“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 July 2018

Kindly guard “Heligoland” conducts Sam and his POW comrades on a long journey south to the Black Forest… and a new, rural POW camp with better bogs – and perhaps the possibility of snaring a rabbit…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Looking back, we know the final confrontation was being marshalled, but in early July, 1918, did they know that? From the outside, the events of this seven days seem like the movement of pawns on a chess board, any endgame strategies hardly to be guessed at.
    The striking developments all occurred east of what had been the Eastern Front, as the Russian Revolution and Germany’s invasive war entwined and threw up strange, albeit temporary outcomes. In southwest Russia, the Bolsheviks extended their reach, taking control of Sirzan and Bulgulma in Tatarstan (July 8). Yet, 330 kilometres northwest, still in Tatarstan, the marauding White-Russian-supporting Czechoslovak Legion, whose “revolt” is dated May-August, captured the Volga city of Kazan from the Bolsheviks. This was another stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway which had enabled them to run a line of substantial outposts all the way to Vladivostok – where their General Horvath now declared a provisional government and Allied protectorate (10). They also occupied Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal, Siberia (8 or 13 say different sources); to put the Legion’s reach in geographic perspective, Irkutsk is 3,880 kilometres west of Vladivostok and 4,375 east of Kazan (they had numbered 100,000 at one point, but this improbable revolt must have spread them pretty thin).
    On the Western Front, the French made modest gains northwest of Longpont, Aisne department (July 8), and Courcy, Calvados (10), and the Australian Flying Corps bombed Merris, in occupied Nord department (11).
    Otherwise, in southern Albania Italian troops took Berat from the Austrians while the French advanced on both banks of the Devoli river (July 10 and 12), and in Palestine the Battle Of El Tellul (July 14; 11 kilometres north of Jericho) saw combined British, Indian and Australian forces beat back what turned out to be the final German/Ottoman attack of the war in that region (casualties: German 1,000, Allies 189).

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… untilofficialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, 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 (many Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017).An interesting year ensued – weeks of it passed in various northern hospitals because of a meningitis scare, German Measles, and recovery from the effects of trench warfare’s privations (he spent his 19th birthday, July 6, 1917, at Wharncliffe War Hospital, Sheffield). During that summer, 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; either this defiance brought about his subsequent “reversion” to Private, or he actually requested it, I don’t know. Come November/December, 1917, during his final home leave, he 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 dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras – including excursions to the front. In mid-March he found his own Essex Battalion; they moved into the trenches near Fampoux, about six miles east of Arras… just in time 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, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe – taken prisoner outside Arras and then part of randomly-assembled half-starved and often battered bands of POWs wandering occupied France east of the Front – found himself on a long train journey south, as ever with no idea where he was going (the Tommy’s usual condition whether with the British Army or a POW).
    En route, an old, kindly guard nicknamed “Heligoland”, a former front-line soldier himself, befriended him in one of Sam’s usual broken English/broken German exchanges. But then came a display of some of the British POWs’ demoralisation by hunger that disgusted Sam – a terrible fight for unusually generous rations provided by the Germans on a station platform.
    But now their change of scene is starting to look promising as they travel deeper into the countryside of southwest Germany:

That journey, which could have been so pleasant, so different from the pauperish existence of prisoners behind bars or barbed wire, ended for me and about a dozen others when we stopped at a station – I forget where – and Heligoland told us to follow him off the train.
     Outside the station, we climbed into two low-slung wagons, each drawn by a pair of horses. Time slipped away as we trotted off along a beautiful country road; memory hauled me back to 1916, the end of that year, when I had been sent to the huge base at Harfleur(2) – leaving a Battalion much reduced in numbers and in spirit by Somme battles, but slowly being reinforced in preparation for further General Haig attempts to win the war by nibbling away (the tactics which cost so many lives to achieve so little).
     I digress – that wagon set me reminiscing simply because it had no springs and a similar one at Harfleur had shaken my innards then as this one did, making frequent micturation necessary. Which further recalls Egypt in 1915 where one of our wits nicknamed a bloke who had to pee frequently Mustapha Piss…
     When good old Heligoland gestured at the ascending forest rising to great heights on either side of the road and shouted “Schwarzwald!” I knew what the first part of the word meant, “black”, so I guessed we were in the Black Forest(3). The sun shining, the air sweet — all I then required to make life heavenly was a good meal and a return to normal strength. With neither forthcoming, the lovely surroundings nonetheless raised my hopes of better times to come.
     A certain vagueness about where we went thereafter bothers me(4), but I know we eventually left the wagons, started walking and, feeling flaked out, were allowed to rest awhile by the roadside, and observe what must have been at that time a proud monument to German success in the 19th Century — a huge, grey, stone arch above the spotlessly maintained highway along which we had marched. The massive figures in the centre of the edifice hit one right in the eyeballs: “1870”. A blow to French pride and a sort of threat that history might repeat itself in 1918 if the Americans didn’t add the necessary punch to the Allied counter-offensive.
     Grass-lined, graced by grand, towering trees on both sides, this highway at that point with that arch marked the entrance to territory known to us as Alsace-Lorraine(5), but which I later gathered the Germans regarded as two separate provinces, Elsass and Lothringen.
     A short walk from there brought us to a large, ancient fort and barracks, where we spent some time and were given a drink of the familiar ersatz coffee, memorable because sweetened, albeit with sugar substitute. Our guards permitted us to rest in the cool shelter of a paved area, fronted by arches and looking out into a large, sanded parade ground… where, unexpectedly, an American soldier appeared. Immaculately dressed, he walked up and down, presumably for exercise, without any visible supervision. He took no notice of us.
     What had secured this preferential treatment for him? Mystery indeed! If this American had been captured during a front-line battle, how come his uniform remained spotless? I had plenty of time to speculate about this point as I sprawled in the shade. Back and forth he strolled, looking neither to left nor right, so perhaps he had the same worries about survival prospects as some of us.

A further rail journey of several hours gave me a view of much attractive countryside with prosperous farms and villages and occasionally a town such as Freiburg(6) certainly a place of some architectural worth; even from the train I reckoned it the sort of town I would like to explore in time of peace.
     I always felt that inward ache when I looked at a beautiful town or village which had so far avoided damage by the opposing armies, and so carried on some sort of fairly steady existence which might, with luck, continue until a treaty relieved its people of the fears caused by war.
     A town of considerable size called, at that time, Mühlhausen(7) loomed up, but we stayed on the train. Ahead we saw a wide river and soon we crossed it by way of a bridge, which seemed endless. This, I guessed, must be the Rhine, though its width surprised me, considering how far south we had travelled.
     Soon after that, we detrained and our guards conducted us through a very pleasant country town and a little way beyond it until they marched about 40 of us into a barbed-wire enclosure containing several Army huts. This turned out to be our base for two or three months. A wooden shelf sleeping ten men, with a similar shelf below it, comprised the war-prisoner accommodation we had come to expect.
     As first priority, I had to seek out the latrine because the after-effects of dysentery made several night visits to that usually stinking place unavoidable. But in this small Gefangenenlager(8), instead of the standard pole-over-trench open-air outfit, we had an enclosed bog. This superior sanitary convenience gave me a sense of things looking up, that perhaps, in this lovely area, life might become more easily bearable — might there be even some hope of supplementing our meagre vegetable diet by catching a bird or a rabbit?’
(2) This was after he was revealed to be still underage for battlefield service.
(3) The Black Forest: wooded mountains, 159 kilometres (99 miles) long, 59 kilometres (37 miles) wide, in Baden-Württemberg state, southwestern Germany, source of the Danube.
(4) Oddly, the “vagueness” my father refers to in this paragraph seems to embrace lacking any recollection of his group of prisoners parting company with Heligoland, “the kindliest German” as Sam called him in last week’s blog.
(5) Alsace-Lorraine: annexed by the German Empire in 1871 as one of the spoils of the Franco-Prussian War; in July, 1915, the German Government banned the French language from the region; the Allies annexed Alsace back to France in December, 1918, and, in the early ’20s, deported the Germans remaining there and banned their language; Hitler re-annexed Alsace in 1940-45, then lost it again.
(6) Freiburg: in the Breisgau region of Baden-Württemberg on the western edge of the Black Forest, 611 kilometres (380 miles) southeast of Arras.
(7) Mühlhausen or Mulhouse: in Alsace, 637 kilometres (396 miles) south-east of Arras; formerly known as “the French Manchester” because of its textile industry; part of the Holy Roman Empire until it joined the Swiss Confederation, 1515-1798, then transferred to France during the Revolution, until annexed by the German Empire 1870-1918, after which it returned to France until 1940-45; hometown of Alfred Dreyfus and also of Dr Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and chief administrator of the “action T4” programme which exterminated 275,000 German and Austrian citizens deemed incurably ill.
(8) Prison camp.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam and POW pals get a rude awakening from a bully with a bayonet. But their new work – tending war horses sick from the battlefield – feels worthwhile and it’s farming country so there’s always food to be scrounged, scavenged… or stolen from horses!

(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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