“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, 29 April 2018
Sam and POW comrades move to another makeshift camp; they sleep 10 to a wooden shelf, their latrine open to the world – Sam sticks with his Essex Sergeant and Tommies and carves a Regimental scroll on the wall listing all his fellows in case a victorious British Army ever passed that way…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli&Somme episodemini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The scope of the war declared itself again at a point when the Western Front concluded one vast, slaughterous action sequence and took a momentary quietish break.
The Battle Of The Scherpenburg (April 29; in Belgium, southwest of Ypres) saw a German attack capture this hill from the French, but get no further. Thus, it brought the second phase of the Spring Offensive, dubbed Operation Georgette or the Battle Of The Lys, to a close as the Germans acknowledged failure to achieve any of their major objectives, especially driving the British back to the Channel ports and taking the railway hub at Hazebrouck.
Not that deadly scrapping ceased altogether – other action during the week included a substantial German attack between Meteren and Voormezelle repulsed by the British (April 29; Flanders, southwest of Ypres), the French retaking and defending Locre (29; also Flanders), fighting around Noyon (30; Oise department, southeast of Amiens), and French gains in the Avre valley between Hailles and Castel (May 2; also southeast of Amiens, Somme department).
On the former Eastern Front, German enforcement manoeuvres continued: with the Finnish White Guards (anti-socialist Civil Guard), they captured Viborg (April 30; 250 miles east of Helsinki – then Finland’s second city, now in Russia) and defeated the Red Guards in the southwest (May 3); they took Sevastopol on the Black Sea, seized part of the Russian fleet there, occupied Odessa too (also on the coast, 550 miles northwest of Sevastopol), and quashed Ukraine’s independence ambitions by establishing a German military dictatorship (all on May 1 according to various timelines!).
Meanwhile, down in Palestine, the British/Indian/Anzac Second Attack On Transjordan failed much like the first, in early April, as Ottoman troops under German command beat back their early advances at Shumet Nimrin and Es Salt, intended as staging posts to take Amman (April 30-May 4; Allied casualties 1,700, Ottoman 2,000). And in Iraq, steady British progress continued with the taking of Tuz Khurmati (April 30; 55 miles south of Kirkuk).
Finally, in East Africa, the long conflict saw another heavy defeat for the German colonial power as British forces beat them at Nanungu (May 5; now in Tanzania, about 440 miles southwest of Dar es Salaam) and drove them northeast.
[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)… untilofficialdom 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 andprepare 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 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 proved to be the final home leave of his military career – and 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 near Fampoux, about six miles east of Arras, on March 19… just in time, it turned out, for the opening artillery bombardment of the German Spring Offensive and a last stand by the Battalion on March 28 which left 80 alive and OK out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, taken prisoner.]
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, a 2/7th Essex Regiment Signaller taken prisoner at Fampoux outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive on March 28, wrote mostly about food – lack of, every POW’s obsession towards the end of WW1.
He’d been shuffled into a POW group for whom the Germans planned no fixed abode, just endless shifting from one place to another where manual work needed doing (because their labour force had been conscripted, of course), so the succession of POW “camps” were all makeshift. At Denain, his first, for an unspecified few weeks, they lodged in an abandoned factory with nothing to do bar watch their self-respect drain away via hunger and general neglect.
His consolation was that he attached himself to a remarkably spick-and-span Sergeant of his own Regiment and a group of Essex men around him. And when a squad was assembled to move elsewhere, they stuck together – though mingled with some northerners who became their instant rivals for every scraping of nourishment.
Now they arrive and examine their new lodgings:
‘We stopped in a village which looked remarkably like one I’d known in Northumberland(2) – several rows of small, terrace houses near a coal pithead. Called Marchiennes(3), it looked a poor sort of place. A row of terrace dwellings on one side of the main street had been enclosed behind barbed-wire fencing. Through a gate we entered the enclosure and found there were no gardens behind the houses, just a long, open space inside the wire fence. There stood the primitive sanitation, comprising a long pole suspended over a trench by means of a crude tripod at each end. So, in full view of all, you and others squatted on the pole and got rid of your always-watery faeces.
Everything calculated to reduce a man to the lowest level of self-respect was provided.
About 60 of us were allotted to each dwelling: two rooms upstairs, two down, all small and furnished with two shelves, six feet wide and running wall to wall, one a foot off the floor, the other three feet higher. On each of these wooden shelves eight or ten men must lie and sleep – so, 16 or more prisoners in a space normally occupied by two people at most.
Unfortunately, I found myself in a room mainly occupied by strangers. I soon got into the habit of leaving it and them quite early in the morning to call on the Sergeant and others of the Essex Regiment. Then I stayed among them as long as I possibly could.
I eventually justified myself in spending several hours daily in the Sergeant’s room by starting to carve into one of the plaster walls a large-scale copy of the Regimental badge. Below this, with a pencil lent by the Sergeant, I drew a sort of scroll. Having collected the names and numbers of all Essex men in the prison, I spent hours writing them into the scroll – my idea being that, as the British beat back the Germans when the tide of war changed in our favour, British troops could note our names and numbers and tell the War Office and relatives we were alive, though prisoners in enemy hands.
Up to that point, our captors had made no attempt to record our names and details, so our people would not know what had become of us. Correct procedure would have ensured that this information was passed on through the Red Cross organisation in a neutral country but, in my case and in many others, this did not happen(4).
Discomfort caused by lack of nourishment spoilt all our waking hours. The morning piece of black bread and the evening can of stewed vegetables hardly filled the belly and the can of hot water with coffee substitute was warming but lacked milk and sugar. The only dietary variant at Marchiennes I recall: for several days, Sauerkraut replaced stew as our main meal – nothing with it, no meat, just sour cabbage. Shitting being one of our main occupations, much discussion concerned which meal made you go oftenest, the stew or the sauerkraut, but we had no measurable means of deciding the question.
The mental effect of such deficient nutrition depended on the individual; I concluded that the men who had lived rough, hard lives before enlisting fought the hardest to grab anything which could possibly be eaten – such as cabbage stumps or potato peelings which the Landsturm(5)or their cooks might throw on the ground outside their kitchen.
Despite the guards’ vigilance, I heard that a woman passing outside the barbed wire at one end of the enclosure exchanged some food for a piece of cloth a Scotsman tore from his kilt. I also learned that he might as well have kept his uniform intact for little of the food passed his lips after the ravenous ones had pounced; lucky for the Scotsman they didn’t devour him too, although some of them had begun to display animal looks and tendencies.
No one smiled any more; the effort required was just too much, even for the nicest fellows.’
(2) Cramlington, probably, winter 1916-17; see Blogs 142-3 March 26 and April 2, 2017.
(3) Marchiennes: in the Nord department, 32.5 miles east of Arras, known for it’s 7th-century Benedictine abbey; over the centuries it passed back and forth between Flanders, France and Holland; the town and the mine feature extensively, aliased, in Émile Zola’s Germinal.
(4) I’ve got one Red Cross document facsimile suggesting they were informed, but certainly no aid parcel ever reached my father – quite possibly because of the peripatetic nature of the mixed bands of POWs he passed through until Armistice.
(5) 3rd-class infantry employed on the lowlier military tasks such as guarding POWs, comprising any male aged between 17 and 42 who wasn’t in the standing Army, the Landwehr.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s brought down by bunk mate’s singing, but still inspired by the Sergeant… until a sudden separation from all the Essex POWs sees him on a long march to somewhere… and seeing POW guard brutality at its murderous worst.
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoirof his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.