“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, 2 October 2016
Sam arrives in Harfleur feeling “not very proud of myself”, but tries to concentrate on the present – which immediately offers a mysterious new opportunity…
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A hundred years ago this week… One of those incidents occurred which eventually led to America entering the war; a German submarine operating off Newport, Rhode Island sank eight assorted US vessels (October 8). Strategically strange, to say the least…
But over at the relentlessly attritional mass-murderous end of World War 1, on the Western Front the Allies’ Somme campaign worked towards a still to be long drawn out conclusion with two major, neighbouring battles, Ancre Heights (October 1-November 11) and Le Transloy (October 1 to November 5). In both, the rainy, muddy first week saw some Allied gains despite German Regiments being reinforced to ensure October didn’t go as badly for them as September had. Casualties remained tragic: no figures seem available for Ancre Heights, but Le Transloy was heading for British 57,722, French 37,626, German 78,500.
To the east, the Russian Army still retained some momentum from the summer’s Brusilov Offensive in Ukraine, advancing on the Zlota Lipa river and Lutzk (October 2-3). But the Battle Of Transylvania (August 27-November 26), where the Russians had stepped in to support the Romanian attack on Austria-Hungary, had started to turn in favour of the Central Powers. The Romanians’ Flamanda Offensive petered out when the retreated back across the Danube after initially establishing a bridgehead (October 5) and they lost Fogeras (4) the day after they’d occupied it, Brasov too (7).
But the Monastir Offensive – the attempt to drive the Bulgarian Army out of Greek Macedonia – saw one of the Allies most multi-faceted alliances (troops from Serbia, France, UK, Russia and Italy) steadily move towards their first objective, Monastir/Bitola, during the week – notably crossing the River Struma and winning the Battle of Crna Bend.
Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, and lately promoted to Corporal, had returned from home leave in August to find his Kensingtons Battalion happily resting for a few days at Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, 30-odd miles west of the Somme Front, before moving back into battle further south around Leuze Wood from September 6… where, to his astonishment, at the end of the month he was told it had been “discovered” that he was still under-age for the battlefield and, that same day, he left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur.
For Sam, a September 1914 volunteer, this followed a ’15-’16 winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (250 out of 1,000 avoided the lists of shot, shell and disease casualties). They’d sailed to France in late April, where – to their disgust – they were disbanded and transferred to other outfits… Sam to the Kensingtons and the Somme front-line at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, where they’d fought from mid-May onwards. There, on July 1, they’d suffered 59 per cent casualties (see FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated June 26 and July 3, 2016) – and fought on and on until that August break, and subsequent move to yet another battlefield…
Last week, the Regimental Sergeant Major telling him he should leave the Battalion because he was still under-age threw him into a turmoil of conscience – especially when the RSM said he could “wangle” it for him to stay with his comrades.
The situation arose because, after two years carefully keeping his age a secret, in a period directly after the horrors of July 1 when he focussed his bitterness on the matter of not having any home leave since Christmas, 1914, he’d asked his father to write direct to Lloyd George about it (see Blog 106, June 17, 2016). Remarkably, a week’s leave came through in August, but now he realised the War Minister’s office had noticed his age too.
Given the war – via Gallipoli and the Somme – had got “right up his nose”, his ever-present and acknowledged desire for self-preservation, and his father’s wishes, with a quick decision demanded he chose to take the offered break from fear and mortal danger. But it was hardly something he could feel completely at ease with. He wrote:
‘Late in 1916, having arrived at this very large base*, I had no idea what the future held for me. Truth to tell, I wasn’t feeling very proud of myself. Here I was, miles and miles away from the action, and the chaps I’d known, one or two fairly intimately, were still up at the Front where they would continue to endure all the risks, physical discomfort and moments of horrible anxiety.
One thought helped to rid my mind of worry or doubt: that once I had parted from the crowd with whom I had been living, under no matter what conditions, they would forget me and, unless by chance we met at some future date, all thought of my existence or even my death would be absent from their minds. So I must look to the present.
Harfleur camp stood mainly on a hill. As I marched in with a small party who’d arrived on the same train, I saw line upon line of bell tents – like a big, bustling town really. I had to report to an officer, and he passed me to a Sergeant, who led me to a line of tents he was in charge of and pointed at one of them. “Put your kit in here,” he said. “This is where you’ll live. The men will show you where the dining hut is and the other places you need to know about – including that big hut down there, the ablutions, and beside that’s the washing hut where we all do our laundry. Once a week our party will go down there and we’ll thoroughly clean ourselves and our clothes.”
I quickly acquainted myself with everything I should know about the place and went to the Sergeant’s tent. A board outside announced the time at which I must parade with rifle and bayonet the following morning for training; that, I understood, was the kind of duty I would perform until I returned to the front line, presumably after my 19th birthday**, July 6, 1917. This didn’t hold out too bad a prospect; quite satisfactory as far as I was concerned.
Next morning, however, back in my tent after breakfast and getting ready for the morning’s work, I heard my name called. I looked out and saw the Sergeant hurrying down in my direction. When he shouted my name again I called out “Sir!” and he said, “Come with me, you won’t be going on that training after all. Yesterday, when you marched in with that party, an old friend of yours saw you.”
This puzzled me, because I’d never been to Harfleur before. But the Sergeant continued, “He looked out of his canteen and saw you going by. He came to me and said he’d just seen a man arrive who’d make a good assistant for him. He told me you used to be a grocer, which is just what he needs.” I was used to surprises by this time, but I did find it a bit unnerving to be told I’d worked as a grocer pre-war***.’
* Harfleur: a small port on the banks of the Rivers Seine and Lézarde – back then, three miles from Le Havre, now a suburb. The British Army “base” camp there was one of several, known as “Bull Rings”, in part used for “refresher training”. Sam probably arrived there on or about October 1. The picture below, shot by a French official photographer in March, 1916, © Imperial War Museum (HU 99051), clearly shows a large, semi-permanent section of the camp – which included a hospital – not the tented area where my father lived for a couple of months.
** Men could volunteer or be conscripted at 18, but were not supposed to fight abroad until aged 19.
*** In his brief working life, aged 14 to 16, before he volunteered in September 1914, Sam had worked in a walking-stick workshop, then become a junior office-boy at tin-mining company Lake & Currie’s City of London HQ.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam gets his introduction to the grocery business from, he discovers, an old acquaintance he’d served with in his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, at Gallipoli.