“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, 21 September 2014
Sam's first march — London gentry tip their hats at the volunteers
A hundred years ago this month… at 16, Sam Sutcliffe, my father, ceased to be a poor working lad from Edmonton, north London, a junior office boy at a mining company HQ near Liverpool Street station, and became a soldier. Albeit by lying about his age and with precious little idea of what that might entail although the papers had already begun reporting “heavy casualties” on the Western Front – retreats, defeats if you read between the lines.
But, still only seven weeks in, it evidently wasn’t one-sided either way as the French-British Allies toed and froed with the germans at the Aisne, then Albert, and the Russians besieged the Austria-Hungary Empire at Przemysl (now in Poland), and a German cruiser sank a British cruiser off Zanzibar… and Sam got his first chance to observe and admire “the calm, efficient manner” in which Army men could “organise a thousand strangers into easily controlled groups”.
After a hard evening persuading his parents that he should be allowed to stay in the Army along with his 18-year-old, ergo less-of-a-liar, brother Ted, Sam didn’t really know whether they’d agreed because if they reported him he might go to jail… or because soldier’s pay, 21/- a week, would be so useful to a poor family with four children and a toddler to feed.
But the main thing was they’d let him stick with Ted, and their slightly older pals, Len and Harold. So, remembering that Sam, in this first part of his Memoir, wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”, here’s his story of his first day in the Army, if not yet in uniform (supply a long way short of catching up with volunteer demand at that point):
“Next morning the lads were up in good time, met as arranged, and took the tram back to Bloomsbury… When they arrived they were amazed to see the road in front of the adjacent Royal Fusiliers and Royal Field Artillery depots packed tight with men and hundreds more queuing along another road behind them — all enlisted men like themselves, they learned, and ordered to parade that morning. Harold observed that it would take a mastermind to sort this lot out. But he was soon proven too skeptical.
Presently, a uniformed man, stout and ruddy-faced with several chins, mounted a box or chair, they couldn’t see what. In an extremely powerful voice, he called for quiet, then issued instructions. With surprising, almost professional, speed, men on the outskirts of the crowd formed into lines of four across, and the mass became a somewhat ragged column.
The rotund Regimental Sergeant Major took his place at the head of it and, with no attempt at ceremony, started marching. Stragglers at the back attached themselves in new lines of four and followed in his wake. Within a few hundred yards, the whole of the leading formation had fallen in step to a man. That almost spherical RSM necessarily set a steady, almost slow, pace. But two streets crammed with men had to be cleared and he’d achieved that very quickly.
Had he been dealing with conscripted men, he would undoubtedly have had a problem on his hands. These were volunteers, though. A small, but sufficient, proportion of them had seen service previously and, of the remainder, many had come through various youth organisations, Scouts, Boys Brigades, and others, companies of which trained and marched in every town throughout the land.
No new experience for [Boy Scout] Tommy, of course, this marching in step, but the pace, the stride, felt different — longer, slower, heavier, and somehow more exhilarating.
On this, their first rhythmic progression as an Army unit, each member carried himself as he believed a real soldier would and kept in step with the man in front of him. No one shouted, ‘Keep in step there, left, right, left!’ None of that. Crunch, crunch, rrrp, rrrp, a steady pace with arms a-swing.
Tommy liked the rhythm — and the thrill as he saw the column of men ahead, bearing left round the far side of a London residential square. ‘We’re all in step then,’ he thought. ‘Marvelous.’ He did notice the odd one lose the step and touch the heel of the man in front or trip the man behind — no natural sense of rhythm or perhaps over-eager or anxious. But correction soon followed. Such culprits would later endure the wrath of newly appointed non-commissioned and commissioned officers who had to justify their existence. But today not a word.
Every man wished that he should do well and that his comrades should do well… and that perhaps some famous General might be watching unseen, later to issue a full report full of praise for the volunteer soldiers… who reminded him of the Guards…
If Tommy dreamed thus, we may assume others did too. But he did notice, at first with incredulity, that some men on the pavement — invariably smart well-dressed types — raised their hats on sighting the column. One such, coming down the steps of a large house, reached the pavement as Tommy drew level. He raised his bowler hat, and as his eyes rested momentarily on Tommy’s the boy felt himself blushing. ‘Ridiculous,’ he told himself. ‘The gentleman was saluting the volunteers, not a lad who had lied to get in. There’ll never be another march like this one.’
The houses they passed interested him, and he resolved to take walks in this district, so redolent of London life from bygone days with which he felt he had ties somehow, he didn’t understand why — until, that evening, he concluded that gazing year after year at a picture hung in his parents’ bedroom may have caused his sense of familiarity with the area. It showed a woman, a shopping basket on one arm, descending the several steps from her front door to the street; her young daughter, with a tiny Pekingese dog on a lead, waited on the pavement. Both wore bonnets and the full-skirted costume of the Victorian era. And both, Tommy used to think, looked far too prim and prissy.
Their house could have been almost any one of the hundreds lining these Bloomsbury streets and squares, their aspect solid and enduring. Much stone had been used in the arches that topped front doors and windows and to face ground floors. Stout iron railings prevented people from falling into the small paved areas outside the basement rooms 10 or 12 feet below street level. While many basement windows were barred, during the day the residents often left open their porch doors, adorned with brass knockers and letter boxes. Tommy reckoned such houses would all have been built with servants’ quarters and he wondered how many were still occupied…
These wanderings as he marched relieved him, for the moment, from his constant twinges of anxiety and nervous tautness. Would someone suddenly point the finger at him and yell ‘You! Out!’? Probably most of the others had their worries, especially family men. Tommy glanced at the three men along his line, then did as they were doing, stared steadily ahead and kept in step with the thrump, thrump, of all those marching feet.
The head of the column had disappeared now as they swung into a wide street ahead, then left through large, iron gates into a spacious sanded area with a substantial building facing them and high walls on either side bordered by roofed walkways supported by stone columns. Inside the gates, the column turned right, then left, until the RSM ordered a halt. The men lined two sides of the square.
A separate small group stood apart from, but close to, the head of the column, one of them obviously the senior officer, the others men of various ranks, some in officer’s uniform, but several well-dressed in civilian clothes, mostly bowler-hatted and all carrying walking canes or rolled umbrellas.
The RSM approached the senior officer. Halting two paces in front of him, the RSM saluted smartly, the right hand remaining over the right half of the forehead for three seconds before being briskly lowered to the side, thumb in line with the seam of the trousers… these details and many more were to occupy the hours and anxious efforts of Tommy and thousands like him for some time to come. But here was the first military occasion of which they had actually been a part. Really the beginning of their war.”
Thus, for Sam/Tommy and millions of recruits the road to Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras began with a left, right, left right…
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam/Tommy gives up his day job — and a toff gives him a sovereign.