|See Footnote (11) for reference in this Blog.|
“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, 23 December 2018
Sam settles into another hospital, but it’s in London this time – his father, who’d had no idea where he was, visits and looks “happier than I could ever remember”… and finally, Sam’s home, “I pushed the old iron gate open… that first lovely Ma-made cuppa…”
Sam’s Memoir(1) – 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 the Memoir or Gallipoli & Somme & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association here.
The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…
All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross – and the current running donations total as of December 4 is £3,772.16 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… US President Wilson met British PM Lloyd George in London (December 27), the day before the announcement of the General Election results – which now look rather significant.
Despite first votes for all men over 21 and women over 30, in a way it was no-change. The war-time Lib-Con coalition continued, but with the Libs split and undermined long-term – the Tories under Bonar Law won 382 seats with 4,000,000 votes, while Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals took 127 seats with 1,300,000, and Asquith’s “traditional” Liberals got the same number of votes but only 36 seats, down 236. Meanwhile, Labour came second in the popular vote with 2,100,000 and landed just 57 seats and Sinn Fein scored 73 from 476,000 votes (then didn’t attend as they prepared to launch the Irish War Of Independence the following month). Proportional representation would have rewritten the whole thing!
Even so, although that added up to continuity of a sort, in Berlin recurring civil unrest saw revolutionary Navy sailors pitted against the Army (December 24) with the military winning for the Government, such as it was. In Posen, Prussia, a long-standing territorial dispute with Poland erupted into fighting the day after Jan Paderewski delivered a speech in Poznan (December 27) which seems to have instigated the Greater Poland Uprising.
And further east, jockeying by all concerned proceeded. Admiral Kolchak’s anti-Bolshevik Russian and Czech force drove east to take Perm, East Russia, 800 miles from their base in Omsk, where he’d been declared Dictator five weeks earlier. At the same time, the British escalated their running interference in former Russian states now striving for independence: they entered Batum, Georgia, previously occupied by the Turks (December 27), and Riga, Latvia (29) while the cruiser HMS Calypso captured two Bolshevik destroyers off Reval (now Talinn), Estonia.
[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 Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until, in mid-March, he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux 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 hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany near a village called Hügelheim and finally moving westwards to a Lorraine village where they remained until Armistice – at which his long trek towards the French Front began. He finally reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably) and then started his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – through the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen, the diverse kindnesses of poilus, an old Frenchwoman who gave him chocolate, (freezing) members of the Chinese Labour Corps who swapped him snaffled cheese for snaffled cardigans… and the less well-conceived efforts of several people who nearly killed him with overfeeding and a Madame who offered him a girl he quite literally wasn’t up to…]
December 10-15ish, 1918, Lewisham Hospital and… home: last week, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, concluded his restorative tour of Allied military hospitals in France with a well-fed stint at the American hospital at Rouen racecourse where he ended up with his mind locked into a joyful mantra: “The bloody war is over, the ruddy war is finished…” The medics must have noticed his all-round more robust demeanour because “suddenly”, as he wrote (it was December 10), he found himself on a hospital train to Boulogne and across the Channel, “and off through the lovely English countryside into Victoria station and dear old London town…”
‘Like all such hospital trains during that war, ours was met by Red Cross workers – those volunteers fortunate enough to possess cars. First they handed me that ever-welcome cuppa, then a long envelope and a tag with “Lewisham Hospital”(2) written on it. A very nice lady looked in through the open carriage door and invited the three men nearest to her, and that included me, to go along with her.
So, off across the river in her chauffeur-driven car – my first visit to that part of London, though I recalled that a lad with the Roman name of Praetor(3) from pre-war office days, had lived in that area.
“Care and observation” was given as the reason for my presence there. Kindly doctors spent time going over my abdomen, fingers probing here and there and finally settling in one spot. Some slight damage, they noted, from my digestive upsets as a prisoner, and the upheavals caused by excessive kindness after my return to the Allied lines. But it seemed I had been more fortunate than some repatriated men.
They warned me to be careful about my diet; meals must be lighter than most people took – white chicken meat and eggs lightly boiled came highly recommended – fried food should be avoided, and moderation emphasised above all, specifically little or no alcoholic drink. By using common sense, he said, I could avoid the worst kind of abdominal distension I’d experienced. They gave me a letter to hand to my family doctor and told me I would be free to leave in three days.
That hospital had about it a subdued air, as though cessation of intense wartime activity had left the nursing staff drained and weary. But all treated chaps like me with special kindness and consideration. They had heard about our difficulties and read about them in the papers, which now commonly carried appeals for understanding of the mental illnesses which maltreatment had given rise to in some returning prisoners.
Such articles and official advice counselled patience to families if relatives, whom they knew to be alive though captive, did not come home for a time. Some of them remained stranded in countries like Poland, singly or in small groups, held prisoner in isolated villages where news of the Armistice had not yet penetrated. Some, though freed, were believed wandering, and faring badly, among a German population in a state of panic and blind disorder, having lost a war their Kaiser and his minions had always assured them would bring glorious victory and plunder.
I had been lucky to find my way back into Allied territory so quickly and now excitement and joy filled me to a point where it felt almost too much to bear…
They let me use a telephone. The operator found my father’s office number and I phoned around 8.30am, knowing he would arrive at that time, but not realising he had no knowledge at all of my whereabouts. What a shock for him to hear my voice saying I was in London!
“I’m going to make arrangements to leave the office for the day,” he said. “I shall come to the hospital as quickly as possible – it may be a couple of hours before I’ll see you, but I’ll hurry.” His senior clerk happily took over, he told me later, and he forsook work that day without worry or misgiving.
In that happy time of victory and sudden release from war’s fears and tension, even the meanest employers helped to make family reunions as joyful as possible by giving people short, paid holidays when sons or husbands returned to their families from battlefronts.
My father had never been a demonstrative man, but his greeting on that occasion was the warmest ever and added to my seething, happy excitement. The family had received only one small hint that I might be alive, he told me, just a German field-card with my name and number on it… that card given to me by a young German soldier who passed it through the barbed-wire fence of a prison camp near the Belgian-French frontier. As you may recall, I deleted some of the printed statements on it, leaving a line or two which, I hoped, meant that I was well. That soldier must have added it to the German military mail with his own correspondence and by some miracle it got through, via either Switzerland or Holland, both neutral countries.
Pa looked happier than I could ever remember, and when he slipped a pound note into my hand – it was black, from the wartime, replacing gold sovereigns(4) – I really knew the “war’s over” spirit had gripped him. We talked on for a couple of hours, my adventures of such tremendous interest to him that I had difficulty in prizing out news of family doings and local matters. Finally, he went off, brimming with eagerness to tell Ma and the rest that I had reached England and would be coming home to them in a couple of days.
Army Records must have worked non-stop trying to catch up with the histories of chaps like me; at the hospital, I spent some time filling in a log form covering my doings over the past year – a matter of back-pay to be calculated, for one thing.
Meanwhile, they gave me an address to which I could apply for money on account, and a promise that, when the combatant nations finally declared Peace (a condition of Armistice, or truce, remained in place for months), and the Army began to demobilise, money would be available to tide discharged men over the period between leaving the Services and resuming work as civilians. This provided immediate and wonderfully reassuring relief from anxiety about one’s financial position during readjustment to a life interrupted for four years and more.
Meanwhile, regular hours and good food continued the process of building me up begun by the French, British and American hospitals in France, and it showed in my appearance.
My new-found confidence suffered a slight setback though, when I, with permission, visited a barber’s shop. Explaining the unkempt condition of my hair to the man brought from him assurances that he would be careful and understanding. Although I felt that washing my hair in bath or shower for some weeks had made it quite clean, he shook me more than a little by saying he had found lice in my hair. This threw me right back into the “dirty old, outcast prisoner” category for the moment. But he set to work to kill off the filthy insects and cheerfully reported them all dead and done for after several dousings in curative solutions.
His charge made only a very small inroad into the quid donated by my father, but it would have been worth the lot to get rid of the last living reminder of a now past and painful period.
I left hospital with various papers, including a warrant to travel free to my home, and a long questionnaire enquiring about what had happened to me in prison camps and who had been in charge. There was going to be trial and punishment for Germans who had been cruel to our men.
But I thought such matters could be put aside for at least a couple of weeks. I intended to devote my time to the pleasures of rejoining the family, meeting old friends – if any had survived – and, very important, welcoming dear old Wally(5), introducing him to my parents and having him share my bedroom for a few yarn-exchanging nights, if the two single beds were still there.
Everything seemed larger than life on my journey from Lewisham to London Bridge on the upper deck of a tram(6). Then, a short bus ride took me to Liverpool Street where I exchanged the travel warrant for a ticket, and in half an hour I was walking the last few hundred yards from Edmonton Green station to my home.
To me, that walk was full of significance; my first time out as a completely free man, able to go wherever I chose to go, no obligation to report my whereabouts to anyone, and about to enjoy all the pleasures of reunion with the family who would be as delighted as I was that we could all be together again, free of wartime tensions. No more air raids(7) to send them into shelter under the stairs, no more stinking trenches for me. Just peace, wonderful Peace, and happy living for all for ever after.
So I pushed the old iron gate open, closed it behind me, and looked up into the bare branches of the great sycamore tree which stood next to our house(8). Then, turning my back to the house, I gazed across the busy main road with its tramlines and overhead wires to the shops opposite… All small businesses and only one whose owner I had known before the war… I had usually bought my shoes from him.
Looking half-right, I could see some cottages, a ladies’ hairdresser’s, a newsagent’s and an undertaker’s – the last, whose premises I now hoped not to patronise for a while yet, displaying a desirable coffin in the window. On the corner of our street, facing the funeral parlour, stood the pub, adjacent to a double-fronted dairyman’s place, a ladies’ and children’s wear shop, a grocer’s and sub-Post Office, toyshop, basket-ware emporium, and finally the watch repairer.
Now to face the front door, walk up two stone steps to the old-fashioned porch – two round pillars supporting its plaster-ornamented roof – put my finger on the bell push… and set everything in motion which would begin to shape a new and, I hoped, happy and prosperous future.
A moment later, my mother stood by the open door, surprised, almost shocked at my sudden appearance there. She greeted me warmly, without restraint, and I wasn’t reticent either… when we had parted, in late 1917, we had talked with some foreboding of the expected massive German attack about which the enemy had boasted openly.
Over that first, lovely, Ma-made cuppa, we discussed everything as it came to mind. Considerable time passed before it dawned on me that my anticipated massive homecoming welcome had so far been limited to a mum-and-son reunion. I’d forgotten that the world’s work must go on, in spite of what may have appeared to me the Earth-shaking event of the year, my return to our family home.
So Ma brought me up to date on the rest of the family. My elder sister now worked in a factory producing aeroplane wings, my younger brother made bits and pieces which went into the planes, and my baby sister attended a nursery school only two doors away from our house(9). At that time of day, Pa was at his office – and good old brother Ted remained abroad still, although our father had, with help from a friend who knew about these things, got a message through to the Observer Group of the Royal Engineers to tell him that his beloved lost brother had turned up alive after being released from captivity in enemy hands. A dispensation to allow Ted home could be granted now that hostilities had ceased.
Then Ma told me the story of the German field-card in more detail. In August of 1918, Ted – home on seven days’ leave – answered a knock on the door and the postman handed him a strange card printed in, of all things, German. He understood a word or two from having worked alongside a German in pre-war days, and, of course, my signature at the bottom needed no interpretation… their first intimation for many months that, although in enemy hands, I was alive.
Ma told me how the stoical, hard-hitting Ted had stood and stared, then shed tears of joy and cheered. After calming down a little, he dressed in his battle-stained(10), but now well-washed uniform and went off to the War Office to obtain further details about my immediate future and my return, if such was available.
That evening, he told the family that, when he finally found the appropriate office, the clerk thanked him for providing the first news about me they had received for some months. And soon after Ted’s War Office visit, a message came to the house informing the family that I was now a prisoner in German hands. Surprise, surprise! They failed to mention that their informant was my brother(11).’
(2) Lewisham Hospital was founded in 1894, renamed Lewisham Military Hospital during World War I, and later University Hospital Lewisham.
(3) My father spelt him in a less Roman way – Praeter – when the lad joined Lake & Currie as junior to even my father’s junior office boy post in 1915/16 – Chapter 11 of the Memoir.
(4) In fact, private banks had issued notes since 1698, says Wikipedia, but this right was gradually eroded by law and ended in 1921; meanwhile, in 1914 HM Treasury acquired wartime powers to issue £1 and 10/- (10 shillings = 50p) bank notes and did so until 1928.
(5) Wally, along with another POW called George, had formed a food-sharing syndicate with Sam during the summer while they were imprisoned near Hügelheim and in the unnamed “Lorraine village”.
(6) If the doctors stuck to their prescription of three further hospital days of recovery for Sam he’d have gone home on December 13-15, depending on how they were counting.
(7) German airships and planes bombed many British towns – including some strikes on north-east London – during World War I, though not on anything remotely like the scale of the World War II blitz. A fascinating detail I ran across: among the casualties of a raid on March 7, 1918, was Lena Ford, who wrote the lyrics to Keep The Home Fires Burning (music by Ivor Novello) – an American, born 1870 in Pennsylvania, she lived in London for her last 20 years and, during the war, opened her home to soldiers passing through.
(8) They’d moved to 317, Fore Street, Edmonton (from 26, Lowden Road), in late 1917 – Sam happened to be home on leave at the time, jut before he shipped back to France for the last time.
(9) Older sister Ciss/Dorothy (born December 3, 1894), Alf (1903), Edie (May 22, 1912). Brother Frank Sydney (June 5, 1900; Sidney in some documents) had died of diphtheria, aged 12, in 1912, the same year in which their baby brother John (April 11, 1911) died, aged 1, having “failed to thrive”. Their parents were Charles Philip (April 29, 1864, Manchester), and Lily Emma, née Fleetwood (August 18, 1872, Lincolnshire).
(10) Ted had served on and around the Western Front since the Somme Battle in 1916.
(11) The official records – so it may be true – in the shape of my father’s ‘Casualty Form – Active Service’ (see scan below) aver that news of Sam being a POW (rather than “Missing”, his previous status since April 1, 1918, after the 2/7th Essex had counted their March 28 losses at Fampoux) came through on September 9, 1918, not in August as my father recalled from talking to his mother. The form also states he was a “Prisoner of War at Parchim”. Which he wasn’t, of course, Parchim, in the far north of Germany, near the Baltic, was one of the main POW camps in World War I. So probably Sam’s chance-your-arm field-card, left in the hands of a kindly German soldier at the Sancourt POW camp, Somme department, sometime in late spring/early summer (see Blog June 3, 2018), passed through a central POW postal facility there and so onward to England via one route or another.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Retro FootSoldierSam Christmases past… 1906-ish, Sam’s 8 and away from his own struggling and hard-pressed family for the day at choirmate Reg Curtis’s home… 1914, and, on Christmas Eve, Sam’s Royal Fusiliers near-mutiny in Tonbridge when their officers forget the men might like to get home; but when Sam and brother Ted get home the family warms up like never before… Christmas, 1915, just after the Suvla Bay evacuation, the brothers and their Regiment feast on Lemnos, then on Boxing Day they’re sent back into Gallipoli to see in the New Year under fire…
(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.