“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, 24 June 2018
Sam and POW comrades as railway navvies do the full John Henry, manhandling steel rails – feeling oddly consoled by proper work and respect from their guards. But then… to Germany, the Saar, and impromptu imprisonment in a corner shop!
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A hundred years ago this week… Another lull between major actions as the opposing sides gathered themselves for the next onslaught. No doubt, on the Western Front at least, all expected that to come from the Allies after their defensive success against four waves of German attacks from the Spring Offensive in March onwards.
The Americans concluded their first long battle at Belleau Wood (June 1-26), successfully holding the line against the last vestiges of the German offensive, justifying their initial refusal to accept French urgings to conduct a tactical retreat. Meanwhile, the British raided at Vieux Berquin (26; west of Armentières) and northwest of Albert, Somme department, and repulsed an attack near Merris, Nord department (both 30), and the French captured Cutry Plateau, Aisne department (28), hills between Mosloy, Hauts-de-France department, and Passy-en-Valois, Aisne department (29). Air raids abounded with the British flying inside Germany to attack Saarbrucken, Offenburg and Karlsruhe (25), while the Germans bombed Paris on successive days (26-30).
With the German Army biting into more and more territory from defeated Russia on the Eastern Front, the gathering White Russian opposition, abetted by the renegade Czechoslovak Legion who’d travelled the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway taking cities en route, declared an anti-Bolshevik provisional Government in Vladivostok on the Pacific coast (June 29) – 9,000 kilometres east of Moscow and 6,500 east of Omsk, where the White Russians had set up their first HQ. At the same time, the Allies fomented an alternative alternative by taking Murmansk in northwest Russia on the Barents Sea and persuading the regional Soviet to support them against the Bolsheviks (30).
In Italy, the Second Battle Of The Piave June 15-24) concluded too. The Italian Army had recovered all territory lost to the Austrians, but their C-in-C General Diaz refused Allied advice to follow up and drive the Austrians northwards. He believed their resources would be stretched too thin. Even so, they pushed forward in a couple of areas with the capture of the bridgehead at Capo Sile north of Venice (June 25) and of Monte di Val Bello and Col De Rosso above the Asiago Plateau (30).
Otherwise, the only notable action saw the Turks’ Persian Campaign continue when they beat off the Armenian siege of Khoy (June 24 onwards; in Western Azerbaijan, between the Black Sea and 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, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, 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 –weeks of it passed in various northern hospitals because of a meningitis scare, German Measles, and recovery from the effects of trench warfare’s privations (he spent his 19th birthday, July 6, 1917, at 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; either this defiance brought about his subsequent “reversion” to Private, or he actually requested it. Come November/December, 1917, he enjoyed 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 dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras – including excursions to the front line, just a few miles away. In 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 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, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras and then part of randomly-assembled bands of POWs – wandering from Denain to Marchiennes to Sancourt to Bapaume – moved to a country encampment where he and his comrades were set to work building a railway.
At least the food improved temporarily, although Sam still felt hunger pangs acutely enough to throw himself off a fast-moving truck in quest of a small mushroom – by pure luck saving himself from a bloody crash which occurred moments later.
These relatively bearable circumstances – hard labour, but better food and humane treatment – continued for a while (in early summer, I can’t work out any specific dates) until yet another move…
‘The embankment and cutting completed, we moved on into the woods and, for a change, sampled tree-felling as an occupation. Most of us proved too physically impaired to swing an effective axe, but we could work steadily on a two-man crosscut saw. Our cheerful chief acknowledged this and procured more saws – whereas the average infantry or Landsturm officer would have driven us on with snarls and blows to swing axes until we dropped exhausted or injured ourselves.
When a tree crashed down, we stripped off branches with hatchets and saws, trimmed the sturdier branches into useful lengths suitable for pit props etc, while the trunks would make telegraph poles or go to sawmills.
When a path of the correct width had been cleared through the wood, we debouched on to a mainline railway and, having prepared the ground, track-laying commenced – the really heavy graft. We went back to where we’d started and began to lay a full-scale, single-line railway, replacing the light, narrow-gauge track we’d used when building up the embankment and cutting.
Sleepers to be manhandled, laid, packed and secured – adding stone ballast to stabilise them – holes for bolts drilled, and finally the so-heavy lengths of steel rail to be carried and lowered into position. Experience taught us that the men carrying a rail must be placed in line with careful regard to height; a short man between two taller chaps would contribute nothing to the general effort – and effort it really was in our underfed condition.
Despite that – how it happened I don’t know and I’m sure the slightly better food was only part of it – to me, the moral quality of that gang of fellow prisoners felt higher than that of most with whom I had recently lived. We responded to our engineer overseers – types superior to the Landsturm prison-camp guards – and especially to the sporty, cheerful officer in charge, by working to the best of our abilities and not scrounging; for the time being, our bearing returned to its former upright posture, the shrinking pariah stoop disappeared, and we began to feel like men again, instead of scruffy slaves behind barbed-wire fences.
Those weeks provided a much-appreciated break from the dismal, hopeless routine of useless living endured in small, closely guarded Gefangenenlager(2)
However, something appeared to go wrong with the railway plan before we had completed it, and our next outing took us and our few miserable possessions to a station on the same main line which our single-line track would have joined.
More British prisoners, strangers to us, had already assembled there and we all piled into railway wagons when ordered to do so. I managed to squat near a door which the guard kept open so that he could sit with his legs dangling out. Aged about 35, I reckoned, he took a keen interest in the passing views and, from time to time, drew a mouth organ from a tunic pocket and played or sang a tune.
His face reminded me of several brothers who had lived near us in pre-war days, the Knappers – all hard-working house decorators and general handymen. Had they also been Germans I wondered, along with the Schmidts and Schulzes and others who disappeared so suddenly as war began?(3) When the musician gave a lively rendering of Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay(4), a song we in Britain had been singing around 1914, I wondered the more. He took little notice of us and never seemed to understand English when spoken to, so I may have been mistaken about him.
German ingenuity solved a transport problem, even in those far-off days. Goods on railway wagons often had to be offloaded from lorries then, at their destination, transferred once more to a road vehicle. The Germans had means whereby they could replace a lorry’s wheels with railway wheels so that the lorry could then drive along the railway line! This I saw often in areas contiguous to the battlefield. They must have planned it pre-war, noting that their lorries fitted the width of French railway tracks too.
Around this time, we occasionally encountered the sad sight of a train of flat railway trucks each carrying a captured British tank – on their way to the Fatherland for scrap, I guessed. On the other hand, more encouragingly we passed through Cambrai(5) which, on its eastern side, was just at that moment starting to come under fire from British long-range artillery.
We first alighted from this train at a town called Saargemund(6). The guards led us across a great mass of railway lines and it seemed fortunate that we were not run down by a train as we lumbered and stumbled over track after track.
With a few others, I found myself spending a couple of days “imprisoned” in an empty corner shop, from whose windows I scanned a dreary industrial scene, confirming we had entered that famous Saar manufacturing belt. A guard patrolled outside the shop and, twice each day, escorted us to another building to get our meagre rations.’
(2) Gefangenenlager: prison camps.
(3) ‘The German people so much a part of the community Sam grew up in around Edmonton, north London, all vanished around the time war was declared – they either fled or were interned, as described in the Memoir, Chapter 12.
(4) Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay: recorded by Bob Roberts on Albany Indestructible Cylinder in 1909, written by Americans Will D. Cobb (lyrics; 1876-1930, also co-wrote In The Good Old Summer Time, Goodbye Dolly Gray) and John H. Flynn (composer), but with a German-American lead character it seems: “Young Herman Von Bellow/A musical fellow/Played on a big cello each night/… And music so mellow/He sawed on his cello/She waltzed up to him and she cried,/‘Yip di ada di ay, di ay’”.
(5) Cambrai: a town I think he’d visited before, though he didn’t name it – it’s four miles south of the grim Sancourt POW camp where he spent several weeks in April-May, 1918 (Blogs 201 May 13 to 204 June 3) – but also 33 miles south-east of Arras on the road from Bapaume to Valenciennes; the First Battle Of Cambrai, November 20-December 3, 1917, saw one of the first deployments of tanks by the British Army – see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s account at http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/cambrai_conandoyle.htm; the Second Battle Of Cambrai, October 8-10, 1918, was part of the Allies’ conclusive Hundred Days Offensive.
(6) Saargemund: now in the Moselle department of Lorraine, France; known as Sarreguemines when French (1766-1871, 1918-present); only a few words between Cambrai, above, and Saaregemund, but a long train journey – 406 kilometres southeast.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam, on a train to who-knows-where again, is shocked to encounter an affable Landsturm guard – then shamed by a mob of his fellow POWs fighting over 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.