“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, 21 January 2018
Signaller Sam “enjoys” an all-quietish stint in the Western Front, enlivened by a bit of wandering about line-testing in defiance of German machine gunners – then a move back to Arras and a change of billet: up in the world from Prison to Museum…
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A hundred years ago this week… While winter still slowed every campaign in Europe, most reports relate to bombing, though it’s hard to imagine or gauge the big-picture significance of these still crude and low-tonnage air raids.
But the British and French set their fragile planes against targets in occupied northeastern France and western Belgium – Thionville and Metz (January 21), Roulers and Menin (22), Courtrai, Tournai, Ghent, Ledeghem and Douai (23-5) – and also in Germany – Freiburg and Ludwigshafen (25). Likewise the Germans launched air attacks on Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne (26).
Meanwhile, in northern Italy, when the Italian Army began to regain ground by taking an Austrian post at Caposile, near Venice (January 22), the Austrians responded by bombing Mestre and Treviso.
On the Eastern Front, tricky negotiation continued (January 22-3) with wrangling between the Central Powers and the Bolsheviks, for whom Trotsky complained that the Germans and friends were seeking a “monstrous annexation” of Russian territory and duly suspended talks. Elsewhere, Germany concluded a treaty with Ukraine (21), including its declaration of independence (26), and down in Galatz, Moldavia, then part of Romania, Bolshevik troops turned on the Romanians whom the Russian Army had fought alongside up to that point in the hostilities (26).
Further towards the periphery of the war, British planes were in action again bombing a Turkish aerodrome at Kifri, north of Baghdad (January 21), and Ottoman troops south of Shechem in Palestine.
At sea, a German submarine sank the British armed troopship HMS Louvain in the Aegean with all 224 aboard lost (January 21).
[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 of the same (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 may have brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not entirely 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 – at the end of which he told his family of his firm conviction that he would survive, even if they didn’t hear from him for a while. In December/January 1917/8, he’s returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Arras in a “freelance” way, helping where he can – while the Front rumbles away nearby… ]
Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, returned to the trenches although still – as far as I can tell – not allocated to his own 2/7th Essex Battalion. He, his new Signaller pal Neston, and their two comrades still dogsbodied around for whoever needed them – even in the front line.
He commented on how much the Tommies’ battlefield conditions had been enhanced by running water, a reserve trench YMCA dugout and so on. He wondered whether this suggested a masterplan to make war “a permanent condition”. This week he continues with that stint and reflects further on how oddly relaxed he felt about the whole thing, although engaging in one or two chancy exploits:
‘I quite enjoyed it, in the circumstances – in part, because, being once again a member of that “elite” section, the Signallers, during our stints at the Front at least nobody could call upon me to take part in night patrols in No Man’s Land(2), that ghastly, ghostly area. Death or injury could quickly overtake you on those little rambles. Many an old soldier can recall, from being stationed on the firing step to give covering fire if needs be, the noises of personal combat out front when opposing patrols encountered each other. Cries of anger or pain, hand-grenade explosions, rifle shots and later calls for help, groans, sometimes frightened cries from a wounded lad who had lost his bearings… None of that for fortunate me this time out.
However, at the time it was such a quiet sector of the Front – occasional bursts of shelling, a casualty only now and then – that a longer period in the trenches could comfortably be endured. It had developed, I reckoned, into an agreeable, reasonable sort of war. Pity they hadn’t set it up on these lines at a much earlier date.
In my spare time, under guise of line-testing, I wandered here and there in our area. As always, the disused, discarded trenches, when discovered, tempted my curiosity. Tracing them – inevitably somewhat bashed in, often wet – I occasionally felt lost and lonely, which was something of a thrill. The dicey part came where an old trench had caved in so it was blocked by a mound of earth; I knew the risk if I decided to run for it over the top of the hump. So, crouch ready to climb, then dash and fall into the other side of the trench. If you were lucky, the burst of machine-gun fire would rip across just after you’d fallen in. Till that awful noise which a gun aimed at you makes, you’d have sworn there wasn’t a Jerry within miles. I was lucky.
We served turns in Front, then Support, then Reserve trenches, finally in covered holes on the safe-from-the-enemy side of a ridge. After, probably, four weeks(3), we moved out of the forward area again and trekked back to Arras, taking our time, with generous grub and tea rations en route.
In Arras, I had one immediate disappointment. Instead of returning to the Prison, this time my Company lodged in the sound part of a badly damaged museum(4). I didn’t feel quite so royal there, having to sleep on the hard floor instead of my somewhat restored bedstead, with those exciting scrambles round the rickety gallery replaced by climbs over masses of stone blocks and fallen masonry where I found nothing of interest or value. Too many curious soldiers had passed through earlier, I assumed. But I did discover the place still had a caretaker.
On one of my searches, hearing movement behind me, I turned to find a one-legged elderly French infantryman – tall, gaunt of feature, supported in a very soldierly, upright stance by a crutch and a stick. Using my few words of his language and he his of mine – if that’s clear – I gathered that his job was to prevent anything being removed from the place, including those blocks of stone. Here again I saw proof of Allied faith in victory and of their intention to rebuild and restore.’
(2) When Sam transferred from the disbanded 2/1st Royal Fusiliers to the Kensingtons in May, 1916, after Gallipoli and just before the Battle Of The Somme, his signalling skills had not been needed so, as an “ordinary” Lance Corporal, he led many night patrols, mostly digging advanced trenches. Here, from Chapter 35 of the Memoir, is an example of the Somme experience he found himself well pleased not to revisit – he’s just dived into the shallow beginnings of a trench after the clatter of their excavations, inevitably, attracted enemy attention: “Machine-gun bullets spattered around me and I marvelled that I should lie there, hear and see them striking, yet remain untouched. But our semi-trenches afforded little protection when light field guns joined in and their shattering whizz-bangs filled the air with noise and flying metal. One could only hug Mother Earth and wait for an order to retire, which didn’t come.”
(3) I’d suggest this “four weeks” in the trenches may take us from late January to mid-February, 1918, or thereabouts. War Diaries show that Western Front stints by then could be longer than the 10 days-ish of earlier years.
(4) Although I can’t find any record of its use as a British Army billet during World War 1, the “badly damaged museum” is likely to have been the Musée Des Beaux Arts, Rue Paul Doumer, in the centre of Arras. Opened in 1832 and built in parts of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Vaast following a Revolutionary deconsecration, it took a battering from German bombardments of Arras on July 5, 1915, and thereafter. Judging from the subsequent paragraphs, my father, his pal Neston, and whichever 12th Brigade Battalion they were knocking about with lodged there for three or four weeks, between occasional sallies to the trenches – only six kilometres outside town. That story continues next week.
All the best – FSS
Next week: With the Spring Offensive still no more than a persistent rumour, Sam marvels at his newly “carefree” attitude to the war, even in the front line, and especially enjoys the solid rations now available – his favourite, some post-seasonal Christmas puddings whereon he spends much of his lately increased pay.
(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.