“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, 15 July 2018

Sam and POW pals get a rude awakening from a bully with a bayonet. But their new hard labour – tending sick war horses – feels worthwhile and… it’s farming country so he can steal spuds from the animals’ feed!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The last substantial German offensive on the Western Front began: the Second Battle Of The Marne (July 15-August 5). Launched on a front running from Château-Thierry (58 kilometres/36 miles southwest of Reims) to La Main de Massiges (about 60 kilometres/37 miles east of Reims), its objective was to cross the Marne and pull Allied troops away from Flanders where Ludendorff intended an even bigger attack.
    While the German advance (July 15) made inroads west of Reims between Dormans and Fossoy, using all sorts of boats and a few skeleton bridges they erected, the French defended well to the east, good intelligence having allowed them to prepare for the intended surprise onslaught. Then British, American and Italian reinforcements arrived and a major counterattack (18) featuring 350 tanks pushed the Germans back on at least half of this front between Fontenoy and Belleau. Within two days (20), German troops had retreated across the Marne, with the Allies progressing in the Ardre valley and the Allies took Meteren (19; Nord department) and Bois de Courton (20; a forest south of Reims). The Italians’ losses on one day alone (19) – 9,334 casualties out of a 24,000-strong force – indicated the scale of the action.
    The only other seismic event of the week was the “mysterious” massacre of ex-Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Ekaterinburg (the night of July 16-17; Sverdlovsk province, east of the Urals) – “believed shot by Bolsheviks” seems to be the now accepted account. 
    Otherwise, a pre-war “celebrity” liner, the Carpathia, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat (July 17) shortly before she would have reached Boston. Five of her crew were lost. She had gained fame in 1912 for rescuing more than 700 Titanicpassengers from the sea. She was the fifth Cunard liner sunk in five weeks, leaving the company with only five ships afloat.

[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; 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 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 to become part of randomly-assembled, half-starved and often battered bands of POWs wandering around occupied France, then down into southern Germany – arrived late in the day at a camp outside “a pleasant country town” just east of the Rhine and close to the Black Forest.
    Although they were to reside in Army huts, he found that, as in previous POW accommodations, they had to kip down on wooden shelves, each sleeping ten men. However, always suffering degrees of dysentery, Sam appeciated undercover toilets instead of the usual stinking pole-over-trench al fresco facilities. His narrative resumes the following morning:

At daybreak, a Jerry guard shoved the hut door open, banged on the floorboards with his rifle butt, and prodded men with his bayonet, yelling, “Los! Raus! Aufmachen du Schlavina!(2) – or that’s how it sounded. An evil-looking swine, with a yellowish complexion, dark, beady eyes, he had a face that never had and never would smile. This part of his work was evidently his pleasure and his delight.
     I had known such wretched sorts in England, but they had not had power over me like this specimen did – backed by a loaded rifle. Give your dear old working man some authority over his fellows and usually he will relish the job of asserting it; the non-commissioned officer, the bobby on the beat, the factory foreman, the traffic warden, all at times lean more heavily on their victims than is, to say the least, appropriate. Give a born bossy type like that authority over prisoners captured on the battlefield and he may swell into a bullying tyrant…
     So we tumbled off those wooden sleep benches, hoping to avoid a jab from his bayonet. I was lucky.
     After the black bread and coffee substitute, we were divided into working parties. I found myself in the largest group and guarded by two Soldaten and one Gefreiter(3). A couple or so kilometres brought us near to that small town we had passed through the previous day and into a big field with several long, wooden sheds. The guards split us up three or four per shed.
     I was glad to find myself in a stable housing some 40 horses of various sizes and colours on either side of a gangway. By each horse’s stall hung a board giving the animal’s identification number, colour, and, in large letters, its disease or injury. One word frequently occurred: Rhaude(4).
     A man with rolled-up shirtsleeves – the groom I suppose – instructed me; he took a handful of straw, dipped it into a bucket of paraffin oil, then rubbed the horse’s coat vigorously. When I took my turn, as I rubbed the oil in, I saw why treatment was needed; among the tough horsehair was a thick layer of what we had always known as scurf – dried, flaked-off skin. Hopefully, the oil would soften the unhealthy stuff and the harsh straw disperse it. That did not happen at first go; I passed on to the next stall and treated another horse, which my teacher then inspected. This one wasn’t so bad and the groom handed me a currycomb – something I had seen in childhood when visiting the stable at the end of our road… I remembered the whistling noise the groom in Edmonton made as his right arm arced long sweeps through the animal’s coat. And, as I went at it, I blew through my teeth with each swipe.
     This German groom then gave me a brush and showed me I should hold it in my right hand, while still using the comb with my left. So, a sweep along and down with the comb, then a follow-up with the brush.
     And each day thereafter, that was my main chore. Physical weakness spoilt my performance, no doubt, but I gave the job all I’d got, knowing it was worthwhile. Passing from horse to horse, I found each one different in temperament. I learned to avoid standing behind them, just in case – especially the restless horse I treated most days which had a hole in the centre of its forehead, a wound from bullet or shell fragment. Sometimes it lashed out, but I made sure I stayed alongside and, fortunately, it didn’t bite me. I thought it would have been put down in England, but there must have been hopes for its recovery.
     At feeding time, we led horses out, one at a time, to the water trough until all had been served. Then, back in their stalls, we tipped a bucketful of mixed hay, chaff and potatoes into their wooden mangers. Most of the horses were suffering from poor diet and neglect sustained when working around the battle area, but I must confess that out of each bucket I filched a few spuds and pushed them into that sack wrapped around my waist under my tunic – for prisoners, working in a farming area had its benefits.’
(2) Los! Raus! Aufmachen du Schlavina!”: would translate as something like “Come on! Out!” From checking dictionaries I thought “Schlavina” might be my father’s misremembering of “Sklaven” or possibly the feminine “Sklavinnen” as an extra (uncomprehended) insult – so “Get up, you slaves!” But e-book reader Stephanie M. McDuff, a teacher who lives and works in the Black Forest, wrote to me with a convincing account of the real explanation; she reckons the guard used a local word, “Schlawiener”, meaning “rascal” or, sometimes, “trickster”. So it wasn’t quite the insult my father intuited from the tone of voice.
(3) Soldaten: soldiers. Gefreiter: the equivalent of a Private First Class.
(4) Rhaude: probably my father misremembering the word, but maybe a local spelling for “Räude”, meaning mange.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam picking up more German, but he’s observant enough to note the hazards and conflicts of becoming a translator to the POWs – then he’s offered the job himself! On a different linguistic note, a German guard asks him what is this “fick” word the English soldiers are always saying?

(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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