“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, 5 October 2014
Sam, you’re in the Army now, but… “Once a Boy Scout, always a Boy Scout”
A hundred years ago… the British, French, Belgian and German Armies hammered each other on the Western Front while their new-fangled entrenchment tactics bogged them down, the British Indian Army set off for Mesopotamia, the Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed for England, the Serbs began their losing battle for Belgrade against German and Austro-Hungarian Armies — and in Edmonton, north London, my father Sam, 16, and older brother Ted, 18, had to face the Vicar, and tell him they had volunteered, joined the Army, and could no longer attend choir practice nor Boy Scout training sessions.
The Reverend Mr Frusher (an alias my father gave him in the book) influenced the brothers’ youthful development more than any other man — certainly more than their quiet, mild, rather defeated father did. From talking to my father a lot through my own teens (in the ’60s) and reading his Memoir’s extensive account of his childhood, my feeling is that he had a rather hangdog time of it because of sheer grinding poverty — until, encouraged by Mr Frusher, he started joining… the Scouts, the choir, a church discussion group, music lessons — all organised by the vicar (NB, new readers, in the first part of the book my father wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy Norcliffe”):
“Suddenly a change occurred for Tommy. In charge of the Scout Troop was a cultured man, whose name I’ve mentioned in passing — Mr Frusher, who was also the vicar, the organist and choirmaster at the parish church… He approached Tommy at one of the Scout gatherings and said, ‘I’d like you to join the church choir. Ask your parents if they will be agreeable. It will mean you changing your church.’ The full C of E church — as opposed to their familiar ‘tin’ mission [a small church established literally as a mission to London’s poor]— was a mile and a half further away from Tommy’s house.
… Picture Mr Frusher of medium height, well-built, wearing a beard, pointed, and the then fashionable pince-nez. Most days he wore a frock coat with a silk hat and striped trousers. Tommy used to love looking at the boots he wore; without toecaps, of fine soft leather, kept in good condition by his housekeeper.”
For the vicar’s music classes, the children could only afford flageolets — “big brother of the tin whistle,” says Sam (who kept it about his person until Gallipoli, as you may read). However, a year or two on, Sam’s mother took in an old, out-of-tune piano for the parlour and Sam/Tommy determined he would tune it. A friend made him a key to fit the screw at the top of each string, Mr Frusher leant him an A tuning fork, and he set to work, day after day.
When he was done, Mr Frusher came round and played the thing “with a degree of pain”, but so appreciated the boy’s efforts he offered him free piano lessons which proved so effective that within weeks Sam/Tommy debuted in front of his classmates playing “a popular piece of the day called Blake’s March… and Tommy’s performance became a regular feature of Friday afternoons for several weeks in succession.”
Well, this long story needs concluding, but the vicar not only inspired Sam/Tommy’s lifelong and practical love of music — see the story of the “rifle-guitar” on the Western Front — but in those discussion groups he also educated the boys about sex and relationships, a topic neglected by schools then and for most of the century to come. His approach you might call chivalric-puritan. No sex before marriage, a gentlemanly refusal to exploit the consequences of “girls’ natural child-bearing urges”, self-denial of the joys of masturbation and, even in sleep, avoidance of “night losses” by tying a cotton reel round your waist so that if you rolled on to your back you would wake up before anything messy occurred.
All this had a huge influence on Sam/Tommy’s conduct throughout the war, as you may read. Anyway, in sum, that’s why it was such a big deal when the lad realised that he would soon be saying goodbye to Mr Frusher and everything the vicar’s energy, dedication and moral deliberation had brought to his young life:
“… in all the excitement, [Tommy] had overlooked Thursday evening’s meeting of his troop. In fact, having become a soldier, the thought of putting on the uniform of a Boy Scout suddenly seemed incongruous — more so when he briefly imagined appearing in front of the mass of men among whom he had spent recent days, wearing the dented frontiersman’s hat, khaki shirt adorned with various badges and shoulder ribbons, short, blue knickers and bare knees, with, final touch, in his hand a stout five-foot staff. Yes, what sort of greeting would this apparition receive from that mixed crowd? Horrible thought.
That Saturday afternoon, Ted and Tommy went along to the hall where the troop assembled. They intended to tell Mr Frusher they were now soldiers and would therefore have to give up membership of the troop… They would have a few words with the governor, then walk out, severing the association of several years just like that.
‘There you are, at last, and not in uniform. Is something wrong, Mr Norcliffe?’ This to Ted, now a qualified assistant Scoutmaster, therefore addressed as a man. ‘Do please tell me about it.’ Ted explained and Mr Frusher’s usually pale face flushed. This may have been due to relief that nothing awful had occurred in the Norcliffe family, but Tommy, studying the governor’s bearded face, suspected that annoyance really caused the blush, which was accompanied by three rapid blinks and a long stare — signs of his inner struggle to subdue anger.
When Ted ventured to speak of leaving the Scouts, back came the assertion, ‘Once a Scout, always a Scout!’ and the brothers found themselves assigned to their respective duties for that afternoon and getting on with them — after having exchanged glances which conveyed the advisability of tolerance and co-operation at this juncture.
Tommy’s feelings were strangely mixed. Facing his patrol he felt it was good to be back among familiar faces and subjects and where his falsehood regarding his age was of no consequence… He knew the new life to which he was committed would have some awful periods, but youthful optimism kept him from dwelling on such possibilities…
The meeting over, Mr Frusher called his seniors together, and told them of the brothers’ enlistment… The brothers promised they would give what help they could in future, but they said their goodbyes just in case military duties prevented their return.
The farewells might have been said with deeper regret had those present been able to foresee that years would pass before the few who survived would be able to get together again.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Military discipline takes hold