“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, 28 September 2014
Goodbye to all that — Sam tells his boss he's off to be a soldier
A hundred years ago this month… like tens of thousands of young British men, my father Sam Sutcliffe, 16, a working lad from Edmonton, north London, had volunteered to join the Army and was just starting to learn the basics of soldiering. At the same time, joining up involved a whole lot of goodbye to all that — “all that” being the ordinary life of “nobody of any importance” as Sam described himself in the opening paragraph of his World War 1 Memoir.
Meanwhile, the war both spread and intensified. Doing modest research as my late father’s editor, I keep coming across events I knew nothing of via history at school or media documentaries or “folk memory”.
For example, I’d had the impression that the German Army completely overran “little Belgium” in the first few weeks, encountering hardly any resistance. Not true at all. Tomorrow is the centenary of one key battle starting: the Siege of Antwerp — the Belgian Army defending their second city, with French and British support. They surrendered on October 10 (63,000 Belgians captured and/or interned, 2,300 Brits captured), but fell back to the River Yser where they held the line and never took another backward step, ensuring that the western part of Belgium remained unoccupied until 1918, when it became the basis for their push to recover their country.
Well, as ever, that’s the big picture. This is how one London boy muddled on through the nuts and bolts of “doing his bit”…
Sam, his older brother Ted, and their pals Len and Harold all had jobs in the Liverpool Street station area - they travelled in every morning by train from Edmonton Green. But when they all decided to join up they just didn’t turn in to work for the first couple of days and they knew they had to tell their employers what they were up to. A personal appearance was the only way; poor-to-modest homes like theirs didn’t have telephones in those days and the iconic British red public phone boxes didn’t come to the streets of London until 1920.
Worrying constantly that his signed-and-attested lie about being 19 could be exposed at any moment, Sam decided he had to pay his duty call on Lake & Currie, the mining company for whom he’d worked as a junior office boy since soon after leaving school at 14. This is how it went — noting for newcomers that Sam, in this first part of his Memoir, wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”:
“Having parted with his brother by Garlick Hill in Queen Victoria Street, Tommy strolled into Cannon Street. Already this familiar area seemed to have finished with him. From belonging there — he really had come to like the old City — he now felt rejected. Not working there, he had no business to be there.
He turned off by the pub on the corner and walked downhill, towards the river, glancing left and right at the familiar brass nameplates of the firms occupying the old buildings. And so into the small square and the building where he had so recently worked. ‘Had worked’, past tense already. Up the old stairs and into the office, carried along speedily by excitement born of fear about what might happen and a desire to face it all and have done with it. Just a few words from the Company Secretary to the Battalion commander about Tommy’s true age and he’d be in sore trouble…
‘Ah, there you are. Don’t tell me — you’ve got another job. Well, so have I. Do you remember I told you about the War Office work I’d been booked for if war was declared. Well, I start on that next Monday. What’s your news?’ So spake the Sergeant [Army veteran turned Commissionaire/greeter in charge of reception and Tommy/Sam’s direct boss], full of his coming change of work, but pausing just long enough for Tommy to tell of his enlistment in the Army. ‘What as? Drummer boy or something?’ ‘No, ordinary Private.’ ‘But…’
Here Tommy interrupted to tell of his sudden increase in years and to beg the Sergeant not to speak of this to others in the firm. Whatever his view of such a deception in ordinary times, the Sergeant entirely reassured him now, perhaps because he simply had no interest in anything but his own preparations for leaving.
‘Go and see [Company Secretary i.e. top executive] F.C. Bull,’ he said. ‘Tell him what you’re up to. I’m sure he won’t mind. Big changes are coming here. Most of us will be shoving off before the year is out. War breaks up most peacetime arrangements.’
So, along to the Secretary’s office. The customary tap on the door and the call to come in. The bustling little businessman, always signing something, phoning somebody, or hurrying from one office to another, sat quietly and listened to the boy’s story. He said something like, ‘Well, I hope you’ve done the right thing. Strange times these. Who knows what we’ll be doing in a month or a year hence? If the war ends soon, all will be well. If not, this business for one will be finished. I wish you all the luck in the world.’
He gave Tommy a gold half-sovereign. A little overcome, Tommy had difficulty thanking him, but when that surprisingly friendly man said, ‘Now you must come along and tell our Scottish director [Currie] about this,’ he felt scared.
That man was huge and powerful. ‘He will make me look silly,’ thought Tommy. He was very relieved when the big man listened gravely to the Secretary’s account of Tommy’s enlistment. The boisterousness which Tommy feared did break through briefly as the six foot odd of tough, engineer manhood sprang from his chair, raised a mighty hand and brought it down on Tommy’s back in hearty congratulation.
Then, when FCB shook his hand, the Secretary insisted that he should visit the office again before leaving London. Previously, Tommy had felt that few at Lake & Currie knew of his existence, yet now he encountered this great kindness from the top. Saying his goodbyes to the old Sergeant and others, he began to feel regretful that this part of his young life was over. As he walked up the hill again towards the station, the smells drifting up from warehouses and factories along the Thames below seemed almost sweet, homely — qualities they had lacked when working among them was compulsory.
When he got home, he handed his mother the gold coin, worth 10 shillings. Very pleasantly surprised by this, she returned him three shillings for fares and so on. ‘There’ll be more money soon I understand,’ Tommy told her. She looked happier than she had done for many a day.”
Sam/Tommy had his droll way of observing his mother’s interest in money when her son was about to go to war…
That evening, older brother Ted reported rather different reactions to news of his departure – both angrier and more positive – at the paper company where he worked:
“Ted’s employer thought he had acted unreasonably, without warning or consultation. However, he valued Ted’s services and committed to paper a letter stating that he would re-employ him when released by the Army authorities. To this generosity he added the gift of several pounds, expressing his personal view that the war would be over by Christmas or soon afterwards…
All this made Tommy reflect again on the differences in their situations. Clever, persevering and full of self-confidence, Ted had a guaranteed future should he survive the war. Tommy had only the near certainty, as related by F.C. Bull, that his employer’s business would soon disintegrate because of the war.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam/Tommy says goodbye to his Scoutmaster-choirmaster-piano teacher — the mentor who shaped his youthful character.