“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, 21 December 2014
Fusilier Sam’s young officers forget their men want Christmas at home too
Out Now In Paperback And E-Book – all proceeds to the British Red CrossFor Excerpts In AUDIO Click Here
A hundred years ago… at home fear and bitterness probably reached a new peak in the North after the December 16 German Naval raid made “Remember Scarborough!” a key recruiting slogan for a while (although Hartlepool suffered the majority of the 592 casualties). On the Western Front, the new yet already perceived by some on both sides as interminable slog of trench warfare proceeded most intensely in The First Battle Of Champagne, mainly carried by the French Army. But, of course, the event of the week was the Christmas Truce, 100,000 men, British, German, French, downing weapons to sing, talk, exchange souvenirs, play football in some fashion – just stop. This morning (Dec 20, 2014) I heard Jon Snow on the radio saying, if TV news cameras had been there and the whole world seen the footage within hours, the war would have had to end there and then... it’s quite a thought, though easy enough to pick holes in given the way highly scrutinised modern wars continue (see my father’s summation of his experience which sits at the top of every page of this blog, through to the Peace Parade Centenary in July, 2019).
Meanwhile, their Royal Fusiliers Battalion billeted with the good people of Tonbridge, Kent, Sam Sutcliffe, 16, his older brother Ted, and their fellow, still unarmed volunteers training to enter the conflict at some unknown point started to think about Christmas...
Naturally, everyone wanted to get home – which, for Sam and Ted, meant Edmonton, north London. Well, by a remarkable feat of thoughtlessness, their tyro officers managed to turn the festive season into a near-mutiny – albeit with an appropriately happy ending. Here’s my father’s story of the build-up to Christmas, 1914 (noting as ever, that in these early parts of his Memoir he wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”):
‘As Christmas 1914 approached, and it appeared likely the Battalion would remain in England during the holiday, the chaps began to speculate about whether they would be allowed home. “They’re sure to grant two or three days leave,” was the general opinion. So, warming anticipation of reunions with families gave rise to a happiness which permeated all the men. Officers must have noticed the prevailing joyfulness but, perhaps, did not realise what caused it.
An announcement that Christmas Eve would be free of parades and work contained no reference to leave of absence. Puzzlement and doubt replaced anticipatory elation. Then, as groups of men discussed the strange silence about Christmas plans, anger caused some men to threaten to go home without permission. “But that would be a crime, either desertion with trial by court martial or else a charge of being absent without leave” — so cautious men told the impatient ones.
It developed into a serious situation; on the morning of Christmas Eve, no guidance having come from above, a large number of men gathered on the London platform at the railway station. They had bought their tickets and were now committing their threatened breach of military discipline. But somebody had informed the RSM about the looming exodus and his powerful voice could be heard ordering all men to return to their billets.
Most anxious not to provide authority with any excuse for questioning his stated age and discharging him, Tommy had not made a decision about joining this rebellion. He had found a position outside the station from which he observed the following scene, and even heard much of what was said.
He saw no general movement by the, shall we say, insurgents to leave the platform and, quite suddenly, the booming voice of the RSM fell silent. All faces turned towards the station entrance. The Colonel marched in with a substantial group of officers, followed by porters carrying a large number of bags. The party stopped abruptly at the sight of the assembled troops.
The Colonel’s face expressed great surprise, as Tommy could clearly see. Then he turned to confer with Captain Blunt, his adjutant. Other officers moved in closer and there was much quiet discussion.
Some Privates standing nearby were called forward and, like good soldiers, all saluted correctly together, straight and upright, eyes looking straight ahead and not at the officers asking the questions. They may have contemplated doing a bunk, thought Tommy, but they had remembered their training. Soon the men saluted, turned about and rejoined their comrades. Then the Colonel came forward and addressed the men.
A terrific cheer followed his speech so Tommy readily guessed its import. He climbed down from his perch, passed through an open gate on into the station coal depot and crossed several railway lines till he came to iron railings and called to men on the platform, asking for information.
He learnt that the amateur officers had made their first major blunder. They had taken no thought of what was to happen to their men during the Christmas festivities. Vaguely, they had assumed that the rank and file would remain mostly in their billets and take meals with the families. For a start, this rather haughtily assumed that those families would or could supply Christmas fare for comparative strangers and also took for granted that the soldiers would wish to remain in billets in such awkward circumstances. Yet the officers themselves had no doubt as to where they were going to spend the holiday.
Of course, not all the men had gathered at the railway station, so volunteers offered to go to each CSM and pass on the good news: two-day leave had been granted to all. Thus, the remainder of the men would travel to town by the next train — as Tommy resolved to do.
Hurrying back to Leigh Drive, he yelled the good news about Christmas leave to the few men he passed. Mrs Fluter, kindliest of women, said she could have managed easily had the lads been staying over the holiday and she thought her husband might even be disappointed that they were not to share the good times together [Tommy’s hosts had no children]. Tommy had not seen Churniston [with whom he shared the billet] since breakfast, but assumed he also would travel to London. No worry on that score, said Mrs F; she would tell him about the unexpected two days off.’
So Sam/Tommy caught the train and set off for home:
‘A few hours later, Tommy received cheerful greetings at home and found Ted already there, as he’d expected. “Bet your life I got on that first train,” he said. “We knew there would be nothing to do during Christmas, and no order had been given to forbid us leaving Bunbridge, so we were on our way regardless. The officers must have felt foolish when they realised they hadn’t given any instructions as to what we should do during the next two days. Still, who’s grumbling, eh?”’
All the best, and season’s finest— FSS
Next week: Christmas at home, 1914...