“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
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.]
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.