“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, 20 January 2019
January, 1919: 20-year-old veteran Sam’s reunion with the third member of his POW food-scrounging syndicate, “old” George – last seen starving behind barbed wire, now comfy behind suburban privet…
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… it was all happening in Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference.
The preliminary jockeying, begun on January 17, saw the “Big Four” – UK, France, Italy and USA – trying to get Russia involved in a way that might overcome that country’s post-war/revolutionary politico-military turmoil. They produced the Prinkipo Proposal (January 22; the name referred to a potential meeting place on Princes Island in the Turkish inland Sea Of Marmara) calling on the Bolshevik Government and all the “local” provisional governments and their various armed forces to declare a truce for the duration of the Peace Conference – in which case they would be invited to take part in Paris. Replies for and against started to come in, but the Bolsheviks said nothing initially.
But more significantly, the Conference quickly announced the founding of the League Of Nations (January 25), the precursor of the post-World War II United Nations. The “first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace” (by Wikipedia’s suitably sonorous account), it aimed to address security, disarmament, dispute arbitration, labour conditions, human and drug trafficking, global health, the treatment of POWs, the protection of minorities in Europe, and more (which list may engender a current frisson of plus ça change).
However fine the objectives, the post-war powerful vested power in themselves, creating an executive council comprising just that “Big Four”. Forty other states signed up, including Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the British Empire as a separate entity. But the founders excluded the recent defeated enemies Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey – and had to hope the USA would sign up, given President Woodrow Wilson was the leading mover behind the whole venture… but had a Congress to convince, especially a Republican-controlled Senate.
Beyond the debating chambers, the Conference framed a Civil And Military Mission to be sent to lately independent Poland to calm a range of border disputes (January 22) exemplified by the week’s defeat by Czecho-Slovack forces in Galicia (24).
Meanwhile, domestically, Germany skirmished on. The general election result (January 23) put the “Weimar Coalition” in power – the Social Democratic, Centre and German Democratic Parties – just before the consistently rebellious Navy sailors of the Revolutionary Communist Party took over Wilhelmshaven (26; Lower Saxony, on the North Sea) by occupying the Reichsbank – and its cash-laden vaults – and all public services.
[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 – via the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen. Finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before he was allowed home and reunited with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave…]
January, 1919, at home in Edmonton, north London: it’s reunion time. Two blogs ago my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, gave his joyful-sad account of seeing older brother Ted again for the first time in more than a year, home on a week’s special leave from Belgium and wheezing because of the gas poisoning which was to kill him three years later.
Last week, relaxing with a walletful of back pay, Sam renewed his friendship with Wally, his POW mate in Hügelheim and Lorraine and leader of a food-scrounging-and-sharing partnership that helped keep them alive for the last four/five months of the war. Sam visited Wally in his Essex village, then Wally reciprocated, to the delight of both families.
Now Sam seeks out the third member of the triumvirate…
‘Old George(2), what about him? He lived only a tram ride away, so one evening I called at his home on one of the earliest of London County Council estates(3). It comprised streets and cross-streets of similar privet-hedge-surrounded houses, well-built from good materials, much red brick, some of it pebble-dashed.
George greeted me warmly and had me shaking hands with his blushing wife, and two daughters, aged 10 and 12, in an atmosphere of much excitement. His house-proud wife commenced a tour very soon after I turned up. On the ground floor, they had a front sitting room off the narrow entrance hall, behind that a smallish living room, and behind that a scullery – that is, the kitchen cum washhouse. One slipped outside and round the corner to the privy. Upstairs, she showed me two roomy bedrooms and one small.
No new furnishings, everything bought when they wed no doubt, but so well cared for, so spotless – worthy of the pride with which they were shown to me, the friend of good old George. Here I saw a complete, compact family household, the absolute opposite of the sort of place George and I had lived in until recently.
During the evening, he revealed himself to me as a man restored to all the things he loved and valued. His cheeks had filled out and taken on a rosy bloom, his stoop had almost gone, and he smiled easily, whereas, in Kriegsgefangene(4) days, he had been the saddest of our sad mutual-help threesome. His good fortune extended beyond home life too, for the firm which had employed him since boyhood had already backed up his request for speedy discharge from the Army – his future assured, then.
Before I left, his almost reborn-through-joy wife declared she just had to meet my mother. So that was arranged for a few days later, and the two women had much to talk about, while George and I shared a bottle of ale. This Pa thoughtfully provided; much like George in temperament, he was content to listen and occasionally interject the odd remark.
We wartime pals intended to retain our friendship. Yet, after the merry party with Wally’s family in Essex and that warm and friendly evening at my parents’ house with George and his wife, I never saw them again – and, indeed, they were fitting conclusions, avoiding what must have been anticlimax at a time when so much had to be done to cope with our restoration to a civilised way of life in difficult post-war circumstances. We took so long to achieve this – certainly I did – that we left it too late and the resolve to get together eventually faded(5).’
(2) When they were based in a prison camp outside Hügelheim (in Baden-Württemberg, a village two miles north of Müllheim, near the Black Forest). George and Wally co-founded the food-scrounging partnership which Sam joined after he came by a saucepanful of boiled potatoes while doing some agricultural labour in summer, 1918. This is how it happened (leading into a detailed description of George): “I still had a few potatoes hidden under my tunic when we got back to our hut, and Wally asked if I would agree to give a couple of them to George, a friend of longer standing than I was. I can’t say I felt keen on going shares with this stranger, as he was to me; but you couldn’t look into Wal’s open mug and big, blue eyes and refuse even such a costly request. Where the next bit of extra food would come from I had no notion, but old George got his spuds.
“Let me describe George as best I can: aged about 40, although he looked rather older, black-with-some-grey hair; a face which had never been full, I’d say, but, at the moment, merely skin stretched over bone; eyes brown and bloodshot; body thin and bent forward from the waist, legs bent, feet flat – the last not a result of war’s ravages, but due to long hours spent on his feet as a warehouse salesman in a well-known St Paul’s Churchyard firm of merchants. One of the few chaps who had managed to retain his issued cutthroat razor, he shaved when water was available and still cultivated a thin black moustache. A manly man, as I always considered those with enough courage to maintain facial adornments – men who, in contact with their fellows, feared no criticism of their efforts to augment Nature’s handiwork.
“At that point, we three made a pact that all extras would be split three ways, and Wally and I, at any rate, honoured that pledge. If, as I noticed, old George slipped from strict observance once or twice, no mention was made of the matter.”
(3) Sam doesn’t specify the location of George’s home, but it may well have been the White Hart Lane “cottage” estate (now Tower Gardens Estate and a conservation area) in North Tottenham, built between 1904 and 1928 – see http://ow.ly/7uZr30nlQUB . It’s about two miles from the Sutcliffes’ then home in Fore Street, Edmonton. The context was the Housing Of The Working Classes Act 1890 – the Housing Act 1919 followed, pursuing the theme “Homes fit for heroes” which encouraged London County Council to build eight more “cottage” “council” estates between the wars, as well as tenements.
(4) Kriegsgefangene: prisoner of war.
(5) Fallen together as POWs they didn’t even have Battalion reunions to put them in the same room once a year (my father attended reunions of his first outfit, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, London Regiment, until 1963, when his revered Gallipoli CO Lord – formerly Major – Harry Nathan died).
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam, back in the old neighbourhood, sees that “with the war to end all wars ended and all this relief from tensions breaking down people’s normal reserves, everybody was smiling at everybody else, greeting people they scarcely knew, and inviting new friends into their home” – so it’s post-war party time! “I recall being surrounded by half a dozen women…”
(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.