“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, 23 September 2018
Sam is forced to work until he can’t do any more, a guard knocks him flat… and a strange drama of redemption plays out…
Sam’s Memoir in paperback and e-book and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme & etc mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Allies’ final push cranked up with the dates of the Argonne Meuse Offensive telling the story (September 26-November 11) – but it was no lap of honour with the race run and won, the fighting and casualties remained terrible all along the Western Front. This Offensive began with the Battle Of Somme-Py (September 26) where the French advanced nine miles during the day and then, with American support, took Montfaucon and Varennes (27).
The Battle Of Canal Du Nord (September 27-October 1) saw Canadian troops lead an advance towards Cambrai, abetted by British and French Battalions. Then a combination of American, French, British and Australian forces launched the Battle Of The St Quentin Canal (September 29-October 2 or 10, say different sources) in a sector between St Quentin and Vendhuille where the German Army had adopted the waterway, in a deep cutting, as part of the Hindenburg Line. There the Americans, attempting to support Australian troops, suffered huge losses, but the British – following their biggest artillery onslaught of the war, including their first use of mustard gas shells – achieved a breakthrough and a military coup by crossing the canal using scaling ladders and anything floatable – while also benefitting from a bridge at Bellenglise.
Further north, the Fifth Battle Of Ypres/Battle Of The Flanders Peaks (September 28-October 10) began with Belgian, French and British forces breaking German lines north, east and south of Ypres on a 23-mile front from Dixmude to Ploegsteert – on the second day, the Allies retook Passchendaele, Messines and Dixmude.
The Allies’ successes multiplied in other theatres. In Serbia, the Bulgarian occupiers (since 1915) conducted a full-scale retreat in the face of swift advances by the French, who took Prilep (September 23) and Uskub (29), the Serbs themselves, who regained Ishtip, Veles (25) and Kochana (26), and the British who entered Strumitsa (26). As a result, the Bulgarian Government sued for Armistice and it was signed (29), although fighting did not cease immediately.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, the ultra-multinational Allied Egyptian Expeditionary Force moved towards a conclusion of its triumph over the Ottoman Army by taking the port of Haifa plus Acre and Es Salt (September 23; British and Indian troops), winning the Battle Of Samakh (25; on the shore of the Sea Of Galilee; Australian cavalry) and the Second Battle Of Amman (25; New Zealanders and West Indians), while Arab allies defeated the Turkish garrison of Ma’an (29).
These actions in Palestine were generally known as the Battles Of Meggido. Megiddo is the root of the Biblical coinage “Armageddon”, meaning the final battle.
[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. In December, probably, he returned to France, unattached to any specific Battalion pro tem, and dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras and at 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. There they settled into a slightly less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, mainly working on sick and wounded German war horses.]
September, 1918: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe – now 20 years old and six months a slowly starving POW often brutalised by the guards – has lately been the recipient of some remarkable acts of kindness from German soldiers home on leave… all involving gifts of food, in fact, that being more or less all that mattered to desperately hungry men (the POW ration remained one piece of bread in the morning, one cup of vegetable stew at night, and a litre of acorn “coffee”).
But last week he formed a grub-sharing partnership with his pal Wally and George, an older man he hadn’t known previously. So Sam felt comforted by a sense of “family” engendered by the mutual obligation to provide – via scrounging and sharing.
Now though, a further encounter with guard brutality… albeit with a startling outcome:
‘I lined up one morning with no idea as to what I should be working at that day, until Wally came over to me and said he was returning to that farm where we’d loaded hay into the barn and had permission to take me as his mate(2). Obviously, the Germans had recognised his skill with farm tools and could trust him to do a good day’s work without strict supervision. A Posten(3) had to come along with us as far as the farm, but thereafter we saw nothing of him until our working day ended.
Our job proved similar to the previous one, except that we had to move hay only from the first floor up to the top one. Wally forked the stuff up to me, I carried it to the back of the top floor and stacked it. This kept me very busy as he was so much more used to the work, although with the instruction he had given me I could just cope.
Because we finished well before the expected time, we witnessed a scene I had never thought to see in my time. As we sat gazing down into the barn from the upper deck, four men laid out a silk-type sheet, covering most of the ground floor. Then, they tipped a cartload of wheat straight from the fields on to the sheet and, one at each corner and each holding a flail, they started to flog the wheat. The flail poll was probably six feet long with a hinged wood flap at its head, about two feet in length. Up, down, thwack, thwack, the four flails beating out the grain. When they’d done, they removed the straw and replaced it with a fresh load. At intervals, they attached the flails to the corners of the sheet, raised it and skilfully tipped the grain into sacks.
I remembered seeing Biblical pictures of such a scene. At a time when harvesting was already being mechanised, surely only the most primitive people would do such work by hand, not the progressive Germans… unless desperate fuel-oil shortages compelled this return to ancient practices?
At about the same time, when working in the horse hospital, I had to put my back into another surprising example of hand-operation, this time on a chaff-cutting machine(4). In Britain, this work had for many years been powered by, at least, a steam engine, usually hired in along with an operator. But I had to turn this chaff-cutter’s large wheel unaided – terribly exhausting work, especially with a slave-driver of a Landsturm(5) Regiment old soldier in charge of our work at the farm. He had other prisoners ramming straw into the machine non-stop and constantly urged me to toil harder and harder till I reached the end of my strength and could turn it no longer.
Some French soldier-prisoners stood nearby, well-clothed and sleek with good living, it seemed. They showed amusement at my plight, which did nothing for my share of the entente cordiale.
“Arbeit!”(6) yelled the Jerry, but I just couldn’t oblige, I was done for. He swung a blow at me, which caught me on the jaw and put me down. Staggering up and uncaringly berserk, I told him what he was in my book and, using some of his lingo, some French, and some English including one or two swear words descriptive of his origins and nasty habits, I brought in Napoleon, Caesar and Kaiser Wilhelm as people who had always oppressed common men like him and myself, and suggested it ill-became poor fellows like us to treat each other so cruelly.
The unexpected result: at once, by signs and words in the same sort of mixture of tongues I used, he repented of his brutality and said how sorry he was about his bad conduct. I looked in some triumph at the Froggies as he promised to share that day’s bread ration with me.
He proved I did get his meaning because, when we stopped work and began the homeward march, I felt a tug at my elbow and found the now kindly fellow tendering a thick piece of rye bread – at least half of his day’s ration, I thought. He urged me to accept it and, as seen over my left shoulder, his ugly, but now beaming face appeared quite attractive, even though he was puffing with the exertion of catching up with us.
Our guards took little notice of him, so I had time to thank him warmly as I tucked the welcome grub into my inner sack. I had to share it three ways, but this little contribution gave me another little bit of pride that I could do something in return for Wally’s earlier kindnesses.'
(2) See Blog September 9, 2018. This farm was on the outskirts of Müllheim, in Baden-Württemberg, 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometres) south of Hügelheim (and their POW camp/horse hospital), between the Black Forest and the Rhine.
(3) Posten: a guard or, more generally, a functionary.
(4) The manual chaff-cutter’s wheel is turned via a handle mangle-style – see http://ow.ly/gelb30kUrHP.
(5) Landsturm: 3rd-class infantry, comprising any male aged between 17 and 42 who wasn’t in the standing Army, the Landwehr – but many of the Landsturm were old, former members of the Landwehr, and my father found them the most brutal (as ever just one man’s experience/opinion).
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam and pals take a train to a new POW compound in occupied Alsace… and a French woman slips a package through the wire. Meanwhile, spirits rise when a passing sailor says the German Navy has mutinied!
(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.