“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 26 June 2016
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… on July 1 the British and French Armies began an onslaught along a 25-mile front north and south of the river Somme, Gommecourt to Foucaucourt-en-Santerre. Part of an Allied strategy to co-ordinate attacks on all fronts, devised the previous December – though repeatedly replanned in point of detail – it had two strangely different outcomes.
Of course, infamous in the UK memory is the "worst day in the history of the British Army", July 1 itself. The 4th Army attacked between Gommecourt (see FootSoldierSam speaks, below, for my father's personal account from the trenches) and the Albert-Bapaume road, gained almost nothing and suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 dead).
Field Marshall Haig acknowledged this disaster the following day, by ordering the small gains at Gommecourt relinquished and, contrary to the wishes of the French commander General Joffre, redirecting some of his remaining forces to support the French Army – who had achieved a success since largely forgotten by their Allies, so overwhelmingly grievous was the British experience. Despite reducing their strength to reinforce Verdun, the French Fourth and Sixth Armies advanced up to six miles against the German Second Army. Casualty figures for the Somme are subject to much controversy among historians, but one standard accounting of the first day shows the French losses as a remarkably low (in the circumstances) 1,590 and German as 10-12,000.
That same week the French also did well at Verdun, repulsing the Germans at Fleury (June 27) and Hill 304 (29) and recapturing Fort Thiaumont (30).
Other Allied successes saw the Russian Army's Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front continue to prosper in Latvia and the Ukraine, despite German counterattacks; and the Italian Army pushed towards a conclusion its defence against the Austrian Strafexpedition, driving their forces north again with victories at Postina and Arsiero (June 27) and Pescala (28).
Meanwhile, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), was in action on the Somme, throughout the build-up – daily fighting throughout the spring, despite the historic starting point being designated as July 1 when the grand attack began. After a winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) had moved to France in late April. At Rouen the Army disbanded their Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons, about May 14. They had enough Signallers so he became an ordinary Lance Jack in the line. Through much of June, the Kensingtons put in a long stint in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt – the British artillery bombardment initiating the Somme attack started on June 25…
Last week, Sam finally donned his extra stripe to acknowledge a (detested) temporary promotion to Corporal, he survived more hair-raising scrapes in No Man's Land at night, and was astonished and moved to see some school children at play just behind the front line.
This week's blog covers the notorious July 1 – as ever, just from one man's point of view as my father stressed, asserting no wider knowledge than what he personally experienced. Brace yourself if you mean to continue, it makes grievous, painful reading. I would add that the editor's endnotes I include on the blog, and which are often of just passing, detailed interest, on this occasion are crucial to understanding what my father and his comrades did and endured on that day.
In Remembrance, for Dad and all of them:
‘After a spell in that village, which appeared almost remote from the perils of war although within marching distance of the Front, we were once again to return to the trenches. Information circulated one afternoon, roughly 24 hours before we must depart*. We had been training for a few hours each day but, on our last day in this comparative little heaven, we were freed of all duties except really necessary chores.
I strolled around the village noting the utter ruin of some houses and marveling at others’ apparent immunity from damage. The place was in a valley, fairly shallow, but the ridge on the western side shielded it from direct enemy observation, so only the odd plane would see anything worth reporting. Up to that time, at any rate, it had provided a very fortunate spot for troops who rested there, savouring something of its peacefulness.
As evening approached, I felt the sadness of leaving this unexpectedly cosy haven. A final sleep on the comfortable wire netting, the packing up of all our bare requirements for survival up front, and our trek westward began.
In the last three or four kilometres we slowed, for then we moved in darkness, in two files, while giving complete attention to maintaining contact with one another. The mere thought of wandering alone in that black gloom with no road or track visible, no buildings, great holes here and there usually containing a foot or two of water into which one might topple… these things kept one keenly alert, as did the knowledge that, in this new era of the conscripted soldier, trust and faith in the good intentions of one’s comrades was dead or dying, and a man wandering away from his unit, no matter under what conditions, would attract suspicions of trying to “dodge the column”.
We found the section of trenches we took over in fine condition. The Engineers had installed their “revetting with expanded metal” system quite splendidly, as well as a sump under the duckboard floor of the front trench, perfect drainage, and so superior to the old, sloppy, mud floor on which we had often slithered.
The Regiment had formed a machine-gun unit by combining all the Battalions’ heavy machine guns and their gunners under the control of a separate authority at, I understood, Brigade level. They had become a force to be reckoned with by the enemy. Well behind our machine guns lay numerous batteries of field guns which fired 18-pound shells, and still further back the heavy howitzers whose shells tore great strips out of the atmosphere as they roared towards targets in Jerry rear positions – borrowed from the Navy, some of these big guns, to back up what was going to be a massive British attack…
Each day, the number of low-flying Germans increased. They just roared over our trenches and, heading towards our rear positions, vanished from sight. They never returned, which puzzled us, until we learned they used another route well beyond visibility from our positions. We got used to these forays and so, perhaps, did the people in the rear who surely should have paid close attention to these unusual tactics…
On the day – which followed a period of massive bombardment of enemy positions to destroy their barbed wire defences etc – our Battalion was to occupy the ordinary front line, and our most advanced trenches where my Platoon found itself. The support trenches behind us sheltered a kilted Regiment who would come through our line to start the infantry attack, at which our men in the front trench would advance over the German front trench – by then in the hands of the Jocks – and go on to take the German support trenches. Finally, from the advance trenches, we would pass over all those people and clean up and occupy the German rear positions.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Germans easily matched our artillery bombardment for several days before our attack. Their shells passed over us, the infantry and – not that we knew it at the time – caused massive destruction to our artillery, damaging guns, and killing or wounding their crews, thus rendering our bombardment less intense than expected. The low-flying German planes must have photographed all those so carefully camouflaged guns and calculated their distances from German batteries…
Meanwhile, enemy machine guns massed at strategic points and they stood their field artillery almost wheel to wheel, or so it seemed, and the whole area became an inferno of explosions and bullets.
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?
Some small groups did from time to time go ahead until killed, wounded and captured. Some dedicated officers achieved marvels within limits set by the powerful enemy, but in the end this massively prepared attack failed.
Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men.
Our beautiful front line had become an uneven shallow ditch for most of its length, the expanded metal revetments either lost under piles of blasted earth or just sunk deep down in shell holes.
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.
Most of the survivors were stunned into near speechlessness for a time, then the strong ones initiated reorganisation with a view to resisting the enemy counter-attack which would surely follow our failure…
But Jerry must have also lost heavily in both men and morale; the German artillery gradually became less active and communication between scattered groups on our side more easy to maintain, so a front of some sort was re-established which could resist if not stop an enemy attack**.
During the hours of darkness, we began to receive assistance from the rear – food and the occasional tot of rum, anything which could be transported forward in the awful conditions prevailing. 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… and ruinous to pre-conceived ideas of what should be occurring according to plans worked out in grandiose HQ châteaux many kilometres away in the rear.
Meanwhile, the work of holding positions with a proportion of survivors, and allowing small parties to search for and bring in wounded men was organised by the remaining officers and the unshakeable RSM, who won praises from everyone who chanced to be near him during the battle***.
Our Company – such as it was now, after its brush with hell – remained in what had been the front line. 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.
So urgent was the need for rapid recovery of the wounded, that RAMC men from hospitals and dressing stations moved forward at night, having volunteered to join the search in No Man’s Land. They gave initial treatment and care during rapid removal to the appropriate medical centre further back. All this, of course, they carried out under risk from enemy guns, a new situation for hospital workers who would only have heard the odd long-range shell or a few rare bombs from aircraft explode. So shells bursting around them while they worked did cause them some excitement. They saved many lives.
In the front line – the model for all front lines until it went up in dust and smoke – our Company had some sort of cover still, but only in places, and much work would have to be done to make it suitable for occupation. That job wasn’t ours, so we kept watch and rested through the day after the battle, in usable sections of the trench or in large holes.’
* The British Army’s Somme attack had long been planned for June 29. The order to postpone until July 1 came through on June 27. The Kensingtons, who had been in the line June 9-21 then rested, were ready to move out on the 28th, but remained in Souastre for another 48 hours until 8.25pm on Friday, June 30 – in case anyone’s confused, the various observations and anecdotes Sam mused on in the couple of pages after he refers to leaving the village are clearly from his various experience of the Front over the previous weeks. During this postponement, one extraordinary thing happened to the Kensingtons; the Brigade command replaced their Commanding Officer! On the 27th, says the Battalion War Diary, “Major HWH Young of (7th Batt.) Leicestershire regiment arrived with his batman”. The following day, “Temp. Lt Col WHW Young” (I don’t know whether the change of rank was the diarist’s mistake or an overnight promotion) took over as CO from Lieutenant Colonel HJ Stafford who promptly “proceeded on leave to England”. Young’s notes, attached to the Kensingtons’ WD by the National Archive, say he was rushed in by car from Étaples on the 27th – to Stafford’s astonishment. So Young went to Brigade HQ to seek an explanation. He was told the Battalion, being City boys, were “not good at digging”. Perhaps seeking a clue as to how a change of CO might effect an improvement in this area by July 1, he asked about Stafford; the Brigadier said he “knew very little” of the ousted CO – who’d led a Battalion under his command for five months. Young writes that he found this “an extraordinary statement”. Still, of course, he had to then try to get to know his officers at least, given they’d all convene on the battlefield within two days. Strange/interesting that my father didn’t recall this change at the top as a significant event from where he stood.
** Something odd struck me, as maybe it strikes you, about my father’s account of July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle Of The Somme; at times, it’s as if he’s not a participant, but a remote observer. This is very different to the way he writes about other battlefields – in Gallipoli earlier, and subsequent experiences on the Western Front, including his front-line account of fighting against the German Spring Offensive around Arras in March, 1918.
When he wrote his story, back in the 1970s, and I first read it, section by section, at his request querying anything I didn’t understand, one of my questions – I still have the handwritten sheets – was “[Writing about the Somme] you cover the general situation but, for once, don’t say what was happening to you – were you in the… advanced trench throughout and therefore a ‘spectator’?… you get personal again in the aftermath, recovering bodies etc, but there is this notable blank on what you were doing at the peak of the action…”. He didn’t answer that question; but then he didn’t answer any of the other far more banal questions on that sheet either and I simply don’t know why not. So my speculation runs from he just didn’t see that sheet of questions for some reason, to the events of that day so shook him that his usual total-recall memory registered very little bar broken fragments, to he did remember but it was so terrible he couldn’t bring himself to write down much of it, to he felt guilty that he could do nothing/did nothing to help his comrades.
Knowing him, his strength, his capacity for bitterly candid self-criticism, and considering the one reference he made to “guilt” in writing this passage, in the Endnotes to the first edition of the Memoir I made what I called “a strong guess… that he and his Platoon, like others I’ve read about elsewhere, got stuck in their trench, cut off, no orders coming through, and never moved, just watched the carnage and tried to live through it – hence, the remote onlooker point of view”. Since then, the Kensingtons’ WD and Alan MacDonald’s wondrously detailed book Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division at Gommecourt, 1st July 1916 have put factual flesh on those bones so I’ll add here some detailed information/probabilities about what happened to my father on that day…
His A Company, marching Platoon by Platoon at two-minute intervals to minimise shell casualties, led the Battalion from Souastre via the Brigade “equipping dump” at Bayencourt (three kilometres due south, where they gathered ammunition, grenades and picks) to Hébuterne where they arrived in the night, at 12.05am on July 1. His Company moved into front-line trenches designated W47 and W47S facing Gommecourt. The 1/14th London Scottish (my father’s “kilted lads”) had reached their positions to the Kensingtons’ left at 11pm, June 30.
At 2.45pm the German artillery began a massive bombardment, wrecking trenches and killing men, to which the British did not respond until the pre-planned time, 6.25am. An hour later, says the WD, “our smoke started” – cover for an infantry advance – and the German barrage resumed maximum intensity. The London Scottish charged out into this maelstrom on schedule at 7.50am. Company A were supposed to follow up soon after with digging parties to construct a new trench through No Man’s Land to the supposedly captured German front line – which the London Scottish had actually achieved at terrible cost. But the Kensingtons’ new CO, Colonel Young, asked Brigade’s permission to hold his men back because the German artillery made static work in No Man’s Land suicidally impossible – Brigade agreed, so my father and his comrades remained in their crumbling trench.
However, at 9am an A Company Platoon (not my father’s, I gather) did attempt a race through the smoke, shells and machine-gun fire to resupply the London Scottish with ammunition and grenades (“bombs” the infantry called them back then). The WD says they “disappeared” – not quite as stark as it seems, meaning they couldn’t get any message back rather than that they had all died. By 11.30am A Company was still sending parties across no Man’s Land with supplies for the London Scottish; it would take an hour to cover the 400 metres separating the lines, with heavy casualties suffered (I don’t know whether my father was one of the few men sent out in this way who actually made the return journey too; quite probably not, given the sense of grievous impotence his few words carry).
Pro Patria Mori summarises that by 1pm A Company’s CO Major Cedric Charles Dickens (grandson of the great novelist, killed at Bouleaux Wood on the Somme Front, September 9, 1916) had “spent 6 hours watching the trenches destroyed and his men maimed and killed by the thunderous bombardment of the German howitzers”; accordingly, he sent a message to Kensingtons HQ reading, “Shelling fearful. Trench practically untenable, full of dead and wounded. Very few men indeed left. Must have instructions and assistance.” He got no reply. Author MacDonald adds: “And it was under this ferocious bombardment that the Kensingtons were forced to stand, wait and suffer. Their frustration was intense… The bulk of their dead and wounded were being caused by an enemy they could not see, let alone reach. Somewhere, a few thousand metres behind some low hills to the east, teams of German gunners were pouring a continuous rain of high explosive onto the heads of the Kensingtons.”
At 1.35pm, Dickens sent another messenger back to HQ reporting he had about 50 men of A and C Companies in trenches W47 and W47S (including my father still). Colonel Young sent what he had left, as recorded in his own notes: “party of Signallers, servants and minor shell-shock cases collected and sent with Capt Harris” (Harris and his men didn’t connect with Dickens, but did end up in another part of the front line and assist in its defence).
At 3pm, another runner conveyed Dickens’s final message, quoted by MacDonald: “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.” The instruction was to withdraw and his group (by then probably not including my father who, I deduce, remained in the front line; see below) reached HQ in the reserve line 45 minutes later.
At 5.30 or 6pm the bombardment ceased on both sides. MacDonald writes: “Across the fields and in the shattered remains of the trenches on both sides of No Man’s land, hundreds of men lay wounded and dying. In their agony they now filled the air with their shrieks and moans.”
*** Most of the remnants of the Kensingtons had straggled back to Hébuterne on the evening of July 1, and then, says the WD, around 9pm, the 1/8th Middlesex relieved them in the W Sector trenches, whereupon they “walked” (not marched) back to Sailly where they had to spend the night… in another trench. But my father clearly describes how, along with some others from A Company, he spent the first night after the catastrophe, and most of the day too, on the battlefield and, chiefly, in No Man’s Land before catching up with the Battalion. Well, not hard to imagine that in this particular “fog of war” the survivors pretty much made it up as they went along – and they obviously wanted to do something useful, even make amends, having been able to do little more than survive the day through sheer luck while their comrades…
The Kensingtons’ WD states that 24 officers and 525 ORs (other ranks) went into battle and the casualty count (dead and wounded) was 17 officers and 310 ORs (59% casualty rate). Pro Patria Mori adds that the London Scottish casualties numbered 14 officers, 575 ORs and 15 Medics (77%), the neighbouring Rangers (1/12th London) 17 officers, 447 ORs (58%), and 1/4th City Of Londons (Royal Fusiliers) 16 officers, 344 ORs (58%).
Incidentally, it’s a shame my father never named “the unshakeable RSM” – I can’t find any reference to him in the WD or Pro Patria Mori.
NB: 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. I hope you’ll agree there’s not too much wasted verbiage and plenty of truth and substance.
All the best – FSS
Next week: The aftermath: "recovering our dead mates"… saying goodbye to Charlie… and on to the Somme's air war…
Sunday 19 June 2016
Sam on the Somme, July 1 looming, reluctantly dons his extra stripe, survives another hair-raising night in No Man’s Land… and comes upon school children at play within shelling distance of the Front!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… the Battle of Verdun, begun on February 21, reached one of its crescendos when a German artillery gas-shell barrage on June 22 prefaced a (briefly) successful onslaught which resulted in the storming of Fort Thiaumont and Hills 320 and 321 (23) and the taking of Fleury (24) – depending on point of view, arguably the furthest point of their advance at Verdun, Fleury changed hands 16 times between June 23 and August 17, finally ceasing to exist as a village. However, the French Army hit back immediately and diverted four Divisions from the Somme Front, the German water supply broke down, and the attack petered out. (Verdun casualties by the end of May had already amounted to 185,000 French, 200,000 German.)
On the Eastern Front, the Russian Brusilov Offensive continued its sequence of successes against Austrian and German forces, especially in Ukraine around Czernowitz and Lutsk (June 19-21). But the strain of fighting on many fronts seemed to be showing as they came under attack from the Turkish Army near their recent conquest Trebizond (23) and lost Qasr-i-Shirin in Western Persia back to the same foe (20).
The Ottoman Empire was losing out to the rebels led by Sharif Hussain of Mecca, though, with reports that in the first ten days fighting (in current Saudi Arabia) they’d taken Mecca, Jeddah and Taif.
Meanwhile, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), was in action on the Somme while plans and preparations for what became July 1 developed. After a winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) had moved to France in late April. To their chagrin, at Rouen the Army disbanded the Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons, about May 14 (this also began a long separation from his brother Ted, 19, another former Fusilier). They had no immediate use for his signalling skills so he became an ordinary Lance Jack in the line. Through much of June, the Kensingtons put in a long stint in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt – the British artillery bombardment initiating the Somme attack started at the end of this week (June 25)…
Last week, Sam and his Kensington comrades got caught out on one of their night-time No Man’s Land ventures in what their Company A Captain bluntly described as a “balls-up”. But then they found some relief – delousing, baths, clean uniforms – some kilometres back at Halloy, where they also rehearsed in front-line replica trenches for what my father laconically called the Great Day, “this wonderful occasion we awaited with mounting apprehension”.
Personally, Sam got another kind of “nasty jolt” when the Captain told him of his promotion to Corporal, although he’d already requested demotion to Private because he had no wish to order other men around.
Now the Kensingtons are back in the trenches, the Hébuterne/Gommecourt area still, though not the spot they’d become unfondly familiar with:
‘So, we returned to the front line, a different section to the one we’d previously occupied.
During my first night on duty there, away to our right I witnessed my first battle of flame-throwers. I’d heard about these brutes – and that the Germans used them first – but on this occasion our people were retaliating in kind*. The machines used must have been in a very early stage of development. I do know this kind of warfare was considered, like poison gas, to be inhumane and very wicked. Did this make maiming and killing by bullets and shells more acceptable?
In a lecture some time later, we were told that our specialists had assessed the flame-thrower to be ineffective and wasteful in trench warfare. Instead, they had produced a mortar which flung large containers of inflammable liquid into the trenches and ignited the stuff on delivery, thus promising rivers of fire intended to roast those who didn’t scramble out of the trenches. Those who did, could, of course, be shot. Given there appeared to be no answer to this charming invention, why was it not mass-produced and used? With every German roasted or shot, we ought to have been living it up in Berlin in a few months…
On our foot-slogging journey forward, we had seen a massive concentration of guns from mighty howitzers way back, through the various calibres down to the very mobile field guns which fired 18-pounder shells – most of them well-camouflaged for concealment from aeroplanes and captive-balloon observers. Their presence in such great numbers warned us of great trouble to come.
We took over a front-line trench deeper and wider than any I’d previously seen. So very spick and span! Thereafter, pick-and-shovel parties of Engineers came in each night and worked like beavers. While we kept watch, sent out patrols, and did all the usual front-line chores, they dug drainage holes or gulleys in the floor of our trench and laid duckboards over the drains or sumps. Their labour meant that a rainy day no longer saw us standing in a sea of mud for hours on end.
For a final impressive touch, they reinforced the sides of our trenches with what the Engineers called “expanded metal” – it looked like small-mesh wire netting, but was actually made by expanding solid sheets of metal until small holes appeared. Held in place by stout, two-inch, wood squaring, this metal mesh would hopefully resist collapse under heavy shelling. Certainly, while the stuff lasted, we felt we held a kind of fort rather than a trench; a false sense of security, for what could it do for you when shells fell into your trench?
No additional stripes had actually been issued to me, despite the Captain’s unwanted promise of promotion, and I certainly made no effort to procure them. However, I was sharply reminded of the matter when a subaltern (one pip) told me that he and I were to cross, in the open, the spaces between our trench and some lookout posts fairly close to the German trenches – our first defence against surprise attacks by the large patrol groups which sometimes raided across No Man’s Land. Men in the advance posts had to stay there for several days at a time. We would visit them in turn, under cover of darkness, collect their reports and note any requirements they had.
As I had studied our trench system layout by sketch and by daytime observations, that night, once we had climbed out of our own trench, this subaltern invited me to lead the way. Waiting until no flare illuminated the area, so in complete darkness, we slowly moved in what I hoped was the right direction for Post Number 1…
Certain guidelines improved the chances of survival on such black nights when patrolling the battlefield. Large, dark patches should be avoided – being shell-holes, usually. If something resisted the forward motion of one of your feet, you stopped, moved that foot back and changed direction slightly, endeavouring to avoid being tripped. When a machine-gun opened up – unless, by bad luck, it was trained on you at the moment it commenced firing – you could hope to escape injury by quickly lying down, otherwise it might catch you as it traversed.
As we crept along, once or twice something touched my backside, but a quick backward glance provided a clue – my rather tall officer had adopted the same posture as me, advancing with head well down. His right hand, held forward, grasped a pistol and this occasionally poked my bum. Pray heaven his finger isn’t on the trigger, I thought. A nice lad he was, peach-and-roses complexion, far too good-looking to be mussed up by bullet or shrapnel.
We had to do that job several nights running**. Each outing took two hours or longer, including the time spent with each lookout group, who all welcomed our visits.
But came a night when this routine changed – and I was told to act as Platoon Sergeant: “You will have every man up on the firing step when the order is given. A large patrol is going out under Corporal So-and-So and, if they strike trouble, your men will give them fire cover and get them back into our line if that is possible.”
Corporal So-and-So was a tall, broad, tough-looking type, rather swarthy as to complexion, somehow foreign-looking. That Sergeant I previously mentioned who shouted rude words towards the Germans at morning stand-to had the same sort of look, as did also an officer I’d recently noticed, and several other men – all this probably due to the fact that this Territorial Battalion was based in West London***. I still felt like a stranger with this lot, though by this time I knew, and was known by, a fair number of men.
The order duly came through, I had the chaps on their firing steps, then I moved along the front line to the point from which the patrol would depart through a gap in our barbed wire – a spot I was familiar with, for hadn’t I used it on my own nightly walkies with the young Lieutenant and his prodding pistol? Corporal So-and-So led the way up and over, his men followed quietly, and all vanished into the coal-black night. Our Company officer remained staring in the direction of the dear departed. Then he warned me that I and my men were responsible for holding our section of the front whatever happened and must on no account leave it.
I visited our bays, having a word with the lads all along my bit of front. We waited. German machine guns sprayed our section at fairly regular intervals. From time to time, the usual flurries of whizz-bangs burst… I never ceased to marvel at the speed with which they reached us, before we’d even heard the guns fire… An ordinary trench-war night, in fact, when you’d have to be dead unlucky to stop one.
Weighing up the immediate possibilities, I realised my orders were ridiculous and impossible to comply with. Between my line of men on the firing step and our patrol out there lay a mass of barbed wire we put there to prevent Jerry from overrunning us. But, of course, it would also prevent us from helping our chaps if they found trouble in No Man’s Land. Corporal So-and-So would have to keep his men close together somehow, so he could lead them back through the gap in the wire – otherwise, they would end up skewered and hanging on it.
The night suddenly came to life. Shouts and screams out there. Verey lights flared, but no extra shooting broke out because no one knew just what was happening. Then, high above the other voices, I heard a shout, “Back to the valley!” This was repeated. The Corporal’s voice and it portended bad trouble.
Soon, ahead of me, as I stood listening on a fire step, I heard groans and whimpering. “What’s up there?” I called. A faint reply told me the chap had a leg wound, that our lads had met a large, German patrol head-on. “Drag yourself along the wire to your right as you face me and I’ll get help to you,” I called. I hurried along to the patrol’s departure point and reported to the Captain about the man in trouble. The little Sergeant who daily threatened to knock seven different kinds of whatsit out of the Jerries stood nearby and immediately offered to bring the man in. I suggested the need for speed because all hell would be let loose as soon as the German patrol got back to its front line. With the officer’s permission and a volunteer to accompany him the nippy Sergeant was up and away.
I quickly rejoined my party. No more groans from out front and, later, we learnt that the two rescuers had done a speedy job. When they returned with the injured man, they were quickly followed through the gap in the wire by the Corporal and most of his patrol.
The “valley” he’d been shouting about was a depression about halfway between us and the enemy positions. He’d taken the patrol to it on the way out and told them it should be the rallying point before leaving for “home”. Meeting a large, enemy patrol had not been a possibility allowed for in the pre-operational briefing. The unexpected encounter had, for a moment, changed a volunteer, promotion-seeking Corporal into a shouting windbag, but once the lads got together in the “valley”, their leader did recover his self-control and brought them back in good order.
They had not, however, as planned, penetrated any enemy positions, nor captured prisoners for interrogation purposes. I had the feeling the Corporal had pressed to lead this adventure. Some men did strive to give forth the impression that they were braver than most. But only real action could support or confound the contention.
For a kind of rest, we moved back to a village perhaps two miles behind the front line****. Its buildings, although mostly damaged, provided ample good accommodation for all of us. The place was not attracting much shellfire, but it seemed wise to spend most of the time out of sight so as not to push our luck.
I was crossing the main street for some good purpose when a booming voice stopped me in my tracks: “Corporal Norcliffe!***** You are improperly dressed! Report to me in an hour’s time and have that other stripe sewn on by then or else!” It was the tall, burly, Regimental Sergeant Major. So far I had seen little of him and had no idea he was aware of my existence, let alone my name. Our brief interview started in a strictly official style, but continued in a friendly, almost intimate way as these things did “up the line”.
Firmly, though unwillingly, trapped in the NCO category – I wore two stripes, but often did the work of a man wearing three****** – I still determined, albeit without visible protest, to try any ploy which might result in my getting some leave. In each letter home I harped on this subject, in the knowledge that one of my Company officers would read of the unfair treatment I felt had been my lot.
While stationed in that village, I had what was to me a heart-touching experience. I had assumed all civilians had long ago left because it was so close to the trenches. Badly strafed at various times, the parts of the village I grew familiar with had the stricken appearance I had come to associate with places that were simply doomed.
But one afternoon, free for a few hours before the nightly trek to No Man’s Land where we continued the job of deepening advanced trenches, I got away from it all by slipping out through the back streets (quite unlawfully for, as an NCO, I must be available at all times).
A big stretch of open country spread before me as, clear of the village, I rested against a grassy bank, enjoying the warm sunshine. I enjoyed being completely alone and realised how seldom this happened. Then, I thought I heard children’s voices… Sure enough, looking back I saw a small school and a few youngsters outside at play. It seemed unbelievable; we had walked here from the front-line trenches. The wickedness of keeping them in that situation of hourly danger worried me, yet the sweetness and homeliness of the scene and the music of children’s voices almost had me weeping.
There followed a big bang and I saw a cloud of smoke floating upwards at a point much nearer to the children than I was. But the children ignored it and play continued. Then, when a second bang sounded off, I saw a heavy battery of British guns positioned below ground level, quite close to the school. The kids were used to it. If they didn’t mind, why should I? And yet, one day, Jerry will have a go at the guns, I thought, and then the school may suffer.
I felt loath to leave and rejoin the men whom I really should never have left.
The forward battle area always had seemed a place apart from normal life, nothing to do with beauty, homeliness, love, children, girls, homes, furniture, gardens, flowers – no connection at all with any of those things which men and women enjoy, appreciate and lovingly care for – things, politicians told us, we were fighting to preserve. Yet, up there in the trenches, we did as ordered by our superiors, coupling with that work the really important objective – namely to preserve ourselves from injury and death.
I would have wished to continue watching those children, listening to their sweet voices. This pleasure had been so unexpected in that separate war-world.’
* German scientists did invent the “Flammenwerfer”, first used in combat during 1915; they were cumbersome with a maximum range of about 20 yards; the British soon responded with the “Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector”, named after its inventor.
** This seems to have occurred during the course of a long stint for the Kensingtons in and around the trenches while based in Hébuterne and/or Sailly, June 9-21.
*** Unhelpful Endnote alert: I’ve tried, but I can’t discover which group of late 19th/early 20th-Century immigrants my father referred to here. Anyone who can work it out, please let me know!
**** As I’ve said in earlier blogs, I think my father’s memory failed him on the sequencing of some events in June, 1915 – and probably others he and the Kensingtons were involved in after July 1. (Well, phlegmatic though he outwardly remained, that day did rather shake him up, as you’ll see.) The village he describes here, where he locates himself for the next few pages/incidents, would seem to be Sailly, but at about this point the Kensingtons actually moved to Souastre. Still it may be that a group or groups of men from the Battalion were deployed elsewhere in the Gommecourt sector. Fog of war, you know. On many points of detail total certainty is not available.
***** “Norcliffe” being the rather obvious alias my father maintained for himself throughout the Memoir – I don’t know why!
****** A Sergeant wears three stripes.
NB: 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. I hope you’ll agree there’s not too much wasted verbiage and plenty of truth and substance.
All the best – FSS
Next week: July 1, 1916, The Somme