“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, 22 July 2018
Sam, picking up more German, gets a conscience-troubling offer to act as translator to the POWs… And a German guard asks him what is this “fick” the British soldiers are always saying?
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The conclusive turnaround in the Second Battle Of The Marne (July 15-August 5) continued as the Allies converted the last great German attack into a long retreat (from July 20 onwards). The French and Americans first held off counterattacks between the rivers Ourcq and Marne, then crossed the Marne, while the British occupied Marfaux, 12 miles southwest of Reims.
Thence, the Franco-American advance moved on to recover Main de Messiges (25; 40 miles east of Reims) and Fère-en-Tardenois (28), while the British occupied Montagne de Bligny (also 28; Ardre valley, southeast of Soissons). Meanwhile the Battle Of Soissons proceeded – though the usual sources take confusingly different views of its duration, one saying July 18-22, another July 22-August 2 (the prodigious casualties, even based on the shorter duration, were officially 168,000 German and 107,000 Allied, the total dead numbering 85,158). But at the end of this week, the German Army did still hold the town they won on May 30 during the Third Battle Of The Aisne.
Elsewhere, by comparison, bloody skirmishing prevailed. The Czechoslovak Legions, 40,000 men spread along thousands of miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway, displaced another Bolshevik city government when they ousted them from Simbirsk (July 25; on the Volga, 438 miles east of Moscow). A day later, a French Expeditionary Force joined with British and Tsarist Russian troops at Murmansk (northwest Russia, on the Barents Sea) and, further indicating how shaky the Revolution remained, in Baku the self-styled Central-Caspian Dictatorship executed a coup generated by a short-lived alliance of Mensheviks (socialist rivals of the Bolsheviks) and Dashnaks (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation).
And down in Albania, the Allied offensive led by France and Italy against the Austrian occupiers stalled on July 22 and resumed two days later.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (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 offered him the chance to train for a commission, but Sam detested ordering men around so he refused; he may have requested his subsequent “reversion” to Private, or perhaps it was a “punishment”, I don’t know. Come November/December, 1917, during his final home leave, he assured his parents 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. In mid-March he ran into 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 – taken prisoner outside Arras to become part of randomly-assembled, half-starved bands of POWs wandering occupied France, then down into southern Germany between the Rhine and the Black Forest – my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, settled into a new line of often satisfying hard labour, grooming sick and wounded German war horses.
Despite the guard who woke them every morning with the point of his bayonet, for the enfeebled and desperate POWs doing “someone” a bit of good raised morale. As did the indoor latrines and the chance to nick a spud or two from the animals’ feed…
And now Sam has to consider the offer of further easements in exchange for a sliver of POW honour and decency:
‘Always curious to learn a few more words of the lingo – to no specific end that I recall – I’d try to comprehend when the guards talked casually to one another, leaning or squatting outside their hut, particularly on Sundays, the day off for everybody in the camp.
I’d listen to our interpreter too, whenever the Jerries called him into service. I did have doubts about him, though. An ordinary prisoner, aged about 25, so keen was he to please his masters that he frequently walked around quietly mouthing German phrases. At such times, he appeared unaware he was being observed. When passing on to any of us his interpretation of an order, he would show petty annoyance if one of us didn’t grasp his meaning immediately – rather as a German guard might have done. Sometimes his behaviour came too close to preferring enemy company to that of his own nationals and I noted the potential hazards of such a role. Luckily, as it turned out.
One day at the stables, the chief officer called to an aide telling him to order me to fetch his mount from a nearby stable. I understood and, without thinking, set off before the aide had delivered the instruction. I found the already saddled horse and took it to His Highness, holding its bridle while he mounted. The puzzled looks on their faces made me realise I had acted in an unexpected way. Then, while we were marching back that afternoon, a Gefreiter(2) came alongside me and spoke words among which I recognised “Dolmetscher” – interpreter – but I assured him, truthfully, that I spoke very little German.
Apart from the practical matter of my slight knowledge, I had not yet made up my mind whether giving orders to our chaps on behalf of enemy soldiers was correct or even decent. Memories of how indignant I felt when I saw that git Goldberg mounted on his plinth yelling directions at newly captured Britishers helped me to a decision(3); the Dolmetscher lark was out. I still wanted to chat whenever possible, though.
Around that time, a guard engaged me in conversation (the usual: a few German words, a few English words, lots of actions). He started by telling me he had been in the front line until recently. He said he felt sorry for some of us prisoners. Others though, he disliked, because they dodged work whenever possible – especially by spending too much time at the latrine. His belief that some of us would perch on a pole over a foul-smelling trench full of human excrement in preference to doing a share of the work lowered his opinion of us Engländer Schweinereien. Well, perhaps one or two of us did make that choice, but I presumed – although expressing the thought was beyond me – that this guard had never experienced the combined effects of malnutrition and dysentery.
He had a question too. He’d heard us using a word which he pronounced “fick” — “Warum die Engländer immer‘fick’?” he asked. Why do the English always day ‘fick’? “Ich weiss nicht,” I said. I don’t know. Nor did I, nor do I, now that it has become so poseur popular. Bloody, bugger, sod, damn and blast all serve their purposes, but the connotations of “fuck” make it an ugly sort of curse, and those Jocks and Brummies(4) I’ve mentioned befouled the air in their vicinity with their effing repetitions. Although the guard was just an ordinary bloke, not familiar with the word or its meaning, he guessed it and resented the association of swearing and the sex act(5).’
(2) Gefreiter: the equivalent of a Private First Class.
(3) “That git Goldberg” cropped up in Blog 197 April 15, 2018.
(4) Readers of previous blogs will know that my father’s poor opinion of these men was not a blanket prejudice against “Jocks and Brummies” (he’d fought alongside Scots at the Somme), but a volunteer veteran’s animus against what he saw as conscripts’ lack of commitment and discipline – got to be clear which prejudice we’re dealing with, you know, when my father’s delivering some of his harsher judgements!
(5) Sam’s interpretation of the guard’s feelings may well be correct; according to the unscientific testimony of a German friend of mine, who happens to be from the Black Forest vicinity, “Scheisse!” (shit) is the apogee of cursing in her language, with no “fuck” equivalent to drag sex into it.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and pals’ POW summer days have their downs and ups – guards set them up for a kicking from the horses… but a friendly one lets them eat windfall greengages.
(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.