“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, 18 February 2018

Sam and comrades assailed by the opening salvos of the Spring Offensive realise “This is it!” – and Sam gets gassed, a “dreadful, choking-burning sensation”…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… All attention on the Eastern Front and what one German General called “the most comical war I have ever known”. It arose from Russian Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky’s February 10 refusal to sign the draft peace treaty with the Central Powers which emerged from the Brest-Litovsk negotiations – on some point of principle about dealing with bourgeois regimes, he said Russia was no longer at war with them but… he wouldn’t put it on paper.
    So on February 17, Germany announced a resumption of hostilities which they followed up the next day with the start of Operation Faustschlag, aka the Eleven Days War. The Bolsheviks had won their revolution handily, but this serious display of military might soon brought them back to addressing the realities of international power relations. On February 19, they declared willingness to sign the peace treaty, all fine, no need to change a comma. The Germans considered their position… and meanwhile conducted this additional little war, hoovering up territory against feeble or non-existent opposition.
    A three-pronged offensive, deploying 53 Divisions, took Dvinsk, Latvia (February 18), Minsk, Belarus (21), Zhitomir, Ukraine and Dorpat, Estonia (24) and they weren’t stopping yet.
    Elsewhere, while minor actions continued on the Western Front and around the River Piave in Italy (where the Austrian invasion remained stalled), the most substantial development saw the British and New Zealand forces in Palestine take Jericho (February 19-21), the first step en route to occupation of the Jordan Valley.

[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 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. 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. In December/January 1917/8, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocking about Brigade HQ, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away… ]

Last week, the blog moved ahead of itself into March and the preliminaries of the British defence against the German Army’s long-anticipated Spring Offensive, simply because my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, wrote so much about the nine days around that battle which had such a profound effect on him in so many ways, as you’ll see. On March 19, his Battalion, the 2/7th Essex, moved from Arras into the trenches near the village of Fampoux, about six kilometres outside town.
    We left him, probably on March 20 he reckoned, engaging in what he called “a strange prelude to a terrible battle”. The wild streak in his normally solid character broke to the surface again and, having snatched a Lewis gun from its rightful operators, he fought a duel with one of Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus which had annoyed him by zooming up and down low over the British trenches taking pictures with impunity. The upshot was he proved just as ineffective as the Lewis gun’s official proprietors in nailing the pesky Jerry – but the pilot missed him too with machine-gun fire and a hand-thrown bomb. At which, Sam, scuttled back to his own Battalion before anyone could think about disciplinary charges.
    Well, that incident could have proved deadly, but now the whole operation gets serious. On March 21, a Thursday, the Offensive began around St Quentin, about 75 kilometres southeast of Fampoux – the German plan to move their attack steadily northwards over the following week with Arras their final major objective. Of course, the “softening up” process would begin some while before each major onslaught. Sam and his Essex comrades are still in the support trench at this point:

‘One morning, shortly after my encounter with one of the “Flying Circus”, enemy artillery began to take tentative pots at scattered points in our lines. The firing gradually intensified until it became a searching bombardment by every type of enemy gun. All around us, shells of every calibre were bursting and busting up the landscape. This was to continue night and day until early on March the 28th(1).
     The initial shock, caused by the realisation that “This is it” as much as by the actual noise and destruction going on around me, soon settled into the state of high tension so familiar to me from earlier bombardments in times which seemed far away(2).
     Rare direct hits on our narrow trench brought forth the old cry, “Stretcher-bearers!”, and although these stalwart life-savers sometimes had to squeeze past us on their journeys of mercy, we gained no knowledge of the extent of our casualties – wounded or killed.
     No let-up throughout that night. We had no deep shelters, but a series of bolt-holes – each holding six or so men – provided fair cover for those whose turn it was to “rest” after doing their spells of “stand-to” duty. A direct hit by a shell would smash everything and probably everybody in the affected trench but, doubtless because of the narrowness of the support trenches, such tragedies remained infrequent at that stage.
     The perpetual roars, crashes and earth tremors became our norm, and we had to remain as alert as humanly possible in that hellish environment. Provisions arrived at long, irregular intervals, borne by very brave ration parties. All our instilled discipline was needed to enable us to stay put when every human instinct pressured one to break into a gallop in a rearward direction.

On the second day, our situation got worse; my lines being still intact, I received a message from Battalion HQ “for immediate attention of Company commander” instructing him to warn all ranks that one in five of all enemy shells now arriving contained poison gas; look-outs could identify them by the cloud of greenish-yellow vapour emitted, accompanied by only a small explosion.
     One look-out man occupied a raised position quite near to my Signal-station shelter, so I had to rely on him swinging his noisy bird-scarer rattle in good time should he spot a bursting gas shell nearby. Soon enough it happened, but instead of holding his breath, rattling, and then donning his gas mask, he protected himself first then sounded the alarm – by which time I and others had lungs full of the stuff. The dreadful, choking-burning sensation set in motion our much-practised routine; we stopped breathing, withdrew respirators from satchels, strapped them to chests, breathed out, clapped masks over faces, and resumed breathing air purified in its passage through canisters containing absorbent granules.
     Thereafter, for me, everything I ate or drank had about it a chemical foulness. Even the air I breathed smelled grossly tainted. We, of course, removed our respirators as soon as we deemed it safe; impossible, anyway, for those of us afflicted by the poisonous stuff to continue wearing the masks because our damaged lungs couldn’t suck enough oxygen through them(3).’
(1) Military Operations France And Belgium, 1918 March-April: Continuation Of The German Offensives (1937), published by IWM & Battery Press, says that, on January 21, 1918, General Erich Ludendorff, of the German High Command, decided the “Spring Offensive” should go ahead – this in anticipation of America becoming militarily active, which it did effectively during that spring (having declared war on April 6, 1917), and following Russia’s signing an armistice with Germany (on December 23, 1917, and renewed thereafter at the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, the Kaiser having supported Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution for his own ends). The latter development freed 50 German Divisions to march from the Eastern to the Western Front; on March 21, 1918, at 4.40am Ludendorff launched Operation Michael (aka the Second Battle Of The Somme), the first of five great attacks comprising the “Spring Offensive”; http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sommeII.html says that within five hours German artillery fired 1.1 million shells (including poison gas shells) from 6,500 guns and 3,500 mortars; their 17th Army, commanded by General Otto Von Below, veteran of successful World War I campaigns on the Eastern Front, in Macedonia and Italy, conducted the attack on the section of the Front east and south of Arras – viewed as distinct actions these included the First Battle Of Bapaume (24 kilometres south of Arras) March 24-25. A second phase of this attack, called Operation Mars, focussed on taking Arras, began on March 28.
(2) Meaning Gallipoli and the Somme.
(3) My father, tough as they come, lived to be 88, but his lungs always troubled him just from that one short inhalation of what he told me must have been mustard gas. During winters he regularly suffered bronchitis and latterly emphysema. More trivially perhaps, though it was frustrating for a music lover like him, he could never play wind instruments from then on – you may remember he took a flageolet into the Gallipoli battlefield, losing it in some Suvla Bay gully or other, and as a lad he’d always fancied taking up the trumpet. Still he did have a high old time on the piano and accordion at many a party and, during WW2, in his local north London Civil Defence concert party band.

All the best – FSS

Next week: The Spring Offensive bombardment begins; Sam’s Battalion moves into the front line; he and his Signaller pals get lucky, having a big bunker to work in – except when he’s out in blown-up trenches mending wires with “no one to witness my skilled workmanship and brave devotion to duty… or maybe my cringing, crawling and fumbling, take your choice”…

(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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