“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, 2 November 2014
Sam’s leaving home (bye bye) – the 16-year-old volunteer's farewell to mother, father, childhood
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A hundred years ago today… the UK declared a naval blockade on Germany. The next day the German Navy shelled the British coast near Gorleston and Yarmouth. During the following week, while battles on the Western Front (especially Ypres) continued to feed the cannon, in northern Turkey Russia launched the Bergmann Offensive against the Ottoman Empire, in German East Africa (now part of Tanzania) the German Colonial Army beat back the British, and the British and Indian Armies took the Ottoman fort of Fao in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) – this last motivated by the need to protect oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.
Back in scrape-a-living north London, 16-year-old volunteer Sam Sutcliffe and his Royal Fusilier pals gradually inched away from their peacetime lives.
Last week I left Tommy (my father Sam’s alias for himself in the early chapters of the Memoir which he wrote in the third person) worrying about his strong feelings when the Army finally gave his Battalion their uniforms and great changes in his life became imminent – could he ever be a “real man” when such childish or even “feminine” turmoil roiled within him? Separations loomed: from his family and even the three lads – his older brother Ted, Len Winns and Harold Mellow – he’d joined up with. He writes in his Memoir:
“The present emotions stirred because of Tommy’s realisation that each member of his group of four had already begun to act independently. No longer did they wait for each other at the end of the day’s training, for their Companies often used different parade grounds... Tommy hoped he and his brother would try to spend time together as often as possible, but he would not make a nuisance of himself by hanging on, as he put it to himself.”
The evening after they got their uniforms, Tommy/Sam and Ted took a “promenade” around their neighbourhood, Edmonton, and received “approving smiles” from passers-by “allaying Tommy’s continuing fears that his obvious lack of years might be noticed”. But his growing confidence soon took another shaking:
“... they met Madge Rocks, Harold Mellow’s (sort of) half-sister. Their family structure had its mysteries: a sister of Harold’s mother lived with the family and, when she too produced her contribution in the form of a bonnie baby girl, some arrangement agreeable to all must have been evolved, for later on she added a son to the growing population in the small house. The father, a quiet man, spent his days providing for all these healthy eaters. It was not disclosed how he spent his nights.
Nevertheless... Madge became a competent shorthand typist and a solid church worker. She was wide. Wide, that is, of shoulder and hips, not in the worldly, knowledgeable sense. A little over five feet tall and wide, her face wide and attractive, her fine hazel eyes wide apart, her wide mouth usually further widened by a smile. As to the rest of her, the long skirts of the period meant that no one really knew what allowed Madge to perambulate except that, of course, the wide shoes she wore doubtless covered a pair of wide feet. But those who knew her valued her good will, so when she cheerily answered Ted’s greeting, then looked at Tommy and laughed, she mangled the boy’s pride. He really took offence and, red of face, walked away and went home.”
A couple of days later, Tommy/Sam’s H Company learned, via a hubbub of rumour, rather than official announcement that “We’re going!” Nobody told them where, except that the journey would begin on Saturday morning (probably November 7) at London Bridge station and “an important job” awaited them when they detrained. Tommy/Sam reckons it was only then he realised that “he had become a little ashamed of the almost-peacetime way of life which had continued since he and the other three quit their office jobs.”
But this was it, leaving home and family – for the first time in their lives, apart from occasional excursions with the Boy Scouts. For Tommy/Sam, it provoked some soul-searching reflections on his relationship with his mother and father:
“That evening, when he and Ted explained the day’s developments, their parents said they were pleased there was no immediate risk of their sons going to the battlefront. They had read the casualty lists the daily newspapers published — lists headed by the names of commissioned officers and their Battalions, followed by the numbers of ‘other ranks’ killed or wounded. This practice must have been customary in previous wars, but this time the numbers of dead and wounded soon grew far too large to catalogue daily — secrecy, too, concerning the whereabouts and movements of troops, came to take precedence over the honourable mention of casualties among officers and gentlemen.
They all assumed that, initially, they would not travel far away and they would be able to come home fairly frequently, so they said their farewells that Saturday morning at home without any suggestion that father, or anyone else, should go to London Bridge to see them off. Kitbags slung over shoulders, the brothers hurried away, pausing on the corner at the top of the street to wave to the family standing outside the house.
His usual phlegmatic self in a family not given to demonstrations of affection, Ted didn’t tell Tommy that he had any particular pleasure or regret at the coming change in their lives. So Tommy imitated this almost casual treatment of what was surely a very important occasion. As far as he could judge, he might be the only one who did feel sad about the parting — if so, he too would also show no sorrow.
Of course, Tommy may have been wrong about this. Perhaps mother would miss Ted; she had always been proud of his achievements. But little about himself appeared to have pleased her, Tommy thought. He lacked the push and drive and confidence she frequently preached about. He always tried to behave as if he had no doubt about his own abilities and, among strangers, he usually did feel able to cope with most situations. But at home with his family, a sense of inadequacy assailed him often. A psychiatrist would have a convincing explanation ready, but Tommy found no good reason for it, much as he regretted it…
However, before he left the house, Tommy’s father had shaken hands with him, wished him well and looked directly at him while doing so, which made Tommy feel that, probably, here was one who had some affection for him. Mother let him kiss her cheek, which was something — he could not remember when such a thing had last occurred... These thoughts nagged at him when he and Ted turned the corner and walked away from home.
Even so, anticipation of where they were going, where they might sleep that night and under what conditions, soon put a spring in his stride.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam’s journey into the unknown ends... in Kent