“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, 10 December 2017
Sam moves forward to Arras… and feels more than ever a cog in the war’s “vast, impersonal machine”… close by, the battlefield rumbles…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… Action petered out to winter “maintenance” level on the Western Front, with British/Empire forces advancing east of Cambrai (December 10), but losing the salient between Bullecourt and Quéant to the west of the town (12). Down near Verdun, the French Army continued their pattern of holding off frequent German attacks, this time at the familiar battlefield of Chaume Wood (10).
Fighting near the Eastern front had come down to Russian civil conflict. General Kornilov, deposed as c-in-c of the Russian Army by the Bolsheviks, continued fighting via his Volunteer Army, though with no success at Kharkov (December 11; northeast Ukraine), then Belgorod (13; just across the Russian border) – but his forces were not destroyed and he would come again. On the wider stage, the Germans and other Central Powers plus Turkey set about negotiating an extension to their Armistice with Russia (and, incidentally, Romania) – the new dates, December 17-January 14, no doubt readily agreed by all concerned.
The Italians, like the other Allies in Europe, still managed to maintain a static front along the River Piave from Monte Grappa down to the sea just north of Venice, regularly beating back Austrian and German attacks (December 12; between the Brenta and Piave rivers) and even regaining some ground (16; Brenta valley).
The Allies did reach one successful conclusion when General Allenby walked into Jerusalem (December 11) – to show respect for the Holy City’s three religions in response to the Mayor’s message of surrender which hoped “you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than 500 years”. British Prime Minister Lloyd George described the victory as a “Christmas present” for his people. But the Ottoman Army had retreated from the city a few days earlier, then formed new lines to the east and north, and Allenby began his further pursuit of them on December 13.
[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. 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 lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare for more (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Now, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more…]
Last week, in December, 2017, my father sailed to Calais and, to his surprise, found himself enjoying all the fun of a big Army-camp town – estaminets, shows, aerobatics over a neighbouring Belgian airfield, and the pleasure of encountering new cultures (on this occasion, open-natured Pacific Islanders whom Sam had never met before, and feared for amid the horrors of wintry European battlefields).
Between entertainments, he spent some time reflecting on his war so far and thinking about his brother, still out on the Front somewhere with the Field Survey Company – spotters of enemy activity, especially artillery positions.
But now he moves on. And I should mention that my usual this-week-100-years-ago chronology suffers one of its periodic glitches at this point. It’s simply that Sam spent maybe three or four weeks idling in Calais and covered it in a few paragraphs, but then as he moved towards the battlefield his accounts grew far more detailed – including, eventually, hour-by-hour accounts of his final days on the Front through to March 28. So, in order to take all that in, the blog is now moving on to January (as far as I can tell from his writings and my research in books and War Diaries!) as Sam proceeds towards Arras…
‘Next move forward took me into Arras(2), which town I first viewed from a hill across a valley. In the afternoon sunshine, among streets of houses, I saw many gaps, many roofs missing, yet that warm light and shadow gave the scene an air of quietness as though the war had finished and the repairers and menders and builders would soon move in and heal the scars…
I had a Regimental cap badge, but at that stage in my progress from rear to front line, I still did not know which Battalion I would belong to. I quite liked the Regimental badge(3) depicting – only roughly, of course – a tower set in some sort of decorated scrollwork. The genuine Essex lads, I’m sure, felt proud of their county Regiment and its traditions, but I was merely a wanderer who’d come along to fill one of the many spaces in their ranks caused by enemy action.
The war had by then become a vast, impersonal machine into which human bits and pieces could be inserted as the need arose. In the course of my unhurried journey from coast to front line(4), evidences of efficiency in the conduct of military matters deeply impressed me. Small towns and villages, much battered, were now being repaired, albeit temporarily – roofing often consisted of corrugated-metal sheets… but homes becoming habitable once more.
Such observations induced one to seriously consider the possibility of war ending at some future date, a thought entertained by very few soldiers a year or so earlier, say after the Somme battle. Someone high up in the military organisation had faith enough to give forth instructions enabling French farmers and their few remaining workers to move back into some former battlefield areas. With the impending great German attack expected by, and freely discussed by, all those who would have to meet and endure it, such rebuilding of places which might once again suffer damage could have seemed ridiculous. But actually it did much good for the morale of the troops. Somebody up above believed that, in time, we should win the war… so optimism spread along the Front.
The consciousness of a distant rumble, a continuous underlying vibration when local noises subsided, and, by night, brilliant flashes, or even the illumination of large areas for some seconds, sharply reminded me that the days of peace and relaxation had once again passed from my life. Edgy unease and a wary eye on anything happening in my vicinity would henceforth be necessary features of my continued existence. A quick decision might preserve me from injury or even death, as it certainly had done several times previously on front-line service.
Temporarily on standby because nobody needed Signals replacements, I remained for a while as a general dogsbody at Brigade Headquarters(5). Anything connected in the remotest way with communications, I tackled with enthusiasm, from humble verbal messages to written ones delivered by me personally, a relief stint on phones or telegraphs, and cross-country checks of lines above or below ground. I felt glad to be back on the work I had done in the early days of the war and would have continued doing had our first dear old Battalion(6) not been disbanded for lack of casualty replacements.’
(2) Arras: 68 miles southeast of Calais, population 26,080 in 1911; scene of battles throughout the war around the town and region, see map http://www.greatwar.co.uk/places/french-flanders-artois-towns.htm. Going with my father’s implied dates his first sight of Arras was probably sometime in January.
(3) Many images are available online if you search “Essex Regiment Cap Badge WW1”. My father obviously did feel “unattached”, but Ian Hook of the Essex Regiment Museum, told me he was listed as a member of the 2nd Battalion when he returned to France, that is the 2/7th still, where he’d been administratively parked on December 18, 1916, when sent to Harrogate to train until his 19th birthday (on July 6, 1917, during a hospital stay in Sheffield).
However, Mr Hook also noted that “soon after” December, 1916, Sam was transferred “to the 4th (Reserve) Battalion at Halton [Buckinghamshire] near Tring [Hertforshire]” (two towns that Sam never visited as far as I know). Not only that, but his post-War “Award Sheet – First Award” (that’s about pensions, not medals) says his Battalion was “3 Essex”. Well, that’s likely just a slip of the pen, but… blimey O’Reilly, guvnor, the Army did do a nice line in admin. tangles to confuse the ’umble researcher! At least this one substantiates his recollection of knocking about within the system on his own for quite a while, following orders as and when they were directed his way.
(4) My father doesn’t specify, but he left the Front solo in September/October 1916 – hitching lifts, catching trains – and I get the impression here he returned the same way, in his spare-part filler-in role. I don’t know whether that was common.
(5) That would (probably!) be the 12th Brigade HQ in Arras – the 2/7th Essex was one of its eight Battalions; it also included a Machine Gun Company and a Trench Mortar Battery.
(6) The 2/1st Royal Fusiliers my father joined in September, 1914, after Gallipoli disbanded in France, late April, 1916.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam gets a temporary assignment and a billet in Arras Prison. He strikes up his final true friendship as a Tommy… the bloke who’d keep him company until the day on the front line when his Battalion is ordered to fight to the last man and bullet…
(1) 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.