“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, 10 July 2016

Sam, on the Somme, 18, volunteer veteran, ponders what he hears of “goings-on” back home: conscription, “war dodging” and “conscientious objection”.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Contrary to the terrible sense of British failure emanating from the Somme attack on July 1, the aftermath this week saw advances secured at Mametz Wood (July 3-12, 4,000 38th Division casualties), Contalmaison (7-11, 3,485 17th Division, 4,771 17th Division as the battle concluded with hand-to-hand fighting), and Trônes Wood (8-14, 2,300 30th Division). On the south of the Somme front, the French Army, which had done well on July 1, advanced towards Peronne (10), and lost then re-won Biaches and La Maisonette (15). Of course, the casualty numbers spoke to the continuing human outcome of defeat and/or victory. Estimates suggest 30-36,000 German casualties July 2-10, 25,000 British 2-13, 17,600 French 2-21; that was the scale of the continuing battle, often overshadowed by the terrible memory of July 1.
    On a more micro scale, the German Navy took the war to Britain in an unusual way – perhaps a stratagem related to domestic morale rather than any wider plan – when U-boats shelled Seaham harbour on the Durham coast and sank four fishing boats from Whitby, Yorkshire.
    The Russians remained in the ascendant almost everywhere they fought, their Eastern Front Brusilov Offensive holding a German counterattack at the Stokhod river (July 10 onwards), and pushing the Austrian Army back near Buczacz on the Strypa and at Mikhailovka (13, all current Ukraine). They also progressed again in Turkey and Armenia. But the Battle Of Baranovichi did start to run against them, their attack on a German force they outnumbered 6-1 foundering 14, current Belarus).
    Elsewhere, the Austrians attempt to mount another onslaught in northern Italy failed at the River Adige (July 12), and the British/South African Armies' processional occupation of German East Africa proceeded as they took Mwanza and Mpondi (15).
    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 bitter 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 and beyond…

Last week, in the aftermath of their overwhelming July 1 experience the Somme front line, Sam and his Kensingtons comrades spent several night retrieving the dead from No Man's Land – and restored their spirits just a little observing the heroics of British airmen over the Front and a rare success for an ack-ack gun stationed just outside their wrecked and machine-gun-riddled billet at Hébuterne.
    Now, while the Somme fighting never really stopped, there's a partial lull, which I'm using as editor to turn back to a passage I deferred from May/June because there was too much pre-July 1 material for the blog. Here my father recalls reflecting – in the trenches – on the volunteer spirit, the changes recently wrought by conscription, and his ambivalent attitude to the pros and cons of that interesting new concept “conscientious objection”. Sam writes:

‘It seemed that, during our sojourn in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force*, changes had taken place in England. The original voluntary-service fervour had quickly expired and heavy casualties on the Western Front had to be made up by the only means now available, namely, compulsory service.
     These men, my new comrades, proved more than willing to shed a new light on the behaviour of some civilians in the dear old homeland. Setbacks on land and sea had brought realism to the fore. In the early days of the war, natural optimism, faith in the unbeatable British Navy and our world-beating Army, plus much official propaganda, had encouraged those who intended to keep clear of personal involvement in the nasty business to believe that Britain would surely smash the Kaiser’s forces.
     Many at home already earned more money than they had in peacetime, and they intended hanging on to their jobs come what may. Should call-up papers pop through their letter boxes they could appeal to tribunals. Deferment of their conscription to armed service might be arranged if, perhaps, their employers could prove their work important to the national effort. Who, would you guess, comprised the membership of those tribunals? Local bigwigs. If an appellant was by way of being acquainted with a member, ’twas said he might secure deferment almost forever.
     So the next best ploy was to change jobs and get work in one of the new armaments or ammunition factories being built at a great rate. These places paid well, perhaps two or three times more than in peacetime factories, because of the urgent need to speed up production. They employed many women too and one conscript told me bullets and shells were not the only products of some folks’ work on the night shift.
     Moreover, some prominent people concerned with improving the status of working-class people had promoted the idea that, if a man had religious convictions strong enough to forbid him taking part in warfare, he should be allowed to state them before a special tribunal, the members of which might decide that he should do “national work” other than join the armed services**.
     As World War I progressed the numbers of men who held or adopted these strong pacifist beliefs increased, and some men thus avoided all the risks and sufferings to which most were exposed. I heard that if the tribunal disbelieved the heart-rending yarn you spun, if you still refused to take up arms you would be imprisoned, or put to work in agriculture, or something of that sort. In any case, you avoided all the pains and hazards of the battlefield – that had its attractions. Some of these “conchies”, as the “conscientious objectors” were contemptuously called, were politicians, and some later achieved high positions, after the prejudice against “war dodger” types had subsided.
     And yet… here too was a concession which appeared to indicate that one fence separating The Workers from the rest had been demolished — in part, the “conscience clause” entailed an admission from on high that the dwellers in the terraced side streets were capable of thought, able to form, maintain and explain a conviction reached after study and evaluation.
     Naturally, we volunteers, enduring hellish conditions, would think on these matters and wish that, in 1914, we had conducted ourselves more artfully, had possessed sufficient courage and foresight to know where proper self-interest lay – and act on it. I could have remained at home and then, when my “call-up papers” arrived, I could have claimed exemption on one ground or another and perhaps sidestepped active participation altogether.
     The conscripts’ up-to-date description of life among some working people in the changed conditions of wartime made me feel that I, and many others, had been foolish to cut ourselves off so completely from our occupations much sooner than necessary. Of the four of us who enlisted together***, the elder three would have been conscripted more than a year after they’d actually volunteered, and I was still under-age and, allowing for the usual period of training, would probably not have been sent on active service for a further two years…
     Probably, I would have thought little about these matters had our original Battalion been reinforced after our tremendous efforts to prove ourselves worthy of special treatment – and even then, that scheme having failed, had we been allowed visits to England before once more going to the front line.
     The tales I heard about goings-on in England – the good times many enjoyed while thousands of their fellows were maimed and killed in France – gave rise to some pretty bitter thoughts and made me decide to take advantage of any opportunity which might arise to bring about an improvement in my condition. Living among strangers, one felt free of any loyalty or obligation, except to the extent imposed by military regulations.’
* As per background section above, when he says "our" here he means his former Royal Fusiliers Battalion, not the Kensingtons.
** The right to conscientious objection had been recognised in the UK since the 18th century, but only for Quakers, apparently; it became a general right in March, 1916, after the Government introduced conscription. The same Military Service Tribunals that heard appeals against conscription on all other grounds decided on conscientious objectors’ appeals (which comprised about 2 per cent of the 750,000 cases the tribunals heard 1916-18). In all 11,500 appeals on grounds of conscience were upheld during World War I, while 6,000 appellants were refused, conscripted, then, potentially, jailed if they refused to obey orders.
*** Sam with brother Ted and their friends Len and Harold, whom they lost touch with in Gallipoli.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam, still with no home leave since early 1915, thinks if his Dad could write to Lloyd George, maybe… The while, he realises how he's wasting away on the battlefield – and escapes death by lucky hair's breadths a couple more times…
[I know I said the last bit would be this week, but I decided to redistribute the material – for some reason my father didn't write his Memoir in handy blog-size chunks!]

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