“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, 30 November 2014

Sam and the young Fusiliers sing hymns – the vicar has to put them right on a couple of lyrics

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… during the week just passed, King George V visited the by then “stabilising” Western Front for the first time (somewhere in the French section, can’t find out where from Googling, but close enough to get his boots dirty). In the coming days, The Austro-Hungarians engaged the Russians at Limanova in the Galicia-Karpathian Mountains (December 1-13, heading for a Russian defeat with 30,000 casualties to 12,000).
      Further evidence of the truly “world” reality of what was then dubbed The Great War developed with skirmishing on India’s North-Western Frontier (“caused by German intrigues” says www.greatwar.co.uk), the arrival of the first Anzacs in Suez, the capture of the pro-German rebel leader General De Wet in South Africa, and a Portuguese Expeditionary Force sailing from Lisbon to Angola to begin a belated response to the German invasion of their colony two months earlier.
      Meanwhile, in Tonbridge (cunningly disguised as “Bunbridge” by my father)  the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, volunteer soldiers since September and only just starting a very long run-up to “the real thing”, found themselves ordered en masse to attend church…

Tommy (as my father, Sam, called himself in the early, third-person part of his memoir) and his older brother Ted had both emerged from childhoods immersed and entangled in local C of E churches. The family, having “come down in the world” when the boys were tots in Manchester, and then endured many years of poverty in Edmonton, north London, had to a considerable degree depended on a “tin church” mission to the poor for simple charity and any kind of welcome into the community (from children’s outings to their parents’ participation in organising special events).
      Later, via their Scout troop being run by the parish vicar, Mr Frusher, the boys moved on to the main church, All Saints. There they joined the choir and the vicar also gave Tommy/Sam free piano lessons – not to mention a more general hope that his hard life might turn out all right in the end, as my father recalled when writing the Memoir 60 years on:

‘Mr Frusher, with his dome of a head, his powerful voice and perfect diction, had the gift of making people believe that all was well in this best of all worlds; after his sermons, they would leave the church feeling secure, strong, fortified, ready to meet the trials of the coming week.’

However, many of the lads they’d enlisted with had no such background in either devotion or the practical benefits of belonging to a church and their reverence could not necessarily be relied upon, even though, once they’d gathered from their civilian billets scattered all over the town, the whole business of the Sunday service was addressed in the context of strict military discipline:

An excellent breakfast on Sunday morning prepared Tommy for the preliminaries to the church parade, which included much standing around before the Battalion’s approximate one thousand officers and men lined up in an apparently endless chain of rows of four.
       To the rear, in the distance, the Colonel’s white horse could just be seen. That important man had placed himself so that, having given the orders to set the column in motion, he could make a spectacular dash on his flying gee-gee to the head of the column and take up his position as the leader of this huge threat to Kaiser Bill.
       Fortunately, the soldiery knew all the noises the Colonel would make in order to get the column moving churchwards. When they heard “Batt-alion-a!” they came to attention; “Ayon on er raye!” and they all turned to the right; “Ee aa!” obviously meant “Quick march!” so they all stepped off with the left foot, as they had been taught.
       Once again, Tommy enjoyed the steady rrrp, rrrp of hundreds of heavy boots striking the road. Heading along the high street he noticed a photographer’s tripod standing on the pavement. He decided then and there to order a print, provided he could find one where he was well in the picture.*
       Soon, caps in hand, they all filed into the fine, old, parish church. As he walked up an aisle, Tommy looked around and felt compelled to admit this church looked richer than the one he attended — the carvings more ornate and numerous. This being a military service, it was taken by the vicar himself. He had a clear, tenor voice but, thought Tommy, we score over him because our old man in Edmonton is a Prebendary and a Surrogate and other impressive things which the Bunbridge vicar wasn’t — and our vicar had a deep, old-port, very rich sort of voice while Bunbridge’s was bell-like, and not so grand that it could even charm the choirboys and induce them to stop fiddling and listen.
       Considering that many soldiers present had only the vaguest notions about the order of events, the service proceeded well and smoothly — although, during the singing of one well-known hymn, the vicar had to call a halt in order to insist that the words as printed should be used. For instance, after the third repetition of “Glory, glory, hallelujah” the final line wasn’t “Then we all went rolling home”, at least not on his hymn sheet.
       The return march to the station completed, the men were free until 8.30am the following morning. Ted, Harold and Tommy walked slowly in the general direction of their billets, discussing such things as what to do with themselves when not on duty. Pubs perhaps? But that cost money. Each suggestion encountered this same limiting factor, so they settled on an occasional drink, pictures** once a week, and roller-skating as often as possible. They had, of course, all done some roller-skating in their boyhood, mainly in the street, and felt sure they would polish their skills pretty quickly.’

* Sadly, this photograph didn’t survive the decades and I never saw it.

** Tonbridge had two cinemas at the time, the Star on Bradford Street, opened in 1910, and the Empire Picture Palace, Avebury Avenue, opened earlier that year.

All the best — FSS

Next week: The volunteer Fusiliers march about, dig trenches and wonder why they’re not “over there” and “having a go”...

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