“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, 27 May 2018

Sam, recovering from illness in a German field hospital, meets a real spiv – or worse – and fakes up a dirty deal so he can take some extra food back to the POW camp for himself and his pals…

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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The German last throw of the dice initiated by the Spring Offensive resumed with a massive “surprise” attack dubbed The Third battle Of The Aisne by the Allies and Operation Blücher-Yorck by the Germans (May 27-June 2). The strategy was to menace Paris while preventing the French reinforcing the British in the Flanders-Lys sector.
    The attack began with artillery and gas across a nine-mile front on the Chemin Des Dames, in the Aisnes department, and succeeded brilliantly with one of the war’s greatest single-day gains – 10 miles (80 miles from Paris, which they hit with long-range shells during this campaign). This progress steadied but continued as the Germans took Soissons (May 29), Fère-en-Tardenois (30) and Château-Thierry and Dormans on the Marne (31). But at that point the Allies began to hold and counterattack – the French at Longpont, Corcy, Faverolles, Trones and Champlat, 12 miles southwest of Reims (June 2), and the Americans in their first major action at Château-Thierry – and the Germans, supply lines overstretched again, called a halt to Blücher-Yorck (casualties: Allies 127,000, German 130,000)… nominally, because it effectively transmuted into the Battle Of Belleau Wood just along the Marne (June 1-26).
    Alongside this epic action, the fights elsewhere look like skirmishes, but several were substantial steps towards the ending of the war in other regions. in Macedonia at the Battle Of Skra di Legen (May 29-30), the Greek Army undertook their first attack since, eventually, joining the Allies; supported by the French, they defeated the occupying Bulgarian force. 
    In Anatolia, the Battle Of Sadarabad (May 21-9) saw the Armenians’ final counterattack against invading Turkish forces achieve a startling victory (27), although, when the Turks reinforced and came again at Shirvandzhug (29) the Armenians, promptly agreed a ceasefire – then declared their first ever independent republic, which held until the end of the war, and arguably also saved them from extermination given the Turks’ 1915 attempted genocide which killed 800,000.
    Meanwhile, among many other actions, including in Mesopotamia and German East Africa, the Italian Army resumed its gathering endeavour to push the Austrian Army back north of the river Piave and Venice by storming Capo Sile (May 27; 18 miles northeast of Venice).

[Memoirbackground: 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 (his 19th birthday passed in a Sheffield 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, 1917, 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, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocked 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, a POW.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras on March 28 at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive and then for some weeks part of a wandering band of POWs, was settling into his first purpose-built POW camp – at Sancourt (about 50 kilometres southeast of Arras and just north of Cambrai).
    This meant sleeping on the floor of crowded huts – and a peculiarly agonising form of torture provided by his neighbour Jimmy Britten’s salivating reminiscences about the products of his local meat-pie vendor in Bradford. More arduous, though, was their introduction to forced hard labour – unloading coal barges, shoveling lime out of a goods wagon.
    As a result, weak and ill with dysentery, Sam was transferred temporarily to a nearby German field hospital where he helped the wounded and recovered, in part, through their kindness as they gave him the food they couldn’t manage to eat.
    Now the hospital’s unsavoury orderly, Adamski, seeks to involve Sam in a bit of dirty business:

‘The powerfully built man in charge of my tent, the orderly as we would say, began to notice the improvement in my condition and must have reported it to the doctor, for I was given a sort of large metal dish – the orderly, by putting it to his backside, indicated its purpose. Regret close to fear that I would be returned to the prison camp, almost made me sorry to feel so much better, but I took the bedpan to the latrine and produced the required, shall we say, sample; the officer doctor was passing, examined my stool – and the presence of blood secured me a reprieve.
     The men called the orderly Adamski. He now got me to do most of the very limited nursing chores he had sometimes done for the wounded men. In return, he allowed me to keep on eating and drinking leftover items.
     One day, he gave me to understand – I was acquiring a few words of German – that I would leave the hospital, such as it was, in a week’s time. Then he said “Ringen!”, which from his actions I guessed meant “rings”. “Gold Ringen,” he said excitedly, pointing in the direction of our prison camp. “Gefangenen (I knew that one, of course: “prisoners”) hab’ gold Ringen?”Now I got the drift of his hopeful questioning and quickly assured him that the Gefangenen had lots of gold Ringen. So, said he – demonstrating with a pile of mess cans – I could help myself to spare food, fill as many cans as I could carry, and exchange them for my fellow prisoners’ gold rings. These Jerry food cans were not wanted, he explained, their owners having died, tot, kaput.
     I began to collect every bit of food I could lay my hands on – stewed meat and veg, macaroni, beans, soup — and hid the full cans under my bunk, hoping the stuff wouldn’t go mouldy. I also collected spoons and forks.
     On the day before I was to leave, I sat on a box, chatting as best I could with a young German. He spoke a little English and, by means of signs and odd words in either language, we understood each other pretty well. He had almost recovered from his wound, but he was homesick. He lived near Berlin, he said, and he handed me photographs of home and family, explaining with easily grasped German words such as Mutter, Vater, Schwester, Haus and Heim(2). The lad had a good face, which description has nothing to do with bone structure or colour. I’d have liked to have him as a friend; he wasn’t repulsed by my emaciated condition, looked straight at me, and smiled now and then.
     I retain no clear memory of the many other patients in my big tent. I spoke to most of them — those I was able to do small things for and those who showed signs of tolerance or friendliness by trying to match my efforts at communication. I always listened and tried to learn or work out more words of their language.
     For instance, a standard question of theirs sounded like, “Wie lang gewesen sie hier?”, which I took to mean, “How long have you been here?”, and I could reply something like “Drei Monat Gefangene”, which I hoped meant roughly “Three months a prisoner”(3). Then some words on a noticeboard puzzled me, but I got one when a name beside the word “Arzt” at the bottom of the board made me think this must meant “doctor” or “surgeon”. And so often was I told “Bleib’ du da!” with an imperative finger pointing at my feet that I decided it must mean “Stay you there!”
     The sad day came when Adamski told me to go back to the prison camp, accompanied by an elderly guard. I quickly tied a string around my waist and hung from it all the full German mess tins; I filled my pockets with the spoons, knives and forks I had accumulated, and stuffed my tunic with pieces of rye bread quickly gathered from bedsides.
     The weight of all this almost defeated me, especially when Adamski kept me standing and waiting while he gave me careful instructions about handing over the gold rings I’d promised him in return for all the cans and food. He waxed very emphatic about my obligations to him; I understood his meaning and threats, not word for word but sufficiently. When we left the prison-camp to move elsewhere we should have to pass the field hospital on our way to the nearby Bahnhof(4) – I guessed he was telling me – and he would be there to collect. “Ja, ja,” I assured him and struggled away with my load.’
(2) Mutter, Vater, Schwester, Haus, andHeim: in case they’re not that easily grasped, they mean mother, father, sister, house, and home.
(3) That would take these events well into June – the time paralleling in these POW blogs is very rough and as-it-comes because Sam gave few indications of dates and, naturally, wrote much more about some periods than others.
(4) Bahnhof means railway station.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam shares his food booty with a necessarily protective circle of pals. Then they move from Sancourt and, Ringen-less, he tries to sneak past the outraged Adamski… meanwhile, he sends a fateful German field card on its way…

(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.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Starving POW Sam suffers torture – from his hutmate Jimmy’s obsessive reminiscing about a Yorkshire pie-shop’s luscious wares… but dysentery sees Sam sent to a field hospital where wounded German soldiers share their food with him…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli Somme episode & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The war took diverse turns in its different territories, the most significant, probably, being in Armenia – although it may not have made much of a splash at the time.
    On the Western Front both sides remained in deadly-skirmish mode, pending enactment of more aggressive endeavours (very soon). Mostly the Allies chalked up minor successes: the French around Locre, West Flanders, and Bermericourt, Marne department (May 20), the British northwest of Merville, Nord department (20-1), on the Lys front and outside Arras (21). The German Army made no progress, but did heavily shell Villers-Bretonneux, Somme department (25). Meanwhile, the British, continuing their new emphasis on air raids, bombed Mannheim, southwestern Germany (21-2), railways at Liège, in occupied Belgium, and Metz, Moselle department, and the harbour at Zeebrugge, sinking a German destroyer (22) – and German attempts to bomb Paris came up short (21-2).
    With civilian unrest against the German occupation in Kiev (May 21), the former Eastern Front kept on developing complications the German invaders may not have foreseen. The rebel General Semenov started organising anti-Bolshevik forces in Siberia (24), and the British General Poole arrived in Murmansk, on the Barent Sea in northwest Russia, to rally forces in support of Trotsky in hopes he would lead Russia into a resumption of the fight against Germany whereas Lenin wouldn’t (24). Furthermore, to the south Georgia and Azerbaijan both declared independence from Russia (26, both) while falling under immediate threat from Ottoman forces invading neighbouring Armenia.
    Of course, the Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire had suffered appalling genocides by the Turks  from April, 1915, with perhaps 800,000 killed by forced labour and “death marches” into the Syrian desert. But their own “country” had been subsumed by Russia in the early 19th century (the spoils of war against Persia). Now within little more than a week, they raised forces to defend themselves against an Ottoman attack – objectives: to take Armenia and thence Baku, Azerbaijan, for the oil – and held their end up in the Battles Of Sadarabad, Bash Abaran and Karakilisa (May 21-9), declaring a republic in the middle of this war (26).

[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 (his 19th birthday passed in a Sheffield 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, 1917, 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, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocked 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, a POW.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras on March 28 at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive, continued his wanderings with assorted bands of POWs, cut off from any comrade he’d known before.
    On their latest trek, they’d seen murderous brutality towards a civilian Frenchwoman from one guard, then courageous kindness from townspeople in occupied Cambrai (probably), before settling at their first purpose-built POW camp in nearby Sancourt (about 50 kilometres southeast of Arras). But they slept on the floor, the grind of malnutrition now augmented by a new element of their POW life – hard labour:

‘My pitch on the hut floor placed me at the mercy of a lad from Bradford, a mild, inoffensive chap, but one who droned on at all times about the pie-shop at the corner of the street where he lived. Jimmy Britten tortured and tantalised himself – and me – in his broad Yorkshire drawl with graphic descriptions of the aromas and tastes of hot pies filled with delicious chunks of meat floating in thick mouth-watering gravy… My empty, aching guts, activated by mental pictures of all this luscious grub, writhed in emptiness and agony.
     Meanwhile, in the continued absence of meat pies, I cadged more potato peelings off a German guard, washed them and, on returning from work unloading coal barges on a river, stewed them over a little fire; I did the same with nettles I pulled from a roadside patch – they had an almost beefy flavour, but an unwelcome laxative effect on an already overworked bowel.
     One health- and soul-destroying job which some unfortunates, me included, had to do, was shovelling lime out of railway vans. First, the big doors needed prising open, then out tumbled the lime, perhaps on to wet ground with the consequent heat and fumes arising. The large, German shovels had long shafts without the handles at the end we were used to, which made applying leverage more difficult.
     After loading whatever lime had fallen on the ground into a horse-drawn box-cart, one unlucky man would have to secure a foothold just inside the door of the van and start shovelling the stuff straight on to the cart. Eyes and chest suffered. When he’d cleared a space, number two man would join him, toiling under the snarls and urgings of an impatient guard. And so on all down a long line of wagons.
     Hungry, weak, and now afflicted by the lime-filled air in the enclosed wagon, it felt like day-long torture.

One morning, when I tried to stand in line while the Jerries counted the lime-shovelling group, blood and slime were oozing from me uncontrollably(2). I called a guard’s attention to this and I was shoved into a horse-drawn wagon and taken about a mile down the road to a German Army field hospital. Large tents housed wounded and sick soldiers, who mostly lay on straw-filled mattresses in wooden bunks. I was allotted one of them and a burly man came and looked at me, departed, then soon returned with an immaculately dressed officer who briefly examined me, gave some instructions and left.
     The German lads evinced no surprise at my presence. Soon the male nurse (a flattering description of his skills) served them with what appeared to be macaroni; he ladled it into their mess tins. Still in their field grey uniforms, most of them ate little and indicated that I could help myself to their unwanted food. I over-ate, scarcely able to believe in my good fortune.
     When night came, having cleaned my rear with hay from a mattress, I crawled out to a covered latrine; over a trench stood one long seat with many round holes in it. All that night and for several more thereafter, I lay with my rear over one of these holes, enduring the stench and discomfort rather than continually rising from my bed. Meanwhile, each day, I shared the sick men’s food and coffee. Rapidly, I grew stronger, until I felt able to remain in the tent overnight, perhaps only having to go out three or four times.
     Now I could do little jobs to help those Germans who were confined to their bunks; perhaps push a man to the far side of his mattress, punch and work up the hay filling nearest to me, then go round the other side and repeat the process, finally making him a shade more comfortable than he had been.
     These bed-bound men had leg injuries; those with arm wounds could fend for themselves. The standard of care for these wounded Germans was very poor. Most of them had body lice. I had no contact with men in the other tents, but I assumed that cases with trunk injuries were sent further back to proper hospitals.’
(2) Dysentery, almost certainly. It can be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasitic worms. I’ve read that up to the 19th century it killed more soldiers than any weapon – then it was known as the “bloody flux”. But research headed and published by Professor Francis Cox of Gresham College, London, in 2014 suggests that WW1 was “the first major conflict in which battlefield deaths exceeded those caused by diseases”. In part, I gather, that was probably because of improved battlefield sanitation, as observed by my father in his Memoirwhen he compared the terrible conditions in Gallipoli (1915) to the Somme (1916) and around Arras (1918), but also because of increased battlefield death rates caused by “improved” weaponry (especially artillery) and the lethal strategies of trench warfare. Now dysentery is treated by rehydration and/or antibiotics, but still it kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world every year. As far as I can tell, rehydration did not become the accepted basic treatment until some time after WW1, but I can’t find any definitive reference. If you can add any information, please do!

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam, recovering somewhat, encounters a real spiv – or worse – at the German field hospital and fakes up a dirty deal with him (which he has no intention of honouring) so that he can take some extra food back to the POW camp…

(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.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Still on the road, under the noses of the guards Sam and POW comrades receive kindness – and beer – from French townspeople, “restoring morale, self-respect and some sort of hope for the future”.

For details of how to buy Sams 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
For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The war was grinding along, as if on principle, rather than to signify any grand plan (after the failure of the German Spring Offensive). On the Western Front, in the Lys and Somme areas an artillery duel proceeded for several days – deadly, of course, substantial objectives unclear – while a German attack on a one-mile front southwest of Morlancourt (May 14; Somme department) was more than repulsed by Australian troops who captured Ville-sur-Ancre (14), and the French advanced north of Kemmel (15; Flanders) took woods south of Hailles in the Avre valley (15; southeast of Amiens).
    But the most notable action on both sides came from their embryonic air forces. A squadron of 20 German Gotha bombers hit London at night (May 19; 49 dead, 177 wounded); they also bombed hospitals in Hoogsbade and Calais (16) and Étaples (19; 300 casualties). Meanwhile, British planes raided Metz station (17; Moselle department) and Cologne (18).
    The most complex conflict arose from the chaos around the German victory over Russia combining with the Russian Revolution, still only a few months old. The Revolt Of The Czechoslovak Legion (May-August) arose from the Tsar assembling 60,000 Czech and Slovak troops to fight Austria-Hungary. After Russia’s defeat they became an embarrassment. Trotsky promised them safe passage to Vladivostock on the Trans-Siberian railway. Then he tried to have them disarmed and arrested. Thus a disgruntled chunk of the Legion found themselves at Chelyabinsk (May 14; east of the Urals) where they got into a barney with some passing Hungarian troops and the Bolshevik local government and decided to occupy the town while they were at it. They then took a row of towns along the railway and found themselves involved in counter-revolution when aligning themselves with “White” Russian Army officers’ organisations in taking Omsk (southwest Siberia) and Petropavlovska (Kamchatka, on the Pacific Coast).
    Elsewhere: Italian forces began a push against their Austrian invaders along the Piave and just north of Venice (May 13-19); British, French and Italian troops advanced against Austrians and Bulgarians in Macedonia and Albania (15 and 17); the Turks went on grabbing territory formerly held by the Russian Army, including Alexandropol (18; Georgia); and in Mesopotamia, British troops took Fatha on the Tigris and drove the Turkish Army ever further north (17; 45 miles north of Tikrit – now Iraq, of course).

[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, a POW.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive on March 28, had just moved to a filthy and overcrowded makeshift POW facility at Marchiennes, 32.5 miles east of Arras.
    He endured one of his bunkmates constantly singing the most miserable Irish folk ballad in the world, and tried to keep his morale in working order by hanging out with some fellow, though previously unknown, Essex Regiment men and their inspiring Sergeant.
    But then he was torn away from that last vestige of familiarity and comfort when ordered to join a small POW group on a long walk to they-didn’t-know-where. He wrote that two memorable events occurred on that journey. The first was horrifying: a German Sergeant in charge of their guards stopped a woman giving the prisoners bread and then grabbed her by the throat and as far as Sam could tell, looking behind him, strangled her to death – the POWs restrained from interfering by rifle butts and bayonets.
    He continues:

‘The other notable event on that march also illustrated the loyalty of our French ally to the common cause. We entered a fairly large town and noticed that the inhabitants – possibly because large numbers of them were out in the streets – showed no fear of the German soldiers who, fully armed, formed a line between us and the population which looked impenetrable. The women, without exception, waved and called out encouraging messages. Some men took off their hats and waved them.
     All this kindness had immense value to us, restoring our morale and, to some extent, our self-respect, at least for the moment. For weeks we had been totally isolated, debased by wretched living conditions and semi-starvation; we had come to believe we were weak and of no account to anybody. I had been feeling lost and lonely for, since my departure from the Sergeant and his group, I had met no one with whom I wished to be really friendly. Rather had I found it necessary to be on my guard — if I had saved a crust of the small bread ration or had picked up some edible item.
     Then, in the middle of this town, for some reason, marching was suspended. I looked around: on one side of us a fine old church and, on the other side of the street, a row of shops, the pavement packed with people. And from them came more of these greetings, these smiles, from ordinary citizens going about their occupations, living apparently similar lives to those we had enjoyed in a past which now seemed terribly distant… in truth, I had feared it was lost to me forever. Just to be allowed to stand there and look at human beings – instead of staring, glaring eyes in sunken faces – uplifted and reassured me, a tonic restoring some sort of hope for the future.
     I noticed an estaminetto my left and saw several men in there taking their morning break from work, chatting over a glass of wine.
     The door of this place opened and a man emerged, wearing an apron and carrying a large, white, enamelled jug. He hurried our way, pushed in amongst us, and we appreciated his good intention immediately. Eagerly, we held out our tin cans, receptacles of all sorts, whatever we had been able to procure that would hold liquid. He poured beer into every container he could reach.
     He must have known the trouble he was bringing on himself and he worked speedily. A guard tried to get to him, but we jammed around this brave Frenchman so closely the German could not touch him. Only when the liquor had all been given away did the good man speak and his “Bon santé!” and “Fini” were well understood and a passage to the pavement cleared for him, whereupon he ran back into the estaminet.
     I hoped he got away with his act of defiance of the enemy. I don’t know because the guards set us marching again immediately.
     I believe the town was Valenciennes(2).

This weary procession ended in a place called Sancourt(2), and our first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp. It consisted of a number of the wooden huts familiar to all soldiers – but in his case without beds. We were each given a thin blanket made of some ersatz(3) material.
     British soldiers usually expressed defiance of such sweaty and foul living conditions through blasphemous songs, often set to hymn tunes. But we who had lost touch with our nationals and who fed and fared worse than many animals, we sang no bawdy songs, made no jokes in bad taste, laughed at nothing; the energy to do any of these normal things had deserted us. To stand up required a deal of effort and walking had become a hard labour. One laid down when not under pressure to work – our work regime began here at Sancourt – and slept during the night only between lurching almost hourly to the latrine in order to avoid fouling the only clothing we possessed.’
(2) I think my father wrongly recalled the previous town they passed through as Valenciennes which is 15 miles southeast of Marchiennes whereas Sancourt is about 26 miles south (which sounds like a two-day “march”, although Sam seems to remember it as one). Perhaps the brave beer carrier lived in Cambrai, the sizable town only 4 miles south of Sancourt and on one of the main routes (occupied by the German Army 1914-18 and scene of the first-ever large-scale British tank attack during the Battle Of Cambrai November 20-December 7, 1917 – and 89,000 combined casualties).
(3) Another Endnote direct from my father about the troops’ use of foreign words: “That German word, ‘ersatz’, by the way, had been in use in England for some time, together with the French word Boche when we tired of calling him Jerry (should have been ‘Gerry’, of course); ‘matelot’ was regularly used by our sailors, and ‘coucher’ for sleep, as a change from ‘kip’, and many others.”

All the best– FSS

Next week: Starving Sam suffers torture – from hutmate Jimmy’s obsessive reminiscing about a Yorkshire pie-shop and its meaty wares… but then dysentery sees Sam sent to a nearby German field hospital where the wounded soldiers share their food with him, such is the camaraderie of front-line soldiers.

(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.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Sam’s POW sufferings multiplied by his roommate’s singing… until suddenly he’s off on another long march to somewhere… and witnesses POW guard brutality at its murderous worst.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… No really major action occurred anywhere – though, of course, men still fell in their hundreds on all sides. On the Western Front in the aftermath of the Spring Offensive, the Allied predominance remained, albeit mostly in defensive mode: the French repulsed German raids around Locre (May 6; Flanders), the British and French eventually beat back an attack between La Clytte and Voormezeele (8-9; southwest of Ypres), and the French advanced at Grivesnes (9; southeast of Amiens). Meanwhile, seeking to render Ostend hors de combatas an outlet for the Germans, the British sank a concrete-filled cruiser, HMS Vindictive, across the mouth of the harbour.
    Around the ex-Eastern Front, the Germans continued their tidy-up, which amounted to doing as they pleased given their military success: the Russian Black Sea fleet surrendered to the Germans at Odessa (May 6); the Finnish White Guards, German allies, took Frederickshamn in the south, thus concluding the two-month Finnish civil war; German troops captured Rostov, on the Don in southern Russia (8); and in a now rare bloody battle, at Kaniow in Ukraine, a Polish legion, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Army but irate about Germany blocking their national independence, refused to lay down their arms when surrounded by German forces and suffered defeat (10-11; despite German casualties far higher than Polish, at 1800 to 200).
    Elsewhere, the recently quiet Italian front woke up when the Italians stormed Monte Corno in the upper Piave valley and held it against Austro-Hungarian counterattacks (May 9-11). British troops raided Bulgarian trenches near Lake Doiran, Macedonia (7). And much further south in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) they took Kirkuk (7) and a little further north drove the Turks further back at Alton Keupri (11). However, the Turks continued to occupy the vaccum left by the Russian Army in west Persia by taking Uskner and Suj Bulak as they pushed towards the Caspian.

[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.]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner at Fampoux outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive on March 28, wrote about the grim conditions at a makeshift POW camp (contrived from a row of terraced houses) in Marchiennes, 32.5 miles east of Arras.
    There, malnutrition and dysentery and degrading living conditions – they sleep 10 to a wooden shelf, crap seated on a pole over a hole in full view of the town – ground him down. His only consolation was the company of some fellow Essex Regiment members (though previously unknown to him) and their upstanding Sergeant.
    Now he’s about to lose that comfort – and witness the vile worst of POW guard brutality. But first, a song… yup, even that’s a long way from the uplifting kind:

‘All the daylight hours had to be passed in those depressing surroundings, mooching in the stinking space behind the dwellings – and beside the latrine – or lying on the wooden shelf.
     One chap in my room, which I had to return to at night, dismally sang verse after verse of a dirge about a Liverpudlian hero called, I believe, McCaffereet(1). After all these years, I remember only the concluding lines: “Now come my lads, just list to me/And never from your hopes do flee/For if you do you’re sure to meet/With the same fate as young McCaffereet.” That may not be the correct spelling of the poor bloke’s name, but just put to those words the most miserable tune you can think of and imagine a young-gone-old man lying on his back on a wood shelf in a small, dingy room intoning verse after pathetic verse about Mac’s equally dingy life story. Be cold and starving hungry as you listen to the tale of woe and stave off utter dejection if you can.
     The most important part of each day spent in that dump – the bit that saved me from complete despair – was when I visited and talked with that Sergeant. I gained hope and strength just from being near the man. Probably about 30, he had managed to retain his safety razor and a strop of a type not seen for many years – it passed through the hinged razor holder, then a few flips back and forth re-sharpened the blade. So he looked clean and he kept his uniform in much better shape than did most prisoners. I never had reason to suspect that he received better treatment regarding food than the rest of us, yet he had so far avoided that awful, shifty, hungry look I saw in most faces there.
     As to what he saw when he looked at me I had no idea. Throughout the following months I could only guess about my face by feeling around it when I managed to clean it: soft straggly hair round chin and sides; my hair, cropped pretty short when I last stayed in Arras(2), I judged no longer than as worn by many civilians then, but it must have been terribly dirty – hot water, not to mention soap, being unobtainable. My clothes I wore night and day, week after week; feeling cold all the time, with no means of washing them, I felt no inclination to remove them.
     Oddly, though, I had no need of de-lousing. The filthy little animals had deserted me, presumably because my body yielded nothing they fancied – this being the one and only benefit I derived from captivity in the hands of people expert in the art of killing slowly those whom they considered surplus to requirements.
     Eventually, after how many days or weeks I’m not sure, early one morning the guards marched half the prisoners off to a place where they could have a bath of some sort. The rest of us were supposed to go next day, but we never did. The clean ones returned that evening – worn out because they were so debilitated that it had taken them many hours to walk the necessary 11 kilometres each way, but still pleased to be clean in body, even though they’d had to don the same old filthy clothes.

Shortly after that, with a few others, I was taken to a point where we joined another group of British prisoners, complete strangers – a few of them Irish, many Scots and the rest from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire, I learned. Suddenly and permanently, I’d lost touch with the Sergeant and the Essex Regiment men around him.
     Two noteworthy incidents(3) occurred during the march that followed. The German under-officer(4) commanding the guards who flanked our column was the first blond enemy soldier I had seen and, basing my opinion on a fallacy current at that time, I assumed that he came from Saxony. Since I was an Anglo-Saxon, I reasoned that he would be kinder to me than would a dark-skinned Prussian.
     Keen to maintain a steady rate of progress, he constantly moved up and down the column, adjuring his men to urge their shambling prisoners onwards. They responded with shouts of “Vorwärts!” and “Schnell!” and “Fester machen!”(5) or words which sounded like that and whose meaning was obvious. But, at least, no violence, no jabbing with rifle barrels, nor blows from their butts occurred… And the fair-haired NCO, here, there and everywhere, pleasant-faced, even exchanged a near-smile with one or other of his men while always pressing everybody to maintain a steady, forward movement. We could justifiably have slouched along, debilitated as we were, but something about that man’s energy seemed to give us an obscure enthusiasm.
     When we passed through a village, I observed the very first signs of interest in our plight on the part of French civilians. People stood at cottage doors, some even waved to us. We returned their salutes with gratitude, for these were the only folk who had greeted us with friendly gestures since the Boche had made prisoners of us. I found it reassuring that our French ally’s women, though now under enemy rule, should risk their freedom by revealing sympathetic feelings for the race whom Germans appeared to hate above all others at that time.
     One bold woman hurried forward carrying a long loaf of bread. She came among us, breaking off pieces and handing them round. Eager hands grabbed the pieces, holding up our march for a moment – and then the guards did weigh in with their rifle butts.
     As for my Saxon under-officer, he dispelled my romantic foolishness about fair-haired Germans. With glaring eyes and red, bloated face, he dragged the woman to the roadside. His hands at her throat, yelling loudly, having lost all control of himself, he appeared to be strangling her. We who were nearby moved to help the kindly woman, but more guards rushed to support their noble leader and rifle butts battered us, bayonets prodded our sides and behinds, and they drove us onwards to shouts of “Marschieren!”(6) and “Vorwärts!”
     I looked back when able to do so and could see the swine still holding the lady by the neck although, by then, she had collapsed. He must almost certainly have killed her, having for no good reason allowed bad temper to rob him of all human decency. Curiously enough, I never saw him again; he never rejoined our column.’
(1) Very likely this was an Irish song called McCafferty, a street ballad about a man who was actually called Patrick McCaffrey… or McCaffery. Maybe with the extra “t” the name “sang better” – especially when mournfully extended by Sam’s Scouse roommate to “McCaffereet”. In 1862, as a 19-year-old Irishman who’d come to England and joined the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment stationed at Fulwood, Preston, Lancashire, McCaffery overrreacted, you might think, to a Captain ordering his confinement to barracks for 14 days; that same day with one rifle bullet, he shot and killed the Captain and his Colonel as they walked across the barrack square. After a trial at  Lancashire Assizes, he was hung. The lyrics and detailed background can be read at https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/mccafferty-the-story-of-the-song/ – including McCafferty’s lament that “I have no mother to break her heart/Nor yet a father to take my part” and his admonition “All you young officers take warning by me/And treat your men with some decency”.
(2) Mid-March.
(3) The second one comes up next week.
(4) “Under-officer” is my father’s literal translation of “Unteroffizier” meaning the equivalent of “Sergeant”.
(5)“Forwards!”, “Quick!” and “Faster!”.
(6) “March!”

All the best– FSS

Next week: On the road still – under the noses of the guards Sam and POW comrades receive kindness – and beer – from French townspeople, “restoring morale, self-respect and some sort of hope for the future”.

(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.