“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, 1 July 2018

Sam, on a train to who-knows-where again, is shocked to encounter an affable Landsturm guard – then shocked and shamed by his fellow POWs fighting over food.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… In the aftermath of the German Army’s Spring Offensive and its lesser successors, the Allies continued the early, minor phases of the push back that was to win the war a few months later. A notable success of early July (4) was the Battle Of Le Hamel, a Somme village taken via Australian Lieutenant General Monash’s “combined arms” strategem – deploying his own plus American infantry and British tanks along with creeping-barrage artillery (no, it doesn’t sound too radical, but military people rated it) to take a modest target. Notably, he reckoned this modestly conceived objective would take 90 minutes to achieve and the battle concluded successfully in 93, so whatever the trick of it, it certainly worked.
    Otherwise on the Western Front, the French captured St-Pierre-Aigle, Aisne department (July 1), and advanced in the same region near Moulin sous Touvent (2-3), the British air-raided Mannheim, in Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany, Koblenz, at the junction of the Rhine and the Moselle, and Thionville in the Moselle department of occupied France (all 1), while the Germans regained some ground northwest of Albert, Somme department (2).
    The aftermath of the Russian Revolution continued to go off as randomly as a firecracker: the occupying Germans prepared to combat the British incursion on the Murman railway from Murmansk to Saint Petersburg (July 3), the renegade Czechoslovak Legion had another triumph way out east in defeating Bolshevik forces at Nikolaievsk, 50 miles north of Vladivostok (4) and Chita, east of Irkutsk, Siberia (also 4), the renegade Cossacks beat the Bolsheviks northwest of Nikolsk, in Vologda Oblast, 776 kilometres from Moscow (6)… where Left-Socialist Revolutionaries took a shot at fomenting renewed war by assassinating the German Ambassador Count Mirbach (also 6). Meanwhile, the Siberian Council declared independence from Russia on July 4 and rescinded it two days later.
    Elsewhere, Allied momentum seemed to be picking up too. The Italian Army began to push the Austrians out of the Piave delta, north of Venice (July 2-6), and attacked them northwest of Monte Grappa, while British planes bombed the Austro-Hungarian Navy base at Cattaro/Kotor, Montenegro (4). The Italians also combined with the French to launch an offensive in southern Albania around the River Vjosa.
    And down in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, British and Portuguese forces drove the ever-resilient troops led by German Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck to the southernmost point of their eternal strategic retreat from German East Africa – numbering about 150 Germans, 1,100 Askaris (local troops in European employ employ) and 3,500 porters, they paused at Namkura to replenish arms and ammunition (July 1-3) before moving on again.

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914 with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers fought at Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then 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 (many Blogs November 27, 2016 to November 11, 2017).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… 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 half-starved and often battered bands of POWs – wandering from Denain to Marchiennes to Sancourt to Bapaume – moved again… from building a railway in the wilds to short-term solo confinement in an empty corner shop, of all places, in Saargemund/Sarreguemines (in Lorraine, now back in France, then German since the 1871 Franco-Prussian War).
    A couple of days later, they’re off again, back into (newly) occupied France – and into a dismal episode, shameful and demeaning to his fellow POW Tommies from Sam’s point of view… and illustrative of the often harsh divide between veteran volunteers like him (albeit he was still only 19) and many of the post-1916 pressed men, the conscripts:

‘We left that town in style, seated not in wagons, but in saloon-style railway carriages, nicely upholstered, seemingly much too posh for soiled, scruffy prisoners – but appreciated by me, anyway, although I found myself among a new lot of strangers; they looked quite young, their accents suggesting they mainly came from the Midlands and Scotland.
     I’d secured a seat next to an exit and was surprised when an armed German, a Landsturm guard I hadn’t seen before, took the seat next to me. Bearded, he looked like a nice old granddad, and gave no indication of dislike for me, nor did he shout orders or demands as they usually did.
     In some comfort, we settled down for the journey — as ever with no clue as to our destination. Place names I recall passing through, though not in order I think, were Charleville, Sedan, Metz(2) the many others don’t come readily to mind. The first night we dozed through many stops and starts; the guards gave out black bread and coffee substitute during one of several long pauses in various sidings. But our train made quite a good run the following morning.
     During this journey, aided by imaginative hand movements I conversed with the elderly guard. He spoke a dialect I found easier to partially understand than others I’d encountered. I gathered his home was in Heligoland(3). Remembering that the place had belonged formerly to Britain, I thought I’d discovered a possible reason for the rapport which made me prefer his company to that of any prisoner comrade in that carriage.
     However, around midday our train stopped in a large station and what happened there made me feel deeply ashamed of being a member of that gang of war prisoners. As our train moved slowly alongside the platform, we could see, placed at intervals, large containers full of steaming food. By each of these, ready with his ladle, stood a German soldier – a marvellous prospect, the quantity of hot food obviously generous indeed compared to any previous experience of mine as a prisoner.
     All our chaps needed to do was queue in orderly fashion and be served. I remained seated, observing some men already pushing and shoving quite unnecessarily. When the first of them reached the container nearest to me and held out their cans, those behind did not wait, but surrounded the large, round boiler and thrust their cans, even their hands, into the steaming stew. Those behind, fearful of getting little or none, pushed and scrambled and reached over those in front who now could not get away and were pressed downwards. All in that area soon became daubed with food, thrusting hands into it, struggling to get some into their mouths, while those behind yelled and shrieked like demented baboons and tore at the clothing of the men in front of them.
     The resulting filthy outcome of this shameful lack of control was that few secured any worthwhile quantity of food. Most of it finished up on the ground or on their clothes.
     Looking on, the friendly face of the Heligolander guard turned to rage. He shouted at me “Bleiben sie da!” and sprang to the platform, battering the nearest men with his rifle butt. Other guards set upon the mob with whatever came to hand and drove them back to the carriages, some bleeding, many smeared with good-food-wasted. The scum of Birmingham, Northern England and Scotland, the conscripted scrapings of the barrel after four years of terrible warfare… Compared with the volunteers of 1914 and their close comradeship — crap.
     Heligoland reappeared, took my mess-can (souvenir of Adamski’s hospital tent(4)) and returned later, my can and his own filled to the brim with delicious macaroni stew. No one dared grab mine, as I’m sure they would have done if Granddad hadn’t sat beside me.
     He was the kindliest German I had met – and, of course, it had to be in front of him that this disgusting behaviour occurred. His epithet, “Schweinereien”(5), whatever it meant, sounded well deserved by that selfish mob.’
(2) Metz: in Lorraine now, 228 miles southwest of Arras, held by Germany 1871-1918 and again during World War II. Sedan: six miles from the Belgian border in Ardennes department, occupied by Germany throughout World War I. Charleville: birthplace of poet Arthur Rimbaud, occupied from 1914 onwards and recovered during one of the last major battles of the war, around November 1, 1918. My father and his fellow POWs probably travelled 47 miles due west from Saargemund to Metz, then 114 miles northwest to Sedan, and 11 miles northwest to Charleville.
(3) Heligoland: an archipelago in the German Bight area of the North Sea off the Elbe estuary; held by Denmark or Schleswig or Hamburg from the 12th century until 1714, then Denmark from 1714 to 1807, then Britain until 1890, and Germany thereafter, though evacuated during World War I and again in 1945-1952, after which it became a German holiday resort.
(4) The Adamski story ran in Blogs May 27 and June 3.
(5) Schweinereien: apparently archaic, means “rascalities” or “digusting people”, according to different online dictionaries. In our long school-holiday conversations at home in London during my teens, my father told me another story about the German guard “Heligoland” which has always stayed with me, although he forgot to write it here (I don’t think he would have deliberately decided to omit it). As that train rolled along and they talked in broken German/broken English about the war – and Heligoland’s experiences in past wars – they reached a point where they were struggling to say something conclusive to one another – “Wir müssen”, “We must, ja?”, “Jede andere,” “Each? Each other? Go on…” – and my father gradually realised Heligoland intended something like, “Wir müssen niemals dies zu jedem anderen nochmals tun”, “We must never do this to each other again.”

All the best– FSS

Next week: “Heligoland” conducts Sam and his remaining few POW comrades on a long journey south to the Black Forest, via an ancient fort, a mysterious American… then a new rural POW camp with better bogs – and perhaps the possibility of snaring a rabbit…

(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.

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