“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, 9 September 2018

September, 1918: POW Sam runs into more surprising kindness – this time from a German soldier and his girlfriend. Over hard work and shared spuds he finds a good pal in a lad called Wally…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli Somme episode & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Battles Of The Hindenburg Line (September 12-October 12) began with the British, supported by New Zealanders, coming down off high ground to attack and take Havrincourt (September 12-16; Aisne department, southeast of Cambrai) and the Americans leading the Battle Of St Mihiel (12-13; Meuse department, 22 miles south of Verdun) under General Pershing, supported by French tanks and 1,500 Allied aircraft – catching German troops already on the retreat they took 15,000 prisoners in two days before pulling up short of their initial objective, Metz, as Pershing needed to put his force at the disposal of a French attack further north.
    The French had already won the Battle Of Savy-Dallon (September 10; Aisne department), approaching the Hindenburg Line near St Quentin as they took Hinacourt, Travecy and Savy, and then advanced again via the Battle Of Vauxaillon (14).
    No surprise then that, backstage, Austria-Hungary wrote to President Wilson (September 15) seeking an “unofficial” peace conference – whatever that might have been, the President rejected it the following day – and the German Government made a peace offer to Belgium (15) just as the Belgian Army was advancing strongly around Ypres.
    Action continued on the periphery of the European conflict. Way up north in the Murman region of Russia around the Barents Sea, Allied forces began an advance after American troops arrived in Archangel (September 11). Down in Azerbaijan, the confusing battle for Baku saw a British evacuation when an attempted collaboration with the Armenian defenders against the Turks failed. And in Serbia – territory now in Macedonia – combined Serbian, French and Greek regiments initiated the Battle Of Dobro Pole (September 15-18) against the occupying Bulgars.

[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. 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 where they settled into a slightly less uncomfortable/filthy camp for the summer, mainly working on sick and wounded German war horses.]

August/September, 1918: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now 20 years old and five months a slowly starving POW, is on a run of (relative) good fortune – all food-connected stories, naturally. First it was the tubby Posten (guard) buying him a Gasthaus lunch, then a few days’ hard work in a vineyard rewarded by stew and cream cheese and even wine, and now this week a further encounter with the kindness of the enemy… 
    (By the way, if my father’s food obsession seems trivial in the light of the historic events noted in the “hundred years ago this week” section of the blog, please consider that a) he hadn’t a clue what was going on at the Front and b) hunger concentrates the mind wonderfully.)

‘However, after only three days, we were all sent off on different jobs. Grievously disappointed, I found some compensation because, in a group of 10 or so, I was taken into the nearby town of Müllheim-in-Baden(2), and thence to a big farm on the outskirts. Our job was to store away a recently cut crop of hay on the second floor of a large barn. In good dry condition, the hay proved easy to handle. Like all well-planned barns – I remembered from boyhood camping days(3) – it had an open area in the middle with two spacious floors at each end and we forked the hay from ground to first floor, then up again to the top floor.
    I had no experience with a pitchfork, but had the good luck to be paired with my friend Wally. A country boy, height about 66 inches, broad of shoulder and strong of limb with admirable stamina from his former open-air life and good feeding, he had withstood the privations of these months better than most of us. And he soon showed me the knack of driving the fork in with a twist, which secured a good load, then using the handle as a lever to lift the weight in one deft movement, making easy work of it even to a weakling like me.
    Awaiting another load from the fields, we had a break. We’d been working on the top deck of the barn, and when I explored I found a small door at the back. Carefully opening it, I saw down below a narrow lane. I thought what you have just thought – about possible escape. But where to? Food? And so on… Meanwhile, I scrambled out anyway, finding grips in gaps in the woodwork and finally landing in grass and weeds…
    And there I was, alone in the lane. But only for a moment. Coming towards me were a girl and a young soldier – and that, it appeared, would be the end of my brief freedom.
    They came close, both smiled. No screams or cries of alarm. So, nothing unusual about finding a British prisoner unguarded and alone, it seemed. “Ich arbeit darein,”(4) I said and pointed hopefully at the barn. They talked a while and he said, “Bleiben sie da”. All smiles, so I trusted them completely and waited, perhaps for 20 minutes. My mate Wally’s head appeared above and I gave him a reassuring nod and grin; I felt sure he would alert me if necessary. When my young friends reappeared the soldier carried a pail which he offered to me – nearly full of hot potatoes boiled in their jackets.
    Again, a kindly girl had risked possible arrest to help an enemy prisoner. The lad had taken an even greater risk, being in the Army. I packed the spuds into my under-tunic sack and became fuller of figure and even fuller of gratitude to these lovely, young people.
    War… to hell with it — this lad who seemed so much younger than me, would probably be in the slaughter shambles on the Western Front any day now, and what might happen to his dear sister? (I had understood one word among the several he said to me, “Schwester”.)
    Sincere thanks were all I could offer. As they disappeared round a bend in the lane, I wished to heaven I could have gone with them.
    A soft whistle from me brought Wally to the door above. To help me back up, he lowered his pitchfork and lay down on the deck up there, holding it, while I hauled myself up part of the way, then I completed the rest of the climb unaided.
    We two then ate spuds until, as they say, fit to bust.’
(2) 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) With the Edmonton Boy Scouts in Epping Forest or some other tract of (then) nearby countryside.
(4) “Ich arbeit darein”: “I work in there”. Then“Bleiben sie da”: “Stay there”.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam establishes “a sort of family” with POWs Wally and George as they agree to share everything – and he scores more spuds for the partnership with the help of friendly Soldaten, full of empathy for their fellow front-liners, even as enemy prisoners…

(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.

No comments:

Post a Comment