“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, 26 August 2018

Sam, five months a starving and battered POW, encounters more startling acts of kindness – a guard even buys him a Gasthaus lunch – along with a couple of bitterweet reminders of home. (August, 1918)

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Allies ultimately war-concluding push proceeded on an ever-widening stretch of the Western Front under the overall banners of the Amiens Offensive and the Second Battles Of The Somme.
    The French won the Second Battle Of Noyon (August 17-29) when they took the town, then went on to capture Leury, Juvigny and Coucy (September 1; Coucy about 18 miles east of Noyon). The Second Battle Of Bapaume (August 21-September 3) approached its quietus too when, after two attempts came up short, New Zealand troops, supported by the British, occupied their objective after German forces retreated overnight (August 30) – the Kiwis pressed on to take Frémicourt as the Germans established a temporary stronghold overlooking Haplincourt (four miles east of Bapaume).
    In the Second Battles Of Arras (August 26-September 3), the British widened the attack around Noyon by seven miles, but within that action it was the Canadians who led the way in the Battle Of The Scarpe river (August 26-30), immediately capturing Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt (six miles southeast of Arras) and advancing to Fresnes Rouvroy (30; 5,800 Canadian casualties).
    Australian troops began one of their greatest campaigns by crossing the Somme at night (August 31) to break German lines at Mont St-Quentin and followed up the next day by ousting the German Army from Péronne (which, like many of the French towns now being recovered, had been occupied since the Spring Offensive – March 24 in the case of Péronne; 3,000 Australian casualties in three days).
    Other deadly actions continued elsewhere, though looking relatively trivial in the perspective of Western Front developments. Around Russia, the ever confusing picture saw Ottoman forces attack the Bolsheviks and Armenians in Baku, Azerbaijan (August 26; 200 British casualties arising too – I haven’t seen an explanation for their presence!), while British troops occupied Krasnodovsk (27; across the Caspian, now in Turkmenistan) and defeated Bolshvik forces 75 miles south of Archangel (31; on the White Sea about 740 miles north of Moscow), and Bolshvik soldiers raided the British Embassy in Petrograd (29).
    Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian Army won their last victory of the war when they retook Berat, Albania, from French and Italian troops (August 26), and down in Portuguese East Africa the German guerilla force so durably on the run from the British survived another cornering at the Battle Of Lioma (30-31), slipping away despite 200 casualties to remain on the loose until the end of the war.

[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, in a Sheffield hospital). 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 slightly less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, mainly working on sick and wounded German war horses.]

My father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now five months a slowly starving POW, is apparently settled for a while in southern Germany – he and his comrades entirely unaware of promising developments on the Western front, of course. Although the weather and sanitation are better than in the POW camps of occupied France where his ever-changing itinerant band had previously been detained, his preoccupations remain seeking food and avoiding brutal treatment by the guards.
    The last two weeks have gone well, mostly, yielding a shower, clean though flimsy POW uniforms, the surprise provision of some Gutschein voucher “money”, and at least part of an apple pie. Now he encounters further kindnesses… and a couple of odd English connections:

A well-dressed, young Unteroffizier(2), apparently on leave from his unit, came over to the stables from his house across the road and chatted with the several German workers at our prison camp who wore the ordinary grey uniforms – the while, he slapped his fine, leather riding boots with a short horsewhip.
     I saw him again later as I was being escorted – on my own for some reason – along a road through the village. This immaculate, non-commissioned officer, pale of face and rather scholarly looking, proved more kindly than his aloof manner had led me to suppose. He spoke to my tubby guard, then turned to me and told me in fair English, pointing to a cottage, that an English lady lived there.
     When he walked off, I looked hopefully at my keeper. Had he understood what the Unteroffizier had said, and would he permit me to approach the cottage? Cut off for so long from contact with civilians, I imagined this would have been a lovely experience, merely to hear the voice of an English lady… I had no thought of involving her in anything so hopeless as an attempt to escape, just a few words, perhaps about her life in Baden before the war…
     No luck, although the lad didn’t hurry me off to work, and showed friendly interest when, above a small shop, I spotted an enamel advertisement which read “Thompson’s Seifenpulver(3). This must surely refer to a soap powder of English manufacture, famous enough to be sold in even remote parts of Germany. Just this slight proof that some things British had once been acceptable in this now hostile country somehow provided a little reassurance. But I would dearly have prized a few words with that fellow countrywoman.
     I was to spend several more hours with that ruddy, dumpy, humane chap. No soldier he, no Kaiser Wilhelm moustache with long up-pointing ends for my little Posten(4). I saw him blush more than once and wondered if bigger comrades took the mickey because he was shorter than most.
     One morning, arriving at Hügelheim after our walk from the prison camp, he called me from the ranks and led me to a line of ponies tethered to a rail. He detached six of them and gave me their reins, indicating I should hold three in each hand. I’d handled four horses at a time, but six seemed a bit much. He took six himself, though, said “Komm(5), and we left the gang and set off along a lovely country road – he gave me no idea where to or why. My arms threaded through the reins, my ponies following his, we moved along at a pace I could never have maintained had not the animals almost carried me.
     Looking ahead at possible hazards, I hoped that if anything scared them and they bolted, I would be able to raise my arms and allow the reins to slip off. Past farms and vineyards we proceeded. I felt the weakness of near-starvation dragging at me, but determined that my well-fed companion should see no sign of my plight for I hoped he would choose me for other such outings. To be away from the eyes and curses of the more hate-laden Soldaten(6), to feel that I was worthy of being given responsibility, if only for a few animals…
     All went well. At a village en route, my boss tied up our horses in the yard of the Gasthaus(7) and, to my amazement and delight, took me into the inn and sat me at a well-scrubbed deal table. A couple of minutes later, he called me over to the counter to collect a basin of stew and a hunk of rye bread. I wanted to let him know how I really appreciated this kind treatment and the fact that he paid for the food out of his own pocket but, from my limited vocabulary, I could only manage a “Danke schön”. I believed I knew the meaning of many words, but I felt reluctant to use them, concerned about the risk of offending one whom I wished to please.
     Despite this kindness, the Posten remained correct in his treatment of me, and this I understood, for undue chumminess might have brought rebuke from the several soldiers in the dining room.
     But what particularly added to the pleasure of that day was the fact that nobody commented on my appearance or jeered at me, so obviously an enemy prisoner. They were country folk, compassionate perhaps, or maybe they simply accepted the judgment of the man in charge of me.
     Yet when some of our chaps broke out of the Lager one night and made for nearby Switzerland, landworkers spotted them and men and women armed with pitchforks chased and eventually surrounded them. When some struggled to break away the landworkers beat them. They handed the escapees over to the military. On return to our Gefangenenlager(8), they were punished by solitary confinement and a diet of bread once a day and nothing to drink but cold water.
(2) Unteroffizier: can mean either “Corporal”, or serve as a generic for non-commissioned officers.
(3) Thompson’s Seifenpulver: “soap powder”; the company, founded by Dr Richard Thompson in Bradford, had long since moved to Düsseldorf.
(4) Posten: guards – though the literal translation is something like “functionary”. This chubby, friendly Posten features often during Sam’s Hügelheim sojourn (since Blog July 15), although he’s never named.
(5) “Komm”: “Come”.
(6) Soldaten: soldier.
(7) Gasthaus: inn or guest house.
(8) Gefangenenlager: prison camp.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam and starving POW pals find blessed relief through working in a vineyard… where the fair-minded boss seems to be American, the main customer for the product of their (forced) labour is British and… oh joy, the boss feeds them as he did his “own men”! 

(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of 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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