“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, 5 August 2018
Sam, fighting starvation as ever, goes scrumping and gets a terrible kick in the crutch from a new taskmaster called Kayser! He also enjoys(?) raw liver nicked from pigs’ swill. But the POWs still strive to retrieve a little self-respect… via some unofficial barbering with horse shears.
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A hundred years ago this week…
[Apologies to regular readers: the blog was late up this week for the first time in four years and there’s no “a hundred years ago this week” section about the wider war before moving on to the weekly except from my father’s Memoir - this is because I’ve been in hospital for the crucial two days and nights on an unscheduled sojourn. All well now and I just got home on Sunday evening to I’ll put the blog up pronto without the historical context… normal service resumes now, through the week, and next Sunday I hope. All the best, Phil pp Sam]
[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)… until officialdom 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, 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 (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.]
Last week my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, four months a POW now, his starving gang apparently settled for a while in southern Germany, encountered the worst and best of their guards – the more sadistic setting them up for terrible kickings by the horses they’re caring for, a more easygoing bloke allowing them to pick up windfall fruit to assuage their constant hunger.
Now they continue recent work at an actual horse hospital – maybe the first place had the status of nursing home or similar, for convalescent nags. Sam learns more about different German reactions to scrumping (it’s back to brutal again), eats some horrible stuff from a pig’s trough – and how to sneak a haircut distinctly non-Sassoon style (neither Vidal, nor even Siegfried really):
‘That day we started work on one of several horse hospitals — “Pferde Lazerette(2)” said a notice at the entrance. Another one, where we went on to work quite regularly, was on the other side of Hügelheim(3), the village a couple of kilometres from our Gefangenenlager(4).
In charge there was a man called Kayser (pronounced as in Kaiser Bill, the great leader of all the Jerries). His glass eye, black beard and jackboots gave him a threatening mien, yet we found him a fair, if surly, taskmaster, and quite easily satisfied if we worked steadily.
Nonetheless, on one occasion he kicked me right in the crutch with all the strength he could muster. The pain put me down on the floor, and my groin hurt for days, but I made no complaint – it was, as they say, a fair cop. I had noticed a large apple tree in a field adjacent to the stable and, hoping I was unobserved, went scrumping. There being few windfalls, I shook the tree… my big mistake — as the furious Kayser yelled after first coming up quietly behind me and throwing that terrible kick.
All the pleasant scenery and the quietness of Hügelheim could not fill our empty bellies, so we were ever on the lookout for something to fill the awful void – hence my risky scrumping expedition, of course.
Wally, the kind friend — as he became — who had invited me to join his Pferde Lazarette party without asking the guard’s permission(5), found that his job sometimes took him close to pigsties; occasionally, he managed to slide his hand into a trough and pull out some dark-coloured meat which, on close study, appeared to be liver. It smelt unsavoury, but we wiped it and ate the revolting stuff. So robbing pigs of their swill was now our aim in life — though I have since suspected we were laying up stores of health troubles for future days.
Hügelheim natives proved not unfriendly, although kept at a distance by the Soldaten. One morning when we passed through the village on the way to Kayser’s Pferde Lazerette, a gorgeous aroma of frying bacon greeted us and our Posten(6) certainly took special note of the cottage from which it arose. So, for the whole of that working day, we saw nothing of our fat Jerry friend – and we had a fair idea where he had been lurking. He rejoined our group only as we lined up to return to our Lager, but we refrained from questioning him. Each day thereafter, he disappeared as soon as he’d handed us over to Kayser.
Every day, we took the horses from the Lazarette to water at a trough in the village, a couple of hundred yards from the stables. One lovely hot day, I took two to water and not a sound was to be heard, even though the inn – Gasthaus – was close by. How peaceful it all was, I thought. Horses satisfied, I was leading them away when suddenly a door slammed and they bolted. I was hanging on to a halter rope with each hand and they dragged me all the way back to the Pferde Lazerette and didn’t stop until they were actually inside their stable.
That was the only time I saw Kayser laugh, but I didn’t join in.
Few of us liked being scruffy and dirty, and we did try to do something about it when opportunity arose. A chap at the prison camp with whom I had struck up some sort of matiness told me he had seen a Jerry shearing a horse’s coat with a machine powered by a man turning a wheel. He had a good idea: “If we could get into the shearing shed, do you think some of us could cut each other’s hair?”
So later that day, during the one break from work allowed, some dozen of us climbed through a window at the back of that shed and we were soon shearing as to the manner born. The finished head was near enough bald. How different a man looked to his former shaggy self.
But, before we’d finished the job, our lookout saw a Jerry approaching and gave the alarm. We rapidly scrambled back out through the window. The man who had been in mid-shear at the moment of emergency rather conspicuously sported only half a haircut – our method had been to start at the nape of the neck and proceed upwards and forwards. Of course, the guards spotted his condition, and we feared all kinds of punishments, but the actual result was that the Captain detailed one of his experts to shear the lot of us. Subsequently, we were able to douse our heads and keep them free of lice.’
(2) Pferde Lazerette: horse hospital.
(3) Hügelheim, in the Baden-Württemberg area known as Markgräflerland, 18.4 miles (29.6 kilometres) west of Mühlhausen/Mulhouse.
(4) Gefangenenlager: prison camp.
(5) See last week’s blog.
(6) Posten: guard here, but maybe “functionary” would be the general translation I gather; he’s the tubby, amiable fellow who let them pick up windfalls.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam sings “Everything’s going my way”, maybe even “Oh what a beautiful day” (in his heart anyway) as Mr Nice German Guard discovers the Treaty Of Geneva for reasons which will become apparent in a bit. Clean POW uniforms! soap! his first shower since March! new shoes! Despite that, he’s so emaciated he reckons “I would not have been recognised by my own father”…
(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.