“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, 14 October 2018
Sam and POW pals suddenly find themselves on a “Pay Parade” – of a sort. Oddly, it makes them feel more like men again. Also he sneaks some contraband through the wire, then finds a blessing in the pages of a prayer book: they make a handsome roll-up!
Sam’s Memoir – 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 - and the current running donations total at October 2 is £3,542.64 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week… The Allies’ apparent plans for an autumn advance followed by a winter rest and triumph in 1919 were revised forward because of success on the battlefield and the evident wilting of German resistance and ability to conduct rearguard actions.
The Battle Of Courtrai (October 14-19) picked up the Flanders Advance after a couple of weeks recovery as Belgian, British and French troops, led by King Albert 1 of Belgium (who had often appeared in the front lines during the war), attacked briskly on a line from Comines north to Dixmude capturing Menin, Roulers (15), Ostend, Lille and Douai (17; the latter two in France), Courtrai, Bruges, Zeebrugge and Marchienne (19).
The Battle Of The Selle (October 17-25) followed failed German counterattacks (14 and 16) by following up the Allies’ Cambrai victory on a 10-mile front south of Le Cateau. British, American and French troops crossed the river (20) as the Germans retreated northeastwards.
In the long Meuse Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11), at the Battle Of Montfaucon (14-17; later, as a “destroyed village”, the place became a monument to WW1), after a series of bloody setbacks, the Americans broke through the Hindenburg Line then pushed on along a front from Grandpré to Vouziers (18; Grandpré is about 50 miles east of Reims).
Meanwhile, Allied, but chiefly British interventions in Russia gathered pace as forces who had landed at Vladivostok on the Pacific reached Irkutsk (October 14; a journey west of almost 2,500 miles ) and Omsk (18; almost 1.500 miles further west – which sounds as though it must have been different Battalions, surely). Other incursions, enormous distances apart, saw the British capture Dushak in Transcaspia from the Bolsheviks (17), advance to Soroka on the White Sea (18) and repel Bolshevik forces at Seletsko (18; 160 miles up the Dvina from Archangel).
Elsewhere, Italian troops retook Durazzo, Albania, and the French Ipek, Montenegro (both October 14) from the Austrian Army, while the French also supported the Serbians’ recovery of their country from the Bulgarians, occupying Knyazhevats and Krushevats (17), the French the penetrating Bulgaria as far as Vidin on the Danube (19).
Further south and east, the multinational Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s Pursuit To Haritan saw Homs (of current notoriety in the Syrian civil war) occupied (October 15), after which the combined cavalry, including many armoured cars by this stage, set off towards Aleppo (20, 115 miles north).
[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 training 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, solo, he returned to France and dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras and at the nearby Front until, 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 German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28 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. 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 filthy camp for the summer, tending sick German war horses, before moving on yet again to a village in Lorraine… ]
October, 1918, occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now 20 years old and six months a slowly starving POW, is trying to survive what he hopes may be the last few weeks of war – having heard a passing German sailor tell the guards about a Navy mutiny, along with other hints and rumours.
Part of his strategy is a food partnership with his pals Wally and George – sharing every little extra they can find, swap or snaffle, even though the arrangement comes under strain every time one of them gets hold of some tidbit in absence of the others. Last week, before conscience restrained him, Sam took a bite out of a fruit pie – covertly passed through the wire by a kind, brave village woman. Then George got a Red Cross parcel and scoffed much of the edible contents by himself before coming to Wally and Sam with a apologies and sharing the rest. They understood, forgave and resumed their vows.
But the parcel included a few items potentially useful for trade, including a hank of wool. For now though, a striking, possibly weird development in relations between the POWs and their guards:
‘With that promising sense of change still in the air, one morning the Jerries lined us all up on a grassy area outside the barbed wire surrounding the village hall. There, they had placed a trestle table with a chair. We stood in two ranks facing the table, aware of several Soldaten(2) in position behind us, rifles at the ready, while in front stood one low-ranking NCO and an impressively immaculate Unteroffizier(3).
Then two officers appeared – and you would have had to see them to appreciate the elaborate decorations which enhanced their well-cut uniforms. “Bla bla bla!” yelled the obvious senior gent and the UO loudly replied, ending with “Herr Offizier” or “Herr Kapitän”. Everything done at the yell, far louder than our British equivalents. They appeared to hate each other, but I guess it was only “bull”.
“Komm!”(4) yelled the UO to our man first in line, seating himself alongside the Kapitän, placing paper and pen on the table and opening a briefcase which, I spotted, contained some more of those Gutschein(5) tickets they had given us once before. So we have a pay parade! Our lad steps forward and, from force of habit, slams his heels together and smartly salutes. “Name?” – meaning plain to all, despite the “Naamuh” pronunciation – “Vorname?” (Tom, Dick or Harry), “Regiment?” (pronounced “Raygiment” with a hard “g”). Then, the UO announced how many marks and pfennigs(6) the prisoner was due and pushed forward some of those coloured tickets. Our boy saluted and picked up the moola, about-turned and marched back to his place.
I could see this display of correct behaviour impressed his nibs. None of us had so far ever saluted a German officer on, as we thought, good principle. But I later learned that British officer prisoners did observe such courtesies and I regretted that I had not done so on the rare occasions when I had encountered a German commissioned officer. Each man thereafter did his best to comply with this discipline, and we felt something approaching dignity emerge from this new experience.
Some villagers had congregated at the nearby roadside and, naturally, I tried to identify the lady in black who had slipped the lovely pie through the barbed wire(7). Careful not to appear interested in any one person, I did see her standing behind the others. I tried to catch her eye and she nodded slightly, sufficient to tell me she knew we had seen one another previously. Without comment to anyone, I did not attempt any further communication, but told Wally about my friend and suggested that something might come of it. Bringing in George, it was agreed that I should try to effect a trade of, first, half the Red Cross wool for something to eat, no stipulation being made as to what the rate of exchange should be.
Perhaps our exemplary behaviour at “pay parade” had done us some good in the Jerries’ eyes, for thereafter we paraded each morning, whether or not they had work to send us to. The villagers who happened to be around at that time of morning would stop and look and a few soon approached just a little closer. The Germans may have felt flattered by this show of interest at first for, after all, these people in Lorraine had lived under German rule for 48 years(8) and must by now have become loyal to the chosen race…
My first transaction was carried out right under the noses of the guards, though in a straightforward manner. As I stood near the fence and displayed the hank of wool behind my back to a young lady who had come fairly close to our line of prisoners, my eyes directed hers to my offer and she smiled and nodded when I said “Essen” and then “mange”(9). She moved off, but soon returned and, behind my back, an exchange was effected so smoothly that I swear the man next to me knew nothing about it.
At the safe moment, I slipped her package into my under-tunic sack and later we unwrapped the parcel. Though necessarily small, it contained a hambone with some nice meat still on it, a piece of rye bread, and, to us smokers who hadn’t had a drag for weeks – for me, not since the trip to the showers in Mühlhausen(10) – the boon of a large screw of home-cured tobacco leaf.
I had, some time back, acquired a French prayer book I’d found in a damaged and discarded German tunic – former property, I gathered, of a soldier who had died, I knew not how (at the same time, I’d taken the opportunity to dump my heavy clogs(11) and put on his badly worn jackboots – in such poor condition were they that no guard questioned my possession of them). Now the prayer book, which the Jerry must have pinched off a Frenchman, supplied us with fine cigarette papers.
So I was already returning something for George’s contributions from his parcel. I proudly disposed of the remainder of the goods to the satisfaction of my partners, without being spotted by our captors, and they elected me official dealer and Dolmetscher(12) to the organisation — an unpaid appointment, which I endeavoured to discharge effectively until events separated us.’
(2) Soldaten: soldiers.
(3) Unteroffizier: Sergeant or, I gather, sometimes more generally other non-commissioned officers.
(4) “Komm!”: come!
(5) Pfennig: in pre-Euro German currency one cent, a hundredth of a Mark.
(6) Gutschein: vouchers given to the POWs instead of money – just the twice in the case of Sam’s itinerant group. See blogs August 12 and 19 for the previous occasion.
(7) See blog September 30.
(8) Since the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1.
(9) “Essen”: to eat. in German. “Mange”: eat, in French.
(10) and (11) See the same blogs shown in (5) – Sam’s British Army boots were nicked while he was in the shower and a German guard came up with some clogs for him to wear.
(12) Dolmetscher: interpreter.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam observes the guards pretending that nothing’s happening, act normal and maybe crushing defeat will never come… And his new Brummie bunkmates, recent conscript POWs, just don’t believe Sam, a veteran at 20, could have fought on the Somme and so on: “I felt old and lonely…”
(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.