“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, 28 January 2018
Sam relishes post-seasonal Christmas puddings until the Germans go and spoil it all with a massive bombardment; he and comrades rush back to the front… for what turns out to be a false start to the not-eagerly anticipated Spring Offensive…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… With the end in sight – although no one could tell exactly what it looked like – the great powers involved in the war continued to keep most of their powder dry while they planned grand attacks and/or negotiated peace deals.
So the Western Front sputtered, the main exchanges conducted via bombing raids: German attacks on London killed 77 and injured 176 (January 28-9) and a raid on Paris killed 49, injuring 206 (30); British planes attacked an aerodrome at Roulers (28) and German positions in the Cambrai area (29).
On the former Eastern Front, the Bolsheviks severed diplomatic relations with their erstwhile ally Romania (January 28) following a modest battle the previous week. Bolshevik troops also engaged in a scrap with the Ukrainian Army at Lutsk (28). This may have got Russia’s resumed Brest-Litovsk negotiations with the Central Powers (30) off on the wrong foot, given they had just recognised Ukraine as an independent republic.
Meanwhile, the Italians continued their comeback against the Austrian invasion which had stalled just north of Venice. They attacked successfully on the Asiago plain, the Brenta Valley and Col del Rosso (January 28), the Monte Di Val Bella (28), and the Frenzela Gorge (30). With their ground forces overstretched, the Austrians retaliated by bombing Venice and Padua (February 3).
The British Army’s effective reach was proven, though, by the continued push north of Jerusalem, taking Arnutiya (January 30), and its extension of an “East Persian Cordon” into the Khorosan region – replacing Russian troops withdrawn by the Bolshevik government.
Arguably, though, the way the wind blew was best indicated by a series of strikes in Germany – Kiel, Munich, Hamburg (January 30) – followed by declarations of martial law in Hamburg and Berlin (31), after which unrest died down temporarily.
[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 for a commission, 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 may have brought about his “reversion” to Private, but perhaps he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. After refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, come November/December, he enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career – at the end of which he assured his family of his firm conviction that he would survive, even if they didn’t hear from him for a while. In December/January 1917/8, he’s returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he can – while the Front rumbles away nearby… ]
Last week – 100 years ago – my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, Gallipoli and Somme veteran, returned to the Western Front trenches after his year out through being still underage for the battlefield.
Not yet attached to his official Battalion, the 2/7th Essex, and more or less “freelancing” around Arras as a Signaller, he did four weeks with an outfit he doesn’t name (and I can’t identify) rotating between Reserve, Support and Front lines. A quietish time with the occasional skirmish and adventure ensued. Then they returned to Arras and billets in a semi-ruined museum building – Sam in the company of his new pal Neston and two other Signallers who also seem to have been waiting on attachment to the Essex (the fog of war, admin. division, you know).
So from here, until Sam’s final battle, March 28, as blog editor I have to abandon the usual this-week-100-years-ago sequencing and just run the story as it comes. This week’s recollections relate to late February, 1918; the following eight blogs will cover the crowded events through to my father and the 2/7th’s climactic and tragi-heroic part in the defence against the “Operation Mars” phase of the Spring Offensive.
However, here he is taking his break in Arras, initially thinking about his stomach rather than history-making events:
‘From a canteen down the road plenty of tasty eatables could be bought, with money no longer scarce as it used to be because rates of pay had improved. A line which attracted much of my spare cash was, you’d hardly believe, Christmas pudding. Luscious, even though, perforce, eaten cold, and I got my teeth into many a slab.
It didn’t seem quite fair that, on some dark nights, the Jerries should remind us there was a war on by flying over to drop noisy bombs on Arras station(2) and thereabouts. Bad enough, surely, that we should have to put up with that sort of racket in the trenches.
I recall so clearly my carefree attitude to active service at that late stage of a most awful war… Due, no doubt, to freedom from responsibility; during my previous time in forward areas of the battlefield in France, in the trenches I had frequently been in charge of up to 50 men(3) — up front, I’d found the officers around me very willing to delegate authority to juniors, especially during the night watches.
During the Gallipoli fiasco, the depressing conditions, the poor food, and especially the need to keep communications open between my scruffy little hole in the ground(4) and a similar one elsewhere, had abolished all joy from living and made smiling a difficult performance hardly worth the required effort. In that wretched campaign we drew no pay and had nowhere to spend it anyway.
Whereas in France, in what turned out to be the terminal period of the war, with ample money in our pockets, we could supplement our rations and well-filled tummies and this, I found, did a lot for our self-respect and confidence. I thought the bread supplied to the troops there superior to that eaten by civilians in England, and canned foods, part of our rations, of good quality and plentiful too.
Furthermore, in the front line it was still customary to issue a useful tot of rum to soldiers. I couldn’t stomach the stuff, but I traded it, usually for a can of pork and beans. I stowed these stand-by rations away along one of the supporting beams in the dugout. I enjoyed lying on my bunk and gazing up at my accumulated wealth. Thus, perhaps, were born the germs of faith in what Karl Marx abhorred, the capitalist system(5).
For months, one question had nagged at us, though we seldom spoke of it: “When will Jerry strike?” Well, he did strike, many kilos south of the sector we had occupied of late, but our anxiety grew because we assumed it must be the start of the enemy’s Great Last Fling.
It commenced with the customary heavy bombardment day and night for nearly five days(6). Our most forward positions and our artillery bore the brunt. Then, during dawn stand-to on the fifth morning, the artillery fire suddenly lifted off the forward areas. Our men with bayonets and rifles and magazines full lined up on firing steps and waited for the German assault.
Many German reconnaissance planes were flying over our trench systems, which had suffered an immense amount of damage, so our senior officers hoped that, with every man standing visible in his trench, the enemy aerial photos would not reveal how severely our ranks had been thinned out by death and injury during the non-stop shelling.
All these facts we learned when our Brigade had to rush forward from Arras to the stricken area to relieve the reduced and shaken garrison. We, at full strength and fighting-fit, maintained round-the-clock readiness to prevent enemy infantry from capturing any of our positions.
However, Jerry did not pursue the attack and things went extraordinarily quiet during the remainder of our stint in that sector.
Of course, we all speculated about the reasons for this uncompleted attack. Did Jerry hope we would assume he had insufficient resources with which to complete the job? Had his planes observed large reserves in our rear positions which would, he judged, prevent deep penetration? On the whole, I think we settled for the theory favoured by older soldiers: that the enemy scheme was a bluff. It must have caused many and varied counter-moves by our strategists which German airmen could then observe and film, yielding information very useful to their Generals when they launched the real big offensive.’
(2) Arras station, on what is now the Place de Maréchal Foch, is a few hundred metres southeast of the Musée Des Beaux Arts, Rue Paul Doumer – Sam’s billet at this point I deduce, although I can find no clear references to this particular museum being used by the British Army. The Musée Des Beaux Arts certainly was severely damaged, though – by German bombardments on July 5, 1915, and subsequently.
(3) On the Somme, May-September, 1915, Sam was promoted to Corporal and sometimes Acting Sergeant. Because his then Battalion, the Kensingtons, had no need for extra Signallers he fought as an infantryman and often led squads out into No Man’s Land to dig trenches by night. When he returned to England because his age had been discovered – 18, too young for the battlefield – he began the process of removing the rank he detested by unstitching one stripe en route so that he joined the Essex Regiment contingent in Harrogate as a Lance Corporal. Then, in the summer of 1917 it appears that he “reverted” to Private (no record of related disciplinary action) after an officer, with whom he shared a mutual detestation, had to offer him training for a commission and he refused.
(4) A hilltop Signals “post” at Suvla Bay.
(5) My father had erratic and enigmatic political views. After the war be became a market trader/barrow boy back home in Edmonton – and organised his colleagues into an improbable branch of whatever the Transport & General Workers Union was called back then. He voted Labour all the way through to Attlee in 1945, but then, after the creation of the NHS, free education and so on, he swung to Churchill in 1951 and stayed Tory thereafter. We argued about politics a lot and I never really understood his thinking, but it’s entertaining to look back on.
(6) As far as I can work out the dates, before my father gets specific again as the real Spring Offensive starts, this “false-alarm” artillery bombardment must have happened in late February.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam and Signaller pals to and fro from the front line, taking on supplies of Christmas pud when back in Arras – and also, back at the Museum, hooking up with their official Battalion at last. Then it’s off to the front once more via a terrifying jet-black night-time march wherein Sam scares the pants off himself by getting lost… with a long file of men following him!
(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.