“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 December 2018

Sam, after his breakdown in a French hospital, is tended by poilu pal Paul and braced by a medicinal diet of champagne and brandy. Then an English visitor whisks him away and the medical regime switches to Guinness. Recovering, he takes a walk and a Madame makes him an offer he…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… The peace continued to evolve, the main event for the British being the General Election on December 14 – the result delayed for a further two weeks so that servicemen overseas could vote. Swift legislation had ensured that women could vote for the first time (although only the over-30s) and all men over 21 too (they didn’t have to own property any more; combined, this enfranchised 13.7 million people, an increase of more than 250 per cent).
    Meanwhile, the Allies’ occupation of Germany proceeded quite slowly. American troops reached the Rhine between Brohl and Rolandseck (December 9; 38 miles apart) and Coblenz two days later; the British military governor of Cologne, Sir Charles Fergusson, entered the city and hoisted the Union Jack (11), British troops there soon joined by the Canadians; and the French entered Mainz (14; all of these towns in Rhineland-Palatinate).
    As peace treaty negotiations went on, the Allies agreed an extension to the Armistice for a month until January 17 (December 14) – and that same day their controversial and ambivalent ally, the dictatorial President Sidonio Pais of Portugal, was assassinated.
    Further east, Ukrainian revolutionary forces occupied Odessa, on the Black Sea (December 11), but I can’t find any reference to clarify whether this came from left or right. And the consolidation of Romania saw Bessarabia (now mostly in Moldova) volunteer union (10).
    Mopping up after the Ottoman surrender in the Middle East led to the British occupying Hodeida as the Turkish Army surrendered and retreated (December 13; then in southern Arabia, now in Yemen).

[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. 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). In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied for Brigade HQ in Arras and at the nearby 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 German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, 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 doing all sorts of hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany between the Rhine and the Black Forest near a village called Hügelheim (tending sick German war horses) and finally moving westwards to a village in Lorraine where they remained until Armistice – at which his long walk towards the French Front began and the events below ensued… ]

November 20-25ish, 1918, a French military hospital in Nancy, France… My father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe – after eight months of slow starvation and much brutality as a POW and, post-Armistice, a four-day walk back to the French lines – last week collapsed on the street because of a big meal his tortured guts just couldn’t take and was picked up by two poilus(the “hairies” as the French called their Tommies) who took him to their own hospital.
    There Sam received much kindness, but had his one brief “breakdown” – his own word for it – succumbing to floods of tears, shaking… “a right mess”. He couldn’t even stand up and, again, a poilu picked him up off the floor – this time a fellow patient, Paul, who then, via soldierly communication in fragments of French, German and English, became his good friend and temporary chief carer:

‘I was then 20 years old, Paul about 30. A man of infinite kindness and patience, he forbade me to leave my bed except to use the “seau” or bucket. I must call him when in need and say “Portez le seau”. A patient himself, but almost recovered from his disability, he thereafter made his care of me almost a full-time job. Except during necessary absences, Paul sat at the bottom of my bed and we exchanged thoughts in our peculiar way or looked around this large square area jammed tight with beds and wounded men, most of them mobile.
     My friend did step aside when the nurse who had admitted me guided a doctor to my bed… English books and weekly magazines of that period would depict French doctors as men in long, white coats, pale of face but wearing rather full black beards. And thus I would describe this doctor who looked down at me, took my pulse, examined eyes and tongue, took my temperature, and examined my distended belly with his hands. After his visit, I was given no solid food but, four times daily, a small measure of, according to Paul, champagne and brandy.
     Injured-but-convalescentpoilusconstantly arrived and departed, but I cannot recall ever seeing a nurse in that area except when with a doctor on one of their rare visits. Not a bad system, though, where mobile patients would benefit from walking to appropriate clinics… Such thoughts occur to me now, but I doubt if they did then.
     However, the picture of that blue-clad crowd remains clearly in my mind; there could be but one explanation for their cheery self-help and mutual regard for one another’s welfare. Under stress of warfare, general tension made men most regardful of their personal survival and available comforts. But fighting had stopped, risk of imminent injury or death had gone, and soldiers could now allow themselves to relax and enjoy all those little things which, for them, had passed unnoticed when life itself was an uncertain possibility.
     While not a real member of their community, I could feel their happiness and daylong pleasure in this new way of living as they sat about or lay abed or went about their little bits of business. They’d be back in the city or down on the farm very soon; if they had survived a long and awful war, then coping with peace conditions would be simple. That sort of ease and hope pervaded the place.
     Quiet Paul would mix with the crowd from time to time, then return to tell me about some detail he’d picked up. Most of this I understood from our partial language and gesture system, but if it was too difficult I would signify partial comprehension by facial expressions and he might have another go or use the familiar “sanfairyann(2)" as we British soldiers pronounced it and the French didn’t. We compried(3) all right.
     After a few days, the doctor allowed me some sort of milk food and, believing I had regained strength, I sat up, stood up, and then fell back on the bed. But, daily, I drew away from that condition of weakness which had culminated in a breakdown. It became obvious I would soon need outer clothing – my papery prisoner’s garb(4) had vanished at some point, not to my regret, but I couldn’t very well walk around in dirty vest and underpants. Paul went off to attend to this important matter and returned with a brand-new French tunic, trousers and forage cap, all in the well-known medium-blue seen in every city and village throughout France in those war years.
     Voilà, I was a poilu who couldn’t speak his people’s language – and wearing a cap about two sizes smaller than I needed, so just as well we had no mirror and I couldn’t see what a ’nana I looked. Still, it was good to be able to walk, if only a few paces to begin with. I thanked Paul and asked him to convey my thanks to the French Army equipment officer for giving me the uniform.
     I still had to rest on my bed quite a lot and I was dozing under the blankets one afternoon when Paul roused me and I awoke to see a lady standing at the foot of the bed. Smiling like a good-looking mum, she said she was the wife of a Major So-And-So and she had been told that an English soldier was recovering in the Nancy military hospital. I gave her my name, Regiment and recent history, and she said she would make arrangements for an ambulance to take me to her husband’s Royal Army Medical Corps hospital.
     Off she went, and I received my last visit from the good docteurand thanked him for all the kindness accorded me by the French hospital. Really sorry to leave Paul without being able to walk outside and get to know him away from the medical setting, I had to say goodbye too hurriedly when the RAMC Corporal came for me. In a trice, the contact with French friends was broken and lost forever(5).

Our ambulance pulled up amid a forest of large tents, marquees and, on one side of the encampment, a border of Nissen huts – those long corrugated-iron arches with wooden ends and doors which served so many temporary wartime purposes, housing people warmly and protecting stores of all kinds from weather and scroungers alike.
     The Major, RAMC doctor and conspicuously respected boss of the medical side of this huge casualty camp, had assembled a collection of ex-prisoners who needed hospital care after being set free by the Germans. On my arrival, a doctor examined me and an officer wearing an Air Force uniform questioned me in a general sort of way. He told me that, originally, the hospital had been set up to care for casualties of the Independent Air Force(6), a new organisation composed of specially trained Allied and British Empire flyers. Their work took them deeper into enemy territory than had previously been attempted.
     The doctor ordered a light diet for me, with an additional half-pint of Guinness every day – a homely touch indeed and, though no tippler, I knew it would be good for me(7).
     Next morning, having chatted late into the night in our marquee with some other British ex-prisoner, as ordered I went to the camp’s canteen tent. There, the Major explained to a group of us newcomers that he understood some of the problems which might now worry us; we should ask for any help we might require and it would be freely given, he said – before adding an “as far as possible in the circumstances”. Meanwhile, we should adapt to the changed life as quickly as possible, follow doctors’ instructions, and so avoid certain possible adverse reactions – which he didn’t specify.
     Although we who were still at least semi-confined to bed got the same food as the patients who could walk to the mess-tent for meals, I heard many complain of feeling hungry. I’m sure they were grateful for the kind treatment they received, but living as they had done in prison camps had reduced them almost to the level of wild animals and they could not change their behaviour overnight. I would notice men prying into tents or sheds, anywhere something edible might be found and filched. They still regarded one another with suspicious eyes too; they did not smile and generally maintained, even in this pleasant hospital camp, the stale, hopeless atmosphere of the Kriegsgefangenenlager(8).
     When I started to move about a little myself, I came across a number of these men robbing the hospital bakery – the limit in predatory idiocy, surely. They had opened a small window on one side of the small, brick building; one man stood on the shoulders of another, reaching in, grabbing loaves and dropping them down to those waiting below. From some short distance away, on rising ground, I saw that loaves slid past the window on trays, propelled by some means, mechanical or manual. The bakers must have been taking them from the ovens to store for the next morning’s issue.
     This all seemed like the dog eating his own tail and then gobbling his mate’s. At this rate, there would be no food for anybody tomorrow.
     Next morning, all of us were summoned to a meeting in the canteen to hear a statement by the Major. It gave further proof of his tolerance and understanding – a mild reproof about the mass larceny, followed by a surprising instruction to those who still felt hungry after eating the meals provided. They should, said the Major, go to the Quartermaster’s tent at nine o’clock each morning; a ticket would be issued entitling the bearer to a packet of biscuits from the canteen (none of us had any money, and would get none till we rejoined our Regiments).
     How the Major financed the free biscuits issue I couldn’t begin to guess – nor how he came to have such a knowledge of degraded men’s psychology.

Regular meals and ample rest worked wonders for me. One morning, without hindrance, I walked out through the camp gates and entered a village. Walking along the main street, I noticed a woman, probably about the same age as my mother, leaning from an upstairs window. For no particular reason, I continued to look her way as I walked and when she waved and signalled that I should cross the road and join her, I did so.
     When I entered the open front door, I was faced by an open stairway made of rough wood and devoid of bannisters. At the top, I found myself in a large room almost without furniture, but the woman from the balcony now sat there at a sewing-machine. By signs, she indicated that I should seat myself on a box facing her machine. Having some vague idea that she had asked me into her home out of a kindly intention to perhaps offer me a cup of coffee, I sat and awaited developments. But she said nothing, resumed her machining, and thereafter ignored me.
     Embarrassment kept me alternately glancing at her and looking away out of the window. Perhaps she was expecting somebody who could speak her language? Perhaps, maybe, I wonder, and such passed through my confused mind, but never a guess at what, perhaps, should have been obvious… With much relief, I heard footsteps climbing the stairs and, turning that way, I beheld a girl dressed in what seemed to be the most popular colour among French ladies at that time, namely, black. I observed that she had bare legs and feet and somewhat dirty, ragged clothes.
     She stood there, silent, and then I got the shock of all shocks; the machinist indicated that I should go with the beggar-girl (such she appeared to be) to a bed in the far corner of the room. Meanwhile, she, I assumed, would get on with her work and collect cash when I had been served by the poor girl. What a set-up, what a knocking shop! And what a customer – sansmoney, sans desire, and lacking even the strength to raise a stand. Apart from the fact that I had never had a woman and this would not have been my choice either of place or person…(9)
     So I walked out and thus concluded my unforeseen meeting with a Madame and her unwashed Mam’selle.
     I continued my walk, my bewilderment gradually subsiding as I remembered that I was wearing a French Army uniform – Madame must have assumed I was one of her lot and perhaps in search of sexual relief…

I came to a railway with a train stopped and, in absence of a station and platform, several would-be passengers being pushed aloft to board and one or two cautious disembarkations in progress. Then the predicament: a sweet, little, old lady asking me, perhaps, if that was the train to so-and-so. I should have known it was bound to happen. Standing there, enjoying the freedom to look on and to share the pleasures and anxieties of departing and arriving travellers, but in a uniform I could not live up to, since French people naturally expected their soldiery to be helpful.’
(2) “Sanfairyann”: British soldierese for “Ça ne fait rien,” meaning “It doesn’t matter”.
 (3) “Compried” would be derived from French people constantly saying “Avez-vous compris?” to British soldiers i.e. “Did you understand?”
(4) The filthy British Army uniform he’d worn since the March 28 battle at Fampoux had been replaced with the ersatz POW jacket and trousers at the Hügelheim camp during the summer, see Blog August 12, 2018.
(5) It’s difficult to date events in this period as my father refers to nothing more specific than being “a few days” here and another few there. But, given he reached the French lines on November 15 almost certainly, spent a “short period” with other returned British POWs in a village near the trenches, then moved to Nancy where his collapse on the street led to the poilus taking him to the French military hospital – this documented as being on the 20th – for his “few days” of being very ill, I’m guessing the RAMC intervened no earlier than the 25th(-ish). As per a footnote to last week’s Blog, following Armistice the RAMC hospital “42 STY H” (STY meant Stationary Hospital, even though they moved around a good deal) transported itself from Camiers (way up in the Pas-de-Calais) 322 miles southeast to Nancy (Meurthe-et-Moselle) on November 18, 1918, and remained there until March 19, 1919 – and no doubt the French hospital informed the British that they were caring for a Tommy and told them when my father became fit enough to move.
(6) Independent Air Force (IAF): a short-lived World War I strategic bombing force (founded June 6, 1918), part of the Royal Air Force (itself founded April 1, 1918), used to strike against German railways, airfields and industry; statistics don’t suggest the IAF enjoyed great success – 550 tons of bombs dropped and 109 aircraft lost – and it was disbanded soon after the war ended.
 (7) Writing in the ’70s, my father is referring to the long-standing ad slogan “Guinness is good for you” which ran from 1929 for about 40 years.
(8) Kriegsgefangenenlager means prisoner of war camp.
(9) My father really did come through the war a virgin, despite various temptations preferred – this being the last. Apparently, the situation didn’t last too long once he got settled back into civilian life at home.

All the best– FSS

Next week: Sam ends those being-mistaken-for-a-poilu problems by scrounging a British uniform (pre-owned by a dead Tommy, but still…) – and, now he’s found the clothes dump, he does a crafty bit of business with some freezing Chinese Labour Corps lads. And so on to an American hospital where he can get some good meals under his belt at last… even though some German POWs there die of food poisoning! Finally, a romantic interlude… for two other people. And home. Yes, back to dear old Blighty.

(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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