“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, 7 January 2018
Arras, January, 1918: Sam still a free agent, he explores his lodgings in the old Prison, freelances around as a Signaller while he awaits re-attachment to his 2/7th Essex Battalion – and takes inspiration from the sight of a Guards outfit sprucing themselves up, top to toe, despite it all…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The big moves were political, not military. President Woodrow Wilson presented Congress with his 14 Points (January 8) declaring objectives for war and peace. They were simple and clear and give the impression that “everybody can come out of this just fine”. Nice thought, but much fighting and then dirty-pool playing around the Paris Peace Conference table had to be worked through before bitter reality emerged.
Meanwhile, the war’s first major peace-negotiation endeavour proceeded at Brest-Litovsk, Belarus (January 7-March 3) with everything looking civilised. The Central Powers and the Russian Bolsheviks agreed to recognise Ukrainian independence (10) and immediately Latvia (12) and Estonia (13) declared their own independence.
On the Western Front, British, French and Canadian forces had much the better of relatively minor raids and counter-raids around Cambrai, Armentières, Loos, and the Meuse (January 7-12). And an eastern outpost of the conflict returned to the fray when the British occupied Qasr-i-Shirin in western Persia – a town evacuated by the Russians the previous July 8 as their military effort became overstretched and undermined by events at home.
[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 of the same (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train as a commissioned officer, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not clear. 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 – at the end of which he told his family of his form conviction that he would survive, even if they didn’t hear from him for a while. Come December/January 1917/8, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more…]
Last week concluded a look back at my father Sam Sutcliffe’s one “theatre of war” Christmas and New Year, 1915-16 in Gallipoli – a mixed festive season of getting shelled, bombed from the air and shot at interleaved with massive feasts of treats and beer as they went through their Christmas parcels and diligently followed orders to consume everything they could before evacuation which, on V Beach, occurred on January 6.
Now it’s back to “100 years ago today” (more or less) on the Western Front. We left him, probably in January already as he never mentioned Christmas, knocking about Arras, not yet attached to his official Battalion, the 2/7th Essex, but on standby, a game dogsbody for anyone who wanted a Signaller to man a phone or repair a cross-country line. Eventually, he took up a still vague post with a Battalion he didn’t identify (and I can’t), lodged at Arras prison (Maison d’Arrêt on Rue Carabiniers d’Artois), and made a real pal in a fellow Signaller called Neston with whom he was to share most of his next three months’ lifetime of experiences.
As of Blog 180, December 17, 2017, Sam’s curiosity was fully engaged in working out this grand, grim, bomb-damaged building: a central feature boasted a dome “some 30 or 40 feet above us” with “something in carved wood or in metal” hanging from it, and below it a “sunken area”. As ever, Sam wanted to know, and if information fell short he would fill in the blanks from his imagination…
‘Enquiries among the men brought no enlightenment so, bearing in mind that we occupied the prison, and that France carried out capital punishments via a falling blade or guillotine(2) I decided we must be living in the execution chamber.
A narrow, railed gallery halfway between the floor and the high ceiling ran round the four walls, presumably for the use of persons privileged to watch some poor devil getting the chop. Who could bother about the great war going on up the road when explorations of these weird premises could be undertaken? I could not rest until I had ferreted around up there and pictured in imagination a livelier crowd below: Frenchmen and their vivacious ladies viewing the bloody goings-on in that sunken basin.
I found the stairway leading upwards and, with difficulty because of missing steps, reached the gallery. Making my way round that much damaged structure proved similarly risky. I had to traverse considerable gaps by clambering along the ironwork railing or by trusting my weight to the odd board remaining in place. Gazing at the hard floor far below I began to realise what a daft undertaking it was, but I made the circuit eventually, without sustaining injury.
Having recently lived in England for many months, my clothing and equipment remained in good nick, of course, but I was surprised to see most of my new mob’s gear still well maintained too. They had done spells in the trenches; that used to mean a general running down in appearance among the rankers – it was considered unavoidable and seemed so to me. The essential juice of the mud in which one frequently wallowed so stained clothing that even the steam-pressure cleaning to which it was periodically subjected, primarily for de-lousing, failed to restore the original, gorgeous, khaki colour. So I wondered why and how my comrades maintained their passably smart looks these days whereas, in 1916 and earlier, lower standards prevailed…
Out strolling through Arras during this period at ease, I got another, greater surprise on the spit-and-polish front. When I passed the entrance to the large forecourt of a fine, old building of four or five storeys, I saw hanging from the many open windows hundreds of haversacks, gas-mask bags, large packs, and other pieces of equipment, all made of strong, cotton webbing and all dressed with Khaki Blanco – they looked posh enough to be worn by the Guards at Buckingham Palace. We ordinary soldiers had discontinued using that stuff way back in 1915. So who was clinging to peacetime standards of smartness in a place where war daily destroyed military uniforms by the thousand, not to mention the bodies they adorned?
The Guards(3) indeed. The elite in soldiery. I felt two reactions on seeing and thinking about this evidence of pride in Regiment. First, it’s good for morale and surely only an Army certain of winning the war would bother to keep its accoutrements spotless in readiness for its victory celebrations. And second… what a waste of Blanco and energy when a couple of hours in the front line could foul up everything in mud and muck!’
(2) Executions by guillotine continued in France until 1977.
(3) The 2nd Irish, 1st and 3rd Coldstream, and 4th Grenadier Guards saw action in the Arras area during this period. This reminds me of an incident at Gallipoli when a then naive and inexperienced Sam likewise marvelled at the ways of old sweats. He was climbing up through the trenches to his hilltop front-line Signals post at Suvla Bay when “an opening caught my eye. I peered in and it revealed a sight almost unbelievable to me: a rather wide, roofed trench, with a long, narrow table, on each side of it a plank seat occupied by men who looked remarkably clean and spruce; on the table, their enamel mugs and plates, knives and forks, symbols of civilisation and decency. They did not appear to see me, perhaps because the light from the candles placed at intervals restricted vision to things close by. I recall standing there, tears, for some emotional reason, streaming down my face… although I was now 17 years old. The difference in the way of life of those trained, experienced soldiers, and that of myself and most of my Territorial comrades was never so apparent to me as at that moment. Of course, it all started at the top. Their officers were all career military men, capable of assessing the usefulness of every single thing, place or circumstance within their purview. The very disciplines to which the best of them submitted and which they practised in peacetime too made them admirable leaders when war surrounded their lives with discomforts and dangers.” He believed they were Royal Scots.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s Company heads east, towards the Front and his first battlefield trench since the Somme. His verdict? Luxury! Running water, deep dugouts for the Signallers, even a YMCA!
(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.