“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, 1 October 2017

Somme Rewind 1 – Gallipoli veteran Sam arrives in France, steals kiss… then the British Army crushes the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, and Sam settles into “the business of war” on the Western Front…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Once in a while ultra-peripheral political events suggest the way the WW1 winds were blowing even more than the latest news from the Front. This week it was the breaking off of diplomatic relations by the latest in a long sequence of nations who, during the course of the summer, had thereby placed their bets on the outcome – namely, Peru (October 5) and Uruguay (7). The Kaiser’s secretary probably didn’t even bother to tell him, but presumably these gestures told the Allies “We were right behind you all along, no, really!”
    Still, on the Western Front the conflict continued as deadly as ever. Within the Third Battle Of Ypres campaign, (July 31-November 10), the Battle Of Polygon Wood reached its denouement after eight days when the British Army resisted German counterattacks around the Menin Road (October 1 and 3). The immediate follow-up to this success for General Plumer’s “bite-and-hold” stratagem was the one day Battle Of Broodseinde (4); British and Anzac troops hit the Gheluvelt plateau along an eight-mile front and achieved their objectives before nightfall, a terrible “bonus” being that their artillery caught a mass of German troops gathered to launch their own attack (casualties: British 12,000, Anzac 8,200, German uncertain but heavy).
    Further south, after a period of progress around Verdun, the French Army came under pressure throughout the week – at Beaumont, near Reims, too – but held their lines.
    Meanwhile, in Latvia and elsewhere, the Russian Army proved it was not yet in any state of absolute collapse, beating back a German attack east of Riga (October 7) and getting the better of them at Czernovitz, western Ukraine (6). Incidentally, down in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) they defeated Ottoman troops at Nereman, 50 miles north of Mosul (3).
    Otherwise, Allied momentum was diversely sustained by the Romanian Army driving back German/Austro-Hungarian forces in Bukovina, some miles north of their own frontier (October 3), the Italians resisting Austrian counterattacks on the Bainsizza plateau (1) and around Mount St Gabriel (2 and 3), and British and Belgian advances across the vast territory of German East Africa throughout the week.
    The pocket histories also show that more and more bombing by planes – a very weapon, of course – occurring across Europe: German raids on London and Dunkirk and Oersel Island in the Baltic off Riga (all October 1); British and French sorties against several towns on the Rhine (1), plus Metz, Cambrai, in occupied northeast France, and Courtrai, Belgium (2).

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller 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 real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, 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 until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then, around his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more. However, I’ve had to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago excerpts from his Memoir because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blog excerpts. So, through to late October, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy – Gallipoli concluded last week, so now it’s five weeks of edited episodes from the Somme, April-late September, 1916, when he was 17-18…]

After my father’s 2/1st Royal Fusiliers Battalion’s second evacuation from Gallipoli (Suvla Bay mid-December, V Beach January 6), they returned to Egypt and spent more than three months recovering – though it was called “training” – in a fairly pleasant location between the Nile and the Sahara.
    During that time the 200 remnants of the original thousand-man Battalion who’d sailed away from Gallipoli grew to about 250 as some of the campaign’s sick and wounded rejoined them. Writing about this restorative period, Sam stressed how Gallipoli had brought these men together – “bonded” would be the modern word – in a way that transcended all natural and inevitable personal differences. The result – highly relevant to their upcoming first weeks in France – was that, without much discussion, they determined to stay together and become the battle-hardened core of a Battalion refreshed by reinforcement back to full strength.
    Accordingly, throughout their Egyptian sojourn they worked relentlessly to impress the top brass with their fitness, discipline and capabilities.
    But these excerpts begin with milder observations as Sam sees France for the first time (their troopship SS Transylvania sailed from Alexandria on April 17, and docked in Marseilles on the 24th):

‘How lovely France looked when we anchored off Marseilles, the shore lined with the white, usually flat-roofed buildings I’d found so attractive when viewing other Mediterranean towns from the sea. Close up they usually didn’t look quite so white, nor did the air around them always carry aromas as pure as sea breezes, but I preferred the illusion to the reality until proved wrong.
     A three-day rail journey followed. I found it delightful. No hurry about it, evidently. We would be shunted into a siding for food and natural relief and, if the streets of a village or town were adjacent, we’d take a stroll. A wave or shout would fetch us back to the train in a moment – we were good boys, still chasing that soldierly perfection which would win for us reinstatement as a Battalion.
     The beautiful greenness… I couldn’t describe the pleasure it gave me. Grass, green acres of it. Trees – copses, woods, forests of the lovely things. Until I saw all this beauty I didn’t know I’d been missing it. And another kind of vision on show to us could stir a young man’s pulse to extra activity – the sight of a European girl with white and pink complexion, brunette and blonde, as opposed to sallow or dark tan with near-black hair.
     At the time all these differences aroused thrills of appreciation in me. So when, on one occasion, I inadvertently stepped from the train almost into the arms of a girl, words failed me. When she indicated she would like a tunic button for a souvenir (one of the few words we both understood) I cut one off with my jackknife pronto – in exchange for a kiss.
     During the night, when our train paused in a big, well-lit station, local people brought along big jugs of red wine from which they filled our mess tins. No charge! Living it up, indeed, and we quickly became a joyful crowd. Although we had to sleep sitting up in crowded compartments, no one complained; who knew what pleasures the morrow might yield?’

Initially, the pleasures of the massive British Army encampment outside Rouen, Normandy, where they arrived on April 27/8:

‘Each day we were marched off to an intensive training ground where we had our first experience of a battle course. With fixed bayonets we would charge forward, jump a ditch, climb a wall, then see ahead a line of hanging sacks which represented men. We had to stab them with our bayonets, the while we emitted blood-curdling yells calculated to scare the enemy stiff before we skewered him. Instructors lined the course, swearing at us, urging us lazy bastards to scream and stab. The whole thing was like some horrible, mad orgy and they soon had us behaving like the lunatics they appeared to have become.
     Our frantic performance did have a purpose, of course, however daft it looked. One day, the Sergeant who put us through our paces marched us into some lovely woods, had us sit down, and made a pretty little speech – it almost brought maidenly blushes to our cheeks. We had, he said, passed the battle course with distinction and he was sorry he had only just been told, before the morning session, we weren’t “rookies” straight out from Britain, but veterans of the Gallipoli campaign.’

Thus acknowledged – a hopeful sign, surely – they returned to drilling under their own officers with a view to winning the approval of the General who would decide their fate. They did a march-past after which Major Booth (beloved Battalion CO in Gallipoli though aliased by my father – his real name was Harry Nathan, later a Lord and Government Minister post-WW2) read out a message from the General saying their form would have done credit to the Grenadier Guards.
    Serious-minded Sam’s idea of a celebration is to visit the wondrous Rouen cathedral. His companion, Haines, goes along with him, but then suggests some less formal recreation:

‘He suggested having a drink and we entered a place which, from its appearance, I took to be the kind of estaminet where a glass of wine or beer could be had cheaply.
     Inside, though, I saw no bar, only some marble-topped tables and chairs. Then, unprompted, an electric bell rang loudly – it shook me, being so unexpected – a door opened and in marched a line of eight or so women dressed in gowns of various colours. Facing us, they threw open these gowns and stood there, obviously inviting inspection and selection. None of them was young, some as old, I judged, as my mother. I hope I didn’t show the revulsion I felt. I expected my companion to get out with me right away, but instead he pointed to one woman. She stepped forward and he departed with her.
     I was in a dilemma, but made it clear by my actions that I wasn’t interested and the women marched out – all except one. By now I felt scared and ordered wine to propitiate whichever invisible person ran the establishment. It meant spending a couple of scarce francs, but provided time in which to think. I remember pouring myself a glass from the bottle, pushing it towards the woman and making signs that she should help herself… and when she had drunk that, insisting she had another glass. Some time passed, the awkward situation becoming ever more distressing for me. Relief came with the reappearance of Haines. I stood up, waved farewell, and was outside the place in a second.…
     From cathedral to brothel, from beauty to horror, from procreation to recreation… And from prostitution, commercial copulation, battle, murder, and sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.’

Thus, as often in the course of his war, my father adhered to the chaste and chivalric teachings of his revered spirit of Mr Frusher, the vicar/choirmaster/Scoutmaster/piano teacher who mentored him, his brother Ted and their pals back in Edmonton before the war. Well, his “celebration” may have misfired, but it soon turned out to be premature as well:

‘With all present, we were surprised not to see our popular Major out in front(1). Instead, his adjutant stood there. I had not seen him since the occasion of his appearance at Gallipoli, walking out in the open when we were all in holes or trenches – when one of his arms was bandaged and supported by a sling and he looked ill. Today, he looked fit physically, but his face was pale.
     He quickly told us that, in spite of all our endeavours and successes, it had been decided that our numbers were too small for making up with reinforcements. Groups of us would be sent to various Battalions in the two Territorial Divisions on the Front in France. He said much more. One could see tears on his face. But no comment came from the ranks, no response whatsoever. Had the Major done the execution job, some men would have said a few words, heartfelt if not exactly polite. However, the adjutant’s emotion was wasted on us; when we dispersed we were quite a different set of men to those hearty mugs who had, for weeks, tried so hard to please.
     I had one desire now and that was to somehow get a leave pass. To spend a few days in England before going into action. I, and many others, went around voicing this desire and also letting it be known that, because of the scurvy treatment we had received, the Army could get stuffed. Dangerous conduct this, but our outraged feelings needed some outlet…’
     In camp, though, where were the smiles and cheery greetings which had become customary during our recent combined effort to impress the top brass? Gone missing, replaced by faces registering all the wrong emotions, such as scorn, sadness and defiance.
     Family men must have felt additional anxiety at times, after having survived some risky situations and come now so near to home, yet apparently still to be denied a short period with their loved ones before going into battle alongside strange comrades, men about whom they knew nothing.
     … Our Battalion disbanded, no training programme to be interrupted, still some days to be passed in idleness while our individual fates were decided.
     These matters occupied almost all our thoughts and conversations. We became monomaniacs on this subject of leave. Battles, logistics, advances, retreats – those things concerned others; we were single-track thinkers who just wished to go home for a while…
     I was foolish enough to allow today to be fouled up by speculations as to what tomorrow might bring forth…  the impending dispersal of the old crowd soured most of my waking moments at the time… That most of them felt similarly afflicted showed clearly in their faces.’
(1) In his biography of Lord Nathan, Strong For Service, author H Montgomery Hyde reports the probable explanation for the Major’s absence from this event: he “was granted a month’s leave” shortly after the Battalion landed in Marseilles and returned in June, 1916, to find remnants of his Battalion merged into a Reserve Corps in the 29th Division of the 8th Army ("Reserve" didn’t mean non-combatant) under General Hubert Gough’s command on the left of the Somme front.

After the malcontented waiting, Sam’s orders to transfer came so suddenly he didn’t even have time to say goodbye to brother Ted. A couple of trains –concluding with open trucks – took him to where his new Battalion, the Kensingtons, were resting within earshot of the front line. As far as I can work out – my father maintained discretion about place names, even writing 50 years after the event – this village was Souastre, 7.5 kilometres west of Hébuterne where the Kensingtons did their front-line fighting at the time, opposite the German-occupied village of Gommecourt:

‘After detraining, we marched until we reached a quite pleasant-looking village, the first I had been able to see at close quarters. Far in the distance, I could hear the rumble and thud so familiar a few months earlier. Once more, the belly-tightening tension resumed its grip and I was all set to face and deal with personal risks to the limit of my physical ability.’

Sam fell to wandering and exploring, as was always his wont, even in quiet spells on the battlefield. And he always loved to find signs of normal life, as this village still manifested, “real” non-military people somehow going about their business:

‘Just the sight of females, from time to time, made the place seem homely. Not that any attractive girls lived there, though many must have graced the place before filthy war and rape, or the risk of it, drove them elsewhere… I still retain a mental picture of a youngish woman behind whom I walked a while as she drove three cows along a lane: her hair coarse and matted, she wore a man’s cap, an old, dark-blue, military tunic much too big for her, a knee-length skirt of mud-coated, dark cloth – below which her thick calves were clothed in British Army long pants, with grey Army socks and heavy, Army boots on her feet. A boy such as I was then could feel sympathy not untinged with amusement, but I imagined she would remain totally safe from the lustful cravings of even the most sex-deprived old soldiers. That apart, she was a good‘un just to be in that place so near to the front line, at risk from long-range enemy guns, trying to keep the little farm going while her men were away.

Despite his bitterness at the old Battalion’s demise, Sam was soon chatting away with his new Kensington comrades, finding out what was going on back home – given he couldn’t get permission to go and see for himself. No diminution of his disillusionment ensues:

‘I encouraged any chap who cared to talk about the Regiment to do so, but they knew little about it because they turned out to be the first conscripted soldiers I had met.
     It seemed that, during our sojourn in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, changes had taken place in England. The original voluntary-service fervour had quickly expired and heavy casualties on the Western Front had to be made up by the only means now available, namely, compulsory service.
     These men, my new comrades, proved more than willing to shed a new light on the behaviour of some civilians in the dear old homeland. Setbacks on land and sea had brought realism to the fore. In the early days of the war, natural optimism, faith in the unbeatable British Navy and our world-beating Army, plus much official propaganda, had encouraged those who intended to keep clear of personal involvement in the nasty business to believe that Britain would surely smash the Kaiser’s forces.
     Many at home already earned more money than they had in peacetime, and they intended hanging on to their jobs come what may. Should call-up papers pop through their letter boxes they could appeal to tribunals. Deferment of their conscription to armed service might be arranged if, perhaps, their employers could prove their work important to the national effort. Who, would you guess, comprised the membership of those tribunals? Local bigwigs. If an appellant was by way of being acquainted with a member, ’twas said he might secure deferment almost forever.
     So the next best ploy was to change jobs and get work in one of the new armaments or ammunition factories being built at a great rate. These places paid well, perhaps two or three times more than in peacetime factories, because of the urgent need to speed up production. They employed many women too and one conscript told me bullets and shells were not the only products of some folks’ work on the night shift.’

Then Sam encountered a philosophical conundrum he’d never considered before… and reached an interesting conclusion for a Gallipoli veteran now about to fight on the Western Front:

‘… some prominent people concerned with improving the status of working-class people had promoted the idea that, if a man had religious convictions strong enough to forbid him taking part in warfare, he should be allowed to state them before a special tribunal, the members of which might decide that he should do “national work” other than join the armed services(2).
     As World War I progressed the numbers of men who held or adopted these strong pacifist beliefs increased, and some men thus avoided all the risks and sufferings to which most were exposed. I heard that if the tribunal disbelieved the heart-rending yarn you spun, if you still refused to take up arms you would be imprisoned, or put to work in agriculture, or something of that sort. In any case, you avoided all the pains and hazards of the battlefield – that had its attractions. Some of these “conchies”, as the “conscientious objectors” were contemptuously called, were politicians, and some later achieved high positions, after the prejudice against “war dodger” types had subsided.
     And yet… here too was a concession which appeared to indicate that one fence separating The Workers from the rest had been demolished – in part, the “conscience clause” entailed an admission from on high that the dwellers in the terraced side streets were capable of thought, able to form, maintain and explain a conviction reached after study and evaluation.’
(2) The right to conscientious objection had been recognised in the UK since the 18th century, but only for Quakers, says Wikipedia; it became a general right in March, 1916, after the Government introduced conscription. The same Military Service Tribunals that heard appeals against conscription on all other grounds decided on conscientious objectors’ appeals (which comprised about 2 per cent of the 750,000 cases the tribunals heard 1916-18). In all, 11,500 appeals on grounds of conscience were upheld during World War I, while 6,000 appellants were refused, conscripted, then, potentially, jailed if they refused to obey orders.

Mooching around and observing everything as usual, Sam soon found good things to say about his new Battalion, even in areas where they made the 2/1st look bad by comparison (remembering he was with the 2/1st from September, 1914, when they, men and officers, were nearly all Territorial novices in civvies):

‘I soon recognised that this Battalion was run by men more skilled in caring for and providing for their rankers than any I had encountered earlier. A Quartermaster Sergeant, a Sergeant Cook, and some well-trained men worked miracles with the rations to produce meals of a quality I’d seldom experienced in front-line soldiering. They had several mobile field kitchens, comprising large boilers, food store boxes, fuel containers, fire boxes under boilers with tubular chimneys and so on, along with two-wheeled vehicles, usually pulled by mules, which allowed cooking to proceed while on the march. According to circumstances, they either stayed behind to work and caught up with us later, or moved with us in the column, or went ahead to our destination if our progress was slower than their wagons could achieve.
     Always, a substantial hot meal and good steaming tea arrived when needed – well, except when “enemy action” occasionally disrupted their praiseworthy efforts. The Quarter-bloke, a tall, strong, purposeful man, a tower of strength and efficiency, often achieved near-miracles under terrible difficulties. For men who, for hours, had endured exposure to rain, cold, shot and shell to unexpectedly be given a mess-tin full of hot stew or tea with bread was to restore our faith and hope and courage — the very knowledge that others thought about our discomfort, even misery, and had been kind enough to do something about it heartened us.
     None of the messing about with bits of rations here, no cooking puny portions in a mess-tin over a small spirit burner – often producing nothing worth eating. No going for days with nothing but hard biscuits, jam and a small allowance of water…
     Observing this, and other matters of organisation, I came to understand that, here in France, with the war obviously going to be a long one, the British Army conducted it rather on the lines of a business....
     Here I could remove boots, tunic and trousers at night, instead of wearing them continually except for brief louse-hunts. Up in the firing line, men told me, you might have to remain fully clothed for 10- to 14-day periods – but never for weeks on end.
     Most of the men in my new mob wore steel helmets, an item I had never seen before. All I had was an old cap from which I had removed the shape wire so that I could still wear it while sleeping. Stylish headgear – the soft top could be pulled to one side quite rakishly, suggesting I was no end of a devil – yet ineffective protection if a bullet or a piece of shrapnel came your way.’

Hereabouts, his Kensingtons Captain told him he wouldn’t be required as a Signaller, they’d got enough already, so he’d serve as a plain infantry Lance Corporal. Sam had no objection to that, but he took the opportunity to request demotion to Private:

‘I wanted no rank, no responsibility except to myself. Rank entailed being careful, steady, a good example, even though a Lance Corporal was everybody’s lackey, often jeered at by the Privates and ordered around by Corporals and Sergeants. I longed to lose that stripe and be a carefree nothing’

Unsurprisingly, he was refused, adding to the frustration which he reckoned led to him reframing his public persona during this short spell before the action began again:

‘… with pleasant fellows in my platoon, on the whole, and a new mood now upon me – occasioned by living among strangers – I could behave in a relaxed manner, laugh without restraint at even the corniest joke, and make a few cheeky comments about people around me (usually taken in good part). The underlying bitterness remained in me, though, and stoked up the fire of reckless humour which ruled out thoughts of a serious nature and ensured that nobody would wish to attempt serious conversation with me – while roughly the opposite of my style in the old Battalion, this resulted in a sort of coarse popularity which pleased me. Consequently, I quickly earned for myself a soubriquet I liked, to wit, The Pisstaker.’

But, of course, the move towards the battlefield came soon enough, thrusting all extraneous considerations into the background:

‘Came the day for us to pack up and move forward…(3) and now my gut-gripping tension increased, although I believed, or hoped, I remained outwardly the flippant ass they liked. For some kilometres our drum-and-fife band led us on with tunes which had probably cheered up our soldiery in the days of Good Queen Bess. Anyway, the rhythm of the drums kept our feet moving in unison – most useful in that it saved us from tripping each other up.
     When the band stepped aside we marched on awhile in silence, save for the crunch of boots on gravel road. Soon we entered the ghost of a village(4) and halted.’
(3) Probably May 21. The Kensingtons’ War Diary for that day notes the Kensingtons relieving the 1/8th Middlesex on the right of the Gommecourt front line. It records that my father’s Company A, under Major CC Dickens (grandson of the immortal Charles), reached their front-line trench at 11.15pm, –“after dark” as Sam recalled (whereas WD reports the other three companies arrived in daylight).
(4) Probably Sailly-au-Bois, 4.6 kilometres southeast of Souastre.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Somme Rewind 2 of 5: Sam’s first experience of the Western Front… the Battalion enter the trenches on a pitch-black night, then take a day-time artillery bombardment… Sam starts to get used to it until he leads an advanced-trenching detail into No Man’s Land at night… “machine-gun bullets spattered around me…”

* 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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