“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, 23 April 2017

Sam discovers, after weeks of training, the new super-rifle doesn’t work! Still, he enjoys some high-life highbrow socialising with his Cambridge student comrades…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… German destroyers raided Dunkirk (April 25) and Ramsgate (26), but they seemed like oddly risky nuisance operations compared to the real action unfolding as ever on the Western Front.
    The Allied offensive response to the completed German retreat to the Hindenburg Line continued with the second phase of The Battle Of Arras (April 9-May 4). The British Army instigated The Second Battle Of The Scarpe (April 23-4) which gained ground on a nine-mile front from Croiselles to Gavrelle and held it against strong German counterattacks. And they launched The Battle Of Arieux (28-9) as a supporting action, north of Monchy-le-Preux, to help the French to the south – but it was Canadian troops who took Arieux itself.
    However, the French Army’s grand attack, The Second Battle Of The Aisne (April 16-May 9), masterminded by Général Robert Nivelle, had already gone very wrong and the only successes noted for this week 100 years ago amounted to beating off German counterattacks at Hurtebise Farm on the notorious Chemin Des Dames (April 25-6). In fact, the calamitous effect of the failure on morale began to emerge with the first of several French Army mutinies on April 29, the same day as Verdun hero Général Philippe Pétain’s promotion to Chief Of French General Staff (not replacing Nivelle quite yet).
    Elsewhere, a British onslaught on the Bulgarian Army still occupying part of Macedonia began west of Lake Doiran (April 22-May 8) – the initial infantry attack, following a huge artillery bombardment (April 24-5), was quickly pushed back and fighting continued with the two sides in their original positions. And down in Mesopotamia, the British Samarrah Offensive (March 13-April 23) finally reached its titular objective 60 miles north of Baghdad, but at terrible cost: British and Allied casualties 18,000 (plus 37,000 ill!), Ottoman 15,000).

[Memoir background: 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 spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until his 19th birthday. He did so, though with 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, Sam, his pal Mac and their three highly educated upper-bracket mates, all chosen to become instructors in the Army’s new super-rifle, concluded the training they’d begun in (probably, my father never named it) Cramlington, Northumberland, with a further move to Clipstone Ranges, near Mansfield, where they passed as first-class shots.
    Now they rejoin the Essex Regiment in Harrogate – and find all their earnest endeavours reduced to farce and futility as it emerges that what they’ve been doing is part of a colossal cock-up by… well, who would ever know?

‘And so back to the Battalion in Harrogate, the five of us, McIntyre, Metriam, Naylor, Rutven and me, ready and willing to shake its foundations with our recently acquired expertise on the master-weapon which should hasten the end of the war — or rather, as it turned out, on the most rejectable weapon ever devised. Sad to say, the rifle was never generally issued.
     The reason given for all the waste of time and money? Its magazine had a fault which caused it to jam if loaded with ten rounds of ammunition. That was why, at Clipstone, we had not been put through the 15-rounds-a-minute test** — the damn thing couldn’t do it.
     So now they told us… and, after all that intensive effort, we never made use of our special training. We five had one long discussion about the matter, expressed our opinions of the brass-hatted barstewards above, then forgot all about it.’

Still, their return to no more than routine activities has its compensations for Sam, who grew up poor – often hungry – and left school at 14, but approached people and life in general with boundless curiosity. He jumped at the chance to socialise with his bright, posh fellow sufferers in the super-rifle fiasco:

‘The three Cambridge wallahs opened my eyes to a style of Army living superior to my crude style in all respects. They had a room in an empty house taken over by the military, whereas Mac and I pigged it on mattresses on the floor of a school hall. On rising, we folded our blankets and rolled up the straw-filled bags — that is, our mattresses. Had we added anything to this simple, if dirty, sleeping apparatus we would have been carpeted for breaking regulations. Not so our three pals, men obviously destined for greater work than the hoi polloi.
     Nonetheless, during the short period they remained with our mob I enjoyed several lush evenings with them, sprawling on their easy chairs or reclining on their camp beds, drinking their whiskey, brandy, or common wallop, and eating such luxurious titbits as they so kindly shared with me. In return, I suppose, I talked about my experiences on two Fronts, though only when they encouraged me to do so. Generally, they chatted about small everyday matters, but often, in quiet periods, they studied books or pamphlets while I read a newspaper or magazine. I had appreciated from the start that they had their roots and main interests in a world of which I knew little. But they were good fellows, generous without patronising me.
     I hoped I was of some use to them with my descriptions of life under active-service conditions – chats about the types of men encountered, their reactions to the varied situations all face in front-line warfare and good leadership’s importance to the maintenance of controlled behaviour. A shaky officer in charge was more demoralising than a heavy bombardment… The boss must remain firm and confident outwardly, no matter how windy he felt… Talking on these lines appeared to help these new members of the Poor Bloody Infantry, who were obviously “officer material” – horrible expression…’
** My father trained in rapid fire – 15 shots a minute, each one properly aimed not just blazed away – back in Malta, spring 1915, before Gallipoli, and wrote his account of the extraordinary deft work it required on the old Lee Enfield: ‘Normally you loaded five bullets in the magazine, but for rapid fire you inserted 10… and fired them, then dealt with five more, all in the space of 60 seconds’ (see Blog 49, June 14, 2015).

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam wanders into another new Harrogate social scene – including the Tsarina of Russia’s goddaughter!

* 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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