“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, 13 May 2018
Still on the road, 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”.
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A hundred years ago this week… The war was grinding along, as if on principle, rather than to signify any grand plan (after the failure of the German Spring Offensive). On the Western Front, in the Lys and Somme areas an artillery duel proceeded for several days – deadly, of course, substantial objectives unclear – while a German attack on a one-mile front southwest of Morlancourt (May 14; Somme department) was more than repulsed by Australian troops who captured Ville-sur-Ancre (14), and the French advanced north of Kemmel (15; Flanders) took woods south of Hailles in the Avre valley (15; southeast of Amiens).
But the most notable action on both sides came from their embryonic air forces. A squadron of 20 German Gotha bombers hit London at night (May 19; 49 dead, 177 wounded); they also bombed hospitals in Hoogsbade and Calais (16) and Étaples (19; 300 casualties). Meanwhile, British planes raided Metz station (17; Moselle department) and Cologne (18).
The most complex conflict arose from the chaos around the German victory over Russia combining with the Russian Revolution, still only a few months old. The Revolt Of The Czechoslovak Legion (May-August) arose from the Tsar assembling 60,000 Czech and Slovak troops to fight Austria-Hungary. After Russia’s defeat they became an embarrassment. Trotsky promised them safe passage to Vladivostock on the Trans-Siberian railway. Then he tried to have them disarmed and arrested. Thus a disgruntled chunk of the Legion found themselves at Chelyabinsk (May 14; east of the Urals) where they got into a barney with some passing Hungarian troops and the Bolshevik local government and decided to occupy the town while they were at it. They then took a row of towns along the railway and found themselves involved in counter-revolution when aligning themselves with “White” Russian Army officers’ organisations in taking Omsk (southwest Siberia) and Petropavlovska (Kamchatka, on the Pacific Coast).
Elsewhere: Italian forces began a push against their Austrian invaders along the Piave and just north of Venice (May 13-19); British, French and Italian troops advanced against Austrians and Bulgarians in Macedonia and Albania (15 and 17); the Turks went on grabbing territory formerly held by the Russian Army, including Alexandropol (18; Georgia); and in Mesopotamia, British troops took Fatha on the Tigris and drove the Turkish Army ever further north (17; 45 miles north of Tikrit – now Iraq, of course).
[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, a POW.]
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive on March 28, had just moved to a filthy and overcrowded makeshift POW facility at Marchiennes, 32.5 miles east of Arras.
He endured one of his bunkmates constantly singing the most miserable Irish folk ballad in the world, and tried to keep his morale in working order by hanging out with some fellow, though previously unknown, Essex Regiment men and their inspiring Sergeant.
But then he was torn away from that last vestige of familiarity and comfort when ordered to join a small POW group on a long walk to they-didn’t-know-where. He wrote that two memorable events occurred on that journey. The first was horrifying: a German Sergeant in charge of their guards stopped a woman giving the prisoners bread and then grabbed her by the throat and as far as Sam could tell, looking behind him, strangled her to death – the POWs restrained from interfering by rifle butts and bayonets.
‘The other notable event on that march also illustrated the loyalty of our French ally to the common cause. We entered a fairly large town and noticed that the inhabitants – possibly because large numbers of them were out in the streets – showed no fear of the German soldiers who, fully armed, formed a line between us and the population which looked impenetrable. The women, without exception, waved and called out encouraging messages. Some men took off their hats and waved them.
All this kindness had immense value to us, restoring our morale and, to some extent, our self-respect, at least for the moment. For weeks we had been totally isolated, debased by wretched living conditions and semi-starvation; we had come to believe we were weak and of no account to anybody. I had been feeling lost and lonely for, since my departure from the Sergeant and his group, I had met no one with whom I wished to be really friendly. Rather had I found it necessary to be on my guard — if I had saved a crust of the small bread ration or had picked up some edible item.
Then, in the middle of this town, for some reason, marching was suspended. I looked around: on one side of us a fine old church and, on the other side of the street, a row of shops, the pavement packed with people. And from them came more of these greetings, these smiles, from ordinary citizens going about their occupations, living apparently similar lives to those we had enjoyed in a past which now seemed terribly distant… in truth, I had feared it was lost to me forever. Just to be allowed to stand there and look at human beings – instead of staring, glaring eyes in sunken faces – uplifted and reassured me, a tonic restoring some sort of hope for the future.
I noticed an estaminetto my left and saw several men in there taking their morning break from work, chatting over a glass of wine.
The door of this place opened and a man emerged, wearing an apron and carrying a large, white, enamelled jug. He hurried our way, pushed in amongst us, and we appreciated his good intention immediately. Eagerly, we held out our tin cans, receptacles of all sorts, whatever we had been able to procure that would hold liquid. He poured beer into every container he could reach.
He must have known the trouble he was bringing on himself and he worked speedily. A guard tried to get to him, but we jammed around this brave Frenchman so closely the German could not touch him. Only when the liquor had all been given away did the good man speak and his “Bon santé!” and “Fini” were well understood and a passage to the pavement cleared for him, whereupon he ran back into the estaminet.
I hoped he got away with his act of defiance of the enemy. I don’t know because the guards set us marching again immediately.
I believe the town was Valenciennes(2).
This weary procession ended in a place called Sancourt(2), and our first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp. It consisted of a number of the wooden huts familiar to all soldiers – but in his case without beds. We were each given a thin blanket made of some ersatz(3) material.
British soldiers usually expressed defiance of such sweaty and foul living conditions through blasphemous songs, often set to hymn tunes. But we who had lost touch with our nationals and who fed and fared worse than many animals, we sang no bawdy songs, made no jokes in bad taste, laughed at nothing; the energy to do any of these normal things had deserted us. To stand up required a deal of effort and walking had become a hard labour. One laid down when not under pressure to work – our work regime began here at Sancourt – and slept during the night only between lurching almost hourly to the latrine in order to avoid fouling the only clothing we possessed.’
(2) I think my father wrongly recalled the previous town they passed through as Valenciennes which is 15 miles southeast of Marchiennes whereas Sancourt is about 26 miles south (which sounds like a two-day “march”, although Sam seems to remember it as one). Perhaps the brave beer carrier lived in Cambrai, the sizable town only 4 miles south of Sancourt and on one of the main routes (occupied by the German Army 1914-18 and scene of the first-ever large-scale British tank attack during the Battle Of Cambrai November 20-December 7, 1917 – and 89,000 combined casualties).
(3) Another Endnote direct from my father about the troops’ use of foreign words: “That German word, ‘ersatz’, by the way, had been in use in England for some time, together with the French word Boche when we tired of calling him Jerry (should have been ‘Gerry’, of course); ‘matelot’ was regularly used by our sailors, and ‘coucher’ for sleep, as a change from ‘kip’, and many others.”
All the best– FSS
Next week: Starving Sam suffers torture – from hutmate Jimmy’s obsessive reminiscing about a Yorkshire pie-shop and its meaty wares… but then dysentery sees Sam sent to a nearby German field hospital where the wounded soldiers share their food with him, such is the camaraderie of front-line soldiers.
(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.