“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, 11 February 2018
Normally cautious Sam, waiting in the trenches for the Germans’ Spring Offensive onslaught, has a mad moment and takes on one of Richthofen’s Flying Circus!
For details of how to buy Sam’s 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
A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front the calm before the Spring Offensive storm continued, both sides pretty much aware of what was coming up, if not exactly when. So lesser (deadly, no doubt) scuffles proceeded with some renewed fighting around Passchendaele (February 12) and Cambrai (16), while the French conducted air raids on Metz (11/12) and Offenburg (12) and, on the ground, took the salient between Tahure and Butte de Mesnil, Champagne (13).
To the east, in a rather messy episode a Polish section of the Austria-Hungary Army mutinied after one of the early Brest-Litovsk treaties handed Ukraine the region around Chelm hitherto considered Polish. The mutineers are credited with winning the Battle Of Barancza (February 15-16; then in Bukovina, a year later transferred to Romania by the Paris treaty), but they gained no long-term advantage in the shifting Eastern Front situation – military and negotiatory. Meanwhile, the attempt by General Mikhail Alekseev’s 30,000 Don Cossacks to take Moscow was defeated by Bolshevik forces (13), although they retreated and (mostly) lived to fight another day.
Elsewhere, the Allies scored minor successes in Italy (February 11 and 13; advances on the Asiago plateau and by the British on the Piave front), in Palestine (14; the British Army progressing several miles at Mukhmas, northeast of Jerusalem), and in German East Africa (11 and 14; British and Portuguese forces pushed German troops south towards Mozambique).
Small German raids on Channel ports persisted with eight Dover fishing boats sunk by destroyers (February 15) and the town shelled by a U-boat (16; one killed, seven injured).
[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 on July 6, 1917, 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. After refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, 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, even if they didn’t hear from him for a while. 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, doing freelance Signaller stints for any outfit that needed one… ]
Last week, the blog moved out of its usual “this-week-100-years-ago” mode simply because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote relatively little in his Memoir about events pre-Spring Offensive and then covered his experiences of March, 1918, in intense detail.
After some weeks “freelancing” around Arras attached to 12th Brigade HQ and doing whatever they instructed, around March 11 Sam finally ran into the 2/7th Battallion Essex Regiment of which he’d been a more or less theoretical member since December, 1916 back in England on his underage “year out”. He writes nothing clear about this encounter – but it almost certainly occurred when he and they billeted at Arras’s ruined Musée Des Beaux Arts (putting together his Memoir, the Battalion War Diary and information from the former Essex Regiment Museum curator, Ian Hook).
Then on March 19 overnight they marched out to the trenches about five miles away – the march soon breaking down into a slithery single-file walk which became one of my father’s most oddly terrifying experiences of the war as he lost the man in front of him for some while, imagined leading those behind him into all sorts of horrors and also getting court martialled for desertion or cowardice or lord knows what.
But eventually he reattached himself and now here they are, entering the trench system once more:
‘In the sector to be held by our Battalion, our Company took over the support line running parallel to the front-line trench and two or three hundred yards behind it(2). Once more we entered the rather luxurious trench system – taps available in the reserve trench behind us and so on, amazing… For our first few days there, all remained reasonably quiet.
Somewhere around the 20th day of March(3), being free for a couple of hours from having to sit by the transmitter wearing headphones, I took the opportunity to exercise myself and walked along the trench until it ended in an excavation some eight feet square and open to what, that day, happened to be a clear blue sky. In the middle of it stood three or four men tending a Lewis gun mounted on a tripod.
At that moment, above all the usual noise of the battle area, came the roar of approaching aircraft and then the amazing spectacle of a squadron of German biplanes, all painted red, flying lower than I had ever previously seen aircraft at the Front. They quickly vanished to our rear – we guessed, taking pictures of our field-artillery positions. Wrong, for they soon reappeared behind us, not in close formation now, but each plane following the line of a different trench. So the object of their foray became obvious: they were photographing every detail of our front lines.
The complete surprise of the operation caused confusion and no orders were given, as far as I could tell, to bring rifle fire to bear on what, to me, looked like easily hit targets. For a while I watched the red machines flying back and forth with impunity, opposed only by occasional shellfire (and this seemed ridiculous) from our 18-pounder field guns, and bursts of fire from that Lewis gun in the hole on my right. But they had no success in trying to knock down the Jerry pilot covering our section of the trench system as he swept back and forth above us.
One in every five of the Lewis-gun bullets was a “marker” which left a phosphorescent trail behind it, so I could see many of their shots passing between the wings of this persistent devil. Overcome by a feeling of frustration and despair that, at this late stage of the war, our people couldn’t hit such a “sitting-duck” target, I slid down into the hole, grabbed the butt of the gun from the man firing it and had a go, confident — as I shouted to him — that I’d soon shoot holes in that bloody thing.
The flyer now dived at us, firing his machine guns, and to have stayed with the Lewis gun as he zoomed towards me would have been suicidal so I threw myself towards the side of the hole nearest to him. His bullets hit the earth behind me, then I dashed back to the Lewis gun and sent a few shots after his receding tail. When he turned again, I dived for shelter as before, rushed back to the gun, and put a few more shots (hopefully) into his receding rear. Next time round he appeared to be fed up with this game and, instead of using his guns, he chucked a small bomb at us, but it blew up some yards away and hurt nobody. Then he vanished.
Now the moment of reckoning had come. A quick glance at the two gunners showed me they were strangers so, offering no explanation, I hopped it.
I think this may have been one of the last appearances of Baron Von Richthofen’s lads(4)– a very different mission to their usual fights with our airmen.
That was a strange prelude to a terrible battle.’
(2) The 2/7th Essex Regiment’s War Diary says they moved into the support line, relieving the First Battalion Coldstream Guards on March 19. They occupied trenches near a village called Fampoux, about five miles due east of Arras. My father’s C Company is noted as moving into Hussar trench with A in Chicken, B in Hudson and D in what looks like Harri (WDs being handwritten in the trenches the script is often less than copperplate).
(3) The day before Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff launched the Operation Michael first phase of the Spring (or Ludendorff) Offensive. It began with an attack near St Quentin at the “hinge” where British and French forces joined, the plan being, over the following days, to extend the onslaught 80 kilometres northwest towards Arras. (The 20th also Sam’s first full day in the support line, so his inclination to wander and see what’s what didn’t take long to assert itself.)
(4) Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen: “The Red Baron” (“Freiherr” more or less equalled “Baron” in the Prussian aristocracy, although in Germany his soubriquet was “Der Rote Kampfflieger”, literally “The Red Battleflyer”); born May 2, 1892, near Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), he started Army life in the Cavalry, transferred to Signals, then in May, 1915, to the Imperial German Army Air Service, founded 1910; from January, 1917, he flew a red-painted Albatross DIII and joined the elite Jasta II Squadron around Lagnicourt in September, 1916, leading it from January, 1917; in June that year he became leader of Jagdgeschwader 1, the “Flying Circus”; March 18-28, 1918, he recorded nine air combat victories/kills of Allied planes around the Front in northern France; the day after his 80th kill, on April 21, 1918, he was shot down over Morlancourt Ridge between Vaux-sur-Somme and Sailly-le-Sec, fatally wounded by a bullet fired from the ground (the shot has been attributed to several different Australian machine gunners); No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps buried him with full honours, laying a wreath dedicated “To our gallant and worthy foe”.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam and comrades assailed by the opening salvos of the Spring Offensive – and Sam gets gassed!
(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.