“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, 25 February 2018
Sam’s Battalion moves into the Arras front line; he and Signaller pals get lucky – a lovely big bunker to work in – except when he’s out in blown-up trenches mending lines with “no one to witness my brave devotion to duty… or maybe my crawling and fumbling, take your choice”
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Eastern Front remained the history-maker. The Eleven Days War/Operation Faustschlag that followed Russian Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky’s refusal to sign a peace treaty with Germany – while verbally recognising a cessation of hostilities – saw Germany continue to take candy from the baby of the Bolshevik’s barely existent and wholly dispirited Army: they occupied Pernau and Reval, now Talinn, Estonia, and Pskov, Russia (February 25), and Kiev, Ukraine (March 2). The last occurred after the alarmed Russians resumed the Brest-Litovsk negotiations with the Central Powers (February 28).
Fighting did actually cease when all sides – including Bulgaria and Turkey – signed the treaty (March 3), the Bolshevik peace vote coralled by Lenin and Stalin who, in the end, persuaded Trotsky to switch sides and put his name to it. The German terms had hardened since Trotsky’s attempt to lead them up the garden path, so Russia lost control of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine – not the end of that story, of course. The Bolsheviks also signed a Treaty Of Peace And Amity with the Finnish Social Republic Of Workmen (March 1), but that entity lasted only until it lost the Finnish Civil War (May 5, 1918).
On the Western Front raiding continued both ways, with no major developments, though American troops were on the receiving end at Seicheprey, Lorraine (March 1).
At sea, a British hospital ship, HMHS Glenart Castle, went down in eight minutes after a U-boat torpedo struck her off Newport in the Bristol Channel (February 26) – 162 died, including 99 patients, and only 32 survived. Also torpedoed and sunk was the armed merchant cruiser HMS Calgarian off Rathlin Head, Northern Ireland, with the loss of 49 lives (March 1).
Meanwhile, in Palestine, the British force which had taken Jerusalem pressed further north on a 12-mile front either side of the Jerusalem-to-Nablus road (March 2-3) and in Persia British forces took Kirmanshah (February 25) and Meshed (March 3), both previously occupied by their now defunct Russian ally.
[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 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. 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. In December/January 1917/8, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away. But by mid-March he found his own Essex Battalion; they moved into the trenches on March 19.]
Last week – the blog having moved ahead of itself because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote so much about late March – Sam’s 2/7th Essex Battalion, in the reserve trench near Fampoux, about six kilometres outside Arras, came under the opening artillery barrage of the German’s Spring Offensive in their sector (this would probably be about March 21).
With defence the British Army’s only strategy at that point, they just sat and endured – except that Sam and his fellow Signallers, including his new pal Neston, periodically had to scuttle about repairing broken lines at great risk to life, limb and underpants, as he would put it. And when the mustard gas shells started to rain down – one in five – Sam got a horrible lungful because the lookout put his respirator on before he used his “bird-scarer rattle”, not vice versa as per instructions. Sam survived, it was only enough to leave a nasty taste in his mouth and cause a longer-term shortness of breath.
Now the Battalion moves up into the front line, for the duration it turns out, until the great German onslaught of Operation Mars breaks over the defenders of Arras:
‘The bombardment, the awful explosions and vibrations, reduced most of us to a state of automatic action, doing those things which must be done, precisely as we had been endlessly trained to do them. At that point, for us in the support line there was no physical contact with the enemy. The front-line men would take that sort of impact in the first place. As a Signaller, I worked with my little group to maintain contact with them and with Battalion HQ.
We’d pegged our wires into the sides of trenches, visible and easily repairable. If you weren’t in a shelter, such as it was, sending or receiving messages, when told that communication had broken down you moved swiftly to find and mend the damage. All this among the hellish roar, the nearly deafening crash, the cries of “Stretcher-bearers!”… Nothing to do with you so far.
That night, we had to suddenly grab all our gear and move up the communication trench, still passable-through at that stage, and take over a section of the front line(2). This proved to be lucky for us because, perhaps due to a bend in the direction of the front trench at that point, or to some slight error in range-finding, Jerry wasted many of his best-quality shrapnel and high-explosive shells; mostly, they fell either well in front or somewhat in the rear of our lucky old front-line trench.
Further good fortune for us Signallers: we spent most of our time in a well-constructed, deep dugout which housed Company Headquarters, so we were able to withstand the dreadful non-stop explosions going on above without undue nervous strain. Down there, our acting Company commander, Lieutenant Jewitt(3), occupied a curtained-off area also furnished with bunks for the three subalterns – who used it sparingly because Jewitt found many excuses for “keeping them at it”.
Had I mentioned that our popular Captain Bailey vanished at about the time we entered the trench system? Men who had been with that Battalion for some considerable time said they had seen this sort of thing happen previously, a possible explanation being that HQ deemed officers who had served continuously at the battlefront for long periods too valuable to be sacrificed in risky forward positions where few were likely to survive attack and counter-attack. So a cadre of commissioned and non-commissioned officers based in rear positions maintained a Regimental skeleton on which the flesh and muscle of newly arrived personnel could be hung to replace the large number of people killed or wounded up front – the expendables, briefly on the Battalion’s books but soon happily sent back through the casualty station chain or else buried quickly after their identity-discs, pay book etc had been duly removed for “records” purposes.
Moving up to the forward line from support had proved a boon to our lads, or so it seemed. We enjoyed front-line amenities such as the Germans had always provided for themselves wherever possible. Only those on lookout duty, standing on the firing step, need be exposed to the full blasts of the enemy shells. Most of them performed their dangerous duties bravely and with sound judgement – the man who used rattle or gong indiscriminately became a nuisance, unnecessarily disturbing resting comrades and upsetting carefully worked-out routines.
I continued my previous ploy of swapping my morning rum ration for eatables and built up a sizeable collection of cans of pork and beans in my store among the rafters(4). As I surveyed my little hoard, I felt secure against the probable non-delivery of rations which must soon occur as the bombardment intensified.
I went “up top” only when my turn came to follow a line till I found the broken cable which had cut off communications in one direction or another. Life became terribly hectic then; a real screamer would send me down flat on my belly – expertise in guessing roughly where such a big one would burst had developed with experience. Occasionally, a section of trench was blown in; there I must join spare cable to the near end of the broken line, carry it over the hump and connect my spare to the other end – all done in a rather exposed situation, usually with nobody in sight, no one to witness my skilled workmanship and brave devotion to duty… or maybe my cringing, crawling and fumbling, take your choice.’
(2) The Battalion War Diary notes that they moved up to the front line, replacing the First Battalion King’s Own Regiment, on 23 March (having taken over the reserve trenches from the First Battalion Coldstream Guards on March 19). Sam and his pal from Arras jail* Neston’s C Company occupied a trench dubbed “Cork”. The Spring Offensive/Operation Michael had begun on March 21 around St Quentin, the plan being to advance steadily westwards over the following week with the main Arras attack scheduled for March 28. (*No crime involved, the ruined building had been their billet for two short periods during January-March.)
(3) Jewitt is an alias, as is Neston. My father always strove not to identify anybody he wrote about, favourably or not, to avoid causing distress to anyone still living when he was writing in the 1970s, or to their descendents.
(4) He’d developed this wheeze during a front-line stint in February because he “couldn’t stomach” rum and rather liked to eat – and anticipate eating, come to that. Memories of this unconsumed pork and beans treasure trove would torment him within a couple of weeks after a radical change in his circumstances which we’ll get to soon.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s Battalion samples the delights of a Minenwerfer box barrage… he and his Signaller pals dash about in the dark trying to fix line breaks – then it’s midnight March 28 and Sam picks up a terrible one-word message from HQ…
(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.