“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, 22 May 2016

Sam earns a new, unofficial title – the Pisstaker – and returns to the “trap” of a front-line trench for the first time since Gallipoli…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… at Verdun, the French Army tried to gain the initiative by launching a major attack (May 22), heavy artillery bombardment followed by infantry onslaught in the habitual Western Front way. They gained ground at Fort Douamont (22) and lost it again (24); the Germans took Culières (24) and lost it again (26). In other words, no great change while the French incurred 5,640 casualties and the Germans 4,500.
    The only other note of specific action I’ve found on the standard timelines is a German bombardment of the British between Lassée Canal and Arras, but now that my father has reached the Western Front his accounts (including today’s Memoir excerpt below) serve as a reminder that deadly, if “minor”, battling proceeded non-stop – he reached the Somme Front around May 12, 1916, and saw almost constant action from then on but it’s only the catastrophe of July 1 that features on the historical narratives.
    Further south, the Italian Army regrouped somewhat and began to hold the Austro-Hungarian incursion at the Battle Of Asiago (near Trentino) despite defeats at Monte Civaron and Monte Moschicce (May 25-7).
    Elsewhere, the Greek government ordered the surrender of Fort Rupel on the Greece-Macedonia border to Bulgarian and German forces (May 26, leading to a Greek Army mutiny), the Russians continued their Armenian advance by taking Mamakhatun (24), and British forces took control of Dafur by defeating the Sultan’s Army at Beringia (22). The British also backed the South African and Portuguese invasion of German East Africa (now Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) by briskly taking several townships (25-7).
    Meanwhile, after their terrible winter in Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted, 19, and their remaining comrades – the 250-ish 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers who’d survived – had transferred to a huge encampment outside Rouen, France, in April. There, to the young veterans’ profound chagrin, the British Army carried out its long-standing threat to disband, rather than rebuild, the Battalion. Soon they were scattered among various other outfits on the soon-to-be notorious Somme Front. Sam had joined the Kensingtons (1/13th Battalion, London Regiment) on or about May 14…


Last week, my father settled in with the Kensingtons, billeted in a village called Souastre, a couple of miles behind the Front. He tried on his first tin hat and gas mask and generally appreciated a level of Army organisation and provision he’d never encountered at Gallipoli.
    Today, and throughout the summer, these blogs will be unusually long simply because Sam had such vivid memories of and so much to say about his experiences a hundred years ago on the Somme. But I think you’ll find there’s not too much wasted verbiage and plenty of truth and substance.
    First, though, Sam had a personal matter he wanted to attend to:

‘Because this new lot’s Signals Section was at full strength when I joined, I became a humble Lance Corporal on ordinary duties. So 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, often jeered at by the Privates and ordered around by Corporals and Sergeants. 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.

Came the day for us to pack up and move forward…* and now my gut-gripping tension increased, although I believed, or hoped, I remained outwardly the flippant ass they liked. For some kilometres our drum-and-fife band led us on with tunes which had probably cheered up our soldiery in the days of Good Queen Bess. Anyway, the rhythm of the drums kept our feet moving in unison – most useful in that it saved us from tripping each other up.
     When the band stepped aside we marched on awhile in silence, save for the crunch of boots on gravel road. Soon we entered the ghost of a village** and halted. Each Company remained cohesive, but the general idea, with enemy onlookers in mind, was to get lost visually.
     Far away, we could see active “sausage” balloons, with baskets housing observers*** suspended beneath them. I learnt that both sides now commonly used aeroplanes for observation purposes too, so we had to take great care to avoid being spotted, because artillery might open up and polish us off before we even reached the front line.
     We spread out in small groups among the village’s remaining walls, or parts of same, all remaining within hailing distance of our officers. Our Company cooks demonstrated their efficiency as usual, for within half an hour we were enjoying a rich, tasty stew, a generous helping for each man. Obviously, they had prepared our meal on the road as we marched. Then, when we had our meal, they quietly cleaned the boilers, filled them with water and brewed tea, for they soon gave us a welcome drink of that morale-improver. In addition, most of us had little extras we’d bought earlier – chocolate, biscuits and the like.
     The rumble, roar, and occasional extra-loud crump of a shell exploding nearby, offered constant reminders that some of us would have to pay for this present indulgence in blood and pain ere long. With the sun sinking, we were warned to pump ship, attend to all nature’s wants, and rest, in preparation for some trying hours of movement in darkness across open country, and then in strange trenches.
     The enemy maintained fairly steady bombardment of places where he knew transports and troops must pass during the hours of darkness. Horse-drawn and motor vehicles usually had to stay on the roads, so crossroads became favourite targets for German gunners. Soldiers on foot could avoid these deathtraps, but the necessary diversions added mileage to their journeys and often took them through messy, muddy areas, slowing progress.

As we set off “across the plain”**** – a Sergeant’s words – there was no moon. His remark aroused little interest among the troops; they’d done this trip before, and I refused to remind them that I was a stranger among them by asking, “What plain?” Our Company, walking in twos, must have formed a considerable crocodile as we weaved around shell-holes and various vaguely visible humps which mystified me until ear-splitting explosions and skyward-leaping flame flashes, changing to brief red streaks and short-lived shrieks issued from one of them – British gun batteries, of course. Someone could have tipped me off – we were stumbling through such a concentration of guns as I had never imagined.
     And I had no idea about the extent of this “plain”, but if these batteries were lodged to left and right of us, not to mention fore and aft, for distances which one could guess at as more and more guns opened up, then this was war on a scale to which I was a complete stranger. Sometimes we had to walk in front of and quite close to these artillery clusters and a fear assailed me that they might let fly at one of these moments. If they were sighted on distant targets we would be at little risk because the guns would point upwards, but if they were aiming to hit enemy positions only a mile or so distant the barrels would be lowered and the shells pass through us before exploding among the Germans…
     By the light of muzzle flashes, I saw that gun-pits had been dug to house these guns, placing them below ground level and giving their crews some protection. Their mound-like appearance in the dark came from the nets slung over frames to camouflage them in daylight.

“Into single file now.” This order passed quietly from man to man as we moved down a slight incline… and there I was once more in the confinement of a trench. I could perhaps move to left or right if self-preservation seemed to require it, but not far. After several months of freedom from this wretched situation, the whole, hateful, trapped feeling returned. Bursts of machine-gun fire, the crashes of bursting shells, sometimes singly, often in numbers, the whining of bits and pieces – fragments of metal. This was to be my life, night and day, for several weeks to come, or for longer if anything in the nature of attack and counter-attack developed.
     But then came a shaft of hope, almost of joy, for I remembered that here 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.
     We steadily made our way along the winding communications trench, seeing little, hearing much. When I sensed, rather than saw, a cross-trench going to left and right, from past experience I identified it as the reserve trench. Somewhere along it would be located our Battalion Headquarters and various ancillary services. In the next cross-trench, the support trench, probably two Companies were stationed. But we moved on… and into the front line, the trench that faced the enemy. He might be close, 20 or 30 yards distant, in which case we would have some advanced holes and short trenches in between the front lines – probably manned only during hours of darkness. If there were a wide gap, it would be scouted by patrols from both sides during the night.
     As we approached the front, a stream of men passed us, going back the way we had come – happy, because we were relieving their burden of tense preparedness with no let-up, night or day. Always some part of the trench system was being damaged or destroyed, some danger threatened. Mates maimed, blown apart. So, as they threaded their way through our advancing line, they made quiet, little jests, wished us good luck, gave useful hints occasionally about special features of the terrain. Nice chaps going for a well-earned rest, bless’em.
     I felt I was a stranger here while the others had done all this before. In my previous spell of front-line service, as a Signaller, to maintain communications between points A and B I had been compelled to make my own decisions, once I had received orders. Now, I was a member of a Company and must decide nothing until my immediate superior told me what to do. This situation, which reduced me to just a soldier with a number, and a damned long one at that, added further to my suppressed anger about the way things had gone of late.
     In this regard, with some cynicism, I noticed a ploy the authorities put into operation. Now that masses of men were being “called up”, as the expression went, those in command – military or political, I didn’t know – abhorred the idea that chaps who had volunteered when war started should have anything to distinguish them from conscripts. My first number, for instance, was 2969, but on joining the hordes rolling off the Kitchener production line, I and all the other “old-timers” must be branded as one of them. So 2969 became 302337…***** Well, may I remind you once more that this yarn has no connection with the story of World War I; it’s a record of what happened to just one very insignificant member of HM military forces in that scrap.

We now halted and took over a small stretch of the front-line trench lately vacated. Nobody told me anything about procedure, no doubt because they had all done this routine on other occasions. I asked no questions, but chatted to an older man who sat on the firing step beside me. He had the unusual name of Smith, worked in a coal mine, he said, though his speech didn’t smack of Yorkshire or Wales or any northern area. On my other side sat a youngster who said little.
     Soon a man whom I couldn’t see in the darkness detailed us off in pairs for lookout duty. This meant that the first pair would get up on the firing step and keep watch on the area between us and the German trenches for two hours and would rouse the next two when it was time to change over. Meanwhile, the rest of us could sit and doze if we wished. But, the enemy artillery being lively – salvos of shells roared over and burst nearby – we knew some of them might land among us at any moment. Sleep didn’t come easy.
     The Germans also sprayed the area with machine-gun bullets from time to time, frequently making our lookout men duck down.
     Smith said, “Come with me if that stuff starts to get too close,” and this I did when necessary, but with increasing misgivings; I perceived that if I repeatedly moved along to the traverse – a deep trench section to our right – we would get no rest at all and be quite unfit for duty when daylight came. In that traverse, when a shell came near us Smith would say “Down!” and we crouched as low as possible. We bobbed up and down constantly…
     I thought about the wretched life I’d often endured on that Turkish peninsula. But I was coming to understand that warfare here could, at any moment, be more intense and dangerous than at Gallipoli. However, I felt certain that this bobbing up and down business would, in itself, soon be the death of me.
     I had no idea whether personal movement was restricted, so I presumed not and wandered along the traverses and bays, the former unoccupied, each of the latter crowded with its complement of soldiers. None of them knew me, but no one questioned me, until I came to a bay – think of a bay window and you’ll get the idea – where, as I could see by the gun flashes and the occasional flickering glare of a falling Verey light******, the men were taking their war in a more relaxed manner than my new comrade Smith.
     In particular, one man stretched full length on his back along the parapet above his comrades – twixt him and the Jerries just a mound of earth perhaps 18 inches deep. When he spoke, I joyfully identified him as a happy former member of our old Battalion and I congratulated him on the obvious comfort of his chosen bed. We exchanged wisecracks and, amid the resulting laughs and chatter with others present, I recognised two more of our old boys”. Conversation roamed over our Mediterranean experiences and, naturally, favoured our former close comradeship and our sorely missed Major. But we laughed and joked a good deal, and forgot present dangers in the brief, but mutually affectionate spirit of reunion.
     Of course, I had strayed from my Company and, after a while, it dawned on me that two chaps standing near me wore different uniforms to the rest of us and must be officers. I’d heard them join in the giggles at times, but still thought I’d better express a hope that I had not offended by barging into their Company. They told me not to worry, they were just out from England and our bit of fun had relieved the nervousness felt by every newcomer to the battlefield. Nice chaps, but I just hoped they would not recognise me should we meet in daylight, for I had deserted my own section for rather a long while.
     On returning, I avoided Smithy as far as possible, did my stint of lookout duty, and dozed at every available opportunity – I wanted to be of some use at “Stand-to” dawn alert, when with fixed bayonets and loaded rifles we had to be keenly ready to repel any enemy move. That uncertain light of early morning gave advantage to an attacker provided he moved cautiously. Every man must remain intently watchful, speech forbidden, save if an order must be given. When full daylight arrived, came the order to “Stand down” and fags could be lit and the rum ration issued to “warm the cockles” after a chilly night.
     It was then I heard for the first time the regular morning performance of a short, swarthy Sergeant who had come, someone told me, from South America, just to win this war for us. He would yell his “Stand down, men!”, then call out a greeting to “You German bastards – I’ll be over after you in a minute and I’ll knock seven different kinds of shit out of you!” This he repeated as he strolled along the line, getting many a hollow laugh from men who’d heard it all before, but still hoped he meant it.’
* Probably May 21. WD for that day notes the Kensingtons relieving the 1/8th Middlesex on the right of the Gommecourt front line. My father’s Company A, under Major Cedric Charles Dickens (grandson of the great novelist, killed at Bouleaux Wood on the Somme Front, September 9, 1916), reached their front-line trench at 11.15pm, “after dark” as he recalled (whereas WD reports the other three companies arrived in daylight).
** Probably Sailly-au-Bois, 4.6 kilometres southeast of Souastre.
*** Observation balloons: their use peaked in World War I, says Wikipedia, because artillery had been developed to fire at a range beyond sight of ground-level spotters; the observers – attached to balloons full of inflammable hydrogen – became the first aviators to use parachutes.
**** British soldiers quoted in Pro Patria Mori called the flat 3.4 kilometre stretch of land between Sailly and Hébuterne “the plain”.
***** One reference, for which I can’t find confirmation, suggests that at some stage he had a third number, 3928 – during his Kensingtons period. One of those details I’ll get to the bottom of at some point, no doubt.
****** “Verey”, as my father wrote it, is a common alternative spelling despite the pistols and flares being named after their inventor, US Naval officer Edward Very.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam in the front line: praise for the cooks and the sanitary men; digging advance trenches in No Man’s Land at night… and how to evade a sniper’s bullet!

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