“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, 10 May 2015

Sam becomes a Signaller – and discovers how well his Boy Scout skills fit the military

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… while the big news close to home remained the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking (May 7), ruinous battles continued on the Great War’s many worldwide fronts (including Africa where the South African Army took Windhoek, capital of German South-West Africa, May 12).
    In the east, Russia, Poland and Austria-Hungary clashed at Gorlice-Tarnów (May 1-June 22), Jaroslaw (10-14) and Konary (16-June 23).
    On the Western Front while the Second Battle Of Ypres and the Second Battle Of Artois proceeded (until May 25 and June 18 respectively), General Haig tried something significantly different for the British Army in the Battle of Festubert (15-25). Apparently adopting standard French tactics, he took to “attrition” – preceding a Poor Bloody Infantry advance with an extended artillery bombardment of 60 hours and 100,000 shells. The outcome: 3,000 metres gained when a third of that was anticipated! Casualties: British 16,600, Indian 2,500, Canadian 2,200, and German 5,000…
    At Gallipoli, with failure not countenanced for months to come, the two sides called an armistice to bury their dead (May 11), and in the Helles sector near Krithia the Gurkhas captured Cape Tekeh (12, ergo “Gurkha Bluff”, 60 casualties).
    Meanwhile.... six months on from their enlistment in September, 1914, the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, under-age volunteer Private Sam Sutcliffe (still just 16), his older brother Ted (18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, trained on in Malta with no indication of where they were bound for nor when.

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
For the last couple of weeks Sam’s been talking about seeing the sites and testing his innocence via a visit to the Red Light District and so on. Now he’s back to barracks – St George’s, in an arid area north of Valletta – and the serious business of developing his military skills.
    This is a significant moment for me as his editor, though not so much for readers I’m sure. Having started his memoir in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”, when Army days began he started venturing into first-person “I” mode, then retreating again – well, this passage is where he finally goes the whole way. He didn’t explain and I don’t know why, though I wonder if it was a matter of seeing the young boy Sam as a separate person he observed in memory, whereas the now-emerging “man” felt like the self he still recognised in his 70s when writing the Memoir…
    He recalls:

‘What were termed “Company orders” would be posted on a board outside the Company office, and the men expected to familiarise themselves with the contents. One such notice I read with great joy: it announced that, now all ranks had completed basic training, a Signals Section would be formed. It invited men having some knowledge of semaphore and Morse Code to volunteer for transfer to the new section. Tests would precede acceptance.
     My name went in pronto, I passed the fairly simple general knowledge and signalling exams, and in no time – though with some regret at leaving my pals and roommates of several weeks – there I was with a new group of lads sharing one of those pleasantly cool barrack rooms fronting on to the roofed and shady sidewalk alongside the Barrack Square. Inevitably, we had much in common; most of us owed our special knowledge to recent or long-past membership of the Boy Scout movement.’

In the May 3 blog (number 43) I pulled in a quote from the childhood section of the Memoir to show how the moral teachings of Sam’s vicar-choirmaster-scoutmaster-music teacher Mr Frusher ensured that he resisted the blandishments of a nice, though probably “professional” Maltese girl. Well, here’s Mr Frusher again – this time as an inadvertent proponent of the Boy Scouts’ role in preparing boys for war.
    This passage occurs just after Sam/”Tommy” left school at 14 because his family couldn’t afford further school education for him:

‘[Frusher] introduced new subjects to the Troop’s training schemes: so Tommy learnt signalling, semaphore and Morse code (the last, he particularly liked). Using flags — one for Morse, two for semaphore — and, at night, signal lamps, they sent messages across fair distances.’

A couple of years later, when he joined up,  Sam/”Tommy” clearly understood the connection between Scout activities and the Army. My father recalls his alter ego thinking:

“It’s possible that I’m the youngest in the whole Battalion. But in two or three subjects it’s likely I’m more proficient than many of them: things like shooting, simple drill using semaphore signals with flags, and the Morse Code with flags, lamps and buzzers or tappers — all thanks to old Frusher and the Scouts.”       Tommy never mentioned these matters to his comrades because he knew what their reaction would be: remarks expressing all shades of feeling from amusement to outright derision, depending on the former occupation of the commentator. The “workers” would jeer and the “white-collar boys” would register amusement or toleration for an I-intend-to-improve-myself boy. If of a radical liberal persuasion, they might even express abhorrence for the regimentation of children. One seldom heard outright approval of Scouting expressed, except perhaps by some members of the religious organisations to which the Scout troops were loosely attached.’

But back to the 100-year-old present:

‘The Corporal in charge of the new section, was probably 22 years old, the rest of the chaps between 18 and 20 (not counting me, still 16 until July). He told us we would be spared most of the square-bashing and repetitive drilling which had so far been our lot. On exercises and manoeuvres we would take responsibility for maintaining communications between Company and Battalion Headquarters and, on Brigade exercises, between Battalion and Brigade as well. We thought we were on a soft number at first but, as organisation progressed, demands on us increased.
     Our Corporal Catland had the appearance and manner of a dedicated peacetime soldier; the peak of the cap perseveringly bent downwards and moulded till the eyes were only just visible, the trimmed moustache, the unsmiling face, the smart military gait at all times, on or off duty. We had to find out what brought him among us; no suggestion of the Boy Scout about him. So where had he learnt his signalling? Answer: as a GPO* telegraphist among other things. But the Guardsman-like bearing? From the Boys Brigade** the very antithesis of Baden Powell’s lot. None of us could even begin to look like Corporal Glossyboots, so no warm co-operation twixt us and him ever. Above him was Sergeant Cullen, also, it transpired, a GPO man, but from a higher stratum; he usually remained aloof, relaxed occasionally, and proved himself a damn good teacher.’

* General Post Office: founded 1660 to run the mail nationally, but in the late 19th/early 20th centuries it also took charge of telegraph, telephones and radio.
** Boys’ Brigade: an international and interdenominational Christian youth organisation, founded 1883, it emphasised military discipline and physical exercise plus religion – Baden-Powell actually served as its Vice-President in 1903, then broke away to found the Scouts after his 1907 Brownsea Island experiment.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Meet the Signallers – especially little ladies’ man Peter Miter, the super-patriot with the mighty organ

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