“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, 20 May 2018

Starving POW Sam suffers torture – from his hutmate Jimmy’s obsessive reminiscing about a Yorkshire pie-shop’s luscious wares… but dysentery sees Sam sent to a field hospital where wounded German soldiers share their food with him…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The war took diverse turns in its different territories, the most significant, probably, being in Armenia – although it may not have made much of a splash at the time.
    On the Western Front both sides remained in deadly-skirmish mode, pending enactment of more aggressive endeavours (very soon). Mostly the Allies chalked up minor successes: the French around Locre, West Flanders, and Bermericourt, Marne department (May 20), the British northwest of Merville, Nord department (20-1), on the Lys front and outside Arras (21). The German Army made no progress, but did heavily shell Villers-Bretonneux, Somme department (25). Meanwhile, the British, continuing their new emphasis on air raids, bombed Mannheim, southwestern Germany (21-2), railways at Liège, in occupied Belgium, and Metz, Moselle department, and the harbour at Zeebrugge, sinking a German destroyer (22) – and German attempts to bomb Paris came up short (21-2).
    With civilian unrest against the German occupation in Kiev (May 21), the former Eastern Front kept on developing complications the German invaders may not have foreseen. The rebel General Semenov started organising anti-Bolshevik forces in Siberia (24), and the British General Poole arrived in Murmansk, on the Barent Sea in northwest Russia, to rally forces in support of Trotsky in hopes he would lead Russia into a resumption of the fight against Germany whereas Lenin wouldn’t (24). Furthermore, to the south Georgia and Azerbaijan both declared independence from Russia (26, both) while falling under immediate threat from Ottoman forces invading neighbouring Armenia.
    Of course, the Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire had suffered appalling genocides by the Turks  from April, 1915, with perhaps 800,000 killed by forced labour and “death marches” into the Syrian desert. But their own “country” had been subsumed by Russia in the early 19th century (the spoils of war against Persia). Now within little more than a week, they raised forces to defend themselves against an Ottoman attack – objectives: to take Armenia and thence Baku, Azerbaijan, for the oil – and held their end up in the Battles Of Sadarabad, Bash Abaran and Karakilisa (May 21-9), declaring a republic in the middle of this war (26).

[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 (his 19th birthday passed in a Sheffield 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, 1917, 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, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and knocked 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 and a last stand by the Battalion on March 28 which left 80 alive and OK out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW.]

Last week, my father, Sam Sutcliffe, taken prisoner outside Arras on March 28 at the tail-end of the German Spring Offensive, continued his wanderings with assorted bands of POWs, cut off from any comrade he’d known before.
    On their latest trek, they’d seen murderous brutality towards a civilian Frenchwoman from one guard, then courageous kindness from townspeople in occupied Cambrai (probably), before settling at their first purpose-built POW camp in nearby Sancourt (about 50 kilometres southeast of Arras). But they slept on the floor, the grind of malnutrition now augmented by a new element of their POW life – hard labour:

‘My pitch on the hut floor placed me at the mercy of a lad from Bradford, a mild, inoffensive chap, but one who droned on at all times about the pie-shop at the corner of the street where he lived. Jimmy Britten tortured and tantalised himself – and me – in his broad Yorkshire drawl with graphic descriptions of the aromas and tastes of hot pies filled with delicious chunks of meat floating in thick mouth-watering gravy… My empty, aching guts, activated by mental pictures of all this luscious grub, writhed in emptiness and agony.
     Meanwhile, in the continued absence of meat pies, I cadged more potato peelings off a German guard, washed them and, on returning from work unloading coal barges on a river, stewed them over a little fire; I did the same with nettles I pulled from a roadside patch – they had an almost beefy flavour, but an unwelcome laxative effect on an already overworked bowel.
     One health- and soul-destroying job which some unfortunates, me included, had to do, was shovelling lime out of railway vans. First, the big doors needed prising open, then out tumbled the lime, perhaps on to wet ground with the consequent heat and fumes arising. The large, German shovels had long shafts without the handles at the end we were used to, which made applying leverage more difficult.
     After loading whatever lime had fallen on the ground into a horse-drawn box-cart, one unlucky man would have to secure a foothold just inside the door of the van and start shovelling the stuff straight on to the cart. Eyes and chest suffered. When he’d cleared a space, number two man would join him, toiling under the snarls and urgings of an impatient guard. And so on all down a long line of wagons.
     Hungry, weak, and now afflicted by the lime-filled air in the enclosed wagon, it felt like day-long torture.

One morning, when I tried to stand in line while the Jerries counted the lime-shovelling group, blood and slime were oozing from me uncontrollably(2). I called a guard’s attention to this and I was shoved into a horse-drawn wagon and taken about a mile down the road to a German Army field hospital. Large tents housed wounded and sick soldiers, who mostly lay on straw-filled mattresses in wooden bunks. I was allotted one of them and a burly man came and looked at me, departed, then soon returned with an immaculately dressed officer who briefly examined me, gave some instructions and left.
     The German lads evinced no surprise at my presence. Soon the male nurse (a flattering description of his skills) served them with what appeared to be macaroni; he ladled it into their mess tins. Still in their field grey uniforms, most of them ate little and indicated that I could help myself to their unwanted food. I over-ate, scarcely able to believe in my good fortune.
     When night came, having cleaned my rear with hay from a mattress, I crawled out to a covered latrine; over a trench stood one long seat with many round holes in it. All that night and for several more thereafter, I lay with my rear over one of these holes, enduring the stench and discomfort rather than continually rising from my bed. Meanwhile, each day, I shared the sick men’s food and coffee. Rapidly, I grew stronger, until I felt able to remain in the tent overnight, perhaps only having to go out three or four times.
     Now I could do little jobs to help those Germans who were confined to their bunks; perhaps push a man to the far side of his mattress, punch and work up the hay filling nearest to me, then go round the other side and repeat the process, finally making him a shade more comfortable than he had been.
     These bed-bound men had leg injuries; those with arm wounds could fend for themselves. The standard of care for these wounded Germans was very poor. Most of them had body lice. I had no contact with men in the other tents, but I assumed that cases with trunk injuries were sent further back to proper hospitals.’
(2) Dysentery, almost certainly. It can be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasitic worms. I’ve read that up to the 19th century it killed more soldiers than any weapon – then it was known as the “bloody flux”. But research headed and published by Professor Francis Cox of Gresham College, London, in 2014 suggests that WW1 was “the first major conflict in which battlefield deaths exceeded those caused by diseases”. In part, I gather, that was probably because of improved battlefield sanitation, as observed by my father in his Memoirwhen he compared the terrible conditions in Gallipoli (1915) to the Somme (1916) and around Arras (1918), but also because of increased battlefield death rates caused by “improved” weaponry (especially artillery) and the lethal strategies of trench warfare. Now dysentery is treated by rehydration and/or antibiotics, but still it kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world every year. As far as I can tell, rehydration did not become the accepted basic treatment until some time after WW1, but I can’t find any definitive reference. If you can add any information, please do!

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam, recovering somewhat, encounters a real spiv – or worse – at the German field hospital and fakes up a dirty deal with him (which he has no intention of honouring) so that he can take some extra food back to the POW camp…

(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.

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