“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, 31 March 2019
Sam and his pals guarding German POWs in Sussex village are caught up in a tragedy of war’s aftermath as British victims of torture go berserk and bayonet-charge their prisoners…
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.
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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…
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A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… At the Paris Peace Conference, although the Big Four (UK/USA/France/Italy) had taken over, PM Lloyd George saw only complication facing them and reckoned, by comparison, they had it easy after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 because this time “It is not one continent that is engaged – every continent is engaged.” No notable progress reported then – except that renowned administrator Sir Maurice Hankey, the British Cabinet Secretary, moved into the minuting role, along with keeping the discussions on track.
Meanwhile, the latest development in Germany’s internal turmoil saw Bavaria declare itself a Soviet Republic (April 4). And the last major shooting fight of the Allied incursion in northern Russia ended in a bloody draw at the aptly-named village of Bolshie Ozerki (March 31-April 2; about 700 miles north of Moscow). The Allies fought to protect their supply line to ice-bound Archangel and succeeded, while suffering light casualties compared to the Red Army’s 2,000. But after the battle, the Bolsheviks withdrew from the area and, as soon as the waters of the River Dvina and the White Sea thawed, the Allies began their evacuation from Archangel.
[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 mid-March when 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). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit. Meaning, at first, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton. But now, something completely different…Sam as ex-POW guards German POWs…]
April, 1919, Sussex: Sam and his group of fellow ex-POWs had been sent to a small village called East Preston, about five miles southeast of Arundel where, to their considerable surprise, they were deployed to guard German POWs detained in Preston Place, the local sometime semi-stately home.
Their task, a Winston Churchill wheeze (as then Secretary Of State For War), is to allow this duty to defuse any remaining hatred or lust for vengeance on their recent enemies and jailors. In Sam’s case it only just worked (see Blog March 17, 2019) – without him shooting a German POW, that is – but in a few days he recovered his balance. So in last week’s excerpt he befriended several of his charges, all men like himself who’d fought in the trenches and thus had something significant in common.
However, this week two new arrivals offer a fresh challenge to Churchill’s optimistic notion:
‘After a while, two new British ex-prisoners joined our guard detail – two men who never became friendly with any of us. But, to anyone who showed willing to listen, they repeated an account of one aspect of their own lives as prisoners… The Jerries had sent them to work in mines in Eastern Germany and they had both refused to go below. To punish them, their guards hung them by their ankles head-downwards over a pit-shaft – for hours, I don’t remember how long they said it was. This awful experience had caused mental derangement, though more in one man than the other.
In their absence, the Sergeant in charge of my section told us the two had joined us late because they had been detained in a mental hospital for treatment. They were now cured, normal, he said, but we must both make allowances and keep an eye on them. This proved justified.
One night, a small party of us on standby duty were enjoying a game of cards in the rest room when we heard rifle shots. We grabbed our guns and awaited orders from our Sergeant. He said that the men on guard must first deal with the trouble and they would call for our help if necessary.
Some time later, we heard footsteps slowly climbing the stairs to our room; four or five of our men flung the door open and burst in carrying a stretcher on which one of the newcomers was strapped down. The Corporal-In-Charge slowly made his report, while the Sergeant wrote notes: “[The man on the stretcher] and his companion were heard shouting, ‘Charge the swine!’ I ran towards them, but was unable to stop them from charging with bayonets fixed and firing their rifles as they ran towards one of the prisoners’ dormitories. Inside, the Germans ran about trying to avoid being bayoneted, but one of them got an arm wound before we overpowered the two men. The violent one we secured by strapping him to the stretcher and the other, quieter chap is being held by two men.”
The Sergeant telephoned the mental hospital from which they had been released(1). Soon an ambulance arrived and two men in white coats took charge of their former patients. The quieter one helped to carry the stretcher down the stairway and, in the ambulance, sat with a hand resting on his pal. His role, as he saw it, was to look after his poorly chum. There was more sorrow than anger about what had occurred, even, it seemed, among the Germans.’
(1) Quite possibly Graylingwell Hospital, Chichester (about 14 miles west of East Preston). It was a civilian mental hospital until March 1915, before conversion to military use. From 1919 until its closure in 2001 it reverted to specialising in mental illness. By one account, Sussex had 84 hospitals by the end of WW1, many in buildings converted from other uses to deal with the great numbers of casualties, mental as well as physical.
All the best– FSS
Next week: Sam takes a hesitant step back in the direction of romance, but… no chance. Speaking of which, he finds himself in Littlehampton*…
* If you don’t know the Cockney rhyming slang you’ll never guess.
(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.