“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, 4 January 2015
Sam’s New Year 1915: back to muddy trenches... in Tonbridge!
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A hundred years ago… while the British at home absorbed the news of a second battleship sunk by a German submarine (HMS Formidable, off Portland Bill, January 1, 527 men lost), status quo slaughter on the Western Front proceeded, much of it around the First Battle Of Champagne (December 20, ’14-March 17, ’15).
On the Eastern Front, the Russian Army continued terrible, “successful” winter campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus at Sarikamish, Kara Urgan and Ardahan, and in the Carpathians. This last, a three-month-long attack on the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary forced soldiers to endure night-time temperatures of -25°F for weeks on end, causing a 75 per cent casualty rate on the less well prepared Austro-Hungarian side.
The worldness of the war developed further with battles in the Cameroons (the French repulsing a German attack, January 5), the UK-allied Muscat Army supported by Indian battalions defeating a rebellion by Turkish-supported tribes (January 10-11), and the British taking Mafia Island, off Zanzibar, from the Germans (January 12).
Nonetheless, today, January 4, a Monday a century ago, the London Stock Exchange reopened for the first time since July, 1914, when it closed after pre-war panic saw interest rates double in 24 hours and a run on the Bank of England as people besieged Threadneedle Street demanding gold in exchange for their paper money.
Meanwhile, my father, under-age Royal Fusilier Sam Sutcliffe, 16, his brother Ted, 18, and their pals from Edmonton and elsewhere in London concluded brief festivities at home with their families...
‘Too soon,’ Sam wrote, ‘even Boxing Day had passed, farewells had been said and the brothers, with Harold, were on their way back to Bunbridge.’
Which reminds me to explain, for new readers, that in this first part of his Memoir my father wrote in the third person, referring to himself archetypally as “Tommy”, and that, for reasons I never elicited, he felt moved to thinly disguise some place names – so “Bunbridge” is really Tonbridge, Kent, and that’s where his 2/1st City Of London Battalion found itself billeted for a couple of winter months, 1914-15.
After Christmas leave, they trained on (still without rifles!) and resumed digging trenches, which served the dual purpose of building defences in case of invasion and rehearsing their excavation skills to meet the demands of onward destinations including Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras.
As Sam wrote:
‘That part of the London trench defence Tommy’s crowd were responsible for had reached an average depth of about five feet....
From time to time in that war, well-constructed trench systems, properly reinforced with wood, wire net or expanded metal, and, at the bottom, drainage sumps covered by slatted boards — duck boards — served as home to hundreds of thousands of men. But at any point where a major attack developed, the structure which looked so strong could soon be reduced to a useless shallow rut, its only occupants mutilated corpses; yesterday’s bright boys, today’s cadavers.
With short, wintry days and muddy trenches to work in, Tommy fully appreciated the warmth and comfort always awaiting him at Leigh Drive [his billet with Mr and Mrs Fluter and another young volunteer, Churniston]. Before entering the house, he scraped the thick mud from his boots; then his next care demanded using old newspaper to further clean boots and puttees. He hung his damp, outer clothing in a corner of the large kitchen and put on a pair of civilian trousers. This broke no regulations provided he stayed indoors. He knew good luck had set him up in a very special billet, so he tried to make the Fluters feel that housing and feeding a strange lad was not one of life’s greatest trials.
The question of how to pass the winter nights did not arise after all. Lingering over the wonderful evening meals, listening to Mr Fluter’s reminiscences or thoughts on current affairs or, on occasions, Churniston’s chilly experiences among the cadavers at the teaching hospital [where he’d worked before enlisting], saw him through easily to about 10 o’clock when preparations for going to bed usually commenced.
Ever one to survey the past and compare the present, Tommy concluded he could count this Bunbridge sojourn among his best times. He felt almost guilty when he read about the misfortunes and sufferings of soldiers on active service. True, the men at the Front in those early months of the war were almost all regular soldiers carrying on the kind of work for which they had long trained and, by all accounts, doing it well — but they lacked numbers, as well as sufficient machine guns and artillery.
For years, ordinary people — even Tommy — had known that war with Germany was probable, but apparently the message had not reached the Liberal government and the War Office. “Nobody thought to tell them, poor souls,” Tommy would reflect. So fear of a long war grew and the patriotic bloom began to fade from the eager defenders’ faces. This gradually changed many a cheerful patriot into a thoughtful schemer. For them, the mad rush to the Front turned into a careful study of the Rear, and a search for some niche there wherein their talents could be utilised.’
All the best for 2015! — FSS
Next week: The making of FootSoldierSam – a boy who went to war