“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, 26 March 2017

Sam moves further north for training with a revolutionary new rifle that’s going to change the course of the war – no, really!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… On the Western front the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line defences continued, largely according to plan and including numerous counterattacks to prevent the Allies’ advance breaking into a gallop. So the British and Canadians took villages including Bouvincourt, Vraignes and Tincourt (March 26-7), then after much harder fighting Neuville-Bourjonval (29), Heudicourt, Sorel and Fins (30), and Savy (April 1).
    Similarly, the French Army reached the Forest Of St Gobin and the Aisne-Oise Canal (March 27) and moved forward northeast of Soissons (April 1), while the Germans struck back temporarily near Maisons de Champagne (28) and began an artillery bombardment of Reims (April 1).
    The great Russian military effort at last showed signs of waning – amid the upheaval back home that had already seen the end of the Tsar and the Romanov dynasty; the Germans drove them back at Baranovichi, Belarus (March 26), and their attempted attack at Magyaros Ridge Moldavia failed (28; part of the war in Romania).
    Through the week, relatively minor actions continued in northern Italy (March 26-9; Austrian attacks), and Macedonia (26 and April 1; onslaughts by the French, then the Bulgars and Germans), while the British pursuit of Ottoman forces north of Baghdad, Mesopotamia, known as the Samarrah Offensive proceeded – in fact, nearly joining up with the far-flung branch of the Russian Army which had been chasing the Turks out of Persia and now took Khanikan 85 miles northeast of Baghdad.
    However, the most substantial single conflict was probably the First Battle Of Gaza, Palestine, where one contemporary account had the British “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” by a surprise withdrawal, maybe provoked by fear of Ottoman reinforcements arriving, maybe concerns about lack of water (March 26-7; British casualties 4,000 including 523 dead, Ottoman dead 2,447).

Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016) Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom told him they’d noticed his age – 18 on July 6, legally too young for the battlefield – and that he could take a break from the fighting until his 19th birthday. So he did, though not without an enduring sense of guilt. Via Harfleur and London, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training/marking time until they severally became eligible for the trenches once more…

Last week, after a long period in hospital averting meningitis and suffering “war sickness” (that’s what the sagacious doctor reckoned), Sam returned to his Battalion and got to know his comrades – the song-and-dance man, the opera singer, the heavyweight boxer… and the almost unanimously miserable set of officers, from Colonel to Captain to his Company Sergeant Major.
    Now he’s on the move again, with McIntyre, his first Harrogate friend, and a trio of new, very different comrades, heading further north in order to learn about a new “super” rifle with a view to becoming instructors in its use:

‘Pal McIntyre and I, along with three chaps formerly unknown to us – Metriam, Naylor, and Rutven – were suddenly ordered to pack our kitbags and handed rail vouchers and papers authorising us to proceed northwards from Yorkshire to a school of musketry. Why we five were chosen we knew not. Nor, so far as I could ascertain, did anyone else.
     We arrived at a hut encampment adjacent to a colliery**. The winding gear and buildings and large slag heap formed the only noticeable features of the local landscape. We joined a hundred or so men from other Battalions living there. The huts had broad floors with beds of mattresses resting on low, board trestles with four blankets per man (twice the usual issue). Heat came from two large anthracite stoves, a zinc bath full of coal beside each of them. Unofficially, we were warned that this quantity of fuel, issued daily, comprised only half of what we needed to keep the hut warm. However, nods and winks advised us what to do about that, the pit being so handy.
     We spent the few remaining hours of that first day settling in, finding the small canteen, getting to know our hutmates, and scanning the order board for information about the training programme and which group each of us had been assigned to. Each group of ten men had a Sergeant-Instructor to train them, two sessions daily, 9 to midday and 2 to 5pm, Monday to Friday in the first week, Monday to Wednesday in the second. Thursday and Friday of the second week would be given over to testing the abilities of pupils as lecturers and demonstrators of what they had been taught. For a third week the whole school would move to a firing-range camp near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, for further instruction and tests.
     A cheerful assembly awaited the arrival of the Commandant in the camp hall. Despite the low temperature – snow a foot deep – good grub and curiosity kept our spirits high… Even higher when we saw a tall, burly officer of middle age walk steadily up the aisle, ascend a few steps on to a small stage, then, with a careful gaze, turn and survey his audience. In a short speech, he made it clear we should regard ourselves as responsible NCOs chosen to spread knowledge and initiate our respective Battalions’ training in the use of a new rifle, designed after much research. This weapon contained all the best features of rifles used by the British, Canadian and Japanese armies.
     I remember my surprise that the Army should still show so much interest in a manually loaded, single-shot gun: the heavy machine gun had been sensibly assigned its role in support of infantry, while the Lewis gun***, lighter and carried by one man, had become the infantryman’s automatic weapon and would soon be available in large numbers. Many of us thought revolvers or automatic pistols would better suit us footsloggers — lightweight, slick and confidence-giving.
     Of course, officers already carried revolvers. But the Army top brass was and still is deeply class-conscious and abhors easements for people in the lower ranks. For instance, of what real use is a sentry? He stands in his box or patrols his beat, a target fully exposed to those who intend to do wrong. If he were seriously intended to guard property or persons he would be suitably armed, not with rifle and bayonet, and be either so placed that he could apprehend by surprise — or else have freedom of movement. But if this system of guarding were adopted, the ancient routine of showily saluting officers who pass the sentry’s position would end, and commissioned people’s vanities be wounded; rather than that, a war should be lost.
     Which brings us back to this marvellous rifle, the expense of bothering with it in the middle of World War, and of training instructors to introduce it. We remained content to play our part simply because the officer commanding the school had the appearance and bearing of the soldier’s ideal officer — and the useful ability to make each of us feel important. He told us that, on completion of the course, we should be capable of instructing men of all ranks about the construction, special features, and correct method of firing the new rifle. We believed all this and worked really hard to satisfy him.
     Moreover, a fine system of teaching us, the embryo instructors, had been evolved. For five or six hours every day our huts became classrooms, with blackboards and charts, lectures and demonstrations. We would take notes, step forward when required to give our version of the lesson just delivered, and be criticised and corrected — and even willingly devote some spare time to further study. By the end of the course, each of us had become perfect in the form of words to be used, the actions and diagrams needed to demonstrate the purposes of the various parts, and, finally, how to use the whole rifle to the best advantage. After untiring practice and rehearsal day after day, we even mastered the occasional appropriate joke and its necessary pause for laughter.’
** My father never mentions the name of this place, but I think I recall him saying it was Cramlington, Northumberland.
*** Devised by US Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911, with the magazine a distinctive rotating drum holding either 47 or 97 bullets, which could be fired at 5-600 a minute; it weighed 28 pounds, half as much as a contemporary Vickers machine gun; when the American Army rejected it, Lewis sailed for Belgium, then England, where he worked on manufacture with BSA in Birmingham; the British Army approved it in October, 1915, and Lewis guns came into common use early the following year, about 50,000 of them – including a belated American model – on the Western Front by the end of the war.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Between training sessions on the new rifle, Sam and Mac develop a whole new skill – stealing tin baths of coal from the adjoining colliery via hazardous night-time forays in the snow.

* 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.

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