“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, 11 September 2016

Break over and back to the Somme Front for Sam and his comrades – a new section where, oddly, they man ex-German trenches. Luxury

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the Allies launched the “third phase” of their attack along the Somme Front – with the British experiencing more success than in their initial onslaught, but awful casualties continuing on all sides to achieve or suffer piecemeal gains or losses.
    First, the French Army gained some ground between Combles and the Somme river itself (September 12) and at L’Abbe Wood Farm (13), Le Priez Farm (15), Vermandovillers, Berny and Deniecourt (17). A little to their north, the British stormed German trenches at Thiepval (14), then won the Battle Of Flers-Courcelette (15-22, near Albert) – historically notable for the first ever deployment of tanks – joining up with the French around Combles. Advances of up to two miles cost 29, 376 Allied casualties; the Germans did not issue separate figures for this battle.
    To the East, Allied progress continued – some of it shortly to prove delusory – with the Russian Army both maintaining its Brusilov Offensive advance in Ukraine along the bank of the Zlota-Lipa (September 16) and in the Carpathians at Mount Capel Kapul to link up with the Romanian Army… who themselves moving towards Kronstadt in then Bulgarian Transylvania (both September 11), occupying Baraolt in Romanian Transylvania (16). In addition, the Romanians and Russians combined to hold back Bulgarian-German-Ottoman forces at the First Battle of Cobadin (17-19).
    Further south, the same story for the Allies unfolded. The Italians gained ground near Gorizia in the Seventh Battle Of The Isonzo (September 14-18, 17,000 Italian casualties, 15,000 Austro-Hungarian);  and launching the Monastir Offensive (September 12-December 11) the Serbians, French and British all did well on different sectors of the Macedonian Front (en route to total casualties for the campaign of 130,000 Allied troops and 61,000 Central Powers troops).

Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, and lately promoted to Corporal, had returned from home leave to find his Battalion, the Kensingtons happily resting at Millencourt-en-Ponthieu – 30-odd miles west of Hébuterne/Gommecourt, the sector of the Somme front-line where they’d fought from mid-May onwards. There, on July 1, they’d suffered 59 per cent casualties (see FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated June 26 and July 3, 2016). For Sam, this followed a ’15-’16 winter at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (250 out of 1,000 survived unharmed). They’d sailed from Egypt to France in late April, where – to their disgust – they were disbanded and transferred to other outfits, Sam to the Kensingtons and the Somme.

Last week*, my father had a great time at Millencourt, getting back among his front-line pals way beyond even earshot of the battle. Together they drank a lot of cider – while, in his relaxation, Sam reflected on his role as an NCO, the possible conflict between comradeship and (low-level) command, and his aim of achieving discipline via understanding rather than any kind of shouty martinetry.
    Now, as they return to the battlefield, he feels a certain (unexplained/inexplicable) optimism about the immediate future:

‘But… leaving all that aside, I was back, my unit going into action again before long, the many hazards and the few, simple pleasures to be faced or enjoyed. In fact, as I went about my small duties and re-established my position among my particular group, I viewed our prospects with a fair amount of optimism. We had some pleasant days in that small town, with a good spirit about among the fellows. Memories of the big battle**, the great losses, had begun to recede into the past, the terrific tension, the fear, the sadness, taking their proper place in the background of men’s thoughts — that is, apart from the odd things one could do in one’s own interests, the future, as it always had been and always would be, was outside the control of ordinary individuals.

The day came when we were ordered to pack up everything, while reducing to the required minimum those articles we must carry with us into the trenches. All the usual preparations for a move kept us fully occupied. Then off we went, marching eastwards.***
     At night we paused, making rough, temporary billets in outbuildings and barns on unoccupied farms. Quite exhausted with the marching, where we lay mattered not too much, provided we had some sort of cover for our heads in case it rained.
     Such basics could never be guaranteed in wartime, but the good organiser made sure his men got the advantage of whatever was available. Slackness at the top could cause much discomfort lower down, whereas a good Colonel with a good team of officers around him established a reputation among the members of a Battalion which would never be lost. The men who benefited from his thoughtfulness would remember him always. It must have been a great reward, or sometimes a consolation, to a high officer who, through the exigencies of battle, lost many men for whom he had a feeling often amounting to affection.
     In the next section of the front line we manned****, no satisfactory or permanent settlement had been achieved following the recent battle. Away to our right we could see what we considered to be our front lines – occupied by Germans. Meanwhile, we had annexed the former German reserve trench, as we would have termed it; the part we held contained a number of large, deep dugouts – our chaps must have had a tricky job clearing the Jerries out of that network. Way ahead of this strong line lay shallower temporary trenches of the kind I’d often been involved in digging overnight in No Man’s Land.
     Of course, we now had the use of everything the Germans had established – an unaccustomed situation. But we soon took pleasure in being able to have a few hours uninterrupted sleep down there in the underground shelters which, on average days or nights, greatly muffled the sound of exploding shells. One had the feeling that the world of violence up above was distant, really remote. Reflecting that, in many parts of the Front, the Germans had the advantage of this sort of facility, one wondered if we could ever effect a real break through the enemy lines.’
* This FootSoldierSam episode, like its immediate couple of predecessors, is a little out of the “100 years ago this week” sequencing I try to stick to (see footnote **) – just because of the way the material spreads at different times. Last week, in a footnote I said we’d be back on track this week. Wrong! But next week, absodefinitely.
** That’s July 1, of course.
*** Here my father’s memory would seem to have missed out a train journey. The Kensingtons’ War Diary records their travels in Picardie thus: the Battalion left Millencourt-en-Ponthieu at 4am on September 3, 1916, took a train to Corbie (57 kilometres southeast), then started marching westwards towards Daours (5.6 kilometres if completed) until a messenger turned them back to Corbie and onwards due east – presumably the march my father recalled – to Sailly-le-Sec (7.6 kilometres; yes, a different Sailly to Sailly-au-Bois, the Kensingtons’ familiar, wrecked village 3 kilometres west of Hébuterne, their “home” on the northern Somme Front; the Red Baron Von Richtofen was shot down between this second Sailly and Vaux-sur-Somme, April 21 1918). They arrived during the afternoon.
**** This probably happened on September 6. Now “lent” to the 15th Brigade, the Kensingtons moved into the trenches near a village called Maricourt and an area known as Leuze Wood (or “Lousy Wood” to the Tommies), held by the German Army. They relieved the 7th Irish Fusiliers, whose CO told the Kensingtons’ Colonel Young (the officer Army admin kindly placed in charge of the Battalion, whom he’d never met before, on June 28, just three days before they went into the Somme front line for the events of July 1) that a day earlier, on September 5, his Battalion had suffered 350 casualties in a failed attack. Another source, Somme 1916 by Gerald Gliddon, details this as an assault on Combles Trench, but reports the casualties as 251. The Kensingtons fought in the vicinity of Combles and alongside French troops throughout September, including involvement in what became known as the Battle Of Morval, September 25-28 (5,000 Allied casualties).

All the best – FSS

Next week: Back in the old routine: getting shot, getting educated via the occasional lecture – and getting unprecedentedly adjacent to Battalion HQ officers (attracted by the safe accommodations in those deep German dugouts).

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