“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, 4 February 2018

Arras 1918: Sam scares the pants off himself by getting lost on a jet-black night-time march to the Front … with a long file of men following him!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… All quietish, considering, the loudest noise being generated by negotiations at Brest-Litovsk: Germany sent an ultimatum to the Romanians demanding peace talks within four days or else (February 6; this provoked the Romanian Premier to resign after surviving four years in the post); the Central Powers signed a peace and protection treaty with the Ukraine, including a definition of the republic’s new borders (9); and Russia’s Foreign Affairs Commissar Leon Trotsky announced the end of the state of war between Russia and the Central Powers… while also refusing to sign a peace treaty (10; because he didn’t believe a Communist nation could properly agree a treaty with a capitalist one).
    Meanwhile, the Don Cossacks, whose region had provided the Russian Army with several anti-revolutionary Generals, began their latest uprising with 30,000 troops under General Mikhail Alekseev setting off for Moscow to fight the Bolsheviks (February 4).
    Otherwise, deadly skirmishing continued on the Western Front (more Americans arrived) and in Italy, where the Austrian Army still made occasional attempts to push south, after being held north of Venice and the River Piave.
    At sea, the troopship SS Tuscania, carrying around 2,000 American soldiers from Hoboken, New Jersey, in a convoy to the UK was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat south of Islay, Scotland, with the loss of 166 men by some accounts, 230 by others – accompanying British destroyers and other ships saved the majority.

[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 for a commission, 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 perhaps he actually requested it, given his feelings on the subject of rank. After refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, come November/December, he enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career – at the end of which he assured 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 Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he can – though he’s soon sent out to the front line, just a few miles away, as a sort of freelance signaller for any outfit that needs one… ]

Last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, with a Battalion he’d been temporarily attached to by 12th Brigade HQ in Arras, rushed to the Front, six miles or so east, responding to a big German bombardment – which might have been the start of the Spring Offensive (which then wouldn’t have been called the “Spring” offensive I guess), but turned out to be some kind of bluff to observe the British response. At least that’s what the Tommies reckoned; could have been a mistake, a change of mind mid-bombardment, nobody really knew.
    However, after striving over the four years of his war story to more or less align Sam’s recollections with “100-years-ago-this-week”, I explained last week that this wouldn’t work for the duration of his Spring Offensive memories because he wrote thousands of words about the battle, March 20-28, and not much about January, February and early March. The out-of-step phase began last week when we were actually in late February, 1918, and – as I try to clarify in the blog footnotes – the following passage starts with a spell back in Arras which probably lasts from the first few days of March until March 19 when he heads for the Front once more.
    Also you’ll run into one big change for my father; as mentioned in previous blogs, since he arrived in Arras in mid-January, for reasons unknown (bar the “fog of war”), he hasn’t encountered his own official Battalion, the 2/7th Essex Regiment, so he’s been “freelancing/dogsbodying” for Brigade HQ. But during this episode he makes the connection and the quartet of unattached Signallers he’s been knocking around with all go along with him (whether Sam’s good friend Neston and their two comrades also happened to be in the Essex or wandered along with him as freelances I don’t know):

‘Our turn for a rest from the front line(2) duly came round again and, one dark night, we filed out as another Battalion filed in. It had to be a night changeover for safety’s sake – for a degree thereof, anyway – because we had been unable to repair much of the damage to our trench system. We trudged quietly for hours, pausing at regular intervals to rest and get a bite and a swig from the water bottle. The crash and scream of shells gradually softened as our distance from the Front increased – dull thuds and far-off roars our reminders that hell was only a few kilos away.
    By great good fortune they quartered us once more in Arras(3). Unusual, perhaps, to be allotted a rest period in that delectable, war-scarred town, but we appreciated it. We even enjoyed the brief training periods, chiefly because officers and NCOs were far from heavy-handed, mellowed by close association with their men in the forced intimate proximity of trenches, holes in the ground, or the occasional luxury of a dugout.
    I was delighted to find the Army canteen still had a few of those tasty Christmas puddings, my special preference. Whether they remained because of over-stocking or to meet a non-seasonal demand I knew not. Maybe I was the only customer for them, but they stored well and remained moist and luscious…(4)
    All too quickly our period of rest and ease sped by, and a careful checking of equipment began. We must take only the bare essential items which could be carried in “battle dress order” – an outfit which did not include the large pack containing the greatcoat and a few other bulky oddments. The forward trenches had reserve stores of rifle ammunition and hand-grenades and, in any but hopeless situations, food and drink would somehow be got to us. In the case of the Signals section, field telegraph and phone equipment – all the tools of our trade – would be handed to us at the time of takeover, probably quite joyfully for the chaps we relieved.
    Our Company “got fell in” around 1300 hours and we marched off in good spirits, led by a short, but tough-looking Captain, with a one-pip subaltern heading each Platoon except ours; we had a two-pip Lieutenant, a coarse promotion from the ranks from whom we expected much courage and wisdom in time of battle (erroneously, as it turned out).

During the early hours of the march good humour prevailed, with jokes and chummy insults exchanged. Rests by the side of the road lasted longer than usually allowed, and – with a dare-devil air – the Captain took an occasional pistol shot at a tin-can or other suitable target.
    By dusk we reached the area of the big guns. No marching now. We advanced in a single file, slimy mud underfoot. We slithered, one foot higher than the other, along the steep side of a ridge. Very dark now, terribly difficult to keep going forward without sliding downhill, almost impossible for each of us to maintain contact with the man in front and…
    “God help us,” I silently cried. “I’ve lost touch with him!” Of course, a long file of men followed me and, if I went the wrong way, so would they. Inky darkness. “I’m as good as blind and scared stiff… The man in front of me will never know I’m not behind him and the man behind me can’t tell that I’m leading him astray… “ Field guns banging and I heard machine-gun fire way off… It felt worse than going “over the top”, I thought, for later I’d have to face the derision of men I really didn’t know and of officers who certainly wouldn’t spare my feelings. I could be accused of attempted desertion, or showing cowardice in the face of the enemy…
    I recalled being Corporal in charge of a squad escorting a prisoner to his court martial on the Somme in 1916; this time I’d be the poor bloody prisoner, though guiltless of any intention to offend. The loneliness of the lost idiot assailed me, and all my previous confidence evaporated. I, who had felt so fit, well-trained and quite the Old Soldier after my varied war experiences… reduced in my own estimation to a twitching coward. I’d never even heard of a bloke losing his way while advancing with his Company in single file or any other file.
    On this very black night I could see nothing and nobody, being aware of my follower only by the sound of his footsteps and occasional curses. Then a slight noise to my half-right – some item of equipment tapping on a buckle – caused me to veer in that direction; I closed up behind that clinking sound and cunningly murmured, “Everybody happy in C Company?” in a comical query tone. “Too bloody true,” came the matey reply, softly as per orders, and I knew I was back where I should be and joyful relief replaced my personal panic. Throughout all this I had said nothing to the man behind me so I guess he never knew we’d strayed from the “straight and narrow”.’
(2) After the stint in the front line provoked by the German’s artillery bombardment “bluff”.
(3) Although Sam doesn’t say so, I’m pretty sure they were back in their billet at the Museum, the Musée Des Beaux Arts, Rue Paul Doumer – last week, he referred to the “canteen down the road” selling those lovely post-seasonal Xmas puds. And this location, I gather, proved crucial in his running into his “own” Battalion (the Army transferred him to the 2/7th Essex in December, 1916, but the circumstances outlined in the italicised thumbnail of his “career”, above, meant that he’d never spent any time with them).
(4) In hopes that modest research correctly fills the gaps left by my father hereabouts. I’m pretty sure that he (and his friend Neston and their two Signaller mates) hooked up with his official Battalion, the 2/7th Essex right here. The Battalion War Diary says they moved in from Berneville, six miles southwest of Arras, and billeted “in the Museum” – where my Sam lodged – on March 11 and stayed there for two nights. Contact!? The WD actually notes “1 OR Reinforcement” (“OR” means “other ranks” than commissioned officers) on that day and nine more on the 13th – by which time they’d gone through an aborted overnight “stand by” to repulse an enemy attack, undertaken several days’ training (mentioned by Sam), and moved on to the Prison, their billet until the next, and genuine summons to the trenches outside the town. (Sam and Neston billeted in the Prison for some while during January, see Blogs 180 and 183, December 17, 2017, and January 7,  2018.)

All the best – FSS

Next week: Just before the great onslaught, normally circumspect Sam has a mad moment and takes on one of Richthofen’s Flying Circus!

(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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