“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, 26 November 2017
Gallipoli/Somme veteran Sam, 19, on home leave before his return to the Western Front, reflects on what he’s experienced: “People who lived almost normal lives throughout that war had no real understanding of the existence endured by their men…” But he arrives at a strange conviction about his fate…
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… Continuing actions and campaigns in various regions drew towards their conclusions. On the Western Front, it was the Battle Of Cambrai (November 20-December 7). Begun as a massive British tank attack, it proceeded by more orthodox means with the first wave of success subsiding into the usual back and forth. The British Army pushed forward again in the woods on Bourlon Ridge (November 27) – deploying 30 tanks rather than the 450 committed to their initial onslaught – but the following day they dug in under German artillery fire and then had to resist counterattacks on the Ridge and around Vendhuille and Loeuvres (30-December 1).
Over on the Eastern Front revolutionary Russia and Germany/Austria-Hungary negotiated the war’s first major Armistice, starting with what seems to have been a semi-official “suspension of hostilities” (December 2). It would take some time to extend along the whole Front, as evidenced by a substantial battle in Moldavia (November 29).
Having stopped their long retreat resulting from defeat by Austria-Hungary (with German support) at the Battle Of Caporetto in late October, with increasing confidence the Italian Army held the line from the River Piave estuary (just east of Venice) north to Monte Grappa, repulsing an assault in the Brenta Valley (November 26) and generally benfiting from the invaders’ overstretched supply systems.
While the Balkans situation remained fairly static, the Austrian Army did take a swing at Italian positions near Aviona, Albania, and the British and French advanced against the Bulgarians again in the Doiran region north of Monastir, Macedonia, where they’d fought a major battle in late 1916.
The Battle Of Jerusalem (November 17-December 30) saw significant developments as Ottoman troops broke out of the city to attack the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (British, Anzac and Indian) at Nebi Samwell, the Zeitun Plateau, Beit Ur el Tahta and El Buri (November 27-December 1). At first, the Ottomans gained ground, but then suffered so many casualties it undermined their defensive efforts later in the month.
Finally, the decisive moment in the lengthy Allied campaign to take German East Africa – a force of 3,500 Germans and Africans surrendered at Nevale (November 27) and a few days later (December 1) the final active German force under General von Lettow-Vorbeck crossed the Rovuma river border, leaving German East Africa – while “invading” Portuguese Empire territory after a fashion.
[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 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’s privations – and prepare him for more (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). And now, 100-years-ago-this-week, it’s nearly time for him to return to the Front…]
Last week, Sam began his final home leave before returning to the Western Front after his “year out” through being underage. He enjoyed the glorious mundanity of helping his previously poor family move a little way up in the world, renting a larger, semi-detached house in Edmonton. With a will, he carried furniture, laid lino and diverted his thoughts and imagination from what, as a Gallipoli/Somme veteran, he knew awaited him over in France.
But now he recalls his pause for reflection as the day of his departure approached. In this short passage he expresses his deepest feelings about war as he’d experienced it, about his own resulting development towards growing up, and how he told his family of an extraordinary, perhaps foolish conviction that had come to him…
‘I don’t suppose it was the successful job on the linoleum that made me feel, at this point in the war, I had, at last, become an adult, and should attempt some sort of summing-up. The immediate future had to be thought about and discussed.
In late 1917, everybody knew the Germans were making obvious preparations for one final massive attack** which they hoped would place the French Channel coastline in their hands and compel the Allies to surrender or, eventually, contend with a German invasion of Britain.
When a few moments could be spared from all the settling-in work, I told the family what sort of future I believed I should soon face. That in the New Year, our men would have to hold back, or delay as much as possible, the masses of Germans who would follow up the concentrated artillery bombardments of our positions; that I should be just one little man among all the mess and muddle, but that, for some reason I could not explain, I felt certain I would survive, even though, for a while, I might not be able to keep in touch with the family…
Physically and mentally, during those months in England I had benefitted from the long, regular hours of sleep and rest available to me, coupled with regular meals and, most of the time, a good roof over my head***. Those people who lived almost normal lives throughout that war had no real understanding of the existence endured by their men who were the actual front-line fighters. Nor did many of them wish to know about the matter.’
Here I’m breaking off to “signpost” the following parenthesis which, ever since I started work on editing and publishing my father’s writings, I’ve used as a form of “dedication” – in the opening pages of the Memoir itself and the three e-bookette episodes, at the top of every edition of this weekly blog, and at the end of almost every Sam reading I’ve done (for the Western Front Association, the Chelsea Pensioners, and several others):
‘(I feel that 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 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. In today’s largest and most powerful group of nations the peoples comprising it have no liberty of thought in such matters, let alone of action, but there are signs of change which may benefit those who survive the next — probable — world holocaust.)’
He wrote these thoughts in the 1970s. Of course, up to you whether you find them as resonant as I do (hearing my father’s voice as I read). Anyway, without further ado, he concluded the story of his last leave…
‘So, feeling in better nick than I had for many a day, I took a cheerful farewell of my family, again emphasising that even if I appeared to vanish for some time, I would certainly reappear later. I had no notion of what this optimism was based on.’
** Gregory Blaxland’s Amiens, 1918 (1968), published by W. H. Allen, says that at a meeting of the German Chiefs of Staff November 11, 1917, General Erich Ludendorff decided to prepare the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) – dubbed “The Spring Offensive” by the Allies. A few years later he emerged as a fervent anti-semitic supporter of Hitler… although he was also anti-Christian and anti-capitalist… while believing that if Germany lost the war the people would become “slaves of international capital” By the ‘30s he had turned against Hitler.
*** In fact, my father had spent two months or more of his “year out” in Sheffield hospitals beating off severe illnesses – first as a carrier of, though as it turned out not a sufferer from cerebro-spinal meningitis, then through catching a severe dose of German measles, and finally, during the summer of 1917, tackling chronic gastro-enteritis which his doctor diagnosed as clearly an effect of the terrible dietary and sanitary conditions he’d endured in the trenches of Gallipoli (1915-16) and the Somme (1916).
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam sails for Calais and, encamped there for a short while, is blessed with his own “phoney war”: good times with troops from the Pacific Islands and aerobatic entertainment from the Belgian air force. So he wanders into stray notions about “what if they decided i was too old to fight now, at 19?” and, more seriously, what might have become of his older brother Ted, still at the Front, whom he’d hardly seen since their original Battalion was broken up at Rouen in April, 1916…
* 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.