“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, 25 January 2015
Sam’s last precious moments with his family before leaving England – goodbye “for a long time… maybe forever”
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A hundred years ago… with the Western and Eastern Fronts settled into attritional, murderous grind, On January 24 the British Navy won a considerable victory in The Battle Of Dogger Bank, beating off a German raid and sinking a cruiser (954 of the crew died), while on the 26th a new campaign began in Sinai and Palestine when an Ottoman Army, led by a German Colonel, trekked across the desert for 10 days to conduct the Raid On The Suez Canal which ended, on February 4, in defeat by a “British Empire” force comprising Punjabis, Baluchistanis, Gurkhas and the Bikaner Camel Corps from northern India. And in London, on January 28, the British Government confirmed plans for a Naval attack on the Dardanelles in February…
Eventually, that decision would have quite a bearing on the future of my father, Sam, 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers and their pals from Edmonton, north London, in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, lately billeted in comfort – apart from days spent digging trenches to defend the capital – down in Tonbridge, Kent, but now about to move on to who knew where…
After a surprise mid-January week’s leave at home and a disconcerting lantern-lecture from young and much-mocked Lieutenant Swickenham which, oddly, yoked together the apparently unconnected topics of VD and Malta, suddenly the Fusiliers find themselves on the move. In this passage, my father began to edge away from third-person narrative, referring to himself as “Tommy”, via a long passage “quoting” Tommy in the first-person – a pretense he dropped shortly afterwards (a big step towards finding his confidence as a writer I feel).
One morning in late January, after roll call, Sam dodged volunteering for some chore cooked up by the Lieutenant-Quartermaster, and felt quite pleased with himself momentarily:
‘… until the CSM warned me and others to rest until 9pm when, with all our belongings packed in kitbags, we would report for duty at the railway station. We should say goodbye to our hosts before leaving, having told them that they would be called on during the day by an officer who would settle outstanding debts.
So this was it…’
Rumour said they’d travel up to London, wait a bit, then be “re-routed”. Abroad they guessed. The Front? Sam needed to speak to his brother:
‘At the station, I quickly found brother Ted at work loading stores on to the train, having volunteered for the Quartermaster’s detail. Not many civilians had telephones in those days, but we managed to persuade a sympathetic chap to let us into his home to use his and we got a message to our father in his office. We told him it seemed certain we were finally leaving England, but that our train would stop at Waterloo for some time before we set off. He promised to hurry home as early as possible and collect mother and then they would try to get to us at the railway station.
There suddenly welled up in me an unsuspected affection for our homeland. “Homeland”? The first time we had thought of calling it that. And the family always rather taken for granted — their value rocketed suddenly. Uncertainty as to when, if ever, we would see them again made this coming, improvised farewell terribly important…
Back at the billet… That last, rather sad day with the kindly Fluters passed with the dear lady feeding us far too liberally. When I regretfully left them that night, I took with me several of her gorgeous pasties. Lovely people. I would never forget them and intended, as I promised, to see them again as soon as possible.’
It turned out that Sam’s first duty that evening was to guard the train – against what, he couldn’t imagine – rather than travel on it:
‘During that dark night in the railway sidings, I had to make periodic inspections along one side of the several coaches placed in my care, a comrade doing a similar job on the other side. When resting, I could have one carriage door open and sit in the doorway on the step. The Sergeant visited us from time to time and, when you heard him approaching, it was important to be on your feet and keen.
Nothing happened and, when daylight began to cheer up the scene, most of us were allowed to take our ease in the station waiting rooms and drink some of the strong tea brewed on the coal fires there. I ate some of Mrs Fluter’s tasty food and had a couple of hours sleep on a long seat.
As the hours passed, I began to doubt the necessity of all the hurry to leave our billets and spend the night guarding an empty train. I felt unhappy at leaving the Fluters almost a day before I need have done. Others had their grievances too. So we grumbled and swore to relieve our feelings. A stranger might have thought he was witnessing the start of a mutiny. He might also have noticed that the approach of an officer effected a sudden reduction in the vocal noise, so perhaps rebellion was not exactly imminent.
But we had fallen victim to one of many blunders at the top which, throughout the war, made us call into question the parentage of officers from Field Marshals downwards. With a whole day to get through, our superiors had made no provision for feeding those of us who guarded the train all night and who now, for lack of orders, hung about the station and sidings. With no information about time of departure, we didn’t dare risk wandering off to look for somewhere to eat. No better informed, NCOs could not permit absence…
We had to devise an unofficial catering system. Four men would swiftly vanish over a fence and eat a hurried meal in a café a hundred yards or so along the road; one of our chaps lingered near the fence, ready to climb over and warn them should a quick return be necessary. Thus, we all in turn were supplied, but at our own expense, whereas the Army should have fed us without charge.’
Chatting with a comrade, Sam came to blame the Lieutenant Quartermaster for this neglect of basics. He’d had trouble with the man, then a Sergeant, on the day he volunteered the previous September – the comrade told Sam this man had “just one expression on that horrible face, it said ‘I hate you’” – and would encounter his malevolently careless ways again in foreign parts. Still, eventually, his hunger staved by Mrs Fluter’s last kindness, he and the Battalion got under way, Sam and Ted hoping they might yet be able to see their family and say goodbye:
‘The short journey to London took a long time. The railway controllers could have done without our long train running among the scheduled commuter traffic at peak hours so, where a line ran behind station buildings avoiding the platforms, they diverted us and left us standing there for long periods. It was evening before we reached Waterloo.
Within a moment of the train stopping, we had all piled out on to the platform, stretching ourselves and stamping our feet. The next order: “Men wishing to pump ship will be taken in groups to the lavatories by NCOs”. The train had no corridors, no sanitation, so groups quickly on the move were encouraged to hurry by shouts from those who had to wait for relief.
Men who hoped that family or friends might be trying to get to them for a last farewell gathered as close as possible to the platform gates. I spotted my parents, but at first we could only exchange a few shouted words. The crowd waiting outside the guarded gates looked surprisingly small, considering the hundreds of men involved…
As time passed, the majority of the troops made themselves comfortable and returned to their seats on the train. Now, as the platform cleared, officers and NCOs could see that, were a brief reunion of soldiers and their relatives permitted, it would not increase the risk of some demented soldier making off. Anyway, the watch on platform entrance and exits made that almost impossible. As I wandered about, waiting, I heard several discussions on the subject and noticed a general movement of officers towards the first-class coach in the middle of the train. Shortly, they called the NCOs to that coach and, in turn, the CSMs and Sergeants soon hurried back to their respective Companies to loudly announce that civilians would be allowed on the platform for the remaining half-hour or so till departure time.
I found Ted, then Harold joined us and so, unexpectedly, did dear old Len [Harold and Len: the Edmonton pals who’d volunteered with them]. With our mother and father, and Harold’s mum and dad, and his broad and beaming half-sister, Madge, we all relaxed.
Our family became far more talkative and forthcoming with each other than we had ever been before. No reticence — it no longer mattered that we should try to be witty, sarcastic, grudging in praise, proud of or ashamed of each other. Here were a few precious moments we could spend together before being parted for a long time. Or perhaps only a short time. But maybe forever.
We youngsters might possibly feel ashamed of this blatant display of affection at some later date, but at that moment natural feelings dominated. Even Dad smiled and chatted all the time and to each and every one of the party in turn. He noticed that quiet Len had no parent or friend to wish him farewell and so gave him special attention. Both families had brought gifts of food – sandwiches, cakes and fruit – and these they shared out equally between the four soldiers whose last minutes in London they were making so sweetly memorable.’
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam sets sail from Southampton, the Bay of Biscay cuts up rough…