“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, 16 July 2017

Sam, under-age veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme, is now 19 in July, 1917, and expects to return to the Front any day… but, pro tem, he remains in Yorkshire, his nearest approach to heroism a crafty manoeuvre with a ball of string…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Eastern Front saw the crucial developments as Russia continued to work its way through the consequences of the February Revolution. The Kerensky Offensive (July 1-19) across present Ukraine, then Galicia, had gone surprisingly well in its first few days, despite civil disorder at home, but the outbreak of democracy to the Army – with committees debating whether specific orders should be obeyed – and an eventual, powerful onslaught by German and Austro-Hungarian forces saw any optimism swiftly quashed.
    Reverse gear was probably engaged when the Russian Army evacuated Kalusz (July 16; three days after taking it) and Nowica (18; both in Galicia, now Ukraine). Then the counter-attack took hold – dubbed the Battle Of East Galicia (19-29) – with Central Powers advances east of Lemburg (19; also known as Lviv), south of the Dniester and to Tarnopol on the Sereth (21).
    Kerensky’s promotion to Premier (19; replacing Prince Lvov) may have had something to with news travelling slowly (his Offensive had cost Russia 60,000 casualties). However, in that same seven days the Russian Army did also break through German defences further north near Vilnius (22; Lithuania) and – a great surprise – successfully support the Romanians in a massive counterattack, launched with an all-day artillery barrage, against long-established invading German forces in the Battle Of Maraseti (July 22-Aug 1).
    On the Western Front, British and French troops were largely occupied with holding off German attacks, which they did at Moronvillers (16), in the Ypres sector and Verdun (17), St Quentin, north of the Aisne and at Lombartzyde, near Nieuport (18-22).
    In other outposts of conflict, a South African-led force drove the German Army back even further towards their East African border via a brutal battle at Narangombe (July 19; now Tanzania), and British cavalry defeated the Turks west of Beersheeba, Palestine (19; now Israel).
    Two very different royal stories: the British royal family changed their name to “Windsor” from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha”, which many thought sounded a touch too German in the prevailing circumstances; and Serbian, Croatian and Slovene leaders in exile announced the Kingdom Of Yugoslavia via the Corfu Declaration, intending to unite these nations under the Serbian monarchical dynasty.

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs 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 he was 19. 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 until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more… Well, it was an interesting year all right – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations – but my father didn’t write enough about his eventual 13 months “off” to cover 1917 in weekly chunks (I can hardly blame him; writing his Memoir in the 1970s he wasn’t really thinking about his son and editor’s self-publishing blog requirements come 2017). So, the blog broke off, May 14-July 9, and looked back at his childhood and early teens – his formative years – under the title The Making Of FootSoldierSam. Now, though, we return to my father’s (approx.) 100 years-ago-this-week stories from summer 1917…]

Last week, the final Making Of FootSoldierSam excerpt compilation covered various aspects of my father’s final year before the war when the national patriotic upsurge, and his own preoccupation with his mates, led to his enlisting in September, 1914, at 16 (under-age, as was his 18-year-old brother Ted). And so the boy became a soldier, a Tommy, a man – very much in theory as he saw it himself.
    But now I can return for a few weeks to my father’s story of his “hiatus” year. While he mentions few dates or time-specific events – once the blizzards which ran through to late April, 1917, in northern England had passed – the long route march his Battalion was about to embark on when we left them, and they left Harrogate, at the end of the May 7 blog clearly took place during the summer. And a phrase or two here suggests to me it was probably just after Sam’s 19th birthday on July 6, the cue, administratively, for him to be returned to combat and, naturally, for his consequent anxiety at the prospect, given his experience at Gallipoli and the Somme:

‘…that night we were told to have everything packed ready to leave next morning on a long, route march. That was all we were told, being left to draw our own conclusions – and predictably those included the unwelcome likelihood that we should make for the nearest port and proceed overseas.
     We need not have worked up the consequent state of anxiety, since we spent the first night of the march in fields just outside the town housing Mr Smith’s famous brewery*.
     This gave me occasion to wonder in which war did some genius devise the method by which four men, using only their own rifles and groundsheets, could construct a temporary shelter or bivouac? We had lately learned how to accomplish this, and now we had the chance to fully appreciate that care in assembling these eight items could ensure a fair night’s rest after a hard day’s march – although, bearing in mind that our rubber and cotton groundsheets had metal eyelets at intervals on each of their edges, and thinking I might be able to improve and strengthen our little bivouac before we settled into it, I had taken the opportunity to buy a ball of string in Tadcaster. So I was able to tie and raise the edges of the groundsheets a few inches, hoping to prevent rainwater flowing in should the fine weather break.
     A couple of afternoons later, in a clearing in a wood some miles east of York, we again set up our bivouacs. The field kitchens were lined up, fuel lay all around for the cooks to gather, and they fed the great mass of men generously on a meat and veg stew with chunks of bread. Later, in the same boilers, they prepared a strong brew of tea flavoured with the oniony grease from the stew – typical Army cha, drunk from our carelessly rinsed mess tins, its rich warm flavours never to be equalled in Civvy Street. Thank goodness.
     Darkness fell and each foursome squeezed into its “bivvy”. Comparative quiet reigned. But only until two in the morning, when a violent storm broke over the snoring community. We four, quite dry, tightly packed in our small shelter, voted to stay put. Amid the crashes of thunder, we heard men calling, men cursing, orders and arguments mingling. All this seemed to go on for hours, but we remained safe and dry, even dozing off at times.
     With the dawn, the storm passed and the rain ceased. We emerged at last to a scene of desolation and confusion; most of the bivvies had collapsed, their occupants standing about, soaked through. What a mess, what discomfort, what language! The original four-letter word was enlarged, extended, given a wealth of additional meanings, coupled for additional effect with the fatherless-child tag, all in tribute to the inventor of that so-and-so bivouac. For me and my companions, a ball of string had made all the difference between the wretched experience suffered by so many and a night in a little snuggery around which – not through – several inches of rainwater would flow.***
     Walking round the clearing later, I was quite amazed to see that lightning had stripped several trees of much of their bark. A terrific storm. Yet we suffered no casualties.’
** Samuel Smith’s of Tadcaster, just over 16 miles from Harrogate – established 1758,
*** I think my father must have been something of a devil for keeping dry if at all possible – not a bad characteristic in a Tommy. This watery Yorkshire scene recalls his account of his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, on their first night at Ghajn Tuffieha, Malta, June, 1915, during their extensive training period pre-Gallipoli: ‘After we erected our tents, a silence settled over all, darkness came, and sleep began its healing work – until, at midnight, a storm broke with a violence most of us had never experienced before. The majority of the Battalion were housed in large, pointed bell tents, hastily and perhaps carelessly erected given the day’s weather. We Signallers had smaller bivouac tents, three and a half feet high with rubber ground sheets secured to the tent all round; thus, our weight – four of us per tent – and that of our equipment helped to hold it down. So we dozed and sometimes chatted through the stormy hours, and by dawn the thunder and lightning ceased.
     When we opened the tent flaps and crawled out, we were amazed. Everywhere, among dozens of fallen tents, men wearing next to nothing struggled to put things right. Others sheltered in the wash house. Those who had anticipated the swimming ban being lifted were wearing the trunks they had shrewdly procured. But as the sun rose so did everybody’s spirits and the vast drying-out operation commenced.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: The Battalion’s wanderings pause at a ducal estate where their trainers, who had never seen action, prepare them for their return to the front with lessons in drill, polishing buttons “and similar harmless pastimes” – and a musical afternoon with the Duke and Duchess thrown in. As ever, Sam wonders how long this good luck can last before hell opens its gates once more…

* 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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