“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, 3 May 2015

Sam the innocent meets a girl and doesn’t know what to do… but the Vicar and the Last Post come to his rescue

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… this week, on all fronts what some called the fighting season got going and the casualty figures told the story… In summary:
– at Gallipoli the Second Battle Of Krithia saw British, Anzac and French  attack repulsed, partly through bad planning which carried through to poor provision of stretcher-bearers, wagons and hospital-ship facilities (May 6-8, 6,300 Allied casualties, Ottoman unreported)
– on the Western Front “Second Ypres” continued (April 22-May 25, French, British Empire and Belgian casualties 70,000, German 35,000) via the Battles Of St Julien (ended May 5), Frezenberg (8-13, German attack held back by British and a Canadian Battalion who lost 550 of 700 men) and the Second Battle Of Artois, a French onslaught in the Vimy Ridge area which eventually gained three kilometres in all, began (9-18, French casualties 102,000, British 27,000, German 73,000)
– a German U-boat sank the Lusitania off Kinsale, Ireland (1,198 passengers and crew lost out of 1,962), an event marked by legalistic debate between Governments about whether this was correct within the laws and rules of engagement; Germany argued it was OK, given the liner sailed under a false neutral flag, was registered by the British as an “armed merchant cruiser” under orders to ram any submarine that surfaced to request passengers and crew to take to the lifeboats, and that it carried munitions (denied by the British at the time, later confirmed – 50 tonnes of ammunition apparently).
    Meanwhile, to their continued surprise and carefully unspoken pleasure the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, trained on in Malta – not unnecessarily considering it had taken the Army six months, since their enlistment in September, 1914, to provide them with rifles and they still awaited instruction on how to shoot them. My father, under-age volunteer Private Sam Sutcliffe (still just 16), his older brother Ted (18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, sweated at their work and then enjoyed the unanticipated tourist aspect of Army life – quite something given that Sam, like most of his working-class generation, would never in their lives travel abroad again…

Last week, Sam and a friend essayed a teenaged walk through Valletta’s Red Light district and the women roundly abused them for their voyeurism. Given the temptation that inevitably came a young soldier’s way, it’s worth looking back to the childhood section of his Memoir to see the advice and instruction he and his friends received from their vicar, Scout and choir master, Mr Frusher, back home in Edmonton (NB, new readers, in this first part of his Memoir – through to these early days in Malta, in fact – Sam wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”). This is Sam a recalling a discussion group the vicar organised for the church’s adolescent boys:

‘On these occasions, Mr Frusher even led discussions of men-women relationships. Discouraging romantic notions without deriding them, the elderly, bachelor teacher continued where the school lessons in anatomy and physiology left off. “Frankness in these matters kills morbid curiosity,” he would say. He explained the sex organs — particularly the female genital parts always omitted from the school’s anatomical charts.
     In a sensible way, he 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.’

Sam took his mentor’s words very seriously, as you can see in his comments here and a further story of a bemusing encounter with a young Maltese woman – presaging many related events later in the Memoir:

Glimpses into the lives of these dark-skinned strangers excited in him a feeling of participation in things which escaped the interest of most of his fellow soldiers — so far as he could judge from the accounts of their outings he heard whenever one of his louder comrades held forth to him or, more likely, a group of mates. Bars, booze and women were the subjects on which they vied with each other to arouse envy of their frolics.
     In the brothel tales, their skill in gaining a price-cut from the madame by means of threat or persuasion must be admired by him, their manly performance with the prostitute duly purchased must merit applause. And when it came to drinking, three pennies bought a glass of fiery wine and two bob’s worth of the stuff might turn a normally mild fellow into a raving fighter — by their own account, certainly. This was, indeed, the stuff of wild, reckless living about which Tommy had only read stories, never daring to hope that he would one day live with men who really did these things.
     Nonetheless, he found their tales could not inspire him to emulate their swashbuckling conduct. The one occasion when he wandered into a situation involving alcohol and sex led only to an embarrassing contretemps.
     On a hot Saturday afternoon, after the karozzin arrived in Sliema, he bade farewell to his travelling companions at the Valletta ferry quay. The boat moved off and he stood alone, the dockside soundless, nothing and nobody moving. Siesta time for the Maltese, of course.
     He strolled, then entered a drink shop. The very dark-skinned, moustachioed barkeeper asked him to sit and, having the place to himself, Tommy selected an old armchair and felt like Lord Muck himself when a pleasant girl appeared, collected his beer from the proprietor — obviously her father — and brought it to him. She sat in another armchair beside him, they chatted and he probably bought another beer.
     Later, Papa suggested that they move into a room at the back — just an ordinary living room it was. Tommy spent some time with the girl and what seemed unbelievable in later years occurred, namely nothing of note. But a certain awkwardness gradually overpowered him; conversation became impossible and no help came from the girl, kindly and patient though she was. What role was he supposed to fill? A stolen kiss, a cuddle, a hand on her knee then further exploration? This and more would have cost money, he suspected, and he had little. Or was it supposed to be the start of an orthodox romance followed by marriage? He never found out. Given no other customers entered the bar during the whole time Tommy spent there, perhaps Pop was just desperate, business being so bad…
     Still, his awkward agonising over that uneasy encounter faded after a few days, and he could always find his own kind of romance in just lying on his mattress at 10pm each night when a bugler played the long and beautiful Last Post — until the Orderly Sergeant spoiled the moment with a raucous shout of “Put them bloody lights out!”.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: More Boy Scout connections – Sam gets chosen to be a Signaller

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