“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, 27 November 2016
Sam – still under age after Gallipoli & Somme – sent back to Blighty… and good news of brother Ted!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… With the Western Front hibernating bar the odd raid and artillery eruption, the German air force brought British civilians into the action more than usual – though on a relatively tiny scale, of course – with Zeppelin raids on Hartlepool and Yarmouth resulting in four deaths while costing two airships shot down by British fighter planes (November 27), and a rather strange first-ever daylight raid on London by just one German plane, causing 10 injuries (28). Further, off Devon, a German U-boat attacked the Brixham fishing fleet.
Despite the weather, the Eastern Front growled along with the Russian and German Armies battling on in Galicia and Bukovina to no conclusive effect. But the main European action occurred further south.
The Battle Of Bucharest (November 27-December 6) focussed all the forces gathered by Romania’s entry into the war on the Allied side through the ultimately failed Battle Of Transylvania (August 27-November 26). The more peripheral participants, Russia and Bulgaria (for the Central Powers) both had their successes during the week – the Russians in the Carpathians defending the Jablonitsa Pass. But the German, Austrian and Turkish Armies closed in on the Romanian capital via the Battle Of The Argeş (December 1-3) where the troops assembled around said river totalled 325,000 and the Romanians suffered a crucial defeat – although better remembered (perhaps like on of Britain’s “glorious failures”, the Charge Of The Light Brigade) seems to be the Prunaru Charge wherein the 5,000-strong 2nd Roşiori Cavalry launched a counterattack in the Teleorman river valley only for German machine guns to mow them down so ruthlessly that just 134 survived.
Elsewhere, steady Serbian-French-Russian-British advances continued in Macedonia (the Monastir Offensive, September 12-December 11) and yet another branch of the overstretched yet always combative Russian Army drove Turkish forces back in Persia (November 27 onwards).
Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, had fought on the Somme Front with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt then around Leuze Wood and Morval (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age – he was 18 on July 6 – had been officially noticed, he was 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 a Quartermaster’s catering scam. But now the Army’s next plan for him, as usual, catches him on the hop…
Last week, a new arrival at Harfleur camp gave my father worrying news about his older brother and former 2/1st comrade Ted – last heard of somewhere on the Somme about to charge out into No Man’s Land to rescue a wounded Sergeant.
But in other respects Sam had started to enjoy his life in the mundane, peaceful world of unofficial Army catering – his old Fusiliers comrade Archie Barker’s canteen (profits to the Captain Quartermaster) which offered tasty extras like tinned-salmon sandwiches and apple turnovers the Tommies gladly purchased for a franc or two.
Despite comprehensive inexperience in this field, Sam had really taken to his main task as wholesale purchaser of supplies via daily horse-and-cart trips to the market and shops of nearby Le Havre – abetted and advised by grocer’s daughter Marie-Louise Bodlet, who soon became his firm friend (platonic, for she was married and my father, perhaps remarkably, remained a sexual innocent until after WW1). Now though, this new life starts to turn sour on him:
‘In the canteen, I found one new development rather disquieting. After all, I had initiated this system of buying goods in the town from the French civilian dealers in hopes that it would establish itself permanently. I have mentioned those apple fritters as one great success with the troops. Well, another baker called at the canteen when I was out, offered Barker a lower price for them, and he accepted. When I sampled one of the first delivery, I didn’t think it matched the taste or quality my friend in Le Havre supplied. I said so, but Barker didn’t like this, he was the boss and he decided, so… nothing I could do about it.
One or two other points of friction arose, but knowing only too well the fragile nature of my job there, I didn’t press my arguments. Nevertheless, the old friendly atmosphere faded. The basic reason may have been Barker’s fears for his own position. A fit man, in his thirties, he should have been up at the Front. Naturally, he’d do everything possible to retain that job at the base, away from all the horror and agony.
So when, one day, it was decided I should return to England – for other duties, not on leave – I was mentally prepared for another move. No doubt I was delighted too, inwardly, although in part sorry to leave this life bearing so little resemblance to that of a soldier… the congenial relationship with Marie-Louise and her mother, the market people who knew me, the chummy drivers. In England this would be exchanged for who-knew-what?
The crossing from Le Havre to Southampton took much longer than the Dover-Calais ferry**, about eight hours. Then I boarded a train to London where I had to report to the HQ of our old Royal Fusiliers Battalion at the Bloomsbury depot where I had enlisted*** – a circle nicely completed.
In charge there, I found an officer, Lieutenant Hudson, who had been with us back then, in autumn, 1914, and a Sergeant I didn’t know, an oldish chap, soldiering on in a quiet number. I gathered the Lieutenant had not left London during all that time. That’s what the Sergeant implied, though it may have been wrong. Anyway, during the rest of my stay I saw little of the Lieutenant. “You’ll be billeted at home and report here every morning at nine,” the Sergeant told me.
Another nice change. I couldn’t help constantly thinking back to the dirt, horror and squalor I was now avoiding. I just drifted with events and, for the time being, they treated me kindly.
My family was delighted to have me back once more – and a letter from Ted had just arrived, the first I’d heard of him since the worryingly uncertain story the Fusilier told me at Harfleur. It turned out he had left the infantry, gone through special training at Saint-Omer, and now operated with an obscure unit known as a Field Survey Company****. They constructed observation posts from which they photographed enemy artillery firing – smoke puffs by day, flashes by night – and connections through landlines automatically registered these pictures from four observer groups onto film at Brigade HQ. Calculations allowing for their respective angles, distances and so on quickly pinpointed enemy positions; orders to our artillery in the area followed at once, and thus they destroyed many a Boche***** gun. War was indeed becoming something of a science, even in those far-distant days.’
** Which my father had taken when given a week’s home leave from the Somme in August, the first time he’d seen his family since February 1, 1915.
*** In Handel Street, London WC1. For the story of the day he enlisted see Blog posted on September 7, 2014.
**** Saint-Omer: a small canal-side town, 30 miles south-east of Calais, close to the North Sea and the Belgian border; the British Army established its “maps GHQ” there in 1915, forming three Field Survey Companies of the Royal Engineers in 1916 with more soon added; in early 1918 the Ordnance Survey, the British national mapping authority, set up an overseas branch in Saint-Omer.
***** Boche: insulting French slang for “German” not used much before World War I, nor since World War II; probably abbreviated from archaic caboche, literally a cabbage, figuratively something like “stupid head”.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam works out with some wounded Tommy convalescents, obeys orders like a good boy, still grapples with the emotional conflicts between post-front-line guilt and the joys of not being shot at for a while.
* 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.