“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)
Saturday, 6 September 2014
Sam, 16, lies about his age and joins up
A hundred years ago this week… Sam Sutcliffe, my father, a working boy from Edmonton, north London, lied about his age and joined the British Army. Meanwhile, the Battle Of The Marne (September 5/6-12, 1914) stopped the war. But only in one sense. It stopped it moving. For the next four years…
Ending the Allies’ “Great Retreat” after Mons just 30 miles from Paris, the French Army drove the German Army back, forcing their abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan which contained no provision for strategic withdrawals, much less defeat. So they dug trenches and, unwittingly, laid the foundations of The Western Front, war as immobile as a slaughterhouse – it would still be there waiting for Sam in 1916, after Gallipoli, when his Battalion was posted to France.
The Marne cost the French and the Germans half a million casualties between them, dead or wounded, and the much depleted British Expeditionary Force a further 13,000.
A month on from Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, as Sam wrote in his Memoir, “An enthusiasm built up among ordinary men. ‘Stand by your country,’ ‘Be prepared to defend it,’ and similar remarks abounded. Accordingly, more and more were actually joining up. Often fearing their civilian jobs would peter out, they felt, even so, they had done the right thing by their families, their country and, of course, themselves.”
Sam – still writing in the third person and calling himself “Tommy” in the first part of the book – clearly hadn’t decided what to do, but he was spending a lot of time with his older brother Ted and his two friends, Len Winns and Harold Mellow, all 18 or 19. They travelled to their various office jobs together on the train every morning from Edmonton to Liverpool Street:
“Around September 8, Tommy recalls, the four pals – although their junior by several years, he tried to think himself into being one of them – went off on their usual train. But when they reached Liverpool Street, the elder three were talking quietly, leaving Tommy on the outside of the conversation. In the end, brother Ted said to him: ‘We’re not going to our offices today. We three are going to join up.’
Perhaps you can imagine the sinking feeling in Tommy when he heard this. Was he going to be left on his own with the diminishing number on the train journey to an office where all was gloom? Was he going to do that? No thinking required. ‘I’m coming with you,’ he said.
Thus, they wended their way from the station, heading north along City Road where they came across a depot of the Royal Field Artillery and went inside…
At about this point fear entered Tommy’s mind. Could he get away with the deception he planned to attempt? There would be penalties for giving false information. But he must try to stay with the other three. They hadn’t encouraged him much, but they did say if Tommy must enlist then perhaps he had better try to join the same crowd…
Talk naturally dwelt on what life would be like in the Army. The idea of living among horses, looking after them and riding them, appealed greatly…”
However, that attempt to enlist came to naught. Later that day, the RFA Sergeant in charge of the depot admitted that, after all, he hadn’t received the necessary authority to recruit people. The four lads went home, agreeing to try again the following day:
“[Tommy] meant to stick with his brother and the others if possible – although a glance in the mirror convinced him that he looked almost childish compared to them. Far removed from chaps who needed to wield cutthroat razors in order to look presentable. “I’m going to be left behind. They’ll be off and away without me,” he feared.
Without giving the subject really deep thought, he became obsessed with the need to go where Len, Harold and Ted went. There’s safety in numbers was what he really felt no doubt. Before he had been allowed to join the three, he had gone his own way, unattached to any specific group, just keeping company with one or two friends. But suddenly those schoolmates had drifted into the background, unconnected with the present.”
So, the next day, they walked from Liverpool Street station to Bloomsbury, found another building bearing the RFA logo and joined a crowd of would-be volunteers. Worried that his age would be spotted, Tommy/Sam created a disturbance at the door and sneaked in, crouched behind another man, then proceeded to the formalities and his necessary lies under oath:
“… the line of men slowly inched forward until Tommy, in his turn, came face to face with the doctor. An elderly man, thin and not far from unkempt, he worked under great pressure and at speed. ‘Open your mouth.’ He looked in. He pulled down the lower lids of Tommy’s eyes. Glanced into his ears. Put a stethoscope to his chest. He held Tommy’s scrotum in one hand and said ‘Cough’. Again he applied the stethoscope to his chest, then said ‘You’ll do’.
Onwards to a long table where several uniformed clerks were filling in Attestation forms, asking for all the usual details, including age. ‘19,’ said Tommy. Here came the catch. ‘Date of birth?’ Tommy had that worked out. ‘July 6, 1895.’ ‘Any birth marks?’ Then the clerk read to him a declaration that all these things were true and said, ‘Sign here!’ All that completed, he was told to go upstairs and wait.
He found himself in a large hall where, amid the crowd, he felt reasonably safe. Rightly or wrongly, he thought some men looked surprised when they noticed him. The serious face he wore – or tried to – would, he hoped, conceal his inward wavering. Useless to show uncertainty. From now on, he was a man among men and would have to march long distances and carry heavy equipment and a rifle and ammunition. All this, he knew for sure, would tax his boyish strength, but he remained determined to go ahead. Pleasure at seeing the other three in the hall rid him immediately of forebodings and he listened to their accounts of the medicals and so on and shared their joy in having at last achieved their intention of becoming soldiers.
‘Artillerymen you mean,’ said Tommy.
‘No, just infantrymen,’ Len told him. ‘The footsloggers. No riding lovely horses for us. We made a right mess of things in that respect. Didn’t you read the top part of your form when you signed it? We’re in the Royal Fusiliers – the Royal Field Artillery where we were yesterday is next door, apparently. RFA, RF, we didn’t notice the difference.’”
Their day at the Fusiliers depot ended with the volunteers taking the Oath of Allegiance en masse – and another ceremony of some significance:
“The soldiers quickly set up tables and chairs… and guided the recruits into single lines, one to each table. Each recruit gave his name, which was entered on a sheet together with the amount paid under the two separate headings – King’s shilling, part-day subsistence. In due course, all the recruits had received their first soldier’s pay.”