“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Post-Gallipoli and Somme Sam’s back to school – November, 1917: the Army notices Sam’s of age to fight again and decides his Signalling needs brushing up… with instructors and fellow “students” who’ve never been anywhere near a trench

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The notorious 2nd Battle Of Passchendaele came to a sudden conclusion as Allied forces, led by the Canadians, executed their planned phases three and four of the advances they’d begun on October 26. The Canadians captured the village of Passchendaele itself a mere three hours into the designated day (November 6), then they drove on (10) 1,000 yards beyond that before a successful German action to split a supporting British advance caused the attack to ultimately fall short of Field Marshall Haig’s aim to take the whole of the Passchendaele-Westrozebeke ridge and hold it as a pre-winter position. (Casualty figures for 2nd Passchendaele 43,600 Allied troops, German 30,000; for the 3rd Battle Of Ypres overall – July 31-November 10 – various accounts say Allied 200-448,000, German 217-410,000.)
    On the Eastern Front, the war continued semi-stalled as the Russian Revolution proceeded to its next stage, with a Bolshevik coup in Petrograd ousting Kerenski, leaving Lenin to install himself as Premier and Trotsky as Foreign Minister.
    Down south at the 12th Battle Of The Isonzo/Battle Of Caporetto (October 24-November 19 or December 26, according to terminology), the Italians plunged deeper into the worst defeat in the nation’s military history. Despite stretched resources, German and Austrian forces drove them back across the River Tagliamento (5) to the River Livenza (7; at this point the Italian Government relieved General Cadorna of the command he’d held since July, 1914, and replaced him with General Armando Diaz), and finally to the River Piave (11; it runs from the Alps to the Adriatic just east of Venice). There the Italians joined with reinforcements in the shape of six French and five British Divisions withdrawn from the Western Front. However, the Austrian Army still advanced down the Piave from Belluno. (Casualties for the whole battle: Italian 40,000 plus 265,000 taken prisoner, Austrian/German 70,000.)
    Meanwhile, in the continuing war against the Turks/Ottoman Empire, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force of British, French and Italian troops did well. The 3rd Battle Of Gaza ended (November 7) with the Turks pushed back from Gaza itself and along a line east to Beersheba. Although the Turks fell back in good order, they were pursued by the war’s old and new, cavalry and bomber planes. (Casualties: Allies 2,696, Ottomans 1,000 dead, no figure for wounded.) And over in Mesopotamia, the last battle of the campaign, the “Action” of Tikrit (5-6) saw a successful attack on the first day followed by occupation of an evacuated town the next day.

[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). In recent weeks, because material from Sam’s “year out”at home didn’t stretch to weekly blogs, I’ve rewound excerpts from his experiences of Gallipoli and the Somme. But now we return to the this-week-100-years-ago narrative.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, the “Somme Rewind” excerpts concluded. Now we’re back to “the present” 100 years ago… roughly. That is, autumn 1917, my father gave no specific dates/months in this section of his Memoir until he came to December.
    We left him in Blog 163, on August 20, back in Sheffield because his chronic gut problems, brought on by terrible conditions in the trenches of Gallipoli and the Somme (the doctors reckoned), had landed him in hospital again – following a route march around Yorkshire and into Nottinghamshire which lasted several weeks including a substantial sojourn encamped at a “ducal estate” (almost certainly the Duke Of Portland’s Welbeck Abbey).
    The hospital stay brought him back into contact with his kind-of girlfriend Nurse Flo, which was nice, and, as he recovered, allowed him once more to bask in the sweetly ordinary civilian life he’d come to appreciate fully via missing it for 18 months. But such joys also nagged at his sense of guilt over taking the chance to leave the Front in September/October, 1916, because, as of the Somme, he remained under-age for the battlefield.
    His last words when we left him were: “I thought about the mates I’d left behind on the Somme staring sightless at that great big moon on the night of the final search for survivors. They would be just bones in earth now.”
    And he’d passed the crucial age, 19, on July 6, 1917 – during one of his hospital stints as it happened, which may have delayed Army admin. spotting his availability…

I forget how it happened, but my past caught up with me. Someone noticed that although I was drawing proficiency pay as a Lance Corporal Signaller**, I had not done that sort of work since I joined my present mob – in fact, since before the Somme. So I was to proceed to faraway Sussex to a School Of Signallers near Crowborough – only 40 miles south of London, so I should be able to get a weekend pass now and then and visit my family.
    My father had written several interesting letters to me in recent months, telling me of his better-paid and quite agreeable new job as manager of a London store’s export department, supervising a team of clerks and packers. Even in my small experience of work, I had seen how, in peacetime, through agents, British firms did business in all parts of the world with undertakings needing reliable suppliers. More important than price, to many customers, was the quality of the goods, together with correct packing which took into account extremes of climate as well as possible rough cartage and handling. Assembling the goods as invoiced and seeing them right through to their delivery to the ships, perfectly packed, insured and documented, was ultimately Pa’s responsibility.
    Just once, I spent an hour watching him and his merry men at work. His desk stood in the middle of a large, long floor-space; three or four clerks sat on tall stools at high desks on each side of the room. Pa received orders and invoices from the incoming-mail desk and recorded and apportioned the resulting work to his staff. Occasionally, we went through sliding metal doors into a place of noisy activity where packers filled cases, some with sheet-metal linings, and nailed their lids down.
    Together, we pondered how much of all this stuff would finish up at the bottom of the sea, German U-boats*** being so active still.

The Signals School turned out to be but a small part of a large Army depot devoted to putting recently conscripted recruits through a rapid course of training prior to sending them into battle. We all lived in large, wooden huts, the food plain and plentiful, the training thorough.
    None of the trainees and few of their instructors had experienced the trenches, the battlefield. Recently released from the cares of civilian life with its rents and food to be paid for, children to be clothed, the recruits seemed keen and contented with their new circumstances – their burdens now assumed by Authority. All they had to do was become good soldiers and, at some unspecified date, cross the Channel to join the gallant lads at the Front.
    Looked at that way, it wasn’t so bad, I guess. An insurance actuary might not have assessed their “expectation of life” possibilities very highly, but each man had his own hopes and plans for survival.’
** Signaller first-class, no less – he’d learned the rudiments as a Boy Scout then the more complicated stuff in Malta, spring-summer 1915 while waiting (not eagerly) with his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, for their war to start. After Gallipoli, during four months rest and retraining in Egypt, he got an update. But then, on the Somme with the Kensingtons, his skills proved surplus to requirements and he served there as plain front-line PBI, earning unwanted promotions to Corporal and Acting Sergeant. Which reminds me that during his “year out” from the battlefield he “reverted”, as the records put it, to Private. This may have been an oddly generous response to his repeated requests to be divested of any rank (because he so disliked ordering men around), or it could have been rather miscalculated spite from his worse than unpleasant Battalion Captain in Harrogate (see Blog 160, July 30, 2017), whose offer of the chance to step up to commissioned rank my father rejected. (By this period of the war, the supply of young upper/middle-class second and full lieutenants to replace those killed in the front line was running low so the Army cast its gaze towards the lower orders for likely candidates).
*** After some toing and froing on the rules of engagement for submarines (Unterseeboot), on January 31, 1917, Germany lifted all restrictions on attacking merchant vessels; new tactics of convoying with Naval escort ships somewhat reduced their effect, but U-boats sank about 11 million tons of Allied shipping 1914-18.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam royally entertained at Crowborough camp: sumptuous canteens and bars, concerts, silent movies, and expert lectures including one by local resident Conan Doyle who elucidates the Battle of the Somme… to Somme veteran Sam.

* 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.

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