“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, 25 March 2018

March 28, 1918, the Spring Offensive, outside Arras: as the enemy overruns them Sam‘s Company CO points a pistol at him then runs away… after that it’s “Germans, hundreds of them, charging in my direction bayonets fixed… ” and, to his astonishment, survival… maybe redemption?

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This week’s excerpt is in memory of two men who died in the past week: Malcolm Doolin, an inspiration at Walthamstow Western Front Association, and Foster Summerson, a mainstay of the Gallipoli Association and the WFA. My father would have deeply appreciated their work for peaceful Remembrance of the young men of all nations caught up in World War 1.

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the deadly Spring Offensive – casualties 234,000 Allied troops, 240,000 German (March 21-April 5) – roared towards its crescendo. Historians divide it into separate battles, though all were propelled by desperate defence against shifting German onslaughts, part planned long-term, part designed on the spot.
    The First Battle Of Bapaume (March 24-5) concluded with a confused day for the Allies as the Germans captured Libermont and Nesle, but the British counterattacked to retake the village of Baboeuf. After that Field Marshal Haig called for 20 French Divisions to move north and support his men; in response, a conference organised with remarkable speed at Doullens (26), only about 15 miles northeast of the nearest front-line point, saw Haig in purposeful discussion with French President Poincaré, British Prime Minister Lloyd George and British Munitions Minister Churchill as well as his military peers Generals Foch, Pétain, and Wilson. Foch emerged in charge of coordinating the Allied effort and, by stages, the French took over most of the Front south of Amiens.
    Thereafter, variously judicious, chaotic and lucky retreats and counterattacks saw the Allies, on the whole, at worst cede far less ground to the German Army than they needed in order to achieve their objective of winning the war at a stroke. Broadly, this applied to the Battle Of Rosières (March 26-7) and the First (some say Third!) Battle Of Arras (28; my father, Sam, was there – see his continuing account of the day below), and the initial stage of the First Battle Of Villers-Bretonneux (March 30-April 5).
    In other, less significant encounters, in southern Russia the German Army (with seeming disregard for the Treaty Of Brest-Litovsk) captured Poltava, in Jordan Anzacs and British troops lost the First Battle Of Amman and retreated to the Jordan Valley (May 27-31), and in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) Indian troops defeated Ottoman forces in the Action Of Baghdadi (March 26-7) and moved on to take Ana (28) – which turned out to be the last Allied attack along the Euphrates.

[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 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 proved to be the final home leave of his military career – and 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 in Arras, dogsbodying where he could – though he was soon out at the front line, just a few miles away. But by mid-March he found his own Essex Battalion; they moved into the trenches near Fampoux, about six miles east of Arras, on March 19… just in time, it turned out for the opening artillery bombardment of the German Spring Offensive]

Last week, on March 28, 1918 – 100 years ago on Wednesday this week – my father Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, his pal Neston, and all their comrades in C Company 2/7th Battalion Essex Regiment followed the order received from HQ that midnight to fight to the last bullet – this despite the absence of any effective leadership above Sergeants and Corporals.
    With great waves of attackers coming their way, they fired and fired until their rifle bolts jammed and, indeed, they’d used up every bullet they had. Sam’s boiling emotions included the fear he might “explode from within”, a bone-marrow guilt as he became aware that his “targets” were real human beings, and even moments of pride and satisfaction he felt “we were doing a soldier’s job reasonably well”.
    Finally, the Company remnants defenceless without ammunition, he and Neston struggled back to the dugout where they’d left their last means of communication – two ring-tailed doves – and attached messages each of them saying, essentially, “Goodbye” … to anyone at Divisional HQ who might be interested.
    But just then the day’s events took another strange turn:

‘At this moment, from goodness knows where, possibly his screened-off “room”(2) in the dugout, our Company Officer suddenly appeared – his face, as before, strangely different from its usual coarse, sometimes good-humoured norm, showing signs of great nervous strain.
     Pushing us aside, he scrambled out of the trench on the rear side. Welcoming what we assumed to be belated leadership, we made to follow him, but he pulled his pistol from its holster, aimed it in our direction and ordered us to stay where we were… Strange repetition this, for up to that moment I had only been threatened with a revolver once and that too by one of our own people – our Regimental Sergeant Major did it at Gallipoli, you may recall, because, he said, we were attracting fire from Turk field guns by exposing ourselves (he too was in a windy condition and never lived down the bad name he earned there)(3).
     At that, the officer disappeared and Neston and I quickly decided to attempt to follow him. But, a few yards behind our trench, we slid into the protection of a shell-hole and had a brief chat. I reminded my pal about the message with its code word “George”, meaning we must not leave our position for any reason… Time passed. No one came our way. We heard only an occasional burst of machine-gun fire, usually from our support trench… We made our decisions, I to rejoin our lads, Neston to make a dash rearwards. We shook hands and parted(4).
     Running the few yards to our frontline trench, I stopped myself from dropping into it… only just in time. I stood looking down for a moment, both fearful and fascinated by what I saw. No British soldiers in that bay, just one German.
     With the utmost concentration, he was carrying out what we knew as “the mopping-up routine” – having killed, wounded or captured most of the enemy troops occupying a trench system, you then looked for stragglers or obstinate fighters. With bayonet fixed on rifle you held it at your side, but somewhat forward; you advanced quietly, cautiously; when you came to a corner you paused, then sprang round that corner ready to stab or shoot. This careful process, plus throwing a hand-grenade down each dugout entrance, was the proven method of clearing a trench system thoroughly. For the second time that day, I was surprised to see Germans doing the same as we did.
     The German I watched was so taut and intent on his job he didn’t see me standing there above him. I should have tackled him immediately, but I didn’t. It appeared that any surviving members of our Company must already have been removed as prisoners. I heard spasmodic rifle and machine-gun fire to the rear. Probably, close fighting continued in the next trench back, the support line.
     I sprang over the head of the German and that carried me a couple of yards clear of the trench.

Looking forward, I saw Germans, hundreds of them. A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition. They must, quite understandably, have felt bitter about the price we had extracted for their victory. A long delay like that must have interfered with their plans. I fleetingly hoped that none of them had witnessed my double slaughter… that I can recall(5).
     As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me. All thought of bravely taking on the German Army single-handed was absent. Inaction was my response. I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye. I earned no medals that day nor any other day…
     At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Their fresh, healthy faces made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads(6).’
(2) This Lieutenant had spent most of the previous seven days since the Battalion’s arrival in the front line in a curtained off area of the large dugout where the Signallers and others worked.
(3) See Blog 64 September 9, 1915, for this story.
(4) Sam and Neston’s parting here may seem strange if you read Blog 192, two weeks ago, and recall their, albeit tacit, vow to “Stick together no matter what happens”. But only hours later they were bidding farewell – and as far as I know they never met again (Neston, an alias, may not have survived the day or the war, of course). But, talking about all this before he wrote it down, my father never expressed a sliver of resentment at Neston’s surely very sensible decision to get out of there while he, pointlessly, followed orders. But by then the battle, the flood of adrenaline terror and excitement had completely shattered him. That’s why, a few paragraphs on, he stood, numbed to inertia, awaiting his bayonet quietus.
(5) See last week’s blog for the explanation of Sam’s “double slaughter” – the incident stayed with him for the rest of his life (he headed the passage “Murder”), but no doubt passed entirely unnoticed by anyone else in the course of the day’s butchery and mayhem.
(6) Gregory Blaxland’s Amiens 1918 offers interesting detail on that March’s Battle Of Arras (not an official name I think, maybe I should call it ‘the battle outside Arras’) which explains the big picture within which my father’s little story played out; the Allies pulled much of their strength back beyond German artillery range leaving the front line as what they called “an outpost zone”, planning the most substantial resistance to the infantry attack for a “battle zone” well to the rear. According to Wikipedia, this worked because Ludendorff continually exhausted his forces by attacking strongly entrenched British units” and consequently “At Arras on March 28, he launched a hastily-prepared attack (Operation Mars) against the left wing of the British Third Army, to try to widen the breach in the Allied lines, and was repulsed”. A detailed account of the day that concluded with my father’s survival (but behind enemy lines), and more generally, although my father and his fellow POWs didn’t know it, a great, very costly military success can be found at www.stanwickwarmemorial.co.uk/54.html — a site dedicated to tracking all the soldiers from a village called Stanwick, Northamptonshire (1911 population 922, of whom 152 enlisted in the armed forces 1914-18, many of them Essex Regiment members, and 36 were killed) it also generally reflects my father’s eyewitness-50-years-on memories; in part, reproduced with the kind permission of the site's webmaster Steve Bence aka Freddie Shawm, it reads: “On the 28th March 1918 the Essex Regiment were holding the left sector of the whole of the 4th Division front and indeed the extreme left of the Third Army where it joined the First Army boundary. The 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment, was the front Battalion of 12 Brigade… At 3am there was heavy enemy artillery fire (high explosive and gas) on the Front, Support and Reserve lines. At 6am the bombardment became more intense but communications were still valid. At 7.10am the communications ceased and wire was cut. At 7.20am the German assault began. There was a breakthrough on the right and the front Companies fought on until ammunition was exhausted. Battalion H.Q. withdrew along Chili Avenue to its junction with Harry and Hussar Trenches. It was here that a strong point was established in conjunction with the Lancashire Fusiliers. The enemy did not penetrate further and though the position was for some hours critical in the extreme, with troops falling back on the right and the left, the line held. In this section of the line the Germans mighty effort to capture Arras had been thwarted. They were only able to advance a distance of less than 2,000 yards. That same night the 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment moved back to Athies [two miles east of Arras]. There were 5 officers and 75 men as survivors from the 500 men who were alive in the morning of the 28th March 1918. Stanwick’s Pte J G Morris was killed on that day. A fortnight later these survivors were moved to the Ypres Salient to help stem the German advance in that sector.” Ian Hook, of the Essex Regiment Museum, notes the 2nd Battalion defended trenches dubbed Chili, Harry and Hussar, and that by the end of March 28, 342 were listed as ”missing”. He also forwarded the official Arras Day Special Order, a description of the 2nd Battalions role in the battle, which was read out to the Battalion every March 28 1919-39. I've reproduced it below, but you might need a magnifying glass to read it, so in summary it says: the Battalion formed part of the British Armys 4th Division, 13th Corps, 1st Army; the Battalion comprised 520 men when it entered the front line and that, on the night of March 30/31 when they were relieved, this had come down to 80 men, ”all ranks”; that when the German Army launched their massive infantry attack, ”almost shoulder to shoulder in 6 lines… the men in our front line who yet lived had no thought of surrender… Thus it was the great attack on Arras failed, and the XIII Corps gained a glorious victory. It was the sterling qualities of grit and endurance of the British soldier in the front line which achieved this success. Cut off from all support, away from higher control, Platoon and sections though isolated, carried out their instructions to the letter. They held out to the last man and the Enemy were only able to advance over their dead bodies… Arras was safe, and the price, ungrudgingly given by the Battalion was 440 brave men.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, I suspect my father would consider that “ungrudgingly” a rather oversimplificatory adverb. A timeline for the day and a list of officer casualties culled from the Battalion war diary is available at 1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=118324. See also www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sommeII.html. A post script on Ludendorff: later a nationalist supporter of Hitler, he supported the total-war theory that peace could never be more than an interlude; his long-term strategy, if Germany had won World War I, included overrunning Britain and then the United States.

All the best – FSS

Reproduced by kind permission of the Essex Regiment Museum's now retired curator, Ian Hook.

Next week: Still March 28 and Sam starts his eight months as a POW… helping a wounded British lad get to the German Red Cross, then being mugged by a Jerry battlefield gang of thieves, and struggling on until he runs into a bunch of new British POWs – and passes through a phalanx of artillery the likes of which he’s never seen before…

(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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