“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, 9 October 2016

Sam, post Somme, gets his surprise introduction to the Army’s grocery business from fly Archie Barker, an old Gallipoli acquaintance now turning a coin in Harfleur…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the apparent tide-turning on the Somme continued as the coordinated British/Canadian and French attacks comprising the Battle Of Acre Heights (October 1-November 11) and the Battle Of Le Transloy (October 1-November 5) proceded with barely a backward step despite plenty of German counterattacks and the “normal” prodigious losses on both sides. The British Canadians advanced on Butte de Warlencourt (October 9) and captured Schwaben Redoubt (14), while, south of the Somme river, the French took Bois de Chaulnes and Ablaincourt (10), Belloy-en-Santerre and Genermont (14).
    Although competitive massacre via trench-war attrition remained the main motif of the war in France, this week saw one of the biggest bomber raids mounted so far, with more than 40 British and French aircraft attacking the Mauser factory at Oberndorf, near the Black Forest – to what effect remains unclear it seems.
    German attacks on the Russian Army east of Brzezany, Galicia (October 9), suggested a tidal shift in the other direction, following the mighty Brusilov Offensive. Likewise, the progressive defeat of Romania’s attempt, supported by Russia, to recover Transylvania from Austria-Hungary; a Romanian stand in the Predeal Pass, south of Kronstadt, delayed the Austro-German advance by four days (October 10-14), but they crossed the Romanian border anyway at the Torzburg Pass and reached Rucar (14).
    The Italian fightback/counter-invasion against the Austrians in the northeast saw their Chief-of-Staff Cadorna initiate the 8th Battle Of The Isonzo in the Gorizia region (October 9-12 or 14 depending how you count it). After marginal Italian gains, Cadorna again called a halt because his head-on tactics resulted in massive casualties: 25,000 a side in just a few days.
    The week’s other significant action took place in Macedonia where the Allies’ Monastir Offensive moved ahead, especially through the displaced Serbian Army pushing the Bulgarian invaders (their erstwhile conquerors) north to Brod (October 9-14), and the British Army also advancing on the Doiron and Struma river fronts (13).

Meanwhile, my father, under-age volunteer Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, had fought with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Gommecourt on the north end of the Somme Front, then around Leuze Wood and Morval to the south. To his astonishment, about September 30 he was told it had been “discovered” he was still legally under-age for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He wished – though not without a sense of guilt. 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, 1916, where – to their disgust – they were disbanded and transferred to other outfits… Sam to the Kensingtons and the Somme front line. There, on July 1, they’d suffered 59 per cent casualties (see FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated June 26 and July 3, 2016) – but fought on and on…

Last week, waking up at the enormous Harfleur British Army camp, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief at his respite from the battlefield, my father was told by the Sergeant that because he’d been a grocer pre-war he could also get out of the tedious squarebashing he’d expected to occupy his days.
    This startled him because Sam had never worked as a grocer nor in any other form of retail. After leaving school at 14, his only substantial job had been as a junior office boy. Still he’d had enough Army experience to sense when busking it might be just the ticket so he said “yes, Sir!” to see what would happen next. He wrote:

‘The Sergeant then took me to a large Army hut used for meals. In one corner I saw a well set-up shop, a counter full of sandwiches, cakes and pastries, shelves behind bearing tinned goods, cigarettes, biscuits and so on. I had to summon up a real show of pleasure and friendship on realising who stood behind the counter running this little place.
    His name was Archie Barker. I’d known him in our first Battalion*, though never intimately; he’d run the officers’ mess. A man of some importance, then — the chap who oversaw provision of the various items an officers’ club needed, wines, spirits, cigars, cigarettes, and so on. He also supervised the cooking and serving which, when circumstances permitted, had to be done in some style. Well, by some devious means, Archie had landed up here, running a small canteen.
    The Sergeant left us together. We exchanged grins of understanding. I thanked him for what he had done and he admitted, of course, that he knew nothing of my pre-war life. The idea had suddenly come to him.
    Said he, “It was such a pleasure to see a member of the old mob in this huge camp where I hardly know anybody that I wanted you to work with me. I knew one of the old boys would be trustworthy. Saying you were a grocer was just the inspiration of the moment. This little canteen is a more or less unofficial thing. The Expeditionary Force canteen is just down the road and they sell everything. But a Captain Quartermaster administered our section of the camp and, for reasons of his own, he felt that a small, personal sort of canteen would be of value. He let it be known and I told him about my experience of the officers’ mess and running this sort of business before the war, so he gave me the job.
    “Now, all the lines you see on the shelf I have to buy from the Expeditionary Force canteen and the discount is only 5 per cent, so it’s a mean profit, although we don’t have to pay any rent here. But the Captain and I feel that if we can get hold of lines which aren’t sold in the EF canteen, we can do the troops a bit of good. Well, I can make sandwiches of many different types these chaps won’t have tasted since they were civilians, and we could do French bread, confectionary, pastries, fruit, and fresh vegetables. Which are unknown on Army menus, aren’t they? What do you say? Do you feel you could undertake the buying?”
    I must have nodded.
    “All right, most mornings this week you will be allocated an Army wagon which will take you into Le Havre and I’ll give you the money to buy whatever you feel a Tommy will appreciate, things to surprise him when he sees them on the counter — and then on pay day we’ll persuade him to spend his money here. And the margin of profit will be somewhat in excess of five per cent I promise you.”
    The bewilderment I felt had to be concealed. I knew nothing whatever of buying and selling, but I realised I must make this thing stand up, although it required a complete change of attitude from a member of an infantry Company used to obeying orders as they came down from the top.’
* Their Gallipoli campaign Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers who they signed up with in September, 1914 – unkindly ripped asunder by Army admin in France, May, 1916.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam begins his self-reinvention as a grocer – a bit of scrubbing, a touch of dusting, a curious eye on where the profits might be headed. But then something far more interesting turns up: the first step in Archie’s masterplan, a buying trip to Le Havre, leads him to… Marie-Louise… 

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