“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, 2 December 2018
Sam’s back among the Entente Allies at last – but his body can’t break free of the war… nearly killed by a kind American officer’s gastronomic generosity he collapses in the street until two veteran poilus carry him to a French military hospital where, briefly, he has his breakdown, “shaking, trembling, sudden showers of tears…”
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 Memoir concludes 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 at 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… Sporadic conflict continued in a few scattered settings: in the Gulf Of Finland, the light cruiser HMS Cassandra – engaged in supporting newly independent Baltic states against the Bolshevik Russians – hit a German mine and sank with 11 men lost (December 4); nearby, the Bolshevik Army was engaged in invading Estonia (8); down on the Caspian, British and Bolshevik naval vessels skirmished.
But the main continuing story comprised landmarks in the Allies’ unopposed occupation of Germany: the Belgian Army entered Jülich (December 2), Neuss (4), Mönchengladbach (5), Krefeld (6) and Uerdingen (8; all in North Rhine-Westphalia); the British Army entered Düren (4) and Köln/Cologne (6; also North Rhine-Westphalia); and US troops reached Coblenz (8; in Rhineland-Palatinate – and spelt with a “C” until 1926 apparently!). In Berlin, as yet unoccupied, German soldiers scrapped with the domestic Marxist revolutionaries of the Spartacus League, founded in 1914, a week after the war began.
Further south, formalities proceeded with the last Bulgarian troops evacuating the Dobrudja region, Romania (December 3), the surrender of all Turkish and Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea and the proclamation of the Yugo-Slav Union (4; Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia).
[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 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. 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 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, 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… ]
November 16-20-ish, 1918, on the road west from German-occupied Lorraine to the French front line: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, after eight months of slow starvation and much brutality as a POW, last week described days two to four of his personal long walk to freedom – more of a totter in truth.
Two English nurses in a deserted French town more or less saved his life with food, bed and kindness. He encountered his own last German: a Uhlan cavalryman who bade him a cheery goodbye rather than beheading him with his sabre. And finally, on November 15 probably, he reached the now silent and empty Front lines and tiptoed through a German minefield into a French trench.
Temporarily accommodated with other returned POWs in a nearby village, he was given a sumptuous meal of bread and cocoa… which nearly finished him off as his malnourished guts couldn’t stand such riches and abundance…
‘During the short period of recuperation I spent in this village near the front line, I saw vast earthworks and wooden bridges being constructed to provide a wide, raised road to transport the French Army eastwards.
One large front-line area lay in low ground, but this apparent valley did not look natural, the ground having been subjected to massive upheaval. I concluded this had resulted from underground explosions, rather than bombardment – the Armies having tunnelled under one another’s trench systems and dynamited them.
I also watched French colonial troops, dark of skin and in their thousands, drilling and being inspected. Probably new recruits, their uniforms and accoutrements in perfect condition, they looked fighting fit, a fine, prospective Army Of Occupation – and the fact that they were coloured(2) men would doubly humiliate the defeated enemy.
Soon we Britishers boarded a French Army lorry and moved on to that fine town which we call Nancy(3) and they call Nawnsee, where they billeted us in a large barracks together with many other returned prisoners.
I searched for Wally and George but, among all these men, I knew no one at all. Everybody greeted me cheerfully, though, in good spirits no matter what their physical condition, certain now of rejoining their families soon and so not bothered about having to “kip down”, as the expression went, on a hard floor just as they had done as prisoners of the Germans.
Still somewhat distended below, I needed no food, so I walked out of the barracks and found myself in a street mainly occupied by shops. It was then indeed that the wonderful feeling of freedom welled up in me – although it remained difficult to feel certain that no guard would loom up and drive me back into an enclosure.
I looked into shop windows and knew the pleasure of gazing at beautiful things in a jeweller’s window, but then even more so when I stopped outside a shop titled “Boulangerie, Confiserie”(4), if that’s right. The display certainly was appetising… so reminiscent of the baker’s in Le Havre in the distant days of my buying trips from the Harfleur camp when Marie-Louise Baudlet(5) became my friend and interpreter.
I came to a sweet shop and my eyes were attracted to a bar of chocolate. I became aware of a small woman dressed in black, whom I had noticed at my side previously, looking in the same direction. She went inside, but soon emerged and smilingly handed me the bar of chocolate and another small package too. A surprised and very grateful man, I thanked her, “Merci bien,” and the sweet kindness, which prompted her to give me things for which she felt I longed, affected me almost to the point of tears. I held out my hand in offered handshake and as I raised our joined hands it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lean forward and kiss the back of hers. This delighted her, and therefore thrilled me, and she broke into excited talking of which I understood little. However, I compried(6), as the troops used to say, such words as “écrivez” and “famille” and my sparse French allowed me to assure her that “ma mère et mon père” would be hearing from me shortly.
All her wartime sufferings and losses were written in lines on her dear old face and her generosity had welled up at the sight of skinny, ragged me, whose age may have matched that of her own boy, probably long dead and buried with those thousands of our French comrades who fought to the death and held on to Verdun and other vital positions… or, perhaps, the black clothes and hat indicated a husband lost and mourned for. I know I felt deeply affected by the incident.
We parted and, after a few yards, I thought to look inside the second package; it contained writing paper and envelopes – “Écrivez à votre famille(7)”…
When I raised my eyes again I found myself being observed by a tall officer. He had stopped directly in my path – in doubt as to my nationality, I soon realised, because I still wore my war-prisoner rags. When I told him I was an English former POW, he took charge of me at once. He was an American airman, he told me, in charge of a depot in Nancy.
“We’ll go there and feed you, and you can dress up in one of our uniforms for the time being,” he said. I could see that at last my luck was in. I set off alongside him, though matching his long strides proved difficult. What with the tummy upsets and general weakness, and now the overflowing emotions caused by two acts of kindness accorded me by two such utterly different kinds of people… I was letting my feelings get out of control – and in danger of breaking down.
“Here’s our place, and up the stairs we go,” he said. We entered a room furnished with a table, three hard chairs and not much else beyond a filing cabinet. He picked up a telephone, turned the handle, and told somebody to bring food which he ordered in detail. Presently, a Private, or rather Airman, came in with a tray carrying two large plates of canned meat, baked beans and bread – an enormous feed, and they both adjured me to tuck it all away. Tempted to hope my stomach had settled down enough, I went at it with a will and savoured the mug of hot coffee, not ground acorns, they gave me when I had finished. The immediate effect: happy satiety and more gratitude.
“Stay here while we make arrangements about your uniform,” said the officer. Off he went, returning shortly with a completed form which he handed to me. He directed me to take it “down the stairway, turn left at the bottom and go through the first door you come to on the left side of the street”. Offering profuse thanks and the best salute I could manage, I made my way down the worn wooden stairs, but after a few steps along the pavement I must have lost consciousness… my next memory is of being carried along, not by Americans, but by two French soldiers using a hand seat – the method of carrying someone hurt or ill we had been taught to use in Boy Scout first-aid classes. Two joined hands supported me below and they held me upright with linked arms round my shoulders.
Again my belly swelled and I felt terribly ill. After what seemed a long walk, these kind poilus(8) carried me up stone steps and into an entrance hall. They lowered me into a chair, talked to a blue-clad nurse, then with encouraging pats on the shoulder, stepped back and waited. The nurse drew the cork from a small, brown bottle, which she handed to me, and I drank its pleasant-tasting contents. She just waited and watched to see how I reacted to the medicine.
Whatever I may have wished to do, Nature beat me to it; I began to tremble violently, just couldn’t stop shaking. To complete the display of weakness I began to blubber like a kid. Then the kind soldiers were carrying me again – upstairs and into a large square hall crowded with French soldiers, some dressed, or partly, some wearing greatcoats over underpants and vests, all wounded. Some had an arm in a sling or a splinted leg, but the majority wore head and eye bandages.
The poilus placed me on a single iron bedstead with a mattress. My friends covered me with two blankets and bade me “Au revoir” and other kind words not compried by ignorant me. They departed to a chaffing chorus of remarks from their comrades.
To rest there was all I wished and the men around me gave understanding smiles and waves(9). Sleep followed. The lights were on when next I surfaced. I knew then that I was ill and confused, abdomen distended and experiencing some difficulty in breathing. And now I needed to relieve my bowels.
What to do about that? One could not ask for a bedpan; I saw no nurses and it would insult a soldier to ask him for such a thing. I was worried, deeply, and did the only thing possible – I stood up and tottered across the crowded hall by holding on to the beds I passed and, when I reached the stairs, I sat on the top step and bumped my way downwards till I reached the ground floor. I went through a small door into a big yard, dimly lit. On the other side I could see what might be the sort of place I needed, a row of cubicles with half doors… The half doors brought vividly to mind the lavatories of schooldays.
I shuffled across the yard, opened a cubicle and saw there was no seat, merely a small, circular hole in the concrete floor. The cubicles had no dividing walls, only half-partitions matching the half-doors. As I squatted, I recalled that, in Cairo, I had been taken to just such a convenience by a self-appointed guide(10)…
My door shook and a girl’s face appeared above it, then she entered the next cubicle whence audible evidence of her activities proved that the circumstances caused her no embarrassment at all. In some strange way, this felt homely and reassuring. But I was in a bad way. Great gusts of escaping wind above and fluid below… Shaking, trembling and sudden showers of tears. Briefly: in a right mess.
I crawled up the stairs and then, unable to stand, crawled again on hands and knees towards my bed… where, as always, someone I’d never met before appeared and helped me; a French soldier, he got me up on to the bed. We conversed using French, German and English words and many gestures. We knew what we were telling each other perfectly and, during the following days, that good French soldier, Paul, and I became good friends.’
(2) “Coloured” was not a racist term in the 1970s when my father wrote his Memoir. As his editor, I decided not to generationally revise his words when matters like this arose.
(3) Nancy: 262 miles (422 kilometres) southeast of Arras, 114 miles (183 kilometres) north of Belfort, in the department of Meurthe-Et-Moselle, it remained French after the Franco-Prussian War and throughout World War I.
(4) “Boulangerie, Confiserie”: “Baker, Confectioner”.
(5) Marie-Louise was a grocer’s daughter and French soldier’s wife in Le Havre who befriended, guided and advised Sam during his couple of months camped at Harfleur when he left front-line action in late 1916, after the Somme – because he was found to be only 18 and still underage for fighting – and acted as buyer for a semi-official Army cafeteria. See Blogs October 16 to October 30 and November 27, 2016.
(6) “Compried” would be derived from French people constantly saying “Avez-vous compris?” to British soldiers i.e. “Did you understand?”
(7) “Écrivez à votre famille”: “Write to your family”.
(8) Poilus: was French slang for their own infantrymen in World War I; meaning “hairy one”, it arose from Napoleon’s Army of the early 19th century largely comprising heavily bewhiskered agricultural workers.
(9) A document splendiferously titled ‘Released Prisoners Of War Admitted To Medical Units Overseas Compiled From Returns Other Than A.F.W. 3034 Transmitted By The D.A.G. 3rd Echelon, France’ (from the record office at Warley, HQ of the Essex Regiment) says that 30237 Pte Sutcliffe C. (C for his seven first name Charles, but he was always known as Sam) was admitted to hospital on November 20. However, neither this document nor one headed “Released Prisoners Of War Reported by Hos. In France”, which repeats the information about my father, clarifies which hospital they’re referring to. It would appear to be “42 STY H Courban”. But I can’t see that my father was ever anywhere near Courban – a village 116.6 miles (187.6 kilometres) southwest of Nancy – and my modest researches have revealed no hint at all that a World War I hospital was based there. On the other hand, November 20 could well have been the day when those comradely poilus picked my father up off a Nancy pavement and took him to the French military hospital, where somebody officially noted his presence. Now this starts to make some feasible sense. “42 STY H” meant “42 Stationary Hospital” in British Army admin code. They appear to have been termed “Stationary” because they moved around a lot! Anyway, after Armistice, “42 STY H” transported itself from Camiers (way up in the Pas-de-Calais) to Nancy on November 18, 1918, and remained there until March 19, 1919. So, if you’ll permit me another guess about the admin story that proceeded behind my father’s hard experiences, I’d suggest that Nancy French military hospital told the new RAMC one about his presence and that’s why, a few days later as you’ll read, the Major in charge sent his wife over to pick up Sam.
(10) See Blog August 30, 2015 – before Sam’s Gallipoli sojourn.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam, post-“breakdown”, is tended by poilupal Paul – and the French doctor puts him on a medicinal diet of champagne and brandy. Sam recovers a little… and gets an honorary French uniform! Then an English visitor whisks him away to the RAMC and the medical regime switches to Guinness… he takes a walk and a Madame (in the brothel sense) makes him an offer…
(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.