“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, 18 September 2016
Sam’s back in the old Somme Front routine: getting shot at, getting scared and exhausted – and getting unprecedentedly adjacent to Battalion HQ officers (attracted by the deep German dugouts they’ve occupied?).
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A hundred years ago this week… An airship raid on London and the East Coast caused 170 casualties, but two Zeppelins were brought down, one by a British fighter plane and the other by anti-aircraft fire (September 23). In a parallel venture, French aircraft dropped several small bombs on the Krupp armaments factory in Essen (24). But the real damage continued on the main battlefronts.
To the south of the Somme Front and following The Battle Of Flers-Courcelette, the British, French and New Zealanders (near Flers) proceeded with their modest, costly advances around Morval and Martinpuich (September 18-24), despite German counterattacks on the 20th and 24th.
Over on the Eastern Front, the mighty Brusilov Offensive seems to have been declared over on September 20 (it began June 4). A non-historian scanning summaries online, I’ve seen no account of why it finished then, only a note that on that day the Russian Army “repulsed” German attacks on the Narajowska and Stokhod rivers (Ukraine). The Offensive is renowned because it succeeded a) in diverting some German strength away from Verdun, and b) “broke the back” of the Austro-Hungarian Army. It caused the Central Powers Armies 1.5 million casualties, but the Russians own 500,000 casualties are thought to have contributed to the following year’s national collapse and Communist Revolution.
Heavy fighting continued in Transylvania throughout the week, with the Romanian Army starting to fall back after their early successes, and the Salonika campaign progressed with French, Russian, British and Serbian forces all playing a part in beating back the Bulgarian invaders of Greek Macedonia - the Allies enforced a naval blockade too (from September 19).
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 at Millencourt-en-Ponthieu, 30-odd miles west of the Somme Front, before moving back into battle further south around Maricourt and 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).
Last week, the turmoil of war played a strange trick on Sam and his Kensingtons comrades when they moved into the Maricourt/Leuze Wood sector of the Somme Front. They had the odd pleasure of occupying former German trenches equipped with comfortingly deep dugouts – while their foes took pot shots at them from the rather less commodious former British trenches the upheaval of recent fighting had dumped them in.
My father soon found himself back in the old routines of survival, evidently taking the lethal hazards of battle in his stride far more than ever before:
‘Never a dull moment, though, up above in the trenches. The close proximity of the front lines made it obligatory on both sides to keep the pot boiling. Short, snappy raids across the intervening, quite narrow No Man’s Land occurred nightly. During daylight, a head shown for a moment above the parapet of the trenches attracted bullets – rifle fire, machine-gun fire; action far more intense than normal in periods between major battles. But we did have that consolation of the comfortable hidey-holes down below with their wooden bunks and reasonably warm temperature.
The German trench construction allowed more substantial reserves of dry rations to be stored underground, so feeding the troops from day to day did not rely on the success or otherwise of ration parties reaching the Front from supply depots in the rear.
Probably, from the senior officers’ point of view, this set-up was close to the ideal. Normally, we didn’t see senior officers in a real front-line position. They’d be back at Battalion Headquarters. But here HQ had moved forward to these underground complexes. Of course, this did mean more frequent and sharper supervision of the junior officers and their men. And probably the most serious crime in that situation was for a man to be discovered down below when he should have been above or out in the advanced trenches. At least, here the officers and NCOs could organise periods of duty so that we all shared the riskier tasks equally.
Certainly, time passed very rapidly there, just doing your job – or appearing to do your bit plus ensuring your own continued existence. Of necessity, it kept you constantly alert. And active. At times, very active.
Our first spell of duty up there concluded; quite a large number of casualties sustained*. We withdrew some kilometres to lick our wounds, as it were, reorganise and, no doubt, fill the gaps. Rest at the rear there, some relaxation, short periods of training. A couple of lectures too.
One in particular, I recall, acquainted us with the mechanism of the Mills bomb, the British hand grenade at that time. Diagrams showed the bomb’s insides: a fairly large chamber filled with high explosive, the lever on the side secured by a split pin that simply controlled a spring; when you pulled the split pin out with one hand, the lever had to be held in place by the fingers of the throwing hand; then, when you threw the bomb, that lever sprang clear releasing a sharp, pointed dart to pierce a percussion cap which ignited a very touchy explosive called amynol contained in a small copper tube – and set off the larger quantity of TNT. When the explosion occurred, the casing – moulded in small squares – split up into numerous jagged pieces of metal which could do awful damage.
That type of bomb had remained in use ever since Colonel Mills** had designed it about 1914 and persuaded the War Office to manufacture them on a large scale. Every man in the front line carried several of them when deployed on a patrol. In a big attack, men specially skilled in throwing the bombs carried them about in canvas buckets, chucking some themselves and handing them out to others. Using them efficiently required a pretty good knack. A loose overarm method seemed best. The further away from you it landed the better, of course. Having thrown one, it was advisable to duck or, for preference, get under cover.’
* On “loan” to the 15th Brigade, the Kensingtons fought in the vicinity of Combles throughout September, 1916, including involvement in what became known as the Battle Of Morval, September 25-28 (5,000 Allied casualties).
** Mills Bomb: actually patented by a civilian, William Mills, son of a Sunderland shipbuilder, at the Mills munitions factory, Birmingham, 1915; the British Army immediately ordered 300,000 a month, though Mills claimed he lost money on the deal. The grenade did fragment, but not along the moulded lines – they were designed for grip. Grenades seem to have becomer the main infantry weapon at this point as histories are full of references to either side “bombing along” an enemy trench – and that doesn’t mean “running fast”.
All the best – FSS
Next week: A happy shock for still under-age Sam…