“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, 15 May 2016
Luxury! Although embittered, Gallipoli veteran Sam, 17, finds the Somme Front offers the cannonfodder unexpected benefits: steel helmets! gas masks!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… around Verdun, the German Army built towards a renewed major onslaught with attacks at Avocourt Wood (May 18, repulsed the next day), Mort Homme (20, west slope taken on the 21st), and Hill 295 (20), although the French struck back by taking two quarries at Haudromont and trenches on the Esen Harcourt Road (21). At Vimy Ridge, British and German forces engaged in similar bloody to and fro over a massive mine crater (May 17 and 20).
In northern Italy a huge battle began with an Austro-Hungarian artillery bombardment of Trentino (May 15) accompanied by an advance along a 50-kilometre front – its objective, to take Venice (the campaign is dubbed the Strafexpedition or the Battle Of Asiago). The first week’s news comprised reports of Italian retreats, at worst to within 30 kilometres of Vicenza, due west of Venice. A proper sense of this battle’s scale may be gathered from the casualty figures at its conclusion on June 10: Italian 140,000 (including 50,000 POWs), Austro-Hungarian 100,000 (including 15,000 missing and POWs).
Further south, the many divisions of the Russian Army continued to steadily gain or defend territory: beating back the Turks south of Trebizond (May 21), occupying Serdasht (Persia, 21), Rowanduz (east of Mosul, Mesopotamia) and Khanaqin (northeast of Baghdad, both 15), and linking up with the lately much battered British Army on the Tigris (at Ali Gherbi, 18 and 20).
Meanwhile, after their terrible winter in Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted, 19, and their remaining comrades – the 250-ish 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers who’d survived – had shipped to France in April. At the huge encampment outside Rouen, despite the “veteran” comrades dedicated efforts in training, the British Army carried out its long-standing threat to disband, rather than rebuild, the Battalion. Embittered, demoralised, and still without home leave since January, 1915, they were then scattered among various other outfits on what was soon to become notorious as the Somme Front…
Last week, my father and a few other ex-2/1st comrades suddenly found themselves marched off to a railway station – Sam didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to Ted, his older brother and fellow ex-Fusilier. After a lengthy, slow journey they joined a new Battalion and settled into their first French village, billeted in barns and out-houses amid the remnants of the local farms – while, just a mile or two away, the war rumbled.
Still raging inwardly, Sam nonetheless took in his surroundings and circumstances with his usual alertness. Oddly, he found much to praise in comparison to the Army’s conduct of the Gallipoli campaign. In his Memoir, he recalls…
‘They’d transferred my small contingent to one of the Territorial mobs which had its Headquarters in the London area. Our lot, as you know, were based in Bloomsbury – this crowd came from the richest and most royal borough, whose name you have correctly guessed, though I won’t confirm it*. I encouraged any chap who cared to talk about the Regiment to do so, but they knew little about it because they turned out to be the first conscripted soldiers I had met…
None of the men who had come from the old Battalion in Rouen with me ended up in my new Platoon**. I even felt glad about that; a feeling of comradeship would have existed had any of them been with me, and I wanted no more of such attachments.
But I soon recognised that this Battalion was run by men more skilled in caring for and providing for their rankers than any I had encountered earlier. A Quartermaster Sergeant, a Sergeant Cook, and some well-trained men worked miracles with the rations to produce meals of a quality I’d seldom experienced in front-line soldiering. They had several mobile field kitchens, comprising large boilers, food store boxes, fuel containers, fire boxes under boilers with tubular chimneys and so on, along with two-wheeled vehicles, usually pulled by mules, which allowed cooking to proceed while on the march. According to circumstances, they either stayed behind to work and caught up with us later, or moved with us in the column, or went ahead to our destination if our progress was slower than their wagons could achieve.
Always, a substantial hot meal and good steaming tea arrived when needed – well, except when “enemy action” occasionally disrupted their praiseworthy efforts. The Quarter-bloke, a tall, strong, purposeful man, a tower of strength and efficiency, often achieved near-miracles under terrible difficulties. For men who, for hours, had endured exposure to rain, cold, shot and shell to unexpectedly be given a mess-tin full of hot stew or tea with bread was to restore our faith and hope and courage – the very knowledge that others thought about our discomfort, even misery, and had been kind enough to do something about it heartened us.
None of the messing about with bits of rations here, no cooking puny portions in a mess-tin over a small spirit burner – often producing nothing worth eating. No going for days with nothing but hard biscuits, jam and a small allowance of water…
Observing this, and other matters of organisation, I came to understand that, here in France, with the war obviously going to be a long one, the British Army conducted it rather on the lines of a business.
The Medical Officer, strong and thorough – unlike old Number Nine, that long streak of misery from my old Battalion in Gallipoli – frequently talked to the men about both sanitation and medication. He inspected our quarters, checked up on latrines. Furthermore, I learned that he and his like had given much thought to addressing the health hazards of the Western Front’s static combat. For instance, until recently many men had become casualties with a complaint called “trench foot”***, caused by wet, cold feet receiving no care over long periods. Regular washing, careful drying, massage with mild oil and putting on clean, dry socks prevented this foot trouble and, when no major affray was in progress, men were sent to the rear in rota for this simple treatment, proven to be so effective that the Army had declared it a punishable breach of discipline to have trench feet (except in circumstances where the remedy could not possibly be applied, the authorities allowed).
My new Company occupied a barn, a big one. Strong bunks – wire netting over wood frames – filled all floor space, apart from a central area where tables and benches were set out. Imagine this, near the front line, such luxury! At Suvla Bay I never even had a cover over my hole-in-the-ground – except briefly when I worked with 88th Brigade HQ. And here… blankets two per man (dark, not laundry-fresh admittedly, but cosy). Plenty of water for all ranks; so different from the small, daily ration out East which had to suffice for drinking and all else… and I drank mine, so “all else” was a non-starter.
Here I could remove boots, tunic and trousers at night, instead of wearing them continually except for brief louse-hunts. Up in the firing line, men told me, you might have to remain fully clothed for 10- to 14-day periods – but never for weeks on end.
Most of the men in my new mob wore steel helmets, an item I had never seen before. All I had was an old cap from which I had removed the shape wire so that I could still wear it while sleeping. Stylish headgear – the soft top could be pulled to one side quite rakishly, suggesting I was no end of a devil – yet ineffective protection if a bullet or a piece of shrapnel came your way.
Some of my new comrades had what were called gas masks too; in the previous year, since kindly German scientists had devised portable storage tanks deployable on the battlefield, poisonous gas had fearfully damaged many men. At the front, should the wind be blowing towards our men, the Germans would release clouds of the stuff. We knew nothing about it in the early days, I heard. Our men would be asphyxiated, hors de combat immediately, and often permanently afflicted. But these efficient gas masks worked well, if you got them on in time.
At Gallipoli**** our hopeful protection had been a pad of cotton you had to piss on and then clamp over your nose and mouth. I never had to use it, thank goodness.’
* My father wouldn’t say anything further about which Battalion he and that handful of comrades transferred to – he had an instinctive reserve/discretion about names in many circumstances (and I have no other explanation for his reticence!). But as noted in last week’s blog, I’m all but certain his new “mob” was the 1/13th Battalion, the London Regiment (The Kensingtons). I’ll repeat that my major sources are 1) Alan MacDonald’s remarkably detailed Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division at Gommecourt, 1st July 1916, Iona Books 2008 http://www.gommecourt.co.uk/shop1.htm (NB I’ve tried in every way I can think of to find Alan to seek his permission to use quotes and to negotiate any fee required, but I failed; I will gladly do so retrospectively, or remove the quotes, if anyone can put me in touch with him) 2) the Kensingtons’ War Diary (WD) downloaded from the National Archives.
As per last week’s deductions/opinings, I think he joined them at a village called Souastre (7.5 kilometres west of Hébuterne, the British Army’s front-line village opposite German-held Gommecourt) either on May 14 or possibly a little later – up to May 24 when the Kensingtons’ acquisition of 100 ex-Gallipoli ORs (other Ranks) from the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers concluded. Further deduction: Sam joined Company A (a Company comprised about 200 men).
Brief Battalion history: formed in August, 1914, the Kensingtons sailed to Le Havre that November and fought on the Western Front in northern France thereafter (notably, suffering 195 deaths at the May 9, 1915, Battle Of Aubers Ridge) – see Private Eric Kennington’s famous painting of the Battalion at Laventie in 1915 http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgmq7ty. During the early part of 1916, they were stationed at Citerne, then moved onto Doullens, Magnicourt-sur-Canche and Lignereul, training, playing football against other Battalions, or simply waiting for whatever might happen next. On April 10 they moved into the front line at Dainville. Not insignificantly, on April 19 they received an allocation of musical instruments – and decided they’d better form a band. Relieved on April 24, they returned to Lignereul, undergoing further training sessions until they marched to Souastre on May 6 (where my father joined them, as above).
** A British WW1 Platoon comprised about 50 men, at four per Company.
*** Trench foot: the bacterial and fungal infections associated with it can lead to necrosis (cells dying) and gangrene (death and rotting of tissue); if not treated early, the outcome may be amputation or death.
**** Neither side used poisonous gas in Gallipoli, although both made some preparations to do so; the first use of gas in warfare is reckoned to have been by the French Army in August, 1914 – in the form of tear-gas grenades. The first use of chlorine was by the German Army at Ypres in April, 1915, the first by the British at Loos that September; phosgene and mustard gas were introduced later; gas casualties in the war totalled 1,250,000 including 91,000 fatalities (though that count probably included only those who died 1914-18) – source http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/poison_gas_and_world_war_one.htm
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam longs to lose his illustrious Lance Jack rank, earns a new nickname – the Pisstaker – and, on his first sojourn in a front-line trench since Gallipoli, acquires a strange new companion…