“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, 29 October 2017
Somme Rewind 5 of 5: Sam says “The stench of war was really beginning to get up my nose” – but, thanks to Lloyd George(!), he’s soon offered home leave and a long break from the battlefield…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… A significant historic moment – Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s “Declaration” that the British Government recognised the Jewish people’s right to establish a state in Palestine – may have escaped general attention given its release while the 2nd Battle Of Passchendaele proceeded (October 26-November 10). The Canadians launched the second phase (30) and reached their objectives – farms rather than villages – very quickly, but then paused to consolidate as per strategy and because of the price they’d paid despite their success (Canadian casualties 2,321, German unknown). That same day, the British attacked along a line from Ypres to Passchendaele, and reached the latter, but were then driven back.
Further south on the Western Front, the French concluded the Battle Of Malmaison (Oct 23-November 1) with a night attack (1/2) which the Germans retreated from so subtly that the following morning the French soon realised they were bombarding empty trenches on the Chemins Des Dames. They moved on to take Cerny, Ailes, and Cortecon, while the Germans regrouped across the river Ailette (still in the Aisnes region).
On the Eastern Front, the previously dominant German Army had a second oddly ineffective week – possibly hesitating because of volatile political developments in Russia – as the Russian Army repulsed their attempted advance near Riga, Latvia, from Janinzen to Skuli (October 29).
Meanwhile, the Italian Army, in full retreat during the early stages of the 12th Battle Of The Isonzo (October 24-November 19) made a stand on the south bank of the River Tagliamento, assisted by the pursuing Austrians/Germans hitting a problem with their supply lines after moving so fast.
In Gaza, combined British/Anzac/Indian/French and Italian forces broke the six-month stalemate in the region with a combination of attacks on the Turkish defensive line from Gaza to Beersheeba. Immediate success followed at Beersheeba (October 31-November 7) and Gaza (November 1-2) – although the whole city didn’t fall – but the Turks held off the Allies in the Battle of Tel el Khuweilfe (November 1-6).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more (he was 19 on July 6 while in hospital). However, I’ve had to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago Memoir excerpts because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blogs. So, through to this week of October 29, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy. With Gallipoli concluded last month, this is the fifth and final edited episode from his sojourn on the Somme, April-late September, 1916, when Sam was 17-18… ]
Last week, my father, then Corporal/Acting Sergeant Sam Sutcliffe, survived the first day of the Battle Of The Somme, July 1, 1916, in the Hébuterne/Gommecourt sector on the northern end of the Front. His Company mainly trapped in an advanced trench by the storm of artillery and machine-gun fire, like many others he simply endured while comrades were wounded, buried, blown apart and the British trench system collapsed into shapeless rows of ditches. In particular he saw strong men lose their minds, at least temporarily, and shared the stunned inertia which afflicted everyone by the end of the day – “nervous shock”, he termed it, though today it would certainly be called Post Traumatic Stress.
During the subsequent nights, the remnants of his Battalion, the Kensingtons (59 per cent casualties the official figure, “normal” for that day), went out into No Man’s Land retrieving the wounded and the dead – and restoring their own morale a little by doing something useful, though appalling.
Now, in the relative lull as both sides recovered, he kept his head down and thought a good deal (it’s a long read for a blog, but I hope you like it - return to normal length next week):
‘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(1). 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.
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.’
(1) 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-au-Bois, 3.4 kilometres west of Hébuterne. I think “just behind the trenches” must refer to Hébuterne itself, probably in that 10th-17th period, as the “reserve” trench ran along the edge of the village.
The Kensingtons only job at this point was rebuilding trenches – and trying to hold off a creeping “shame”, as Sam puts it, that they weren’t driving the Germans back home apace, as planned. So he returned to feeling bitter about not having a day of home leave for 18 months:
‘Time passed and still no leave came my way. Chatting about this one day – grumbling to a comparative stranger – I got a hint about trying a different approach. At first, it appeared ridiculous. The chap said he knew a man badly in need of a break who, in desperation, got his father to write to Lloyd George about it. Soon afterwards he was granted seven days leave.
So, in my next letter to my father, although fully aware that the officer acting as censor would read it, I stressed that I had been so badly treated that I would be grateful if he would write to the Rt. Hon. David Lloyd George stating that I had not been allowed to visit my home since Christmas, 1914(2), that I had served in Gallipoli and Egypt and now in the trenches in France – when still actually below the age at which one was allowed to be on active service.
That last item I expected to be noticed, because around that time the authorities responsible for calling up men for military service had discovered a gap in the supply of recruits. Thousands of youngsters to whom papers had been sent on reaching 18 did not reply or report for duty. This led to the discovery that these chaps had enlisted, under age, at the beginning of the war; it was decided to bring them back, wherever possible, and restore them to their proper position in the stream. Many were, of course, long since dead and buried, like young Nibs, previously mentioned, at Suvla Bay.
Having got that load off my chest, I forgot about the matter for, on reflection, the idea of a youngster expecting his dad to write to the War Minister or whatever his title then was, looked like madness.’
(2) David Lloyd George: Liberal Secretary Of State For War June 9-December 5, 1916; took over from Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister, December 7, 1916 to October 22, 1922. My father here forgot about a brief home leave granted his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, in late January just before they sailed for Malta on February 1, 1915.
In late July, the Kensingtons moved about the Somme Front quite a bit, but still often in the front line. Sam began to see the physical effects of this unnatural life:
‘The nervous strain always prevailing up front had its cumulative effect on me. Stripped, when we had the periodical bath(3) and change of underwear during a rest some kilometres to the rear, I saw that insufficient flesh, let alone fat, covered my boney framework. One ate very meagrely for a growing lad, good-quality food seldom available, a really full belly a rarity. This was active service and, although our Cook Sergeant performed marvels with the food allotted to him and his men, the PBI never had a meal such as would be placed before a member of an average working-class family for Sunday dinner. There were grumbles, but seldom rebellious or very violent expressions of dissatisfaction.’
(3) For example, the Kensingtons’ War Diary notes the troops getting baths on July 7-8, then July 29 at Bayencourt, 5.8 kilometres west of Hébuterne.
But they kept on keeping on, near-death experiences becoming almost routine for Sam and his pals:
‘Still, in the forward area, we continued to “do our bit”, not taking part in any notable action, but holding bits of the Front(4) in what usually seemed to us to be quiet spots.
We all had our bits of luck, just to continue without being killed or seriously hurt…
There was the time when a Minen from one of those bloody Werfers burst close behind me. The shock shattered me temporarily. I wore the chinstrap of my steel helmet fairly tight, yet the blast – from below it seemed – lifted the heavy headgear off and dumped it several yards away. Eventually I appeared none the worse.
Another time as I walked along a trench a shell landed at the end I had just left. Bits and pieces whizzed in all directions and I felt a severe blow to the lower part of my back. No pain resulted, but a pal took a look and found the webbing which held the wide metal head of my trenching tool cut clean across. Without that lucky shield, the base of my spine could have been severed.’
(4) The Kensingtons remained around the Hébuterne/Gommecourt section of the Front, and in the trenches most of the time, until August 21.
Leave did, finally, come – a nice surprise by then:
‘I awoke on the piece of floor which was my bed to the sound of my name being shouted by a Sergeant. “Here’s a special leave pass for you,” said he, and handed me a stout piece of paper; the heading did indeed read “Special Pass”. At that moment, his excitement was greater than mine for I saw at once that it was made out to someone else. Even so, the Sergeant assured me all was well, the name would be changed to mine and signed by an officer…
With a pack of unwashed oddments, some food in my haversack, a canister gas mask in its satchel on my chest, two blue cotton anti-gas hoods in their satchel hung over one shoulder, a full water bottle, trenching-tool handle in its loop at one side and the life-saving steel digger-head covering the upper bum, also various ammunition pouches attached to their webbing belt and braces, plus my rifle, the bayonet in its sheath… this load and I were at last on our own, headed for Blighty(5).”
(5) My father wrote his own Endnote here: “I believe that affectionate name for the homeland was a corruption of a Hindu word [Bilãyati, meaning ‘foreign land’ Collins Concise English Dictionary confirms]. The Indian Army influence remained strong it seemed, for tea was often called ‘cha’, jam was ‘possi’, ‘pahni’ was water. If an old soldier wished to rouse you, he might shout something which sounded like ‘Chubberowyuchoot!’ These things were learnt without conscious effort as were the words sung to some bugle calls; ‘Officers’ wives eat puddens and pies, while Sergeants’ wives have skilly’ was the call to Officers’ Mess (dinner); the short reveille call tune had the inspiring words, ‘Charlie, Charlie, get up and dress yourself/Charlie, Charlie, get up an’ shite.’ When mail was to be handed out, the bugler played, ‘There’s a letter from Lousy Lou, boys, a letter from Poxy Kate’.”
He walked a while, hitched a lift on an Army, caught the train, changed at Amiens, got to the Boulogne ferry in time, and finally reached Victoria station, London – where he realised he had no English money to pay his bus fare to Edmonton:
‘…there I was, outside the station, suddenly feeling strange and rather soiled among the hurrying people, all of whom looked clean and well-dressed. I saw a bus which would take me almost the whole way home, but hesitated to board it, having no money.
I walked to the front of the bus to check the destination board, saw the driver already in his seat, stopped and told him I’d just come on leave from the trenches and had no money for my fare. “How far are you going?” “All the way when I get some cash.” “Then here’s your fare, son.” He handed me money from his own pocket.
The kind man would not tell me how to get in touch with him to repay the debt and seemed very pleased to have been of use to a lad home from the Front. But I soon discovered I need not have bothered the driver, for the conductor asked, as I handed him the exact fare, “Is that alright?” – which among us, the hoi polloi, meant will you be OK if you part with this lolly? So I told him where I’d got the money and we both had a good laugh.
The bus took me through busy streets, free from any sort of war damage, where people hurried or just strolled as they pleased… It was good to see they felt free to do so, that the war was not oppressing everybody. People had their private griefs, surely, but that blessed Channel between Britain and the Continent protected and saved the people from fear.’
At last, they arrived in Edmonton:
‘… the bus reached its turning point outside a big pub about half a mile from my home… and finally the walk down our street to knock on the door of Number 26.
Ma opened the door and, at first, she was unable to grasp the fact that I was her son… but soon she hugged me in welcome and in I went.
We sat facing each other, using time, of which we had plenty, to adjust to the situation. I’d known that I would be there. She had known, or thought she had, that I was somewhere in France. Now she must really believe her eyes. I’d changed in appearance, more than I was aware. She spoke of this – not quite the baby-faced lad who’d slipped away so long ago, as it seemed to both of us.
Then, when full realisation was achieved, she started laughing happily and so did I and we went at it for quite a while. Laughter was easier and more enjoyable than a lot of chat. We knew why we were laughing and why tears were flowing. You’re not having a real good laugh if you’re not crying too…
By the evening, the family gathering was complete, Ted excepted [he was still at the Front] – my younger brother home from school, elder sister and my father back from work, and all of them so surprised by my sudden appearance among them.
I had at least as many questions to ask them as they had for me, and it was pleasant to be talked to as an adult, whereas beforehand I had not quite rated that status with brother Ted the first son – I had never seriously questioned the situation because of his obvious superior intelligence and better judgement. Rather, I had felt proud of him. But I had lived through strange events and borne some small but serious responsibilities since last we were all together, and perhaps it showed. Or they may just have been naturally glad to have me there with them for a while… Either way, happiness; nor could I have wished for a more affectionate welcome.
With less cordial relationships, I could have found difficulty in admitting that my clothing housed other creatures than myself, but fortunately tales of the crummy state of men at the front had become common knowledge and, after chatting about the lousy conditions under which we often lived on active service, Ma suggested that I strip, have a bath and dump all my clothing out back.
… The lovely warm bath and the new experience of being well looked after were delights I had not dared to anticipate, contrasting so greatly with my recent mode of living that I could not properly express all the gratitude I felt for the many kindnesses shown… The single iron bedstead carried just a mattress with filling unknown, clean sheets, one pillow, a blanket, and a patchwork quilt, produced some years previously by members of the Mothers’ Union at the local mission church. But that bed represented heaven to me. My younger brother was already asleep when I slipped between the cool sheets. We shared a small room, but I didn’t disturb him and I enjoyed watching him, a picture of boyish innocence, before I blew out the candles.’
Soon, his father revealed a remarkable story:
‘… the shock that shook really hit me when Pa almost casually told me that, as I’d requested, he did write to Lloyd George about my having been denied leave after reaching France from the Mediterranean, and how unfortunate he thought that was, particularly because, having served well enough to be promoted to the rank of Corporal, I was still below the permitted age for young men to go on active service.
He had received an acknowledgment and an assurance that the matter would receive consideration. So that explained the Special Pass originally made out to another man, but hurriedly handed to me. What a rocket some big fellow must have received from the office of the fiery and very powerful LG!
The whole thing seemed unbelievable, yet it had happened; my quiet, self-effacing father involved in such an affair and myself the beneficiary of a wonderful kindness emanating from Downing Street(6).’
(6) Not “Downing Street” in fact: Lloyd George served as PM for many years, but didn’t move over from War Minister until December, 1916.
Next day, Sam got the money he’s owed from a West End office and then spent some of it on a one-week girlfriend. But then it’s the night before his return to the Front and he’s walking out with her around the neighbourhood:
‘Suddenly, on that dark moonless night, criss-crossing searchlights illuminated the whole sky, wide beams terminating in big, circular blobs of light where they encountered clouds. This unwelcome display of London’s air-raid defences coming into action brought my thoughts back to reality with a jerk. No enemy planes appeared and no anti-aircraft guns fired, but my feeling of security, one of the boons of this holiday, now vanished. No place, after all, completely without risk of enemy attack in some form.
We two walked to her home, lingered outside awhile, kissed and parted with promises to write to each other.’
At the end of the return journey – though to a slightly different location where the Battalion are resting – he found a welcome which really startled him as he’d only been with these comrades for three months....
‘…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(7), 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.
… 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.
But one could never remain very miserable in company with those soldiers… On I went until, with greater pleasure than ever, I found myself back among the lads I had soldiered with before the Sergeant thrust the unexpected pass into my hand.’
(7) From the Kensingtons War Diary I deduce this must have been Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, near St Riquier, 63 kilometres west of Hébuterne, in the Picardy region and that my father arrived only a few hours after the rest of the Battalion, which would make the date August 23.
He resumed his role as Corporal/Acting Sergeant, determined to express that small authority in his own way:
‘Probably because of my youth, I wore my modest rank lightly and still relished the comfort given by the comradeship of the men around me. I do believe I would have been hurt more by an accusation that I was too strict than that I was behaving in too easy a manner. With some such understanding between us, I always found the essential needs of discipline easily procured or, rather, willingly granted by our men.
… Memories of the big battle, the great losses, had begun to recede into the past, the terrific tension, the fear, the sadness, taking their proper place in the background of men’s thoughts – that is, apart from the odd things one could do in one’s own interests, the future, as it always had been and always would be, was outside the control of ordinary individuals.’
The Kensingtons’ ensuing, indeterminate battles took some peculiar turns, like this one:
‘In the next section of the front line we manned(8), no satisfactory or permanent settlement had been achieved following the recent battle. Away to our right we could see what we considered to be our front lines – occupied by Germans. Meanwhile, we had annexed the former German reserve trench, as we would have termed it; the part we held contained a number of large, deep dugouts – our chaps must have had a tricky job clearing the Jerries out of that network. Way ahead of this strong line lay shallower temporary trenches of the kind I’d often been involved in digging overnight in No Man’s Land.
Of course, we now had the use of everything the Germans had established – an unaccustomed situation. But we soon took pleasure in being able to have a few hours uninterrupted sleep down there in the underground shelters which, on average days or nights, greatly muffled the sound of exploding shells. One had the feeling that the world of violence up above was distant, really remote. Reflecting that, in many parts of the Front, the Germans had the advantage of this sort of facility, one wondered if we could ever effect a real break through the enemy lines.
Never a dull moment, though, up above in the trenches… Certainly, time passed very rapidly there, just doing your job – or appearing to do your bit plus ensuring your own continued existence. Of necessity, it kept you constantly alert. And active. At times, very active.’
(8) Now “lent” to the 15th Brigade, the Kensingtons moved into the trenches near a village called Maricourt and an area known as Leuze Wood, held by the German Army. They fought in the vicinity of Combles and alongside French troops throughout September, including some involvement in what became known as the Battle Of Morval, September 25-28 (5,000 Allied casualties).
So the Kensingtons moved to and fro from front line to rest periods until, suddenly, Sam’s war took a drastic new direction:
‘Soon, again, we moved up front for minor action, patrol clashes, snatch raids, nothing yet on the grand scale although we felt, or knew, I think, that another big battle was pending…
So you may be able to appreciate my feelings when, next time out at rest, I was ordered to report to the Regimental Sergeant Major, the big man I’ve told you about, splendid soldier, he who ordered me to put up a second stripe when I didn’t want to.
I entered the room in a half-ruined house he used as an office, stood smartly to attention, announced my name and rank, and he told me to relax. He chatted in a very friendly way – it really did amaze me that the top man of all the NCOs should have any knowledge of me, trying as I always did to play it quietly, lie low and bother nobody.
Suddenly, in the midst of our conversation he held up a piece of paper and said: “This thing’s come along. Ridiculous really. Don’t suppose you’ll want to have anything to do with it. It seems that after all this time up here, you’re still under the age at which soldiers are allowed to be on active service(9). That’s what it says here. And, moreover, it says you are to be sent back to base. You don’t have to go. I think I can fix it so that you can stay here with the boys as I know you’d wish to.”
I had to think very quickly. Then I recalled my letter home during the period when I was feeling, not desperate, but quite bitter about not getting a few days leave, and how my father had relayed that appeal, as his own, to Lloyd George. I realised then that this thing had not stopped with me being given special leave. The rest of it had gone through too and I was to be sent back.
No doubt, at that time, I hated to lose face with the great RSM, but I said to him: “If that order has come through, then it is the wish of my father that I should follow it and, as he’s done this for me, I’ll go along with whatever the order says must happen.”(10)
When the RSM saw I was set on that course, I guess he expressed his disappointment. I’m sure he’d expected me to feel honoured by his offer to wangle it for me so I could stay with my Battalion. Probably, my rank as Sergeant in charge of a Platoon would then have been confirmed.
Suffice it to say I left the Battalion, gathered up my belongings, made my way to a railway station as instructed, and got on a train which didn’t stop until we approached a part of the French coast I’d never seen before, near the port of Le Havre where I was to transfer to the British Army camp at Harfleur – the place has some historical significance I believe(11).’
(9) My father was 18 on July 6, 1916; conscription of males aged 19 upwards began in January, 1916, and, although the lower limit was further dropped to 18 that May, according to http://www.1914-1918.net/recruitment.htm the law still said a soldier could not be sent into battle overseas until he was 19.
(10) Unsurprisingly, the Kensingtons’ War Diary makes no mention of my father’s departure and clues to the date are sparse but, given that his sabbatical from the front line came through just before that “big battle pending” he mentions a few paragraphs earlier, I think it would have been late September/the start of October. Because from October 5-9, on the stretch of Front they’d occupied for more than a month, the Battalion took part in an ill-fated action around Billon Farm and then Trônes Wood, their casualties totalling four officers and 179 ORs.
(11) Harfleur: a small port on the banks of the Rivers Seine and Lézarde – back then, three miles from Le Havre, now a suburb; also the scene, you’ll recall, of the 1415 Anglo-French battle which inspired the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
And so my father got a year out from the stinking war which had so got up his nose. Naturally, he felt guilty about accepting what he was legally entitled to, but he did fancy living – and as the next 14 months proved, his young body needed a break: transferred to Harrogate (and oddly, at the same time, to the 2/7th Battalion Essex Regiment), he spent two to three months of this period in hospital for various ailments no doubt caused or exacerbated by the debilitating front-line conditions in Gallipoli and on the Somme.
Much fitter and 19 to boot, he returned to the Front from December 1917, fought his last battle in the defence against the German Spring Offfensive of 1918, and then suffered terrible deprivations as a POW until Armistice started his long walk back to France. Those, to say the least, interesting events are covered in his full Memoir and also in the new e-book episode A Foot Soldier’s War – The Survivor, available via this page.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Back to the 100-years-ago-this-week continuing story – November, 1917, the powers that be notice Sam’s of age to fight and decide his Signalling needs brushing up so it’s back to school… with instructors and fellow “students” who’ve never been anywhere near a trench.
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.