“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 his Memoir)
Sunday, 16 November 2014
Sam and the Battalion’s first wartime challenge – learning to live with strangers
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A hundred years ago today… Russia’s Bergmann Offensive in Armenia against the Ottoman Empire ended in failure (the casualty figures 40,000 Russian, 14,000 Ottoman); the month-long Battle of Kolubara River began as the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia (and lost, suffering 30,000 dead, 173,000 wounded, to 22,000 dead, 91,000 wounded); on the Western Front the first Battle Of Ypres proceeded towards its conclusion on the 22nd; in Mesopotamia the British and Indian Armies continued their attack on Ottoman Basra...
Meanwhile, 16-year-old volunteer Sam Sutcliffe, his older brother Ted, and their 1,000 mates in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, turned their thoughts from the imminent front-line fighting they’d expected to the rather different intricacies of settling into polite Tonbridge (alias Bunbridge in my father’s Memoir – I don’t know why, as Harry Worth used to exclaim).
This blog mirrors WW1 more or less week-by-week as experienced by one ordinary soldier. It turned out his Battalion was beginning a long – and welcome – stay of execution on their entry into combat.
Still, everything new every day to the lad from a poor family in Edmonton, north London. Away from home for the first time in his life – apart from a few nights at Scout camps – he had to feel his way into the whole business of billeting; living with a family he’d never met before in an unfamiliar town suddenly welcoming (or besieged by) a multitude of city-boy squaddies. I know last week I wrote that this blog would see the Battalion defending the realm by building trenches around “Bunbridge”, but on reflection this seemed a part of the story worth excerpting before they get the shovels out.
I left Sam contemplating a slip of paper telling him his hosts would be Mr and Mrs Fluter of 12, Leigh Drive (usual note to new readers: at this stage, Sam still wrote his memoir in the third person and called himself “Tommy”). He rang the bell once, no answer:
‘Tommy faced the front door again, considering whether he should ring the bell once more but, just then, from behind him a soft voice said, “I hope you haven’t been waiting long”. He turned and a middle-aged woman stood smiling at him. She went on, “I’ve been gardening and, being a little deaf, I didn’t hear the bell ring. My friend next door told me she’d seen a soldier standing in the porch. I’m Mrs Fluter.”
Tommy stated his name and that he felt very lucky to have been given such a nice billet. “You’ll have a pal here,” she told him. “The billeting officer asked if we would help by putting up two lads. My husband and I are pleased to be able to assist.”
She had come around the side of the house, so the front door was not opened to him then — nor ever afterwards. Mrs F led him through a side gate and along a gravel path. Outside the kitchen door, she indicated a boot scraper, just inside it a large doormat which should always be used. Tommy saw the need if the kitchen was to remain in its current spotless condition. He removed his heavy boots, which had nails in their soles, and tugged a pair of far from new slippers out of his kitbag — which move met with Mrs F’s instant approval.
While she made preparations for lunch she said, “We shall have dinner each evening at about 7 with Mr Fluter. On Saturdays and Sundays we shall dine at 2 o’clock.” She looked at Tommy frequently, trying to decide what sort of stranger had come to live under her roof. She encouraged him to talk about himself and his family...
As was his habit, Tommy carefully observed the lady whom he was already thinking of as his temporary mum. Black eyebrows and lashes. Her serious but kindly face beneath fine, grey hair. Strange that her complexion had that redness which Tommy always associated with an outdoor life — or possibly a liking for strong drink, as chapel people called it. She’s a very good woman, he decided, and renewed his resolve to interfere as little as possible with the life of the couple at number 12...
She said she hoped they would all get along together. Her husband managed a printing works belonging to a well-known London firm, she explained. He left the house before 8 each morning, usually came home about 6pm and spent the evenings quietly reading. Sometimes chapel affairs took him out to evening meetings. Would Tommy please pass these things on to the other soldier when he arrived, including the requests for quietness and care of furniture and bed linen?
Churniston, whom Tommy recognised as a member of H Company [Tommy/Sam’s Company], soon appeared and, after they’d talked for a while, Tommy decided he was a good sort. He repeated Mrs F’s requests and asked his roommate to call him Tommy. Came the reply, “I’m Bob and I used to work in a London hospital. Strange job. I had to look after human remains which had been pickled. If a teaching surgeon required one of these specimens I’d extract them from the tank and deliver them.” It seemed to Tommy that familiarity with the gruesome had conquered Bob’s fear of it...
Mrs Fluter called them to the kitchen where she sat at the end of a small table and offered them cups of tea and bread and cheese. As they enjoyed this she told them the Government would pay her an allowance for supplying meals, but it wasn’t much and she proposed to ignore it and give them as much good food as they could tuck away: “We have no children. I’m so glad they sent us you two youngsters. I shall enjoy looking after you. Are you members of a Christian church?” Tommy told her of his baptism, life as a choirboy, and confirmation too. This all pleased the good lady who spoke of the work she and Mr Fluter did at their Baptist chapel.’
As ordered, after their snack Tommy/Sam and Churniston returned to the railway station where the Battalion gathered. Their Lieutenant (Swickenham) told them that the following day, Sunday, they must fall in at 9.30am to march to morning service at the parish church – otherwise, no duties until Monday. When the officer dismissed them, Tommy went searching for his brother and their mates, Harold and Len:
‘Later, when they had been dismissed and fallen out, Tommy searched for his brother. Soldiers stood around in groups discussing their billets and general impressions of the town. He soon found Ted and Harold’s G Company. They were billeted together, they said. It turned out Tommy’s “home” in Leigh Drive was quite near theirs and Harold said, “Come along to our place. There’s quite a family: Mr and Mrs Prout and two daughters, 18 and 12. Very friendly people — told us to come and go as we pleased.”
However, it being early for an evening meal — they certainly didn’t expect their hosts to supply tea and supper — the three walked to the main street to find the town’s pleasure spots. Apart from some pubs, they found two places where, it appeared, the locals threw inhibitions to the winds and really let themselves go — a small cinema and a roller-skating rink. They also discovered an old castle standing in lovely grounds, and two fairly large hotels near the cattle market. As they wandered along the high street towards the town centre, the size and style of the shops became bigger and better. But they went on until they passed only the occasional shop among houses of varying size and finally the town became countryside, the road bounded by hedges, or a cluster of cottages, or the grounds of a large house with a sanded drive.
Tommy savoured an air of prosperity, the sweet smell of late flowers and shrubs, and noted the absence of the uncouth and depressing sights and odours which go with poverty or insufficiency of life’s requirements. The friends discussed these differences from some London parts they knew and agreed it was unexpected that becoming soldiers should, at first, plant them in a cosy, country town rather than in a war-blasted battlefield. They told one another even Bunbridge must have its poor people; but they supposed that, perhaps, living in uncomfortable conditions was more easily bearable in an environment like this…’
They agreed to get together again after church parade and Tommy set off back to his pleasant billet:
‘A new cause for speculation now occupied him: what would Mr Fluter be like? Large or small, cold or kind, so far he had no clue...
It transpired that Mr F perhaps exceeded five feet in height by one inch; he had a sharp sort of face, scant hair, a rather penetrating stare, tired eyes, thin lips, many wrinkles across his forehead and a high bridge to his nose. If ever a lad felt foreboding, Tommy did on first sight of his host.
But if ever a lad felt reassured, Tommy did when Mr Fluter smiled, which he did when smiling Mrs Fluter introduced them. He bade Tommy welcome and said he and his wife would do their very best to give both lads a happy time while under their roof.’
All the best — FSS
Next week: Cold baths and digging trenches – a long, long way from the Western front