“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, 26 October 2014
Sam, the boy soldier, finally gets his uniform – and wonders if he'll ever have what it takes to be "a real man"
A hundred years ago… the battles ground on at Ypres (French, British and Belgian Armies against the German Army), the Yser (Belgium and France against Germany), and the Vistula (Russia against Germany), but the major development was the Ottoman Empire’s entry into hostilities – announced, not diplomatically, on October 29 by its Navy beginning to bombard the Russian Black Sea ports Odessa, Sevastopol and Feodosia. Meanwhile, the conflict spread in Africa: today, October 26, is the centenary of France occupying parts of German colony The Cameroons and of German forces invading Portuguese West Africa (later Angola).
Also, away from these grand, terrible events, a hundred years ago today my father, 16-year-old volunteer and Edmonton boy Sam Sutcliffe, at last got issued with his Royal Fusiliers uniform – seven weeks after enlisting.
Following England’s Indian summer, in October the weather turned cool and rainy. New junior officers, learning on the job, squarebashed Sam, his three pals, and the rest of the thousand-man Battalion (2/1st City Of London) around the parade ground at the Foundlings Hospital in Kings Cross and marched them miles on city and suburban streets -–Hampstead Heath a popular destination. They could think of nothing else to do; they had no weapons, nor even any uniforms.
As Sam recalls (new readers note my father called himself “Tommy” and wrote in the third person for the first part of his Memoir):
“Tommy surmised that residents, and others... might speculate as to how all this was helping the troops already fighting and being wounded or killed. How about giving each man a rifle and showing him how to fire it, how to use a bayonet? Many people were saying that would have been better preparation for war. Tommy agreed. But we hadn’t the uniforms or the arms apparently... And Tommy and many thousands of other early volunteers may have owed their survival to that lack of war materials...
The famous Spaniards Inn at Hampstead found itself swamped with customers on days when Army trainees were in the vicinity. Tommy enjoyed the cheap, satisfying lunches there. He felt good beer replenishing his strength, chunks of bread and cheese satisfying his hunger, the crunchy crusts adding to the meal a rhythmic percussion... War, according to the school history books he’d read, had never been this pleasant. But, while good weather lasted, the men naturally enjoyed this period of playing at soldiers, as some described it.”
Bar the days when they got soaked, that was. Having worked for a couple of years since leaving school at 14, Sam/Tommy had a decent coat and “sound footwear... but what of the poor devils in flimsy suits and shoes?” he writes. “Even those who had joined for some imagined advantage had, for the most part, also believed the cause was a good one and so had tackled the new life with zest and good intentions. The temporary stagnation was depressing... ”
“However, came the day when all doubt and disappointment vanished: an announcement that, from the last Monday in October [the 26th!], the two Companies who, each day, took their turn to occupy the Battalion Headquarters would be solely occupied with the long-anticipated distribution of uniforms: greatcoats, tunics, trousers, socks, boots, puttees, undervests, shirts, pants, all crowned by a military cap with a Regimental badge. Much mirth ensued from the announcement that each man would be issued with a housewife, but this turned out to be nothing more sexy than a roll-up cloth pouch holding needles, cotton, buttons and so on.
The recruits were expected to buy tins of a paste called Soldier’s Friend, also a small brush and a peculiar six-inch piece of metal with a lengthwise slot — called a button stick, for reasons soon revealed. An instructor demonstrated the art of accurately directing a shot of spittle to the centre of the paste, scooping some buttons into the slot on the stick, dabbing the brush into the paste, scrubbing the buttons, and finally polishing them.
Then the NCOs showed them how to convert their great coats into long slim rolls, the ends of the rolls to be brought together and secured with a cord or strap, the loop then passed over the head to rest on the right shoulder diagonally across the body. In fine weather, the welcome order to listen out for was ‘Great coats will be worn en banderole’. Was this expression borrowed from Napoleon’s Army, Tommy wondered. Nobody enlightened him and he never heard the phrase used by officers of any other Army unit. He assumed the Foreign Legion and his Royal Fusiliers had at least those two words in common.
On receiving his kit he couldn’t get home fast enough.
Later in the war he sometimes recalled that day. He didn’t realise its importance at the time, none of them did as far as he knew. Quite light-heartedly, he wished to throw off the clothes of a mere civilian and be seen as a soldier — after weeks of trying to be one while still dressed in his boyish suit and bowler. But, in truth, he was shedding the garb of freedom, doing so eagerly, divesting himself of clothing which entitled him to go almost anywhere in Great Britain without let or hindrance and putting on the uniform of service or maybe of serfdom. From then on, if called upon to do so by Military Police or gentlemen holding His Majesty’s Commission, he would have to account for his presence in any location.
His family showed great interest in the quality of the clothing, touching the uniform and rubbing it between thumbs and forefingers like so many tailors. All good stuff, they agreed: vest and long pants of wool, warm, heavy garments; socks too would obviously stand much hard wear and ensure warm feet in he coldest weather. The name Schneider in the cap struck them all as being rather strange. ‘What,’ asked Dad, ‘is the British Army doing with headgear of apparently German manufacture?’
Hastily, Tommy changed into the uniform. He found all the garments fitted him well, except that the boots were too big, albeit the smallest in stock as the Quartermaster had explained when issuing them. So, for his early months in the Army, Tommy had to wear two pairs of grey socks to fill out the heavy boots. He would have to buy two pairs of socks as near to the official ones in colour and weight as possible so he could rotate two pairs on and two in the wash.
He’d put on everything but the puttees. He began his first attempt to wind these bandages round his calves, starting with a turns around the ankle... spacing each turn evenly a requirement not easy to satisfy. However, after a few awkward failures, he came close to achieving the correct outcome. Then he stood up straight and still, eyes looking straight ahead at their own level, chin in, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, knees back, heels together, toes apart at an angle of 90 degrees — all as per instructions, the very figure of a soldier, he hoped.
Mother studied him, tears in her eyes... and she laughed and laughed and laughed. This puzzled and disappointed the self-conscious lad. He searched her face to discover if the mirth was a derisory reaction. As he watched her, understanding came to him and he also laughed and laughed. ‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘You can see it all as I do. I’m not sneering at the boy soldier, but to see one of my children dressed as a fighting man for the first time, standing stiff as a ramrod and so serious with it. Well, it’s just too much.’ The laughter petered out with some quickly concealed tears.
Tommy ventured into the street to avoid further embarrassment and perchance to see if neighbours had any comment to make. Looking up the street towards the main road he thrilled to see brother Ted already wearing his Army gear, striding briskly towards him.
His keen scrutiny turned to pleasurable surprise and pride when the boy saw how neatly the clothes fitted Ted’s small, but well-proportioned body. He would have valued a pair of legs of that shape himself — slightly bowed, the calves flattered by his carefully rolled puttees. A flicker of the heartache he felt throughout life, whenever it seemed that someone he loved was drifting away, assailed him briefly at that moment. Faulty reasoning, sentimentality, a soft streak, these he always feared were at the root of these feminine lapses which must be concealed if he was ever to become a real man. Other people didn’t appear bothered by them. In any case, people’s feelings were only of interest to themselves, not to be indecently exposed.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Finally, Sam, Ted and the lads leave London – and home for the first time in their lives...