“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, 12 August 2018

Sam and starving POW pals wonder what’s going on: new uniforms! money! his first shower since March! new boots! Well, clogs… But still he’s so emaciated “I would not have been recognised by my own father…”

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Allies’ ultimately decisive Amiens Offensive (August 8-September 3), which began last week with the Battle Of Amiens (8-11) resulting in a 10-mile advance and 30,000 German prisoners taken, developed further through the continuing Battle Of Montdidier (8-15; about 24 miles southeast of Amiens, Somme department).
    The latter saw British, Canadian, French and Australian troops widen the initial Allied attack and push forward 11 miles by August 13. Meanwhile, the French advanced around Lassigny (13-15; about 38 miles southeast of Amiens) and under general Allied pressure the German Army retreated from the rivers Ancre and Oise (14-15), before holding their ground again for the more extended Second Battle Of Noyon (17-29; about 44 miles southeast of Amiens).
    In other notable Western Front moments, the British began their long-term drive in Flanders (18) and the German long-range gun targetting Paris fired its last shell (15).
    In turmoiled and confused Russia, the Bolsheviks, who had been doing rather badly in the further-flung outposts, took a town called Merv in Transcaspia (now Turkmenistan) from the regional, temporarily independent government (August 15). Otherwise, the redoubtable Czecho-Slovak Legion, spread as it was more or less the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, fought off Bolshevik counterattacks at Irkutsk (16; Siberia) and on the Ussuri river (16; Khabarovsk, far eastern Russia).
    And down in Italy, a long but small part of the campaign to get the Austria-Hungary Army out of Italy began when a surprise attack instigated the Battle Of San Matteo (August 13-September 3; Ortler Alps, northwest Italy) – the highest-altitude battle ever fought at the time – immediately ousting the garrison but then having to defend the gain.

[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. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017).He passed many weeks in various 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, in a Sheffield hospital). 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 (irrationally, he knew). In December, probably, 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 “fit” 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. Then, for three or four months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups, until a train took his latest band down to a rural area between the Rhine and the Black Forest near a village called Hügelheim where they settled into a slightly less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, mainly working on sick and wounded German war horses.]

Of course, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, four months a POW now and his starving band apparently settled for a while in southern Germany, knew nothing of new developments in the war.
    Last week, he had guard Captain Kayser kick him in the crutch for scrumping and ate raw liver nicked from pigswill by his pal Wally.
    But even amid that demeaning desperation for food, the summer’s sense of things looking up – just a little and relatively – continued when Sam and pals sneaked haircuts with the horse-hospital shears and Kayser decided that was a good idea and brought in regular (rough) barbering for all. Further accommodations followed (alongside continuing starvation and brutality):

‘After that, one Sunday morning, the guards told us to take off our very soiled khaki uniforms. They handed us tunics, trousers and caps, all made of loosely woven, dark-blue material with a wide, orange stripe down each trouser-leg and round the cap. So there we were – socks and underwear unwashed for months, but brand-new uniforms. If only we could somehow have a bath…
     Everything appeared to be going our way, however. Soon, they lined up half our lot in front of an officer and gave each of us several tickets, on which were printed some German words, now only partially remembered – “Kriegsgefangenen Lager Nr. ??”, then cards of different colours printed with “Gutschein für 5 Pfennig(2)” (or 10 or 20). We needed no instruction on what these cards were all about, they were money substitutes. So where could we spend them?
     Next, they marched us off to a railway station where we entered Fourth-Class compartments with hard, wooden seats – just like the hop-pickers’ train in Kent when we were digging the outer London defences back in 1914(3). Britain and Deutschland had that much in common, I thought; the harder you worked, the harder you travelled. But I can well recall the inner pleasure I felt at this seeming return to a more normal sort of life. A clean uniform, some sort of money in my pocket, and a trip on a train to… well, I must wait and see.
     In the excitement, I almost forgot my ever-present hunger. Once more, we crossed the Rhine and this time we detrained at Mühlhausen, which we had passed through on our journey south. As we marched through its main street, I observed the townspeople taking a real interest in the spectacle of these shuffling, bent-kneed, sunken-cheeked beings. Meanwhile, I saw two civilian-dressed men moving among them, apparently answering enquiries about us. “English soldiers – look at the condition to which those people are reduced,” I heard one say. I felt sure we were the first British prisoners of war seen in those parts.
     A busy, prosperous town, Mühlhausen impressed me most with its cleanliness. Not that English towns of those days were dirty(4), but Mühlhausen had a special look in 1918, so well cared for. The housewives must have thought so too, for they, in many cases, hung feather mattresses and quilts over window sills to give them the benefit of the clean, soft air, not deterred therefrom by what the neighbours might think, as would usually be the case in England.
     We entered what appeared to be a large, public building and – more by signs than by word of mouth – were told to remove all our clothing. Ahead sat a man in a white coat to whom, in turn, we each had to present ourselves. He dipped a fairly large brush into a can and painted our scrotums and armpits with blue paste. We moved on to another white coat who shaved off the blue-painted hair.
     Finally, we entered a shower cubicle where the water, though cold, enabled us to make ourselves cleaner than we had been for many a day. Soap was not available, but long-handled brushes vigorously applied did the job. The Treaty of Geneva(5) was working at last, for which I was truly thankful.
     We had no towels so we had to dry our bodies with our trousers or tunics, but I had no complaint, feeling so refreshed by this unexpected cleansing. Unfortunately, I then had to dress myself once more in the rank vest, shirt, pants and socks. But dismay and horror hit me when I realised that my boots had vanished. A quick search of our men’s sacks and bundles failed to restore them to me, so I had to appeal to the Postens who were in charge of us. They said they knew nothing about the theft.
     However, I suspect even they couldn’t face the prospect of walking through the town in full public view with one of their prisoners bare-footed. Perhaps for that reason, they reported my loss to a senior officer at the cleansing station and one of his men handed me a pair of wooden clogs the like of which I had previously seen only in pictures of Dutch working people… at school we’d been told they wore clogs and smoked cigars, even when very young; I had no cigars, but gladly shoved my feet into these hand-carved-from-a-piece-of-wood shoes; I didn’t find them too uncomfortable, except that they cut into my insteps.
     Now I must have really looked the genuine POW in my bright, orange stripes, socks a dirty grey with trousers tucked into them, and those heavy clogs with their pointed toes. Add sunken cheeks, staring eyes and bent knees to the picture – I would not have been recognised by my own father.’
(2) Gutschein für 5 Pfennigs: voucher for 5 “pennies”.
(3) See Blog 23 December 12, 2014. Sam described the carriages conveying his first Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, from billets in Tonbridge to dig a trench system south of London as “Cattle trucks, pigsties, travelling chicken sheds” normally reserved for “Hop-pickers— seasonal migrants, mostly from the city, who worked hard during the few weeks of the harvest. Because they were poor people the railway company had gone to the trouble of constructing this shabby transport for them.”
(4) My father footnoted: “So many of them are in 1976, as I write” – something the older generation of every generation remarks on, no doubt.
(5) Wikipedia says a series of Geneva treaties began with Swiss businessman/social activist Henri Dunant’s reaction to the battle of Solferino, in the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, 1859, between French/Sardinian and Austrian Armies; first the Red Cross was formed in Geneva, then in 1864 came the first Geneva Convention, aka “the Red Cross Treaty”; adopted initially by 12 nations, it codified the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers on the battlefield during declared wars, and the neutrality of medical personnel, but said of prisoners only that they should be returned to their country; the list of original signatories varies from source to source, but Wikipedia has, from International Law: A Treatise by Ronald Roxburgh, 1920: Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, Switzerland and Wurttemberg; another web page now no longer available didn’t show the German then-independent states and added Norway (with the many later ratifiers including Britain and Turkey 1865, Russia 1867, USA 1882); a Convention covering war at sea was added in 1906, then further revisions came long after World War I, in 1929, 1949 (it removed the “declared war” limitation), 1977 and 2005; protection of POWs in World War I depended more on the Hague Regulations of 1899 and 1907 which the war proved deficient, leading in part to the 1929 Geneva Convention revision covering particularly “the prohibition of reprisals and collective penalties”, says http://ow.ly/cLQz30kUrfr.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam spends his Gutschein on soap and fags, then sneaks off to buy a pie on the qv from the Hügelheim Gasthaus – and even fantasise about a sweet young girl.

(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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