“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, 2 April 2017

Sam and Mac, training on that new “super” rifle, acquire a rather different skill – stealing coal from the pithead via hazardous snow-and-icy night-time forays.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… No doubt, its importance can be exaggerated, but even so there was no bigger news than the USA’s declaration of war on Germany on April 6, following an address to Congress four days earlier in which he deployed the now-familiar phrases “war to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy”. Probably much swayed by the recent German switch to all-out submarine war and the dubious machinations around the Zimmermann Telegram, Senate and Representatives voted in favour by huge margins. In fact, “boots on the ground” US involvement barely registered until 1918.
    On the Western Front, the unusual passage of fighting provoked by the German Army’s planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line, which had begun on February 23, reached it’s conclusion on April 5 with the pursuing British and French (and Australians at Noreuil) experiencing their last few days of somewhat unreal progress by taking 20 or more of the “outpost” villages the Germans defended to the last to cover their general retreat. In the early days of settling into a new status quo, the French began a bombardment of German positions around Vauxaillon (April 6; Aisne department; the nearby city of Reims was evacuated on the 8th).
    In other “theatres”, little crucial action occurred on the eastern Front, nor down in northern Italy and Salonika, while April also saw the start of the six-month Stalemate In Southern Palestine (following the British/Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s double failure during March to take Gaza from the Ottoman Army). Russia, at the extreme of its southern reach, continued its odd success in Mesopotamia, using cavalry to take Kasr-i-Shirin and Khanquin, northeast of Baghdad, from Ottoman forces while the British Army’s steady Samarrah Offensive, driving north out of Baghdad, captured Belad station, about 20 miles from Samarrah (April 8).

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. By December, 1916, 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, the Army despatched my father, his pal “Mac” McIntyre and three others from Harrogate to (probably) Cramlington**, Northumberland – their mission, to become instructors in the mechanics and use of the Army’s upcoming new super-rifle which would sweep aside the old Lee Enfield.
    An enthusiastic and persuasive trainer swept aside Sam’s doubts about the whole enterprise – why not an automatic pistol, which he knew the front-line Tommies would much prefer? Like corporate salespeople doing a presentation today, they even learnt set jokes and timed pauses for laughter.
    But here Sam and Mac break off from their studies to attend to more mundane matters. The winter of 1917 was one of the longest and bleakest on record in Western Europe with the snow falling and laying from January onwards and that April still the coldest ever in the British Isles***, starting with a blizzard April 1-3 on the Cheviots, 30-40 miles northwest of Cramlington.
    As my father mentioned in the last blog, the Army supplied the musketry school’s Nissen huts with only half the anthracite their stoves demanded to maintain modest comfort in these conditions. So…

‘During our training course, freezing-cold nights kept us in our huts most of the time. But, during the hours of darkness, two men from each hut had to procure coal, a zinc bathful of it, from… somewhere. Naturally, McIntyre and I worked together when our turn arrived to rob the slag heap (as we called this chore, in order to mislead any civilian who might chance to hear of our unlawful activities).
     No thrills on the route described to us, until we came to a narrow path along the rim of a deep excavation, partly water-filled. Slipping on the frozen ground was a risk; we moved slowly, carefully. At the pithead, we took care to avoid being seen by the workers, and to fill our bath and get away quickly.
     I saw no coal lying around, but a train of loaded wagons stood there. I climbed up on top of one and handed down large lumps to Mac. He placed them in the bath noiselessly. Nevertheless, for some reason, men carrying lanterns appeared and we feared they would search, so we left the bath on the track under the buffers, climbed up on to the wagon again and lay flat on top of the coal. A period of thumping hearts until the miners, as I suppose they were, moved on, we got away – and the really trying job commenced. The terribly heavy load necessitated frequent rests, and the narrow path along the rim of the big, dark-blue hole was nerve-wracking. But when we completed the job, elation followed, and good friends rewarded us with hot tea and listened to our hair-raising tale of near-discovery.
     Of course, others had similar experiences every night. The camp’s longer-term inmates had devised the system of sending out pairs of men from each hut in turn to avoid having too many of us at the pithead at once. We became thieves, no doubt, but without this extra fuel we would have endured some freezing, sleepless nights.
     Probably the original intention had been that we should all spend the day training in the big assembly cum dining cum entertainment hall, then return to cold huts at night and use our ration of coal for warmth while we slept. But plans had changed and a more individual course of instruction developed, requiring the use of our huts during daytime. The resultant foraging for coal must have been known to the officers in charge and a blind eye turned to our nocturnal operations. Perhaps, if they had approached the pit owners, they would have given us the coal, but authority has its pride.
** In his Memoir he never mentioned the village’s name, but I’m pretty sure he told me it was Cramlington.
*** A record April low temperature of -15C was recorded at Newton Rigg, Cumbria, on the 2nd. The blizzard produced drifts up to 3 metres deep, steady falls continued until the 19th – and then even more snow fell towards the end of the month.

All the best – FSS

Next week: A tangled web unravels… Sam enjoys Mac entertaining the troops with the skills he acquired as an apprentice phrenologist (“character delineator” via bump reading!) – until suddenly Mac turns on him with a crushing personal attack. Of course, it’s all about a girl…

* 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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