“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, 16 December 2018
Sam scrounges a British uniform (pre-owned by a dead Tommy, but still…) and does a bit of business with some freezing Chinese Labour Corps lads. Plus a romantic interlude… but not for him! And, at last, back to dear old Blighty…
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 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.
The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoirconcludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 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 as of December 4 is £3,772.16 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… Intermittently organised chaos proceeded with Germany beginning to frame its response to defeat and the end of Empire/monarchy. In Berlin, the Conference Of Soldiers And Workmen (December 16-19) decided on the “socialisation” of industry and set a January 19 date for election of the National Assembly – which would in turn work out a new system of government for the country. Even then (i.e. way before the Treaty Of Versailles and back-stab theory) it seems this did not look like resolving disagreements between the Social Democratic Party, the Spartacists and monarchy loyalists.
Meanwhile, further east, the 200,000 German troops commanded by Field Marshall Mackensen’s march home from Romania was interrupted near Budapest by an Allied force up from the Salonika campaign and beyond – a wonderfully multinational mix of Greeks, French, Serbians, British and Italians – led by French General Franchet D’Espèry. Mackensen, who’d hoped never to surrender and later as a right-wing politician said he had never surrendered, had to surrender (December 16).
Meanwhile, the turmoil around the Baltic evolved uncertainly as the last German troops left Finland, British Naval ships bombarded Bolshevik positions in formerly Russian Wesenberg, Estonia, and Bolshevik troops advanced near Pskov on the Russian side of the Estonian border (all December 16) and entered Walk (18; lately evacuated by the German Army, on the border of Estonia and Latvia, formerly in Russian Livonia).
Further south, the Ukrainian upheaval continued with the “revolutionary” force led by General Petiyura taking Kiev (December 20). I can’t find any reference to their political angle – do say if you know! – but it’s of only passing significance given that control of the capital (since 1917) changed hands 16 times in the next 20 months.
[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. 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 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). In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras and at the nearby Front. In mid-March, he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion; they moved into the trenches near Fampoux, east of Arras, just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, 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 doing all sorts of hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany between the Rhine and the Black Forest near a village called Hügelheim (tending sick German war horses) and finally moving westwards to a village in Lorraine where they remained until Armistice – at which his long walk towards the French Front began and the events below ensued…
November 25ish-December 10, 1918, a British RAMC hospital in Nancy, France… where, last week, after eight months of slow starvation as a POW and, post-Armistice, a four-day walk back to the French lines – my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, was recovering from these privations following an initial stint in a French military hospital where he experienced a brief, purgative emotional breakdown, a Champagne-and-brandy cocktail diet to ease his delicate stomach, and the kindness of wounded poilus comrades with whom he shared a massive ward.
Then, when somewhat restored, he moved on to the RAMC’s returned POWs hospital, to therapeutic Guinness and some light meals. He also witnessed how the degradation of POW life led to a mass theft of bread from the hospital bakery by the patients for whom it was intended anyway – and, walking through the town, found the French Army uniform he’d acquired leading him into awkward situations as local people, naturally expected him to be French and acted accordingly… including a brothel Madame…
Having, oddly enough, retained his virginity yet again – partly out of enduring innocence, partly because one symptom of malnutrition proved to be total absence of sexual desire – now he tries to tackle at least the superficial problem of his attire:
‘Back at the hospital I asked the storekeeper whether he could give me a British uniform, but he said they had none to issue. So my intention to procure a khaki outfit of some sort set me searching in a marquee, the side curtains or brailing of which I noticed were always closed and secured by cords. I detached one cord loop from its ground-peg and slipped under the canvas.
Immediately, I saw a large, rectangular stack of clothing and kitbags, much of which had belonged to soldiers of the British Empire. Although the RAMC had established this Field Hospital to care for Independent Air Force personnel, in some emergency they must have taken in and treated ground Forces. Discovering some bundles comprising complete kits – a kitbag filled with underwear, boots, socks, tied to a uniform, greatcoat and headgear – I realised that the former owners had died.
I spread out one of these outfits, tried on the trousers and found they fitted perfectly. The quality of every item in the bundle was much superior to that of the usual Army garments – the grey socks of thick wool, plain not ribbed, the greatcoat a gem of fine, close-woven wool with shoulders somewhat padded to produce a natty squareness. No epaulettes, though, and I feared their absence might be noticed (almost unbelievably, it was never commented on).
Knowing that all this gear would be destroyed or sold off, I dressed myself in the fine, warm clothes, with a cosy cardigan under the tunic – this must have been late November or early December – and filled a kitbag with spare underwear, socks, shaving tackle, towels, and even tablets of soap. I easily found a comfortable pair of boots in my medium size, and very well-made of supple leather, not too heavy. My French blue uniform I folded neatly, laying that too-small forage cap on top before selecting a replacement with no Regimental badge, but definitely of a size large enough for my big bonce (it had ear flaps too which folded neatly round the brim when not in use). My old, dingy underwear I threw into a corner of the tent, together with those tattered German jackboots I had worn for several months past.
Donning all these fine clothes, I felt warm in a way that had been unknown to me as a war prisoner. Kitbag over my shoulder, I marched away from the marquee feeling, at last, a Britisher once more.
Nearing the end of the year, living under canvas could have been unpleasantly cold, but a huge, anthracite stove kept each marquee warm inside. Its metal chimney poked through a fire-proofed exit hole in the ridge of the tent.
Fuel was brought in by men of a nation I had previously encountered only in the pages of cheap magazines which portrayed them as rather sinister people who moved in the sleazy atmosphere of Docklands eating houses, opium dens, the cabins of mist-enshrouded ships – even sewers. Occasionally, the action took place in a London West End mansion, the interior a replica of a Chinese temple wherein the vile Fu Manchu tortured and murdered his victims. Unless, of course, the great and remorseless Mr Something Smith(2) chanced to be around to circumvent him.
Nothing sinister, though, about the two Chinese men who refilled our stove so frequently. I made friends of them and we talked for a moment or two at each of their visits. No language problem; they spoke English well enough for me to learn they belonged to the Chinese Labour Corps(3) formed to do chores for our Army and, thus, free the maximum number of British men to fight in the front line. I never heard of a similar scheme to free Staff Officers for front-line duty.
These chaps told me they did most of their work in the officers’ kitchens and mess, not far from the hospital. Although well-fed, they found living in tents in winter-time very cold. They said they needed warmer clothing as the cotton garments they wore were thin and they shivered all the time – none of them knew the English for “shivering”, they conveyed it by illustration.
This reminded me of the dead men’s clothes tent and that pile of cardigans, one of which I had appropriated, lying spare. Soon we had devised a contract which resulted in a daily rendezvous near the entrance to the officers’ quarters and the swift exchange of small parcels, a cardigan for a piece of cheese or some other tasty morsel.
This did not seem to me a terribly wicked trade, for my friends needed warm clothing and I, still weak and thin, could benefit from additions to the necessarily austere diet available to an ordinary soldier at the end of a long war. So, as long as the supply of cardigans lasted, I met my customers’ requirements, conscience easily salved by averring that the transfer of unused clothing from one branch of our Service to another served the purposes of all concerned. Certainly my Chinese friends agreed with my line of argument, and their smiles and thanks and reciprocal nourishing gifts did me a power of good(4).
Washing and shaving daily, showering when my turn came, and feeling comfortably warm in my new clothing, all helped to restore lost confidence. In fact, throughout my stay at the Independent Air Force Field Hospital happiness was my lot, with the generous spirit of the Major matched by the all-male staff’s efforts to rehabilitate us.
But decisions made somewhere resulted in us returned prisoners being removed to an American hospital near Rouen(5). Strange that, at the end of the war, I should spend the last of my days in France in the place where I had camped after arriving from Egypt in 1916… That seemed way back to me.
This time, I was not allowed to go into town, but such was the kindly treatment freely given by the American doctors and the lovely nurses that only an ingrate would have wished for more freedom. They told me I could be examined and treated by doctors at any time, and a cheery chap showed me round the place.
When we entered the large hall where they served meals, he told me that an order issued regarding returned prisoners gave us the privilege of going back to the service counter after finishing our first plateful – up to three times if we so wished. I did this, but not three times, two proving the limit of my greedy capacity. First the generous American Air Force officer in Nancy, now the open-handed Yanks at Rouen… I could think of no way to show my appreciation of their many kindnesses, except by thanking them on every appropriate occasion.
The hospital wards consisted of roomy Nissen huts with two rows of beds separated by a gangway – quite similar to the civilian equivalent. We had no money, but GIs welcomed us into their combined canteen and entertainment hall, curious about us because they had not met many Britishers. Some of them had come straight to France without landing in Britain, I gathered.
When fully satisfied with regard to food and drink, one could mooch across to the rows of chairs facing a stage on which some kind of performer would be doing his stuff. Certainly the best of all the “turns”, in my opinion, was the American chaplain, whose straight-faced jokes and yarns kept the troops in stitches – without, of course, using any smutty gags, he kept going for longer than any comedian I had seen before and could have converted me to whatever his religion was, had he been so inclined.
German prisoners did chores around this hospital… And how, I felt, have the tables been turned. I sometimes watched them working in the grounds and noticed that they often found reason to be in the vicinity of the kitchens. I moved closer and saw that, when the cooks dumped food waste into tubs outside the kitchen doors there, the Germans would dash to get at the swill and reach in up to their elbows, searching for solids. When all had been taken, they returned to their labours. But on one occasion – as I could see from my position on the highest point of the grounds – soon after raiding the tubs and resuming their tasks, most of them began to totter around and then collapse. Unaffected prisoners ran for help and soon stretcher-bearers were carrying sick men away.
Later, I learnt that, by some accident, a poisonous substance had found its way into the waste food. Conjecture was rife about an American taking revenge on the Jerries for the horrible treatment inflicted on some Allied prisoners. But I thought it more likely that someone who had no knowledge that the German prisoners searched the waste tubs for food had dumped the poisonous stuff there.
Lying in my bed one dark night when most of the men were asleep, I heard the voices of a man and a girl, then some quiet laughter and kissing. I realised the couple were leaning against the thin wall of our hut about six inches from my head. Your imagination can improve on what would have been my description of subsequent developments, but I recall feeling glad for them. What sort of a war had they had, I wondered. At last, the stream of bloody and broken men had dried up and they could relax and give some really leisurely attention to more attractive occupations.
With improving health and strength, I thought even I might, ere long, have opportunities to try something along similar lines. Not that I believed war had put a stop to love-making, but thousands of couples, married or courting (that word meant going steady in those distant days), had been deprived of their oats (that meant loving in those etc) and Peace would release all their pent-up emotions…
For the first time in many a day I thought about girls and all that. Evidently nothing wrong with me that a few stouts and oysters wouldn’t put right – I hadn’t so far tried that diet, but had often heard it recommended for older men who had failed to rise to significant occasions.
“The bloody war is over, the ruddy war is finished…” Thoughts of that kind swirled around my nut constantly as I roamed the hospital grounds, canteen and community hall. Happy days indeed and most of those kind American guys obviously had similar joyful feelings, although some thousands of miles and a long, maybe rough, sea crossing lay between them and home – at that time, not even Alcock and Brown(6) had made an air crossing…
Then suddenly, I was joining a hospital train, off to Boulogne, across the Channel, “The white cliffs of Dover!”, disembarkation and off through the lovely English countryside into Victoria station and dear old London town…(7) ‘
(2) Mr Something Smith: that’s Denis Nayland Smith who, along with his Dr Watson-style back-up, Dr Petrie, regularly foiled Fu Manchu in the Sax Rohmer “Yellow Peril” stories published from 1912 onwards.
(3) The Chinese Labour Corps: founded 1916, after then General Haig said he needed 21,000 labourers; the first CLC ship-load sailed from China in January, 1917, and arrived in France three months later; by Armistice Day, they numbered 96,000; most were given transport home in 1919-20; perhaps 10-20,000 are said to have died during the war, chiefly from Spanish Flu; other Labour Corps recruited more than 300,000 men from British colonies, including Egypt, Fiji, India, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, the British West Indies and South Africa.
(4) Regular readers of my father’s Blog may recall his holding forth against “scrounging” on several occasions. And here he is, scrounging. Well, I’d say he was a very solid citizen, but not quite saintly in consistent application of his high moral standards to himself.
(5) American hospital near Rouen: information at http://ow.ly/ygaa30kUzLRsuggests this was probably Base Hospital 21, located on the Champs Des Courses racetrack, and staffed mainly by doctors and nurses from Washington University Hospital, St Louis (they took it over from the British in summer, 1917); it had 1,300 beds and remained active caring for former POWs until January, 1919. Although dates are impossible to pin down with certainty after my father crossed the French front line, his reference to staying at the RAMC hospital in what “must have been late November or early December” suggests his short Rouen sojourn occurred roughly December 1-10 (see footnote 7).
(6) Alcock and Brown: John Alcock from Manchester and Arthur Brown from Glasgow, both POWs during World War I, the former shot down in Turkey, the latter in Germany, made the first non-stop Transatlantic flight in June, 1919.
(7) One of two records of his return to England occurs on an Army pensions document, ‘Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W., W (T), P., or P. (T), of the Reserve’ (where “boarded” means examined by doctors to check his medical condition ergo his disability pension entitlement – 10 per cent of Army wages the verdict in my father’s case). It says he was “Repatriated 10.12.18” (see below: scrawled date and “diagnosis” bottom right), which could well be correct or close to (bearing in mind these documents can be wrong - including in my father’s case a couple of times). This date occurs also, in different scrawl, on the second page of his ‘Casualty Form – Active Service’ (also below, noted twice, once in faded ink in the middle of the page, then again last of the list of dates – most correct, one or two probably not – handwritten very small to the lower middle right; apologies, you may need a magnifying glass if you’re curious about all the detail).
Next week: Sam’s settles into another hospital, but it’s in London this time – his father, who’d had no idea where he was, visits and looks “happier than I could ever remember”… and finally, he’s home, “I pushed the old iron gate open…”
(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.