“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, 15 April 2018
Sam’s first full day as a POW: his random band of captives are led to a camp of sorts, a derelict factory; looking around Sam sees how being a prisoner demoralises and dehumanises good men and starts to take steps to hold on to himself for as long as possible…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli&Somme episodemini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The German follow-up to the Spring Offensive, Operation Georgette (April 7-29), continued to pound away at the Allied lines in northern France and Belgium to no conclusive effect.
While the Battle Of Bailleul ended with the German Army taking the town (April 15; three kilometres from the Belgian border southwest of Ypres) and the Germans also took Passchendaele, Wytschaete and Meteren (16-17), at the First Battle Of Kemmel Ridge the British Army held the Germans at bay (17-19; between Armentieres and Ypres) as they did further southwest in the Battle Of Bethune (18-19). Consensus seems to be that the fighting on Belgian soil reflected the British General Plumer’s adroit understanding of when to withdraw and when to stand and fight. Meanwhile the French Army also repulsed German attacks in the Meuse area and in Champagne.
Around where the Eastern Front used to be, the strange aftermath of the Brest-Litovsk peace settlement between the Axis Powers and Russia proceeded. German troops occupied Helsinki, Finland (April 15) and entered Crimea, about 1,500 miles south (19). Also down in Ukraine, the Russian Bolshevik Army was still battling the rebel General Kornilov’s volunteers, although he’d been killed by a shell on April 13.
While the key actions on the Western Front took all the attention, the Turks carried on hoovering up territory – occupying Batum, Georgia (April 15) – and the Macedonia campaign revived with Greek troops crossing the River Struma and taking villages around Serres while the British advanced southwest of Demir Hisar (both 15; the British withdrew again four days later).
[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)… untilofficialdom 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 andprepare 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 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 proved to be the final home leave of his military career – and 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 in 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 near Fampoux, about six miles east of Arras, on March 19… just in time, it turned out, for the opening artillery bombardment of the German Spring Offensive and a last stand by the Battalion on March 28 which left 80 alive and OK out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, taken prisoner.]
Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, “weary and worn” after his 2/7th Battalion Essex Regiment had, as ordered, fought to the last bullet in the defence of Arras around Fampoux, took his first steps into eight months as a POW. He and his shattered comrades from various Regiments resisted the blandishments of a smartly-clad German officer politely asking for further details of British trenches and deployments, then dossed down for the night on the hard, cold ground of a brickyard a little way outside Gavrelle (re-taken by the German Army that day, March 28, 1918; about 11 kilometres northeast of Arras).
At dawn, he awoke – though unsure he’d slept at all – to his first full day as a prisoner of war:
‘No food available that first morning. So, with as much water inside us as we could stomach, we shambled what felt like many, many kilometres to a town called Denain(2). Soon, we entered the yard of a large factory; on our left a high building and on our right a row of small, single-storey structures which looked rather like stables. Perhaps they had been such in time of peace, but each of them now housed a British officer. Through barred apertures in the doors we could just discern some of them in the dark interiors.
One, a handsome flying officer, stood close to his bars and, as I slowly moved past, I asked quietly, “Why are you kept in there, sir?” “It’s only temporary till I’m moved to a proper officers’ prison camp,” he replied. “Were you shot down?” I asked. “Yes, not far from here,” he said. Then I was past his hovel and saw him no more.
A harsh voice yelled orders at the men in front of me and I saw, standing at the top of some stone steps, a swarthy chap in British uniform. In German he talked with a Jerry who stood beside him, then he shouted an English translation at the prisoners nearest to him.
“I know that man!” yelled a chap nearby. “His name’s Goldberg!” Anti-Semitism was rife in Britain in those days and the man’s Jewish appearance, his evident mastery of the German language, the fact that he was giving orders from a position well above us, all condemned him in our eyes. Why was he directing one man to join one column of prisoners and another man to join a different line? On what did he base his assessment?
My column headed for a huge, three-storey building some distance from the factory, but still within the same perimeter wall. We had to make our way up a formerly substantial stairway, now missing many steps and risers as well as most of the bannister rails. Each floor had numbers of large rooms, the doors gone from all of them, as were many floorboards.
I soon realised that all this destruction had occurred simply because men need warmth. Some of the occupants of the room I was ordered into had been prisoners there for a month or more. Short of nourishment and warm clothing, they had found difficulty in just keeping alive. As they were now – dirty, unshaven, stinking in some cases, rapidly sliding towards the sub-human – so might I soon become. They hung together in groups of two or three, it appeared, eyed with suspicion all those outside their little circle, and even snarled or jeered at them.
When I slipped quietly out of that shaming little shambles, nobody noticed my going. Out in the yard, I walked around watching out for the cleanest-looking men, believing that they would be the most recently captured and therefore the least debased in character.
I entered the main building, tall but one floor only and obviously a factory or foundry of some sort in peacetime, given the pieces of disused machinery, boilers and so on still lying around. One could see that the upper parts of partitions separating different sections of the works had been torn down, but they still made useful barriers against which to shelter when cold winds blew. Straw, all reasonably clean, covered the floor.
The prisoners there were newcomers, still free of that peaked, hungry look, and not yet given to constantly peering left and right, up and down, in search of something, anything, which might still the pangs in their stomachs.
That night, I tried an experiment in bed-making. Before lying down in the straw, I removed my tunic, bunched up straw for a pillow, placed a none-too-clean hanky on top of it, laid down and pulled the tunic over my top half and thereafter dozed and wakened through the night.’
(2) Denain: 18 miles east of Douai, 38 miles east of Arras; one of the industrial/coal-mining towns which inspired Émile Zola to write Germinal(1885) – during his researches Zola went down a pit there; occupied by the German Army from summer 1914 to October 19, 1918 – three weeks later French President Raymond Poincaré visited and found “Un spectacle de désolation” according to http://www.ville-denain.fr/node/92
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam swiftly succumbs to the POW’s necessary obsession with food and starts improvising with snaffled scraps; continuing his quest for comrades not yet demoralised and broken by their sufferings, he comes upon a Sergeant from his own Essex Regiment who seems to sustain a level of self-respect and inspire others to do likewise.
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoirof his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.