“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, 20 November 2016
Sam, on his underage break post-Somme, enjoys some odd goings-on in Le Havre – then hears about brother Ted's heroism…
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A hundred years ago this week… Winter, the great pacifier, brought a degree of relief to Eastern and Western Fronts despite the frostbite hazards. The Battle Of The Somme “officially” concluded on November 18 having proceeded slaughterously since its “official” start date of July 1 – inverted commas because neither could be taken too literally – and the Battle of Verdun (opening salvos February 21) had bedded down bar one pre-Christmas flare-up, while the Russian Army’s Brusilov Offensive’s fizzling after major successes combined with the mid-continental chill to freeze action in that theatre.
So the timeline notes mainly record events at sea: a German Naval raid on Lowestoft (November 26) and the sinking of French battleship Suffren (November 26, by U-boat in the Bay Of Biscay), and of British hospital ship the Brittanic (21, by mine, off the Greek island of Kea, heading for Gallipoli so no wounded on board, all but 30 of more than 1,000 crew and medics survived).
However, fierce fighting continued in southern Europe. The Battle Of Transylvania, begun by the Romanians on August 27 as an attempt to take historically disputed territory from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had turned around into an arduous invasion of Romania by German and Austrian forces. They took Craiova (November 21), regained Orsova (22, scene of a Romanian victory on September 8), and advanced on Bucharest via Rymnik, to the northeast (25), although the still defiant Romanian Army repulsed the Germans in the Aluta Valley at Slatina (24), due west of the capital.
Down in Macedonia, the Allies’ Monastir Offensive proceeded steadily – if that was still the right name for it, given they’d just captured their objective – with Serbian and French troops pushing the Bulgarians northwards. Also, the provisional Greek Government declared war on Germany and Bulgaria, giving perhaps rather shaky political support to the Salonika-based Allied forces (other contingents there included British, Russian and Italian troops).
Meanwhile, my father, under-age volunteer – and already a Gallipoli veteran – Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, had fought with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt on the north end of the Somme Front, then around Leuze Wood and Morval to the south (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age had been officially noticed, he was still legally too young for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He wished all right – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a surprise, temporary move into (unofficial) catering…
For the last two weeks FootSoldierSam’s blog has been marking the Remembrance period with extended excerpts from my father’s accounts of the first two WW1 campaigns he fought in: Gallipoli and The Somme.
Now I’m returning to the 100-years-ago-this-week (give or take) approach FSS is based on. So back to Harfleur and Le Havre where, for a couple of months after the Army’s discovery that, after all he’d been through, he was still under-age for combat freed him from the Front, he worked with a rather Arthur Daleyish character called Archie Barker.
This ducker-and-diver of a comrade from his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, ran a sort of unofficial caff at Harfleur camp, augmenting the Tommies’ diet with little luxuries such as tinned salmon sandwiches, apple turnovers and fresh fruit (all profits to the Captain Quartermaster, of course.) Sam’s job involved taking a horse and cart into nearby Le Havre every day and buying these tasty extras in the town’s market and grocery shops.
Despite his total lack of experience in the field, he quickly grew to love this new role – as well as developing a teenaged crush on his kind local mentor, shopkeeper and fluent English speaker Marie-Louise Bodlet (platonic: she was married to a French soldier, Sam both honourable and still an innocent abroad in romantic matters). Here we find him just enjoying the oddities he observes around him, as he had done since childhood – and remembering them in fine detail:
‘It was around that time I had the interesting experience of watching a Frenchman buy a monocle. Barker had asked me, while in town, to call at an optician’s shop in the Rue Tière**. I merely had to collect some spectacles he had left there for repair.
While waiting, I noticed a French civilian searching through a box on the counter. It contained wire frames, mostly gold wire, and not for pairs of spectacles, but for single lenses. He selected one and as he tried it in his left eye, I observed that the bottom of it was distinguished by double wiring. He stood in front of the mirror. Down went the jaw as he stretched the skin on that side of his face to its limit. Into the orbit went the frame, the jaw relaxed, and the double wire gripped in a fold of flesh.
This went on for some time until he’d selected the one that suited him and handed it to the optician for the lens to be inserted. The fascination to me was this man’s concentration on the job in hand, the careful selection, the serious, searching glance he gave to the reflection in the mirror — his appearance in wearing the thing obviously of the greatest importance, though perhaps it would be of aid to him in reading too. Until then, I had thought only a certain kind of Englishman wore a monocle. But the quantity of frames in that box proved the custom must have been quite common in France or, at least, in Le Havre.
Another time, back at Harfleur camp, I saw something happen to an Army wagon, which I was glad not to be a part of. Drawn by two mules, it climbed a fairly steep hill. Nearing the top, the mules apparently decided the task was too much for them, so they stopped and the weight of the wagon and its load began to pull them backwards. They either could not or would not regain control. The last I saw of them, they were gradually being dragged down the hill, swinging from one side of the road to the other. Sometimes they and the wagon got crosswise and there would be a pause. But the driver never managed to get them to resume pulling uphill. I guess finally he must have swung them round and gone back down. Knowing the obstinacy of mules, I wondered if they ever did reach the top of that hill.’
Next, the arrival of a newcomer in camp gave him the chance to seek information about his older brother – and hero really – Ted, by then 20. They’d joined the Royal Fusiliers together in September, 1914, but often been separated and Sam hadn’t seen him since May, 1916, when that Battalion, broken down from a thousand to about 250 by Gallipoli was disbanded – to their great chagrin because they had bonded as comrades and trained like madmen to persuade the Army to bring them back up to strength with new recruits.
When Sam was sent to the Kensingtons on the Somme Front, the brothers had lost touch again:
‘I recognised [the newcomer] as a Fusilier by his badge, and I knew that, after the break-up of our old Battalion at Rouen, my brother had been sent to the original first-line Regiment, so there was just a chance that this newcomer had known or heard of him, even though thousands of men wore that badge. So I asked him about life up front, who was he with, and the long shot came off. He had belonged to the same Company as Ted.
I eagerly asked for news and he told me how, in a pretty sharp action, one of our Sergeants from the original Battalion, Billy Wale, had been severely wounded in a very much damaged advanced trench well ahead of the front line***. This soldier had heard my brother say, “We can’t leave old Billy Wale out there. I’m going to get him.” But this soldier didn’t know what happened after that, because he was already wounded himself and stretcher-bearers carried him away.
So I still didn’t know what had happened to dear old Ted in that very dangerous situation… How I wished I’d been there to help him. Knowing how tough and self-reliant he was, I had good reason to hope that he and the wounded Sergeant eventually came out of it alive. Probably, a letter from home would give me my next news of my brother, so I wrote to my parents telling them the details I had heard and trusted they had more recent – and positive – information.’
** This doesn’t appear on a current list of Le Havre streets – closest is Place Thiers, so maybe that’s It, or maybe the Rue Tière has disappeared in the meantime.
*** On the Somme, that is, but I don’t know where – if these scant details give anyone a clue then please let me know.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s catering career comes to sour end – but no worries, his still-underage break from the front continues as the Army sends him back to Blighty, an interlude of home life… and good news of brother Ted!
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.