“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)
Thursday, 21 August 2014
Two weeks in: "It'll be all over by Christmas!" – excitement and unease
Out Now! Nobody Of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier's Memoir Of WW1
A hundred years ago… And two weeks on from the German invasion of Belgium, Great Britain's immediate declaration of war on Germany, that lights-out night, hardly a shot fired in anger for another few days, and meanwhile the country seethed. Every head full of heroic fantasies or terrible fears, the former much talked about, the latter less so.
My father lived through that strange period of wondering and worrying and, much later, wrote it all down from his own point of view; Sam Sutcliffe, 16 that July, son of a poor family living in Edmonton, north London, out at work for two years by then as a junior office boy at the City HQ of a mining company called Lake & Currie...
To make sense of this blog, new readers need to know that my father set out on his memoir writing in the third person, telling the story of "Tommy Norcliffe", a thin disguise for himself, of course. In the following passage, F.C.Bull, is Company Secretary — that is, a very senior executive – at Lake & Currie, a man much admired by Tommy/Sam:
"Workers went on with their jobs, but it was obvious their thoughts were on other things. Each day, the younger men either moved nearer to volunteering for military service or worried about the possibility of being conscripted as soon as a law to make service compulsory passed through Parliament. However, that did not, as one might have expected, happen immediately*…
Company Secretary F.C. Bull, with knowledge to back his forecast, made no attempt to conceal his pessimism with regard to those companies owning property in Africa and Asia whose affairs he handled. German submarines would cripple our sea transportation, said he, sagely.
Most people thought it would be a short war, 'all over by Christmas'. The minority, like F.C. Bull, who read and listened to those with some real knowledge of the situation, knew the struggle would probably be long and difficult. Pessimists even gave reasons why, if we weren’t careful, we might lose this war. They reminded one that the royal family bore the German name Guelph, their origins Hanoverian. And they would argue sarcastically that the Army was all ready to fight… the Boer War again! Such opinions, of course, offended the loquacious patriots — 'Treasonable,' said some."
Schools were mid-holiday that August as now, but the authorities issued new regulations about one aspect of their conduct when the new year started in September – an example, my father felt, of how some of the radical changes taking place could seem rather comforting:
"Schools now had to teach children the anthems of Britain’s allies — in English, except that, in grammar schools, they sang The Marseillaise in French. The Belgian national anthem became familiar to all. So did the Russian. Gradually a feeling grew that we were one of a group of nations and this gave a sense of confidence.
Rumours of large numbers of Russian soldiers seen on trains travelling through the English countryside spread and reinforced this optimism — the joke was that Russia had dispatched these soldiers so quickly they still had snow on their boots."
But every one of the country's young men had decisions to chew over. The "four lads" my father refers to here, travelling in to work by train from Edmonton to Liverpool Street, are his then 18-year-old brother Ted, and Ted's two friends Len and Harold:
"On the train each morning, the four lads discussed the latest news, telling each other about chaps who had either been recalled to their units or had volunteered to go. They talked with both excitement and unease. Confused emotions pervaded them and everybody around them.
One morning when Tommy got to work he heard that young Breeman had joined up – the chap in the accounts office he admired so much. Tommy thought what a splendid officer he would make, a good physical specimen, mentally alert at all times. But the gap in the ranks at the office only increased that sense of unease, that something was wrong somewhere…"
* In fact, the Government did not introduce conscription until January, 1916; the extraordinary wave of volunteerism met the war's demands until then. Next week (probably; there's a lot going on): some FootSoldierSam verbal snapshots from brink-of-war London life 1914 – for the workers and the wealthy.