“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, 11 January 2015
The making of FootSoldierSam – a boy who went to war
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A hundred years ago… the Great War proceeded through some days of, arguably, its new normal – slogging along on Western and Eastern Fronts with few new developments (the Battle Of Artois concluded on January 13, the Battle Of Soissons on the 14th, both inconclusively).
Meanwhile, my father, Sam, 16, his brother, Ted, 18, their pals from Edmonton, north London, and the rest of the Cockney crew comprising the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, enjoyed what proved to be their final days in England for almost two years.
Last week, Sam wrote of their Tonbridge sojourn – drilling, digging trench defences in case of invasion by the German Army, offset by wonderful treatment from the local families billeting them – as one of the “best times” of his young life. But, very unusually for him, a couple of these weeks passed without event or observation that lodged in his wondrous memory to re-emerge when he wrote his Memoir in the 1970s.So, as his editor and blogger, I decided to use the pause as a means of reviewing a few aspects of the childhood that shaped the strong, fearful, opinionated, worried, oddly innocent lad who volunteered for war in the ninth of these blogs. He wrote about 50,000 words, toddler to teens, before these war declaration to 1919 peace parade blogs began to roughly parallel events, macro and micro, a hundred years ago. I’m excerpting some snippets of that story of a poor boy’s life in the early 1900s every Tuesday on the Memoir’s facebook page, but here are some details that seem formative, one way or another:
Well, the first line that he wrote as he set out to write his one and only book – as an old man who’d left school at 14 in 1912 – has to be quoted here because it gave the memoir its proper name:
‘May I say straight away he became nobody of any importance…’
And then there were fleeting memories of factory-owning luxury in Manchester as a tot, before “ruin” assailed the family and they journeyed to London, an occasion of mortifying embarrassment to mother and children:
‘… a railway official came into the carriage and inspected tickets. He looked at mother — they were alone in the compartment, mother and the four children — and he said, “I quite understand, short of money, eh? Can’t pay for tickets for all of them. Well, where you think it’s necessary – and if we stop at a station – put two of the children under the seat… Do as I say. That will help.”’
This is where I remind readers Sam started out writing in the third person, calling himself “our boy” or “Tommy” in the early chapters... Strangers and “come down in the world”, the family scraped by, like thousands of others in their north London suburb. Hunger gnawed at the children’s bellies daily – surely the reason for his detailed memory of meals, good or diabolical, throughout his Memoir:
‘So, when one day our boy saw a lad younger than himself sitting on the ground tearing up paper and eating bits of it, he asked him, “Why are you eating paper?” “Because I’m hungry,” said the boy. Our lad thought, “Perhaps it would help if I could do the same”. He tore up some paper and chewed it, but, oh, it tasted horrible. He never resorted to that again...’
They moved house to somewhere even cheaper, the children (four born in Manchester, a fifth in London) often not seeing one of their parents for days. But, eventually, after walking all over London to find it, the father got a steady, though low-paid job, celebrated with a real Sunday dinner:
‘That week when Dad received his first pay packet was long remembered because on the Sunday, very unusually, their mother lit a coal fire in the grate of the kitchen range and they baked rather more potatoes than usual and boiled a small number of haricot beans (hard when bought, they had to be soaked for 24 hours or so before cooking). For this occasion dishes they hadn’t used for some time were set out on the table. One for the potatoes, another for the beans, and a larger one for the joint. Mother placed it at the end of the table where father sat. He carved it most carefully, small portions for the children, of course, but the taste of that meat in addition to the beans and the potatoes was a treat.’
But, even as a young schoolboy, Sam could feel how the family’s downfall had damaged his parents’ relationship forever:
‘... home life remained variable. Despite recent slight improvements, the trial of all the years since the family’s tile company in Manchester collapsed had sharpened the mother’s temper. Her hand would whip out with a smack at very slight provocation. She frequently recounted the quality and style of their life as it used to be and had ceased to be and the blame for all this, of course, she laid at father’s door. Perhaps he was an easy-going, soft type of chap. She classed him as such. He was working hard doing the best he could in all the circumstances, but got not much credit for anything as far as Tommy could hear.’
So, with emotional uncertainty at home, Sam/Tommy looked outward to school, the church choir, and the Boy Scouts for steadiness and a degree of encouragement.
‘Suddenly a change occurred for Tommy. In charge of the Scout Troop was a cultured man, whose name I’ve mentioned in passing – Mr Frusher, who was also the vicar, the organist and choirmaster at the parish church… He approached Tommy at one of the Scout gatherings and said, “I’d like you to join the church choir. Ask your parents if they will be agreeable…” The vicar himself, Mr Frusher, with his dome of a head, his powerful voice and perfect diction, had the gift of making people believe that all was well in this best of all worlds; after his sermons, they would leave the church feeling secure, strong, fortified, ready to meet the trials of the coming week...”
The vicar also played a part in developing Sam’s natural gift for playing musical instruments. His mother acquired a battered old piano:
‘Tommy… made a wild promise to tune it. He felt sure he could do it by ear. He’d seen a man in the local piano shop doing it… Tommy discussed it with his friends and one young man said that, if Tommy took an impression of the shape of the screw at the top of each string, at his place of work, he could make a tool to fit. Tommy mentioned his intention to Mr Frusher. A rather derisive smile greeted the proposition, but he gave Tommy a tuning fork for A. With this to guide him, he used the key to get the middle note right and the rest followed from that… Day after day, in his spare moments he’d be sitting there tapping away on the keys and turning the screws until his ear told him it was as near as he would get… When he told Mr Frusher he’d about finished the job, curiosity overcame the choirmaster and he had to call round and see it. Although, when he played a few bars on this thing, his face betrayed a degree of pain, still he complimented the lad on what he’d done and said, “If you like, I’ll give you a few lessons…’
When Sam, Ted and their peers in the Scouts and choir reached their teens, they also joined Frusher’s Sunday discussion group. Thus, Sam acquired the confused mixture of puritanism, gallantry and fear that characterised his dealings with women throughout the war:
‘In a sensible way, Mr Frusher described the feelings contact between the sexes could arouse, the actions and the results that would follow: the girls in trouble, the unwanted babies; the worry, regret, fear; the difficulties which beset a young man who has fathered a bastard. He drew this picture so impressively the lads were never likely to forget. In fact, he constantly impressed upon them that sexual intercourse before marriage was wrong, a crime, it must never even be considered, let alone indulged in.’
And, finally – nothing to do with the vicar – he learned what a great fight was like and, perhaps, found the first hint of the stoicism that carried him through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras and six months as a POW. Harassed by Hoy, a lieutenant of the “school bully”, he agreed to a setpiece scrap with seconds and a referee on an adjacent field:
‘Tommy fell into the boxer’s stance he’d learnt during Boy Scout training and shuffled about. Bigger and stronger, Hoy lashed out frequently, but somewhat blindly. His face evinced murderous malice throughout. Tommy himself found real hatred rising in him as soon as the bout got going. He was being hurt. Yet a certain coolness, fruit of those boxing lessons, kept his emotions in check… Tommy’s mouth and face began to feel like a huge, puffed-up thing, ten times their actual size and, although, clearly, both boys were becoming exhausted, neither capable of landing a knockout blow, Tommy felt sure he was going to lose… It seemed endless. With Hoy’s friends yelling at him to finish his foe off, by an indescribable piece of luck Tommy swung his arm over, missed his target and struck Hoy on the upper right arm. It dropped to his side and he yelled at Arthur [the referee], ”I can’t hold it up! It’s paralysed!” That finished it. Arthur awarded the win to Tommy, despite the opposition’s protests. Fearing a general attack, Tommy’s friends hurried him away, shouting congratulations and slapping him on the back — Tommy pretended to be unimpressed and said nothing about the sheer good fortune of the punch hitting a nerve to end the fight.’
I’d say “ecce homo!”, but I mean “behold the kid” - the boy who, after a couple of years out at work as described in the early blogs joined the Army, September, 1914.
All the best — FSS
Next week: A callow Lieutenant’s magic lantern show about the clap – and, for some reason, a Malta travelogue