“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, 8 May 2016

Sam, uprooted from his Gallipoli Battalion and brother Ted, transfers to a new “mob” within earshot of the Western Front and feels the old battlefield "belly-tightening tension"…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the Battle Of Verdun, initiated by the German onslaught of February 21, proceeded as a bloody stalemate, if in somewhat quieter vein than earlier as the German commanders reconsidered their strategy. Still the summaries at this stage regularly feature the word “repulsed” because that’s what happened to limited German attacks at Hill 34 (May 8), Thiaumont Farm (9), Vaux Pond (11) and Mort Homme (13).
    Elsewhere on the Western Front, the first Anzac troops arrived (some from Gallipoli via Egypt like my Father’s Royal Fusiliers) and, amid the ceaseless attrition, hot spots flared up at Vermelles (May 11), Ploegsteert (13, Belgium) and around the Hohenzollern Redoubt and Hulluch (14).
    Down in Armenia, a sudden reversal of fortune saw the Turks defeat the erstwhile all-conquering Russian Army at Pirnakapan (May 8), Bashkeul (9) and Ashkale (13). However, further south, near the Persia/Mesopotamia border, the Russians defeated Ottoman forces at Kasr-i-Shirin – apparently starting a push towards Baghdad (which the British had lately fallen disastrously short of).
    In eastern Africa, relatively small-scale clashes continued with further German defeats by the Portuguese at Nhika (May 8, present-day Mozambique) and by the South Africans at Kondoa Irangi (10, Tanzania).
    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 shipped to France in April. For a few weeks, encamped outside Rouen, their all-consuming objective was to save the Battalion from the disbandment threatened by the powers-that-be by training like madmen. It didn’t work…


Last week, the enraged 2/1st learned that, despite their best efforts to prove they should form the veteran core of a reinforced Battalion, they would be disbanded and dispersed to other outfits on the Western Front. Incensed, they sank into gloomy recrimination at the Army and wanted nothing other than leave – and their first sight of home since January 1915.
    My father had a few days of fuming and waiting before his new deployment – to destination unknown, as ever – happened so fast it caught him on the hop. As he wrote in his Memoir:

‘For me, the parting proved quick and rendered almost painless because, without warning, three or so of us were assembled, our kits and rifles inspected, and off we marched to a railway station. I had no time to seek out my brother to say goodbye, so once again I was on my way into action without benefit of his company. Reflecting sadly on this, I felt consoled when I realised that, if we had lived together in constant danger, we would have feared for each other’s safety and, if one had been injured or killed while we were together, the other would have suffered deeply. For some months thereafter, we had no news of each other, since he didn’t know my destination and we had no means of corresponding.
     My little group travelled some distance on the French railway, then transferred to open trucks on a narrow-gauge line run by British engineers and drawn by diesel engines. After detraining, we marched until we reached a quite pleasant-looking village, the first I had been able to see at close quarters*. Far in the distance, I could hear the rumble and thud so familiar a few months earlier. Once more, the belly-tightening tension resumed its grip and I was all set to face and deal with personal risks to the limit of my physical ability.
     In that state, I could play a role apparently a shade more light-hearted and carefree than my normal one. The paramount necessity: to appear free of anxiety, as unruffled as possible by nasty things which might be happening in the vicinity. And thus would one exist during the coming months or years until relief came in the form of wounds or death – but preferably, as optimistic youth would have it, in the form of a piece of paper authorising one to depart from the scenes and stenches of trench warfare and travel to a land where all was sweetness and kindness and about which, to some extent, real memories had been replaced by fantasies.
     In this village, soldiers occupied most of the buildings. A brief stroll along the main road and one or two along short side lanes revealed barns and out-houses serving as quarters for the hoi polloi, while commissioned ranks luxuriated in farmhouses and cottages. I viewed one splendid establishment through big, wrought-iron gates; the buildings surrounded a large courtyard. One of our lads stood outside on sentry duty. So, I wondered, what exalted rank dignified the occupant of that fine residence?
     I found considerable wreckage at one end of the village, but also some small farmhouses there still in the care of civilians, mostly women and old men. It was great, I felt, as I often did during such interludes, to be in fairly close proximity to non-military folk.
     Just the sight of females, from time to time, made the place seem homely. Not that any attractive girls lived there, though many must have graced the place before filthy war and rape, or the risk of it, drove them elsewhere… I still retain a mental picture of a youngish woman behind whom I walked a while as she drove three cows along a lane: her hair coarse and matted, she wore a man’s cap, an old, dark-blue, military tunic much too big for her, a knee-length skirt of mud-coated, dark cloth – below which her thick calves were clothed in British Army long pants, with grey Army socks and heavy, Army boots on her feet. A boy such as I was then could feel sympathy not untinged with amusement, but I imagined she would remain totally safe from the lustful cravings of even the most sex-deprived old soldiers. That apart, she was a good’un just to be in that place so near to the front line, at risk from long-range enemy guns, trying to keep the little farm going while her men were away.’
* From this point, and for the duration of his 1916 Somme/Western Front experience, my father stopped using place names and also – as you’ll see in a coy reference next week – refused to name the Battalion he joined there. I don’t know why and I don’t remember discussing it with him – which is odd, considering I asked about almost everything else that needed clarifying. But my modest researches in Battalion war diaries and Somme histories have led me to conclude that his transfer was from the Royal Fusiliers to the Kensingtons (officially the 1/13th London Regiment (Kensington)). By my reckoning from the available info, the village he describes here was Souastre (15 miles south-west of Arras, recent population 3-400). As to the date when he joined them, I’m going with May 14 – when the Kensingtons’ War Diary notes “17 O.R. reinforcements received” (O.R. means Other Ranks) – although it may have been a little later; Alan MacDonald’s extraordinarily detailed history of the Gommecourt sector on the Somme, Pro Patria Mori, says that, up to May 24, the Kensingtons acquired 100 ex-Gallipoli ORs from the 2/1st London.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Despite his enduring bitterness at the Army, Sam is surprised to find that on the Western Front foot soldiers are cared for far better than anything he’d experienced in Gallipoli…

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