“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, 28 October 2018

Sam, near-starving, reflects on the coincidence between religiosity and the well-nourished look of POWs working in the camp cookhouse… Then German infantry rushing eastwards yell “Zu Österreich!” and war’s end really does seem nigh…

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.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Armistice was the word on the politicians’ lips even if plenty of soldiers had yet to feel the benefit.
    First, just about, Turkey and the Allies signed up for a ceasefire at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos (October 30). Then the Austria-Hungary Empire struck two Armistice deals on the same day (November 3), with Italy and with the Allies. At more or less the same time, the Allies agreed to Germany’s proposal that there would be an Amnesty based on the terms advocated by US President Woodrow Wilson – but no next-day peace occurred in that case. Well, it was often more complicated than that.
    And on the Western Front, the French-American Meuse Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11) proceeded with heavy fighting around Verly on the Oise and Grand Pre, northwest of Verdun (28); then after the French crossed the Aisne they won the one-day Battle Of Chesne (November 1; 45 miles northwest of Verdun), while the Americans took Buzancy (2; 37 miles west of Reims). Due north near the Belgian border, British and Canadian troops recovered Valenciennes.
    Germany was further undermined by a sequence of naval mutinies beginning at Wilhelmshaven (October 28) and spreading rapidly to Kiel and to unionised merchant seamen.
    Down in Italy, the Battle Of Vittorio Veneto (October 24-November 4), saw the Italian Army, with Allied support, complete driving the Austrian occupiers north from the Piave and east from Monte Grappa – their cavalry (and cyclists!) entered Vittorio Veneto itself (October 29) and an amphibious force took back Trieste (November 3) on their Armistice Day… before pressing on regardless into the Tyrol. The battle’s casualties totalled 40,378 Allied troops, 80,000 Austrian plus 448,000 taken POW.
    The pattern continued in almost every theatre: the Italians pushed on in Albania; the Croats took Fiume from Hungary via surrender (October 30); the Serbs recovered Belgrade (November 1; lost to Austria on October 9, 1915); British troops won the Battle Of Sharqat, Mesopotamia, forcing the surrender of the Turkish Army on the Tigris (October 28-30).
     An oddity occurred in Africa where the itinerant German force on the run from German East Africa entered Zimbabwe and attacked Fife (November 1).
    Further, amid all the political manouvering in Europe, Poland and Ukraine found reason to declare war on one another.

[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). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations (he spent his 19th birthday, July 6, 1917, in a Sheffield hospital). 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 to 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, westwards to a village in Lorraine… ]

Late October/early November, 1918, occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now seven months a slowly starving POW, of late in an improvised “camp” which is actually a village hall, is observing some odd goings-on in the apparent closing weeks of the war – German guards easing off and being quite nice; a return to formal morning parades which both POWs and their captors seem to appreciate in terms of dignity restoration; encounters with newish English prisoners, conscripts from Birmingham, who ask Sam about “his war” then won’t believe him when he says he was at Gallipoli and the Somme…
     Now he observes a new religiosity running through some of his fellow prisoners and ponders its significance:

I only had to cope with the Brummies at night-time, but one of them stands out in memory because of his habit of kneeling on the floor by his bunk and praying for half a minute or so before turning in. He had managed to get himself employed in the cookhouse, stewing up the horse and veg and coffee substitute. Naturally, the Germans took any meat in the boiler and dished out the dregs to us, but judged by this devout son of Jesus’s well-fed appearance, he also had a dip into the fleshpots before we got our meatless portions.
     It reminded me that, in Malta(2), I had walked behind one of the Roman Catholic priests and been struck by the fatness of his neck and the immensity of his behind – whereas his skinny, scantily clothed parishioners often went barefoot. No doubt, like the priest, our mate needed extra nourishment to maintain his ability to kneel in the presence of so many sinners. Nay, I now remember he gave us even better value, for he read aloud from the Good Book before getting down to the silent prayer. I do not ridicule religious beliefs or observances(3), but feel they should be accompanied by Christ-like living. Too often the zealot has an undue regard for Number One.
     One Sunday afternoon, as I loitered optimistically by the barbed wire(4), I heard singing coming from the hall and sought the source of this unusual sound. Inside I found another producer of our superb stews(5) – his face and figure full, his voice strong, his manner confident – standing on a chair and holding forth about the virtues of the good life and humility and accepting hard times cheerfully.
     The preacher chose a repertoire of popular hymns which even the least religious would have learned at school, and one had to admit the singsong served as a tonic to the men. Actually, just raising their voices in song after all the quiet and subdued, hungry and well-nigh hopeless weeks or months since their capture could count as a creditable achievement by the cookhouse evangelist; his chapel friends would do him due honour when he rejoined them after hostilities ceased. Meanwhile, he had eased himself into the best available position to survive present, difficult conditions.

At one of the now regular morning line-ups, prisoners and guards alike were startled by the clatter of galloping horses, the rattle of metal, the clash of wheels on bumpy road, and the roar of lorry engines – a medley of all types of artillery and ancillary units on the move. Finally, some cars carrying German officers appeared, the whole caboodle heading away from the direction in which, we knew, lay the battlefield.
     “Zu Österreich!”(6) and other shouts came from the rankers as they rushed past; and such was the speed of their going that the considerable column passed out of sight before our bosses could gather the full significance of the swift departure.
     Our guesses came thick and fast until all of us shared the certainty that the enemy was cracking up. Only a matter of time, we knew. The officer in charge of us clinched our belief that the worst war ever was nearing its end by dismissing us without allotting any toil for the day.
     Assembling in the village hall(7) to discuss matters, we shared our elation and developing joy. Our feelings found some outlet in singing the marching songs we’d not dared to indulge till then, because bayonet point or boot would have silenced us. Only one Posten(8) tried to stop us – one of the old-time Prussians who regarded a prisoner as inferior and to be kept that way by all means available – but we disregarded his efforts and he gave up the attempt.
     This martinet, who wore a look of undying anger, cultivated a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache, the ends pointed upwards at an angle of 90 degrees to the transverse portions. Always strictly on duty, he never allowed a smile to sully his face. On every occasion when it had been my misfortune to be accompanied by his nibs on marches to places of work, he had managed to create an atmosphere of oppressive misery, pushing a Gefangene(9) here, prodding another with his rifle butt there, unfailingly turning a sunny day into one overhung with gloom. More of this haybag(10) later.’
(2) Sam trained in Malta with his first Battalion, the 2/1 Royal Fusiliers, February-August, 1915, until they sailed for Egypt, then Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.
(3) My father remained a strong non-denominational believer until his death in 1987, aged 88.
(4)“Optimistically”? He hoped the still very French villagers (despite German occupation since the Franco-Prussian War concluded in 1871) might proffer a word of news or even some morsel of food.
(5) Sarcasm, in case you wondered.
(6)  Zu Österreich!”: “To Austria!”
(7) The village hall, surrounded by barbed wire, had become their billet/POW camp.
(8) Posten: means “functionary”, but “guard” here.
(9) Gefangene: prisoner.
(10) Hay bag: one word or two, do people still use this as a general insult? It was quite common even through to my childhood in the 1950s. I can’t find the origin anywhere i.e. why it should have seen service as non-specific abuse on a par with, say, pillock or bugger.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam contemplates “freedom” – with “armed guards still lounging around outside the wire”! But, while wondering what next, the POWs sing their way through the night… and, thinking practically once more, Sam escapes temporarily to forage for food to share with Wally and George… 

(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.

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