“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, 17 December 2017

Sam gets a billet in Arras Prison and meets the pal who, it turned out, would work and fight beside him until his last day on the battlefield…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… In Europe, a general winding down for the winter continued, but that’s not to say the war took a holiday – although the Russian Front really was on hold with the only remaining armed conflict being the civil war which General Kornilov’s Volunteer Army had shifted to Ukraine.
    One of the sporadic German air raids on England saw 14 killed and 85 injured in London, Essex and Kent (December 18), while three British destroyers were sunk off the Dutch coast with 193 men lost (22). On the Western Front, substantial skirmishing occurred at the Ypres-Comines canal (17), west of Messines (20; six miles south of Ypres, German troops capturing a British advance post), and around the Ypres-Staden railway (22; it ran for 13 miles northeast of Ypres).
    Further south, the French engaged in a brief revival of earlier fierce fighting around Harmannswillerkopf, Alsace (December 21), and likewise near Verdun, at Caurieres Wood (23).
    In Italy the tail-end of the 12th Battle Of The Isonzo (October 24-December 26), which morphed into the Battle Of Caporetto and headed south as the Italian Army beat a long retreat, sustained the intensity of the previous months with the Austrians beaten back again on the upper Brenta (December 17), successfully attacking on Mount Asalone (18; taking 2,000 prisoners), repulsed again on the river Piave (19), and taking hills near Valstagna (22; about 50 miles northwest of Venice).
    Finally, after entering Jerusalem quite peacefully, the British and Commonwealth troops of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force pressed the retreating Ottoman Army north and east of Jaffa (December 22; about 40 miles northwest of Jerusalem, on the Mediterranean coast).

[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. An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare  for more (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train as a commissioned officer, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not clear. He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Now, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more…]

Last week, I explained that best efforts to keep this blog to the this-week-100-years-ago timetable had to undergo one of their periodic suspensions because my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe, wrote very little about the “several weeks” he spent at the British Army’s huge camp in Calais, following his return to France in December 1917. So the blog had to follow him in moving on to Arras, although that happened in early January…
    There he found himself “on standby” still, unattached to any Battalion, including the 2/7th Essex whom he “belonged to” officially – but they weren’t in the vicinity as yet. So, with the Front rumbling steadily a few miles east, he served as a “general dogsbody” at 12th Brigade HQ in the town, resuming his signalling duties in an ad hoc way, handling phones or telegraph or going out to repair cross-country lines, until…

‘Eventually, I was sent to a Battalion(2) to work as a Signaller, ordered to report to C Company’s Sergeant Major. A reasonably pleasant and obviously efficient officer, he asked a few questions and my answers gave him a rough history of my Army life. He took my previous front-line service as a good enough recommendation and detailed a man to show me my section’s quarters. Quite suitably, some may feel, we occupied a corner of a large chamber in what had been, I was told, the Prison Of Arras(3).
     A mixed lot, the lads I met first, but welcoming: one chap quite clerkly, another a voluble Welshman, rapid of speech, decision and action; then Neston, only slightly older than me – he clinched an immediate friendship by shaking hands heartily, taking me to his kipping place on the floor of this spacious hall, and inviting me to chuck my clobber alongside his. He lived in Hampstead, he said, he’d been in France for several months, and so far, it appeared, he hadn’t made any particular pal since he joined C Company(4).
     I didn’t tell him, of course, but never before in all my Army experience had I been welcomed to an assignment by a friendly handshake. Having one willing mate already easing my way, I could look at the chaps around me with no new-boy-asks-for-acceptance feelings, and know that acquaintances with some of them would develop to that small extent necessary for living and working in fairly close proximity.
     Just once more I must hark back to my first Battalion and the brotherly regard for one another felt by most if its members, which endured long after that terrible war finished(5). Even those one did not like among them, one disliked more with feelings of disappointment than of hatred. Why? Perhaps because we all came together in the last days of a period when, along with all the law-abiding blokes and their ladies, even the bad lads who spent occasional spells in prison and the professional harlots and their customers felt deep down that they belonged to a great nation to which they gave their loyalty – without giving the subject much thought.
     But then the stress of war proved overwhelming; when conscription replaced volunteering, it quickly dissipated local, county and even national loyalties because men were sent hither and thither regardless of their origins. Well, whatever the explanation, the truth I felt and experienced was that, after several years of war, the men around one counted for little – with the odd rare exception.
     Scrounging around this huge chamber with Neston, I came across an old, iron, single bedstead. With the aid of odd pieces of string and rope, I managed to fix the thing up and, thinking of home and its comforts I’m sure, I persisted in sleeping on its metal straps without benefit of mattress, wrapped in just two grey blankets. No doubt the level floor would have given me sounder sleep, else why had no one nabbed the bed before I found it?
     Lying on it, gazing upwards and around, I took in a very casual scene – men’s kits and blankets littering the floor – illuminated by sunny daylight, much of which came through a large, glazed dome some 30 or 40 feet above us. Despite many missing panes, no rainwater lay on the floor… I had to stand up to confirm this, by looking down into a sunken area under the dome; this basin, many feet in diameter, puzzled me as to its original usage. Above it, pendant from the centre of the dome, something in carved wood or in metal…’

(2) I’ve tried might and main since 2012, when I started work on editing my father’s Memoir, to work out which Battalion this was, but I don’t know. Information welcome! Speculating, at this point I don’t think it was his own 2/7th Essex (whom, otherwise, he hadn’t really met yet despite being on the books since December, 1916, when he was sent to Harrogate for most of his “year out”). It could have been any one of the other seven infantry Battalions in the 12th Brigade. Well, I often feel like a permanent resident in that notorious fog of war, which applies as much to admin. detail as it does to battlefield events…
(3) Built in 1866 for a capacity of 164 prisoners, the old building was still operational as of 2017, though forever listed for closure because of frequent escapes and drug use among the residents. The “Maison d’Arrêt” is located on Rue Carabiniers d’Artois, near the centre of Arras.
(4) “Neston” – never provided with a first name – was an alias in Sam’s usual fashion, thinking to protect the feelings of individuals still living when he wrote, during the 1970s, and/or their descendants. A fellow Signaller, Neston remained a firm pal of my father’s all the way to the front line in the great battle of March 28. I think he must have been another “unattached” member of the 2/7th Essex, like Sam; that would mean that when they finally ran into their official Battalion, shortly before the Spring Offensive, they were absorbed together as ever-welcome “reinforcements”.
(5) My father attended 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers reunions until 1963 when their revered CO in Gallipoli, Major Harry Nathan, died. Post-war a Liberal, then Labour MP, he’d become a Lord and served in fellow Gallipoli veteran Clement Attlee’s Government, 1945-8

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s narrative of his return to the Western Front skipped Christmas – presumably being so far unattached to a specific unit in France it barely happened for him. So, for the next two blogs, I’m revisiting the lively “holidays” he had in Gallipoli, evacuating Suvla Bay pre-Christmas then sailing back to the peninsula (V Beach) on Boxing Day! But en route still enjoying his best nosh-ups of WW1…

(1) 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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