“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 31 July 2016
Sam on the Somme gets to quaff champagne with the Sergeants… Plus reflections on courage, cowardice and the Army’s demoralising resort to battlefield discipline-by-death-threats.
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… World War 1 proceeded unrelentingly, from the Western Front down to southern Africa with participants, of course, extending its reach eastwards to India and Australasia and westwards to Canada.
In France, the German Army lost ground almost everywhere, while often suffering fewer casualties than their enemies. This was true at Verdun, where their August 1 surprise attack south of Thiaumont gained 800 metres but provoked a response which saw the French retake Fleury (3) and the ground yielded near Thiaumont (6).
On the Somme Front, the French beat back the Germans at Estrées too (August 2), while the British repulsed attacks at Bazentin and west of High Wood (July 31), and Delville Wood (2), and the Anzacs endured a bloody success at the Battle Of Pozières via a carefully prepared attack on the “O.G. lines” (5-6, German trench lines north and south of the Albert-Bapaume Road).
Throughout the week, the Russian Army's Brusilov Offensive, June 4 to September 20, went on pushing back both Austrian and German forces in Ukraine (despite delay caused by the Battle of Kovel, July 24-August 8). However, the Turkish Army combatting their Armenian invasion around Erzincan began to inconvenience them enough to give the first hint they really were overstretched and emphasised the point by driving them back east of Kermanshah, Persia.
Still, the Allies moved towards further victories at the 6th Battle Of The Isonzo, the Italian Army attacking the Austrians near Gorizia (begun on August 6, many more to come, 13,000 Italian casualties, 8,100 Austrian), at the Battle Of Romani in Egypt where the British and Anzacs held off an Ottoman/German attempt to take the Suez Canal (3-5), and In German East Africa where the British occupied Saranda and Kilimatinde (July 31) and the Belgians Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika (August 3).
Meanwhile, my father (now promoted from Lance Jack to) Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (his 18th birthday on July 6, 1916), had been involved in Somme front-line fighting from mid-May onwards. This followed a ’15-’16 winter at Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, until his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) moved to France in late April. Shortly after their arrival, to their chagrin, the Army disbanded the 2/1st and transferred the remnants to other Battalions – Sam to the Kensingtons. They served in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt, including on July 1 – Battalion casualties 59 per cent – and beyond…
Last week, in the aftermath of July 1, my father told stories of the smaller things that happened to him as he wandered about the Kensingtons’ support trenches, rediscovering a strange kind of normality after the humanity-crushing hell of the Great Day – and even inventing the rifle-guitar, painful to the ear yet restorative in that it provided distraction, comic relief.
Now Sam’s memory wanders over convivial times out of the firing line (or almost) when he’s invited into the Sergeants’ circle and samples a wide range of the host country’s more down-market alcoholic beverages, cheap champagne his favourite – and he falls to pondering the nature of courage and cowardice in these extreme circumstances. He also reflects with some asperity on the Army’s belief that scare tactics could boost morale:
‘Our next move took us rearwards again, to the village with the ruined church and its undamaged cross, where we had previously spent a week or so*. There we slept in barns and outbuildings on comfortable bunks made of wood and wire netting.
Out of the blue, the Sergeants invited me to join them in evening social drinking in the barn they occupied. Corporal’s pay made me comparatively wealthy, so I could afford to put my bottles on the long table, lit by a dozen candles, around which the Sergeants gathered for an hour or two each night before “Lights out”. Each contributed what he had been able to procure – at that moment, champagne was a good buy because the owners of one big house had decided they couldn’t carry on living in that dangerous area, finally abandoning the hope, long shared by many in that region, that the Allies would soon drive the Germans back to the Rhine… when here we were, halfway through 1916, still bogged down in trenches nearby.
So, imagine: champagne at 2.50 francs the bottle, brandy cognac about 5 francs, curaçao about 8 francs, coarse red wine 50 centîmes**. The red wine I didn’t favour. A few weeks previously I had drunk two whole bottles during an evening, and become tipsy in a sad, sour way; the next morning I drank water to slake a foul-tasting thirst and found myself again unsteady on my feet, with a heavy, hazy head – whereas a steady tippling session mainly on champagne yielded a night of unbroken sleep followed by an awakening to a clear head and a feeling of well-being.
The real boon of these evenings with the Sergeants was the relaxation they bestowed. I can speak only for myself, but surely the others must have felt something of it.
The expected thing was to never expose one’s feelings, so I always tried to give full attention to the matter in hand, despite sometimes suffering intense apprehension about events nearby, such as shell-bursts overhead, eruptions of earth when a shell penetrated then exploded, or, in an otherwise quiet period, when I heard the wu-wu-wu of an approaching Minen flung high by its Werfer***. The ever-present threat of these and other devices, used by civilised people to kill each other – and yet still avoid actually seeing their victims bleeding and writhing – these threats kept me in the state of high tension which made that acid smell rise from the palms of my hands. If we had all behaved naturally we would have ducked and started to run back… ever so far back.
Occasionally, a man did just that and, if charged, would be court-martialed for showing “cowardice in the face of the enemy”. Around that time, I had the unpleasant duty of being Corporal-In-Charge of a small party of men assembled to march a prisoner from the hut in which he was confined to a court martial held in a farmhouse. Having rehearsed our part in advance, we marched the poor devil in, heard the prosecution and defence, marched him out while the court deliberated, took him in to hear that he had been found guilty, the sentence to be announced in due course, and marched him out.
I assumed he would be shot – because at that time it was customary to pass from hand to hand along the front line occasional notices from Army HQ listing courts martial and their findings. So you could read that “Private So-and-So was charged with showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was duly carried out.” Those, roughly, were the words used. The list of cases would conclude with a warning to all about behaviour and discipline. Cheerful reading for men already coping with hardships and risks – often terrible trials of self-control.
These things, so very far removed from the cheerful volunteer spirit of 1914, made those early days seem like a chapter from a different war altogether. Now it was every man for himself and if Jerry doesn’t get you, General Haig’s red tabs**** will. As we often said, it was all right for those bastards at Army HQ about 50 miles back. With their maps, plans, and schemes, battle was probably no more than a game to them, to be played between 10-course meals.
Indeed, solid rations such as bread, butter, cheese etc, were distributed through “the usual channels”, that is, a recognised pecking order as they passed from Division Headquarters, on to the Brigade, to the Battalion and finally to us, the Company. When, in the front-line trenches, the bread allocation they gave me to share out amounted to rather a small portion per man, I found it pretty disgusting – because I was handed my own Corporal’s ration for the day separately and that was a half-loaf. I questioned this with the Sergeant controlling the distribution, but he insisted this was all correct, since those responsible for others did more work and must be maintained in a fit state to do it.
However, reverting to the one court martial in which I had to play a formal part, I should mention a couple of things. I knew the prisoner who, although in a different Regiment by that time, had previously belonged to the Battalion in which I enlisted. I never liked him – too clever by half, with small, shifty eyes — but I felt sorry that he had to die that way. Yet I never did see confirmation of the death sentence, only made that assumption… And, a couple of years after that war finished, from the top of a bus near Marble Arch I spotted Kerminger, that same prisoner, fit, well, and obviously enjoying the sunshine and life generally.
So they didn’t shoot him after all. But why not? When ordered to go over the top and charge, he’d run in the wrong direction and got several kilometres rearwards before they arrested him. Perhaps courts martial did not always send men found guilty to the firing squad and the execution lists we saw on the front line were adapted to scare potential deserters?
But if the authorities thought they would improve morale by implanting fear in already frightened men, they were very much mistaken. Any man who already had doubts about the top leadership and their conduct of the war would only be discouraged from doing his best by this propaganda-through-threats.’
* This is probably Souastre – about three miles west of the Front at Foncquevillers (Hébuterne/Gommecourt where the Kensingtons fought from May to mid-August being a couple of miles southeast). I’m not entirely sure because, when I visited the area during the Somme 100 commemoration, in Souastre I asked one of the older residents whether the church had been destroyed during World War 1. She said no, the village had been just beyond the range of German artillery and survived untouched. But the War Diary avers that Souastre was shelled sporadically while the Battalion billeted there and, for example, suffered substantial damage on June 26, 1916. The notorious fog of war does settle over many such “simple” matters of fact, but if anyone can offer further info I'd be glad to hear it for the next round of endnote updates.
** According to Chris Henschke responding to a question on 1914-1918.invisionzone.com “The rate of exchange for issues of cash to the troops of the Expeditionary Force was fixed at the rate of 5 francs = three shillings and seven pence for the month of July, 1916”. But there seem to be other versions of these figures… and pricier wines available: Alan MacDonald’s brilliantly exhaustive history of British side of the Somme battle at Gommecourt Pro Patria Mori says the more discerning soldiery enjoyed Souastre’s estaminets because they flogged Veuve Clicqout champagne at 9 francs, rather than the 2.50 my father forked out for less exalted appellations.
*** Minenwerfer: translates as “mine thrower”; actually what the British Army called a mortar, that is, it lobbed bombs up and over into the enemy trenches; the German version came in three sizes, light, mid-size and heavy.
**** “Red tabs” staff officers at HQ, identified by these tabs on their lapels.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Two stories: first Sam’s dispiriting encounter with the panicky Sergeant transferred from the MPs to the front line, then… joy! leave at last! going home for the first time since Christmas, 1914… “Freedom made me want to gallop despite my heavy burden.”
Sunday 24 July 2016
Sam enjoys life in a Somme trench!? Wanders about, meets a Canadian sniper, turns his rifle into a sort of “guitar” to torture his comrades…
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 The Somme, which had hardly “gone quiet” since July 1, reached peaks of slaughterous horror, albeit to the marginal advantage of the Allied Armies. The Australians who'd occupied Pozières on July 23 then defended it under a massive German bombardment (24-26); the British captured Delville Wood (27) and Longueval (28); but the British and Australian attack on “the O.G. Lines” (29) – their name for the second line of German trenches from Pozières to Bazentin and Longueval – failed with heavy losses.
But the French Army continued its piecemeal gains around Verdun, taking a German redoubt near Thiaumont (24) and holding attacks at Ville-au-Bois near the Aisne and Prosnes, southwest of the Somme (both 27).
Russia continued to successfully stretch its forces every which way. Although an Austrian counterattack at Kowel (July 24-August 8), northwest Ukraine, stalled the Brusilov Offensive, its advance continued east of the Styr and they took Brody (28, Ukraine). At the same time in Armenia their campaign against the Turkish Army achieved its final objective (it transpired) with the Capture of Erzincan (25, a push begun on July 2). Remarkably, Russian troops earlier deployed to France now arrived in Salonika (30) to join French, British and reconstituted, relocated Serbia Battalions in defending Greece against Bulgaria.
Elsewhere, the Italians pressed ahead recovering territory taken by Austria around Trentino (July 24-30), British ally Sharif Hussain of Mecca took Yenbo, the port of Medina from the Ottoman Empire (25), and steady British progress across German East Africa proceeded with the occupation of Malangali, Dodoma and Kikombo (July 24-30, now in Tanzania).
Meanwhile, my father (now promoted from Lance Jack to) Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (his 18th birthday on July 6, 1916), had been been involved in daily fighting on the Somme Front from mid-May onwards. This followed a ’15-’16 winter at Gallipoli, and three months recovering in Egypt, until his 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000) moved to France in late April. Shortly after their arrival, to their chagrin, the Army disbanded the Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons. They had enough Signallers so he became an ordinary soldier in the line. The Kensingtons served in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt, including on July 1 – Battalion casualties 59 per cent – and beyond…
Last week, mid-July a century ago, still in the front-line at Gommecourt, ever lucky Sam recalled a couple of hairsbreadth escapes from death as almost routine, but also noted how relentless night-time toil (digging trenches and such), fear, stress and inadequate victuals were wearing him to skin and bone. Feeling soured post-July 1, he wrote to his father asking home to appeal to Secretary For War Lloyd George for his first home leave since late 1914.
Now though, I’m taking you back to May-June, a period in his Memoir when my father wrote so much that these blogs would have been far too long if I hadn't held some incidents back. As you’ll see, these incidents aren’t date-tied, but offer interesting snapshots of life on the Front in its quieter moments – and how a curious, restless lad like Sam could possibly begin a paragraph with “I really enjoyed life in that support trench” as he’s just about to:
‘I really enjoyed life in that support trench for several reasons, the main one simply that I was getting rest and sleep, but also it ran through what remained of an orchard. The occasional tree, the fruit bushes, and wild brambles seemed to cut us off from the war – just because we couldn’t see much of it…
I found a strand of steel wire and, with music nostalgically in mind**, fastened it to the butt of my rifle, carried it over my adjustable back-site and tied it off on the fore-site. Now by raising the back-site I put tension on the wire – and plucking it produced an almost musical note. Using the wood covering the barrel as a fretboard I could play a tune of sorts.
Always ambitious, I pictured myself playing the thing cello-wise. So I procured a supple, thin branch from a fruit tree growing by the trench-top and, using some cottons from my “housewife” (the cloth mendings holder*), I made a bow. I drew it across the wire cello-wise, but without result. Then I recollected that one must treat a violin bow with resin to make it grip on the string and vibrate it. I again looked to the tree for help and, sure enough, I spotted some gummy exudations on the trunk. Gathering a couple of pieces, I tried rubbing one against my cotton bow strands. Some stickiness resulted, but the faint noise emitted by my rifle-cello could not be called music. I decided I would have to play it banjo-wise and, using a tooth from a comb as a plectrum, I could just manage a few recognisable notes.’
We’ll come back to the rifle-guitar. But one of the small, intriguing aspects of Sam's front-line recollections is how, when the heat was off, the troops had freedom to wander the trenches if they cared to. My father constantly “left his post” to see what he could see and no officer ever pulled him up about it. Here, some time in June, before the great battle, he explores and runs into his first Canadian –and a dead Frenchman:
‘One day, prowling along a nearby disused and partly demolished trench, I saw a big man lying quite still out on top among the trees and shelled stumps. He held a rifle with a telescopic sight which he peered through, although, beside his head, stood a separate small telescope on a tripod. I crawled out and asked him what was going on (of course, I wouldn’t have done this on the front line). He told me to move slowly and carefully, keeping well down.
“I’m a Canadian,” he said. “A sniper. That’s my job and I work alone. I report to Headquarters way back.” He described his work: watching enemy country, reporting anything noteworthy, taking the occasional pot-shot when doing so might serve some useful purpose. The enemy also had snipers – whose attention he preferred to avoid. He pointed out, high up among nearby trees, a small platform approached by a frail, metal ladder which he sometimes used.
“Some job,” I thought, and wished I had the confidence to apply for such work… but even more that I should have the courage necessary to fight this lone battle with the enemy.
Earlier in the war, I knew, the French Army had manned this sector of the Front and, making a further foray along the disused trench one rainy day, I found that, unlike the British, they had provided themselves with covered accommodation – recesses dug at intervals along their trench, roofed with heavy, waterproof sheets, the half-rotted remains of which still hung over them.
When the rain got heavier, I sheltered in one of these places. Inside, unfortunately, about six inches of water had gathered, but I rolled a sandbag into it and kept my feet dry while I waited for the weather to improve. A dank smell of death hung about this shelter, but in the semi-darkness I couldn’t see what caused it.
The rain continued and I realised I’d better get back, regardless. Nobody knew where I was, I might be wounded and never found, I thought, letting imagination run away with me for a moment… Then, near the junction of this old trench with our own communication trench, I was startled to see protruding from the earth the bright, red cloth of a trouser leg – still shaped to some extent by the bones inside it. I knew some French soldiers wore baggy, red uniform trousers, but I was amazed the cloth had endured exposure for a long time without rotting, and even retained most of its colour.’
A little later, with a move one step further back, Sam got the opportunity to deliver a full recital on that rifle-guitar:
‘So the days and nights passed and soon came our turn to move back to our Reserve line. It ran through the outer, westward side of a small country town, much of it wrecked***. My section occupied the ground floor of what remained of a small, detached house.
After I settled in, having nothing special to do, I bethought me of my musical rifle. Sitting beside a stairway leading down to the cellar, I attached my length of wire to butt and fore-sight and plucked it to produce the best semblance of a tune I could achieve. A scuffle on the steps was followed by a shout: “What the hell’s going on up there?” An officer emerged from below and I had to confess that I was torturing my rifle as well as the ears of my neighbours. Quite truthfully, I assured the officer I had been unaware the cellar was occupied.
More amused than irritated, he asked me to demonstrate my method of using the gun as a one-string guitar. Probably The Last Rose Of Summer**** had never sounded quite like that before, but he returned to his colleagues below without putting me on a charge.’
* See Facebook episode on Sam's early weeks as a volunteer receiving all the basic infantryman's equipment at https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=583641088472365&id=300782296758247
** In his earlier teens Sam sang in the church choir but also learned piano and quickly took to pop and music-hall songs.
*** Given the Reserve Line runs through it, this sounds like Hébuterne, although my father’s relaxed attitude suggests somewhere a little further back, such as Sailly. (My father never spelled out exactly where he was on the front line – old habit of secrecy perhaps, or maybe he really didn’t know given that an expert I met at Gommecourt before the Somme centenary commemoration told me all the signs in the nearby villages were removed, to confuse the enemy I think it was. My deductions re locations come from the Kensingtons’ War Diary, cross-refed with Alan MacDonald’s brilliantly detailed history of the Gommecourt section of the Somme battle, Pro Patria Mori.
**** The Last Rose Of Summer began life in 1813 as a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish “National Bard” and friend to Byron and Shelley; it immediately acquired its best-known tune – probably the one “played” by my father – composed by Moore’s regular collaborator Sir John Stevenson, 1761-1833, although Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Britten all wrote or arranged later variants; the lyric begins “’Tis the last rose of summer/Left blooming alone/All her lovely companions/Are faded and gone”.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam and comrades head rearwards again: bunks – luxury! And the Sergeants suddenly invite him to quaff champagne with them… at 2.50 francs a bottle. Plus harsher reflections on his small part in a court martial and the Army’s sickening resort to discipline-by-threats by sending lists of executions round the front lines.