“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, 11 November 2018

’”There is an Armistice!” one Soldat bellowed…’ Sam’s November 11: the real Armistice Day as experienced by a Tommy in a German POW camp…

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.

It’s war’s end at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July, 1919, Peace parade in London…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Henry Nicholas John Gunther found a sad place in history as the averred “last soldier killed” in World War 1: at 10.59am on November 11, one minute before the legendary “11th hour”; this German-American, aged 23, a Private following demotion from Sergeant because an intercepted letter home criticised front-line conditions, was said to be trying to prove himself and regain his rank when he bayonet-charged a German machine-gun post, fired some shots despite the “enemy” soldiers trying to indicate it was all over and was killed. This happened at Chaumont-devant-Damvillers in Lorraine (the German-occupied province where, that day, my father was still a POW – see below)
    On Monday, November 11, at 5am, Allied Commander Marshall Foch signed the Armistice on a train at Rethondes station in the Compiègne forest. Bar British troops’ dawn retaking of Mons, Belgium (notoriously lost on August 24 1914), and the Allies subsequent unopposed advance into Germany (from November 16) and the German Army’s exit from France (complete by the 18th) that was more or less it for military action. But the diplomatic and political wires were buzzing.
    In Germany a clutch of dukes and kings followed the Kaiser in abdicating (November 11 and later that week), while the German Navy’s surrender was negotiated in the Firth Of Forth aboard the cruiser Königsbergby representatives of the Workmen’s And Soldiers Council Of The Fleet (15 onwards; this body had emerged from the wave of German Naval mutinies). The Emperor Of Austria abdicated and a German-Austrian Republic was proclaimed instead (13) – it promptly requested union with Germany. Then the Hungarian government concluded a separate Armistice in Belgrade (15) and declared itself independent the following day.
    Around eastern Europe, in the immediate aftermath a new national Government formed in Estonia (11), Jan Masaryk became first President of the still-hyphenated Czecho-Slovak republic (14), and Poland declared independence with Jozef Pilsudski Head Of State (16 – and a revolt began in Ukraine (15).
    Down in Africa, among the last to hear of the Armistice was General Von Lettow-Vorbeck who led his former East Africa force, which had fought for months on the run from the former German colony, to the Zambesi in then Rhodesia before the news reached him (November 14) and he surrendered the next day.

[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 (Blog March 25, 2018). For several 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… ]

November 11, 1918, Armistice Day in occupied Lorraine: my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, now eight months a slowly starving POW – of late in an improvised “camp” which is actually a village hall – last week stayed practical as rumours of war’s imminent end abounded by stealing a cabbage. This he shared with his Tommy pals Wally and George, partners in a snaffled-food syndicate which had helped keep them alive of late.
    Now it’s the morning of that historic day – not that, as yet, the POWs knew for sure what was going on, much less what day it was…

‘When dawn came, however, so did the Soldaten(2). But with differences. Gone were the black-and-white Iron Cross(3)ribbons, worn on the breast – decorations for bravery won by every man in their Army, it seemed to me. These they had replaced with bright red decorations, and Regimental buttons worn on their caps had given way to red ones.
     We saw no more German officers, not at any time after that sudden move to the political left. If this was the revolution – and it looked like it – then it must, we decided, be the most peaceful ever.
     The guards gave us the usual piece of bread and litre of acorn juice(4). Then we awaited events. Lorries hurried past, each displaying a large, red flag and filled with shouting troops. They all went one way – eastwards. “Fertig(5),” occurred frequently among the excited words they called out to our guards, and even the dimmest among us knew that meant “finished”.
     “There is an Armistice!” one Soldat bellowed at us as he passed by, driving a pair of horses pulling a haywain covered with rope netting under which sat many chickens. That evoked a cheer from those of us who heard the thrilling bit of news.
     Wally, George, and I found ourselves in a state of intense, excited joy, though unable to tell each other of the relief from the worry, doubt and general misery which, since becoming prisoners, had defeated most of our efforts to remain normally hopeful. Although Wally had managed to smile sometimes, I felt sure that in happier times he would have been just the cheery chappie everyone loved to have around. Now the grin, which I and my parents were to find so pleasing at a later date, began to illuminate his somewhat Punchish face – his nose was not quite so big nor quite so hookish as Punch’s, but his mug nicely suggested the puppet’s profile.
     I certainly had benefitted from my association with that young man, whose fair dealing and lack of wile and guile put new life into my ability to trust my fellow men – which had faded because of the deplorable overall standard of behaviour and of honour among those with whom I had dwelt recently. The discomforts, food shortages and absence of any of life’s pleasures had so quickly reduced them to the level of wild animals with all their snarling and violent grabbing of anything edible…
     Not so, Wally, though he was nobody’s fool and capable of protecting his own. His word, given to me and to George, really was his bond and he expected and got the same from me. From George – older, married with children, and therefore “been through the hoop” – Wally asked slightly less, reckoning George couldn’t be expected to contribute quite as much as we youngsters. That seemed reasonable to me, even gave me a feeling of some slight superiority, walking ragbag, skeleton-with-a-skin-covering though I was. Stinking pride, as my mother used to call it, can be a morale-booster at times.’

So passed Armistice Day, 1918(6), with us prisoners leaderless, but not without our well-nourished Preacher(7) sounding off in loud prayers of thanks for deliverance. Although he and his cohort sang hymns and, later on, sober songs like Will Ye No Come Back Again and Auld Lang Syne, belting them out full-strength, no reproof came from the Germans, who seemed to spend all their time in discussion, while keeping up only the appearance of maintaining a watch over us.
     Late that evening, we got the usual stewed veg dished out, not by the Jerries, but by our Preacher and several of his cronies – a further indication of our guards’ loss of interest in us.’
(2) Soldaten: soldiers.
(3) The Iron Cross: originated in Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars, says Wikipedia, it became degraded by mass awards in World War I, during which the German Army handed out at least 5.4 million, including two to Adolph Hitler.
(4) Acorn juice posed as coffee in times of shortage.
(5) Fertig: finished.
(6) The final steps towards Armistice had begun on September 29, 1918, when General Ludendorff told the Kaiser he could not guarantee holding the line for another 24 hours; he called for an immediate ceasefire, ceding to the demands of President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points”, issued in January, 1918. Soon after that, Ludendorff changed his mind about suing for peace, but by then the German Army’s morale had collapsed and the Navy mutiny of October 29-30 (at Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea, then Kiel on the Baltic) incited a revolutionary spirit which rapidly spread across the country. The combatants agreed the Armistice on November 11, the day after the Kaiser’s abdication, and it came into force at 11am Paris time (hence “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of sonorous cliché). The German soldier whom my father heard shouting about it may have got the news a day or so later or perhaps he was echoing a false rumour in advance of the actual signing – although my father’s assumption remained that this was indeed November 11 and he may well have been right, although generally he hadn’t been able to keep track of dates. Having nothing else definite to go on, I’m tentatively dating events from here on as if the German soldier and my father were indeed correct. Under the Armistice terms, Germany agreed to complete demilitarisation and the occupation of the Rhineland by American, Belgian, British and French Armies. The parties did not agree and sign the final Peace Treaty (of Versailles) until June 28, 1919. The establishment of Germany’s Weimar Republic followed in August.
(7) See the October 28 Blog for a characterisation of the Preacher, ostentatious in his religiosity, Sam reckoned, because he had grown modestly fat while others wasted away because he took full advantage of his position as a POW “trusty” in the camp cookhouse.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam’s long walk westwards begins… the still hate-filled guard he calls “Haybag” drives the POWs past a blazing ammunition dump… and before the day is out Sam is tottering along on his own… “I felt like the last man on Earth”.

(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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