“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, 11 March 2018
March 28, 1918, the Spring Offensive, outside Arras: Sam’s Company’s line to Battalion HQ goes dead, the Company CO’s in a pitiable state… their orders are to fight to the last bullet… Sam and Signaller pals join their Tommy comrades vowing “Stick together no matter what happens”…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… While both sides waited for the German Spring Offensive, general tit-for-tat raiding picked up, although inconclusively. The British conducted daylight air raids on the southwest German towns of Freiburg (March 13), Zweibrucken (16) and Kaiserslautern (17), while the German Army got aggressive to the north of the Western Front at Ypres and Armentieres (11) and Laventie (12) but were repulsed – in the latter instance by Portuguese troops.
Further south, the French recovered recently lost trenches near Butte De Mesnil (March 14) and conducted major raids near Verdun at Cheppy and Malancourt (16), while German Gotha bombers raided Paris (11; four shot down).
To the east, no longer a Front, as the Congress Of Soviets in Moscow ratified the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Central Powers (March 14), the German Army carried on picking up territory, landing in Finland (12), and occupying southern Russian towns Odessa (13) and Nicolaiev (17). In an odd aberration, the Battle Of Bakhmach (March 8-13) between German and Czechoslovak Legion forces in Ukraine concluded with the latter, 42,000 of them, taking advantage of a truce to hightail it home on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Outlying straggler elements of the Russian Army also retreated from a Turkish advance on Erzerum (March 12; Anatolia) and, just because they’d become so isolated, from Hamadan, West Persia.
[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 in Arras, 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*, when his C Company, 2/7th Battalion Essex Regiment, began their sixth day in the front line at Fampoux, a few miles outside Arras, under a constant pre-Operation Mars artillery bombardment, at midnight on March 27/8, 1918, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe took a terrifying one-word message from Battalion HQ.
It read “George”. As previously notified, it meant “C Company will stand firm and under no circumstances leave their present position”. Fight to the last bullet. Fight to the last man…
The excerpt left him and his fellow Signallers, including his good pal Neston, confronted by their Company commander, a Lieutenant, lost in a raging funk.
Now this is the first of four blogs in which Sam, digging deep into his extraordinary memory 50 years after the event, describes his own final day of battle – the day when the Spring Offensive, begun a week earlier at St Quentin, became Operation Mars, the massive onslaught designed to take Arras. This is Sam Sutcliffe’s account of Thursday, March 28…
[* These excerpts had to step away from the blog’s usual 100-years-ago-this-week sequence because my father wrote at such length about the battle at Fampoux.]
‘The monstrous roars and thumps and shudders of a great artillery bombardment continued. Regardless of normal procedures, we Signallers tried to communicate with the Battalion office, but now the line had gone quite dead. Our quiet, rather older colleague offered no suggestions, our Welsh chum talked a great deal without saying very much, so Neston and I decided to check the line down to Battalion HQ, suggesting that the other two went along the trench telling everybody about message “George” and what it meant.
At the back of my mind, I believe, was the idea that when we informed HQ staff of the front-line situation, they would tell us to stay with them, since no further signalling was required. We wasted our journey, though, because the HQ shelters were empty; having sent that awful “George” thing, they must have packed up and moved back to some pre-arranged place. That left us feeling naked and nervous, to put it mildly.
Back to the Company to break the news to our already shattered Company officer. His consequent rage about “them” having deserted us evoked in us something akin to pity for him.
Neston and I knew that we, the men of Company C, were now on our own. We left the pigeons – two beautiful white fantails – in their basket at the foot of the stairway down into the dugout, there to remain till all was hopeless.
The first glimmer of dawn lightened the day. March 28th it was. We checked our rifles, the bullets in our pouches. I grabbed two spare cotton bandoliers of bullets from a trench-side store. Up on the firing-step we could find no targets so far… Nobody claimed us as part of their Platoon or any less formal group and, feeling like unwanted spare parts(2), Neston and I scuffled along the trench, for no particular reason other than self-preservation perhaps.
We saw dead men here and there, wounded men being helped or carried on groundsheets towards communication trenches leading rearwards. Thus for each wounded man, three left the front line, though what happened to them I never heard.
The occasional Sergeant or Corporal retained some sort of control of a cluster of men, but no cohesive command remained. We hoped to report to one of the subalterns to obtain some positive direction, but we found that Lieutenant XXXXX had just shot himself(3). We could see him, sitting slumped on the ground, his back against the trench wall.
Dawn proper. “Stand-to” time, so up on the firing-step we climbed. Neston on my right, an oldish man I didn’t know on my left… Some mist around the uneven terrain ahead. In that dawn half-light, every feature – a bush, a heap of thrown-up earth, the occasional tree – seemed threateningly large… whereas self-destroyed Lieutenant XXXXX appeared to have shrunk a bit more each time his slumped figure caught my eye.
What leadership, what inspiration he provided for men about to engage in face-to-face battle with an enemy superior in numbers of both personnel and artillery, men with no choice but to stay put even when they had fired all their ammunition… Anyway, where was our Company commander? Still down below, apparently, since we had not seen him around the trench.
Shells of all calibres burst around us. I now felt sort of mentally stunned and a looker-on, as it were, at the heaving destruction, wounding and killing on both sides of me for as far as I could see. Still no targets for my bullets, no outlets for my pent-up fears… if this continued for much longer I guessed I’d explode from within, regardless of enemy shells.
I told Neston of this feeling, putting my mouth against his ear. He may have understood but, anyway, that much physical contact achieved something, for as we looked into each other’s eyes we returned to a normal human condition in which it was possible to give some thought to the fears and wishes of someone other than oneself. The animal concentration on survival, self-preservation no matter what happened to others, was thereafter easily set aside… “Stick together no matter what happens,” was the unspoken, but well understood agreement born and confirmed when we two stopped acting mechanically amid all that din and horror and probed for something worthwhile in each other while Old Man Death waited to put his clammy hand on us.’
(2) The four Signallers had spent their five days and nights in the front line either working in the (panicky) Company commander’s dugout or out repairing broken lines in exposed sections of blown-up trench, so they hadn’t formed any attachments to Platoons manning the firing steps. Nonetheless, they had resolved to “join our comrades” and fight if the time came when their specialist skills became redundant.
(3) In his Memoir, my father used aliases or, sometimes, Xes instead of real names because he didn’t want to cause pain – for any reason – to any living survivors or their descendents (remember, he was writing in the 1970s, in his own 70s). Clearly, other Tommies told Sam and Neston that this Lieutenant had shot himself – it rings true enough in the circumstances, but of course it may be wrong.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Before he and Neston release the doves, their last resort as Signallers, to tell HQ “No ammunition left. Almost surrounded…” and “Goodbye”, Sam describes an incident he calls “Murder” – himself the perpetrator – which forces him to doubt whether there existed “any plausible excuse” for war.
(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.