“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, 14 December 2014
Food, glorious food – billeted with a kind Tonbridge family, volunteer Sam eats more and better than ever before...
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A hundred years ago… the “Winter Operations” on the Western Front ground on with fresh battles beginning at Artois (December 17th), Givenchy (18th) and Champagne (20th – a thwarted French attack leading to casualties over the following three months reckoned by two different recent accounts to be either 93,000 or 240,000; the fog of war lingering still?). To the East, the Russians conceded to the Austro-Hungarians at Limanowa (13th) and the Austro-Hungarians backed down against the Serbs at the Kolubara River (16th), while in Egypt the British simply declared the country their Protectorate (18th).
But the week’s most alarming event for the British people erupted on the morning of the 16th, a Wednesday, when a squadron of German warships sailed up to the Durham and Yorkshire coast to bombard Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough. At Hartlepool, their main target because of the naval dockyard, they fired 1,150 shells in maybe 50 minutes, damaging a steelworks and the railway too and killing 117 people, mostly civilians. A Private Theophilus Jones became the war’s first military casualty on British soil. However, the Government chose “Remember Scarborough” as the resultant recruitment slogan, perhaps thinking to trade on the notion of violated seaside innocence.
Meanwhile, down in Kent, under-age volunteer Sam Sutcliffe, 16, his brother Ted, 18, and their 1,000 comrades in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, most of them from working-class and/or poor homes – like my father’s in Edmonton – enjoyed some home-from-home comforts, courtesy of the Army’s decision to keep them away from the Front for an ever-extending “time being”... partly, of course, because they couldn’t supply the lads with rifles as yet!
Having grown up hungry, Sam, my father – writing in the third person and portraying himself as “Tommy” in this first part of his Memoir – often wrote about food, from ace to disgrace. Here, 50 years on, he fondly recalls the first Sunday dinner at his Tonbridge billet with his hosts, Mr and Mrs Fluter, and fellow Fusilier Churniston:
‘“Everything’s ready,” she said. “I thought we’d start off with good old English fare. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and apple pudding to follow.” Grace was said at the beginning, briefly, and at the end. The lads could add their amens with genuine feeling, for it was a splendid meal. In conversation, the Fluters again mentioned that they would take no notice of the Army allowance for feeding the boys. “Yes,” said the kindly Mr Fluter, “we have no need to rely on that, and we hope you will enjoy what we are able to give you and realise that we shall get quite a lot of pleasure out of doing what we can to make your stay comfortable and happy.”’
To the lads’ delight, Mrs Fluter maintained that lovely-grub standard throughout the Battalion’s three months of training and augmenting the ring of defensive trenches designed to protect south London if the worst happened – a German invasion. Not only that; when they set off for a day’s work she presented them with sumptuous packed lunches:
‘Came the Monday morning, the air clear and pleasantly chilly. Tommy and Churniston expressed their surprise and delight when Mrs F laid out the food she had prepared for their first day’s digging. She had wrapped fine, white, table napkins round large, meat pasties, marmalade turnovers and lots of sandwiches. Wonderful food, lovingly prepared and packed. Each of the boys had sufficient for four men and, although they thanked her sincerely, Tommy certainly felt he had not done justice to the kindness shown to him — at that age, boys are often tongue-tied if there is emotion present. He hoped Mrs F would make allowances.
When the lunch break arrived, he soon realised he would not be able to eat all the fine food Mrs F had packed, so he put about a third of each pasty to one side, wrapped them in newspaper, and hurried along to find his brother in G Company. Ted gladly accepted this addition to his smallish packet of sandwiches. “If my landlady keeps up this level of grub supply I’ll be able to pass on some tasty bits most days,” Tommy told him. “If she ever asks me about the quantity I’ll assure her not a crumb is wasted.”
Ted’s landlady was a good sort, he said, and his lunch about the size that most of the troops’ hosts could afford to give them: “Mrs Prout tells me that your Mr Fluter is the boss where her husband works. Naturally, there’s no surplus money at our house. You struck it rich at your billet. But Harold [Harold Mellow, an old friend from Edmonton] and I are OK with the Prouts. We’re treated just like family. In fact, Mrs Prout has to go to London shortly and she says she’s going to call on Harold’s family.” Tommy wondered about that — whether the situation up there, with one husband and two wives and mothers, might not cause embarrassment to somebody.’ [See blog 17, 2/11/14, “Sam’s leaving home... “ for the ins and out of Harold’s happy family.]
But if the townspeople expressed their appreciation of the volunteers by treating them like their own – the variations matters of detail, not spirit – the Army (or perhaps one should say the Government, I don’t know) could often find ways to dampen their enthusiasm with, probably, unconsidered gestures of careless disregard. In Tonbridge, Sam reckoned, the trains provided to convey them to their trenching work clearly expressed the authorities’ view of their standing:
‘... at the station, when the troops opened the carriage doors, laughs and curses filled the air. Cattle trucks, pigsties, travelling chicken sheds, were among the popular names for the compartments. Very old, small in all dimensions, they had bare boards for seats and partitions.
The question arose, who had used them before? Hop-pickers came the answer — seasonal migrants, mostly from the city, who worked hard during the few weeks of the harvest. Because they were poor people the railway company had gone to the trouble of constructing this shabby transport for them. No doubt the workers paid special low fares to travel to their low-paid work, therefore their bottoms were not to be cushioned nor their heads to rest on upholstery.
Similarly, as the railway company would no doubt be paid a low contract rate for moving troops, they were to be treated as paupers, even though the citizenry in general treated them as men worth a smile and a wave of the hand…
Still, good humour prevailed and the loaded train clattered off to the small town outside which they were to dig the trenches.’
All the best, and season’s finest— FSS
Next week: The officers forget the men want to go home for Christmas...