“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, 10 December 2017

Sam moves forward to Arras… and feels more than ever a cog in the war’s “vast, impersonal machine”… close by, the battlefield rumbles…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Action petered out to winter “maintenance” level on the Western Front, with British/Empire forces advancing east of Cambrai (December 10), but losing the salient between Bullecourt and Quéant to the west of the town (12). Down near Verdun, the French Army continued their pattern of holding off frequent German attacks, this time at the familiar battlefield of Chaume Wood (10).
    Fighting near the Eastern front had come down to Russian civil conflict. General Kornilov, deposed as c-in-c of the Russian Army by the Bolsheviks, continued fighting via his Volunteer Army, though with no success at Kharkov (December 11; northeast Ukraine), then Belgorod (13; just across the Russian border) – but his forces were not destroyed and he would come again. On the wider stage, the Germans and other Central Powers plus Turkey set about negotiating an extension to their Armistice with Russia (and, incidentally, Romania) – the new dates, December 17-January 14, no doubt readily agreed by all concerned.
    The Italians, like the other Allies in Europe, still managed to maintain a static front along the River Piave from Monte Grappa down to the sea just north of Venice, regularly beating back Austrian and German attacks (December 12; between the Brenta and Piave rivers) and even regaining some ground (16; Brenta valley).
    The Allies did reach one successful conclusion when General Allenby walked into Jerusalem (December 11) – to show respect for the Holy City’s three religions in response to the Mayor’s message of surrender which hoped “you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than 500 years”. British Prime Minister Lloyd George described the victory as a “Christmas present” for his people. But the Ottoman Army had retreated from the city a few days earlier, then formed new lines to the east and north, and Allenby began his further pursuit of them on December 13.

[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 (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Now, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more…]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, in December, 2017, my father sailed to Calais and, to his surprise, found himself enjoying all the fun of a big Army-camp town – estaminets, shows, aerobatics over a neighbouring Belgian airfield, and the pleasure of encountering new cultures (on this occasion, open-natured Pacific Islanders whom Sam had never met before, and feared for amid the horrors of wintry European battlefields).
    Between entertainments, he spent some time reflecting on his war so far and thinking about his brother, still out on the Front somewhere with the Field Survey Company – spotters of enemy activity, especially artillery positions.
    But now he moves on. And I should mention that my usual this-week-100-years-ago chronology suffers one of its periodic glitches at this point. It’s simply that Sam spent maybe three or four weeks idling in Calais and covered it in a few paragraphs, but then as he moved towards the battlefield his accounts grew far more detailed – including, eventually, hour-by-hour accounts of his final days on the Front through to March 28. So, in order to take all that in, the blog is now moving on to January (as far as I can tell from his writings and my research in books and War Diaries!) as Sam proceeds towards Arras…

‘Next move forward took me into Arras(2), which town I first viewed from a hill across a valley. In the afternoon sunshine, among streets of houses, I saw many gaps, many roofs missing, yet that warm light and shadow gave the scene an air of quietness as though the war had finished and the repairers and menders and builders would soon move in and heal the scars…
     I had a Regimental cap badge, but at that stage in my progress from rear to front line, I still did not know which Battalion I would belong to. I quite liked the Regimental badge(3) depicting – only roughly, of course – a tower set in some sort of decorated scrollwork. The genuine Essex lads, I’m sure, felt proud of their county Regiment and its traditions, but I was merely a wanderer who’d come along to fill one of the many spaces in their ranks caused by enemy action.
     The war had by then become a vast, impersonal machine into which human bits and pieces could be inserted as the need arose. In the course of my unhurried journey from coast to front line(4), evidences of efficiency in the conduct of military matters deeply impressed me. Small towns and villages, much battered, were now being repaired, albeit temporarily – roofing often consisted of corrugated-metal sheets… but homes becoming habitable once more.
     Such observations induced one to seriously consider the possibility of war ending at some future date, a thought entertained by very few soldiers a year or so earlier, say after the Somme battle. Someone high up in the military organisation had faith enough to give forth instructions enabling French farmers and their few remaining workers to move back into some former battlefield areas. With the impending great German attack expected by, and freely discussed by, all those who would have to meet and endure it, such rebuilding of places which might once again suffer damage could have seemed ridiculous. But actually it did much good for the morale of the troops. Somebody up above believed that, in time, we should win the war… so optimism spread along the Front.
     The consciousness of a distant rumble, a continuous underlying vibration when local noises subsided, and, by night, brilliant flashes, or even the illumination of large areas for some seconds, sharply reminded me that the days of peace and relaxation had once again passed from my life. Edgy unease and a wary eye on anything happening in my vicinity would henceforth be necessary features of my continued existence. A quick decision might preserve me from injury or even death, as it certainly had done several times previously on front-line service.
     Temporarily on standby because nobody needed Signals replacements, I remained for a while as a general dogsbody at Brigade Headquarters(5). Anything connected in the remotest way with communications, I tackled with enthusiasm, from humble verbal messages to written ones delivered by me personally, a relief stint on phones or telegraphs, and cross-country checks of lines above or below ground. I felt glad to be back on the work I had done in the early days of the war and would have continued doing had our first dear old Battalion(6) not been disbanded for lack of casualty replacements.’

(2) Arras: 68 miles southeast of Calais, population 26,080 in 1911; scene of battles throughout the war around the town and region, see map http://www.greatwar.co.uk/places/french-flanders-artois-towns.htm. Going with my father’s implied dates his first sight of Arras was probably sometime in January.
(3) Many images are available online if you search “Essex Regiment Cap Badge WW1”. My father obviously did feel “unattached”, but Ian Hook of the Essex Regiment Museum, told me he was listed as a member of the 2nd Battalion when he returned to France, that is the 2/7th still, where he’d been administratively parked on December 18, 1916, when sent to Harrogate to train until his 19th birthday (on July 6, 1917, during a hospital stay in Sheffield).
     However, Mr Hook also noted that “soon after” December, 1916, Sam was transferred “to the 4th (Reserve) Battalion at Halton [Buckinghamshire] near Tring [Hertforshire]” (two towns that Sam never visited as far as I know). Not only that, but his post-War “Award Sheet – First Award” (that’s about pensions, not medals) says his Battalion was “3 Essex”. Well, that’s likely just a slip of the pen, but… blimey O’Reilly, guvnor, the Army did do a nice line in admin. tangles to confuse the ’umble researcher! At least this one substantiates his recollection of knocking about within the system on his own for quite a while, following orders as and when they were directed his way.
(4) My father doesn’t specify, but he left the Front solo in September/October 1916 – hitching lifts, catching trains – and I get the impression here he returned the same way, in his spare-part filler-in role. I don’t know whether that was common.
(5) That would (probably!) be the 12th Brigade HQ in Arras – the 2/7th Essex was one of its eight Battalions; it also included a Machine Gun Company and a Trench Mortar Battery.
(6) The 2/1st Royal Fusiliers my father joined in September, 1914, after Gallipoli disbanded in France, late April, 1916.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam gets a temporary assignment and a billet in Arras Prison. He strikes up his final true friendship as a Tommy… the bloke who’d keep him company until the day on the front line when his Battalion is ordered to fight to the last man and bullet…

(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.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Sam sails for France again, enjoys his own brief “phoney war”, and wonders about what might have become of his older brother Ted, still at the Front…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir(1) 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

For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front, The Battle Of Cambrai (November 20-December 7), which had started so promisingly for the Allies with a 450-tank onslaught, fizzled into the usual more-or-less stalemate. The German Army recaptured La Vacquerie, and pushed the British back from the east bank of the St Quentin canal and from Marcoing (all December 3). Then, the following day, with Field Marshall Haig ordering a partial retreat, the Allies withdrew from Bourlon Wood (4) – won earlier at great cost – and the only gain that remained to them was a section of the Hindenburg line around Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières (around 11 miles southwest of Cambrai). The estimated casualty figures grimly confirmed the “draw”: British/Newfoundland/French/American 44,000, German 45,000.
    On the Eastern Front, Armistice had become the theme with negotiations between the Russian Bolshevik government and representatives from Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and Turkey at Brest-Litovsk (starting on December 3; now in Belarus) leading to an initial truce from December 7-17. Meanwhile, Romania and the Central Powers negotiated a cessation of hostilities via the Treaty Of Focsani (9). Two strong Allies taken out of the action within a week looked pretty good for the Central Powers.
    However, although the Austrians advanced on the Asiago Plateau (December 4-7), the Italians still held the line at the River Piave, particularly in heavy fighting near the estuary over a bridgehead only 15 miles from Venice (9). Further, they chalked up a small coup when two torpedo boats crept into Austrian-held Trieste harbour and sank an old battleship, the Wien (9).
    Over in (then) Palestine, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s thrust towards Jerusalem all but reached its objective as various British detachments captured Hebron (December 7; 19 miles south), then Beit Jala (8; five miles south). Although the British had rather messed up their co-ordination, the city government prepared its surrender and the Ottoman forces retreated – to avoid damage to the holy places of several religions it seems.

[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 (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Now, 100-years-ago-this-week, he’s returning to France…]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father – on the basis of an intuition which transcended any form of rationality – told his family that his forthcoming return to the Western Front might well lead to him being unable to contact them “for a while”, but that he knew he would survive no matter what. As a veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme, he fully understood the dangers and he had never experienced such optimism during his previous campaigns but… he felt it and he voiced it.
    In that same reflective passage – but from his 74-78-year-old memoirist point of view, not reporting what he told his family – he gave his conclusions on war as he’d experienced it, arguing 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”.
    That opinion would only be reinforced by the desperate events of the 12 months to come, which began with the unexpectedly gradual preliminaries following his short voyage to join the Army in France once more…

‘Over to Calais then – sometime in December, 1917, I can’t remember exactly when(2). Obeying orders from I know not whom, I remained there for several weeks, enjoying life no end, partly because our huge encampment(3) included lines of tents occupied by Commonwealth(4) troops – those nearest to me golden-faced lads from our various Pacific islands.
    I spent time with them occasionally, and loved them for their happiness and their brotherliness. I would gladly have gone “up the line” with them. I imagined, though, what a massive artillery bombardment might do to them. They had led, I presumed, freer lives than we had, with fewer of the pressures which force white men to obey – threat of unemployment, eviction from one’s little home, lack of money to buy sufficient food, the contempt of one’s neighbours because of one’s lack of success. All these things are far more punishing in a cold climate like ours than they would be in those warm island climates (I’m writing about conditions in the early part of this [20th] century, of course).
    An airfield – a base for Belgian Air Force personnel – bordered one side of our canvas town, and their aerobatics entertained us daily. Flying bi-planes, they practised most of the known manoeuvres, but specialised in “The Falling Leaf”: at a great height the flying man would put his machine’s nose down in a deliberate stall and gyrate earthwards, delaying pull-out to the last possible moment.
    With very little work or training demanded of us, we had ample entertainment of the more usual sort too, song, dance, or films at the camp, and lots of estaminets in Calais town, as well as brothels for the married men who needed their regulars – I actually didn’t meet any young bachelors who liked to scatter their seeds on such stony ground, though there may have been such.
    I can’t recall names or faces of any comrades with whom I probably went around – so very different to the early war days when friendships were warm and valued. Now, with every man on his tod(5), I prowled where I fancied without need of moral support or approval.
    There would have been one exception to my fondness for solitude – Ted. I’m sure my behaviour would have pleased my dear old brother more than when we’d previously served in the same unit, in London, Malta and Egypt. I’d been the great conformer most of the time, with my little stripe on my arm, my crossed flags on my cuff; Lieutenant Wickinson’s good little boy, heart and soul in my work, one of “the Cream Of The Battalion” as the Colonel labelled our section(6).
    Except on one or two boozy occasions, I’d rarely joined my brother in his relaxations. I’d been too stuffy for words – though I could plead that, in those days, I was still inhibited by fear of discovery as under-age for active service. But now, in the war’s fourth year, all that dealt with, and on active service again, in some ways I felt much less restrained.
    Well, I knew that, before long, I might be wishing they’d discover I’d grown too old now and should be given another nice little canteen job back at the base… or Le Havre for preference, with Marie-Louise Baudlet(7) as my interpreter, lovely thought. Some hopes!
    I thought of Ted, up front there with his Field Survey Company(8) liable to be punctured, torn up, gassed, plain disintegrated, anything. Yet I would have been glad to join him. Later, I discovered that he felt the same regarding me, though he never gave a hint of that in my presence…’
(2) This is the first time since summer, 1917, that my father has indicated a date. And I have to note that his narrative is at odds with official records from this point until early March. The only reference to him arriving in France I’ve seen occurs on the post-War ”Casualty Form – Active Service” (dated April 4, 1919). It says he crossed to France much later, on February 20, 1918.
    Well, I’ve encountered many errors in such documents during my years of reading around Sam’s Memoir. “Records” are only human after all, as emphasised by the handwriting of officers scrawling War Diaries in the trenches or clerks scrivening away in Ministries and other remote offices. Then there’s the “fog of war” enveloping all those whose job involved attempting an orderly notation of what happened to millions of individuals striving to find their way through slaughterous chaos.
    Meanwhile, my father’s memory constantly proves itself a repository of factual accuracy (the perspicacity of his opinions is for you to judge). So I’ll go with him at least 95 per cent – he does sometimes get things in the wrong order, I know – in his detailed account of his hectic weeks leading up to March 28, the climax of his Battalion’s part in combatting the German Spring Offensive. In sum, I reckon he probably crossed to France in December as he says (a persuasive omission: he makes no mention of a family Christmas).
    In passing, it seems worth remarking, although it’s hardly a clarification, that the “Casualty Form – Active Service” says he was promoted ”to present rank” of Lance Corporal on February 15, 1917, but also has “Lance Corporal” scribbled out and replaced by “Private” (this change undated). A “reversion” to Private would have pleased my father no end, no matter how it came about, because he so detested ordering his comrades around, so I think he would have mentioned it in the Memoir if it had occurred.
    Confused? I wouldn’t be surprised. The Army certainly was.
    Anyway, after all that, I don’t think his rank, whether Private or Lance Corporal, made much difference to his experience in the fight against the Spring Offensive.
(3) The website remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com (which I can no longer get into) noted that, during summer, 1918, more than 92,000 British troops were stationed at the Calais base.
(4) The “British Commonwealth”, as opposed to the British Empire, was talked of from 1884 when, visiting Australia, future Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery used the phrase a “Commonwealth of Nations”; the Commonwealth’s formalisation as an intergovernmental organisation didn’t take place until 1949.
(5) “On your tod” is Cockney rhyming slang – “on your own/Tod Sloan”; American jockey Sloan rode many winners in England 1897-1901, hung out with New York magnate and gambler Diamond Jim Brady, inspired George M. Cohan’s 1904 song (I’m A) Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Ernest Hemingway’s 1922 short story My Old Man; but his career ended with a lifelong ban imposed for betting on his own races, an apparently unproven and dubious charge.
(6) He’s referring to the periods before and immediately after Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers. In Malta, February-August, 1915, Lieutenant Wickinson (no doubt an alias as per my father’s usual practice) had chosen Sam to train as a Signaller, then promoted him and three others to Lance Corporal. The Lieutenant worked with them again after Gallipoli (September, 1915, to January, 1916, for them) at the Battalion’s Beni Salama camp, (January-April, 1916) between the Nile and the Sahara, 30 miles northwest of Cairo (where their new Colonel made his much-resented remark to the rest of the Battalion about the Signallers being “the cream”). But in late 1916, back home in London, Sam heard from another Tommy who’d fought on the Somme that the young Lieutenant had been killed – he’d eyewitnessed the terrible moment: “He was ahead of me walking along a road in an advanced situation – there one moment and gone the next, a direct hit by a shell, he just vanished”.
(7) Marie-Louise had been Sam’s not-quite-romantic friend and translator for a few fondly remembered weeks when he worked as a buyer for a canteen at the British Army’s Le Havre base in October, 1916, after he left the Somme (via official discovery that he was still under battlefield age i.e. not yet 19).
(8) The British Army began creating Field Survey Companies in 1916, their task the observation and mapping of battlefields both before and during engagements. From early 1918, Ordnance Survey, the British National mapping authority, even set up an overseas branch at Saint-Omer, home of the British Army’s “maps HQ” since 1915.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam moves towards the front line around Arras, still not sure which Essex Battalion he would end up in, and – with no “comrades” as such – feeling more than ever a cog in the war’s “vast, impersonal machine”. And yet signs of reconstruction, even within earshot of the battlefield’s menacing rumble, underpin his irrational optimism…

(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.