“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, 28 December 2014
Sam has a lovely Christmas at home, the whole family forgiving – and forgetting what might lie ahead...
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A hundred years ago… on December 25, 1914, as much discussed of late, the Western Front went relatively quiet and some British, French and German troops even fraternised with the enemy, singing carols, playing football and chatting together in No Man’s Land. But over in the east a section of the Ottoman Army, fighting the Battle of Sarikamish, which began on December 22 in the Caucasus mountains, marched for 14 hours in heavy snow – towards a crushing and relentless defeat by the Russian Army eventually concluded on January 17 (32,000 Ottoman troops killed in action, another 15,000 dead from illness, mainly induced by frostbite; 28,000 Russians dead one way or the other).
In five months, the war had already gone global with battles fought on every continent. Meanwhile, Sam Sutcliffe, an under-age volunteer at 16, and his slightly less under-age brother Ted, 18, had managed to get home for Christmas in Edmonton, north London...
Despite their officers in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, overlooking their men’s fervent desire to see their families, as described in last week’s blog the soldiery protested to the brink of mutiny, their complaints were received and understood and a thousand men got the couple of days’ leave they craved.
Back home from their billets in Tonbridge on Christmas Eve with soldier’s pay rattling in their pockets, Sam and Ted played their part in a festivity more elaborate and heart-felt than anything they’d experienced in the poverty-pinched years of their childhood (with their father depressed by his part in “ruining” the family business in Manchester, back when Sam was a toddler, and their mother embittered by their social and financial descent):
‘With money in their pockets, the brothers bought a turkey in the market place along with fruit, sweets… and Turkish cigarettes, probably costing 4d* for ten instead of the usual 2d for English — their rich aroma seemed to lend an air of opulence to that small home.
So they all settled down to spend a really happy Christmas together. This might be the last family gathering for several years and, for once, all of them did their utmost to make the occasion memorable — starting that night with the collective manufacture of decorative chains from strips of coloured paper and flour paste. A gay touch in the living room.
Mother spent much time at the coal-fired cooking range. It took skill to stoke it and arrange the dampers so that pots of vegetables on top kept boiling while the bird and stuffing in the oven roasted without burning.
Pa had bought a bottle of cheap claret, a favourite of mother’s though, to put it mildly, a bit sharp for the tastes of the youngsters. But all protested that they liked it. Drinking some fizzy mineral water, of which they’d bought several large bottles — “penny monsters” — soon softened its harshness. What with playing games, telling yarns about Army experiences, and resting between unusually large meals, the hours passed quickly.
They all praised Ma’s cooking and even Dad put aside the load of worry which always appeared to be crushing him… and smiled occasionally. The war was hardly mentioned, although this Christmas should have marked the end of hostilities according to many forecasters. Everyone knew it was not going well, and flickers of fear disturbed even reasonably optimistic people.
But, just for the moment, self-indulgence quite rightly ousted serious thinking and all felt the happier for trying to encourage forgetfulness and joyfulness among others.’
* fourpence in old £sd = 0.3p in post-decimal sterling
Wishing you all the best, dear reader, and a happy New Year — FSS
Next week: Sam reflects on the best of times in Tonbridge, the worst of times to come...