“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, 12 June 2016
Sam and Somme comrades get caught up in a terrifying “balls-up” in No Man’s Land. But then rest, baths, delousing – and mock battlefield practice for July 1…
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… the Battle of Mont Sorrel, near Ypres concluded with Canadian and British forces having regained the ground they lost to a German attack which began on June 2 – but they suffered 8,000 casualties to the Germans’ 5,765 (June 14). No conclusion at Verdun yet, though, not by a long way as the attack/withdraw pattern continued throughout the campaign’s many battle fronts: Thiaumont (12, 14 and 17), Hill 321 (12, 17 and 18), Mort Homme (15 and 17), Caillette Wood (15) and Fermin Wood (18).
The Russian Army continued to prosper – hard to imagine the Revolution was just around the corner – with the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front, begun on June 4, striding along: during this seven days they took Zaleszczyki (12), Torchin (13), and Czrnowitz (17), and crossed the River Styr (16, all Ukraine). The Germans and Hungarians both counterattacked, but the only major Russian failure was an attack (18) on the western end of the front led by General Evert, General Brusilov’s defence-minded rival.
Evert’s delays had a wider effect, evidently, giving the Austrians more time to bring up reinforcements from their Strafexpedition invasion of northern Italy which they’d given up on by June 10 when they pulled out half of their troops. So the Austro-Hungarians never achieved their objective – to take Venice – and the Italian Army spent the week recovering ground on the Asiago Plateau, in the Lagarina Valley and Trentino.
On the periphery of the war, established trends continued with the Russians retaining their massive inroads into Turkey (holding a line around Trebizond), the British occupying Kirman (June 12, Persia) and further chunks of German East Africa (Alt Langenburg, 13, an island in Lake Victoria, 15) and the British-backed Sharif Hussain fighting the Ottoman Empire for control of Medina and Mecca.
Meanwhile, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), was settling into the Somme Front, after a fashion, as – unbeknownst to the soldiery – plans and preparations for July 1 developed. After a winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) had moved to France in late April. To their chagrin, at Rouen the Army disbanded the Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons, about May 14 (which also began a long separation from his brother Ted, 19, another former Fusilier). They soon moved to the Front…
Last week, Sam and his comrades made themselves at home in No Man’s Land at night – up to a point certainly, but that was a point where they’d take turns at getting a kip between trench-digging stints. Now between near-peaceful moments in a battered village just behind the trenches, he finds himself again caught amid the sort of deadly chaos you’d expect:
‘Next, we moved to an area in the middle of this town*, further still from the front trenches. Almost peaceful. Our Platoon billeted on the ground floor of a building which had suffered little damage. Completely unfurnished, the windows all gone, but otherwise weatherproof — a roof over our heads, and that was marvellous.
I had a look around. Outside, the first concrete lampposts I had ever seen lined the main street. They must have carried the then-new carbon, electric lamps which shed a pinkish light and gave faces a brownish tinge. Every lamppost I could see had been hit by one or more shells, exposing thick strands of reinforcing metal within the concrete. Twisted, bent, or knocked sideways, most of them defied total destruction. They fascinated me. So modern, so up-to-date. The French people, I thought, must be way ahead of the British in scientific matters…
Opposite stood a church, much damaged. Yet a crucifix, about eight feet tall, stood beside it, quite perfect.
Only troops inhabited this town, I discovered. With one exception: next day a dog waddled into our room and walked around without responding in any way to our calls and caresses. Finally, we decided the poor thing must be deaf and mostly blind, but still it gave us one rather ghostly link with all those people who formerly lived in this country town. Where were they all now?
We still made occasional night journeys into No Man’s Land, gradually developing those forward positions, though not without casualties, of course.
I recall one disastrous night when my group had to start digging a new portion of trench between two quite well developed stretches on our side. A covering party lay between us and the Germans and we quickly excavated to a depth of about 18 inches. Suddenly we heard shouts and shots from the direction of our protectors.
Within moments, a rush of fleeing men barged among and between us. So we became the centre of attraction for enemy shells and bullets. I dropped my pick and reached for my rifle, but it was not where I had placed it. Panic froze my belly. To lose one’s bandook** was the crime of crimes.
“Those bastards!” I thought, and dashed back towards our front trench. Luck favoured me. As I could see by the light from flashes and flares, the first man I encountered was carrying two rifles. I grabbed the one in his left hand, yelled something like “Why the hell… ?!” and “Sorry, mate,” said he, and in a trice I was back out in No Man’s Land with the boys in the trench-building group until somebody gave the order to retreat.
We made our way back through the wire, only to be questioned by a strange officer as to why we had returned. He happened to be a foreigner and, at that time, we didn’t take kindly to seeing commissioned officers’ uniforms on an outsider. Our resentment showed, but our Company Captain came along in time to stop any further trouble.
He led us away down a communication trench and when, in the early hours of a fine morning, we finally reached the main street of our deserted town, he ordered us to “Fall in!” Instead of dismissing us, he gave us some rifle drill, just as though we were on a barrack square. “That,” he said, when we were done, “will steady your nerves after tonight’s balls-up.” We understood and, I’m sure, agreed.
May I state, sadly, that he himself later left us “under a cloud” — it was thought that a bullet wound in one of his hands had been self-inflicted. But, of course, it’s doubtful if anyone thought of helping to steady his nerves when something shattered them.
I revert to the subject of the church on the opposite side of the road. A few days after that “balls-up”, I was having a rest in “our” house when the brief shriek of a big shell preceded an explosion which shook me rigid. Bits and pieces of ceiling and walls fell around me. After the dust settled, I looked through a window-space and saw that the remainder of the church front had collapsed into the road.
Later, I walked over there. Amid the rubble, the large cross with the figure of Christ stood intact. Near it, I found a small crucifix made of brass and wood, such as a poor Roman Catholic might have on his rosary. I carried that in my tunic pocket throughout the war and kept it with other oddments for many years.
One happy day, it was announced that we had completed our stint in the forward area***. We collected all our gear from our battered billets in the town, rendezvoused in a sunken road, hopefully free from enemy observation, and started marching.
Soon, all the Companies of the Battalion came together in one long column. The drum and fife band took its place at the head and gave out sweet music. Cares fell away, and we sang and whistled joyfully. Kilometre after kilometre, with occasional ten-minute breaks, we didn’t worry, for this march was taking us in the one direction which pleased all of us – back!
The Cook Sergeant, as we incorrectly called him, complete with willing helpers and a field-kitchen, had been wafted way back to the pleasant place in which we were to spend a couple of relaxing weeks**** – no lazy weeks, that would have been bad for us. Many convincing excuses for slackness occurred to us, but the MO would have none of them. Strong and healthy himself, he took more interest in the men’s health and hygiene than any other Army officer I ever met. Those responsible for sanitation just had to do a good job or Doc’s keen eye or nose would detect their omissions.
A substantial hot meal greeted us when we reached our destination. We ate, sitting around in a field near the Nissen huts in which we were to live. But we were forbidden to enter them until we had undergone the great clean-up.
In controlled groups, we went to a building where we stripped, then ran to shower cubicles and, under the lukewarm water sprays, spent an enjoyable ten minutes, a cleansing treat after several weeks of the mucky life up front. Soon, almost before we’d dried ourselves on the clean towels provided, laundered replacements for the underwear we’d handed in were dished out: two vests, two pairs socks, two shirts, two pairs long pants, two towels – none of them new, but welcome all the same.
Our own uniforms were returned to us, hot and steaming from the pressure and heat which destroyed the fat lice infesting seams and creases. These little devils only left their hideouts to gorge themselves on our blood – and by the second day of each new stint in the trenches they had always reoccupied their deceased relatives’ former lodgings. They must also have passed diseases***** and, possibly, disfigurements such as warts from one man to another – similar pests spread the plague by way of rats to humans all around the world.
Thus, in France, the British Army continued to conduct war in a business-like, efficient manner. Somewhere someone may also have been giving thought to winning it and perhaps even ending it. But, in the forward areas, officers concerned themselves only with carrying out orders coming from somewhere way back. To do this, it was necessary to keep as many men as possible alive and fit enough to withstand the shocks and hardships which were their daily lot.
It was great to be able to sleep undisturbed between the hours of dusk and dawn under the strong elephant-iron of the semi-circular Nissen huts, two warm blankets wrapped around your vest- and long-pants-clad body. Again, they gave us substantial meals. So days spent in rigorous training didn’t come too hard, although our tasks included digging trenches which – a sure antidote to complacency – furnished a replica of the battlefield we would soon be sent to when the Great Day arrived; this included enemy trenches, the lay-out based on photographs supplied by our airmen (in northern France, unlike Suvla Bay, aircraft from both sides were always around).
After completing the facsimile trench system, we spent hours rehearsing the attack which should carry us through Jerry’s position and, hopefully, through a densely wooded area of open country beyond. I had already seen the wood******. Heavy, prolonged shelling had denuded most of the trees of their branches, but the main mass of tree trunks still provided cover, we were told, for a great many underground forts the Germans had constructed. All this later proved to be only too accurate. What I never have seen mentioned is the probability that German observers took pictures of our mock battlefield and other conspicuously massive preparations which must have shouted our intentions to the German command who would accordingly make their dispositions for that Great Day…
This wonderful occasion we awaited with mounting apprehension. I was such a windy bugger that, had I been in charge of that Division, I would have insisted on the mock battlefield being camouflaged when not in use, but that only illustrates the difference between a scary little Lance Corporal and a hearty, red-face General.
If our High Command had thought on similar lines to those worrying – the infantrymen – the attack would have been postponed for a while, some diversions organised in remoter parts of the Front, followed by what would then have been a surprise attack on the Somme. A surprise, that is, to our force as well as Jerry’s. We’d been talking about the damn thing for weeks and the enemy probably knew as much as we did about it.
Still, good food, hard work, clean bodies and clothes, plus interesting talks given by our MO about keeping ourselves and our environment in good nick, transformed grubby and weary-looking men into tolerably good soldiers. A pity they had to be sent back into hell again.
At this camp, I regularly had letters from home. All was well, they said, particularly as Pa had, through a friend, secured a fairly good job as manager of the export department in a big store – much of the exporting concerned the requirements of military officers in various parts of the world.
I still hankered after a leave pass, now due to me more than ever I felt. Because Company officers censored all our letters home, when we wrote we had constantly in mind the fact that Lieutenant So-and-So or our Captain would see every word. A rotten arrangement, I felt, but set myself to ignore it; I expressed myself freely when complaining about the wicked dispersal of the remnant of our original volunteer Battalion and about my failure to obtain a few days’ leave. Meanwhile, I wrote with equal frankness, I hope, about the superiority of Army organisation in France over that of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force as I had seen it.
Called to report to my Company Officer one morning, I received an awful jolt. With obvious pleasure, he told me that I had been promoted to the rank of Corporal. I liked and respected him, a great chap. But how could I pretend to feel the pleasure he obviously expected me to show at this news? I had tried to lie low and lose the stripe which, as I saw it, already disfigured my uniform. I can’t recall how the interview went, but in some craven way I probably concealed my lack of enthusiasm.
Now I was really worried. Who had recommended me for this unwanted fishbone which could blight all my hopes of pulling some sort of smart stroke to get me a leave pass? I had this constantly in mind and resolved to grasp any opportunity which might assist in getting me off the war-front hook for a few days.’
* Sailly, I deduce from the Kensingtons’ War Diary, but possibly Hébuterne.
** “Bandook”, a Hindi word for “gun”, became British infantry slang through World War I and II. This may well have been the night of June 16 when the WD notes a Kensingtons patrol out in No Man’s Land ran into their German counterparts, lost two men captured, and had to run for their lives.
*** Bearing in mind that my father – who never kept a diary nor took a note – probably remembered events, or at least wrote them in his Memoir, less than chronologically… The Kensingtons’ WD says they marched from Hébuterne to Halloy, the scene of the upcoming Somme battle rehearsals, on June 2 (and then again on June 25). That’s 21.3 kilometres (13 miles), almost due west…
**** Actually six days through to the evening of June 8 when they marched back to Sailly – 450 men having taken the opportunity for a rare bath that morning.
***** Online information suggests my father was wrong about lice spreading any disease – you may know better…
****** Gommecourt Wood and Park, opposite the British front at Hébuterne.
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: A week before July 1, Sam witnesses his first flamethrower battle, observes a massive artillery build-up, reluctantly dons his extra stripe, survives another hair-raising experience in No Man’s Land and another cock-up… and comes upon a school still operating within shelling distance of the Front!