“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 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.