over and burst nearby – we knew some of them might land among us at any moment. Sleep didn’t come easy.
The Germans also sprayed the area with machine-gun bullets from time to time, frequently making our lookout men duck down.
Smith said, “Come with me if that stuff starts to get too close,” and this I did when necessary, but with increasing misgivings; I perceived that if I repeatedly moved along to the traverse – a deep trench section to our right – we would get no rest at all and be quite unfit for duty when daylight came. In that traverse, when a shell came near us Smith would say “Down!” and we crouched as low as possible. We bobbed up and down constantly…
I thought about the wretched life I’d often endured on that Turkish peninsula. But I was coming to understand that warfare here could, at any moment, be more intense and dangerous than at Gallipoli. However, I felt certain that this bobbing up and down business would, in itself, soon be the death of me.so I avoided Smithy as far as possible, did my stint of lookout duty, and dozed at every available opportunity – I wanted to be of some use at “Stand-to” dawn alert, when with fixed bayonets and loaded rifles we had to be keenly ready to repel any enemy move. That uncertain light of early morning gave advantage to an attacker provided he moved cautiously. Every man must remain intently watchful, speech forbidden, save if an order must be given. When full daylight arrived, came the order to “Stand down” and fags could be lit and the rum ration issued to “warm the cockles” after a chilly night.
It was then I heard for the first time the regular morning performance of a short, swarthy Sergeant who had come, someone told me, from South America, just to win this war for us. He would yell his “Stand down, men!”, then call out a greeting to “You German bastards – I’ll be over after you in a minute and I’ll knock seven different kinds of shit out of you!” This he repeated as he strolled along the line, getting many a hollow laugh from men who’d heard it all before, but still hoped he meant it.’
A curious lad by nature, with his observational powers cranked up to 11 by constant mortal danger, Sam studied and learned Somme variants on the sniper evasion methods he’d perfected and rather enjoyed at Gallipoli:
‘The men standing on each firing step in the bays had to be extremely careful; snipers looked out for such targets. But, armed with the knowledge that, after spotting you, a sniper still had to take aim, you could quickly raise your eye level to just above your earth parapet, then – if you had not attracted a bullet already – keep still and rely on movement of your eyes to complete your observations, then duck, stay ducked, and never bob up in the same place twice. Of course, an unlucky machine-gun bullet might get you, but the odds were against that.’
“Settling in” – if that could ever be the right phrase in this context – Sam gets to know, at least by their work, some of the people who keep the Battalion on an even keel despite it all:
‘As days and nights passed(2), I gradually got to know some of my fellows and to like several of them. A young Sergeant I thought particularly admirable. Like his name, Heather, he had something of the outdoors about his looks and manner. He performed his duties with fairness and honesty and, since none could fault him, all the best people liked him. When things got noisy and threatening, a sight of his purposeful face could still a quivering tummy.
Somewhere in trenches to the rear of the system, or perhaps in a hollow free from enemy observation, toiled our Sergeant-Cook and his crew. Their labours were expected to produce 1) in the first hour or so of daylight, sufficient large containers of hot tea to give everybody a good helping, usually something over half a pint 2) a hot meal, usually stewed, roughly around the middle of the day – sometimes with a slab of plum duff to follow 3) another issue of hot tea towards evening.
With morning and evening tea, they also portered the usual solids, such as bread or biscuits, jam or cheese. They carried the tea through the trenches in deep, rectangular, iron containers supported on wood bars resting on the shoulders of two men, one fore, one aft. Only the bigger outbursts of fighting would disturb these excellent services, delaying or preventing them according to severity.
And our MO, efficient and caring, attended to our toilet needs in the front line as diligently as he did in the less hazardous areas further back. Each latrine up there was of the seat-and-bucket type and housed in a deep, square hole approached through a short trench. The Pioneer Section treated them all with liberal quantities of chloride of lime and quickly repaired or replaced any damaged by shells. You could always locate one by the disinfectant’s pungent smell, but normally unaccompanied by the foul odours resulting from careless sanitation.
This competent man also took responsibility for the advanced First Aid Station at Battalion HQ in, I think, the third line of the trench system. His trained stretcher-bearers worked like beavers to collect wounded comrades and hurry them back to him and his small staff of Red Cross male medics.
I give these and other details so that you may know something of the organisation which maintained a huge Army in the field for years under often terrible conditions without its members becoming victims of some awful plague. Major battles would disrupt these systems, allowing water-filled trenches, mud, and dead and decaying bodies awaiting disposal to spread discomfort and despair, while a flood of damaged men choked the channels rearwards – but the will to restore order and decency would eventually, sometimes ever so slowly, always perseveringly, overcome the worst of difficulties.’
(2) Sam’s (probably) first stint at the Front with the Kensingtons ended on the night of May 28 when the 1/4th Londons relieved them and the Companies moved back to billets in Hébuterne, Sailly and Bayencourt (5.8 kilometres west of the trenches). During each spell in the trenches the Companies of each Battalion would swap between front, support and reserve trenches and they might be summoned for night-time work in No Man’s Land from anywhere nearby, whether in the lines or not.
In the following support trench sojourn Sam found time for a little recreation. Here he’s attempting to recapture the joy in music he discovered when he learned how to play the piano via free lessons from his Vicar-choirmaster-Scoutmaster Mr Frusher when he was about 12 – to mixed effect…
‘[The support trench] ran through 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…
I found a strand of steel wire and, with music nostalgically in mind, fastened it to the butt of my rifle, carried it over my adjustable back-site and tied it off on the fore-site. Now by raising the back-site I put tension on the wire – and plucking it produced an almost musical note. Using the wood covering the barrel as a fretboard I could play a tune of sorts.
Always ambitious, I pictured myself playing the thing cello-wise. So I procured a supple, thin branch from a fruit tree growing by the trench-top and, using some cottons from my “housewife” (the cloth mendings holder), I made a bow. I drew it across the wire cello-wise, but without result. Then I recollected that one must treat a violin bow with resin to make it grip on the string and vibrate it. I again looked to the tree for help and, sure enough, I spotted some gummy exudations on the trunk. Gathering a couple of pieces, I tried rubbing one against my cotton bow strands. Some stickiness resulted, but the faint noise emitted by my rifle-cello could not be called music. I decided I would have to play it banjo-wise and, using a tooth from a comb as a plectrum, I could just manage a few recognisable notes.’
Then, when the Battalion moved further back to reserve trench – effectively the edge of Hébuterne village – he decided to give his instrument another go:
‘After I settled in, having nothing special to do, I bethought me of my musical rifle. Sitting beside a stairway leading down to the cellar, I attached my length of wire to butt and fore-sight and plucked it to produce the best semblance of a tune I could achieve. A scuffle on the steps was followed by a shout: “What the hell’s going on up there?” An officer emerged from below and I had to confess that I was torturing my rifle as well as the ears of my neighbours. Quite truthfully, I assured the officer I had been unaware the cellar was occupied.
More amused than irritated, he asked me to demonstrate my method of using the gun as a one-string guitar. Probably The Last Rose Of Summer(3) had never sounded quite like that before, but he returned to his colleagues below without putting me on a charge.’
(3) The Last Rose Of Summer began life in 1813 as a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish “National Bard” and friend to Byron and Shelley; it immediately acquired its best-known tune – probably the one “played” by my father – composed by Moore’s regular collaborator Sir John Stevenson, 1761-1833, although Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Britten all wrote or arranged later variants; the lyric begins “’Tis the last rose of summer/Left blooming alone/All her lovely companions/Are faded and gone”.
However, as noted earlier, “reserve” trench didn’t mean “non-combatant” and Sam was soon leading one of those night patrols into No Man’s Land to dig advanced trenches again:
‘With us now quartered in the comparative luxury of part of a house with part of a roof, 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(4) 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.’
(4) 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.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Somme Rewind 3 of 5: June, 1916 –panic in No Man’s Land, how a dugout’s dug, Sam finds a lucky crucifix, a singalong march away from the Front, the joy of delousing, Nissen huts, proper beds – and rehearsing the Big Attack…
* 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.