“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, 9 November 2014
Sam gets to know the men who lived and died beside him at Gallipoli
Out Now In Paperback And E-Book
– all proceeds to the Red Cross
A hundred years ago today… in the northern Indian Ocean near the Cocos Islands, the Australian cruiser Sydney wrecked the German cruiser Emden which, in the previous two months had sunk 25 civilian and two Allied Navy ships. Then November 11 in 1914 proved a day for battles starting: Lodz, Poland, where German and Russian Armies fought inconclusively in snow and ice for more than three weeks (125,000 casualties); Basra, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), where over the following 10 days, British and Indian troops secured the Persian (now Iranian) oilfields by defeating the Ottoman Army. On that day, too, Sultan Mehmed V declared Jihad on the Allies, “the last genuine proclamation of Jihad in history by a Caliph”. I guess we’re may notice contemporary bells ringing...
Meanwhile, my father Sam Sutcliffe, older brother Ted, and their volunteer pals from Edmonton, north London, left home for the first time and started what proved to be a very long and eventful run-up to actual warfare...
Writing in the third person in the first part of the Memoir and calling himself “Tommy”, Sam took an ironic view of himself, the innocent 16-year-old in his new Royal Fusiliers uniform marching off to... well, not exactly war just yet, his Battalion gathered that their departure from London (about November 7) would not mean immediate immersion in the tribulations of the Western Front but something a little stressful in the Home Counties.
Obviously, this allowed young Sam/Tommy freedom to strut, inwardly at least, telling himself heroic tales of his own derring-do to come:
“His imagination wove a tapestry designed by vanity, coloured by optimism. Its title could have been ‘Me, Wonderful Me’.”
But, as the Battalion gathered in Bloomsbury to march to London Bridge station and a southbound train, his thoughts descended to more practical matters — and the close observations of his fellow foot soldiers which supplied these images from his remarkable memory when he wrote it all down more than 50 years later (my father often used aliases for one reason or another, so he may have changed any or all of these names, although they sound real enough):
“Following instructions, Tommy had written his Regimental number 2969, his name, Company and Battalion in bold capitals on his kit bag. Carrying it balanced on a shoulder, he felt little discomfort, its weight not great, even with all the items issued so far. Companies marched separately to Greys Inn Road, where they joined up in a long column heading south towards Holborn... still in the early stages of war, onlookers knew these recruits had volunteered* and had their own pleasant ways of acknowledging them. Tommy felt this infectious friendliness made the troops, as the recipients of kindness, more considerate of each other.
He could see his comrades to the left and right and some of those ahead of him… Sticky Pryke, the Soho wide-boy, outgiving with his rich Cockney humour, but quick to take offence, marched in the row of four immediately in front of Tommy. Alongside him, Ewart Walker**... A rather elderly fellow of scholarly appearance, an ex-journalist and very knowledgeable, he looked stern, or somewhat benign, or quizzical, all dependent on what the brainy bloke was observing at any given moment — nice to watch the steady, kindly, old chap plodding along on his sturdy legs, a slight roll to his body as he marched. ‘Wonder why he didn’t go for a commission? Money problem I guess,’ thought Tommy.
Looking left along his own row, Tommy might receive a nod and grin from old Joe Parker, a Billingsgate porter until recently and ordinary seaman before that – who’d apprised choirboy Tommy of the wisdom that “with sacks over their heads, all women look alike”. From his right, perhaps, a snappy quip from Frank Lawler. About 33 years old, Tommy surmised, slim, sporting a trim, narrow moustache, outspoken and, when they marched at ease, a loud singer of popular songs — and home-made parodies thereof. His comments could be rather personal, but he took the rough replies and studied insults with the good humour he expected of others and successfully pricked the bubbles of conceit which made some men sullen when their pride was assaulted. Tommy had been an early victim of Lawler’s sallies, but by now the blush of self-consciousness no longer suffused his face at every jibe and he could sometimes manage a retort or otherwise grin and appear to enjoy what he couldn’t avoid.
The garrulous Goodbody, his broad shoulders visible over rows of those in front of Tommy, was one of several men he tried to keep clear of. Goodbody had a bright, penetrating eye. Tommy knew the fellow guessed he was too young to be a soldier. Always, if Tommy met his gaze, he seemed about to say something.
“I always found something to be doing elsewhere when it appeared that Goodbody intended to talk to me,” Tommy later recalled***. “Fear of the man, or of what he might say in the hearing of others, made me keep a wary eye on him. But I always felt that once we were out of England there would be no risk of him forcing a showdown.”
Much more comforting to have in view on the march was Price, a six-footer with a sort of baby face, soon dubbed “High” Price. When pleased — which meant most of the time — he had this girlish sort of smile. A pronounced dimple showed in each cheek. Nothing girlish, though, about that strong physique nor his challenging mien if he suspected anyone of getting at him.
No danger of that from High Price’s neighbour on the march, Nick Thompson, about 28, a purposeful family man, a believer in all the decencies, who never deviated from his obvious lifelong habit of giving and expecting fair dealing. He marched carefully, steadily, and yet joined in the sociability around him, their comradeship already developing.
A couple of rows further on, Jack Pawson, tall, thin, but just the figure to show off a uniform, along with a face and neat moustache one would expect of a real soldier — yet his head looked rather small, giving a suggestion of frailty, as did his thinnish, putteed calves. Tommy had found him to be kindly and serious; probably most of the slick, Cockney humour which flew back and forth had no meaning for him. Jack marched with a Harker at either shoulder, brothers Percy and Reg; Percy of medium height, slight build, black hair, blue shaven chin, a sort of non-stop seeker after knowledge, always delving away and questioning; brother Reg quieter, diffident, very likeable.
Heavens, thought Tommy, there’s the Old Bailey already. Thinking about his comrades — these men becoming a real part of his life — had made him oblivious to the distance covered. If he was only a lad, at least a fine, protective screen of older men was forming around him…
The crunching tramp, tramp of all those heavy boots proceeded… sometimes sounding above them, the din of clattering horses’ hooves, merry or cursing wagon drivers, noisy petrol engines and hooting motor horns... south from Cheapside along King William Street and across the Thames via London Bridge.
Came the order ‘Break step!’, cheerfully obeyed by many who indulged momentarily in some fancy footwork for a laugh; Battalions of troops always walked out of step over bridges to avoid setting up a swinging motion which might cause damage, perhaps even to this stolid structure.”
* With this blog coming out on Remembrance Sunday, it’s worth a statistical note: in early August, 1914, Parliament called for 100,000 volunteers; by the end of September, 750,000 had come forward, by January, 1915, a million...
**Shortly after landing at Gallipoli in September, 1915, my father learned that “Ewart Walker, the erudite ex-journalist, had died within moments of reaching the beach — a time-fused shell exploded above his head, relieving him of any requirement to further tax his ageing body, and depriving us of a very good comrade.”
*** To me, this is the moment when my father started to drift towards his eventual decision to go full-on into the first person — “I” instead of “he/Tommy” — perhaps no longer needing that distance the third person gives, perhaps recognising more of his adult self emerging from the child… both or neither, I can’t be sure because back in the ‘70s I didn’t think to ask him!
Next stop, the first away from home for Sam/Tommy and his older brother Ted, turned out to be a startlingly genteel location, given their poor upbringing in Edmonton. My father subtly disguised the name of the Kentish town where the Battalion billeted, but you may be able to work it out...
“At London Bridge station, the Battalion, together with a great deal of equipment, filled a fairly long train of the old London, South Eastern and Chatham Railway, LSE and C for short, a line saddled with various nicknames including “Lazy, Slow, Easy and Cold”. But Tommy considered the seating to be roomy and well-upholstered...
Well, now here was Bunbridge and Tommy’s feet were among the first to touch down on the station platform.
The troops left the station as quickly as the exit allowed and gathered into their various companies on the road outside... Lieutenant Swickenham announced that men should go to their allotted lodgings as soon as they were handed their billeting slips... A large map hung on a nearby fence and NCOs, who had visited the town previously to plan the operation, helped their men to locate their new addresses. Tommy’s slip of paper read: Mr and Mrs Fluter, 12, Leigh Drive.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam’s Fusiliers start digging trenches – in Kent!