“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, 25 September 2016
Sam, still under-age, gets the chance to leave the Somme battlefield – um, what should he do?
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A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front, the Allies pressed ahead so consistently you might have imagined the war was almost over, not just halfway through.
Down in the southern Somme region, victories for the British and French Armies in the adjacent Battles Of Morval (September 25-28; 5,000 Allied casualties, German unknown) and Thiepval Ridge (26-30, the Canadians heavily involved there too; 12,500 Allied casualties, specific German figures not known, but along the Front as a whole they suffered their worst month so far, 135,000)… but an overview would show each costly “win” amounted to an advance of a few thousand yards at best.
On the Eastern Front, despite the declared conclusion of the Brusilov Offensive, the Russian Army still moved forward in Ukraine around Brody and Zlota-Liepa (September 30-October 1), and the promising period of new Ally Romania’s ill-fated invasion of Transylvania continued with the opening gambits of their Flamanda Offensive against the Austro-Hungarian and German Armies (September 29-October 5) immediately resulting in a bridgehead across the Danube at Flamanda itself.
And down in Greece, the multi-faceted Allied forces gathered in Salonika – British, French, Russians, Italians and the de-patriated Serbs – all made headway against the Bulgarian Army in Greek Macedonia with the Serbs getting to within 25 miles of the campaign’s main objective, Monastir (September 30, now Bitola), when they took Mount Kaymackchlan and pushed onwards.
Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, and lately promoted to Corporal, had returned from home leave in August to find his Kensingtons Battalion happily resting for a few days at Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, 30-odd miles west of the Somme Front, before moving back into battle further south around Leuze Wood from September 6.
For Sam, a September 1914 volunteer, this followed a ’15-’16 winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (250 out of 1,000 avoided the lists of shot, shell and disease casualties). They’d sailed to France in late April, where – to their disgust – they were disbanded and transferred to other outfits… Sam to the Kensingtons and the Somme front-line at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, 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) – and fought on and on until that August break, and subsequent move to yet another battlefield…
Last week, with the Kensingtons installed on the Somme Front around Leuze Wood*, Morval, Bouleaux Wood, Maltz Horn Farm and Falfremont Farm (in action September 9-27), my father resumed his trench mentality – though, to me, with a degree of fatalistic insouciance he hadn’t expressed before, not during the Gallipoli campaign nor around July 1 up at Hébuterne/Gommecourt.
“Never a dull moment,” he wrote of the incessant, deadly skirmishing, while nonetheless welcoming the respite afforded by the deep dugouts in the ex-German trenches they manned.
But now comes a huge moment in his war-time story. The offer of a (temporary) end to his battlefield life – could it be goodbye to all that danger, terror, comradeship? He wrote:
‘Soon, again, we moved up front for minor action, patrol clashes, snatch raids, nothing yet on the grand scale although we felt, or knew, I think, that another big battle was pending…
So you may be able to appreciate my feelings when, next time out at rest, I was ordered to report to the Regimental Sergeant Major, the big man I’ve told you about, splendid soldier, he who ordered me to put up a second stripe when I didn’t want to**.
I entered the room in a half-ruined house he used as an office, stood smartly to attention, announced my name and rank, and he told me to relax. He chatted in a very friendly way — it really did amaze me that the top man of all the NCOs should have any knowledge of me, trying as I always did to play it quietly, lie low and bother nobody.
Suddenly, in the midst of our conversation he held up a piece of paper and said: “This thing’s come along. Ridiculous really. Don’t suppose you’ll want to have anything to do with it. It seems that after all this time up here, you’re still under the age at which soldiers are allowed to be on active service***. That’s what it says here. And, moreover, it says you are to be sent back to base. You don’t have to go. I think I can fix it so that you can stay here with the boys as I know you’d wish to.”’
As my father’s editor, I’m introducing an artificial pause here to consider the crosscurrents of emotion in his 18-year-old mind, heart and soul at this point as he faced this decision… what would you do?
‘I had to think very quickly. Then I recalled my letter home during the period when I was feeling, not desperate, but quite bitter about not getting a few days leave, and how my father had relayed that appeal, as his own, to Lloyd George. I realised then that this thing had not stopped with me being given special leave. The rest of it had gone through too and I was to be sent back****.
No doubt, at that time, I hated to lose face with the great RSM, but I said to him: “If that order has come through, then it is the wish of my father that I should follow it and, as he’s done this for me, I’ll go along with whatever the order says must happen.”
When the RSM saw I was set on that course, I guess he expressed his disappointment. I’m sure he’d expected me to feel honoured by his offer to wangle it for me so I could stay with my Battalion. Probably, my rank as Sergeant in charge of a Platoon would then have been confirmed.
Suffice it to say I left the Battalion*****, gathered up my belongings, made my way to a railway station as instructed, and got on a train which didn’t stop until we approached a part of the French coast I’d never seen before, near the port of Le Havre where I was to transfer to the British Army camp at Harfleur — the place has some historical significance I believe******.’
* One fatality at Leuze Wood, September 9, was Major Cedric Charles Dickens, aged 27, the great novelist’s grandson, CO of my father’s Company A (or so I deduce from the Kensingtons’ War Diary and Pro Patria Mori, Alan MacDonald’s extraordinarily detailed account of July 1 at Gommecourt).
** My father further praises this RSM in his account of July 1 on the Somme too – see Blog 103 July 26, 2016: ‘… the unshakeable RSM, who won praises from everyone who chanced to be near him during the battle’ (and also, with other surviving Kensingtons officers helped to organise the night-time search for the wounded in No Man’s Land which my father took part in. He is never named in the Memoir nor in other accounts I’ve read, including the Battalion WD as far as I can see. It seems this period “out at rest” would probably have been at Morlancourt, where they billeted in houses, and then a place called The Citadel, where the accommodations were tented (September 29-October 3). Given the RSM was quartered in “a half-ruined house” my best guess is that meeting occurred at The Citadel, probably on September 30.
*** Sam was 18 on July 6, 1916; conscription of males aged 19 upwards began in January, 1916, and, although the lower limit was further dropped to 18 that May, according to http://www.1914-1918.net/recruitment.htm the law still said a soldier could not be sent into battle overseas until he was 19.
**** See Blog 108 July 17, 1916 – Sam’s father wrote to War Minister Lloyd George both asking that he be granted his first home leave for 18 months (which included Gallipoli and July 1 on the Somme) and pointing our that he was still under-age for combat. Sam promptly got a week’s home leave, in August, and now, he presumed, the Minister’s office was sorting out the age issue too.
***** Unsurprisingly, the Kensingtons’ War Diary makes no mention of my father’s departure and clues to the date are sparse. But, given that his sabbatical from the front line came through just before that “big battle” he mentions a few paragraphs earlier, I think it would have been late September/early October. Because from October 3-9, on the stretch of Front they’d occupied for more than a month, the Battalion took part in an ill-fated action around Billon Farm and then Trônes Wood (October 5-9, the “big battle pending” my father refers to, I deduce), their casualties totalling four officers and 179 ORs (Other Ranks). Battalion CO Lieutenant Colonel HWH Young had made himself unpopular in the hierarchy throughout this campaign (as at Hébuterne, where he was thrust into command of the Kensingtons on June 28!) by complaining to his Brigade superiors about their rearward location, ignorance of the realities of the British trenches, and poor tactical judgement in using the intelligence they gathered from aerial photos and reports. He noted that “about this time [late September] I received a typewritten letter asking me if any of the men would care to submit designs for a Divisional Christmas card”; he saw this as the sort of thing Bruce Bairnsfather might “invent” for a cartoon. He left his post on October 27, his departure as unremarked by the Battalion WD as, probably a few days later, Sam Sutcliffe’s would be.
****** Harfleur: a small port on the banks of the Rivers Seine and Lézarde – back then, three miles from Le Havre, now a suburb; scene of the 1415 Anglo-French battle which inspired the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam arrives in Harfleur feeling “not very proud of myself”, but trying to concentrate on the present – which immediately provides him with a mysterious new opportunity…