“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, 13 January 2019
January, 1919: Sam’s rolling in it – heaps of back-pay for his eight months as a POW – and he and his prisoner pal and food-snaffling partner Wally have a wonderful reunion, “a rejoining of threads broken” on that long trek back from Germany…
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 Memoirconcludes 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 January 2, 2019, is £3,841.91 (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… On January 17, the Allies gathered in Versailles and extended the ceasefire with Germany for the second time, again for just a month through to February 16. The following day, the Versailles Peace Conference began. It promptly elected Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau as president, then allocated the representatives of the 32 Allied nations present to 52 commissions which were to hold 1,646 sessions to prepare reports informing the five subsequent treaties later agreed through to August 10, 1920 – but the real decisions were taken in 145 “informal” meetings between the “Big Four”, France, Great Britain, Italy and USA (with Japan, engaged only nominally).
The “enemy” nations merely awaited instructions.
But in Berlin the German Government, via it’s semi-official Freikorps force of so-called old soldiers, concluded the crushing of the Spartacist rebellion (January 13) with the torture and summary murder of its leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg two days later. A general election followed (19).
In Russia, the prodigiously scattered Bolshevik endeavour to defeat the Allies’ piecemeal incursions proceeded with a setback way down in Merv, modern Turkmenistan (January 16; 2,150 miles southeast of Moscow) and a 50-mile advance against British and US troops at Shenkursk, in Archangel province (19; 550 miles northeast of Moscow).
[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 and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He 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 – via the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen… despite being nearly killed by overfeeding a couple of times. Finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before he was allowed home and reunited with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave…]
January, 1919, at home in Edmonton, north London: after last week’s joyful-sad reunion with brother Ted, home for a week on special leave from Belgium and wheezing from the gas poisoning which was to kill him three years later, my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, is taking his ease with a walletful of back pay and the hope of renewing a POW friendship or two…
‘During my first few days at home, I had visited an Army office where they handed me a form entitling me to one whole month’s leave of absence, and several pounds in pay to be getting on with(2). So, in that sense, all seemed grand. Most days I passed in looking around and chatting with the odd acquaintance I met. Then a letter came from Wally, my provider in bad times back in Deutschland(3)– they’d already begun to seem like distant days. He would visit us at any time convenient to my parents, he said, and on their invitation I asked him – in a long letter telling him about my travels since we had been so strangely separated(4).
He brought pleasure to all our family with his simple enjoyment of everything, including the specially prepared meals – although not costly, they contrasted marvellously with those bits of black bread and burnt-acorn ersatz coffee which barely kept us alive for much of 1918. His speech – a touch of the Essex country – and his big, blue eyes and cheery grin played their part, along with his expressive words and gestures. He described to my family the great differences between the sweetness of his life since returning home and the horrible existence from which he had recently escaped.
When I took him walking along the main road, he gazed this way and that because, seen through the eyes of a man so newly freed from a prisoner-of-war environment, ordinary houses and shops looked like marvels of architecture. I was even able to treat him to what had been a boyhood Saturday-night indulgence – a raspberry-flavoured hot drink and a French pastry taken in a little shop still run by an elderly Scot and his wife. He really liked that and, to me, it represented a rejoining of threads broken, it seemed, many years ago. So it went on, with small things of no significance to others looming large at that time.
Wally was too fond of his family to stay away for long and soon he left us, greatly to everyone’s regret, but with my return visit to his home already arranged.
So, shortly, I travelled over to the small Essex town where his family lived in what had been the village store in bygone days. The wide, front window was draped with lace curtains and, when I pushed at the door, the old shop bell tinkled and brought forth a rush of young people who needed no introduction to me, nor I to them: a girl of about 19, a boy two years younger, and two more girls probably 15 and 13.
I was their brother, apparently, because I’d lived with Wally “over there”. Generous must have been his account of my conduct during that mutual-help period, and I felt a bit of a fraud when they sat me at the table, plied me with a vast amount of lovely grub and, chattering happily, asked questions and repeated things Wally had told them about our ordeal. They expressed sympathy, but in a comical sort of way and had me and Wally laughing and beginning to feel it had all been a bit of a lark after all.
Fresh, bright, unsophisticated, they soon taught the pair of us the importance of enjoying the pleasures to hand. What the heck – we played with the children, or talked about our war prisoner days as if in memory of sunny happiness. Just the sort of tonic one needed when the odd moment of depression could raise doubts about one’s future.’
(2) Normal procedure would mean that Sam was almost certainly listed as dead a month after he went “missing in action” at Fampoux, March 28, 1918. But then in August the German field card declaring he was a POW, posted some while earlier by a German soldier who passed by one of the camps he was detained in, reached his home and his brother Ted passed it to the War Office (see the handwritten note towards the top of the page below, indicating he was at Parchim POW camp – which he never was in fact, but the card probably passed through the postal system there). This probably meant the Army back-paid hium for the entire period of his incarceration and post-Armistice recovery. He noted much earlier that he started the war on one shilling a day, and then he earned a little more as a Signaller, but I can’t find any figures on British soldiers’ pay in 1918. One inflation calculator reckons a 103% increase over the four years in UK. Does anyone know whether Tommies’ wages increased accordingly?
(3) My father had formed a food scrounging partnership with Wally, an Essex lad, and his older pal George during their stint tending sick German war horses in a small POW camp outside the village of Hügelheim (in Baden-Württemberg, two miles north of Müllheim, near the Black Forest). The idea arose after they’d done some farm work nearby and a passing German couple – the man a front-line soldier on leave – had given them a saucepanful of boiled potatoes: “We two then ate spuds until, as they say, fit to bust. I now had a pal to think of, a generous soul; the months of near-starvation, of frequently being robbed of bits of food he had procured with difficulty, these souring experiences had not removed the grin from Wally’s face nor the kindness of his nature… I still had a few potatoes hidden under my tunic when we got back to our hut, and Wally asked if I would agree to give a couple of them to George, a friend of longer standing than I was. I can’t say I felt keen on going shares with this stranger, as he was to me; but you couldn’t look into Wal’s open mug and big, blue eyes and refuse even such a costly request.” (See Blog August 9, 2018, and beyond.)
(4) The day after Armistice, the half-starved POWs at their final camp in a Lorraine village my father never named started marching/tottering westwards. At first, the group included Sam, Wally and George, but my father had been a POW for longer than the others (eight months) so, even more malnourished than most, “… because of hunger, weakness and general ill health, this more strenuous pace made me feel light in the head. I responded to the odd remark from Wally, but felt increasingly detached from everything and everybody around me. Worse, with great alarm, I suddenly realised I had left my rolled blanket at our stopping place. I must have turned around and, without a word to anybody, tottered back along the road.” (See Blog November 18, 2018.)
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam completes a circle by visiting the third member of his POW food-scrounging syndicate, “old” George – last seen when they were worn-out skin and bone, now comfy behind a suburban privet hedge. “We wartime pals intended to retain our friendship. Yet…”
(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.