“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, 4 March 2018
March 28, the front line outside Arras: at midnight Signaller Sam takes “the one-word message we dreaded” from Battalion HQ… so it’s fight to the last… and their CO panics…
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A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front, with the Spring Offensive still a rumour and a fearsome expectation in the heart of every Tommy and Jerry, the Allied and German Armies exchanged relatively inconsequential (still deadly) raids in early March – mostly instigated by the Germans who were beaten back by the Belgians at Ramscapelle and Stuyvenskerke (March 6), by the British near Ypres (8) and the French on their northern stretch of the Front (10). American troops suffered a traumatic introduction to artillery bombardment at Rouge Bouquet, near the southern German border (7).
To the east, the action was mainly around the negotiating tables as the previous week’s Central Powers/Russian treaty was followed by peace agreements between Romania and the Central Powers plus Bulgaria and Turkey (March 5; at Buftea, Romania), Germany and Finland (7; Berlin), and Romania and Bolshevik Russia (9; although Romania and Tsarist Russia had been allies in the fight against Germany). An interesting disruption to the jaw-jaw occurred with the Battle Of Bakhmach (8-13) wherein Czechoslovak legions in Russia took on German forces occupying Ukraine – by the end of this-week-100-years-ago the Czechoslovaks had captured their major objectives, the railway junction and the bridge at Bakhmach (10).
Otherwise, the only significant action was the British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s move to the western edge of the Jordan Valley, an advance of five miles on a 12-mile front via the Battle Of Tell ’Asur (March 8-12).
However, a global medical crisis began barely noticed on March 4 at Camp Funston, Kansas, where Private Albert Gitchell is said to have become the first diagnosed case of Spanish Flu – his 50,000 comrades therefore seen by some as having conveyed the virus to many other nations through their wartime deployments. The name “Spanish Flu” arose from 8 million Spaniards catching it by May, 1918.
[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 i Arras, 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.]
Last week – the blog having moved ahead of itself because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote so much about late March – with the Germans’ Spring Offensive already well under way, Sam’s 2/7th Essex Battalion moved into the front line at Fampoux outside Arras (March 23). With the artillery bombardment continuing day after day, he and the Signallers were more than glad to find themselves well sheltered in a substantial dugout albeit that meant unwonted proximity to the Company’s ill-tempered and windy stand-in CO. The only disadvantage was the need to go out when a trench took a direct hit and repair phone lines, sometimes in full view of the enemy, sometimes groping about in the dark.
Now they’re approaching the day when the Offensive, begun on March 21 at St Quentin way to the east, becomes a full-blown advance on their trenches – the prime German objective, to take Arras:
‘One night, the general tone of the bombardment changed; shells which whined stopped landing near us, yet colossal explosions continued all around. Curiosity took me up the dugout steps to find out what Jerry was up to, and I soon recognised an old familiar sound from way back on the Somme – woof, woof, whispering woof, woof – Minenwerfers, ruddy great mortars. Back to the Romans!(2)
HQ experts assessed the situation and circulated the comforting news that Jerry was subjecting our area to “a box-barrage of large mortars”. These often dug holes big enough to drop a house into and were doubtless intended to bring our wonderful shelters down on our heads. They might well have done so but, in our immediate vicinity, the German artillery still hadn’t quite got us targeted. Creating a box-barrage required very careful range co-ordination so that, on landing, the projectiles formed the outline of a square. The director of the operation could move his square forwards, backwards or sideways, the hope being that eventually every construction and every living thing within it would be destroyed.
Still, we survived and so did our dugout until, eventually, the boxes moved off elsewhere… Unfortunately, an even more concentrated artillery bombardment took their place and now our lovely, deep shelter really did begin to shudder and tremble. One great scare came from a big shell which must have landed on our dugout’s very thick “roof”; everything vibrated alarmingly and earth fell away from ceiling and walls. Two stairway tunnels led down from the trench above and these we quickly checked, but both remained sound and clear. The Engineers had done a good job of construction, bless‘em.
For us four Signallers, apart from mad dashes to trace line breaks – in the dark, by touch – all was working nicely when I received a message which sealed our Company’s fate. It read: “In a probable emergency the following procedures will be carried out by your Company. Should you receive the code word ‘Sambo’ C Company will retreat to their support line, fighting a rear-guard action. Should you receive code word ‘George’ C Company will stand firm and under no circumstances leave their present position.”
I sent that message over to our acting Company officer(3) – of whom we had seen little, though we knew he lurked in his screened-off end of our dugout.
Near finality here indeed… a message which presented us with two possibilities, both horrible. We four Signallers discussed our own potential courses of action and decided that if “George” came through we must smash our transmitter, attach suitable messages to our pair of carrier pigeons and send them flying, then join our comrades on the firing steps.
As well that we made our own decisions, for no instructions emanated from our leader’s hidey-hole.
Someone at Battalion HQ had a sense of the dramatic for, when I received the one-word message we dreaded – viz “George” — I automatically timed it: 2400 hours. Midnight(4).
“George”, our stay-put death sentence, was accompanied by no other words, not even “Good luck” or “Goodbye”.
When we relayed the message to our Company officer, he burst out from behind his curtain yelling maledictions on all Headquarters staffs and wanting to know why we had been sacrificed. We couldn’t enlighten him. In fact, his changed face told us much about his state of mind, and we knew that, as far as leadership was concerned, there would be none from him.’
(2) Not quite back to the Romans, probably — Wikipedia says mortars were first deployed in action by Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s Army in the 1453 siege of Constantinople – which actually marked the end of the Roman Empire after 1,500 years.
(3) My father aliased him as Lieutenant Jewitt. He was left in charge when the Battalion withdrew the Company’s usual, popular CO Captain Bailey (another alias, as per Sam’s habit) as they moved into the front line a few days earlier.
(4) Midnight March 27/8, presaging the day the Germans launched the Operation Mars element of the Spring Offensive which had begun around St Quentin on March 21.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Amid the monstrous bombardment, Sam’s line to HQ goes dead, then he and Neston find HQ deserted… back in the front line the Company CO’s in a pitiable state… Sam and Signallers join their Tommy comrades to start that fight to the last bullet… thinking “Stick together no matter what happens”…
(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.