“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
Sunday, 31 August 2014
August 1914: young Sam the joker finds "they didn't have a laugh left in them"
A hundred years ago… following the terrible first British defeat at Mons, in Belgium, near the French border, the BEF continued its retreat. It fought rearguard actions at Le Cateau August 26 (13,000 wounded and dead, British and German) and Etreux August 27 (three companies of the 2nd Royal Munsters, outnumbered 6-1, delayed the German advance for 14 hours). But the 28th saw the first British victory – in the first naval battle, at Heligoland Bight (six German vessels sunk, 712 dead, and 35 on the British ships).
Meanwhile, war swiftly circled the world in ways I never heard of till I edited and researched around my father’s Memoir: on the 27th, Japanese and British fleets attacked the German-held port of Tsingtao, China; today, the 30th, is the centenary of New Zealand successfully invading German Samoa.
And, back home, in the small world of a individual London working lad, Sam Sutcliffe, 16, hoped he might continue to be just a boy for a little longer – learning about life, playing practical jokes…
As an office boy at a mining company’s City HQ, Sam’s immediate boss was known as “Sergeant”, because he’d served in the Army from boyhood. Memory photographic as usual, Sam describes him:
“Back straight as a ramrod, legs slightly bowed, clipped moustache iron-grey and hair about two inches long, oiled, parted in the middle, his eyes dark, sharp, penetrating – almost black – with bushy, grey eyebrows above them, and complexion sallow, parchment-like from service in India; he could cause trepidation with a look. He wore a black uniform of quality cloth with some gold-braid trimming and three gold stripes on each arm, lacquered buttons, and several medal ribbons on the left breast. His shoes shone.” (The uniform came from the Corps Of Commissionaires, not the Army.)
Sam notes how, often to his shame, he felt in thrall to this imposing, yet somewhat unsavoury man – not only a groper of the poor girls who came by selling carbon paper, but a bitter behind-the-hand gossip about his “superiors” in the company. Yet Sam, too, frequently remarked on how that society in 1914 delineated social difference and ensured that people like him – from a poor family in Edmonton, left school at 14 – knew where they stood and stayed there. Here’s a scene from the end of the working day (bearing in mind that Sam wrote the first section of his memoir in the third person and called himself “Tommy”):
“The old boy’s train home went from Liverpool Street too so Tommy… was permitted to walk with him… Tommy strode out to keep step. Comical he must have looked in his skintight trousers and short, bum-freezer jacket, topped off with the square, bowler hard hat.
The gentry favoured a different bowler with the brim curled up at the sides and a half-spherical crown. Thus one could easily distinguish the officers from the other ranks – though a closer look would further reveal jackets of fine-quality cloth, more fully cut too, and trousers more fully shaped from the top to the narrow bottom (permanent turn-ups had not been heard of; a man turned up the bottoms of his working trousers only if they were too long for him).”
Tommy/Sam noticed all this, but didn’t torment himself about it. On the other hand, he saw the apparently staunch Sergeant twisting himself into knots over his lifetime of diverse servitude:
“Men like him knew and maintained an expected code of conduct – although, curiously, they had, and they showed, contempt for anyone of their own class who attempted to improve their status by study and hard work. Yet these old and trusted servants also felt they were themselves aping the gentry and becoming traitors to their kind thereby — if one can follow that line of thought.
Many a tirade on these matters assaulted Tommy’s ears. Sergeant in his lunchtime strode the office floor: a bite of his sandwich, a champing of the jaw muscles, a long swig from a tankard of beer, and out flowed the bitter words. [Company Secretary] FCB, and Sampson, head of accounts, and Otley, the top draftsman, all came in for it, the last classed as a ‘homo’ as well as an upstart.
But the upper classes, equally, could bring on a rant. The very men with whom Sergeant shared a number of confidences on a servant-and-master basis, who trusted him – rightly so – were, apart from business considerations, enemies of his class. Wont to growl, ‘God bless the Squire and his relations/Long may they keep us in our stations’ – probably the only couplet of verse he knew – he repeated it endlessly in the course of his lunchtimes orations. The boy listened, but kept his own council.”
Still, Tommy/Sam remained eager to please – to which end he would deploy his own ribald sense of humour. Especially in August, 1914, when his every other waking minute turned to wonderings about the war and what he should do and when…
“On one occasion, Tommy tried to introduce a little fun into the now gloomy life at the office. On the street outside the company building a newspaper deliverer stopped him – they dashed about the City on bikes with high handlebars and low saddles.
The chap said, ‘Like to buy one of these for a penny?’ He held out what appeared to be a small booklet. Tommy opened it to find it comprised just two pages. The first thing he saw was a piece of sandpaper glued to the inside of the back cover. Then he noticed a rhyme printed on the inside of the front cover. Somebody had cudgeled his brains to work this thing out and come up with the following: ‘As times are hard/Please buy this card/Dame Fortune I can’t make her/But let that pass/Just wipe your XXXX/Upon this piece of paper.’
The painful consequences… poor humour, coarse humour. Tommy laughed heartily. But he had to tell the man, ‘I’ve got no money, I can’t buy it’.
However, at home that evening, he found a piece of sandpaper and a piece of card, pinned them together, wrote this elegant rhyme inside, and took it to the office next morning.
He showed it to Sergeant who roared and, in his usual way, passed it round the various parts of the office. Under cover. Later though, crestfallen, Sergeant reported scarcely a grin, scarcely a chuckle, everyone apparently so borne down by the weight of the war they didn’t have a laugh left in them.”