“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, 29 May 2016
Sam on the Somme – his first days in the front line: How To Evade A Sniper’s Bullet – plus an appreciation of cooks and sanitary men…
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… World War 1 got hellish in even more ways than usual. On May 31-June 1, its greatest naval conflict, the Battle Of Jutland, saw a total of around 250 British and German warships engage viciously, though inconclusively (14 British ships sunk and 6,094 men lost, 11 Germans sunk and 2,551 killed). The German fleet sought to break the Royal Navy’s blockade of their country and failed. An arguable long-term effect was that they switched focus from surface fighting to unrestricted submarine war and that, in part, caused the USA to enter the war in April, 1917.
On the Western Front, with the British Somme attack germinating because the French wanted to divert the German onslaught at Verdun, the slaughterous conflict there continued, daily battles raging to and back and no decisive developments.
The 12-day Battle Of Mont Sorrel, near Ypres, began on June 2 with a German artillery attack; the ebb and flow saw both sides regrouping by the end of the week as the action proceeded towards final totals of 8,000 British and Canadian casualties and 5,765 German.
On the Eastern Front, Russia’s extraordinarily overstretched forces kept their end up with regard to the December, 1915, Chantilly Agreement between the main Allies to launch simultaneous summer attacks when, on June 4, in Ukraine, they initiated the Brusilov Offence (named for their commanding General). Argued as their “greatest feat of arms” in WW1, it was to last until September 20, accounting for 440,000 Russian casualties, against 567,000 Austro-Hungarian and 350,000 German.
But, in this same week, that eventually ruinous “stretch” saw the Russian Army repelling German attacks near Krevo (June 1, current Belarus) and Riga (3, Latvia), succumbing to a Turkish reoccupation of Mamakhatun (May 31, Armenia), but holding the Turks at Erzerum, Erzingan (June 2) and Diarbekr (3, all in Turkey), and defeating them at Khanikin (Persia).
In continuing campaigns, the Italians halted the Austrian Strafexpedition invasion of the Trentino region (June 3) and the British Army proceeded with their invasion of German East Africa (May 30-June 3, now Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania).
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 250-ish remaining comrades from the 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers had moved to France in late April. Then, to their bitter chagrin, the Army disbanded their Battalion and scattered them among various other Western Front Regiments. Without a moment to say goodbye to Ted, on or about May 14 Sam found himself deployed to the Kensingtons (1/13th Battalion, London Regiment) at Gommecourt on the northern end of the soon-to-be notorious Somme Front…
Last week a hundred years ago, my father returned to a front-line trench for the first time since the Gallipoli evacuation in January, 1916. No longer a Signaller because the Kensingtons had an oversupply, he tried to get used to his new outfit, partly by adopting a new persona: replacing the callow, quiet kid with a droll, sarcy demeanour he soon proudly bore the soubriquet The Pisstaker, awarded by his Battalion comrades. Still, an encounter with some of the old 2/1st Fusiliers lads bucked him up.
Now he writes about Western Front trench life as he found it – oddly enough, in many ways it turned out very different from his experience of the Turkish peninsula, though hardly less hazardous:
‘I was already becoming accustomed, once more, to shells exploding, singly or in groups, near or far, and to bursts of machine-gun fire. These noises went on without cease. Some of them would be shattering the eardrums of those nearby even as they shattered the bodies of the unlucky ones caught by a direct hit. Death or injury could afflict any one of us at any time of day or night, and we had to learn to live with this risk and outwardly to ignore it. The tension inside… nobody’s business and never mentioned.
The men standing on each firing step in the bays had to be extremely careful; snipers looked out for such targets. But, armed with the knowledge that, after spotting you, a sniper still had to take aim, you could quickly raise your eye level to just above your earth parapet, then – if you had not attracted a bullet already – keep still and rely on movement of your eyes to complete your observations, then duck, stay ducked, and never bob up in the same place twice. Of course, an unlucky machine-gun bullet might get you, but the odds were against that.
A dead soldier was of no use to his mates and most of us understood that the careful man probably outlived the careless, even though a well-placed shell could upset all calculations.
Whereas periods of relaxation in some safety occurred on old-time battlefields and also arise in more modern mobile warfare, on the Western Front risks had to be lived with through the whole 24 hours of every day. Furthermore, while I was in the front line with that Battalion, at no time did anyone senior to me say I was free to rest, to sleep.
Meanwhile, we knew our opposite numbers in the German trenches usually had deep shelters available, so that, in the intervals between significant actions, only a skeleton force manned their firing steps. Indeed, my new comrades told me that it seemed the majority of the Jerries remained down below whenever we started an artillery bombardment intended to prepare the way for our infantry to launch an attack by dashing forward across No Man’s Land. This spared them many casualties and, at the opportune moment, comparatively fresh and unshaken, they could emerge and offer a telling defence.
At that time and place – the Somme Front – our officers did have below-ground shelters, but it wasn’t until a later stage of the war that I served in an area where the common soldier could rest in dugouts furnished with bunks.
As days and nights passed*, I gradually got to know some of my fellows and to like several of them. A young Sergeant I thought particularly admirable. Like his name, Heather, he had something of the outdoors about his looks and manner. He performed his duties with fairness and honesty and, since none could fault him, all the best people liked him. When things got noisy and threatening, a sight of his purposeful face could still a quivering tummy.
Somewhere in trenches to the rear of the system, or perhaps in a hollow free from enemy observation, toiled our Sergeant-Cook and his crew. Their labours were expected to produce 1) in the first hour or so of daylight, sufficient large containers of hot tea to give everybody a good helping, usually something over half a pint 2) a hot meal, usually stewed, roughly around the middle of the day – sometimes with a slab of plum duff to follow 3) another issue of hot tea towards evening.
With morning and evening tea, they also portered the usual solids, such as bread or biscuits, jam or cheese. They carried the tea through the trenches in deep, rectangular, iron containers supported on wood bars resting on the shoulders of two men, one fore, one aft. Only the bigger outbursts of fighting would disturb these excellent services, delaying or preventing them according to severity.
And our MO, efficient and caring, attended to our toilet needs in the front line as diligently as he did in the less hazardous areas further back. Each latrine up there was of the seat-and-bucket type and housed in a deep, square hole approached through a short trench. The Pioneer Section treated them all with liberal quantities of chloride of lime and quickly repaired or replaced any damaged by shells. You could always locate one by the disinfectant’s pungent smell, but normally unaccompanied by the foul odours resulting from careless sanitation.
This competent man also took responsibility for the advanced First Aid Station at Battalion HQ in, I think, the third line of the trench system. His trained stretcher-bearers worked like beavers to collect wounded comrades and hurry them back to him and his small staff of Red Cross male medics. His diagnosis decided what treatment would be advisable on the spot and his sound, quick decisions must have saved many a man’s life before further transportation rearwards to the Advanced Casualty Station.
I give these and other details so that you may know something of the organisation which maintained a huge Army in the field for years under often terrible conditions without its members becoming victims of some awful plague. Major battles would disrupt these systems, allowing water-filled trenches, mud, and dead and decaying bodies awaiting disposal to spread discomfort and despair, while a flood of damaged men choked the channels rearwards – but the will to restore order and decency would eventually, sometimes ever so slowly, always perseveringly, overcome the worst of difficulties.
Of course, self-discipline has to be maintained before mass discipline can be attempted, but not all members of even a generally well-disciplined nation subscribe to this principle.
In my early days with my new lot I had no responsibilities for other men as I managed to keep busy doing ordinary duties. I still had no wish to retain my humble one stripe. I never gave an order to a Private; I did a job myself rather than tell anyone else to do it. In fact, I behaved in a manner which, I thought, would soon have me relieved of the fishbone on my arm.
One night, another Company relieved us and we moved back into the support line of trenches. Here, when not working, we could sleep at last, probably wrapped under and over in our rubberised groundsheets to keep rain and the dampness of the ground out. This felt like a wonderful boon, even though it was during daytime only – because our busy periods came overnight, when the enemy, though at times he heard us, could not usually see us.
A meal with hot tea would warm and cheer us before, when darkness fell, we each took a pick or a shovel and set off. It had been decided that the space between our front trench and that of the Germans was too wide, so we must construct a new front line**.
To our knowledge, there were two ways to do this job. The first involved digging one or more trenches beginning at your own front line: two men swinging picks loosened some earth, then stood back while two others shovelled that into sandbags held open by another two who passed them back through further pairs of hands which in due course dumped the loose earth and passed emptied sacks forward again. Then the pick-men resumed, and so the work proceeded. The front pair, perforce, worked in short, sharp bursts, before being relieved and taking their places further down the line.
Of course, we knew the growing trench could not remain unobserved and we often did this work amid shell bursts and bullets whining – knowing too that our labours might be undone the next night if a German patrol got close enough to throw their stick bombs*** into our would-be new front line.
The other method of establishing an advanced front line, quicker but costly in casualties, was to send a large party of men forward at night and have them dig like hell on previously marked sites. A covering party provided protection, lying in a long line between the diggers and the German trenches, ready to fight with bayonet and bullet. To construct a usable trench, this operation would have to be repeated several times. More about such an undertaking later…****
Either way, as dawn approached we all felt tired, and glad to plod back to our support trench, back among the boys, almost like returning home from furrin parts. We’d quaff hot tea and chew bread or biscuits and anything else the cooks had sent up, then fall asleep in sitting, lying or crouching position according to circumstances.’
* Sam’s first stint at the Somme front with the Kensingtons, probably begun on May 21, ended on the night of May 28 when the 1/4th Londons relieved them and the Companies moved back to billets in Hébuterne and Sailly. During each spell in the trenches the Companies of each Battalion would swap between front, support and reserve trenches.
** The Kensingtons War Diary reports trench-digging in No Man’s Land, with my father’s A Company involved, on May 26-7, May 30-June 1 and June 9-21 – the parties starting their moves forward either from the trenches or from Hébuterne village. The incidents my father recounts in the next few pages are clearly told in order as he remembered them, but I suspect they may have occurred in any sequence during this period – that is, not necessarily during this week, May 29-June 4, 1916, but within the period of build-up to July 1.
*** Stick bomb: the Model 24 Stielhandgranate (“stick hand grenade”) used by the German Army from 1915 and then throughout both World Wars; the thrower pulled a cord to ignite a five-second fuse; because of the stick, they could be thrown 30-40 yards as compared to the British Mills bomb’s 15-30 yards, but fewer could be carried because of they were bigger – source Wikipedia.
**** See Blog 100 coming up next week, on Sunday June 5, for that story.
NB: today, and throughout the summer, these blogs will be unusually long, simply because Sam had such vivid memories of and so much to say about his experiences a hundred years ago on the Somme. I hope you’ll agree there’s not too much wasted verbiage and plenty of truth and substance.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s squad digs an advance trench at night: “Machine-gun bullets spattered around me…” There again, he sorts out how they can get a decent kip out in No Man’s Land!