“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, 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…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
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…]
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.