“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, 7 October 2018
Sam, reckoning the war’s final throes are coming up, hopes he can “stand a few more weeks of near-starvation”. Then a Red Cross parcel arrives for George – who temporarily forgets the food-sharing partnership with Sam and Wally…
Sam’s Memoir – paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme & etc mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross - and the current running donations total at October 2 is £3,542.64 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week… It was one-way traffic on all fronts as the Allies moved towards the inevitable (though I don’t know whether it felt quite that certain at the time). And yet “easy” victories still had their costs – for example, the British/Canadian success at the Second Battle Of Cambrai (October 8-10), which concluded the main action of the Battle Of The Hindenburg Line (September 18-October 17), is commonly described as resulting in “light casualties”, while the actual numbers listed are Allies 12,000, German 10,000.
On October 8 alone, the Allies – the full mix of British, French, American and Australian – advanced three miles along a 20-mile line south from Cambrai to St Quentin and the British and Belgians declared the Battle Of The Flanders Peaks over and won on October 10.
Meanwhile, the French and Americans (1.2 million troops in France by then) pressed on with their Meuse Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11) taking the towns/villages of Berry-au-Bac (October 7), Cornay and Consenvoye (8), Craonne (12; lost on May 27 during the Spring Offensive), Laon and La Fère (13).
A possibly forgotten feature of these triumphal advances in Europe is that they all took place on invaded ground, not by driving back into the various enemies’ territories. This was true in Italy, where the Italians gradually advanced against the Austrians on the Asiago Plateau (October 11), in Albania, where Italian troops took Elbasan from the Bulgarians (7; the Albanians had lost the town on February 2, 1916), and Serbia, where combinations of the revived national Army, French and British occupied Leskovats (9), Pristina (10; now capital of Kosovo), Prizren, Mitrovitsa and Nish (11).
It was a different story in Syria where the multi-national Egyptian Expeditionary Force, abetted by the Sharif of Mecca’s Arab Army, conducted the Pursuit To Haritan (September 29-October 26), mainly a mopping-up operation as Ottoman forces retreated through Syria north of Damascus (then including modern Lebanon). The Allies took Beirut (October 7), Ba’albeck (9) and Tripoli (13).
The week’s exception to all these Allied successes was the sinking of the Royal Mail Ship Leinster off Dublin Bay by a U-boat, with more than 500 people dying out of the 771 on board (October 10).
[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 training 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. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France and dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras and at the nearby Front until, 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 bombardment of the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28 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. 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. There they settled into a slightly less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, tending sick German war horses, before moving on yet again to a village in Lorraine (annexed by Germany in 1871)… ]
October, 1918, occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now 20 years old and six months a slowly starving POW often brutalised by the guards, is still clinging on – hopes uplifted recently by a passing sailor yacking to the guards about a German Navy mutiny… implying the end and Allied victory might be in sight.
Meanwhile, mere survival is their priority. The food triumvirate partnership of Sam, Wally and George was last week tested by Sam falling to the temptation of a fruit pie passed through the wire by a brave local woman – he took a bite before he repented and shared it. Now another trial of conscience… for George this time:
‘Still no work for several days, so I had lots of time to think and assess my general condition; the inventory did not fill me with any sort of pleasure. Given my hope, almost belief, that the enemy was approaching his last gasp, I felt if I could stand a few more weeks of near-starvation, somehow I might at last be able to rejoin the British Forces. Physically, though, I remained in poor shape. The prisoner’s bent knees and staring eyes, and now, I noticed, my once-blue war prisoner uniform had turned greyish; a sort of nap had originally given it an appearance of fair quality, but now it looked what it was – ersatz, woven from a rubbishy yarn made of paper waste(2). Worse, my trousers had worn through at the knees revealing my grubby, long underpants, unwashed for months, and the peak of my cap was deserting the crown – I have a big bonce, 7 and 3/8ths, a size seldom obtainable in British stores and never in German paperwear outfits.
Altogether I must have looked decrepit and far older than my 20 years(3). Diet right back down to the minimum now, every day nothing more than that, now I had no horses to rob of their few spuds. Survival seemed a dicey business and the fate which had befallen one of our older comrades might soon be mine – one day at the prison camp we’d found him sitting, resting against a wall, dead. Exhausted, starved. I resolved to avoid that by any conceivable ploy…
No communication from home had reached any man I knew, but we had twice been given addresses – Stammlager(4) Parchim and Stammlager Friedrichsfeld, I recall – through which, they said, we could exchange letters with our families. But we didn’t know whether our people were getting our letters and nothing reached us from them.
After several months of captivity, we should have been interned in one of the larger German prison camps where we could have been registered with the Red Cross office in Switzerland. They would have brought the British War Office files on missing men up to date and they, in turn, would have informed our families. But small bands of captives like us just kept wandering around occupied territories; nobody who cared knew whether we were alive or dead(5).
Of course, it was common talk amongst us that the thousands of food parcels hopefully forwarded to the German authorities by our families and by the Red Cross(6) filled the enemy’s meagrely fed bellies while we became walking skeletons…
A sudden change then occurred which could only be due to one wonderful cause: that the Jerries now knew the war was lost to them and they must do what they could to convince the Allies that they were nice, kind, little Germans who observed the Geneva Convention and treated war prisoners correctly. So they allowed a few Red Cross parcels to get through to the wandering groups like ours and, hallelujah, George was one of the fortunate few recipients.
He reacted understandably. He avoided Wally and me, took his prize into a corner, and hid it from our sight. We decided not to approach him. When he finally spoke to Wally, it was to suggest that, as they had been buddies before they became acquainted with me, it would be fair if the two of them shared the parcel’s contents. Wally, with that ever-present aching void where his tummy used to be, could well have agreed to that arrangement, but he found and kept a contents list which he discovered among the wrappings and noted carefully the items absent after George’s first uncontrolled onslaught. Then he told George he was disgusted with his dishonesty and he could stuff his parcel.
Wally rejoined me and gave me the sad details of their conversation, so we turned the trio into a duo and ignored George forthwith. In turn, George responded by remaining his own man, standing in no need of friendship’s prop, apparently.
So when, that night, he joined us as we sat on the floor among our paltry possessions – mine the German mess-can and one thin, dirty, grey blanket, and Wally’s equally numerous and valuable – we said nowt, just waited while George tried to describe his feelings and intentions. Weakness accounted for the tears that ran down his poor emaciated face as he told us of his dear wife and daughter whom he missed so terribly and of how important it was that he should last out until the war ended…
Well, he really was still part of our small family at that moment, so good old Wally did the reassuring bit and our oldest member, who just then looked more like our youngest and naughtiest, spread out on the floor what remained of his parcel’s contents. Few edibles, for the interval during which we had declared the triple partnership in abeyance had enabled George to feel free to put most of the goodies under his belt. The remaining food comprised: two hard, but very attractive, biscuits; two Oxo cubes; a small tin of fish paste; and an item which I would have rejected in better times, but which seemed exquisitely delectable just then, some bully beef (corned beef to you) – George had managed to leave three-quarters of the canful.
“You have one biscuit apiece, as I’ve had more than my share,” he said. “And we’ll share the bully if you don’t mind.” All thoughts of how he’d diddled us vanished. Wally and I carefully ate our share. At that marvellous moment, corned beef to us must have tasted as caviar to rich people.
Thereafter, we discussed the other items. How the skein of fawn wool, the two reels of cotton – one black t’other white – a packet of needles, two khaki hankies and the half yard of Army-grey shirting could be disposed of to the best advantage. The two pairs of socks – also grey, Army – should be worn, I insisted, by the two of them, since I had procured some pieces of cotton cloth which I used as “Fusslappen”(7) (copying a German whom I had seen in Müllheim wrapping rags round his tootsies before pulling on his jackboots).
Now came the question: could we exchange the wool etc for food and, if so, how?’
(2) See Sam’s Blog 214 August 12 for the story of the replacement of their filthy British Army uniforms with these ersatz POW jobs.
(3) Having no idea what day it was, Sam had let his 20th birthday on July 6 pass unremarked, as had his 18th on the Somme in 1916.
(4) Stammlager: prisoner of war camp, often abbreviated to “Stalag”; Parchim is a small town in the German Baltic state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; Friedrichsfeld now seems to be part of a town called Voerde in North-Rhine-Westphalia state; both are listed among the 168 “principal POW camps in Germany” at http://ow.ly/DFqc30kUzDCand Wiki says a total of 2.4 million Allied prisoners were held in Germany during World War I.
(5) Not quite true in Sam’s case, but that’s a story he reveals later – and at the time he had no idea.
(6) Ian Hook, of the Essex Regiment Museum, who kindly helped by searching the records of my father, said that he found a note of the Essex Regiment Prisoner Of War Fund sending food parcels to C Sutcliffe of Edmonton (the “C” being his first name Charles, but he was always known by his second, Sam). But, clearly, they didn’t make it.
(7) Fusslappen: foot cloth.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and pals suddenly find themselves on “Pay Parade” – albeit the currency is tokens, not real money. And, amid the squalor of POW life, the formality of the occasion brings dignity to both sides. Also Sam sneaks a food swap through the wire and finds a perhaps blasphemous use for a prayer book…
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.