“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, 15 October 2017
Somme Rewind 3 of 5: June, 1916 – panic in No Man’s Land, a lucky crucifix, a singalong march away from the Front, the joy of delousing – and rehearsing the Big Attack…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The most startling action occurred on the sea and in the air around Great Britain.
In the North Sea, two German cruisers attacked a convoy of 12 merchant ships bringing goods from Norway, escorted by two British destroyers (October 17) – and to deadly effect as they sank both destroyers and nine merchantmen (the British Navy then upgraded its protection of convoys, preventing any repeat). Two days later a squadron of 13 airships attempted a raid on Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, proved vulnerable to strong headwinds, and dropped their bombs on Northampton and London, leaving 36 dead and 55 injured – five Zeppelins were brought down, mainly on return to France.
On the Western Front, between phases of the Third Battle of Ypres (July 31-November 10), it wasn’t “all quiet”, just relatively. Artillery battles boiled on the Aisne front (October 17 and 20) and the German Army showed signs of aggression in the Verdun area at Bezonvaux and Hill 344 (17 and 21).
The German Army and Navy completed their conquest of Russia in the Baltic taking the islands Moon and Dago (October 18), and Schilden (20). On land, oddly enough, they retired to positions 30 miles east of Riga, Latvia.
Further south, TE Lawrence led a successful Arab revolt which drove Turkish troops out of Petra, Jordan (October 21). But down in German East Africa, the tottering colonial power had a rare semi-success at the Battle Of Mahiwa where their small force drove combined South African, Nigerian and British columns (15-18; casualties 5-600 German, 2,700 Commonwealth) to retreat – but then the Germans had to run for the Portuguese East African border because their losses represented 30 per cent of their strength and they’d almost run of ammunition too.
[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. With Gallipoli concluded last month, this is the third of five edited episodes from his sojourn on the Somme, April-late September, 1916, when Sam was 17-18… ]
Last week, my father had his first experience of fighting in the Western Front trenches (late May, 1916, at Hébuterne, opposite German-held Gommecourt, on the northern end of the Somme Front). Because his new Battalion, the Kensingtons, had no Signaller vacancies, he served as an infantryman and soon discovered the delights of leading a black-night patrol into No Man’s Land to dig advanced trenches until machine-guns and whizz-bangs opened up on their noisy activities.
Still, he got to know his new comrades somewhat, which rubbed off some of the bitterness he felt about his original Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, being disbanded by the Army because, they said, the 250 remnants who emerged from Gallipoli could not be reinforced back up to strength. More personally, he still longed for the home leave the 2/1st men hadn’t enjoyed since January, 1915.
The Battalion moved to and from the trenches every few days, with Companies swapping between front, support and reserve. Here Sam’s Company A is in reserve – on the edge of the village – but they’re still sent out on night patrols of various sorts:
‘One night, with six men I think it was, I was sent to meet a Sergeant of the Royal Engineers… So, not trench-digging, but proper excavation this time: first, a tunnel sloping downward at a steep angle; then, when we got deep enough, we dug out a large hole and shored it up with pit-props – accommodation for a Brigadier and his staff, we heard.
While one man worked at the “face”, the rest of us formed a chain, passing buckets of “spoil” back up to the surface. Every couple of feet, we could all pause while the Engineers hammered a new wooden frame into position to support the tunnel roof and walls around us. We quickly reached a depth sufficient to require the use of a manual pump up above to drive fresh air through a tube and down to us.
During a pause for rest, I made my way to the very bottom of the tunnel. The noises of war faded to nothing down there. No interference, then, with the work the Brigadier and his aides would have to conduct during some coming battle. We gathered that another tunnel was being dug to serve the same headquarters; it started from some distant point unknown to me, the idea being that, if a German shell smashed one entrance/exit, the other, hopefully, would remain and provide an escape route.
Down at the bottom of our approach tunnel, I tried to make myself feel safe. I thought of the officers and men who would spend days and nights here, poring over maps and dispatches, considering reports and making decisions. They would, of course, have ample room, whereas I had only a very confined space, and realised that the sooner I climbed out into fresh air the better I would feel…’
Soon, Sam spends some time out of the line, but only a little way further back than the reserve trench, and still in Hébuterne I believe. I never asked my father why he didn’t name these villages – my guess was out of a military habit of discretion, but one WW1 expert I encountered when touring the area said the Tommies quite often didn’t know where they were because signposts had been removed to confuse the enemy:
‘Next, we moved to an area in the middle of this town, further still from the front trenches. Almost peaceful. Our platoon billeted on the ground floor of a building which had suffered little damage. Completely unfurnished, the windows all gone, but otherwise weatherproof – a roof over our heads, and that was marvellous.
I had a look around. Outside, the first concrete lampposts I had ever seen lined the main street. They must have carried the then-new carbon, electric lamps which shed a pinkish light and gave faces a brownish tinge. Every lamppost I could see had been hit by one or more shells, exposing thick strands of reinforcing metal within the concrete. Twisted, bent, or knocked sideways, most of them defied total destruction. They fascinated me. So modern, so up-to-date. The French people, I thought, must be way ahead of the British in scientific matters…
Opposite stood a church, much damaged. Yet a crucifix, about eight feet tall, stood beside it, quite perfect(1).’
(1) A tall crucifix does stand beside Hébuterne church today.
A week or so later, after another stint in the line, Sam was back in the same billet:
‘I was having a rest in “our” house when the brief shriek of a big shell preceded an explosion which shook me rigid. Bits and pieces of ceiling and walls fell around me. After the dust settled, I looked through a window-space and saw that the remainder of the church front had collapsed into the road.
Later, I walked over there. Amid the rubble, the large cross with the figure of Christ stood intact. Near it, I found a small crucifix made of brass and wood, such as a poor Roman Catholic might have on his rosary. I carried that in my tunic pocket throughout the war and kept it with other oddments for many years.’
Sadly he’d lost the crucifix by the time he started talking to me about WW1 – me in my teens, him in his 60s. Now a No Man’s Land episode which went wrong to the point of panic all round:
‘I recall one disastrous night when my group had to start digging a new portion of trench between two quite well developed stretches on our side. A covering party lay between us and the Germans and we quickly excavated to a depth of about 18 inches. Suddenly we heard shouts and shots from the direction of our protectors.
Within moments, a rush of fleeing men barged among and between us. So we became the centre of attraction for enemy shells and bullets. I dropped my pick and reached for my rifle, but it was not where I had placed it. Panic froze my belly. To lose one’s bandook(2) was the crime of crimes.
“Those bastards!” I thought, and dashed back towards our front trench. Luck favoured me. As I could see by the light from flashes and flares, the first man I encountered was carrying two rifles. I grabbed the one in his left hand, yelled something like “Why the hell… ?!” and “Sorry, mate,” said he, and in a trice I was back out in No Man’s Land with the boys in the trench-building group until somebody gave the order to retreat.
We made our way back through the wire, only to be questioned by a strange officer as to why we had returned. He happened to be a foreigner and, at that time, we didn’t take kindly to seeing commissioned officers’ uniforms on an outsider. Our resentment showed, but our Company Captain came along in time to stop any further trouble.
He led us away down a communication trench and when, in the early hours of a fine morning, we finally reached the main street of our deserted town, he ordered us to “Fall in!” Instead of dismissing us, he gave us some rifle drill, just as though we were on a barrack square. “That,” he said, when we were done, “will steady your nerves after tonight’s balls-up.” We understood and, I’m sure, agreed.
May I state, sadly, that he himself later left us “under a cloud” – it was thought that a bullet wound in one of his hands had been self-inflicted. But, of course, it’s doubtful if anyone thought of helping to steady his nerves when something shattered them.’
(2) “Bandook”, a Hindi word for “gun”, became British infantry slang through World War I and II. This may well have been the night of June 16 when the Kensingtons’ War Diary notes a patrol out in No Man’s Land ran into their German counterparts, lost two men captured, and had to run for their lives.
But substantial “rest” periods did come the way of Western Front Tommies – a bonus for Sam, whose former Battalion had enjoyed no such luxury in Gallipoli:
‘Soon, all the Companies of the Battalion came together in one long column. The drum and fife band took its place at the head and gave out sweet music. Cares fell away, and we sang and whistled joyfully. Kilometre after kilometre, with occasional ten-minute breaks, we didn’t worry, for this march was taking us in the one direction which pleased all of us — back!
The Cook Sergeant, as we incorrectly called him, complete with willing helpers and a field-kitchen, had been wafted way back to the pleasant place in which we were to spend a couple of relaxing weeks(3) — no lazy weeks, that would have been bad for us. Many convincing excuses for slackness occurred to us, but the MO would have none of them. Strong and healthy himself, he took more interest in the men’s health and hygiene than any other Army officer I ever met. Those responsible for sanitation just had to do a good job or Doc’s keen eye or nose would detect their omissions.
A substantial hot meal greeted us when we reached our destination. We ate, sitting around in a field near the Nissen huts in which we were to live. But we were forbidden to enter them until we had undergone the great clean-up.
In controlled groups, we went to a building where we stripped, then ran to shower cubicles and, under the lukewarm water sprays, spent an enjoyable ten minutes, a cleansing treat after several weeks of the mucky life up front. Soon, almost before we’d dried ourselves on the clean towels provided, laundered replacements for the underwear we’d handed in were dished out: two vests, two pairs socks, two shirts, two pairs long pants, two towels – none of them new, but welcome all the same.
Our own uniforms were returned to us, hot and steaming from the pressure and heat which destroyed the fat lice infesting seams and creases. These little devils only left their hideouts to gorge themselves on our blood – and by the second day of each new stint in the trenches they had always reoccupied their deceased relatives’ former lodgings. They must also have passed diseases(4) and, possibly, disfigurements such as warts from one man to another – similar pests spread the plague by way of rats to humans all around the world.
Thus, in France, the British Army continued to conduct war in a business-like, efficient manner. Somewhere someone may also have been giving thought to winning it and perhaps even ending it. But, in the forward areas, officers concerned themselves only with carrying out orders coming from somewhere way back. To do this, it was necessary to keep as many men as possible alive and fit enough to withstand the shocks and hardships which were their daily lot.
It was great to be able to sleep undisturbed between the hours of dusk and dawn under the strong elephant-iron of the semi-circular Nissen huts, two warm blankets wrapped around your vest- and long-pants-clad body. Again, they gave us substantial meals. So days spent in rigorous training didn’t come too hard, although our tasks included digging trenches which – a sure antidote to complacency – furnished a replica of the battlefield we would soon be sent to when the Great Day arrived; this included enemy trenches, the lay-out based on photographs supplied by our airmen (in northern France, unlike Suvla Bay, aircraft from both sides were always around).
After completing the facsimile trench system, we spent hours rehearsing the attack which should carry us through Jerry’s position and, hopefully, through a densely wooded area of open country beyond. I had already seen the wood(5). Heavy, prolonged shelling had denuded most of the trees of their branches, but the main mass of tree trunks still provided cover, we were told, for a great many underground forts the Germans had constructed. All this later proved to be only too accurate. What I never have seen mentioned is the probability that German observers took pictures of our mock battlefield and other conspicuously massive preparations which must have shouted our intentions to the German command who would accordingly make their dispositions for that Great Day…’
(3) This was Halloy, about 13 miles east from the Kensingtons section of the Front. The Battalion War Diary notes they actually stayed there for six days on this occasion, through to the evening of June 8 when they marched back to Sailly – 450 men having taken the opportunity for a bath that morning.
(4) Body lice – not the other kinds – transmit typhus, trench fever and other diseases.
(5) Gommecourt Wood and Park.
Whether the German Army was watching Halloy or not, all that digging of facsimile trenches and rehearsal for a grand attack certainly confirmed to the Tommies that the Big Day would soon arrive:
‘This wonderful occasion we awaited with mounting apprehension. I was such a windy bugger that, had I been in charge of that Division, I would have insisted on the mock battlefield being camouflaged when not in use, but that only illustrates the difference between a scary little Lance Corporal and a hearty, red-face General.
If our High Command had thought on similar lines to those worrying – the infantrymen – the attack would have been postponed for a while, some diversions organised in remoter parts of the Front, followed by what would then have been a surprise attack on the Somme. A surprise, that is, to our force as well as Jerry’s. We’d been talking about the damn thing for weeks and the enemy probably knew as much as we did about it.’
While at Halloy, Sam got a nasty shock – of the promotional kind…
‘Called to report to my Company Officer one morning, I received an awful jolt. With obvious pleasure, he told me that I had been promoted to the rank of Corporal. I liked and respected him, a great chap. But how could I pretend to feel the pleasure he obviously expected me to show at this news? I had tried to lie low and lose the stripe which, as I saw it, already disfigured my uniform. I can’t recall how the interview went, but in some craven way I probably concealed my lack of enthusiasm.
Now I was really worried. Who had recommended me for this unwanted fishbone which could blight all my hopes of pulling some sort of smart stroke to get me a leave pass? I had this constantly in mind and resolved to grasp any opportunity which might assist in getting me off the war-front hook for a few days.’
Back to the Front it was, though, and his latest introduction to a device unknown to man before WW1. After bombs dropped from planes, and poison-gas shells… flame-throwers:
‘So, we returned to the front line, a different section to the one we’d previously occupied.
During my first night on duty there, away to our right I witnessed my first battle of flame-throwers. I’d heard about these brutes – and that the Germans used them first – but on this occasion our people were retaliating in kind(6). The machines used must have been in a very early stage of development. I do know this kind of warfare was considered, like poison gas, to be inhumane and very wicked. Did this make maiming and killing by bullets and shells more acceptable?
In a lecture some time later, we were told that our specialists had assessed the flame-thrower to be ineffective and wasteful in trench warfare. Instead, they had produced a mortar which flung large containers of inflammable liquid into the trenches and ignited the stuff on delivery, thus promising rivers of fire intended to roast those who didn’t scramble out of the trenches. Those who did, could, of course, be shot. Given there appeared to be no answer to this charming invention, why was it not mass-produced and used? With every German roasted or shot, we ought to have been living it up in Berlin in a few months…’
(6) German scientists did invent the “Flammenwerfer”, first used in combat during 1915; they were cumbersome with a maximum range of about 20 yards; the British soon responded with the “Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector”, named after its inventor. Apparently it didn’t win the war because it demanded 300 men to transport and assemble it and then fired only three times before it needed complicated and dangerous reloading.
Inevitably, on his several battlefields, while constantly struggling to hold himself together, Sam encountered a few men who cracked. He evinced different feelings about them. “Cracking” never surprised him, of course, he understood completely. In a couple of instances (one of them above) he readily forgave men who departed the fighting with probably self-inflicted wounds. And he detested the idea of men being shot for so-called cowardice. But then, on three occasions I think, he writes with cold contempt about men of some rank who broke down in the trenches – among them this Sergeant:
‘A Sergeant was assigned to the Platoon on my right. Overly garrulous, he had the horrible habit of punctuating loudly spoken remarks with harsh laughter. What he thought or did was no skin off my nose but, from time to time, I needed to move along his section of trench to reach the Company Headquarters dugout.
After a while, one of his men stopped me for a chat and told me, among other items, that this Sergeant had, in the past, been a Military Policeman and sometimes boasted of how, in battle, he had been stationed at the rear end of a communication trench where, with drawn revolver, he stopped and drove back into action men whose nerves had broken or who, he thought, were feigning injury. Sending them back into the hell which had temporarily broken them obviously gave him pleasure.
Now here was he, up front himself for the first time, and when, on one of my walks, I saw him hacking into the earth low down on the front side of the trench I could only stare in wonderment. Thereafter, his hole grew bigger each day. With no supports it looked like a deathtrap to me, its purpose beyond my understanding.
Glancing down at it one day, I thought I saw the Sergeant lying there and bent down to confirm this was really so. He wriggled out, sprang to his feet, and his eyes had a strange, wild look in them. I said nothing, just watched him, and he started to back away. “You’re going to kill me!” he shouted. “Every time you pass I see that look of dislike in your face. I’ve never done you any harm.” And so on and on.
Never before or since have I witnessed such a strange performance. I assured him I had no feelings nor interest regarding him. Men in the vicinity looked on, and perhaps one of them reported that their Sergeant had gone doolally. He vanished from our ken soon afterwards.
Just before he went, however, he gave a final performance. That day, a heavy fog settled over the battlefield and some Germans took advantage of it by dragging forward small trench mortars and dropping their small bombs among us. The Sergeant announced that he would stop that. He climbed out of the trench and soon vanished in the fog. In vain, we waited for him to start his private war… Until he crawled back, and we guessed he’d just crept out of sight and crouched there hoping nothing would happen and that a VC or similar would reward his outstanding bravery.‘
Here, conversely, a later reflection on the battlefield face he and his comrades would wear nearly all the time and the thoughts they each tried to thrust to the back of their mind:
‘The expected thing was to never expose one’s feelings, so I always tried to give full attention to the matter in hand, despite sometimes suffering intense apprehension about events nearby, such as shell-bursts overhead, eruptions of earth when a shell penetrated then exploded, or, in an otherwise quiet period, when I heard the wu-wu-wu of an approaching Minen flung high by its Werfer(7). The ever-present threat of these and other devices, used by civilised people to kill each other – and yet still avoid actually seeing their victims bleeding and writhing – these threats kept me in the state of high tension which made that acid smell rise from the palms of my hands. If we had all behaved naturally we would have ducked and started to run back… ever so far back.’
(7) Minenwerfer: translates as “mine thrower”; actually what the British Army called a mortar – that is, it lobbed bombs up and over into the enemy trenches; the German version came in three sizes, light, mid-size and heavy!
Remarkably, happier occasions did arise, often when Sam encountered civilian normality flowering amid all the man-made hellfire. Hébuterne again I think:
‘While stationed in that village, I had what was to me a heart-touching experience. I had assumed all civilians had long ago left because it was so close to the trenches. Badly strafed at various times, the parts of the village I grew familiar with had the stricken appearance I had come to associate with places that were simply doomed.
But one afternoon, free for a few hours before the nightly trek to No Man’s Land where we continued the job of deepening advanced trenches, I got away from it all by slipping out through the back streets (quite unlawfully for, as an NCO, I must be available at all times).
A big stretch of open country spread before me as, clear of the village, I rested against a grassy bank in the warm sunshine. I enjoyed being completely alone and realised how seldom this happened. Then, I thought I heard children’s voices… Sure enough, looking back I saw a small school and a few youngsters outside at play. It seemed unbelievable; we had walked here from the front-line trenches. The wickedness of keeping them in that situation of hourly danger worried me, yet the sweetness and homeliness of the scene and the music of children’s voices almost had me weeping.
There followed a big bang and I saw a cloud of smoke floating upwards at a point much nearer to the children than I was. But the children ignored it and play continued. Then, when a second bang sounded off, I saw a heavy battery of British guns positioned below ground level, quite close to the school. The kids were used to it. If they didn’t mind, why should I? And yet, one day, Jerry will have a go at the guns, I thought, and then the school may suffer.
I felt loath to leave and rejoin the men whom I really should never have left.
The forward battle area always had seemed a place apart from normal life, nothing to do with beauty, homeliness, love, children, girls, homes, furniture, gardens, flowers – no connection at all with any of those things which men and women enjoy, appreciate and lovingly care for – things, politicians told us, we were fighting to preserve. Yet, up there in the trenches, we did as ordered by our superiors, coupling with that work the really important objective – namely to preserve ourselves from injury and death.
I would have wished to continue watching those children, listening to their sweet voices. This pleasure had been so unexpected in that separate war-world.’
Of course, booze could temporarily heal all sorts of wounds if carefully deployed. Here’s Sam on another rest period – undated, but somewhere between mid-May and July 1:
‘Our next move took us rearwards again, to the village with the ruined church and its undamaged cross… (8). There we slept in barns and outbuildings on comfortable bunks made of wood and wire netting.
Out of the blue, the Sergeants invited me to join them in evening social drinking in the barn they occupied. Corporal’s pay made me comparatively wealthy, so I could afford to put my bottles on the long table, lit by a dozen candles, around which the Sergeants gathered for an hour or two each night before “Lights out”. Each contributed what he had been able to procure – at that moment, champagne was a good buy because the owners of one big house had decided they couldn’t carry on living in that dangerous area, finally abandoning the hope, long shared by many in that region, that the Allies would soon drive the Germans back to the Rhine… when here we were, halfway through 1916, still bogged down in trenches nearby.
So, imagine: champagne at 2.50 francs the bottle, brandy cognac about 5 francs, curaçao about 8 francs, coarse red wine 50 centîmes(9). The red wine I didn’t favour. A few weeks previously I had drunk two whole bottles during an evening, and become tipsy in a sad, sour way; the next morning I drank water to slake a foul-tasting thirst and found myself again unsteady on my feet, with a heavy, hazy head – whereas a steady tippling session mainly on champagne yielded a night of unbroken sleep followed by an awakening to a clear head and a feeling of well-being.’
(8) This is might be Hébuterne, but it’s more likely Souastre again, the village where Sam first joined the Kensingtons – about three miles west of the Front, north of Hébuterne. If it’s Souastre then Sam’s memory of the church almost certainly misplaces it from Hébuterne (when I visited Souastre I asked if their church had been destroyed in WW1 and was told no, not touched at all). The Battalion War Diary notes that the 1/8th Middlesex relieved the Kensingtons on June 21 and they reached their billets in Souastre at 3.30am the following morning. They remained there until June 30(!), but with exceptions. They sent Companies separately for more rehearsals at Halloy (my father’s A Company on June 25/6). Souastre itself was shelled sporadically, the WD recording a more substantial barrage on June 26. Too much information? Sorry, these researches get you that way.
(9) According to Chris Henschke responding to a question on 1914-1918.invisionzone.com “The rate of exchange for issues of cash to the troops of the Expeditionary Force was fixed at the rate of 5 francs = three shillings and seven pence for the month of July, 1916”. But there seem to be other versions of these figures… and pricier wines available: Alan MacDonald’s Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division At Gommecourt (Iona) says the more discerning soldiery enjoyed Souastre’s estaminets because they flogged Veuve Clicqout champagne at 9 francs, rather than the 2.50 my father forked out for less exalted appellations.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Somme Rewind 4 of 5: July 1 and the aftermath.
* 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.