“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, 3 June 2018
After faking a grub-for-gold-rings deal with the devilish Adamski, Sam shares his food booty from the German field hospital with his POW pals. But when they move on, Ringen-less, he has to run the gauntlet of the “betrayed” Adamski’s wrath…
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A hundred years ago this week… Allied resistance to the third phase of the German Spring (into summer) Offensive continued with the Third battle Of The Aisne/Operation Blücher-Yorck evolving into a series of actions around the Aisne and the Marne, the most substantial being the Battle Of Belleau Wood (June 1-26). Initially, American Marines held the line there, legendarily rejecting French insistence on a tactical retreat – “We only just got here!” etc – before combining with their allies to attack Hill 142 (6) and blow the Wood apart with artillery (9).
And yet the German Army still launched a fourth wave of major onslaughts with the Noyon-Montdidier Offensive/Operation Gneisnau between Amiens and the Aisne – on a 23-mile front they immediately advanced nine miles, a formidable initial success, entering Thiescourt Wood and Ressons-sur-Matz (about 60 kilometres southeast of Amiens).
Meanwhile, the over-stirred pot of Russian military-political stew got another hefty spooning from all sides as the British landed troops at Pechenga and Kern in the north, German forces entered Georgia via the Black Sea port of Poti, and the “revolting” Czechoslovak Legion spread mayhem ever further east by occupying Omsk, Siberia, in concert with local White Russian officers – by Wikipedia’s account “during the summer Bolshevik power in Siberia was totally wiped out”.
[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 – many weeks of it passed in various northern hospitals because of a meningitis scare, German Measles and recovery from the lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations (his 19th birthday passed Wharncliffe War Hospital, Sheffield). During that summer, 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 at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive and then part of a wandering band of POWs, got some decent food inside him because he was sent to a German field hospital, near his latest prison camp at Sancourt, outside Cambrai, suffering from dysentery and malnutrition.
It wasn’t that the staff fed him well, but some of the wounded German soldiers showed their sympathy with a fellow front-liner by giving him whatever food they couldn’t manage.
However, as he recovered, a spiv-like and wicked-looking orderly called Adamski approached him to do a deal. For some reason utterly convinced that the British POWs at Sancourt were all a-bling with rings and such, he offered Sam all the food he could carry if he would trade it for the Tommies’ gold and bring the booty back to him when, in due course, they were moved on from Sancourt – which would involve walking past the field hospital.
Sam agreed – knowing his comrades possessed absolutely nothing of value, let alone gold – and set off back to the POW camp laden with mess tins of food, tunic stuffed with bread and pockets full of cutlery… though only after Adamski had threatened him with all sorts of horrors if he didn’t fulfil his end of the bargain…
‘Back with my hungry mob, I gathered together Jimmy Britten and several others I knew and asked them to protect me should anyone try to take by force the food I’d brought; in return I would share it with them. This way we made the grub last a couple of days. I kept for myself a mess tin with a folding handle on top – it made a good drinking utensil. The knives, forks and spoons I kept hidden on my person for future trading…
I often stood hopefully near the barbed-wire fencing, knowing that front-line German fighters, men from the trenches, had no hatred for us – often a degree of sympathy, in fact – and would sometimes endeavour to converse with me when they passed by on the road (also they didn’t give a damn for the older Landsturm(2)men who guarded us).
One such kindly soldier gave me a German printed field card, similar to the British version I have previously described(3), with a series of printed statements which said “I’m well” or its opposite or “I am in hospital” and so on. I looked at his card, struck out the lines which, according to my rough translations, did not apply, addressed it to my parents in England and handed it back to the kind young German with a “Dankeschön”, but no hopes of it ever being received at home. Probably the only way the card would get into the German postal system was if the soldier handed it to his Regimental Post Office.
Sometimes work took me over the Belgian border(4) and I recall the drab scene when, during a rest from work, I strayed from the party of prisoners, sat on a small heap of slag, and compared the view with similar ones I’d seen around coalfields in northern England.
An old man dressed in black cloth with black leggings and heavy boots joined me. The customary exchange of words, signs by looks and hands, along with something approaching telepathy, established understanding between us and I learned that he had worked in a mine near Mons(5) “over there” – he pointed, but I couldn’t see any sign of the colliery, it was too far away.
He wasn’t a big man, but clearly a very tough one. Difficult though communication was, I valued those few moments spent with someone who did not have the spell of the prisoner curse upon him, who didn’t stink of decay, who gave off emanations of hopefulness.’
But eventually came the day of reckoning with Adamski…
‘One day, the guards told 50 or so of us to get ready to leave Sancourt. I draped my thin blanket over my shoulders, hung my precious Jerry mess can on the string I used as a belt, and stuffed lots of forks and spoons into an old sack which I now carried wrapped around my body under my tunic.
The gang set off at a crawl towards the railway station.
The danger of Adamski spotting me was obvious – the road passed fairly close to the field hospital, which was sited in a hollow bounded on one side by the railway line. Explaining my difficulty to the men around me, I positioned myself in the middle of the group, asking them to conceal me as much as possible. As we approached the place, I could see the bulky figure of Adamski standing at the foot of the embankment below the road. I feared he would kill me when he discovered I had no gold rings for him, but I hoped I might escape his notice by keeping my head down and getting those around me to keep close.
We had almost passed him when he spotted me; the roar he let out must have startled the several guards who accompanied us, for one of them stopped to question him as he awkwardly scrambled up the incline. The word “Ringen” came over loud and clear. We continued marching so I risked a backward look and he pointed towards me, shook his fists and ranted terribly. But still the guard appeared puzzled and stood in Adamski’s way.
In a few minutes, we reached the small station. The enraged villain must have given up hope of collecting his crafty fortune. I saw no more of him, though keeping a lookout from my hiding place behind other men.’
(2) 3rd-class infantry, comprising any male aged between 17 and 42 who wasn’t in the standing Army, theLandwehr.
(3) Sam sent a couple home when just about to sail for Gallipoli in 1915.
(4) The Belgian border at Quievrain is about 50 kilometres northeast of Sancourt.
(5) Mons, Belgium: 74 kilometres north-east of Sancourt; notoriously the scene of the British Expeditionary Force’s first battle of World War I, August 23-4, 1914, the Canadian Corps liberated Mons on November 11, 1918, and, says Wikipedia, one memorial plaque in the town claims “Here was fired the last shot of the great war”.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and comrades take a train ride – 4th Class! – to Bapaume and work at another German field hospital… in line of fire from stray British shells! Sort of good news… then an Allied air raid gives the starving POWs a chance to nick some food!
(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.