“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 his Memoir)
Sunday, 24 March 2019
Somme veteran and ex-POW Sam now guarding German POWs decides “fraternising with the enemy” is OK with the “ruddy war” over. He befriends smiling Hans and a mandolin-playing Unteroffizier… but still a snarly Prussian hates his guts…
Sam’s Memoir(1) – paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
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The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…
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A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… at the Paris Peace Conference the hot debate among the Big Four (UK/USA/France/Italy) remained the apportioning of damages to be extracted from Germany.
It had already come down to numbers. While Wilson emerged as the “moderate”, proposing £6 billion (= 307bn after a century of inflation) in reparations, Clemenceau talked of “justice” as if a synonym for revenge and said £44 billion (£2,253bn at today’s prices).
Lloyd George took a highly political view – giving priority to what he could “sell” to the British people and Parliament (where his Liberal Party was a minority partner in the coalition with the Tories). His trickiest opposition came from John Maynard Keynes, financial representative of the British Treasury and soon to become a renowned economist; on March 28, he urged his PM that crushing reparations would unbalance the European economy and that the best way to head off Bolshevism would be to help Germany through its national food crisis pronto. Of course, subsequent developments didn’t make a fool of him – as promptly indicated by Russian leader Lenin approaching Germany about allying to fight with Hungary against Poland andthe Entente nations (March 30). Not a runner at the time, but still…
On the brightish side of the mass of diplomatic work taking place in Paris, amid all the fierce disagreement the Covenant of the League Of Nations emerged (March 25).
At the same time, bits of war proceeded or flared up in various regions. The White Russian advance against the Bolsheviks in the Urals (March 4-April) seemed to have run out of steam. But Bolshevik forces lost a battle with the Romanians on the River Dniester (24). Further south, Italy took the Turkish Mediterranean port Adalya (March 29; now Antalya), which they held for five years until Turkish independence – and Down Under, 8,000 returned troops in Brisbane took on local police protecting the Russian Workers’ Association HQ by way of an interim climax to skirmishes with red-flag-waving trade unionists.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” 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 (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit. Meaning, at first, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton. But now, something completely different…Sam as ex-POW guards German POWs…]
March, 1919, Sussex: recently transferred to the Royal Defence Corps (or possibly “lent” in some admin fashion) from his last Battalion, the 2/7 Essex Regiment, last week Sam and the fellow ex-POWs who comprised his group had to wrench themselves away from a month’s de facto holiday in Brighton and move into the countryside – a small village called East Preston, about five miles southeast of Arundel.
To their considerable surprise, they were deployed to guard German POWs detained in the pleasant enough setting of Preston Place, a sometime semi-stately home. Their SM read out instructions from Winston Churchill, no less, by then Secretary Of State For War, who advised them to let this duty defuse any remaining hatred for their recent enemies and jailors.
In truth, Sam came very close to disappointing Churchill as he staked out a gap in the fence through which, under the previous, lax Home Forces regime a young German or two had crept out into the village of an evening and got up to who knew what mischief? He reckoned he’d have shot anyone who tried it on. But then, he wrote, his hatred vanished. Near thing…
So now he begins to make a go of the job they’d been given, and with the recommended magnanimous spirit:
‘After that, I made friends with a couple of Jerries I found to be nice chaps. One of them made himself known to me when I had taken a dozen or so prisoners to do work in a plant nursery. They had to shovel and barrow the topsoil out of one greenhouse and bring in replacement soil. I sat well back behind them as they worked with their backs to me. To a youngster, I called out “You work well” in my version of German: “Du arbeitest gut,” probably. “Wie heisst du?”(2), he asked. I told him, and he said his name was Hans.
About my own age, he had a merry grin, so on the homeward trip I sat with him – as the Heligolander had sat by me, and been so kind to me, some months previously(3) – and perhaps gave the lad something to remember kindly, in the same way that I remembered my old German mate. Talking with him several times, I chummed up with his particular pal too, another fair-haired Jerry of about our age. In the familiar fashion, with a bit of theirs and bit of ours, we understood near enough what we wished to tell each other. The ruddy war was finished so why worry about being accused of fraternising with the enemy, which might have been the charge during the bad times?
However, one man in that working party hated my guts and, without a word exchanged, I reciprocated. One morning, as we walked to the nursery, we came to a flooded part of the lane and, before I could give any order, this bloke – he had a Prussian type of face, which may, in part, have caused my dislike – scrambled up an embankment and through a hedge, disappearing from view. Probably, he had done this before under similar conditions, but just in case he was trying any tricks I slipped a live round into my rifle and followed him, giving the others a sign to follow me. The blighter was waiting at a point where we could go down on to the road again, though the look on his wicked mug showed that he knew what I had suspected.
One evening, when I was off duty, I heard music coming from somewhere in the house so I followed my ears to a room on a lower floor, tapped on the door and went in. There sat a German Unteroffizier(3), spick and span in a fine-quality uniform. He played a mandolin and very well. I knew the tune, though I couldn’t name it; something from an opera I guessed. I told him that, as a boy, I had tried to play the mandolin and he offered to let me try. I managed only a very patchy effort at an old sob-song; he kindly smiled, although a groan would have been more appropriate.
I visited him occasionally thereafter and enjoyed his music. He talked of visits to a Berlin opera house and the rather stern-looking young man smiled more frequently as we became acquainted.
One frosty morning, when I had to go around the various buildings rousing the Jerries, my bang on one window shattered the pane and a lad whom I liked quite well staggered through the door half-enraged and half-scared, perhaps fearing that I had gone berserk. It took me some time to persuade him and his companions that the frozen state of the glass caused the breakage – I showed them pieces of it and glowering faces lapsed into grins when I pointed out that I would have been the injured party had I not been wearing thick gloves.
On reflection, I realised that, when a prisoner myself, I would have been very disturbed had a window shattered one morning while the harsh cries of “Raus! Ausmachen!” brought us back to miserable reality. I felt rather guilty about the occurrence, although I had been as surprised as the Jerries by the crash and clatter of falling glass.’
(2)“Wie heisst du?”: “What’s your name?”
(3) For the kindness of “the Heligolander” see Blogs July 1 and 8, 2018. An old-soldier POW guard manning the trains that took Sam’s peripatetic prisoner band from occupied northern France to southern Germany, he and Sam talked broken English/broken German – in which fractured lingo the two of them put together a conclusive comment on the war: “We must never do this to each other again/Wir müssen niemals dies zu jedem anderen nochmals tun” (or something of the sort).
(4) Unteroffizier: Sergeant.
(5) “Raus!”: “Out!”“Ausmachen!” means various things including “Make up/turn off”, so I think this may be my father misremembering what the German POW guards shouted to get them out of bed in the morning – that would probably have been “Aufstehen!” i.e. “Get up!”, though possibly “Aufmachen!” i.e. “Get yourself up!”
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and pals caught up in a tragedy of war’s aftermath as British ex-POW victims of torture go berserk and start shooting…
(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.