“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, 10 March 2019
Retrospective 4 – “Comradeship”, how Sam and assorted pals kept one another going in appalling conditions – Gallipoli, the Somme, Spring Offensive and as POWs – with narry a therapist in sight…
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 herea nd 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 March 9, 2019, is £4,011.41 (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… The big-hitters had returned to Paris – namely Lloyd George (March 5), Woodrow Wilson (13). French PM Clemenceau was there already, of course, and not getting about much after the February 19 assassination attempt left a bullet between his ribs permanently. But he wasn’t happy… President Raymond Poincaré’s diary noted his Number 1 complaining that Lloyd George was a “trickster”, so he promised he would “act like a hedgehog and wait until they come to talk to me” – especially on the issue of France’s need to render Germany unable to rebuild its Army in any foreseeable future. “It is a point I will not yield,” he said.
While rioting proceeded in Berlin, the UK, Egypt and elsewhere, substantial military action continued in Russia where the Bolshevik Army was having a bad time against the White Russians in the Urals – on March 16 the Whites’ Western Army captured Ufa, Bashkiria (890 miles east of Moscow), without a fight, apparently.
[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 – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered 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 4: As of February-March, 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”… which he described conclusively with just that phrase so, for want of concurrent 100-years-ago-this-week blog material…
I’ve left him for four weeks until the powers-that-be come up with something useful for him and his mates to engage with (which they did, resuming next week). For now, a fourth themed-excerpts look back. Last week, it was a young Tommy’s experiences of “Army Grub”. Now a look at how “Comradeship” played its part in keeping him going through it all…
(Warning: another long read ahead – best bring your mates… and NB in the early excerpts my father wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”(!), “our lad” and such, while his older brother Ted aliased as “George”.)
Dictionary definitions don’t really address subjects this complex and profound, so I’ll just say I’ve chosen these stories from my father’s Memoirbecause I feel they reflect my own sense of the full meaning of “comradeship” and how it differs from friendship: namely, I see comradeship as friendship expressed and confirmed through shared action or work towards a common objective. Of course, this doesn’t apply only in wartime, but it certainly can be deepened by crisis experienced together. However, a surprise to me, having made these selections, was the impermanence of most comradeships my father felt part of during WW1 – I have no idea how “normal” this turned out to be for the majority of Tommies.
It’s a real bonus, I think, that Sam began his Memoirwith toddlerhood and gave a thorough account of his growing up before he joined the Army in September, 1914. So I’ll begin with a few anecdotes hinting at how he grew into his own, no doubt highly individual understanding of comradeship.
A boy restrained to quite solitary quietness in early years by fear of poverty and upset at home, he started to come into his own when he joined the newly-founded Boy Scouts (in 1909-10):
‘Becoming a member of this movement opened a new phase of living for Tommy. Life had been hard and grim. Now very pleasant pastimes came to occupy many of his out-of-school hours and he began to enjoy the company of other boys under happy conditions, free from the pressures of schoolwork and the overseeing of the form teacher. He experienced more tolerance and kindness from the Scoutmaster and his assistants, this being a voluntary organisation…’
With the troop, he did regular gym sessions, took all sorts of specialist lessons including first aid, played a part in precursors of the Gang Show, and at Easter and Whitsun trekked a few miles from Edmonton to go camping in Epping Forest:
‘They practiced running, vaulting with the pole over brooks and other obstacles, tracking in woodland areas – and tying knots, of course… They fenced, not with swords, but stout sticks… The older boys took boxing lessons – Tommy did, in due course. And yet they still seemed to have plenty of leisure time when they could wander through the forest by themselves or in groups.
The site comprised a hill at the edge of a large farming estate, with the tents set up in a row at the top, their water supply a spring at the bottom. A line of youngsters took it in turns to lower their buckets into the small pool around the spring – very carefully, so as not to disturb the silt at the bottom…
At 6.30 each morning, a bugle call, reveille! Up and out of those beds and, given fine weather, the Scoutmaster, assistant Scoutmasters, and all of the boys in their pants and vests rushed down to the river and in they went. The water came up to their waists or shoulders. They took their soap, so a cold bath and a quick towelling on the riverbank, then back up the hill to breakfast; large containers of hard-boiled eggs or saveloys(2) – very popular with the lads – and bacon with plenty of bread and butter and boiling tea. Done over campfires, it all went off with the precision of a military camp.’
(2) English, red, pork sausages.
Looking back, naturally, “Tommy”/Sam came to recognise the potential military application of much that Scouting offered:
‘Scouting, Tommy realised, had taught him a good deal that would be useful to a soldier. He could help erect a tent, use a rifle, and communicate efficiently by semaphore or Morse code or a simple field telegraph. As a Patrol Leader, he had acquired the ability to stand up in front of a group of lads and give brief orders.
If any of these things might appear to have been intended to prepare youngsters for military service this was certainly not the intention behind [Scoutmaster] Mr Frusher’s work. As a practising Christian, at heart a pacifist, he never said anything to Scout meetings about the war scare and the training had nothing of a military character to it – no yelling of orders or foot-stamping drill.’
Community activities too played their part, as they always have, in fostering comradeship – organising and working together – be it a school open day or a church fete to raise money for a new hall. He even observed his father, usually subdued as if forever carrying the weight of the business failure that plunged his family into poverty, blooming as these successful activities diminished his sad loneliness:
‘A nice, social atmosphere developed [at the new church hall] and when the boy was allowed into the club room for a few moments, he noticed the difference in his father. That normally quiet, sometimes morose man became quite affable among other men, smiling, chatting away in a manner which Tommy had thought impossible.’
Of course, all “learning experiences” do not occur within orderly confines such as school, Scouts and church. There’s play. And play that gets out of hand. These two stories show how “Tommy”/Sam accidentally explored both comradeship and leadership in a context of boys’ “battling”:
‘Tommy often joined his schoolfriends, all aged 13 or so by then, to stage mock battles on the old brickfields. Each kiln had an open space in the middle, so they made good forts. But came the day when a rival gang, led by a boy called Wayland, started a quite vicious and serious attack – because, it seemed, they had a grudge against Tommy.
No particular incident had provoked it. But he sensed it may have arisen from his close friendship with Charlie Bolton, the brainiest lad in the school. Within their own group, Charlie insisted on Tommy taking the lead in any activity such as the brickfield battles. Maybe he saw himself as the organiser of strategy and Tommy as the chief when it came to fighting (albeit play-fighting, usually). People did tend to cast Tommy in that role in his later life, for reasons he could never fathom; he always shed the ill-fitting cloak at the earliest possible moment.
But Tommy had become aware that Wayland’s crowd referred to his group of quieter types who tried their best in class and did quite well as “The Good Boys”… Even though Wayland always appeared assured and competent, he spent his time criticising and complaining about teachers or anyone else in authority over the children… he started to behave towards Tommy as if he hated his guts. He insulted and persecuted him, as children can.
Then came the battle at the brickfield. Tommy and his friends took shelter in the middle of a kiln and returned the shower of bricks and pieces of brick coming their way. It went on for some time quite evenly until Tommy, standing up to look for a possible target, caught a brick on the top of his head. Then the battle stopped. A great deal of blood poured from the wound. The aggressors departed in a hurry and Tommy’s friends saw him home.
Over the following weeks, the one-sided feud took a strange turn. A boy called Hoy, normally a bad-tempered lone wolf who snapped at anybody who dared to disagree with him, seemed to appoint himself Wayland’s deputy. At school, he picked a quarrel with Tommy and a fight started. Tommy’s pals stopped it, but all agreed that the matter needed settling. Between them, they fixed a time and venue: lunch break the following day in the neglected field in front of the school…
They didn’t make the arrangements in any casual way. Both boys appointed seconds – Tommy, naturally, had Charlie – and they asked another boy, Arthur Fowler, to referee because he had nothing to do with the conflict and both sides rated him a “good sport”.
So, at midday, a crowd gathered, the two gangs among them, but keeping well apart as they filed through a gate into the field…
Tommy fell into the boxer’s stance he’d learnt during Boy Scout training and shuffled about. Bigger and stronger, Hoy lashed out frequently, but somewhat blindly. His face evinced murderous malice throughout. Tommy himself found real hatred rising in him as soon as the bout got going. He was being hurt. Yet a certain coolness, fruit of those boxing lessons, kept his emotions in check and helped to compensate for Hoy’s physical superiority.
While resigned to a beating, Tommy got in the occasional whack. Round after round, the battle raged. Tommy’s mouth and face began to feel like a huge, puffed-up thing, ten times their actual size and, although, clearly, both boys were becoming exhausted, neither capable of landing a knockout blow, Tommy felt sure he was going to lose… When should they finish? When they sank to their knees? It seemed endless.
With Hoy’s friends yelling at him to finish his foe off, by an indescribable piece of luck Tommy swung his arm over, missed his target and struck Hoy on the upper right arm. It dropped to his side and he yelled at Arthur, “I can’t hold it up! It’s paralysed! It’s paralysed!” That finished it. Arthur awarded the win to Tommy, despite the opposition’s protests. Fearing a general attack, Tommy’s friends hurried him away, shouting congratulations and slapping him on the back – Tommy pretended to be unimpressed…’
“Tommy”/Sam had to leave school at 14 in 1912 for lack of money to continue his education. Out at work as an office boy for a tin-mining company based near Liverpool Street station he found nothing like comradeship and after two years felt himself submerged in a grey mass of people, each anonymous to everyone else – would that be a definition of the opposite of comradeship? Already, his life was heading nowhere it seemed.
But then the threat, growing into the imminence of war got to work on the populace, bonding the nation, bonding groups of individuals – pushing “Tommy”/Sam, his16th birthday in July, 1914, in one direction:
‘This national surge flowed through the millions of men who were more emotional than thoughtful. They pulsated, they were invigorated, and sustained… an enthusiasm built up among ordinary men. “Stand by your country,” “Be prepared to defend it,”… Accordingly, more and more were actually joining up…
…brother George, sunburnt and lusty after a fortnight at a camp for assistant Scoutmasters, frequently talked about England going to war and what part he might play in it. He encouraged Tommy to join him and two friends of his own age, Len Winns and Harold Mellow, in long walks at the weekends. Then, when they stopped to rest and eat their sandwiches, a pack of cards would be produced and they’d play their favourite game, solo whist. But discussions of war always cropped up. Exciting speculations on how long it would last might vary between a few months and several years.’
Around September 8, Tommy recalls, the four pals — although their junior by several years, he tried to think himself into being one of them — went off on their usual train. But when they reached Liverpool Street, the elder three were talking quietly, leaving Tommy on the outside of the conversation. In the end, brother Ted said to him: “We’re not going to our offices today. We three are going to join up.”
Perhaps you can imagine the sinking feeling in Tommy when he heard this. Was he going to be left on his own with the diminishing number on the train journey to an office where all was gloom? Was he going to do that? No thinking required. “I’m coming with you,” he said.’
So he enlisted – and, to his surprise, enjoyed a long delay before reaching the battlefield. The 2/1st Royal Fusiliers trained in London, Tonbridge and, from February to August, 1915, Malta. Sam generally had a great time in his first foreign country – especially when sharpening his Boy Scout skills in shooting and signalling. His skills in the latter made him an NCO, albeit on the lowest rung, Lance Corporal. He became pals with several of his fellows. But “comrades”? Not yet, I’d say. Nothing more than the trivial level of bonding afforded by practical jokes – the good kind where they’re harmless and all end up as victims and perpetrators at different times.
The testing which, I’d argue, makes the crucial difference only came when they entered the battlefield at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in late September, felt the relentless fear of it and saw their first deaths. Then Sam – first person now – responded to the test of real mortal danger by practising what he’d (painfully) played at when fighting Wayland’s gang. As a dogsbody NCO, he became what might now be called a very proactive good comrade. Stationed in a hole (trench?) up on a hill observing the Turks – but still vulnerably below their positions – he endured most of two months on duty 24/7 rotating wakeful rest with his sole assistant/companion (struggling for food and water supplies all the time).
He got to know them fast and tried to look after them. The first, “showed me photographs of his parents and a sister, and I warmed myself in the glow of love emanating from him as he talked about them and their life together before the war”. Debilitated, he soon went down with jaundice. With the next, Sam felt similar empathy – which he acted on in an unorthodox fashion:
‘The replacement was a jolly fellow, always cheerful, named Bill Jackson. He wore thick lenses in wire frames… The truth was, if Jackson lost or damaged his glasses he’d be almost blind. He had a lovely wife and three children of whom he talked often. Such a loving family as he described must be missing dad terribly…
One night, as we sat in chilly darkness and thoughts once more turned homewards, the futility of what we were doing became very apparent to me. “Bill,” I said. “Why are you here? A wife and kids thousands of miles away, you stuck here in a hole in the ground. What’s the use?” He had no sensible answer to that one, so I told him I had a plan aimed at getting him away from this rotten country.
It was simple, his part being to remove his spectacles when next taking his rest. Should he happen to lay them on the groundsheet anywhere near me I would not be able to see them. If I happened to kneel on them they would be crushed on that hard ground and he would be unable to see where he was going, let alone write down messages.
He demurred about all this. But later, in complete darkness, just such an accident did occur, and when daylight came I had to give Brigade HQ a detailed account of the strange occurrence and they sent up two men, one to replace Bill, the other to guide him down to the beach and a hospital ship, no doubt.’
Comradeship could involve getting rid of your comrade? I’d say so.
Further, his relationship with his next assistant, a glum fellow called Harry Green, showed Sam could feel and act on the business end of comradeship even when he didn’t like someone – not a rare phenomenon, I suspect. When the late November blizzard came and fractured supply lines meant they hadn’t eaten for a while, Sam went down to Battalion HQ to fetch food for both of them (a couple of hard biscuits was it). Then, on his return, he found Green had taken his boots off and fallen into delirium with the effects of frostbite. Sam called for stretcher-bearers and looked after him for two days – risking his life to run for water from a nearby trench while a sniper tried to nail him – until stretcher-bearers made it up the hill and took Green away.
His next assistant turned out to be an old friend from Malta days, Peter Nieter, and with him the ready comradeship, as the fighting diminished to a fag-end smoulder, came out in that rather different side of soldierly conduct – having a laugh:
‘When the Navy suddenly opened up a noisy bombardment of Turk positions one day, Nieter and I actually cheered and sang A Life On The Ocean Waves. Another time, we two idiots decided to serenade the enemy by tum-te-tumming a tune favoured by brass bands at that time entitled The Turkish Patrol. The barmy thing about this effort was our pretended assumption that the Turks would recognise the tune because of its title.’
The Royal Fusiliers evacuated Suvla in mid-December - then, to their chagrin, returned to Gallipoli in the small hours of Boxing Day to help with the V Beach getaway. After clambering through the River Clyde, they waited for a few minutes, Sam and Nieter reminding one another of what they’d done together:
‘Short, sturdy Nieter recalled our days and nights together on that hill; I hope I told him how much his faith in the cause and his cheery optimism had helped me when the physical after-effects of the blizzard got me down.’
On January 6 they took part in their second evacuation and then, crammed below decks in a lighter, Sam reflected for the first time on what the wider Battalion meant to him and why this feeling had grown in him:
‘…the proven steadiness and, in many cases, the courage of my companions – they had fulfilled their contract, signed when they had enlisted, to be loyal at all times to their king and country, good chaps to live and toil with when difficulties and dangers had to be dealt with.’
He had more time to ponder his experience in Egypt, where the Battalion remnants benefitted from three months’ R&R. In one passage, he assessed the role a good officer could have in fostering the right conditions for comradeship – the man in question, “Major Booth” according to the alias my father gave him, but really Harry Nathan:
‘All men differ in the degree of sincerity with which they express themselves. The human animal is, perforce, selfish because the instinct to survive, under test, masters all beliefs, hopes and emotions. So this feeling that we had become a band of brothers – that we 250 comprised the valuable essence squeezed by harsh experiences out of the former one thousand – while warming and heartening, was subscribed to tacitly en masse and never individually declared.
A hub around which, or whom, the consequent accumulation of loyalty could revolve had to be agreed upon; without discussion, dissent – or, indeed, any actual voting – we elected the Major, pride of all ranks. And Major Booth, a junior officer a year ago, was indeed now officially in charge of us, since all of more senior rank had vanished, in most cases for reasons unknown to me and probably to all of us.
In the early days back home and on Malta, his ability to learn, to practice what he’d learnt, and to lead men stood out above that of all others and quick promotion to Captain’s rank followed. Whereat, being now in charge of a Company, he imposed on its members a discipline sterner than that applied in any other – and for this, men worshipped him, because he tempered power with justice.
An average officer would not investigate a charge brought by an NCO against a Private, but would listen to the charge, then listen to and, usually, disregard the accused sinner’s reasons or excuses, find the case proven, and pass sentence. In our hero’s case, though, clear enquiry would be made…
Later, in action, his fearless way of walking upright while surveying and inspecting the front line in full view of the enemy was very impressive – some said foolhardy, but in the men’s eyes it was great and it did wonderful things to our morale. And then the Major had brought us safely out of two evacuations and had supervised the setting up of our new camp home.
But, rightly or wrongly, the rank-and-file chaps felt that the officers in the upper bracket generally, and perhaps class-consciously, despised this man now in command of our small Battalion (as we still liked to call it). He was a Jew and a year or more in the hotter climate had darkened his complexion so that, had he donned the robes popular in Egypt, his appearance would have matched that of any other Semite(3).
He had, and deserved, the loyalty of all of us.
(3) Semite: while “anti-semitic” has come to mean “prejudiced against Jews”, my father used the root word accurately because it means “a member of the group of people who speak a Semitic language, including the Jews and Arabs as well as the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians” – source Collins Concise Dictionary Plus.
This variant on comradeship, then, crossed class and rank, but was the more strongly felt because of the belief that officer and men shared common enemies – not just The Enemy on the battlefield, but the hierarchy of the British Army!
For Sam, though, moving from Egypt to France and the Western Front in late April, 1916, produced a whole new comradeship story. Parked initially in the great camp outside Rouen, they met head on the threat that their quarter of a Battalion would be disbanded rather than reinforced back to full strength. Their new Colonel challenged them to prove themselves:
‘You can imagine how hard we tried, repeating all the drill movements hour after hour, concluding with a fixed-bayonets march-past. Came the day and, watched by the General who stood throughout on a rostrum, we executed our routines – very well, we felt. Then we marched off home and, full of hope, awaited the big man’s verdict…
The parade at which the verdict would be announced found us tense but confident. The message read out by the Major spoke of devotion to duty, splendid efficiency, and a march-past which would have done credit to the Grenadier Guards. Delighted, and certain we would soon be made up to Battalion strength and soldier on together, we celebrated in our various ways.’
But came the day of the verdict:
‘…everybody – without exception! – was ordered to parade. With all present, we were surprised not to see our popular Major out in front(4). Instead, his adjutant stood there. I had not seen him since the occasion of his appearance at Gallipoli, walking out in the open when we were all in holes or trenches – when one of his arms was bandaged and supported by a sling and he looked ill. Today, he looked fit physically, but his face was pale.
He quickly told us that, in spite of all our endeavours and successes, it had been decided that our numbers were too small for making up with reinforcements. Groups of us would be sent to various Battalions in the two Territorial Divisions on the Front in France. He said much more. One could see tears on his face. But no comment came from the ranks, no response whatsoever. Had the Major done the execution job, some men would have said a few words, heartfelt if not exactly polite. However, the adjutant’s emotion was wasted on us; when we dispersed we were quite a different set of men to those hearty mugs who had, for weeks, tried so hard to please…
… After Gallipoli, the survivor members of our Battalion had felt some kind of joy-in-comradeship bond, but we’d backed a loser and that was that. Henceforth, we owed allegiance to no one, every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.’
(4) Major “Booth”/Nathan had been “granted a month’s leave”, it seems.
So, Army admin. had the power to destroy comradeship – almost a synonym for “morale” at this point – with a decision which, to the Tommies, ignored their months of muck and bullets and privation and loss and holding together despite it all…
Feeling disgusted, betrayed even, Sam had great difficulty in adapting to his next Battalion – the Kensingtons. Transferred in early May, he joined them at Souastre, a couple of miles behind the section of trenches they manned at Hébuterne, opposite German-held Gommecourt which gave its name to this northern sector of the Somme Front. His deep bitterness endured – yet, ultimately, not for more than two or three weeks. He wrote:
‘None of the men who had come from the old Battalion in Rouen with me ended up in my new Platoon. I even felt glad about that; a feeling of comradeship would have existed had any of them been with me, and I wanted no more of such attachments.’
That is, he was realising, how comradeship, like any strong relationship, brings vulnerability – because you can lose it. At first, he sought to defend himself by creating degrees of distance… from the Army, from his companions:
‘I sought an interview with the Captain in charge of our Company and asked to be allowed to revert to the rank of Private, but he refused.
I wanted no rank, no responsibility except to myself. Rank entailed being careful, steady, a good example, even though a Lance Corporal was everybody’s lackey… I longed to lose that stripe and be a carefree nothing.
But, with pleasant fellows in my Platoon, on the whole, and a new mood now upon me – occasioned by living among strangers – I could behave in a relaxed manner, laugh without restraint at even the corniest joke, and make a few cheeky comments about people around me (usually taken in good part). The underlying bitterness remained in me, though, and stoked up the fire of reckless humour which ruled out thoughts of a serious nature and ensured that nobody would wish to attempt serious conversation with me – while roughly the opposite of my style in the old Battalion, this resulted in a sort of coarse popularity which pleased me. Consequently, I quickly earned for myself a soubriquet I liked, to wit, The Pisstaker.’
Entertaining, so not unpopular, but detached… his feelings for this new Battalion drifted this way and that through May and June – ‘I gradually got to know some of my fellows and to like several of them’, but then,‘I still felt like a stranger with this lot, though by this time I knew, and was known by, a fair number of men’. But it may be that, averse as he was to rank – full Corporal by now and Intermittently acting Sergeant as the much respected RSM seemed to like the cut of his jib for some reason – he found himself and rediscovered his proper Tommy connection with his fellows via another of his unorthodox bits of low-level leadership.
Before July 1, one of the Battalion’s more hazardous tasks at the Front was to go out into No Man’s Land at night and dig the advanced trenches they needed to launch an attack. Having led a few patrols out there, he reported to an officer that, to do the job properly, his men needed extra food and drink around midnight. The response was that they should save some of their supper. Sam fumed:
‘None of this would please our chaps – good workers if looked after, but capable of skilful toil-avoidance if displeased. I felt they were not being well treated and would be resentful. Yet, somehow, some work must be seen to be done. So I let it be known that if they did a good three hours graft, starting from our time of arrival, then the rest of the night could be taken easy, given that each man should grab a tool and be busy as soon as he heard my voice, for my coming would be a warning of the officer’s presence, doing his rounds.
Each night I found it necessary to conduct two or three of these hurried scrambles, talking loudly, even giving the occasional jab or shake to a slow waker-up. This meant we shifted a reasonable amount of earth and the men’s sense of grievance subsided – a satisfactory outcome, and I felt good because I had become acceptable to and even popular with a Platoon of men among whom I had so far felt like an interloper (apart from also being much younger than most of them).’
With regard to July 1, when the Kensingtons suffered 59 per cent casualties and Sam and his Company sat in an advanced trench all day, unable to move, steadily depleted by the artillery bombardment, feeling frustrated, then horrified by the sufferings of their fellows, then shocked into numbness, then guilty at their impotence… I can’t glean anything relating to comradeship except in terms of the wounded and, later, the dead they brought in that night and for the next three or four nights. One, Charlie, was a former Fusilier friend of Sam’s, so then the overwhelming, incomprehensible grief of it got personal and intimate for him as he said goodbye to the blank face looking up from a shell hole…
The battle continued, of course, through to October, the Kensingtons on the Front for nearly all of it, though they moved further south eventually. But I think my father didn’t realise that he really had found his place with the Battalion, that he had become a comrade among comrades, until August when he returned from a week’s home leave – his first for 18 months – and caught up with the Kensingtons on a break from the front line near the village of Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, Picardy, before moving south to the Leuze Wood area.
Sam arrived at their new camp on foot and alone, after crossing the Channel and hitching lifts with several Army lorries:
‘But this provided me with a most warming experience as I strolled into the town. Our lads, who had themselves arrived only a few hours earlier, were billeted in dwellings and outbuildings at various points along the main street. Groups of them lay about on the wide grass verges on either side of the roadway and, at intervals as I walked, fellows who knew me invited me to join them and each in turn insisted I took a swig from their water bottles – all charged with the same liquor, to wit, cider. I was greatly surprised, first, that so many people knew me and, second, that they should offer me a drink. Their kindness warmed and enlivened me just as much as the rather strong cider.
The insistence of one chap in particular that I should drink with him certainly startled me, though I was careful to conceal it. I’d known him from time to time since the beginning of the war – a short chap, head rather big considering his lack of height, bright blue eyes in a usually red face. He’d joined a different Royal Fusiliers Company, but circumstances occasionally brought us together.
However, I’d never felt happy or secure in his company. Sometimes, if you attempted to share a joke with him, the thing would go wrong, he’d see some personal adverse implication in it. For no reason that I could see, the red face would go redder, the eyes would glare and he’d be all set for a scrap. I hadn’t chatted with him for some time, and I had not known until that moment that he, along with some others, had been transferred to my present Battalion. Maybe he felt somewhat of a stranger in this new set-up so even my face was welcome. He certainly insisted I should share cider with him.
From there on, my progress along the road had something of a triumphal air about it. A wave here, called to join a group there, swigs from bottles well filled with the local cider; all this camaraderie took the edge off the regret I felt about leaving family and friends to return to a life I had come to dislike, deep down inside.
But one could never remain very miserable in company with those soldiers. Every group had its natural-born comedian. Although hardship, filth, and genuine physical suffering took their toll of one’s natural optimism, the fellow who showed his true feelings and really looked unhappy or just plain dejected got short shrift from his comrades. Far better, and certainly to one’s advantage, to show nonchalance of spirit, best expressed in the few words “What the heck?”
On I went until, with greater pleasure than ever, I found myself back among the lads I had soldiered with before the Sergeant thrust the unexpected pass into my hand.
As I moved around, it was great to be greeted by almost all of them with words and looks of something bordering on affection. At the time I’d left them, I had been their acting Sergeant, though wearing only two stripes on my arms and those only there as a result of irresistible pressure from the big man, the Regimental Sergeant Major. But I felt no need to keep up “a position” – something usually incumbent on non-commissioned officers.
… Probably because of my youth, I wore my modest rank lightly and still relished the comfort given by the comradeship of the men around me. I do believe I would have been hurt more by an accusation that I was too strict than that I was behaving in too easy a manner. With some such understanding between us, I always found the essential needs of discipline easily procured or, rather, willingly granted by our men.’
After a month more of front-line action, Sam’s age was revealed – still 18, when the battlefield limit was 19 – and to his mingled delight and guilt, the Army sent him back to the UK for a year.
There the previous pattern repeated itself: friendships, not comradeship. Transferred from the Kensingtons to the Essex Regiment, he spent much of the year based in Harrogate, Yorkshire, oddly enough. With his best pal there, “Mac” McIntyre, a very civilian story unfolded. All fine until they got together with two girls, did some (very innocent) “walking out” which ended in due course – after which Mac got very angry with Sam, the explanation being that Sam had got the girl he really fancied.
Worse things happen in war zones, of course, and the Army sent Sam back to the serious stuff in December, 1917. Again solo, no info on where and when he might join his Essex 2/7th Battalion, until March he did odd signalling jobs around Arras wherever Brigade HQ sent him. Then, as far as I can tell from his Memoir and the 2/7th War Diary, he more or less bumped into the Battalion, including a group of his fellow Signallers when they moved into a billet in the city’s then ruined prison. One of them proved his next true comrade:
‘Neston, only slightly older than me – he clinched an immediate friendship by shaking hands heartily, taking me to his kipping place on the floor of this spacious hall, and inviting me to chuck my clobber alongside his. He lived in Hampstead, he said, he’d been in France for several months, and so far, it appeared, he hadn’t made any particular pal since he joined C Company.
I didn’t tell him, of course, but never before in all my Army experience had I been welcomed to an assignment by a friendly handshake. Having one willing mate already easing my way, I could look at the chaps around me with no new-boy-asks-for-acceptance feelings, and know that acquaintances with some of them would develop to that small extent necessary for living and working in fairly close proximity.
Just once more I must hark back to my first Battalion and the brotherly regard for one another felt by most if its members, which endured long after that terrible war finished. Even those one did not like among them, one disliked more with feelings of disappointment than of hatred. Why? Perhaps because we all came together in the last days of a period when, along with all the law-abiding blokes and their ladies, even the bad lads who spent occasional spells in prison and the professional harlots and their customers felt deep down that they belonged to a great nation to which they gave their loyalty – without giving the subject much thought.
But then the stress of war proved overwhelming; when conscription replaced volunteering, it quickly dissipated local, county and even national loyalties because men were sent hither and thither regardless of their origins. Well, whatever the explanation, the truth I felt and experienced was that, after several years of war, the men around one counted for little – with the odd rare exception.’
Maybe you sometimes find my father contradictory in recalling his feelings? I do. But I guess I don’t insist on consistency. I suppose war life was like that…
Remarkably, in retrospect, all the significant events of Sam’s comradeship with Neston happened on March 28, 1918 – the eighth day of the German Spring Offensive when the 2/7th were ordered to fight until the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. As Signallers they took the midnight message and tried to discuss it with their Company commander, but he was disintegrating into a funk, so they took their own decisions from then on – as, notably, did the rest of the company, with their officers hors de combatone way or another (dead, wounded, panicked).
During the night, the Signallers found their lines dead:
‘Neston and I decided to check the line down to Battalion HQ… We wasted our journey, though, because the HQ shelters were empty; having sent that awful “George” thing, they must have packed up and moved back to some pre-arranged place. That left us feeling naked and nervous, to put it mildly…
Dawn proper. “Stand-to” time, so up on the firing-step we climbed. Neston on my right, an oldish man I didn’t know on my left… 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.’
When, as ordered, the Battalion had fired every bullet, Sam and Neston went back to the Company HQ dugout to convey their final message together by the only method remaining to them:
‘We found our basket and the pigeons all intact. The message we two devised had to be brief. It read, I believe, as follows: “No ammunition left. Almost surrounded by the enemy. Good-bye.” There followed details of our Company and Regiment.
Excited by the novelty of the situation, we took turns to hold a bird while the other inserted the quite tiny roll of fine, thin paper into the little sheath attached to the ring on its leg. Then we climbed the steps back up to the trench, flung the lucky birds upwards and watched them circle then fly to the rear of our position.’
After that, they began to hurry rearwards…
‘… a few yards behind our trench, we slid into the protection of a shell-hole and had a brief chat. I reminded my pal about the message with its code word “George”, meaning we must not leave our position for any reason… Time passed. No one came our way. We heard only an occasional burst of machine-gun fire, usually from our support trench… We made our decisions, I to rejoin our lads, Neston to make a dash rearwards. We shook hands and parted.’
Obviously, Sam’s decision is the strange one. The fighting’s done. No point in hanging around. I think my father must have been too shaken to think straight – by the terrors of the day, I mean, the shelling and, particularly, a thunderbolt revelation that struck him, while in automaton mode shooting “target” Germans, that they were human beings with families… Anyway, he felt no resentment about Neston’s different decision. He just stood up on the trench parapet, awaited death by bayonet… and found himself a POW instead.
And that led to further quite particular, very sporadic experiences of comradeship. Some of them arose from brief encounters with German soldiers behind the lines for one reason or another: in Sancourt, Somme department, the soldier on leave from the Front who who walked past the barbed wire fence, spotted Sam, and suggested he write a German field card home and he’d post it – which eventually informed his parents that he wasn’t “missing” but a POW; the old-soldier who guarded Sam’s group on a train from Saargemund to the Black Forest and got talking in broken English, German and French and told him, piecemeal, “We must never do this to each other again”; another soldier on leave, down south in Hügelheim, near Mühlhausen, who gave half-starved Sam a saucepan of boiled potatoes and made him think, “War… to hell with it – this lad who seemed so much younger than me, would probably be in the slaughter shambles on the Western Front any day now”.
These spuds then proved Sam’s entréto a syndicate of three POWS – the others called Wally and George – who pledged to share with each other all extra food they could snaffle, scrounge or steal. This came up because the terrible truth was that desperate hunger drove most POWs to a degenerated state where they would fight one another for any morsel. Comradeship destroyed by base instinct and despair. So the three tried to recreate it in a narrow way by defending any booty they came across.
Mostly stuck to their pledge except when George got a Red Cross parcel ‘avoided Wally and me, took his prize into a corner, and hid it from our sight’. But after a partial guzzle, George thought better of it and, tearfully, brought them the remains:
‘Well, he really was still part of our small family at that moment, so good old Wally did the reassuring bit and our oldest member, who just then looked more like our youngest and naughtiest, spread out on the floor what remained of his parcel’s contents.’
Here then a subdivision of comradeship that made allowance for grinding circumstance and embraced fault, even betrayal, to allow forgiveness.
The next variant on the theme Sam encountered, like the kindness of the German soldiers to a POW, occurred between strangers of different nationalities, yet men who shared the front-line experience of hell on Earth. It happened after Armistice and Sam’s long, solo walk west from his final prison camp in Lorraine – weak and not thinking straight, he wandered away from Wally, George, and the other POWs he set out with.
Around November 20, he was taken into a French military hospital in Nancy. The first evening, after crawling to a toilet, he had what he described as a “breakdown” – sobbing uncontrollably for a while until he gathered himself and crawled back to the huge open ward full of wounded French soldiers:
‘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.
I was then 20 years old, he about 30. A man of infinite kindness and patience, he forbade me to leave my bed except to use the “seau” or bucket. I must call him when in need and say “Portez le seau”. A patient himself, but almost recovered from his disability, he thereafter made his care of me almost a full-time job…
However, the picture of that blue-clad crowd remains clearly in my mind; there could be but one explanation for their cheery self-help and mutual regard for one another’s welfare. Under stress of warfare, general tension made men most regardful of their personal survival and available comforts. But fighting had stopped, risk of imminent injury or death had gone, and soldiers could now allow themselves to relax and enjoy all those little things which, for them, had passed unnoticed when life itself was an uncertain possibility.
While not a real member of their community, I could feel their happiness and daylong pleasure in this new way of living as they sat about or lay abed or went about their little bits of business. They’d be back in the city or down on the farm very soon; if they had survived a long and awful war, then coping with peace conditions would be simple. That sort of ease and hope pervaded the place.
Quiet Paul would mix with the crowd from time to time, then return to tell me about some detail he’d picked up. Most of this I understood from our partial language and gesture system, but if it was too difficult I would signify partial comprehension by facial expressions and he might have another go or use the familiar “sanfairyann”(5)as we British soldiers pronounced it and the French didn’t. We compried all right.’
(5) “Sanfairyann”: British soldierese for “Ça ne fait rien,” “It doesn’t matter”.
After a few days, a woman from a new Nancy RAMC hospital came round to reclaim the British soldier she’d heard about and off he went – the familiar abrupt end to a wartime comradeship:
‘… Really sorry to leave Paul without being able to walk outside and get to know him away from the medical setting, I had to say goodbye too hurriedly when the RAMC Corporal came for me. In a trice, the contact with French friends was broken and lost forever.’
Appropriately enough, the final excerpt and story of this FootSoldierSam blog sees Sam reversing roles on some of his short-lived late-war comradeships. Sam ended his service down in Sussex, guarding German POWs – which, as intended, saw him pass through an urge for revenge into acceptance of these ex-front-liners as, de facto, “just like him”:
‘One evening, when I was off duty, I heard music coming from somewhere in the house so I followed my ears to a room on a lower floor, tapped on the door and went in. There sat a German Unteroffizier(6), spick and span in a fine-quality uniform. He played a mandolin and very well. I knew the tune, though I couldn’t name it; something from an opera I guessed. I told him that, as a boy, I had tried to play the mandolin and he offered to let me try. I managed only a very patchy effort at an old sob-song; he kindly smiled, although a groan would have been more appropriate.
I visited him occasionally thereafter and enjoyed his music. He talked of visits to a Berlin opera house and the rather stern-looking young man smiled more frequently as we became acquainted.’
(6) Unteroffizier: non-commissioned officer.
Eventually, Sam was invalided out of his concluding Dad’s Army-like Regiment because gut problems from his periods both in the trenches and in the POW camps caught up with him. But he wanted to say goodbye to his German … comrades, probably:
‘… before setting off for home, I called on my several German friends to bid them farewell, starting with the Unteroffizierin his little room upstairs. The rather lonely chap was touched that I had taken the trouble and showed it; although aware that his formerly great country had fallen into horrible disarray, he spoke of his yearning to get back to the Fatherland.
A formal handshake and heel click reflected little of our mutual understanding that uncertain futures awaited both of us. He had valuable skills, I had none. There again, he had known people of position and influence, but where were they now? Revolutions destroy such connections, and he had frankly admitted that he might need good fortune to survive what would be a period of bloody conflict between the Old Guard and those who intended to grasp control of their defeated country.
I had described to him what I had seen around my prison camp near the Black Forest: the overnight disappearances of all commissioned officers, the substitution of black and white Iron Cross decorations and traditional Regimental cap badges with red ribbons and buttons, the red flags adorning every military vehicle. Like me, he doubted the turnabout was genuine. It could have been an instinctive and desperate attempt to kid the Allies that the German nation had not really wished to conquer Europe, it was just that wicked Kaiser and those terrible Prussians. Maybe, but my friend would have to find out the hard way. No “Auf wiedersehen” for us, not a chance of ever meeting again.’
That last phrase proved telling. Comradeship for Sam in World War 1 operated in context. Take it away and… he never saw Neston again after their handshake in that shell hole; he met Wally and George twice each when he got home, they all promised to do it again one day and they never did.
The only remaining constant of comradeship proved ot be his connection with his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, which he reminisced about so often in the Memoir. He attended their annual reunion regularly until 1963 brought the death of their beloved Gallipoli CO, Major Harry Nathan, by then Lord Nathan and a former Minister in Attlee’s post-WW2 government.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Back to Sam 100 years ago this week (give or take): a very strange experience – in a Sussex village, Sam finds himself and fellow ex-POWs in charge of… German POWs. A message from Winston Churchill, no less, advises that this will help them cast aside past grievances. But Sam’s thoughts turn to deadly revenge…
(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.