“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, 14 January 2018

Sam’s (temporary) Company heads for the Front and his first battlefield since the Somme. His 19-year-old veteran verdict? Running water, foot care, deep dugouts for the Signallers, even a YMCA! Luxury!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The winter action on the Western Front (pending decisive activity to come) could be characterised as “raids”, largely German and repulsed by the British or French, as near Neuve Chappelle and Lens (January 18) and Chaume Wood (14). In addition, the French advanced in Lorraine (14; annexed by Germany in 1871), and British planes conducted daylight bombing raids on Karlsruhe (Germany), Thionville and Metz (occupied France) (14 and 16).
    Over on the Eastern Front, the turmoil remained mostly political as German negotiators pressed the Russians to settle the peace conditions at Brest-Litovsk (January 14-18) and struck an agreement “in principle” with the Ukraine (16). Meanwhile, in Petrograd, the All Russian Constituent Assembly, established via the October Revolution, convened for the first time. But the following day the Bolsheviks forcibly dissolved it and created yet another new governing body, the Third All-Russian Congress Of Soviets – which lasted some days.
    In northern Italy, the Austrians continued to lose the ground they’d taken so briskly the previous autumn in the Brenta Valley and Piave Delta (January 14-16).
    But the week’s most substantial events were probably maritime. Off the Dardanelles, SMS Breslau and SMS Goeben, the two German cruisers whose Black Sea raids in October, 1914, had directly provoked Russia’s declaration of war, attempted to break out into the Mediterranean. They did sink two British monitors, but then, sailing for Mudros to attack the British naval base there, they both struck so many mines that Breslau sank with the loss of 330 men while Goeben was beached.

[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 entirely 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 firm 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, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Arras in a “freelance” way, helping where he can – with the Front rumbling away nearby… ]

Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, dogsbodying for anyone around Arras who needed a bit of Signalling or line repair done, entertained himself with a self-guided tour of his very strange billet – the city’s shell-damaged prison – and got a boost from observing an ultra-disciplined Guards Battalion spit-and-polishing their gear on a nearby street.
    Now, still in January, 1918, a Battalion he and his Signaller mates from the prison have been temporarily attached to sets off for the Front, just a few miles outside town. Veteran of 19 that he is, he’s soon sounding a bit like one of Monty Python’s Yorkshireman snorting “Luxury!” at the conditions he finds in the trenches now:

‘Inevitably, one morning our Company set off eastwards*, led by a Captain Bailey, with a subaltern heading each Platoon and the whole ensemble complete with our full complement of Company Sergeant Major, Sergeants, Corporals and Lance Corporals.
     I was in fine condition, feeling none of the inferiority which had sometimes bugged me when I was still under the permitted active service age. The regular hours and nourishment I enjoyed in England had made a fairly strong and confident soldier of me; when we came within earshot of the so well remembered battlefield noise, I felt almost none of the tension which had formerly gripped me on the France Front and to some extent in Gallipoli**. The certainty of survival, previously mentioned, remained strong in me.
     I viewed with amazement and pleasure the sight of water pipes and taps in the rear trenches – the like of that had not even been dreamt of in earlier years. I heard that, in a support trench dugout, I would find a YMCA which could be visited occasionally, with permission. And, in the front line, further deep dugouts were available for the use of all men not on duty. Such shelters and other amenities, previously reserved for officers only in my experience, proved invaluable as morale reinforcements.
     Meanwhile, foot care remained a first consideration and, in quiet times, small parties left the front line at three-day intervals for foot washing, oil dressing, and clean socks.
     Neston and I, along with our excitable Welsh friend, and a calm 30-year-old from a cathedral town, comprised C Company Signals Section; four men to do work previously allocated to two. Improvement indeed, this, offering time for leisure instead of just work, sleep, and gradually increasing tiredness – as in Gallipoli, when we used to experiment with two hours on/two off, or four- or even eight-hour spells, but we never felt rested***. Again, one felt that war was being organised better, perhaps with a view to it becoming a permanent condition.
     In the Signallers’ dugout, the men we were replacing showed us over the wiring we had responsibility for as well as a large, very modern instrument for transmitting and receiving Morse and verbal messages. We tried the new lightweight headphones and a microphone which didn’t rely on its granules being shaken into suitable positions, and learnt to attend to the food and water requirements of two carrier pigeons in their basket cage. Every third day, a motorcyclist from Divisional HQ took these birds away and left two replacements. Our predecessors had attached the pigeons’ special lightweight message forms to their little home ready for when all other means of communication failed. “You’ll probably never have to use them,” said our guide to the facilities. But he was wrong there.
     Perhaps I have given the impression that we Signallers had small, individual, underground shelters? Far from it — each dugout had bunks to accommodate perhaps 20 or more men. In the front-line trench, ours had an additional room, of sorts, at one end, occupied by the Company officers. The remaining space housed messengers called “Company runners”, we Signallers, the Company Sergeant Major, and off-duty Sergeants, with a few rankers to make up the number – so no place for light sleepers because something was always going on down there; messengers coming and going, officers calling out for people, our buzzers tapping out Morse signals and our phone conversations with distant stations.’
* That is, from Arras towards the Front. My best researches leave me uncertain still at this point which Battalion he and his Signaller pals had become temporarily attached to – I’d just say that most indications are that it wasn’t his own 2/7th Essex Regiment for some weeks yet.
** In Gallipoli, he first describes the fear that gripped him – and which he, along with nearly all his comrades, overcame – as his Company approached the beach at Suvla Bay in a lighter, September, 1915: ‘A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards produced an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body’. On the Somme, recalling his first stint in the front line there, May, 1916, he wrote: ‘Once more, the belly-tightening tension resumed its grip.’
*** Sam’s recalling a period in autumn-winter 1915 at Suvla Bay when he and various comrades – rapidly rotated because the conditions broke them, one way or another – manned a hilltop Signals post (really just a hole) overlooking the Turkish lines on 24 hours a day for weeks on end with no rota helping in their unworkable situation: ‘Actually, we catnapped day and night and just made the best of a terrible existence. The resulting fatigue, along with poor diet, was reducing us to shadows of ourselves… imagine yourself trying to live under such conditions and maintain your intelligence or even your sanity.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Signaller Sam “enjoys” a quiet stint in the front line, enlivened by a bit of wandering about line-testing – then a move back to Arras and a change of billet: this time, the Museum.

(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.

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