|Saint-Riquier's memorial to their own World War 1 dead, pictured in June, 2016.|
“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, 28 August 2016
Sam, back from home leave to his Somme Battalion, is treated to a different, surprising kind of “homecoming” by comrades at ease away from the Front: warm fellowship, strong cyder…
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A hundred years ago this week… Verdun stopped. Quite a moment, though it’s only the French who date it as August 31, while German accounts said September 2 or 9 and more recent overviews suggest December – probably such datings tend to the arbitrary in attritional warfare where the front lines move very little and the fighting continues over months before and after the Generals make their declarations one way or another. Estimated casualties for Verdun (commonly regarded as a stalemate): by a 2006 estimate, 373,231 French and 373,882 German.
On the Western Front, the Allies prospered – at further terrible cost. The British Army finally won the Battle Of Delville Wood (July 15-September 3), beat back German attacks at High Wood (September 1), and instigated the successful Battle Of Guillemont (3-6), while the French Army took Le Forest and Cléry-sur-Somme (3).
Although the Russian war effort is often written of as creaking by this stage, they made progress around Lutsk, Halicz, Lemburg and Volhynia (August 31-September1, all in present Ukraine), while also backing up the Romanian attack on Austria.
In the Battle Of Transylvania (August 27-November 26), the Romanian Army had a misleadingly good first week, taking Kronstadt, Petrozseny and Hermannstadt, but by September 2 the German and Bulgarian Armies had begun to strike back at the Battle Of Tortucaia.
And down in German East Africa, the British continued their relatively untroubled conquest of the massive territory (most of current Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania), a key moment being the surrender of casptial city Dar-es-Salaam to the British Navy (September 3).
Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe, lately promoted to Corporal, from Edmonton, north London (18 on July 6, 1916), was returning from home leave. He’d been involved in Somme front-line fighting from mid-May onwards. This followed a ’15-’16 winter at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000). They sailed from Egypt to France in late April, only to be disbanded and transferred to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons. They fought on the front line at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, suffering 59 per cent casualties on July 1 (see FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated June 26 and July 3, 2016). And then fought on and on…
Last week, Sam continued the story of his first home leave since December, 1914, with the surprising news that it arose from his ordinarily quiet father writing a direct appeal to War Minister Lloyd George – and a blossoming romance: a night out the pictures, French pastries, a kiss…
But that’s as far as it went because he was a young gent and, more conclusively, he had to go back to the Somme when his week was up. He travelled again with the two Sergeants who’d kept him good company on the way home:
‘So there I was, making my way back to France, to the battlefield. With mixed feelings I must admit. The change, the rest at home, had certainly made me feel better. And I was leaving many things I now valued more highly than I had done before the war started. Everything so clean; life very sweet. When one thought of the conditions up at the Front – always rough, worse in some places than others, but never really comfortable…
One tried to maintain a pride in one’s appearance. I anticipated that now, being louse-free, I might be able to continue in that enviable state for a few days, but the odds were against me – reinfestation inevitable. I knew from experience. I would lie down in some place previously inhabited by one of my lousy pals, bound to pick up a few of the little devils who had deserted him for reasons unknown.
When we arrived at Boulogne, the two Sergeants – such merry companions on my journeys to and from Blighty – had to leave me and right sorry I was to see them go. Before they left their respective Battalions, they had been told where they should rejoin it. I had no such instructions. You may recall in what haste I had been obliged to leave, asleep near the front line one moment, the next starting off on that most joyous journey.
From Boulogne, I was directed to make my way to our Divisional Headquarters*, picking up such transport as I could find. On arrival at HQ, I was told to spend the night there and proceed next morning to the village in which my Battalion was now resting.
After a couple of lifts from Army lorries, the final kilometres I had to manage on foot. But this provided me with a most warming experience as I strolled into the town. Our lads, who had themselves arrived only a few hours earlier**, were billeted in dwellings and outbuildings at various points along the main street. Groups of them lay about on the wide grass verges on either side of the roadway and, at intervals as I walked, fellows who knew me invited me to join them and each in turn insisted I took a swig from their water bottles – all charged with the same liquor, to wit, cider. I was greatly surprised, first, that so many people knew me and, second, that they should offer me a drink. Their kindness warmed and enlivened me just as much as the rather strong cider.
The insistence of one chap in particular that I should drink with him certainly startled me, though I was careful to conceal it. I’d known him from time to time since the beginning of the war – a short chap, head rather big considering his lack of height, bright blue eyes in a usually red face. He’d joined a different Royal Fusiliers Company, but circumstances occasionally brought us together.
However, I’d never felt happy or secure in his company. Sometimes, if you attempted to share a joke with him, the thing would go wrong, he’d see some personal adverse implication in it***. For no reason that I could see, the red face would go redder, the eyes would glare and he’d be all set for a scrap. I hadn’t chatted with him for some time, and I had not known until that moment that he, along with some others, had been transferred to my present Battalion. Maybe he felt somewhat of a stranger in this new set-up so even my face was welcome. He certainly insisted I should share cider with him.
From there on, my progress along the road had something of a triumphal air about it. A wave here, called to join a group there, swigs from bottles well filled with the local cider; all this camaraderie took the edge off the regret I felt about leaving family and friends to return to a life I had come to dislike, deep down inside.’
* Oddly, I can’t find any source that pins down where the 56th Division’s HQ was. But some references suggest Hallencourt, a village about 16 kilometres south of Abbeville, in the Picardy region of the Somme department.
** This must have been Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, 63 kilometres west of Hébuterne, in the Picardy region. The Kensingtons’ War Diary says the Battalion left the Hébuterne area of the Somme Front on August 19, stayed overnight and bathed at Bayencourt, then marched to Halloy (16.7 kilometres northeast) and stayed another night (acquiring some specialist reinforcements while there). On the 21st they marched on to Doullens (7.5 kilometres west) where they caught a train to Saint-Riquier (35 kilometres west; spelt with a hyphen by most sources but, as you see below, not on the town’s own war memorial which, of course, may well know best). They marched to Millencourt that night (5 kilometres northwest). So my father, arriving “a few hours” after them in daylight must have got there on August 23 – probably via a lift to Abbeville, then another 9 kilometres east to Saint-Riquier, concluding with a solo hike to Millencourt (remembering that he had to carry most of his equipment, including his rifle, home to London with him, a weight of about 60 pounds).
*** Looking back to my father’s account of joining up with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers in September, 1914 (see the Memoir or Blog 18, November 9, 2014) I reckon this sounds like “Sticky” Pryke, “the Soho wide-boy, outgiving with his rich Cockney humour, but quick to take offence”.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Despite the further horrors he anticipates when the Battalion returns to the Somme front line, Sam rejoins his comrades “with greater pleasure than ever” in their company – then ponders the relationship between them and lowly NCOs like himself, and their collective role in “the enormous business machine running the British part of the war”…