“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, 3 July 2016
Sam in the Somme front line – July 1, 1916: the aftermath. “Recovering our dead mates”… goodbye to Charlie… spectating the Somme’s air war and… his 18th birthday, unmarked…
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A hundred years ago this week… Remarkably, after the British Army's catastrophe on July 1, the Allies had a week of advances on the Somme Front as the British joined the French for parts of the Battle Of Albert (July 1-13), capturing or starting successful moves towards Bernafay Wood (4), Ovillers (3-17), Contalmaison (7-11) and Trônes Wood (8-14).
Likewise the French took village after village towards the southern end of the Front – Chapitre Wood, Feuillères, Buscourt, Flaucourt and Assevillers on the 3rd alone – and at the same time retained the upper hand around Verdun.
Continuing the theme, the Russian Army launched the second big push of the Brusilov Offensive, begun on June 4, driving the Austrians back at Kolki and Rafalovka (July 4) and Lutsk (8, a 25-mile advance in four days along a 40-mile front), and the Germans between the rivers Styr and Stokhod (6, all present Ukraine). Furthermore, at the Battle Of Erzincan the Russians repelled the Turkish Army’s attempt to regain Trabzon on the Black Sea coast.
And… the Italian Army scored one victory after another as they steadily thrust their Austrian invaders out of the Trieste region.
Meanwhile, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (his 18th birthday on July 6th 1916), remained on the Somme Front where he'd been involved in daily fighting from mid-May onwards (despite the historic starting point being designated as July 1 when the grand attack began). This followed a winter at Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, until his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) moved to France in late April. Shortly after their arrival the Army disbanded the Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons. Because they had enough Signallers he became an ordinary Lance Jack in the line. The Kensingtons did a long June stint in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt…
Last week, it was July 1, Sam in the Somme front line at Gommecourt, the Kensingtons shot and shelled to hell, 549 casualties – 59 per cent. Mournfully, he summed up: “Nothing was gained. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men.”
Then the survivors spent the night finding and helping the wounded, whose gratitude somewhat eased their sense of failure and helplessness.
Now, after a brief respite, the Kensingtons return to the front line – not much troubled by German troops who'd suffered almost as badly – to begin their grimmest work: recovering the dead, sometimes including their own good friends.
‘We were given two or three days rest a couple of kilometres back* and then returned to continue clearing up the mess – the first few nights devoted to recovering our dead mates, the living wounded having by then all been rescued. The identity discs we wore now became very important; each dead man having this link with the living could be identified and his death notified and a train of events set in motion to inform his family, finalise his service record, accord him a proper burial in a known cemetery, and finally secure for his nearest relative some sort of pension. The real difficulty was in regard to those so badly mutilated no way of identifying them existed.
One discovery out in No Man’s Land deeply affected me. While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench in the advanced system we had helped to construct and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt. He had gone to a different Battalion from our camp near Rouen. And here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me. Charlie’s large face was all the more recognisable because of his large nose. The moonlight no doubt concealed the ravages of injury and exposure – perhaps the shade and coolness of the trench bottom minimised them too…
As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities. He was completely honest, stubborn about things in dispute, but usually found to be right about them in the end; Cockney in speech to an extent which, on first acquaintance led one to expect illiteracy, he soon made you realise your error — he handled sending and receiving Morse Code messages better than most. In fact, before the war he’d done that kind of work on the railways, but using a machine which emitted two musical sounds, high and low, instead of dots and dashes.
Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life… Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs — more like a Frenchman than an Englishman, nothing of the Cockney about his build or his gait. Goodbye, Charlie.
The stench of war was really beginning to get up my nose. I liked no part of it. With six of my men, I dossed in a room in part of a house just behind the trenches**. Little peace to be had there, mostly because of some geographical freak. All the bits of buildings, bits of trees, humps of earth and what have you between my boudoir and some misbegotten German machine gun could not stop it repeatedly spraying bullets through our non-existent window. They buried themselves in the plaster wall in a line about two feet above our heads. Not dangerous, just horribly annoying.’
Although I’ve run recent blogs at great length, I have deferred three or four sections which could stand separately from my father’s main narrative leading up to July 1, but sit perfectly well with the continuing story of the aftermath and the Somme battle which was to continue until the official cessation on November 18.
So, Sam will have appeared to rarely notice the planes buzzing about the front line. But he did, of course. Here are two stories from June/July, 1916:
‘Above us, at most hours of the day, droned one or two planes. They patrolled the length of the line, each doing a stint of observation. If our plane altered course towards Jerry’s line, perhaps to take a closer look at something of interest, pops and white blobs of smoke up there in the sky around it would indicate enemy resentment.
Occasionally a group of ten or more of ours, flying really high, would head towards some enemy target way back, forging ahead despite all anti-aircraft fire. Only if the Jerries sent up deterrent planes would real action occur, and then the aerobatics claimed every man’s attention. We felt great sorrow if we saw one of ours hit and descending, but cheers would ring out if one of ours shot down one of theirs. Rolling, zooming, looping – every tactic was employed and appreciated by the onlookers. Our pilots sometimes used the “falling leaf” ploy to deceive an enemy into thinking they were beaten, then a sudden recovery and upward zoom might result in a volley from below wrecking the Jerry plane.
If one of our flyers had been ordered to take a look at some development, he would make constant attempts to get the photographs he needed. I saw one such who dived repeatedly despite becoming a target for all the machine guns in the vicinity – he was flying too low for the ack-ack guns’ angle. Eventually he started to wobble, but just managed to stay airborne and pass over our heads. He bumped down a few hundred yards behind us, some men climbed out of a trench near him and, while they struggled to free him and carry him off, German artillery found the range – our men barely got back under cover before a shell wrecked the plane. Later we learned that a bullet had penetrated the floor of the plane and passed through the pilot’s thigh. He lived, and that knowledge gladdened us after witnessing his display of determination.
Now here's a look from the other side of embryonic air war – Sam relishes the success of a British anti-aircraft gun crew:
‘Our room*** looked out on a large courtyard of sorts. This establishment had been the home of a prosperous farmer, I surmised. His fields would lay just outside the small town and he’d drive the cattle in and out of the quarters here as necessary. Once the proprietor, his family and stock had entered through the gateway and passage, they were secure in an area bounded on all four sides by buildings. Now, sadly, modern artillery had wrought considerable havoc among the old, but very solid structures.
Soon after I moved in, so did an anti-aircraft gun and its crew – keen to have a go with their brand new weapon, the very latest thing in artillery, they boasted. I considered this courtyard a very strange sort of site for a gun. The buildings on all sides of the yard limited the range of vision. However, when one of the crew put it to me that, from high above, with a camouflage net thrown over it the gun would be undetectable, I saw his point. Most of the day, it would throw no shadow because of the buildings so close to it and shadows were great giveaways in aerial photographs. Placed in the centre of the yard it would have ample scope for shooting at planes, perhaps up to 50 degrees from the perpendicular.
How the gunners fared later I know not but, the first time they opened up, they hit and brought down a Jerry plane. A lucky go, no doubt, but a great morale-restorer, loudly cheered by all our blokes who saw it happen – although we could hardly believe what we were watching. Afterwards, we frequently talked about it, well knowing that those to whom we told the tale tried hard to convince themselves that we were not barefaced liars, and didn’t always succeed.
The toil of trying to restore the front positions after their frightful bashing did not inspire us. More shame, perhaps, as we felt we really ought to have left that area far behind as we pursued a retreating enemy… Furthermore, while we worked, the Germans blasted and machine-gunned us wherever they saw movement. They must have been cock-a-hoop about wrecking our carefully planned attack.’
* On July 2 they moved back from Sailly to tents then billets in Souastre, in fact (my father, for unknown reasons of ancient discretion, didn’t mention the names of these Somme villages in his Memoir; my sources are the Kensingtons’ War Diary and Alan MacDonald’s history Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division at Gommecourt, 1st July 1916). Possibly they conducted their nightly searches for the dead in front of the nearby Foncquevillers rather than Hébuterne/Gommecourt where the Kensingtons fought on July 1. (By the way, my father completely fails to mention his 18th birthday on July 6. I doubt that he noticed at the time, much less celebrated it.)
** On July 10 the Kensingtons returned to the trenches at Hébuterne where they remained until the 17th when the Rangers relieved them and they pulled back to Sailly.
*** This room was in the “machine-gun riddled billet” referred to earlier, that is the incident with the new anti-aircraft gun took place in Hébuterne some time between July 10 and 17.
NB: 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: Still on the Somme, in the July 1 aftermath, Sam ponders what he hears of “goings-on” back home including the new concept of conscientious objection. The while he realises how he's wasting away on the battlefield, longs for leave all the more – and escapes death by lucky hair's breadths a couple more times…