“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, 17 May 2015

Sam meets his new Signaller mates – especially the small, yet perfectly formed Peter Miter!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… to lead this summary update with the international politics, for once, on May 23 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, finally deserting their former three-way alliance with Germany after a de facto auction of their favours wherein the Allies gave them the better offer of potential post-war spoils (their wish list of Trieste, Istria, Zara and Dalmatia and more).
    The entrenched attrition of the Western Front continued at Festubert and Ypres while, on the Eastern, the Russian and German/Austro-Hungarian Armies battered one another across Poland at Gorlice-Tarnów, Drohobycz, Stryj and Konary.
    Over in Gallipoli, on May 19 the Ottoman Army launched a disastrous attack on Anzac Cove. Beaten back by the following day, they suffered 10,000 casualties (3,000 dead) to the ANZACs’ 636 – no doubt the sort of outcome which eased Turkish tactics away from the quest for quick victory towards sit tight and wear their enemy down.
    Back in UK, Kitchener took his grievance about supplies of ammunition, especially artillery shells, to the House of Lords (May 18) and a zeppelin dropped its bombs on Ramsgate (16-17, two dead, £1,600 worth of damage).
    Meanwhile.... at St George’s Barracks, Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe (still just 16), his older brother Ted (18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, continued their often strenuous yet initially under-equipped and somehow desultory training… to prepare themselves for they knew not what, except that it would probably involve getting shot at. Gallipoli? Mesopotamia? Even further east?

Last week, Sam volunteered to train as a Signaller, knowing from his Boy Scout years that he had an aptitude for the job. He also fancied the promised reduction in square-bashing. Under the tutelage of Sergeant Cullen (ex-GPO) and Corporal “Glossyboots” Catland (ex-Boys Brigade) he started brushing up his Morse and semaphore and learning a whole realm of new skills with field telephones and suchlike electric wizardry – remember, it wasn’t so long since AG Bell had brandished one of the telephones he’d lately invented and declared “Soon there will be one of these devices in every town!”
    In this passage, Sam introduces some of his new close comrades, a vivid group of people he remembered clearly some 60 years later when working on his Memoir:

‘Sixteen chaps, all Privates, entered into the training with enthusiasm, never begrudging time, spending more hours each day on the job than they had ever done in Company ranks, and often working while the other troops rested. I remember some of them clearly:
– Mossgrove, about 20, tall, slightly pigeon-toed, fair, wavy hair compulsorily short at sides and back where it showed below the cap, unruly otherwise; he would overcome ill humour or garrulous chumminess with his never-failing courtesy and friendly smile. Before he spoke one knew what to expect – the speech of a well-educated fellow. He never patronised people, not even the occasional fawning type.
– Nicholas, short, Inner-London resident, 18 unofficially, he’d been on some extended-education scheme until that age, very bright, impatient and unkind to dullards.
– “Fatty” Mills, big and fat and plodding and pleasant.
– Dickie Dixon, five-nine, dark, a smiler, but nobody’s fool.
– little Hamilton, small, perky, always busy.
– Stanley Drake, also something in the GPO with the speech and manners of the then popular conception of a Lord, though no one could imagine how he came by these qualities – a good sport.
– Loehr, dark with bright, blue eyes, schoolgirl complexion and mannerisms, but only slightly – a kindly bloke.
– Benning, five-ten, earnest, honest, diligent, with no time for easy-going chaps.’

Editorial interruption here to note that Sam took a special shine to the final character in this list, coming up now – later justified by his stout conduct and demeanour when they shared a hole/”trench” on top of a hill in Gallipoli later that year:

‘– Peter Miter*, of Swiss birth but English upbringing, must be mentioned; his father managed a famous London hotel. Dad had taken Peter into the trade very young, starting him right at the bottom as kitchen boy. He progressed through many stages by the time the war started, rising to the role of receptionist.
     About five-two but, as far as appearance goes, conjure up what you believe to be the perfect manly figure and that would be Peter. Just turned 20, he already had what novelists then called a blue chin, requiring a second shave if going out for the night. He was justifiably vain about his physical assets and probably truthful about the trail of deflowerings illuminating his experience of life so far. Before leaving barracks for an assignation with a dame whom none of us ever met or saw, he would relate what occurred during his last visit; by then he may have worked up an anticipatory horn, as it was then termed, and would perhaps show to admiring comrades a penetratory organ which looked much too big to belong to a little man.
     Thereafter, a really well-groomed soldier of that shabbily dressed period, he would swagger off to do his stint in amatory battle. A foreigner in looks and by birth, he yet was the most consistently patriotic Britisher I have known. He enlisted to prove that, and always performed his military duties with liberal determination. On active service later, always in very trying circumstances, he retained his manliness and faith in the cause long after others had said to hell with it all. Usually, his type could only be found doing jobs so important that they were compelled to be separated from the actual battlefield by a hundred or more miles, poor chaps — their belief in a man doing his bit for his country often stronger than that of a soldier up to his knees in mud and shit, say near Ypres or the French funeral factory, Verdun.’

My father concludes this assessment of his colleagues with another of his reflections on his own inadequacies and remaining fears that his age – and the lie he told and swore to on enlisting the previous September – would be his undoing. “Those men were all superior to me in most respects,” he writes, “if only because of their three or four years more experience of life.
    But this passage about Peter Miter did set me thinking back to the childhood and teens sections of the Memoir – because Sam’s tolerance of his friend’s lairy attitude to women and sex so contradicts the church-trained choirboy and Scout attitudes he learned from the Edmonton vicar, Mr Frusher, which, quite remarkably, he maintained throughout the war.
    The direct comparison that struck me, as son and editor, was with his rather scornful view of a young man he, and brother Ted, encountered in his days as an office boy in the Liverpool Street area of the City:

‘… often, he was able to join his brother in a lunchtime visit to a local Italian shop… Sometimes an older fellow joined them – always well dressed in a City suit, hair well cut and a white face, very pale indeed, with rather small eyes. Neither Tommy nor his brother really liked him, but he fascinated them because of the tales he told. He was engaged to a beautiful girl and one gathered they hadn’t waited on the formalities of marriage for consummation. He described how, if her parents were out when he visited her, she would undress completely, and he would lay her out on the dining-room table and “have” her. The brothers concluded that he was a bit of a bird-hound and, no doubt, his wishes were father to his thoughts with regard to many of his stories, if not all of them.
     Living where they did, neither brother could be ignorant of what went on around them in the world, some of it not entirely beautiful or creditable. And yet the thoughts and conduct inculcated in them by dear old Frusher still governed them. Well, they governed Tommy at any rate – he realised he couldn’t speak for his older brother with complete certainty.’

* Writing about his Swiss friend in Gallipoli, Sam changes his name slightly to “Nieter”. I think this is part of his instinct to protect the identities of people who might still have been alive as he wrote. So either of those names might have been real or both false!

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam the soldier at his leisure takes tea in Valletta and a matelot gives him a guided tour of a French battleship

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