“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, 1 April 2018
Still March 28: his final battle over, Sam starts his eight months as a POW… but it’s not official yet, so he helps a wounded British lad get to the German Red Cross; he’s mugged by a Jerry battlefield gang of thieves; and passes through a phalanx of artillery the likes of which he’s never seen before…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Spring Offensive/Kaiserschlacht reached its bloody diminuendo as Allied defences held on sufficiently to prevent the German Army gaining any of General Ludendorff’s objectives, although they recovered a lot of territory lost in 1916-17.
The British repulsed an attack near Fampoux outside Arras (April 2; where my father became a POW on March 28; see below) and, with Australian troops, around Amiens, defended the village of Villers-Bretonneux and won the Battle Of The Avre (4; reckoned to be the first in which both sides used tanks) and the Battle Of The Ancre (5). The French successfully counterattacked southeast of Amiens at Grivesnes and Noyon (4).
The upshot was that on April 5, Ludendorff declared Operation Michael defunct, undermined by often effective defence and their own failures in supply lines of food and equipment. Casualties were estimated as German 250,000, Allied 255,000…
Nonetheless, the German General immediately launched a second phase of the Spring Offensive, known as Operation Georgette or the Battle Of The Lys, intended to take Ypres and push the British back through Belgium to the Channel coast. This began with an artillery bombardment on a 15-mile front between Festubert and Armentières, on the Belgian border (April 7).
Elsewhere, far smaller actions also had the air of terminal skirmishing. Despite the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, the Germans took Ekaterinoslav in southern Russia (April 3) and landed at Hangö in Finland despite a Russian protest (3). Over in Palestine the British attack on Amman stalled in face of Turkish resistance and they withdrew to Es Salt (2). And the Turks had a further minor success in taking Sarikamish, Russian Caucasus (4).
[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.]
Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, described the final minutes of his last battle – on March 28, 1918, at Fampoux, outside Arras, the British defence against the Operation Mars phase of the German Spring Offensive. His 2/7th Battalion, Essex Regiment, had moved into the front line on March 23 and taken a terrible artillery bombardment until, at midnight on the 27/8th, Sam took the coded order which meant they had to hold the line to the last man and bullet.
The anticipated full-on infantry attack duly arrived after morning stand-to and the Battalion did did as duty-bound, despite being leaderless with its Captain withdrawn days earlier, and the three Lieutenants Sam was aware of hors de combat(two dead, one panicked and ran for it). They were reckoned to comprise 520 men at the start of the day and, when next counted, 80 remained, the rest either dead or, like Sam, taken POW. He never knew what became of his great Arras-period pal Neston, who did head rearwards when every bullet was spent and he and Sam had released the carrier pigeons with brief farewell messages attached.
As my father related at the end of last week’s blog, he came through because when he stood exhausted and defenceless in front of the onrushing Germans, hoping for a quick, accurate bayonet thrust to end it, the two young boys facing him “smiled, swung a little aside” and were gone. “Bless the lovely lads,” he wrote…
So now he was on the “wrong” side of the lines, although not formally “captured” as yet – and he was still in the midst of a battlefield:
‘I heard a call for help, searched a little ahead, and found a British boy lying on his back, trying to get up. “I caught a bullet through the ankle,” he gasped… With the Germans having advanced in strength between us and the British Army, we were prisoners. Glad to be still alive, I suppose, but fearful of what might now happen to us.
“Help me to get to a German field hospital,” he said. I got him up on to his sound foot and, obeying signs from yet more advancing German troops, with arms around each other, we struggled towards the enemy lines. Soon, a man wearing an armlet of Red Cross on yellow background relieved me of my wounded mate and directed me to proceed “that way”… That way would lead me smack into a line of field guns firing non-stop – they must have been laying a terrible bombardment on our rear positions. So, the law of self-preservation still operating, I veered to the right, slid into a shell-hole and rested a while, peering over the rim to make sure no fresh danger came my way.
As German reinforcements moved past me, up and away to support their victorious comrades, their gaze fixed straight ahead, not a glance to right or left, I learnt how we must have looked to them when we were advancing in attack. I observed in them anxiety, nervousness, ruthlessness (but rarely)… and sometimes the shifty look betokening “Not me for the chop, not if I can dodge the column”, accompanied by artful sheltering behind other men.
But where were our captured soldiers? Assuming some had survived… I hadn’t seen a Britisher since I handed my wounded kid over to the German Red Cross man.
The last of the German infantry vanished towards the British lines. In the following lull, I heard a few shells come over from our artillery – which surprised me, for I felt sure most of our guns had been removed some days ago to positions far in the rear, or else destroyed by the intense enemy gunfire.
Ahead of me, I could see the German front-line trench parapet. This provided another surprise: no barbed wire lay in front of it. Both Armies usually protected their fronts with barbed-wire defences of varying density. One could only imagine the enemy command had ordered its removal to facilitate rapidity of movement for the masses of men thrown into their infantry attack.
I tensed my muscles preparatory to scrambling out of my shell-hole, dashed across to that German trench and slid on the loose earth down its steep side. As my feet touched the bottom, three Jerries sprang towards me, one thrust a pistol at my tummy and demanded “Pay-book!” I raised my arms and let them take what they would. Vultures of the battlefield, dodgers, thieves – they cleaned me out, and when they departed my worldly goods consisted of what I stood up in, underclothes, tunic, trousers, helmet, socks and boots. I’d heard of similar types in our Army – bad Military Police in Cairo who regularly robbed drunks and would-be deserters and somehow got away with it undetected…
Having grabbed what they wanted, the thugs indicated the direction in which I should go. Towards all the bangs and smoke puffs again… but I obeyed, realising I was being watched by people whose presence I had been unaware of until then.
Now, when I saw German soldiers in holes or trenches they all signalled in much the same way, their thumbs pointing to the rear. As I slowly approached the field artillery position, it shocked me to realise that, unlike our deployment of batteries at intervals across country behind our front lines, here – in a wide, deep trench like a sunken road – stood guns wheel to wheel as far as I could see to right and to left.
I had to get down into that great ditch and climb up the far side. Then I came upon 50 or so British men clustered together. Nearby, several German officers had found some concealment in a clump of trees festooned with telephones, the instruments on the ground, the headphones hanging from low tree branches.
One obviously senior officer with a blue and red face of extreme ugliness yelled an order accompanied by hand movements indicating us. This resulted in a more junior officer forcing the British soldiers nearest to him to go down on one knee, in one row, facing our own lines. The rest of us soon complied. A strange scene, shattering from our point of view – this assembly of artillery below and in front of us, stretching endlessly into the distance. How could our Army stand up to this concentration of fire power?
I assumed that, in making us kneel right behind his guns, the commander hoped that British artillerymen – if they could see us through the battlefield mist and smoke – would not wish to fire on their comrades. I could not but admire this officer’s devotion to his job. In that exposed position, he calmly gave orders into one phone, hung that up, then used another, receiving and sending messages, in touch with battery commanders all along the line of guns. I could discern only one group of our guns firing in response, from way back behind the original British trench positions.
Later, a German called “Come!” and our file arose and followed him across open country much pitted with craters and cluttered with war debris.
One sight shook me: the corpse of a horse lying by the roadside, clearly not long dead, but with its ribs and upper leg bones exposed. Its hide had been slashed and all edible parts cut away. How hungry the Germans must have been, I realised, or at least how short of meat, to have butchered the animal as soon as it fell. I had never seen that sort of thing on the British side.
Soon we came to the remains of a village. On a wall, painted in large white capitals, was the word “Gavrelle”(2) which I assumed to be its name.’
(2) Gavrelle: six miles east-north-east of Arras, 10 miles west of Douai; the British captured it on April 23, 1917, and lost it this day, March 28, 1918, before reoccupying in August.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam’s first night as a POW: he and his randomly gathered comrades interrogated by a Ruritanian-uniformed but cunning German officer who just wants a few details he’s missing about the British trench system and so on; then they dine on uncooked salt fish and “bed” down in a freezing brickyard.
(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.