“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, 19 August 2018
Sam spends his first POW Gutschein vouchers on soap and fags then, stirred by daydreams of some sweet kind girls he encounters, sneaks off to see what he might buy at the local Gasthaus…
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A hundred years ago this week… The Western Front’s long and conclusive eruption continued. The Amiens Offensive phase (August 8-September 3) produced serial Allied successes on a scale unprecedented. In the Battle Of Noyon (August 17-29), the French captured Le Hamel and Morsain (19; north of the Oise) and reached Quierzy (22; south of the river). On the Lys front, British forces took Merville (19; Nord department, close to the Belgian border).
But the major strategic action developed in what was later tagged the Second Battles (sic) Of The Somme 1918. Initially, this comprised the Third Battle Of Albert (August 21-3) – British and New Zealand troops recaptured a town lost to the German Army in 1914, taken by Australians in 1917, recovered by Germany in the 1918 Spring Offensive and finally…
That victory moved on into the Second Battle Of Bapaume (August 21-September 3; 12 miles northeast of Albert): a British attack on a 10-mile front north of the river Ancre between Beaucourt-sur-Ancre and Moyenneville began their advance to the Bray-Albert road (22), taking Bray and Miraumont (24), while the New Zealanders occupied Loupart Wood and Grévillers (24) and then started a combined attack on Bapaume with the British (25).
Post-revolutionary Russia’s turmoils showed no signs of disentangling, even though it seemed the German Army had eased off any kind of post-victory aggression. Bolshevik forces advanced a little on the Ussuri front (August 19; Khabarovsk, 470 miles north of Vladivostok), but lost ground to the Allies a few days later (24). Again on the Pacific side, the Japanese Army made a rare contribution to the Allied effort, playing a part in winning the Battle Of Dukhovskaya (23-4; eastern Siberia). Meanwhile, the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which had done all the heavy lifting to give the Allies an inroad to Bolshevik power took Kazan (25; on the River Volga, 500 miles west of Moscow on the Legion-controlled Trans-Siberian Railway).
Good news for the Central Powers? Austria had some success with a counterattack on the French and Italians, retaking Fieri and Berat (August 22).
[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. 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, five months a POW now and his starving pals, apparently settled for a while in southern Germany, are just concluding an uplifting train trip to Mühlhausen/Mulhouse (in Alsace, 18 miles east of Hügelheim and their prison camp) – for a shower and delousing it turned out.
A blessing for Sam who hadn’t been clean in months… they got new clothes too, albeit orange-striped prisoner uniform and some vouchers they could spend like money. Less welcome for Sam was the loss of his boots to a sneak thief, German or British he didn’t know, and their replacement with a pair of wooden clogs. Still, the change was good – and more to follow:
‘After all that, though, some of us still had to wait for others to have the cleansing treatment so we spent our Gutschein(2) cards at a small stand in a corner of the large hall. I secured a tablet of Seife(3) as I believe it was labelled, and a packet of cigarettes. These comprised cardboard tubes with a short cigarette attached – a long holder and a short smoke, in fact. I cadged a light from the man in charge of the counter. After all those months of enforced abstinence, the first puff made me dizzy. I just smoked the one and hoped to exchange the rest for some sort of food.
One more bonus came my way as a result of that visit to Mühlhausen. Back in camp, I walked past the Postens’(4) hut, sniffing at my tablet of imitation soap, and one of them called me over and asked where I had procured the stuff. I told him about the Bade(5) in Mühlhausen and he showed me the first bit of German currency I had seen, a note for Ein Mark. This I accepted, because I felt my hunger more urgently than my need to wash.
The following morning, when we arrived at Hügelheim(6), I saw the great yard at the rear of the Gasthaus(7) was full of hay-loaded wagons – packed in so tightly I couldn’t imagine how they could possibly have done it.
But the sight set me a-thinking… A few days earlier, as we started on the evening walk back to the prison camp, I saw, some distance ahead, three girls lying in the long grass of the verge. In all the months of prisoner life I had never seen girls behaving so naturally and, forgetting for a moment my disgusting state and appearance, as we drew level, I ventured to look at them. First one, then all three, waved to us – risking serious trouble if our guards objected to this kindly act. Pleased beyond words, and thankful that our sad plight had not sickened them, I waved back. I had to content myself with that for, short of breaking ranks, there was no way of talking to those lovely people who, just by humane action, had given deep joy and revived some self-respect in one, or maybe more of us – captive enemies, as their fathers and brothers would rightly describe us.
Well, I don’t know why, but this wagon-filled yard made me wonder whether one of those sweet young girls worked at the Gasthaus. This, and even some daft romantic notions, occupied my mind as we passed the inn and covered the 300 yards or so to the Pferde Lazerette(8). I decided to take a risk which might, if things went wrong, land me in solitary confinement or worse.
I waited until our supervisor, Kayser, took his lunch break, then walked boldly down the lane, dived under a wagon in the Gasthaus yard, crept towards the rear of the inn and… reaching up, I tapped on a window, dropped back under the nearest wagon and waited to see whether one of the charming lasses who had lain in the long grass by the roadside might appear. In a few moments, thrillingly, a girl looked out and I felt certain she was one of the three!
I showed myself carefully and said, “Bitte, Gelt, essen”(9). I held up my one-mark note. She might have screamed and that would have been my lot. But she didn’t. I handed the note to her, slid under the wagon and waited. Presently, she looked out again, holding in one hand a large fruit pie and in the other a roll of cured tobacco leaf. These she delivered with the loveliest smile I’d seen in many a day, then she quietly closed the window.
I still recall the excitement I felt at having made slight contact with a non-military, private, human being – one, in particular, who had taken a grave risk in order to do a good turn for a stranger with little to commend him. On several later occasions, I found it was women who would risk punishment to do something mutually helpful – even those with reason to feel hatred for their country’s enemies (the British, I mean).
Casually enough, I hoped, to disarm suspicion that I was attempting to escape, I walked back to the Lazerette. Kayser stood just inside the first stable I came to, so I was thankful that I’d stuffed the goods away in the sack round my waist under my tunic. Even so, I feared I might once more feel his jackboot connect with my crutch and the awful pain resulting. But no. Either he hadn’t noticed I’d gone missing or, perhaps, a benign after-lunch mood prevailed.
Hiding between horses in the next stall, I started to wolf the pie, but my luck ran out at that point. The face of one of those earlier-mentioned Glaswegians(10) appeared between the horses and I was caught with the remaining hunk of pie in my mouth. “Come on, shares,” demanded the unwelcome Jock and, knowing his merciless ways, I gave him a chunk – for which he didn’t even have the decency to thank me.’
(2) Gutschein: voucher – a wartime cash equivalent.
(3) Seife: soap.
(4) Posten: guards – though the literal translation is something like “functionary”.
(5) Bade: baths (public in this case).
(6) Hügelheim, in the Baden-Württemberg area known as Markgräflerland, 18.4 miles (29.6 kilometres) west of Mühlhausen/Mulhouse.
(7) Gasthaus: inn – guest house.
(8) Pferde Lazerette: horse hospital.
(9) “Bitte, Gelt, essen”: “Please, money, eat.”
(10) A rough lot with the conscripts’ lack of comradely spirit, in Sam’s view. Apologies to Glaswegian readers, it's just what he experienced at the time.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam, still a starving and battered POW, encounters more startling acts of kindness – a Posten even buys him a Gasthaus lunch – along with a couple of sweet reminders of home.
(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.