“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, 17 June 2018
Sam and his latest travelling band of British POWs take a walk through the Hindenburg Line… then their hard labour resumes – building a railway. Which leads to the hair-raising story of how a pink mushroom saved Sam’s life…
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A hundred years ago this week… After a hectic period during the previous seven days with the Central Powers aggressive on several Fronts, now the action subsided again, temporarily of course.
On the Western Front, while the Americans held the line in the lengthy Battle Of Belleau Wood (June 1-26; near the Marne), German attacks were repulsed by the French and British around Reims from Sillery to Trigny (18) and at Bligny (22), while the British advanced a little southwest of Meteren on the Lys in Nord-Pas-De-Calais department (23).
Down in Italy, the Second Battle Of The Piave (June 15-24) saw the Italian Army hit back against the initial Austro-Hungarian onslaught on a very long front from north of Venice to the Asiago Plateau by taking Razea Pizzo and the heights of Sasso Asiago, gaining ground in the Grappa region and turning back the invader’s attempts to cross the Piave between Sant’Andrea and Fossalta (17), then occupying Capo Sile (18; just north of Venice). As the Austro-Hungarian push faltered, the French took mounts Betigo and Pennar on the Plateau, and the Italians mount Costalunga (19). The Austro-Hungarians called off their attack on the 20th and over the next few days the Italians regained all the ground they’d conceded (casualties 87,181 Italian with some British and French, 118,000 Austro-Hungarian). General Foch, Allied Commander-in-Chief in France urged the Italians to press on, but their General Diaz refused because his forces were too thinly spread – proven a good decision as, regardless, the Austro-Hungarian Army (and Empire) soon went into a tailspin of decline exacerbated by food riots back in Vienna.
Aside from that, in the interesting aftermath of the Russian defeat and Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, the Ottomans continued their advance in northern Persia and beyond – naturally with an eye on annexing some oil, but also with a degree of caution because their German allies were looking in the same direction. Still, they occupied Dilman in Azerbaijan, defeating the Armenian defenders (18).
[Memoirbackground: 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, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, 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 – many weeks of it passed in various northern hospitals because of a meningitis scare, German Measles, and recovery from the lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations (he spent his 19th birthday, July 6, 1917, at Wharncliffe War Hospital, Sheffield). During that summer, 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; either this defiance brought about his subsequent “reversion” to Private, or he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. Come November/December, 1917, he enjoyed the final home leave of his military career – and assured his family of his firm conviction that he would survive. In December/January, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocked about Brigade HQ in Arras, dogsbodying where he could – including the front line, just a few miles away. In 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 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 and then part of randomly-assembled bands of POWs – wandering from Denain to Marchiennes to Sancourt, then lately, to Bapaume – had a somewhat encouraging time as he and his comrades helped fellow front-line soldiers, the wounded patients at a German field hospital.
Incoming “friendly” shells and bombers suggested they were quite close to advancing Allied forces, which perked them up. Then, a German newspaper brought Sam down to earth again as he read about the enemy’s successes in the battlefield and the peculiarly alarming fact that a long-range gun was bombarding Paris – “it became difficult to maintain faith in eventual victory,” he wrote.
But soon the POWs resumed their travels – onward to a place where, in a strange incident, Sam’s aching hunger probably saved his life…
‘Soon, another move. The Germans put some of us on a train and, after a while, we alighted at an unidentifiable spot where we were quartered in a couple of huts. So well remembered, this place – especially because the evening stew had occasional chunks of meat among the stewed root vegetables; tough meat, undoubtedly horseflesh, but ranking as a luxury. And it meant the daybreak ersatz coffee with black bread could all be consumed as one meal now because we knew our bellies would be filled again later – until then most of us had tried to save a thin slice of the morning bread to avoid that horrible empty feeling throughout the night.
The first day there provided another surprise, for the guards did not accompany us when we set off to work. Instead, alongside us walked several Germans armed with revolvers, not rifles, and wearing uniforms of a superior cut and caps with shiny black peaks and red-and-gold bands round the crown. Their chief wandered happily here and there around and among us.
Presently, we came to an area where massive barbed-wire defences stretched right and left as far as the eye could see. They led us through a wide gap and we marched on, the barbed wire ranged on either side of us. Its great depth amazed me. I’d seen nothing so vast as this before – and the word passed quietly amongst us: “This must be the Hindenburg Line(2)”.
The chief amused himself by shooting at the wood stakes securing the wire, or at the occasional can lying around. This kept him happy while demonstrating to us his good marksmanship and, possibly, the reason why the Jerries had dispensed with the usual guards.
We worked on railway construction, building a branch line through a wooded area to join a main line nearly a mile distant. We started on low ground, joining together pre-fabricated sections of light, narrow-gauge track and proceeding gradually uphill.
With competent instructors, we learned quickly, levelling the ground and packing stones under cross-members. We soon completed the uphill part, then laid more track across the higher level for about a quarter of a mile, excavating earth on each side of it and shovelling the spoil into small metal tip-trucks – about 20 of them.
When all the trucks were full, we’d begin pushing them, two men per truck, towards the downhill section. When the leading three trucks reached the start of the slope, each two-man crew mounted the small platform at the rear of their truck and applied the brakes by turning a wheel. When all appeared ready for the descent, the chief gave a signal, brakes were released, and with a push from the men waiting behind, the small train got under way. Speed increased, controlled by light touches on the brakes, and momentum carried the three trucks along a short length of level track at the bottom of the hill.
Then we tipped the earth out of the trucks, making a ridge along one side of the track. Next train down tipped on the opposite side. While we were pushing our empty trucks back up the incline and loading at the top, others removed a short section of track, levelled out the ridges of earth we’d dumped, then replaced the track on this new, flat surface. The third train down would stop short of the raised section and start a repeat process.
Repeating this operation day after day, we were lowering the higher ground and raising the lower, building a small embankment and a cutting. We grew familiar with our tasks so, on the loaded downhill run, we gradually increased speed by making less use of the handbrakes…
One day, while pushing empty trucks uphill I noticed a pink mushroom growing alongside the track. On the next down run, I asked my mate to look after the brake as I was going to jump off and collect that mushroom. Although, as we approached the spot, I felt the train going much too fast I leapt off regardless, rolled over as I landed, and picked my small mushroom…
Then I heard an awful noise down below and cries of pain. Several trucks had left the rails. Mine was at the bottom of the embankment, wheels uppermost. My mate had jumped clear as the truck ahead canted over, but several men were hurt and one badly crushed.
The little, pink mushroom appeared to have saved me from injury or, possibly, death. I didn’t eat it after all, for that might have been tempting providence.’
(2) Hindenburg Line: or Siegfriedstellung built 1916-17 from Neuville Vitasse near Arras to Cerny En Laonnois near Reims (about 90 miles); its barbed-wire “fields” were up to 90 metres deep; the line remained intact until September, 1918, during the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive, August 8-November 11
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and POW comrades continue their labours as railway navvies, doing the full John Henry, manhandling railway sleepers and steel rails – and feeling oddly strengthened and consoled by proper work, with respect from their guards (and the odd bit of horsemeat in the stew). But then they’re on the move again… to Germany, the Saar and impromptu temporary imprisonment in a corner shop!
(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.