“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, 18 November 2018
November 12, 1918: free-at-last POW Sam’s long walk westwards begins… hate-filled guard forces them past a blazing ammunition dump… a fellow starving POW dies at the roadside… and before the day is out Sam is on his own: “I felt like the last man on Earth”
Sam’s Memoir(1) – 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 the Memoir (1) or Gallipoli & Somme& Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association here.
It’s war’s end at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July, 1919, Peace parade in London…
All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross - and the current running donations total at November 1 is £3,644.84 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week, in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice… military manoeuvres – mingled with a bit of politics – proceeded apace. As the last German troops left French soil (November 18), the Belgians reoccupied Brussels (18; lost to Germany on August 20, 1914) and Antwerp (19; with their more than ceremonial military leader, King Albert). US troops began a move into northern Lorraine (18; German since 1871), and Luxemburg (20; invaded August 2, 1914) which the German Army then evacuated (22), and the French Army entered Metz (19). Then British and American forces reached the German frontier (24) at the same time as the new German Soldiers’ And Workers’ Council declared a republic with Hamburg as its capital (24; the Kaiser had abdicated on the 9th).
This Council had taken control of the Navy too and, following negotiation with the British in the Forth Of Firth the previous week, the High Seas Fleet reached Rosyth en route to planned internment at Scapa Flow (November 21). Further south, the Germans progressively surrendered their U-boats at Harwich, Essex – 20 of them on the 20th, 39 the next day, 28 more on the 24th.
In Russia, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, a White Russian leader politically backed by the British, took (allegedly reluctant) leadership of the anti-Bolsheviks and was declared Dictator Of All Russia (November 18) – something of an exaggeration as his base in Omsk, Siberia, was 1,680 miles due east of Moscow.
In the Balkans, the Yugo-Slav National Council’s strivings for regional co-operation saw them form a union with Serbia and Montenegro (November 23), then the next day declare an alliance with Greece and Romania – at which Bukovina sought union with Romania (24). Further down the Black Sea, with Turkey and the Ottoman Empire signed up to Armistice too, French troops landed at Constantinople.
[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). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations (he spent his 19th birthday, July 6, 1917, in a Sheffield hospital). That summer, his CO 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 (Blog March 25, 2018). For several 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, westwards to a village in Lorraine where they remained until Armistice… ]
November 12, 1918, in occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, after enduring eight months of slow starvation and much brutality as a POW, last week described how Armistice Day came to him and his comrades at a small “camp” – actually a village hall – in Lorraine.
German soldiers hurrying eastwards, away from the Front, announced it often and enthusiastically throughout the day. Still, their guards remained, albeit puzzled about what to do next rather than maintaining diligent oversight. The Tommies spent the day singing hymns and other ditties while awaiting freedom… surely…
Came the morrow and, to Sam’s chagrin, the guard he detested most took control of his fate, along with that of his pals and scrounged-food syndicate partners, Wally and George…
[An explanation of upcoming chronology here: while most of these blogs are roughly aligned with what was happening to my father “100 years ago this week”, this one and the next cover only November 12-15 because he wrote so much about those days for reasons which will become obvious.]
‘Next morning, Haybag(2), of all people, strode into the hall and ordered us to come outside; Wally, George and I complied quickly, being impatient to get moving, rather than lounge about when we might be spotting some opportunity to slip away towards the west(3). We rolled our blankets and slung them over our shoulders then tied across the chest. I had my mess-can – filled with water the night before – on a string round my waist and the remainder of the cabbage in my under-tunic sack. When Haybag counted off the first 20 of us and gave the order “Marsche!”, indicating a westerly direction. We set off willingly, an unusually high-spirited Platoon of skin-and-bone, bent shufflers.
After half an hour, some distance ahead a huge, black cloud of smoke appeared. As we drew nearer, we started to hear explosions, big and small, and soon we saw that a large ammunition store was on fire – some bullets, but mostly shells, blowing up at random. Looking ahead with some concern, we reckoned that, if we followed the road, we should not have to pass the conflagration at close range. But when we reached the nearest point on the road, Haybag ordered us along a path which cut off the bend in the road and took us very close to the dump – and put us in much greater danger, of course. To prove he meant it, he drew back his rifle bolt, rammed a bullet into the chamber and took aim at us.
“Let’s go!” someone yelled and we did – feeling, it seemed, first, that we hadn’t much to lose anyway, and second, that we’d show that ruddy Haybag we weren’t scared of a few hundred whizz-bangs.
So, as Haybag went round the bend – literally, I mean – covering us most of the time with his rifle, we took the pathway and felt the heat of that fire. For several minutes, flying shrapnel and such made the scene very similar to a battlefield and we all felt some temptation to break into a gallop. But we simply couldn’t, so we proceeded at our usual crawl, just hoping we’d be lucky… Which we were, no casualties, and we duly rejoined Haybag on the road, feeling we were better men than him. I hoped he didn’t realise we hadn’t run because of physical weakness rather than bravery, and that he felt suitably ashamed of his dirty trick. He must have hoped that some or all of us would be blown up, leaving him free to go home, if such a miserable devil had a home.
Later, when we passed a farm, many of us dived into a heap of swedes left by the roadside – we’d not eaten much that day and here was food indeed. But Haybag raised his rifle and this time pulled the trigger. The bullet went just over our heads and, as he reloaded, he told us to put down the swedes. Probably, the farmer was French and intended us to help ourselves, other freed prisoners having passed that way, no doubt. But our relentless Prussian reckoned to play his miserable role to the bitter end. And I’d bet his end was awful.
Now, more groups of German troops passed by, heading east. They carried things obviously pillaged, such as chickens, ducks, sacks full of food. Occasionally they drove one or more cows, or a goat, or led a horse. The road became thick with men, all going the opposite way to us. Then a column of Daimler lorries, each with its large, red flag and load of red-decorated men(4), hurried by as if trying to put as great a distance as possible between themselves and the Allied Army.
We felt tired and hungry and Haybag surprised us by allowing a rest stop. Those fortunates who had picked up anything edible ate it. Wally, George and I chewed heart of cabbage(5), drank some water, and talked about what might be our eventual fate amid this rabble of retreating enemy troops now bent on wholesale looting.
One man near us opened a can of some blackened foodstuff, I’m not sure what, but I noticed before he did it that the top was swollen. We discussed that, but he ate some of the contents regardless. However, an hour or so later when we rose to resume the journey, he sat looking at the half-empty can and made no attempt to rise… Up to him, he could please himself.
But, looking around for Haybag to give his usual harsh command, I was amazed to see him walking off eastwards with several of his compatriots and, at last, displaying no further interest in us.
“We’re free! We can do as we please… Come on, boys, let’s go and get back to our people!” and many such excitable cries were heard. At once, we fell into a far brisker rate of progress, in spite of the tide of Germans flowing towards us.
However, because of hunger, weakness and general ill health, this more strenuous pace made me feel light in the head. I responded to the odd remark from Wally, but felt increasingly detached from everything and everybody around me. Worse, with great alarm, I suddenly realised I had left my rolled blanket at our stopping place. I must have turned around and, without a word to anybody, tottered back along the road.
I recognised the place, all right, for lying in the middle of the road was the man who had eaten that black stuff out of the can. His face had a bluish look and he did not appear to be alive. I searched for my blanket and found it, then felt the chap’s wrist for any sign of life before resuming the hopeful homeward journey – on my own now.
I came to a village… empty, it seemed, apart from a few retreating Germans. I sat down for a while… soon no more Germans either. I felt like the last man left on Earth.
But when I moved on – shuffled on, that is – near the village’s further boundary I heard voices and traced them to a cottage. I peered in through a window and was amazed to see the Preacher and two companions sitting at a table bearing hunks of bread and a large, open can of something evidently edible. Busy talking and eating, they didn’t notice me standing there, and feeling indignant because the food on the table was more than six prisoners would have received for a day’s rations and they clearly had more in bags I could see.
So the ranting Christian had been stealing food which should have been shared out(6). No wonder he looked so much fitter than the rest of us. His mates were no skeletons either.
I slunk away, thinking about how they must have left the prison hall before my Haybag group – and they probably quit leaving other men in the hall who expected the Preacher to return and lead them homewards. Maybe they were still waiting.
I did not enter any of the deserted houses. Their owners would return one day and I did not wish to loot, supposing the Germans had left anything worth taking. (In our Army, it was forbidden to move even a brick from a wrecked building, all being the property of our French allies(7).)
Slowly onwards… over the next several hours I saw only two Germans, driving a cow before them.
By a farmyard well stood a bucket on a rope. Someone had left it full of water, so I drank from it and refilled my mess-can. I found a turnip and a potato among the surrounding farmyard muck, washed them in the bucket and ate them. The door of a nearby shed stood open. I went inside, laid down, wrapped my blanket around my body and slept(8). When I awoke it was dark. I lay there, dozing occasionally, till daylight.’
(2) My father gave a vivid pen-portrait of this detested guard in the October 28 blog: “This martinet, who wore a look of undying anger, cultivated a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache, the ends pointed upwards at an angle of 90 degrees to the transverse portions. Always strictly on duty, he never allowed a smile to sully his face. On every occasion when it had been my misfortune to be accompanied by his nibs on marches to places of work, he had managed to create an atmosphere of oppressive misery, pushing a Gefangene [“prisoner”] here, prodding another with his rifle butt there, unfailingly turning a sunny day into one overhung with gloom.” “Haybag” was still a non-specific and non-obscene insult when I was a kid in the 1950s. I can’t find the origin of its derogatory meaning, but I’d say it was on a par with “pillock” or “twozzer” (though maybe I imagined the latter?).
(3) His objective, the French front line. I can’t get an accurate estimate on how far that would be. The prison camp village Sam couldn’t recall the name of and I can’t tell whereabouts he eventually did reach the trench lines. But considering his debilitated physical condition, it may be that he covered only five to ten miles a day.
(4) “Red-decorated” meaning the revolutionary ribbons which Sam noted last week had replaced Iron Crosses on the chests of every German retreating from the Front.
(5) On behalf of the food-co-op triumvirate, Sam had stolen the cabbage from a garden adjacent to the prison camp on the night of November 10-11.
(6) The Preacher appears in the October 28 and November 11 blogs; he worked in the cookhouse and maintained a well-fed appearance while preaching the endurance of suffering to others. Of course, you might note that Sam, Wally and George kept food to themselves, but I think his POW morality reckoned found or stolen items private property which could be shared with mates only, whereas cookhouse victuals were intended for all.
(7) In another example of POW morality, Sam is here clearly reckoning Lorraine villages and homes as French, even though the region had been annexed by Prussia as a result of the 1870-1 war which also triggered German unification (January 18, 1871).
(8) The night of November 12.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam plods on… in a deserted village, he encounters two British nurses who take him in, feed him, maybe save his life… and on into day three and The Last German, day four and creeping the wrong way through a German minefield into a French trench and a welcome meal… which nearly kills him!
(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.