“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, 21 October 2018
Sam’s new Brummie POW neighbours, recent conscripts, make him feel old by refusing to believe he fought on the Somme… Meanwhile, their guards pretend nothing’s happening, act normal and maybe defeat will never come…
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… Everywhere the fighting went the Allies’ way, though not without opposition, and several crucial moments marking inexorable movement towards Armistice occurred.
On the Western Front, the British renewed their attack at the Battle Of The Selle (October 17-25) and the Belgians repulsing a German response at the Canal de la Dérivation concluded the victory. The British also entered Valenciennes (22) and took Bruay (23), beating back a German counter at Maing (26; just south of Valenciennes).
Further south, the Meuse Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11) pushed on with the Americans fighting north of Verdun and taking Bois Belleu on the north bank of the Meuse (October 27) while, to their northwest, the French, supported by Czecho-Slovaks, advanced between Rethel and Sissonne (25) and within a couple of days had their opponents on the retreat.
The Italian Army at last launched its big attack on the Austrian invaders long encamped north of the Piave river and up into the mountainous area further west. Reinforced by British, French, American and by then ubiquitous Czecho-Slovak troops, they broke the stand-off across the river near the coast in the Battle Of Vittorio Veneto (October 24-November 4; north of Venice) and also advanced from Monte Grappa.
The political moves arising included the resignation of German Army joint commander General Von Ludendorff (October 27; freeing him to begin a career promoting Hitler’s rise through the '20s), the continuing exchange of “notes” regarding an armistice between the German Government and US President Woodrow Wilson, while the Austro-Hungarians wrote to him direct (27) suing for their own separate peace regardless of the rest and, that same day, proposed an armistice to Italy.
Further east, peace did not immediately threaten, it seemed, but in Syria the Pursuit To Haritan (September 29-October 26) reached its destination after the multi-national Egyptian Expeditionary Force, fronted at this stage by Arab cavalry, won the Battle Of Aleppo and captured Deraa (25-7) then stalled in face of last-ditch Ottoman opposition at Haritan (seven miles due north of Aleppo) and Deir al Jamal.
In Mesopotamia, British and Indian troops conducted an even brisker winding-up onslaught on waning Ottoman resistance in the Battle Of Sharqat (October 23-30) via twin advances along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers aimed at taking the Mosul oilfields. They regained Kirkuk (25; lost on May 24) and advanced more than 70 miles in a couple of days to the confluence of the Tigris and the Little Zab.
[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, 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 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 to 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 filthy camp for the summer, tending sick German war horses, before moving on yet again to a village in Lorraine… ]
Late October, 1918, occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now seven months a slowly starving POW… but hoping he just has to survive a few more weeks maybe – because rumours of imminent German defeat abound (the prisoners have no solid information, of course, and only a limited notion of what day it is).
In the last month or so his grand strategy has been an extra-food-sharing alliance with fellow Tommy POWs Wally and George – be the supplement raw liver from a pig’s trough, small spuds dug up from a roadside hole or a hambone traded through the wire for wool from a Red Cross parcel. Anything “edible”, even in the most inverted-commaed sense.
Just now POW camp life clearly feels on hold for the German guards. But 20-year-old veteran Sam finds that, even at this stage, he has a new problem to deal with - young whippersnappers!
‘Hindsight gives one a lovely sense of “I told you so” power, and I am no exception to that self-indulgent practice. What I saw happen then I see today taking place in Britain; although disruption of life as we know it threatens(2), people of necessity carry on as if all is well.
That’s how the Germans behaved in autumn, 1918. They tried to maintain some sort of purpose to each day’s routine and sent us off under guard to do something which, really, lacked credibility from the point of view of their national interest; we worked to clean up and re-pack the sleepers on a single-track railway for which – if, as we believed, they had near enough lost the war – they would have no further use because they would soon be scuttling back to the Fatherland as fast as their legs or their few remaining road transports would take them.
They had even had some of their wooden bunks erected in a corner of the hall in which we lived, and I found myself sleeping among men with whom I had not previously been confined, mainly from the Birmingham area as far as I could judge. Lying on the hard boards produced more wakefulness than sleep and they chatted endlessly, often mentioning the Bull Ring(3). In my ignorance, I wondered what this Bull thing was.
Came a time when the silence on my part was not to the Brummies’ liking, although up to that point no opportunity to join in had presented itself. All the usual enquiries about where I had been captured led me to tell of earlier experiences in the war, but when I said I had been an acting Sergeant on the Somme in 1916, and that even earlier I had seen active service on that misbegotten peninsula in Turkey, they finally refused to believe me. All made-up yarns, said they, adding descriptive adjectives not worth repeating.
This reaction saddened me, for I realised that here we had a new generation with no knowledge of the beginning of the war who cared nothing about those who had been engaged in it. Conscripts, they felt no concern with anything but their own survival. Well, didn’t we all, if it came to that?
So, aware of this gap between these young men – the conscripts – and me, I did ask them a little about their own experiences, and added my own guesses… Apparently captured on almost their first turn in the front line… previously busy in the workshops of a manufacturing maze, making big money by the standards of those times… then suddenly called to training for war and, after a few months of NCOs shoving them around and screaming at them, they encountered the shattering horrors of artillery bombardment, then they were raked by machine-gun fire, scattered by showers of stick bombs, and finally driven from their trenches at the points of bayonets and herded into barbed-wire pens… all so rapidly they had no time to realise what was actually happening to them…
Then what hope had I of convincing them that I had, on and off, been going through that sort of thing for some years? No point in trying to enlist their sympathy, or hope they might touch the forelock when addressing such a 20-year-old veteran as myself.
For a while, I felt old and lonely and full of regret for the years I had wasted by volunteering for service when I might have stayed home and maybe made lots of money. But, on further reflection, I started to see these inner moans as the idle thoughts of an idiot who’d done what he’d done from none of the highfalutin’ motives which he would sometimes cite to excuse himself his silly conduct. And I knew that, later, more deflation of my ego would follow when I tried to come to terms with a mode of life to which, after four years of Army life, I had become a complete stranger(4).’
(2) I’m not sure exactly what my father was referring to, but given he was writing roughly 1972-6, my guess is he was thinking of the oil crisis in particular, possibly with a side order of the not-unrelated 1972 and ’74 miners’ strikes, see http://ow.ly/oG4m30mhtrQ.
(3) The Bull Ring: market place specialising in textiles, formally from 1154 when chartered by King Henry II; the market grew and diversified through the centuries, survived World War II bombings; redeveloped from the 1950s onwards as a shopping centre. Before he joined the Army, Sam had never travelled north of London (and, incidentally, like many of his comrades, he never travelled abroad again after World War 1 even though he lived to be 88 – the cheap package holidays which started in the ’60s came too late for him).
(4) That is, the civilian mode of life – in case you weren’t clear what Sam meant here.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam, in extremisfood-wise, reflects on the coincidence between religiosity and the well-nourished look of POWs who work in the camp cookhouse – but still he feels better for the hymn singsongs… And then even moreso when infantry rushing eastwards yell “Zu Österreich!” by way of explanation and the end really does seem nigh…
(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.