“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 his Memoir)

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sam sets sail, leaving England for the first time in his young life

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… yesterday, January 31, saw the first notable use of “poison” gas in World War 1 – by the German Army against Russian troops at the Battle Of Bolimov, near Lodz, Poland. This followed failed attempts – i.e. they did nobody any harm – by French and German Armies a couple of months earlier. On this occasion, although the German gunners fired 18,000 gas shells, they contained “only” a tear gas and it did that grim-joke thing which always made it an ambivalent weapon, blowing back into the Germans’ own lines. So it probably registers as little more than a curiosity; the day’s real business involved 20,000 German casualties (in WW1 that word always meant wounded and dead aggregated), 40,000 Russian and… no conclusive winner.
      Similar slaughterous inertia proceeded on the Western Front too, while the coming week’s main war politics event saw the German Government give advance warning that their U-boats would commence an “unrestricted” campaign on February 18, i.e. torpedoing merchant ships without recourse to the gentlemanly yet hazardous process of surfacing to check whether the vessel carried war materials and, if so, permitting the crew to board the lifeboats before concluding their business.
      Meanwhile – on this very day, February 1, a Monday a century ago – my father, Sam, 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, their pals from Edmonton, north London, and a thousand other comrades in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, had bidden sweet-sad-fearful farewells to their families at Waterloo station, before taking an overnight train to Southampton…

They’d trained as best they could for four months. That is, still no rifles issued, no clues as to what real fighting might be about, and… actually, nobody had told them where they were going, though they sort of understood why that would be the case. In his Memoir, my father recalled that night (back to writing about himself in the third person here and for another few chapters, I should explain for new readers – Sam is “Tommy”):

Despite the unusual emotions of the family farewells, once the train moved off, Tommy found himself wholly forward-looking — until sleep overtook him. He’d had little of that for 36 hours and even the natural excitement caused by the journey to an unknown destination — which might be a battlefield in France — could not prevent his eyelids drooping.
    For him, then, a journey of hazy impressions, because nervous tension demanded some awareness of what was going on: the sudden hissing snarl of a train passing in the opposite direction; the change of sound from clickety-clack to echoey racket as they sped through a station; raised voices attempting to win an argument against the roar of the train as it raced through a tunnel. Eventually, he emerged from yet one more doze to comparative silence. No roaring, no smoke swirling past windows. Just quiet conversations and a distant hiss of steam.
    “Fall in, H Company!” bellowed the CSM and they quickly lined up on a station platform. Southampton. There it was in large letters — the first port he’d ever seen. And not overmuch of it visible on a darkish night.’

Sam’s first port? Remember that, like most of his working-class comrades of that era, Sam/”Tommy” had never set foot outside England…
      They walked along a railway platform, the sea to their right, dock buildings around them, then the grey silhouettes of huge ships – one of them, he realised, they were about to board, it’s tall funnel reminding him of “a factory chimney”:

During these last moments with his feet still on English ground, he was cheered by the realisation that he would be one of the last to leave it, a member of the last section in the last Company of the Battalion to board that great ship. That was the good thing about being last, oh yes, very nice. But what about being last into the accommodation on board? “We’ll finish up in a cargo hold way down below,” lamented Joe Parker — soldier today, Billingsgate porter recently, and ordinary seaman before that. Joe was right.
    The CSM led H Company “for’ard” (Tommy had read many a sea story including Treasure Island and Masterman Ready)… he had to follow the others down steep steps. He clutched a handrail with one hand and his kitbag with the other. There, below, a combination of many smells assailed him. Tar he thought the most powerful.
    Hammocks hung from the whole ceiling area of the space allocated to the Company. A merciless rush to grab one of them ensued – an early experience of man’s inhumanity to man, Tommy reckoned. Pushed and shoved in that dimly lit, smelly place below, he felt lost and fearful at first…  But when he saw a hammock in the dark corner to which the impetus of the crowd had carried him, he pulled down one side of it, chucked in his kitbag and stood there ready to assert his right of possession.
    For Tommy, the war to stop the Kaiser and his crowd from taking over the world had really started – and he clearly saw that another, smaller, but to him equally important struggle to preserve the life of a boy among a crowd of older, stronger men would also have to be fought.
       Camaraderie existed among members of groups which had formed within the Company. These men would help their own… Some of Tommy’s fellows were strictly loners, probably from choice, but he fell into that role because he was too young and, so far, unused to mixing with men…
         The bareness all around engendered pessimism: bare, wood floor, tables and forms, hammocks suspended from deck joists above. Nothing else whatsoever. A cargo hold in peacetime, surely, and here they were using it as a home.
         And yet another cause for anxiety about living in this confined space began to bother Tommy; he started thinking about the German submarines already taking a toll of Allied shipping…
         He hoped his face betrayed nothing of his thoughts…’

However, despite his determination to present at least a convincing imitation of “manliness”, his body soon betrayed him and led him to a dispiriting encounter with the worst of maritime sanitation – and another indication of how the Army hierarchy regarded “the men”:

‘…  just then a queasy feeling under his belt, plus a revulsion against the tarry, painty, stuffy smell of the place begat doubts as to his ability to retain possession of the food he’d eaten. But the fuggy atmosphere wasn’t all. He became aware of a feeling of uncertainty, of instability… In other words, without announcement or ceremony, they had set sail, they were at sea.
         Trying to look as though he had serious business up above, Tommy briskly climbed the stairway up on to a cold, dark deck and searched for latrines.
       So far he had formed an impression that the standard of food and accommodation on this troopship probably equalled that of the cheapest transports on the North American run from Britain. Hundreds of emigrants left the homeland every week; they could pack very little and feared the rigours and discomforts of the long, sea journey, but faced them rather than endure near-starvation in Britain…
       He gripped a handrail at the side of the ship. Behind him a gangway led up to a higher deck, in front of him the bows, forecastle, and a mast with rope ladders on each side and a small enclosed structure on top, the crow’s nest lookout shelter. At the far side of the ship he saw a sort of long, low shed. Using a steadying hand here and there, he crossed the deck to inspect it.
       Half its width rested on the deck and the other half jutted out over the sea. He entered through a doorway at one end. A hurricane lamp gave dim illumination to the narrow enclosure on the seaward side of which, at regular intervals, he saw seating – with holes of convenient size. Sea noises and surges of air from below informed Tommy that here was a system of instant natural disposal.
       Sitting there, the seat’s thin boards seeming to cut a circle into his freezing backside, splashed by spray when that side of the ship dipped towards the waves, he tried to imagine the scene when men rushed in there of a morning in really rough weather. How, for instance, to dry the sea-washed bottom? Who the hell thought up this rotten idea? Obviously, someone who believed that donning Army uniform reduced one to a status worthy of the treatment he meted out to his black workers in Africa — the continent this old ship travelled to in peacetime.
       Once is enough of that sort of thing was the lad’s resolve — to which he pretty well kept, as we shall see.’

All the best — FSS

Next week: Sorry, didn’t, as promised last week, make it to the Bay of Biscay’s perfect storms this time – headwinds, you know – but they’re coming up next, right up, and over, with Sam as your Joseph Conrad over every peak and trough…

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