“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, 14 September 2014
Sam: volunteering at 16 — then how does he tell his parents?
A hundred years ago this month… Sam Sutcliffe, my father, a working boy from north London, and his older brother Ted, both lied about their age (16 and 18) in order to join up — by mistake with the Royal Fusiliers, the “Poor Bloody Infantry”, when they’d hoped to work with the horses in the Royal Field Artillery. Their next daunting task: to tell their parents what they’d done.
Meanwhile… the Battle of the Marne — when the French and British Armies’ ended their initial “Great Retreat”, turned and drove the German Army back from within 30 miles of Paris — spun off into the First Battle Of The Aisne, September 13-28. Entrenchment took over from “traditional” mobile warfare and the consequent “Race To The Sea” evolved into a bizarre, horrific, digging contest. Despite lack of experience or training on both sides, the trenches soon stretched 400 miles south-ish from Nieuport on the Belgian coast. And as the Western Front protagonists unwittingly bogged down for the duration, the World War started to justify the name nobody had yet given it, with battles in Ukraine, Poland, Serbia, German New Guinea and German West Africa, which killed or wounded another 350,000 or more people within four weeks.
The new volunteers — including Sam, Ted, and their friends Len and Harold — emerged from the RF’s Bloomsbury depot, their first soldier’s pay in their pockets and wondered… mostly, what next? In particular, for Sam, how could he tell his mother in a way that would dissuade her from revealing his big lie to the authorities? If you’re new to this blog you need to know that Sam, in the first part of his Memoir, wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”:
“Crowds of them gathered outside, discussing the day’s events, telling each other they were now soldiers, little as some of them looked the part. Young Tommy had watched and listened with rapt attention to all that had gone on.
A fateful day for him, he knew. He needed reassurance now… he looked anxiously along the street for his brother, Len and Harold. With relief he spotted them and they set off for home, each probably thinking very different thoughts regarding the immediate future. [Being a little older] Harold and Len, at least, would have no explaining to do when they reached home, while Ted might be in some slight difficulty and Tommy could face grave trouble.
Instead of taking the long walk to Liverpool Street, they spent 4d of their pay on the tram fare back to Edmonton. They went on top and chatted away about their personal experiences that afternoon. Quite sure of themselves, the three elders felt confident they would be able to explain to their firms that they had done the right thing, being prepared to fight for their country — the popular phrase of the time.
Tommy would have to tell his firm as well, but being such a junior he didn’t imagine that losing him would mean anything to them. The first thing, though, he knew, was to get home and tell Ma what he had done. Even so, he probably didn’t appreciate the shock his news would cause her.
Back in Edmonton… as they walked, Tommy spoke to Ted about his fear of what might happen when they told their mother and, later, father that their older sons were now soldiers. Well, the brothers would stand firm and support each other it was agreed. ‘You do realise,’ said Ted, ‘we have signed a solemn declaration that the information about ourselves we gave was all true?’ ‘Yes,’ said Tommy eagerly, ‘and I can tell Ma that if anyone informs the Army that I’ve lied, I shall probably be sent to prison.’
When they went indoors she commented that they were home earlier than usual. Then out poured their news and not, to Tommy’s surprise, in any apologetic way but with something like pride. Watching mother’s face, the boys saw various emotions aroused. She and father being politically of a Conservative persuasion and quite firmly patriotic people, she did not immediately protest or reprimand. She did point out that Tommy was much too young to think of being a soldier. That concluded it, though; before any decision was made, she would have to talk with father.
Later that evening, when father returned from work and mother told him the news, the brothers awaited the outcome of their discussion. Eventually, their parents called them together and told them they could agree to Ted staying in the Army, but they would have to get Tommy out.
At this, Tommy played his trump card. He said he knew, strictly speaking, he’d done a very dishonest thing, but pointed out that his motives weren’t bad — and, finally, that he didn’t know what prison sentence would be inflicted on him for making a false declaration regarding his age… In conclusion, he pleaded with his parents for permission to carry on as a soldier for a time, at any rate, and prove he could do the job for which he had volunteered.
Father talked of the physical strain a boy could suffer in trying to do the tasks expected of full-grown men. Still Tommy begged to be allowed to try.
Then, perhaps, he won the day by explaining that in all, while living at home, he would be paid 21/-* a week, a guinea. That is, 1/- a day soldier’s pay, plus 2/- a day subsistence money. That rate, though temporary, matched what many full-grown men earned — a very good wage, in fact, for unskilled work. Eventually, they agreed that Tommy should, for the moment, carry on soldiering.”
It may seem shocking that Tommy/Sam should feel money played a part in his parents’ letting him go to war — but, as the Childhood section of his Memoir relates, the family had been very poor for many years.
For instance, in Chapter Two, the Memoir shows just how hungry the children — along with many of their friends and neighbours — had often felt:
“… one day our boy saw a lad younger than himself sitting on the ground tearing up paper and eating bits of it, he asked him, ‘Why are you eating paper?’ ‘Because I’m hungry,’ said the boy. Our lad thought, ‘Perhaps it would help if I could do the same’. He tore up some paper and chewed it, but, oh, it tasted horrible. He never resorted to that again and he didn’t hear what became of the little boy who had been eating quite a lot of it.”
* On £ and ps, that’s £1 5p, about £105.95 at today’s values.