“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, 12 October 2014
Sam and the new Fusiliers squarebash — and frighten the horses in central London
A hundred years ago this week… notable Western Front battles began: Messines, western Belgium (October 12th, BEF/German Army), Armentieres, northern France (13th, French Army-BEF/German Army), Yser, western Belgium (16th, Belgian-French Armies/German Army).
Yes, that’s Armentieres as in the Mademoiselle From Armentieres, an early classic of Word War 1 Poor Bloody Infantry songcraft — ideal for marching because jaunty and infinite, given plenty of verses were “written” and then you added you’re own, ribald, surreal, satirical, tragi-comical according to taste. Et voilà, a quick web search reveals 50-60 variations — no repeats, come to that! — including these choice items (many ruder than this, of course): “She's the hardest working girl in town/But she makes her living upside down!/… I fell in love with her at sight/Wacked myself for half the night/… She had four chins, her knees would knock/And her face would stop a cuckoo clock/… She could guzzle a barrel of sour wine/And eat a hog without peeling the rind/… The officers get the pie and cake/And all we get is the bellyache/… The Colonel got the Croix de Guerre/The son-of-a-gun was never there!/… You might forget the groans and yells/But you'll never forget the mademoiselles.” Well, inkypinky parlee-voo, eh?
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, north London, my father Sam, older brother Ted, and their pals and fellow novice Royal Fusiliers Len and Harold made their debuts as squarebashers, marchers and — since they’d been brought up in the church and the Scouts by quite proper parents — lightly blushful listeners, hesitant singers, of coarse military rhyme.
The Battalion — 2/1st City Of London — got itself organised in the grounds of the Foundling Hospital, as was — the walled “parade ground” area is still there in Bloomsbury, south of King’s Cross Station, preserved as a playground.
Roughly a thousand men assembled, Sam writes. An array of Sergeant Majors shuffled them into eight Companies of 100 each — Len in C, Ted and Harold G, Sam H, his first separation from them — the remainder “a reserve who would fill vacancies in the ranks as they occurred…” An officer explained that everything they did, no matter how dull and repetitive, had a practical purpose:
“You must all bear in mind that the movement and formations taught in military drill form the basis of control of troop movements on the battlefield… At a later stage, hand signals from the men in charge will take the place of spoken words — which, in certain circumstances, cannot be heard.”
“Vacancies”, “certain circumstances”; clearly, euphemism played its part from the outset…
Observing his new comrades, Sam — and time now for the weekly alert to new readers that, in the first part of the book, my father wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy Norcliffe” — Sam/Tommy, then, reckoned that, despite lying about his age to sign up at 16, he might have an advantage in readiness over some older men because of his Boy Scout training in skills such as rifle shooting and signaling.
When Company Sergeant Major West ordered them to fall in, the lad weighed up the men on either side of him (all of them still in their ordinary clothes, no uniforms available for a while yet):
“On Tommy’s left stood a man of 36, probably, wearing a cap at an unusual angle — the soft cloth pulled back and the hard peak pulled forward as far as they could possibly go. Tommy wondered if the two sections would part under the strain. Under the peak, dark inquisitive eyes moved constantly, taking in everything with keen interest; a cheerful, though pale, face with a sharp, red nose and black moustache; a soiled black jacket, dark grey trousers shiny with what appeared to be grease, and heavy, black boots completed Tommy’s sidelong view of Joe Parker.
Had Joe cut his eyes to the right, he would have seen that Tommy too wore a black jacket with tight grey trousers but, instead of a cap, he wore the City office boy’s hard, flat bowler. A boy in men’s clothing?
A rather elderly fellow of scholarly appearance called Ewart Walker stood to Tommy’s right. He looked stern, or somewhat benign, or quizzical, all dependent on what the brainy bloke was observing at any given moment. He wore grey flannel trousers, a Norfolk jacket, brown, brogue shoes and, unusually at that period, no hat to cover his cropped, grey hair.”
They spent the morning on drill, just learning to start out on the left, then turn… then “Form fours!” really put the cat among the pigeons with regard to stumbling about and banging into one another.
When they got a break, Sam/Tommy chatted with “old” Joe Parker, as he thought of him. He worked as a casual porter at Billingsgate fish market, but…
“… he’d spent much of his life at sea, mainly on coastal vessels. He proceeded to describe nights ashore in small seaports, winding up with his choicest experience — his face glowed, his eyes sparkled, as he told how he put up at a lodging house once, ate a lovely meal, and shared his beer with the buxom landlady, her husband presently away at sea it turned out. Then he turned in. The bed had lovely, clean, white sheets and pillows, but to all this luxury the landlady later added the pleasure of her curvaceous body. Joe relived the delights of having her meaty legs wrapped round him until the order to fall in saved Tommy from making the expected noises of approval.”
That afternoon, the Battalion undertook its first formal march through the city:
“[Lieutenant] Swickenham told the men about the march to follow. He asked them, in spite of their varied civilian garb, to bear themselves like soldiers. The eyes of many London citizens would regard them and a good impression must be aimed at.
Thus began one of many foot-slogging ventures in the course of their elementary training. This one took them along Tottenham Court Road, New Oxford Street, and Oxford Street, to Marble Arch and into Hyde Park, where they rested and did some drill before returning via a different route. They marched at attention and in complete silence for the most part, with a deal of conversation breaking out when the CSMs ordered ‘March at ease!’ — but all of it subdued by the unaccustomed public performance they felt they were staging.
However, the column was long, not much short of a thousand men, and probably at quite an early stage the officers began to realise that an error of judgment had occurred.
People crossing the road could not possibly wait while this long procession passed so they would try to hurry through any gap they espied. This caused pauses and broke the marching rhythm. Elderly folk would be helped by the men, pretty girls too — as the occasional shriek or squeal would attest. Policemen controlling busy crossings could not help causing gaps in the long column. So did congested traffic, especially in Oxford Street, where a bus or a lorry frequently became interposed between Companies, even though drivers of all sorts of vehicles, motor or horse-drawn, tried to let the Battalion through.
Cart and dray drivers, perched in high seats, some of them no doubt old soldiers, shouted words of sarcastic encouragement to the self-conscious recruits: ‘Keep them ‘eads up!’ or ‘Swing them arms there!’, along with one or two unfavourable comparisons to another Army apparently commanded by a certain Fred Karno. But it was just cheerful banter and, provided you didn’t take yourself too seriously, no offence was taken.
All the same, the officers ensured that future route marches avoided Central London and were undertaken Company by Company rather than the whole Battalion together.
But familiarity with the new routine of living soon encouraged those men who had subdued noisy and garrulous natures on that first march to commence raising their voices in joke and jibe. Some of the Cockneys’ humour was amusing, some of it downright rude and embarrassing. When the Battalion marched at ease, singing would break out — and not discouraged by the CSMs because it helped to maintain a marching rhythm and to overcome boredom.
They started with innocent numbers like Clementine, Boys Of The Old Brigade, John Brown’s Body and so forth, but a sort of vocal degeneration gradually set in. John Brown’s Body became John Brown’s Cow — it went peepee against the wall. The music hall song which went ‘Our lodger is a nice young man, such a nice young man is he’ lent itself to suggestions about his lewd practices. The Company officer had to lead his men and Tommy, anonymously tucked away, felt sorry for the young man who marched alone in front of this sometimes blasphemous company.”
And even as they marched and sang in the streets of London, on the front line the collective musical genius of the BEF initiated its saucy extempore regarding the good lady from Armentieres…
All the best — FSS