“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, 29 July 2018

Sam and half-starved POW pals get the worst and best of their German guards – set up for a kicking from the sick war horses they’re tending… but then offered the blessing of windfall greengages

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The final bloody phases of World War 1’s key turnaround campaign , the Second Battle Of The Marne (July 15-August 1/4/5/6 by different counts) played out with combined Allied forces reversing what began with a German attack and ended in near-rout.
    They assailed the German lines north of Oulchy-le-Château (July 29; Aisne department, 13 miles south of Soissons) with the French taking Grand Rozoy, the French and the British Buzancy, while further north the Australians occupied Merris (Nord department). Although the German Army mounted a strong counterattack the next day, it failed and the Americans occupied Seringes-et-Nesles, northeast of Fere-en-Tardennois (July 31), with the whole Allied line then advancing five miles and the great battle’s major shifts concluding when Soissons fell to the French (August 2; occupied by a German advance on May 29). The Germans fell back across the rivers Vesle and Ancre as the action subsided (August 3).
    In Russia – the “Eastern Front” having become a different kind of chaos altogether – German invasion, revolution, counter-revolution and multi-faceted Allied invasions continued their Jackson Pollock military-political spatterings on a vast canvas. Down in Ukraine, the governor under the German military dictatorship declared on April 29, Field Marshall Von Eichhorn was assassinated by Socialist Revolutionaries – as distinct from Bolsheviks (July 30). On successive days, an Allied Expeditionary Force overcame the defences of Russian White Sea port Archangel, a thousand miles north of Moscow, and a pro-Allied revolution in the city ousted the Bolsheviks and welcomed them in (August 1-2).  Meanwhile, 5,600 miles west of Moscow, British troops landed at Vladivostok (3; lately occupied by Allied allies the Czechoslovak Legions). Further, British troops reached Baku on the Caspian (4) where they became involved in one of the most complicated corners of the whole war, drawing in forces from Bolshevik and Menshevik Russia versus the Muslim Azerbaijan Democratic republic, established May 28, supported by the Ottoman Empire. Confused? They may have been. More later on that one…

[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)… until officialdom 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. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). He passed many weeks in various 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 offered him the chance to train for a commission, but Sam detested ordering men around so he refused; he may have requested his subsequent “reversion” to Private, or perhaps it was a “punishment”, I don’t know. Come November/December, 1917, during his final home leave, he assured his parents that he would survive (irrationally, he knew). In December, probably, 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 ran into 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 “fit” 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. Then, for three or four months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups, until a train took his latest band down to a rural area between the Rhine and the Black Forest near a village called Hügelheim where they settled into a less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, mainly working on sick and wounded German war horses.]

Last week my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, encountered a distraction from the POW’s obsession with sneaking any edible morsel available anywhere – a personal/ethical problem about whether he should parlay his smattering of picked-up German into an offered and potentially privileged position as a camp translator (Dolmetscher). Having seen other occupants of these posts take on their more aggressive guards’ characteristics, Animal Farm-style, he decided against.
    Now he moves on to further experiences of guard brutality… and also surprising kindness:

On the camp’s Sunday “day off”, a few prisoners went out to the stables just to feed and water the horses, but nobody did any grooming, as the Germans observed the Sabbath. We could stroll around inside the barbed wire or, when the sun shone, we would lie on the ground in a space between the huts and feel free to chat, stretch luxuriously, and perhaps reminisce about life before we became captives.
     Warm days – July, August, by then, I’m not sure – tempted the Kapitän to have a number of horses, who were nearing recovery from their ailments, released from the stables into a nearby field. The beasties went berserk. They raced about and frolicked and kicked each other, a joy to behold.
     One of those horses needed its regular treatment during that afternoon and a small, but tough, British lad was told to take a rope and lead it out of the field. But, as he approached, some frisky beasts circled around him and turned their hindquarters towards him. Kicks rained on the poor boy. Grabbing pitchforks or anything handy, some of us tried to break up the ring, but it took some moments and, by the time we rescued him, his injuries were many and awful.
     We blamed German callousness for sending in one lad when the horses were so excited – and it was said that some of the guards stood laughing during the incident.
     On other occasions, to a lesser degree, I found myself on the receiving end from both animals and guards. They ordered me to lead a big stallion through a small gap between a stable wall and a line of young fillies tethered with their hindquarters towards me. I just had to keep going while each filly in turn lashed out at the stallion as we passed. That huge brute took fewer kicks than I did. And I definitely heard laughter behind me and assumed it was a put-up job.
     Shortly after that incident, a guard took me to a stable in which I had not worked before and told me to groom an animal somewhat larger than a donkey, but smaller than the average pony. Several Germans stood around. As I went into its stall the thing commenced kicking. “Arbeit! Fest Arbeit!”(2) yelled the watching Germans, laughing as I tried to keep close to the mad creature to lessen the effect of its kicks. Occasionally, I made contact with the currycomb, sometimes achieved a stroke with the brush, but I directed most of my efforts towards avoidance of being kicked to death.

One morning, as we shuffled out of the compound and started to form into our usual work groups, a chap shorter even than my 5ft 8½ inches, gripped one of my cuffs and whispered “Come with my little lot today”. So I stood with him and about four others and, when the boss shouted “Vorwärts!”, our small party turned in the opposite direction to the usual one. Accompanied by just one Posten(3), we set off on a longish, uphill walk.
     Sheer cheek appeared to have paid off, for no complaint about my presence came from the Posten. In fact, as we marched along the lovely country roads the rather obese German, a country lad if ever I saw one, said the odd word to me. I learned he had worked in London for some months in a hotel.
     Among the hedgerows some big fruit trees grew, and I saw one young farmhand at the top of a ladder filling a basket with those fine big plums sold in England back then as Christmas gifts in pretty boxes(4). Perhaps realising how our mouths watered, our tubby Posten told us we could help ourselves to any windfalls lying in our path and some sweet greengages helped to assuage hunger pangs on such days as I was able to get a place at the front of the group…’
(2) Arbeit! Fest Arbeit!”: “Work! Work hard!”
(3) Posten: seems to mean something like “a person in a job”; it doesn’t translate specifically as “guard”, but, clearly, my father heard it used as a generic for the men guarding him.
(4) Fruit had become a common Christmas present through the Victorian era in all social classes – the amount, type, and presentation varying according to means, of course.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam judges a new taskmaster called Kayser “fair, if surly” – despite a kick in the crutch that made “my groin hurt for days”! Fighting starvation remains the POWs’ obsession: scrumping, picking raw liver out of pigs’ swill – but also a small bid for self-respect via some unofficial barbering with horse shears…

(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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