“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, 17 July 2016
Sam, 18, realises he’s literally wasting away in the trenches; twice he escapes death by hair’s breadths – and asks his Dad to complain to Lloyd George about how he’s had no home leave…
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A hundred years ago this week… the French, British and other Allied Armies continued their relatively successful follow-up to the catastrophe of July 1 on the Somme Front. The British won ground at Ovillers (concluded July 17 – in so far as any of these battles had an "ending") and the French south of the Somme at Estrées and Soyecourt (20).
The South Africans attacked Delville Wood and Longueval, suffering heavy losses to a German counterattack, and then settling in for several weeks with an artillery bombardment (July 22, the battle's dates July 15-September 3). At Pozières, on the Albert-Bapaume road, the Australians suffered more heavily than in Gallipoli en route to eventual victory (July 23-September 3, 23,000 casualties). But the German Army battered Anzac and British forces at Fromelles, near Lille (19-20, Allied casualties 7,080, German 1,600-2,000).
Verdun still saw action with a week of fighting around Fleury, the French gaining the upper hand.
The Russian Army relentlessly pushed back the Austrian and German Armies in the east. the Brusilov Offensive saw them drive on south of the Lipa (July 18), near Lutsk and Berestechko (20) and Brody (22, all Ukraine). At the same time, they pressed on through Turkey, capturing Kighi (18) and Hunishkhanek (20) to approach their objective, Erzincan.
However, the Turks defeated the astonishingly stretched Russian forces at Kermanshah, Persia (190. They also launched an offensive against the Suez Canal, bombing Suez and Port Tewfik (July 20).
Meanwhile, my father (now promoted from Lance to) Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (his 18th birthday on July 6, 1916), remained on the Somme Front where he'd been involved in daily 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 Battalion and transferred the remnants to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons. Because they had enough Signallers he became an ordinary soldier in the line. The Kensingtons did a long stint in and around the front line at Hébuterne, opposite the German positions at Gommecourt, including July 1 – Battalion casualties 59 per cent – and beyond…
Last week, I used some material from Sam's Memoir I’d had to defer from pre-July 1 because he wrote too much for the blog in that period (I'm not complaining!) – it brought out his thoughts, as a front-line Tommy, already a Gallipoli veteran though not 18 until July 6, 1916, on the volunteer spirit, on the Government's recent introduction of conscription and the tangled pros and cons of every man’s new right to be a conscientious objector.
Now we’re back to the present-a-century-ago. Scarred by July 1 in the front line at Gommecourt and by the Army's earlier, rather different display of carelessness in discarding his original Battalion, Sam's again obsessing about how he’s had no home leave for more than 18 months (in the meantime training in Malta and Egypt, then fighting in Gallipoli):
‘Time passed and still no leave came my way. Chatting about this one day – grumbling to a comparative stranger – I got a hint about trying a different approach. At first, it appeared ridiculous. The chap said he knew a man badly in need of a break who, in desperation, got his father to write to Lloyd George about it. Soon afterwards he was granted seven days leave.
So, in my next letter to my father, although fully aware that the officer acting as censor would read it, I stressed that I had been so badly treated that I would be grateful if he would write to the Rt. Hon. David Lloyd George* stating that I had not been allowed to visit my home since Christmas, 1914, that I had served in Gallipoli and Egypt and now in the trenches in France – when still actually below the age at which one was allowed to be on active service.
That last item I expected to be noticed, because around that time the authorities responsible for calling up men for military service had discovered a gap in the supply of recruits. Thousands of youngsters to whom papers had been sent on reaching 18 did not reply or report for duty. This led to the discovery that these chaps had enlisted, under age, at the beginning of the war; it was decided to bring them back, wherever possible, and restore them to their proper position in the stream. Many were, of course, long since dead and buried, like young Nibs, previously mentioned, at Suvla Bay**.
Having got that load off my chest, I forgot about the matter for, on reflection, the idea of a youngster expecting his dad to write to the War Minister or whatever his title then was, looked like madness.’
Just as well Sam could lift himself out of that bitterness, because he still had a battle to concentrate on – for his own sake, but also for the men of his platoon as his conspicuous reluctance with regard to promotion a few weeks earlier from Lance Jack to Corporal was rewarded with a further, temporary upgrade to Sergeant (vacancies did occur rather frequently at all levels among the front-line troops). Then, although he remained lucky as to the destination of bullet and shell, he realised that conditions in the trenches were hitting him like a wasting disease.
‘As acting Sergeant, I was kept pretty busy. We moved to difficult areas fairly frequently, but the general routine of living didn’t vary much: some places muddier, filthier than others, sometimes the front trenches uncomfortably close to Jerry. The red tabs way back laid on occasional raids to sample the occupants of the enemy front line. Some men were lost, one way and another.
The nervous strain always prevailing up front had its cumulative effect on me. Stripped, when we had the periodical bath*** and change of underwear during a rest some kilometres to the rear, I saw that insufficient flesh, let alone fat, covered my boney framework. One ate very meagrely for a growing lad, good-quality food seldom available, a really full belly a rarity. This was active service and, although our Cook Sergeant performed marvels with the food allotted to him and his men, the PBI**** never had a meal such as would be placed before a member of an average working-class family for Sunday dinner. There were grumbles, but seldom rebellious or very violent expressions of dissatisfaction.
Of course, the word “scrounging” had joined the vocabulary of most soldiers by that time. It was used freely by so many men, most of whom would have been ashamed two years previously to steal, thieve, or even remove without permission, things in the care of others. Not that “scrounge” gave justification for stealing a comrade’s personal possessions. But the word did cover “lifting” or “borrowing” things from “them” – all those anonymous people not actually belonging to one’s Company or perhaps to one’s Battalion.
The man claiming to have “scrounged” something usually did so with self-forgiving humour and a grin – though sometimes with bitterness if he suffered from a sense of grievance. The proportion of previously honest men who adopted the habit of scrounging as a way of life may have been as high as 50 per cent of us.
It was also around that time I first heard someone say, “F!@# you, Jack, I’m alright!” – again, something that appeared to have come into the Army via the first forcibly conscripted wave of civilians. Wrenched from their families and a settled way of living, their bitterness may have expressed itself in that harsh declaration of the rule by which they intended to live henceforth.’
Still, at Gommecourt, they fought on, cannonfodder in the attritional action that followed the grand tragedy of July 1. Here Sam recalls a couple of examples of the raw good luck through which he, like thousands of others no doubt, avoided joining the casualty listings.
‘Still, in the forward area, we continued to “do our bit”, not taking part in any notable action, but holding bits of the Front***** in what usually seemed to us to be quiet spots. They gradually brought our numbers up to strength, but never again to the thousand men who originally comprised an infantry Battalion. Around 800 had become the rule.
We all had our bits of luck, just to continue without being killed or seriously hurt…
There was the time when a Minen from one of those bloody Werfers burst close behind me. The shock shattered me temporarily. I wore the chinstrap of my steel helmet fairly tight, yet the blast – from below it seemed – lifted the heavy headgear off and dumped it several yards away. Eventually I appeared none the worse.
Another time as I walked along a trench a shell landed at the end I had just left. Bits and pieces whizzed in all directions and I felt a severe blow to the lower part of my back. No pain resulted, but a pal took a look and found the webbing which held the wide metal head of my trenching tool cut clean across. Without that lucky shield, the base of my spine could have been severed.’
* David Lloyd George: Liberal Secretary Of State For War June 9-December 5, 1916; took over from Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister, December 7, 1916 to October 22, 1922.
** For Sam's account of young Nibs's death within minutes of the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers landing on the beach at Suvla Bay, September 25, 1915, see Blog 64 September 27, 2015.
*** For example, the Kensingtons’ WD notes the troops getting baths on July 7-8, then July 29 at Bayencourt, a couple of kilometres behind the front line.
**** In case you never heard this one before, “PBI” means “Poor Bloody Infantry”
***** The Kensingtons remained around the Hébuterne-Gommecourt section of the Front, and in the trenches most of the time, until August 21.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam finds support-trench life a holiday relatively speaking: he has time to wander and meet a Canadian sniper in action, and turn his rifle into a “guitar” (!?) with which he tortures his comrades, officers, and… the whole idea of music really.