“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, 4 September 2016

Sam delights in being back with his comrades and away from the Somme Front temporarily – while, as a lowly Corporal, he ponders the nature of the NCO’s relationship with “the men”…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front, looking at the outline of events, you could almost imagine a conclusion coming up – when we know WW1 wasn’t even half over. But on the Somme, the Battle Of Guillemont (September 3-6) saw a British Army victory and the same a few miles away at the Battle Of Ginchy (9) with the French advancing in the same area along the river itself. This after the defence of Verdun ended successfully (though some activity continued in the vicinity with the French taking German trenches at Douamont, September 9 – but British War Minister Lloyd George obviously thought it was all over as he turned up the following day to speak in praise of his nation’s great Ally).
    Still only a few miles of territory had changed hands, the Germans barely retreated at all, only attrition and relentless slaughter lay ahead.
    The Eastern Front remained hectic, with the Russians’ Brusliov Offensive (June 4-September 20, though other parameters are argued) still progressing on the Zlota Lipa river (4) and Halicz (5, both Ukraine) and holding off a German attack, featuring poison gas, at Baronovichi (4, Belarus). However, their support for the Romanian onslaught on Austria-Hungary, begun on August 27, already showed signs of overreaching as the German and Bulgarian Armies got the upper hand at the Battle Of Tortucaia (2-6) and the Battle Of Dobrich (5-7, both in Bulgaria) – although the Romanians crossed the Danube to take Orsova (8, then in Hungary).
    While fighting continued in Italy, Turkey and Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Persia, the Sinai and elsewhere, the Allies run of success in German East Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania) hit a bump when the otherwise retreating German Army stood its ground at the Battle Of Kisaki against General Smuts’ South African troops, forcing them to withdraw (September 7-11).
    Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe, lately promoted to Corporal (18 on July 6, 1916), had returned from home leave in Edmonton, north London, to find his Battalion, the Kensingtons, happily resting at Millencourt-en-Ponthieu – 63 kilometres west of Hébuterne/Gommecourt, the sector of the Somme front-line where they’d fought from mid-May onwards (see 2016 photos below). 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 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.

The Hébuterne British cemetery to the east of the village i.e. looking towards Gommecourt, the German-held village and wood attacked by my father and his Kensingtons comrades (and other Battalions from May, 1916, including July 1. (Picture taken in "panorama" mode, hence the curvature of the image – and my inability to present it in larger format – but I hope some kind of feeling comes across.) 

Last week*, after his first home leave since December, 1914, to my father’s surprise and delight he rejoined his Battalion at the start of a break from the Front. Not only that, but his comrades – enjoying their relaxation and the local cider – treated him to a triumphal progress through the village, slowing him with warm greetings and drafts of scrumpy from their “water” bottles.
    All this, he concluded “took the edge off the regret I felt about leaving family and friends to return to a life I had come to dislike, deep down inside”. He continues with a reflection on camaraderie and how it related to his position as a low-ranking NCO, a status he detested even though he knew he’d “earned” it, in some sense:

Just a field: the 2016 view from Hébuterne towards Gommecourt where thousands of British and German soldiers fell dead or wounded on July 1, 1916, but also in the weeks before and after that notorious "big day" – the casualties included 59 per cent of my father's Kensingtons Battalion.

‘… one could never remain very miserable in company with those soldiers. Every group had its natural-born comedian. Although hardship, filth, and genuine physical suffering took their toll of one’s natural optimism, the fellow who showed his true feelings and really looked unhappy or just plain dejected got short shrift from his comrades. Far better, and certainly to one’s advantage, to show nonchalance of spirit, best expressed in the few words “What the heck?” – borrowed from our American cousins (as we often referred to them, in those days).
     On I went until, with greater pleasure than ever, I found myself back among the lads I had soldiered with before the Sergeant thrust the unexpected pass into my hand.
     As I moved around, it was great to be greeted by almost all of them with words and looks of something bordering on affection. At the time I’d left them, I had been their acting Sergeant, though wearing only two stripes on my arms and those only there as a result of irresistible pressure from the big man, the Regimental Sergeant Major. But I felt no need to keep up “a position” – something usually incumbent on non-commissioned officers.
     In order to maintain their authority, NCOs set themselves apart from the rankers to varying degrees. Most of them, when off-parade, would occasionally mix with Privates. But it was understood that they were the boss’s deputies. Most men, given a little power and authority, however slight, succumb to the conviction that they are, well, a bit better than the ordinary fellows around them. I always found that the more ignorant – within the general meaning of that word – a promoted man was, the heavier the hand of authority he laid upon his former workmates.
     Probably because of my youth, I wore my modest rank lightly and still relished the comfort given by the comradeship of the men around me. I do believe I would have been hurt more by an accusation that I was too strict than that I was behaving in too easy a manner. With some such understanding between us, I always found the essential needs of discipline easily procured or, rather, willingly granted by our men.

On active service, there could be an easy assumption that worthwhile men would do what was necessary for the good of all without any great pressure of authority being applied. Now, again, I had to fit myself into our little part of a huge organisation – the enormous business machine running the British part of the war.
     Contemplate just a couple of aspects of it: feeding the mass of soldiers – what a family; and, at the other end, of course, the disposal of bodies of men killed day after day, week after week, and so on into the foreseeable future. On those rare occasions when a humble Tommy gave some brief thought to what went on nearer the top of the military operation, he quickly became convinced that the thing was getting out of hand. At quiet moments, ordinary fellows began to pose the question: “What’s the object of it all?” If, with one’s rather limited knowledge of history, one tried to envisage the probable sequel to the vast struggle, the outcome was far from enlivening, far from cheering.
     At ground level, the very bottom of the structure, stood the Tommy, the soldier – to be wounded, maimed, or killed his most probable reward, dare one say, for his small and often ineffectual efforts to overcome the enemy.’
* This FootSoldierSam episode, like its predecessor, is a little out of the “100 years ago this week” sequencing I try to stick to – just because of the way the material spreads at different times. Next week we’ll be back in step with the Kensingtons’ movements.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and his comrades resume their role as cannonfodder – sent to a new section of the Somme Front where, oddly, they man ex-German trenches. Luxury!

The grave of Private H Green, on of my father's Kensingtons Battalion, in the WW1 cemetery behind/west of Hébuterne. He died on May 27, 1916. 

Millencourt in June 2016: my wife Gaylee walking down the lane where my father made his "triumphal progress" in August 1916.

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