“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, 10 June 2018
Sam and POW comrades take a train – 4th Class! luxury! – to Bapaume and work at another German field hospital… in line of fire from stray British shells – good news!? Then an Allied air raid gives the starving Tommies a chance to nick some food.
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The fourth and last phase of the German Army’s Spring Offensive attempt to overwhelm the Allies on the Western Front hit the buffers.
The Operation Gneisenau attacks (June 9-13) saw the Germans advance on Compiègne, take the heights of Marqueglise and the French withdrawing from Carlepont Wood and around the Aronde river (10). But the following day the French Army counterattacked from Rubescourt to St Maur, recaptured Belloy, and caught the Germans by surprise at Compiègne with an infantry-plus-tanks assault not announced by the orthodox preliminary artillery bombardment. At the same time, the Australians advanced at Morlancourt, between the Ancre and the Somme, and the Americans made progress in the Battle Of Belleau Wood.
Within a couple of days – some sources say on the 12th, others the 13th – the Germans called off Gneisenau (casualties: 35,000 Allied, 30,000 German). Immediately after that, further north the British Army successfully attacked Bethune along the La Bassée Canal (14) and the French regained Coeuvres (15; southeast of Compiègne).
On the Eastern Front and beyond, post-Russian-Revolution-and-surrender turmoil continued: German troops advanced further into Georgia, taking Tiflis, and newly “independent” Ukraine signed an Armistice with the Russian Bolshevik Republic (both 12); in Omsk, a combination of the Czechoslovak Legions (still heading east) and royalist Russian Army officers founded a Provisional Siberian Government – while 2,500 kilometres east, and still well within Siberian borders, White and Red Russians fought for supremacy in Irkutsk (13).
This week also saw a sudden escalation in the fighting between Italy and Austria-Hungary where the front line had settled just north of the River Piave and Venice following the previous autumn’s Italian rout at and long retreat from the Battle Of Caporetto. The Austro-Hungarian Armies launched an all-out attack from the mountains east and north of Venice to the Adriatic Coast, the Second Battle Of The Piave (June 15-24). They crossed the river in the Nervesa and Fagare-Musile regions along a 24-kilometre front (15), and gained some ground northwest of Venice at Montello and Capo Sile (16), but then the Italian Army stalled their advance (abetted by British troops on the Asiago Plateau, about 100 kilometres northwest 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 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 – 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 (he spent his 19th birthday 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, given his feelings on the subject of rank. 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 knocked about Brigade HQ in Arras, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at 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, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive and then part of wandering and randomly-assembled bands of POWs, left his first purpose-built prison camp in a small town called Sancourt about four miles north of Cambrai – after an interesting interlude in a German field hospital recovering from dysentery, helping wounded German soldiers, and faking a food-for-(non-existent)-Tommies’-gold-rings exchange with a dangerous spiv who worked there as an orderly/nurse.
But, eventually, they boarded a train…
‘We actually travelled in compartments marked “Fourth Class” – “Vierte Klasse” – instead of the usual goods wagons and we arrived after many delays at, of all places, the famous Bapaume(2) now in German hands. On foot, we crossed several railway tracks, passed the ruins of some buildings, then filtered through an area cluttered with wrecked tanks, lorries and guns.
Clear of all this junk, I saw a German aeroplane which had crashed; I was surprised at its general scruffy appearance, the rough finish of its fuselage. It looked like a really cheap mass-produced monoplane, so different from the gleaming red bi-planes of Richthofen’s squadron which had spent a sunny afternoon photographing and shooting up our sector shortly before the big German attack(3). This grey-green, Spartan, single-wing plane could probably have been turned out in large numbers at low cost – and, doubtless, with little consideration for the safety of the youngsters who would fly them. Its gauntness reminded me of the remains of the horse lying by the roadside near Gavrelle. Desperate shortage of equipment as well as food seemed indicated. The huge German effort must be the last gamble, I concluded. Bad though my condition was, I felt more cheerful and hopeful of survival until fighting ceased.
Another tented field hospital loomed ahead and there we stopped. We were to work there, living in tents.
Soon after arriving, I had a brief return to the old front-line tension when a shell screamed overhead and crashed not far away. However, fear quickly turned to elation when it dawned on us that it must have been a British shell. It meant our Army was only a few miles away… and we quietly discussed hopes, dreams of escaping…
My first job there, with a group of other prisoners, was distributing food. In each large tent, the orderly or male nurse took charge of it, and then gave us our next task – usually taking covered buckets away to the latrines for emptying and cleansing. We cleared any litter from the earthen floor of each tent and dumped it by the ever-burning incinerator a few hundred yards away. Other prisoners had to carry stores from the railway siding – heavy work for such enfeebled men.
The wounded German soldiers lay in wooden bunks, many of them, for warmth, still wearing their grey tunics or draping them over their shoulders if they had arm or torso wounds. The German Army, like ours, passed serious cases back to better-equipped hospitals, but returned the lightly-wounded to their units after brief treatment which showed little humane consideration for their needs.
Our diet remained the same, wickedly poor and sparse. So when the blessing of a British air raid on the area furnished an opportunity, we got busy.
Anti-aircraft guns made a terrific din and set all the hospital staff running in one direction… Then they vanished. When someone yelled out the explanation – “They’ve gone down into dugouts!” – as one man we rushed to their tents and grabbed anything edible. After that, we headed for the hospital tents and gobbled up every bit of food we found. I saw no wounded man objecting, nor did any of them complain later to the staff about our conduct; perhaps they were glad to see us around, their own (male) nurses having left them to their fate.
No bombs fell on the hospital, so we awaited the next raid with some eagerness.
Sometimes, a brief but hellishly loud shriek, different to anything I’d heard before, would precede the arrival of a large shell. An artilleryman fellow prisoner knew what it was: “A high-velocity shell, something new we developed. You can hardly hear the gun fire because the shell arrives and bursts so quickly.”
I recall an occasion when one of these shells burst and I heard a chunk of metal buzzing my way; when it hit the ground I picked it up – it was hot! – and carried it to a group of Germans crouching in a shelter and dropped it among them… to their surprised consternation, until my grin and the word “souvenir” reassured them.
On such rare occasions, I felt some self-respect briefly restored.
Their front-line men, as I have stated, seldom showed animosity towards us so, when I saw a small group of lightly-wounded young fellows sharing a newspaper, I joined them, hopeful of hearing some up-to-date information. They greeted me in friendly fashion; me, a stooping scarecrow with sunken cheeks, hardly a soldierly figure, yet they knew I had shared certain experiences common only to men who had spent time on the front line – to which, I took it, they were due to return. Now recovered from wounds or one of the active-service maladies, they would soon be back to that crashing, roaring hell. Small chance of living through it…
But the German boys helped me to understand the main news items. Thus, I learned that several places, which had been well behind our Army’s front line before the Ludendorff assault, were now established as German Army staff HQs. And a depressing feature with a Berlin dateline claimed that Paris was under bombardment by a huge gun(4), its shells hitting the French capital every half-hour from a position 90 kilometres away.
The Germans had bombarded London from the air, initially from the sausage-shaped airships named after Count Zeppelin, later from aircraft, but a gun lobbing big shells into the city at intervals throughout every day and every night seemed far worse to me than the brief visitation of an air raid, during which most people could find safe shelter. There could be no warning of approaching shells. Yet people couldn’t spend night and day in hiding; life must go on.
What alarmed me about that article wasn’t just that enemy forces had advanced close enough to Paris to bombard it; it meant that, if they reached the French coast, they would be able to shell England. Again it became difficult to maintain faith in eventual victory for our Forces. Speculating on what our fate would be if our side were defeated caused me a spasm of deep despair.
But… to hell with it all, and when the odd group of raiding British planes came over, we cheered them on and laughed to see the Jerries diving below.’
(2) Bapaume: 30 kilometres from Cambrai, 22 kilometres south of Arras; occupied by Germany August 28, 1914; one of the objectives not reached by the British attack during the 1916 Battle Of The Somme; liberated March 17, 1917, by Australian troops; recaptured by Germany during the Spring Offensive, 1918; liberated again by New Zealand soldiers on August 29, 1918, during the Second Battle Of Bapaume, August 2-September 3; after the war, Sheffield “adopted” Bapaume, financing the construction of a dozen houses and, with finance from razor manufacturer George Lawrence, a school.
(3) See Blog 188, February 11, 2018.
(4)“The Paris Gun”, the largest artillery piece by barrel length (21 metres) used by either side during World War I, fired on Paris, March to August, 1918, from Coucy-Le-Chateau-Auffrique, Picardy, actually a range of 120 kilometres; developed from a Navy gun, so manned by sailors, it lacked accuracy and delivered relatively small shells, but it was seen as a “psychological” weapon; Wikipedia says the shells were the first human-made objects to reach the stratosphere, their trajectory reaching its apogee at 25 miles.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam gets a change of scene, atmosphere and even food as his latest travelling band of POWs get to walk through the Hindenburg Line before their hard labour resumes – building a railway. Which leads to the hair-raising story of how a pink mushroom saved Sam’s life…
(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.