“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, 2 September 2018

September, 1918: Sam and starving POW pals find blessed relief through working in a vineyard… where the boss seems to be American and the main customer for the products of their (forced) labour is British!?

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… A cluster of battles in the Amiens Offensive (August 21-September 3) phase of the Allies’ conclusive summer push reached their official conclusions (although fighting continued between set pieces, of course). 
    The Allies shared their successes all around. The New Zealanders earned most of the credit for the Second Battle Of Bapaume (August 21-September 3), concluded when they saw German troops out of positions overlooking Haplincourt (September 2), then regrouped. Australians won the Battle Of San Quentin, taking Sailly-Sallisel, St Pierre-Vaast Wood and Péronne (1-2; 3,000 casualties), in what one British General described as “the greatest military achievement of the war”. The British led the Second Battles Of Arras, occupying Lens as the German Army retreated (3). Finally, the Canadians fronted the Battle Of Drocourt-Quéant (2-3), seizing the western end of the Hindenburg Line to which the Germans had initially retreated (the launch pad for the Spring Offensive six months earlier), before Ludendorff decided to make the Canal du Nord their new defensive line (it runs from Pont-l’Éveque, Oise department, to Arleux, Nord department).
    Meanwhile, the French, with American support, pushed forward north of Soisson (September 2-7; 50 miles south of St Quentin), crossing the Somme Canal to take Ham, Pithon and Dury (6-7; Somme and Aisne departments).
    Around Russia, the Battle Of Baku (August 26-September 14; Azerbaijan) stalled as Ottoman forces gathered to attack the forces of the Centrocaspian Dictatorship, abetted by the 1000-man British “Dunsterforce”. Over in Murmansk, Italian troops joined the Anglo-French Allied Expeditionary Force (2; 1200 miles north of Moscow) and at Bobzerskaya (4) the Allied troops who’d entered Archangel (765 miles north of Moscow) in early August defeated a German-led Russian force. A little more remotely, Japanese soldiers, who’d lately joined the British and Czechs in Pacific Siberia, occupied Khabarovsk (5; 5210 miles east of Moscow).

[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.]

My father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now 20 years old and five months a slowly starving POW, has lately had a bit of luck with less grinding work and the guards going easy on the brutality – last week a friendly Posten actually bought him a pub lunch. The unexpected trend continues now as he moves on to another new workplace:

‘I didn’t know it, but that [see last week’s blog re a day taking horses from one village to another via that Gasthauswas to be my last day of work in Hügelheim. Next came a three-day stint of hoeing in a vineyard. How I wished it could have been much longer…
    They marched about a dozen of us up into the hills until we came to the entrance to a farm. We were handed hoes and led across fields to a vast area of rows of vines. Then our guards handed us over to a man who, although wearing military uniform, left most of his tunic buttons undone, wore his cap sort of sideways, and addressed us in fluent American. Apparently the foreman, he showed one man how he wished the work to be done while the rest of us watched and learned. When his demonstrator had done about three yards, our boss set the next man on to the row to his right, and then the next, and the next, and so on, until we were all at it, forming a diagonal line across the vineyard.
    The Yankee took the lane at the head of the operation himself. We all had to keep pace with him, preserving the diagonal line. If anyone slacked, he yelled at him in a voice which put fear into the culprit, so the weakest of us still slaved as if his life depended on it – as maybe it did. You’ve got to work under such a gaffer to know real fear; the rasping voice, the promises of agony by pitchfork, boot, or battery, the scowls convincing one of serious intent behind the threats.
    Of course, put it like that and I realise I’m not portraying a good place to work; but at mid-morning they called us all to the end of the field; we dropped our hoes, followed the Yankee and sat near a hedge, while a girl handed out pieces of black bread bearing dabs of cream cheese along with bottles of white wine – each bottle to be shared by two men. Luxurious feeding, and I could now appreciate that, in return for such generosity, our Yankee German felt entitled to extract the maximum amount of work from us because they were treating us as they would their own men.
    After some months of enforced abstinence, the wine had an exhilarating effect on me. I resumed work light of head and heart, wandering ahead of the gang, I purposely took the position in the row next to the gaffer. I wanted to know more about him and the vinery. Backs bent, he and we set to with a will; I felt no end of a fellow as the alcohol-laden blood got at my brain and I kept up with the boss without pausing, as I’d had to do earlier.
    When he straightened up for a short rest, I did likewise and asked him where he had learned his American. He’d lived in the States for some years, he said, but, when the war started, he had been on a homeland visit and was called to serve in the Army before he could return to the USA. When next he paused, he told me that an English-based firm named Margetts(2) owned the farm and vineyard – jams and preserves their main lines. I remember hoping that, if I survived, I might sample Margetts jam at the family table back home and tell them about the kindness of the company’s German employees.
    We’d started work early, of course, and at Mittag, as the gaffer called midday even when talking to us in English, we were actually taken into the farm kitchen, which served as a small canteen. The Yankee foreman’s family sat us at long tables and gave us large basins of almost black stew – on the surface floated blobs of cream! I concluded that the stew consisted of blood sausage with potatoes and swedes. Bread to mop up completed a fine meal and we returned to our toil in good spirits. The whole experience did me a lot of good.
    Work, when resumed for the afternoon, still had to be done correctly and without pause. Our Yankee watched us over his shoulder and now a bearded civilian constantly scrutinised us too. He moved from row to row between the vines, checking that our hoeing was sufficiently deep and that we laid uprooted weeds on the surface (so the sun would dry and kill them).
    Back-breaking work, especially for weakened men, but I felt – and I was sure that most of the men did too – that, if only we could remain in this job and consume the kind of food we’d had this day, strength would return and our work would better satisfy the good farm folk. It seemed so important, I remember, that their humane treatment of enemy prisoners would be paid for in the only currency we could offer – good work.’
(2) According to http://ow.ly/pzvY30kUrrd Margetts was based in Dalston, London, from 1869, its founder James Margetts of Hackney. I don’t know the ins and outs, financial and otherwise, of a British firm operating in Germany during the war. Margetts is now part of Metrow Foods, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam runs into more surprising kindness – from a German soldier and his girlfriend; over hard work and shared spuds he finds a good pal in a lad called Wally…

(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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