“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, 17 February 2019
Retrospective – the terror of war: how Sam, a front-line Tommy at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras, felt and dealt with fear…
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. For AUDIO excerpts click Here Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook 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 as of February 1, 2019, is £3,979.66 (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… With President Wilson and PM Lloyd George back in the US and UK for the month, the Paris Peace Conference went low-key as “working” bodies like the Supreme Economic Council got stuck into the slog of detailing post-war relationships – within the array of Germany-crushing and Empire-securing parameters the Allies’ leaders had set out. On the fringes, “unofficial” organisations such as the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference, which ran from February 10 to April 10 pursued their own angles (in their case total lack of female representation).
Otherwise, it turned out to be assassination season.
The big hit failed when, on February 19, French PM Georges Clemenceau took a bullet between the ribs from Emile Cottin, generally described as an anarchist who objected to Clemenceau’s alleged role in strikers at aviation factory being fired on the previous year, although at his trial he proclaimed himself a Bolshevik protesting Clemenceau’s attitude to Russian soldiers post-war (allegedly sending them to Africa when they wanted to join the Communist forces back home). The “Tiger” wore the bullet for the remaining ten years of his life.
Elsewhere, German nationalist Count Arco auf Valley succeeded in gunning down Bavarian Premier Kurt Eisner, socialist and leading monarch-overthrower, with the possibly unintended consequence that days of rioting in Munich led to the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, at least for a while. And over in Afghanistan, Emir Habibullah Khan had his 18-year reign ended by a shot from Mustafa Seghir, some say a British-paid Indian spy – if so, a fine show of ingratitude for the Emir’s maintaining neutrality throughout WW1 despite heavy pressure from Turkey and Germany.
Aside from that, assorted fighting continued around Europe, especially between Prussians and Poles in the then German province of Posen, between Poles and Ukrainians around Lemburg/Lviv, and the Allies and Bolsheviks on the north Russian, Murman front.
[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. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux 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 hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – via the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen. Finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before he was allowed home and reunited with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Still, civilian life continued to offer Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit and, so far, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton…]
Retrospective 1: As of February, 1919, my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, Gallipoli, Somme, Spring Offensive veteran and ex-POW, found himself in Brighton – billeted in a Spartan dormitory near the top of a grand Palmeira Square mansion. Transferred to the Royal Defence Corps – an early Dad’s Army – for his concluding months in uniform, at this point he simply enjoyed “a month spent by the sea with nothing to do…”
So we’ll rejoin him in four weeks when the powers-that-be come up with something useful for him and his mates to engage with (which they did). For now, then, a look back at his war in thematic terms. I’m going for “sex and romance”, “Army grub” (or Tommies marching on their stomachs), “a Tommy’s view of the enemy” – and first up, “fear and the battlefield”.
It’s turned out to be the longest FSS blog ever, so out on some comfy shoes. As always, no claims that Sam represents a “typical” Tommy, just the one, himself. But I hope you get something from it:
Putting together this overview of Sam’s emotional experience of war’s terrors, I was first struck by how often his Memoir’s early chapters – the story of his childhood and early teens – referred to fear. The diverse causes included: feeling alone as a new boy in London (after the family moved down from Manchester when he was three), the sufferings of poverty (especially raw hunger), his mother’s ridicule (she took out on Sam some of her bitterness at their “coming down in the world”), uncertainty about girls and sex, the tyranny of early bosses, the multiple threats of war anticipated (shortages, German invasion). I really don’t know whether this added up to more than the average amount of fear kids feel – or perhaps unusual honesty about such matters, presaging more of the same when he became a fighting soldier.
But then after the nations of Europe played head tennis war declarations during August, 1914, and the initial battles brought some reality to the “all over by Christmas” blather, he notes that “Everyone knew it was not going well, and flickers of fear disturbed even reasonably optimistic people” and “fear of a long war grew”. This period provoked in him – and multitudes of others – nervous doubt about whether to join up or not. And after he did enlist, on September 10, 1914, for months he’d often quake about possible exposure of his attestation lie “to the King” that he was 19, rather than 16.
No doubt, though, the mortal fear of death or injury is of a different order to any of the above…
It touched him first for a few hours in February, 1915, when his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers were sailing from Southampton to Malta. Still in the Atlantic, a U-boat alert saw them all ordered below decks – Sam’s H Company in a hold way down in the depths – lights low, feeling trapped… and the terrible “fear that, if a torpedo struck the ship, the imprisoned crowds of men would not stand a chance of surviving”.
The next step occurred after seven months training in Malta had lulled the men into a sense that, for them, it might never happen. The order came to prepare for another voyage, its ultimate purpose marked by the issue of active-service paybooks. This might not strike you as momentous, but Sam recalls:
‘The last page was printed in the form of a will. It was not obligatory to use this, but it would be useful in the event of a soldier’s death.
Death? A certain tension built up inwardly at the possibility thus openly presented. In the excitement of the early days of the war, the remote prospect of being killed or wounded had appeared an acceptable risk which all Britons must face, and an early dispatch to the front line would probably have settled the issue before one had very much time for contemplation of all the possibilities…
An inner resistance to all forthcoming horrors would be necessary to conceal the truth about me from my comrades – I was actually scared windy, as it was termed, but I must remain the only one aware of this. While behaving as normally as possible, I would maintain this preparedness for any dire possibility, always be one step ahead of the enemy who happened to have the bullet or shell with my name on it
Thereafter, although I joined in fun and games and general conversation with those around me, I never fully relaxed. The perpetual awareness of danger, which wild creatures display at all times, became part of my way of life – my defence against the risks which would soon beset me. Having settled into this new animal-instinctive preparedness, I could do my work and, when necessary, exercise the petty authority of my one stripe with ease, realising that at least some of my mates must be feeling a bit of tension, a twinge of anxiety.’
In fact, they landed at Alexandria, Egypt, and didn’t sail north for Lemnos until late September. But that journey, with everyone knowing the ultimate destination, had the butterflies fluttering while his cooler self tried to get a grip: “the taut, nervous condition, brought on by anticipation of what I feared, had me scheming about any steps I could take to improve my survival prospects”.
Pausing for a few hours in Mudros harbour, Lemnos, he strategised further: “The thing not to do was stay silent and look gloomy – that way you would be labelled ‘windy’ and lose all your pals. You had to consider that others might be feeling worse than you, but they didn’t let it show. So it may be that battles fought inwardly to preserve the good opinion of one’s fellows made possible some of the bigger victories on the battlefield…”
Soon, in a smaller vessel, they set off for Suvla Bay and, as they approached, for the first time in his life – the same applied to nearly all of his comrades – he heard weapons fired in deadly anger:
‘… on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare…
A howl became a shriek, then a shattering explosion – and a short silence was followed by numerous thuds as what had gone up came down on the nearby beach. While still at sea I heard for the first time that sad, though urgent call, “Stretcher-bearers!” A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards seemed to produce an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body…
Whether excitement or fear brought it on I don’t know, but I suddenly felt terribly hungry. Then I recalled that I had not eaten since early morning. Nor, as far as I know, had any of our men. Someone had blundered. Or was it usual to land troops on a battlefield with empty bellies?’
So still at sea, he discovered the reality of “the smell of fear” – emanating from his own skin. That’s what he called it and the feeling, plus aromatic accompaniment, came to him for the next three years every time he got within earshot of a battlefield. He never commented to me on whether others shared this odoriferousc phenomenon, no doubt some pungent mix of sweat and adrenaline. Yet all through the beach landing at night under shell and rifle fire, the first deaths of comrades, and then the four months of futile skirmishing that followed, like the majority of Tommies – it seems almost miraculous to confidently assert this – he won the “battle fought inwardly”. He held his “windiness” in check to such an extent that, as a Lance Corporal Signaller at this stage, he was able to take care of more vulnerable companions in his charge, ushering two of them to the exits (i.e. a hospital ship back to Lemnos) in diverse circumstances.
More startling to me, his son, is that he even became a (fairly controlled) risk-taker, a quirk which resurfaced from time to time later. Here he’s describing a scene from December, 1915, after the notorious blizzard, which did have just one beneficial effect - ending the water shortage. On the hilltop he occupied with serial Signals assistants, a ready supply of melted snow lay in a nearby trench… if he could get to it:
‘I carried a can to which I had tied a length of string to lower it into the trench. I would climb out of our trench and dash several yards, freeze there for a moment while I pictured John Turk taking aim at me, then make another short dash while the bullet smacked somewhere behind me. One more pause, then run to the trench, lower and raise the can, and return via another pause or two before a final, fearful charge back to and into our trench, having retained as much water in the can as possible. The bullets always seemed to arrive at the spot near where I had last paused. But I was careful to operate in poor light, morning and evening, because I had rightly assumed that the sniper was a good shot…’
He concluded the Gallipoli section of the Memoir, as the Battalion remnants (200 out of the original 1,000) sailed away from V Beach on January 6, 1916, with a further reflection on the nature of his fears and the importance to the individual Tommy and the collective of keeping them to yourself:
‘What a blessing that fears and doubts don’t make a noise as they move back and forth inside your head; companions might hear them and then you’d never convince them you are unafraid, a brave fellow and all that sort of thing. They’d know the truth about you, the last thing you’d wish for.’
Via an R&R sojourn in Egypt – at Beni Salama, on the west bank of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara – from January to April, 1916, the 2/1st ended up at Rouen, France. There, to the survivors’ bitter chagrin, the Army disbanded the Battalion and scattered them among the regiments preparing to take part in the great Somme attack (not that it was advertised as such, of course – or not deliberately).
By early May, Sam found himself in another London Regiment Battalion, the Kensingtons. He joined them at Hébuterne, opposite German-occupied Gommecourt, after which their northern sector of the battle was named. Lower-key fighting occurred all the time, of course, so his sweat glands resumed their smelly work, but he drew consolation for this recurrenceof general dread from an odd bit of 17-year-old soldierly logic: “a shaft of hope, almost of joy, for I remembered that here [in contrast to Gallipoli] no sea lay behind us, that in periods of rest from front-line trench life we would withdraw some miles away from all noise, wounding, or sudden death, and enjoy relief from our fears and these unnatural living conditions”.
During the preparations for the “wonderful occasion” of the great attack, one of his observations showed how the Tommy cannon fodder ruminated on their remote leaders’ strategies and their capacity for increasing the general level of anxiety if they appeared careless (meaning, careless of the Tommies’ fate). When they trained on replica trench systems 13 miles back at Halloy, Sam reflected:
‘I was such a windy bugger that, had I been in charge of that Division, I would have insisted on the mock battlefield being camouflaged when not in use, but that only illustrates the difference between a scary little Lance Corporal and a hearty, red-face General. If our High Command had thought on similar lines to those worrying – the infantrymen – the attack would have been postponed for a while, some diversions organised in remoter parts of the Front, followed by what would then have been a surprise attack on the Somme. A surprise, that is, to our force as well as Jerry’s. We’d been talking about the damn thing for weeks and the enemy probably knew as much as we did about it.’
Back in the line, he led nightly excursions to dig advanced trenches in No Man’s Land – the sort of event he’d joke about as underwear-threatening and so on (he never mentioned his sphincter actually letting go and, in old age at least, he was a man of rude candour about such matters so I think he would have). These operations certainly had all concerned operating on the brink of panic, while at the same time able to summon up that almost out-of-body calmness evidenced by the strange objectivity implied in Sam’s account here – until, that is, an officer’s order permitted them to do what would have come naturally from the outset and run for it:
‘Soon, all of us were hard at work – and the noise we made was frightening. Only too well aware that we must soon be heard and seen by Jerry, we picked and shovelled like madmen… Fortunately for us, enemy reaction did prove slow and when, eventually, their wrath descended, we squeezed down into the hollows we’d dug and found we did have a few protective inches of earth above our precious bodies.
Machine-gun bullets spattered around me and I marvelled that I should lie there, hear and see them striking, yet remain untouched. But our semi-trenches afforded little protection when light field guns joined in and their shattering whizz-bangs filled the air with noise and flying metal. One could only hug Mother Earth and wait for an order to retire, which didn’t come.
I heard the occasional muttered request for “Stretcher-bearers!” – brave fellows indeed, themselves not immunised from injury or death by their labours of mercy. Brilliant flickering Verey lights fired by the Germans revealed all movements; when one hovered near you, you froze no matter in what posture. I always looked down to conceal the whiteness of my face, though more in hope than conviction.
Later, after the firing had died down, the order “Dig like hell!” was passed along. We complied until, after a while, we reaped a further rich harvest of bullets and shell which compelled our officer to order a retreat. We stood not upon the order of our going…’
July 1 itself was the only war experience that, in part at least, defeated Sam’s powers of recall and description when he looked back to write in his 70s. What he did get down is powerfully sparse, but I get the sense that he was stunned, almost numbed, by the scale of terror and destruction – that he and most of his comrades reached the point where fear and other emotions merge into trauma.
Personally, he got stuck in a front-line trench, in a steadily depleting Company A led by Major Cedric Charles Dickens, the novelist’s grandson, whose messages back to Battalion HQ only a few hundred yards behind him (quoted in Alan MacDonald’s extraordinary account of the Kensingtons at Gommecourt, Pro Patria Mori) included the report that he had “spent 6 hours watching the trenches destroyed and his men maimed and killed by the thunderous bombardment of the German howitzers” and, towards the end of the day, “I have, as far as I can find, only 13 left beside myself. Trenches unrecognisable. Quite impossible to hold. Bombardment fearful for last two hours. I am the only officer left. Please send instructions.” He finally got the order to withdraw after 3pm – my father had become separated from the Company by then and stayed the night in the front line with a few others, mulling and counteracting a sense of guilt and impotence about his and their performance:
‘When the kilted lads advanced, their numbers decreased alarmingly with every forward stride. Meanwhile, our own advanced position was being blown apart piecemeal; pockets of survivors lost touch with their leadership and the nearest NCO had to make decisions… If he could only see ahead that our first line of attack was destroyed before capturing its objective, that its members lay dead and wounded on the ground ahead or grotesquely draped over the enemy barbed wire which our bombardment should have destroyed, then when should he take his small force over the top?…
Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men…
The wounded men who could not walk or crawl back from No Man’s Land were, in many instances, simply left there for hours following the failed attack because of the mentally and physically exhausted condition of their comrades who had survived.
I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing.
One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance.
So, possibly, nervous shock afflicted everyone there to a greater or lesser degree, even though fear no longer weighed on us as earlier in the day…
During the hours of darkness… A gradual return to usefulness replaced the varying degrees of stupor and inertia which for many were the invisible wounds following many hours of explosion and upheaval, shattering to eardrums and nerves…
By dawn, most of us were ready to stop where we stood – crouched, rather – for under cover of dark we had searched for and found many wounded men, their chances of living diminishing with every hour in which they lay exposed with wounds untended.
We felt that our work was very valuable and the joy with which injured men greeted their rescuers was reward indeed. Perhaps the failure of the massive attack had left us with a sense of guilt which the intensive rescue work relieved.’
After five months on the Somme, Sam suddenly got a break from the battlefield when it emerged that he was still under-age for fighting – 18 by then, when the low limit always had been 19 – and he gladly grabbed the opportunity to get away from all that for a year.
After a transfer to the 2/7 Battalion Essex Regiment, he returned to France in December, 1917. But when he heard about his posting, on his last few days of leave at home he told his family something which must have both reflected his experience up to that point and, probably, to some degree affected his emotional state in the battles to come. He told them, “… I should be just one little man among all the mess and muddle, but that, for some reason I could not explain, I felt certain I would survive, even though, for a while, I might not be able to keep in touch”.
When the Spring Offensive struck, the 2/7th had just advanced into the front line at Fampoux, outside Arras. On March 28, at midnight, he and his Signaller pal Neston took the message that sealed the Battalion’s fate; an order to fight to the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. I guess that would rather counter his new optimism. Certainly, it was another new setting for his feelings which, as the opening German bombardment rained down, he describes as a contradictory mix of blank trauma and sheer frustration:
‘Shells of all calibres burst around us. I now felt sort of mentally stunned and a looker-on, as it were, at the heaving destruction, wounding and killing on both sides of me for as far as I could see. Still no targets for my bullets, no outlets for my pent-up fears… if this continued for much longer I guessed I’d explode from within, regardless of enemy shells.
I told Neston of this feeling, putting my mouth against his ear. He may have understood but, anyway, that much physical contact achieved something, for as we looked into each other’s eyes we returned to a normal human condition in which it was possible to give some thought to the fears and wishes of someone other than oneself. The animal concentration on survival, self-preservation no matter what happened to others, was thereafter easily set aside… “Stick together no matter what happens,” was the unspoken, but well understood agreement born and confirmed when we two stopped acting mechanically amid all that din and horror and probed for something worthwhile in each other while Old Man Death waited to put his clammy hand on us.’
But when the shooting started – when wave after wave of German soldiers raced towards the British trenches – he realised mechanical behaviour is exactly what the situation necessitated or, rather, seemed to impose:
‘In the desperate situation and amid the unnatural excitement, nervousness, and recurring moments of fear then being endured, one thing was proved beyond doubt – namely, that the intensive training one had undergone at various times during the past four years had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton. Loading – transferring a bullet from its position in a clip of five in the magazine to its position in the firing chamber by working the bolt back and forth – took only a fraction of a second; a moment to sight the gun correctly on a target; squeezing, not pulling the trigger – well, no time really. Result: a man killed, wounded horribly maybe, and so bereavement in some family, or else sorrow over a son made an invalid or a cripple forlife, all caused by one man’s impersonal automatic action.’
This last terrible awareness of having killed stayed with him for the rest of his life – hence his partly expiative work as a first-aider/ambulance driver in WW2’s London Blitz. And maybe it affected his instinctive, emotional actions an hour or so later, immediately before he became a POW.
With all their Company’s ammunition fired, Neston and Sam went back to the Signallers’/Company HQ dugout and released carrier pigeons to take the news back to Brigade. Then they shook hands, Neston set off rearwards… and my father turned back towards the onrushing enemy. Fearlessly? Exhausted, for sure. Traumatised blank maybe. All fear spent perhaps. Or/and, underneath, still inexplicably confident of survival… The truth is I can’t and shouldn’t rationalise his every emotional move. He wrote about it as well as anyone could have. This is his account of those moments:
‘A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition.…
As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me. All thought of bravely taking on the German Army single-handed was absent. Inaction was my response. I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye. I earned no medals that day nor any other day…
At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Their fresh, healthy faces made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads.’
All the best– FSS
Next week: While Sam enjoys that “month spent by the sea with nothing to do but polish our boots and buttons”, the Blog Retro 2 theme is sex and romance, a young Tommy innocent abroad’s struggles with temptation…
(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.