“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, 6 May 2018
Sam’s POW sufferings multiplied by his roommate’s singing… until suddenly he’s off on another long march to somewhere… and witnesses POW guard brutality at its murderous worst.
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… No really major action occurred anywhere – though, of course, men still fell in their hundreds on all sides. On the Western Front in the aftermath of the Spring Offensive, the Allied predominance remained, albeit mostly in defensive mode: the French repulsed German raids around Locre (May 6; Flanders), the British and French eventually beat back an attack between La Clytte and Voormezeele (8-9; southwest of Ypres), and the French advanced at Grivesnes (9; southeast of Amiens). Meanwhile, seeking to render Ostend hors de combatas an outlet for the Germans, the British sank a concrete-filled cruiser, HMS Vindictive, across the mouth of the harbour.
Around the ex-Eastern Front, the Germans continued their tidy-up, which amounted to doing as they pleased given their military success: the Russian Black Sea fleet surrendered to the Germans at Odessa (May 6); the Finnish White Guards, German allies, took Frederickshamn in the south, thus concluding the two-month Finnish civil war; German troops captured Rostov, on the Don in southern Russia (8); and in a now rare bloody battle, at Kaniow in Ukraine, a Polish legion, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Army but irate about Germany blocking their national independence, refused to lay down their arms when surrounded by German forces and suffered defeat (10-11; despite German casualties far higher than Polish, at 1800 to 200).
Elsewhere, the recently quiet Italian front woke up when the Italians stormed Monte Corno in the upper Piave valley and held it against Austro-Hungarian counterattacks (May 9-11). British troops raided Bulgarian trenches near Lake Doiran, Macedonia (7). And much further south in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) they took Kirkuk (7) and a little further north drove the Turks further back at Alton Keupri (11). However, the Turks continued to occupy the vaccum left by the Russian Army in west Persia by taking Uskner and Suj Bulak as they pushed towards the Caspian.
[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, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner at Fampoux outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive on March 28, wrote about the grim conditions at a makeshift POW camp (contrived from a row of terraced houses) in Marchiennes, 32.5 miles east of Arras.
There, malnutrition and dysentery and degrading living conditions – they sleep 10 to a wooden shelf, crap seated on a pole over a hole in full view of the town – ground him down. His only consolation was the company of some fellow Essex Regiment members (though previously unknown to him) and their upstanding Sergeant.
Now he’s about to lose that comfort – and witness the vile worst of POW guard brutality. But first, a song… yup, even that’s a long way from the uplifting kind:
‘All the daylight hours had to be passed in those depressing surroundings, mooching in the stinking space behind the dwellings – and beside the latrine – or lying on the wooden shelf.
One chap in my room, which I had to return to at night, dismally sang verse after verse of a dirge about a Liverpudlian hero called, I believe, McCaffereet(1). After all these years, I remember only the concluding lines: “Now come my lads, just list to me/And never from your hopes do flee/For if you do you’re sure to meet/With the same fate as young McCaffereet.” That may not be the correct spelling of the poor bloke’s name, but just put to those words the most miserable tune you can think of and imagine a young-gone-old man lying on his back on a wood shelf in a small, dingy room intoning verse after pathetic verse about Mac’s equally dingy life story. Be cold and starving hungry as you listen to the tale of woe and stave off utter dejection if you can.
The most important part of each day spent in that dump – the bit that saved me from complete despair – was when I visited and talked with that Sergeant. I gained hope and strength just from being near the man. Probably about 30, he had managed to retain his safety razor and a strop of a type not seen for many years – it passed through the hinged razor holder, then a few flips back and forth re-sharpened the blade. So he looked clean and he kept his uniform in much better shape than did most prisoners. I never had reason to suspect that he received better treatment regarding food than the rest of us, yet he had so far avoided that awful, shifty, hungry look I saw in most faces there.
As to what he saw when he looked at me I had no idea. Throughout the following months I could only guess about my face by feeling around it when I managed to clean it: soft straggly hair round chin and sides; my hair, cropped pretty short when I last stayed in Arras(2), I judged no longer than as worn by many civilians then, but it must have been terribly dirty – hot water, not to mention soap, being unobtainable. My clothes I wore night and day, week after week; feeling cold all the time, with no means of washing them, I felt no inclination to remove them.
Oddly, though, I had no need of de-lousing. The filthy little animals had deserted me, presumably because my body yielded nothing they fancied – this being the one and only benefit I derived from captivity in the hands of people expert in the art of killing slowly those whom they considered surplus to requirements.
Eventually, after how many days or weeks I’m not sure, early one morning the guards marched half the prisoners off to a place where they could have a bath of some sort. The rest of us were supposed to go next day, but we never did. The clean ones returned that evening – worn out because they were so debilitated that it had taken them many hours to walk the necessary 11 kilometres each way, but still pleased to be clean in body, even though they’d had to don the same old filthy clothes.
Shortly after that, with a few others, I was taken to a point where we joined another group of British prisoners, complete strangers – a few of them Irish, many Scots and the rest from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire, I learned. Suddenly and permanently, I’d lost touch with the Sergeant and the Essex Regiment men around him.
Two noteworthy incidents(3) occurred during the march that followed. The German under-officer(4) commanding the guards who flanked our column was the first blond enemy soldier I had seen and, basing my opinion on a fallacy current at that time, I assumed that he came from Saxony. Since I was an Anglo-Saxon, I reasoned that he would be kinder to me than would a dark-skinned Prussian.
Keen to maintain a steady rate of progress, he constantly moved up and down the column, adjuring his men to urge their shambling prisoners onwards. They responded with shouts of “Vorwärts!” and “Schnell!” and “Fester machen!”(5) or words which sounded like that and whose meaning was obvious. But, at least, no violence, no jabbing with rifle barrels, nor blows from their butts occurred… And the fair-haired NCO, here, there and everywhere, pleasant-faced, even exchanged a near-smile with one or other of his men while always pressing everybody to maintain a steady, forward movement. We could justifiably have slouched along, debilitated as we were, but something about that man’s energy seemed to give us an obscure enthusiasm.
When we passed through a village, I observed the very first signs of interest in our plight on the part of French civilians. People stood at cottage doors, some even waved to us. We returned their salutes with gratitude, for these were the only folk who had greeted us with friendly gestures since the Boche had made prisoners of us. I found it reassuring that our French ally’s women, though now under enemy rule, should risk their freedom by revealing sympathetic feelings for the race whom Germans appeared to hate above all others at that time.
One bold woman hurried forward carrying a long loaf of bread. She came among us, breaking off pieces and handing them round. Eager hands grabbed the pieces, holding up our march for a moment – and then the guards did weigh in with their rifle butts.
As for my Saxon under-officer, he dispelled my romantic foolishness about fair-haired Germans. With glaring eyes and red, bloated face, he dragged the woman to the roadside. His hands at her throat, yelling loudly, having lost all control of himself, he appeared to be strangling her. We who were nearby moved to help the kindly woman, but more guards rushed to support their noble leader and rifle butts battered us, bayonets prodded our sides and behinds, and they drove us onwards to shouts of “Marschieren!”(6) and “Vorwärts!”
I looked back when able to do so and could see the swine still holding the lady by the neck although, by then, she had collapsed. He must almost certainly have killed her, having for no good reason allowed bad temper to rob him of all human decency. Curiously enough, I never saw him again; he never rejoined our column.’
(1) Very likely this was an Irish song called McCafferty, a street ballad about a man who was actually called Patrick McCaffrey… or McCaffery. Maybe with the extra “t” the name “sang better” – especially when mournfully extended by Sam’s Scouse roommate to “McCaffereet”. In 1862, as a 19-year-old Irishman who’d come to England and joined the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment stationed at Fulwood, Preston, Lancashire, McCaffery overrreacted, you might think, to a Captain ordering his confinement to barracks for 14 days; that same day with one rifle bullet, he shot and killed the Captain and his Colonel as they walked across the barrack square. After a trial at Lancashire Assizes, he was hung. The lyrics and detailed background can be read at https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/mccafferty-the-story-of-the-song/ – including McCafferty’s lament that “I have no mother to break her heart/Nor yet a father to take my part” and his admonition “All you young officers take warning by me/And treat your men with some decency”.
(3) The second one comes up next week.
(4) “Under-officer” is my father’s literal translation of “Unteroffizier” meaning the equivalent of “Sergeant”.
(5)“Forwards!”, “Quick!” and “Faster!”.
All the best– FSS
Next week: On the road still – under the noses of the guards Sam and POW comrades receive kindness – and beer – from French townspeople, “restoring morale, self-respect and some sort of hope for the future”.
(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.