“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, 8 April 2018

Sam’s first night as a POW: a Ruritanian-uniformed, but cunning German officer interrogates him and his randomly gathered comrades – just a few details about the British trench system… the POWs dine on uncooked salt fish, then “bed down” in a freezing brickyard.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… With the Spring Offensive derailed by terrain, stubborn Allied defence and stretched German supply lines, General Ludendorff refused to back down and launched a follow-up with Operation Georgette which led to the Battle Of The Lys (April 7-29).
    Aiming to drive the British back to the Channel and cut off the Ypres salient, it became a freewheeling sequence of battles. Initially, in Flanders, the British had to fall back beyond Messines and Wyteschaete (April 10) and they withdrew a few kilometres from hard-won Passchendaele (12), but at the Battle Of Estaires British and Portuguese troops held the Germans (9-11; southwest of Armentières in France), the British and Australians did the same at the Battle Of Hazebrouck (12-15; northwest of Armentières).
    Meanwhile, the French had to yield ground at the Forest Of Coucy and Landricourt (April 8; 48 kilometres south of St Quentin), but they held the line between Hangard and Noyon (9; southeast of Amiens), and, with the Americans, at Apremont Forest (12; 47 kilometres south of Verdun).
    Elsewhere, action remained sporadic and inconclusive apart from the Turkish advance into the Transcaucasia region (in the absence of the Russian Army), taking Batum (April 13; in Georgia).

[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)… untilofficialdom 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 andprepare 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, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, continued his account of, I guess, the longest day of his life – he wrote so much about it I’ve run it over several weeks of the blog.
    On March 28, 1918, he and his 2/7th Essex Regiment comrades at Fampoux, outside Arras, fought to the last bullet, as ordered, against their bit of the German Spring Offensive. Officially, at the start of the day the Battalion comprised 520 men, at the end, 80. Of course, the 440 included dead, wounded and those, like my father, taken POW.
    At first, that new experience comprised wandering the battlefield in the general direction of the German artillery, helping a wounded Tommy to a Red Cross medic and getting robbed of his pay book and other minor valuables by a gang of German muggers (he knew of Brits doing similar – war…) until he found a bunch of randomly gathered fellow prisoners. Shortly, they were marched to a nearby town, Gavrelle, 11 kilometres northeast of Arras, and recaptured from the British by the German advance that very day – it’s still March 28!

‘A hundred or so British prisoners joined us there, then we straggled on along the country road in no particular formation. I found myself walking between two fairly hefty chaps and we chatted about our recent experiences. I remember telling them about my little store of canned baked beans and pork, lost beyond recall now… perhaps being eaten by appreciative Jerries(2).
     Although these men wore uniforms of rough, khaki cloth similar to mine, the cut struck me as unusual – larger side pockets, for instance. Looking at their epaulettes for some sign of their Regiment I saw officer’s pips, and, though now wondering how protocol worked under prisoner-of-war conditions, I asked about their rank. Without reticence or demanding officer standing, they talked freely, explaining that, at the battlefront – although not in my Battalion – it had become accepted practice for officers to conceal conspicuous indications of their status because the Germans knocked off those in command as quickly as possible to create confusion among the other ranks.
     We turned on to one of those absolutely straight, cobbled roads bordered by tall poplar trees which connected French country towns in those days. A signpost indicated it led to Douai. But, after a few kilometres, our guards led us into a brickworks surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence. Kilns, rows of unfired clay-coloured bricks, stacks of finished ones — a scene familiar to me in boyhood when a similar site had been a favourite playground and setting for the mock warfare I described earlier(3) cowboys versus Red Indians and so on…
     Not having eaten for a day or more, I felt weary and worn, and more so because of reaction to the nervous strain of the battle. So when a German officer suddenly joined a small group of us, it provided me with a kind of relief from personal suffering. His beautiful uniform looked Ruritanian when compared with the simple dress of a British officer. We, dirty and soiled from the battlefield, felt like scruffy old tramps beside this military Brummel.
     His personal cleanliness, healthy complexion, friendly blue eyes behind large spectacles, perfect English speech – and enthusiasm for a little war game he proposed to play – seemed ideal distractions to help us forget our discomforts. Some chaps may even have felt that a response to his wish to complete the few details at present missing from his sketch-map of the trench system we had recently vacated might gain them some advantage, such as much-needed grub. Anyway, if their wits were still sufficiently bright, they had only to give him inaccurate information. Even if he detected a falsehood, what the heck would it matter?
     I was amazed at the detail he had already, displayed on a large sheet of paper secured to a board. Built up from aerial photos and, in parts, skilful drawings, it even named some of our trenches. He just needed to identify some Regiments, he said, oddments of that sort, perhaps the number of men at some given point… I found myself in no difficulty because I just didn’t know any of these things(4).
     The only food they gave us that day was a piece of uncooked salt fish and that induced us to fill our bellies with lots of the water they did make available.
     Our sleeping quarters that night? We had two choices — to lie on grass completely exposed to the March weather, or to bed down on brick dust. If you could lie on one side with your back against a brick stack you were lucky. If you found space in the open centre of a pile of bricks you had four walls around you, but no roof overhead – yet, in the circumstances, you were very fortunate. No blankets, no overcoats and March nights are chilly.
     Thinking back to my relatively secure quarters in the British front line and, again, with regret, to the canned food I had stored in the niches of that dugout – and abandoned only hours earlier – I spent the first of many horribly uncomfortable nights as a prisoner of war. One slept, no doubt, but seemed, as day dawned, to remember every minute of the long night.’
(2) Sam’s food cache comprised tins he’d swapped for tots of rum – which he’d never liked – and stored among the rafters of the Company’s front-line dugout (his base as a Signaller). See Blog 190 February 2, 2018: “As I surveyed my little hoard, I felt secure against the probable non-delivery of rations which must soon occur as the bombardment intensified”.
(3) The brickfields in Edmonton, north London, served as adventure playgrounds, 1900s style, as described in the Memoir’s childhood section, Chapters 3-6 and 9. Douai is 16 kilometres east of Gavrelle.
(4) It may be that this officer, or a more lowly assistant, gathered the bare details of the men taken POW listed on the German document, sourced from the Red Cross, shown in the “pictures” section of The Survivore-book (which includes the Arras/Fampoux battle). I’ll copy the page below – sorry size makes it hard to read; magnifying glasses still have their uses! – my father is listed as number 75, the last named on this page. Of course, he’s listed as Charles, his first name, although everyone called him Sam. Another illustration of how war might produce a documentary fog is the coincidence that three places above him is a Samuel Sutcliffe of the 2nd King’s Fusiliers, aged 24, from Todmorden, also detained at Gavrelle on the night of March 28.

All the best– FSS

My father is listed as Charles Suttcliffe (sic), 2nd Essex, taken at (well, near) Gavrelle 28/3/1918, and "Nicht Verw." means "not wounded" (Nicht verwundet).

Next week: Sam’s first full day as a POW: on the move again to a derelict factory converted to a camp of sorts; looking around Sam sees how being a prisoner demoralises and dehumanises good men and starts to take steps to hold on to himself for as long as possible…

(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoirof his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog as usual......POW ....not nice I guess however much better than the alternative.You just had to "hang on" in the hope that the war would soon be vorbei !