“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, 25 February 2018

Sam’s Battalion moves into the Arras front line; he and Signaller pals get lucky – a lovely big bunker to work in – except when he’s out in blown-up trenches mending lines with “no one to witness my brave devotion to duty… or maybe my crawling and fumbling, take your choice”

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
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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Eastern Front remained the history-maker. The Eleven Days War/Operation Faustschlag that followed Russian Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky’s refusal to sign a peace treaty with Germany – while verbally recognising a cessation of hostilities – saw Germany continue to take candy from the baby of the Bolshevik’s barely existent and wholly dispirited Army: they occupied Pernau and Reval, now Talinn, Estonia, and Pskov, Russia (February 25), and Kiev, Ukraine (March 2). The last occurred after the alarmed Russians resumed the Brest-Litovsk negotiations with the Central Powers (February 28).
    Fighting did actually cease when all sides – including Bulgaria and Turkey – signed the treaty (March 3), the Bolshevik peace vote coralled by Lenin and Stalin who, in the end, persuaded Trotsky to switch sides and put his name to it. The German terms had hardened since Trotsky’s attempt to lead them up the garden path, so Russia lost control of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine – not the end of that story, of course. The Bolsheviks also signed a Treaty Of Peace And Amity with the Finnish Social Republic Of Workmen (March 1), but that entity lasted only until it lost the Finnish Civil War (May 5, 1918).
    On the Western Front raiding continued both ways, with no major developments, though American troops were on the receiving end at Seicheprey, Lorraine (March 1).
    At sea, a British hospital ship, HMHS Glenart Castle, went down in eight minutes after a U-boat torpedo struck her off Newport in the Bristol Channel (February 26) – 162 died, including 99 patients, and only 32 survived. Also torpedoed and sunk was the armed merchant cruiser HMS Calgarian off Rathlin Head, Northern Ireland, with the loss of 49 lives (March 1).
    Meanwhile, in Palestine, the British force which had taken Jerusalem pressed further north on a 12-mile front either side of the Jerusalem-to-Nablus road (March 2-3) and in Persia British forces took Kirmanshah (February 25) and Meshed (March 3), both previously occupied by their now defunct Russian ally.

[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 of the same (he was 19 while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train for a commission, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance may have brought about his “reversion” to Private, but perhaps he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. Come November/December, he enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career – at the end of which he assured his family of his firm conviction that he would survive. In December/January 1917/8, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away. But by mid-March he found his own Essex Battalion; they moved into the trenches on March 19.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week – the blog having moved ahead of itself because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote so much about late March – Sam’s 2/7th Essex Battalion, in the reserve trench near Fampoux, about six kilometres outside Arras, came under the opening artillery barrage of the German’s Spring Offensive in their sector (this would probably be about March 21).
    With defence the British Army’s only strategy at that point, they just sat and endured – except that Sam and his fellow Signallers, including his new pal Neston, periodically had to scuttle about repairing broken lines at great risk to life, limb and underpants, as he would put it. And when the mustard gas shells started to rain down – one in five – Sam got a horrible lungful because the lookout put his respirator on before he used his “bird-scarer rattle”, not vice versa as per instructions. Sam survived, it was only enough to leave a nasty taste in his mouth and cause a longer-term shortness of breath.
    Now the Battalion moves up into the front line, for the duration it turns out, until the great German onslaught of Operation Mars breaks over the defenders of Arras:

‘The bombardment, the awful explosions and vibrations, reduced most of us to a state of automatic action, doing those things which must be done, precisely as we had been endlessly trained to do them. At that point, for us in the support line there was no physical contact with the enemy. The front-line men would take that sort of impact in the first place. As a Signaller, I worked with my little group to maintain contact with them and with Battalion HQ.
     We’d pegged our wires into the sides of trenches, visible and easily repairable. If you weren’t in a shelter, such as it was, sending or receiving messages, when told that communication had broken down you moved swiftly to find and mend the damage. All this among the hellish roar, the nearly deafening crash, the cries of “Stretcher-bearers!”… Nothing to do with you so far.

That night, we had to suddenly grab all our gear and move up the communication trench, still passable-through at that stage, and take over a section of the front line(2). This proved to be lucky for us because, perhaps due to a bend in the direction of the front trench at that point, or to some slight error in range-finding, Jerry wasted many of his best-quality shrapnel and high-explosive shells; mostly, they fell either well in front or somewhat in the rear of our lucky old front-line trench.
     Further good fortune for us Signallers: we spent most of our time in a well-constructed, deep dugout which housed Company Headquarters, so we were able to withstand the dreadful non-stop explosions going on above without undue nervous strain. Down there, our acting Company commander, Lieutenant Jewitt(3), occupied a curtained-off area also furnished with bunks for the three subalterns – who used it sparingly because Jewitt found many excuses for “keeping them at it”.
     Had I mentioned that our popular Captain Bailey vanished at about the time we entered the trench system? Men who had been with that Battalion for some considerable time said they had seen this sort of thing happen previously, a possible explanation being that HQ deemed officers who had served continuously at the battlefront for long periods too valuable to be sacrificed in risky forward positions where few were likely to survive attack and counter-attack. So a cadre of commissioned and non-commissioned officers based in rear positions maintained a Regimental skeleton on which the flesh and muscle of newly arrived personnel could be hung to replace the large number of people killed or wounded up front – the expendables, briefly on the Battalion’s books but soon happily sent back through the casualty station chain or else buried quickly after their identity-discs, pay book etc had been duly removed for “records” purposes.
     Moving up to the forward line from support had proved a boon to our lads, or so it seemed. We enjoyed front-line amenities such as the Germans had always provided for themselves wherever possible. Only those on lookout duty, standing on the firing step, need be exposed to the full blasts of the enemy shells. Most of them performed their dangerous duties bravely and with sound judgement – the man who used rattle or gong indiscriminately became a nuisance, unnecessarily disturbing resting comrades and upsetting carefully worked-out routines.
     I continued my previous ploy of swapping my morning rum ration for eatables and built up a sizeable collection of cans of pork and beans in my store among the rafters(4). As I surveyed my little hoard, I felt secure against the probable non-delivery of rations which must soon occur as the bombardment intensified.
     I went “up top” only when my turn came to follow a line till I found the broken cable which had cut off communications in one direction or another. Life became terribly hectic then; a real screamer would send me down flat on my belly – expertise in guessing roughly where such a big one would burst had developed with experience. Occasionally, a section of trench was blown in; there I must join spare cable to the near end of the broken line, carry it over the hump and connect my spare to the other end – all done in a rather exposed situation, usually with nobody in sight, no one to witness my skilled workmanship and brave devotion to duty… or maybe my cringing, crawling and fumbling, take your choice.’
(2) The Battalion War Diary notes that they moved up to the front line, replacing the First Battalion King’s Own Regiment, on 23 March (having taken over the reserve trenches from the First Battalion Coldstream Guards on March 19). Sam and his pal from Arras jail* Neston’s C Company occupied a trench dubbed “Cork”. The Spring Offensive/Operation Michael had begun on March 21 around St Quentin, the plan being to advance steadily westwards over the following week with the main Arras attack scheduled for March 28. (*No crime involved, the ruined building had been their billet for two short periods during January-March.)
(3) Jewitt is an alias, as is Neston. My father always strove not to identify anybody he wrote about, favourably or not, to avoid causing distress to anyone still living when he was writing in the 1970s, or to their descendents.
(4) He’d developed this wheeze during a front-line stint in February because he “couldn’t stomach” rum and rather liked to eat  – and anticipate eating, come to that. Memories of this unconsumed pork and beans treasure trove would torment him within a couple of weeks after a radical change in his circumstances which we’ll get to soon.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s Battalion samples the delights of a Minenwerfer box barrage… he and his Signaller pals dash about in the dark trying to fix line breaks – then it’s midnight March 28 and Sam picks up a terrible one-word message from HQ…

(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, 18 February 2018

Sam and comrades assailed by the opening salvos of the Spring Offensive realise “This is it!” – and Sam gets gassed, a “dreadful, choking-burning sensation”…

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… All attention on the Eastern Front and what one German General called “the most comical war I have ever known”. It arose from Russian Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky’s February 10 refusal to sign the draft peace treaty with the Central Powers which emerged from the Brest-Litovsk negotiations – on some point of principle about dealing with bourgeois regimes, he said Russia was no longer at war with them but… he wouldn’t put it on paper.
    So on February 17, Germany announced a resumption of hostilities which they followed up the next day with the start of Operation Faustschlag, aka the Eleven Days War. The Bolsheviks had won their revolution handily, but this serious display of military might soon brought them back to addressing the realities of international power relations. On February 19, they declared willingness to sign the peace treaty, all fine, no need to change a comma. The Germans considered their position… and meanwhile conducted this additional little war, hoovering up territory against feeble or non-existent opposition.
    A three-pronged offensive, deploying 53 Divisions, took Dvinsk, Latvia (February 18), Minsk, Belarus (21), Zhitomir, Ukraine and Dorpat, Estonia (24) and they weren’t stopping yet.
    Elsewhere, while minor actions continued on the Western Front and around the River Piave in Italy (where the Austrian invasion remained stalled), the most substantial development saw the British and New Zealand forces in Palestine take Jericho (February 19-21), the first step en route to occupation of the Jordan Valley.

[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 of the same (he was 19 while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train for a commission, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance may have brought about his “reversion” to Private, but perhaps he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. Come November/December, he enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career – at the end of which he assured his family of his firm conviction that he would survive. In December/January 1917/8, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away… ]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, the blog moved ahead of itself into March and the preliminaries of the British defence against the German Army’s long-anticipated Spring Offensive, simply because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote so much about the nine days around that battle which had such a profound effect on him in so many ways, as you’ll see. On March 19, his Battalion, the 2/7th Essex, moved from Arras into the trenches near the village of Fampoux, about six kilometres outside town.
    We left him, probably on March 20 he reckoned, engaging in what he called “a strange prelude to a terrible battle”. The wild streak in his normally solid character broke to the surface again and, having snatched a Lewis gun from its rightful operators, he fought a duel with one of Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus which had annoyed him by zooming up and down low over the British trenches taking pictures with impunity. The upshot was he proved just as ineffective as the Lewis gun’s official proprietors in nailing the pesky Jerry – but the pilot missed him too with machine-gun fire and a hand-thrown bomb. At which, Sam, scuttled back to his own Battalion before anyone could think about disciplinary charges.
    Well, that incident could have proved deadly, but now the whole operation gets serious. On March 21, a Thursday, the Offensive began around St Quentin, about 75 kilometres southeast of Fampoux – the German plan to move their attack steadily northwards over the following week with Arras their final major objective. Of course, the “softening up” process would begin some while before each major onslaught. Sam and his Essex comrades are still in the support trench at this point:

‘One morning, shortly after my encounter with one of the “Flying Circus”, enemy artillery began to take tentative pots at scattered points in our lines. The firing gradually intensified until it became a searching bombardment by every type of enemy gun. All around us, shells of every calibre were bursting and busting up the landscape. This was to continue night and day until early on March the 28th(1).
     The initial shock, caused by the realisation that “This is it” as much as by the actual noise and destruction going on around me, soon settled into the state of high tension so familiar to me from earlier bombardments in times which seemed far away(2).
     Rare direct hits on our narrow trench brought forth the old cry, “Stretcher-bearers!”, and although these stalwart life-savers sometimes had to squeeze past us on their journeys of mercy, we gained no knowledge of the extent of our casualties – wounded or killed.
     No let-up throughout that night. We had no deep shelters, but a series of bolt-holes – each holding six or so men – provided fair cover for those whose turn it was to “rest” after doing their spells of “stand-to” duty. A direct hit by a shell would smash everything and probably everybody in the affected trench but, doubtless because of the narrowness of the support trenches, such tragedies remained infrequent at that stage.
     The perpetual roars, crashes and earth tremors became our norm, and we had to remain as alert as humanly possible in that hellish environment. Provisions arrived at long, irregular intervals, borne by very brave ration parties. All our instilled discipline was needed to enable us to stay put when every human instinct pressured one to break into a gallop in a rearward direction.

On the second day, our situation got worse; my lines being still intact, I received a message from Battalion HQ “for immediate attention of Company commander” instructing him to warn all ranks that one in five of all enemy shells now arriving contained poison gas; look-outs could identify them by the cloud of greenish-yellow vapour emitted, accompanied by only a small explosion.
     One look-out man occupied a raised position quite near to my Signal-station shelter, so I had to rely on him swinging his noisy bird-scarer rattle in good time should he spot a bursting gas shell nearby. Soon enough it happened, but instead of holding his breath, rattling, and then donning his gas mask, he protected himself first then sounded the alarm – by which time I and others had lungs full of the stuff. The dreadful, choking-burning sensation set in motion our much-practised routine; we stopped breathing, withdrew respirators from satchels, strapped them to chests, breathed out, clapped masks over faces, and resumed breathing air purified in its passage through canisters containing absorbent granules.
     Thereafter, for me, everything I ate or drank had about it a chemical foulness. Even the air I breathed smelled grossly tainted. We, of course, removed our respirators as soon as we deemed it safe; impossible, anyway, for those of us afflicted by the poisonous stuff to continue wearing the masks because our damaged lungs couldn’t suck enough oxygen through them(3).’
(1) Military Operations France And Belgium, 1918 March-April: Continuation Of The German Offensives (1937), published by IWM & Battery Press, says that, on January 21, 1918, General Erich Ludendorff, of the German High Command, decided the “Spring Offensive” should go ahead – this in anticipation of America becoming militarily active, which it did effectively during that spring (having declared war on April 6, 1917), and following Russia’s signing an armistice with Germany (on December 23, 1917, and renewed thereafter at the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, the Kaiser having supported Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution for his own ends). The latter development freed 50 German Divisions to march from the Eastern to the Western Front; on March 21, 1918, at 4.40am Ludendorff launched Operation Michael (aka the Second Battle Of The Somme), the first of five great attacks comprising the “Spring Offensive”; http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sommeII.html says that within five hours German artillery fired 1.1 million shells (including poison gas shells) from 6,500 guns and 3,500 mortars; their 17th Army, commanded by General Otto Von Below, veteran of successful World War I campaigns on the Eastern Front, in Macedonia and Italy, conducted the attack on the section of the Front east and south of Arras – viewed as distinct actions these included the First Battle Of Bapaume (24 kilometres south of Arras) March 24-25. A second phase of this attack, called Operation Mars, focussed on taking Arras, began on March 28.
(2) Meaning Gallipoli and the Somme.
(3) My father, tough as they come, lived to be 88, but his lungs always troubled him just from that one short inhalation of what he told me must have been mustard gas. During winters he regularly suffered bronchitis and latterly emphysema. More trivially perhaps, though it was frustrating for a music lover like him, he could never play wind instruments from then on – you may remember he took a flageolet into the Gallipoli battlefield, losing it in some Suvla Bay gully or other, and as a lad he’d always fancied taking up the trumpet. Still he did have a high old time on the piano and accordion at many a party and, during WW2, in his local north London Civil Defence concert party band.

All the best – FSS

Next week: The Spring Offensive bombardment begins; Sam’s Battalion moves into the front line; he and his Signaller pals get lucky, having a big bunker to work in – except when he’s out in blown-up trenches mending wires with “no one to witness my skilled workmanship and brave devotion to duty… or maybe my cringing, crawling and fumbling, take your choice”…

(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.