“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, 24 April 2016
Sam and pals in Rouen act like “lunatics” to prove the brass hats should keep the Battalion together – meanwhile he visits the cathedral… and a brothel.
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Easter Rising in southern Ireland proved a substantial distraction to the British war effort. Following political confusion about a Home Rule Act passed, but then immediately suspended when WW1 began, about 1,250 Republican rebels took “key locations” in Dublin (April 24). Assailed by 16,000 British troops and 1,000 armed police with everything up to machine-guns and artillery, they surrendered unconditionally (29). Resulting deaths: 66 rebels in the fighting, 16 later executed, about 150 civilians, Army and police 143. Martial law ensued, instigating 3,500 arrests, of whom 1,800 were interned in England.
On the Western Front, with Verdun quieter as German forces regrouped after suffering heavy losses to French artillery, the most notable event comprised two German chlorine/phosgene gas raids at Hulluch, north of Loos – the first (April 27) a terrible success for the attackers, causing 1980 British casualties, the second (29) a terrible failure when the gas blew back on the German trenches causing 1500 casualties.
And much further south, the British Army (including thousands of Indians) suffered one a historic disgrace with the surrender of the besieged force at Kut (April 29). Ottoman forces had surrounded around 13,000 troops (possibly: this figure varies a good deal from one report to another) under Major General Charles Townshend beside the Tigris since December 7, 1915. Rescue attempts failed – latterly a £2 million ransom offer with TE Lawrence a negotiator – and they reached near-starvation. Imprisoned in Aleppo, Syria (then part of the Ottoman Empire), 70 per cent of the British and 50 per cent of the Indians died in captivity – while Townshend, notoriously careless as to the fate of his men, lived out the war in relative luxury on Halki island in the Sea Of Marmara.
Meanwhile, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted, 19, and their mates – the 250-ish 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d survived Gallipoli – had concluded three months hard-worked R&R in Egypt and sailed to France. Their chief concern remained to save the Battalion from disbandment, as threatened by the powers-that-be. Set a challenge to prove, via their performance in training, that they should form the veteran core of a fully reinforced 2/1st, they set to with a will – regardless of what France and the Western Front might shortly throw at them…
Last week, my father recalled the Fusiliers’ voyage from Alexandria to Marseilles and then the much interrupted three-day train journey north to Rouen – a pleasant progress involving a good deal of wine and, for himself, a souvenir kiss.
Now they reach their destination, the massive encampment outside Rouen and pile into their training – no matter how barmy some of it seems to be:
‘And so to Rouen*, where the British Army had a huge base camp. Perhaps we hoped that a small unit like ours would be lost sight of among so many; but no, our training was taken out of the hands of our officers and NCOs.
Each day we were marched off to an intensive training ground where we had our first experience of a battle course. With fixed bayonets we would charge forward, jump a ditch, climb a wall, then see ahead a line of hanging sacks which represented men. We had to stab them with our bayonets, the while we emitted blood-curdling yells calculated to scare the enemy stiff before we skewered him. Instructors lined the course, swearing at us, urging us lazy bastards to scream and stab. The whole thing was like some horrible, mad orgy and they soon had us behaving like the lunatics they appeared to have become.
Our frantic performance did have a purpose, of course, however daft it looked. One day, the Sergeant who put us through our paces marched us into some lovely woods, had us sit down, and made a pretty little speech – it almost brought maidenly blushes to our cheeks. We had, he said, passed the battle course with distinction and he was sorry he had only just been told, before the morning session, we weren’t “rookies” straight out from Britain, but veterans of the Gallipoli campaign. He appeared concerned that we had been put to this trouble and assured us we would not be bothered by that sort of thing any more.
Personally, I had no wish to be regarded as an old hand at the shoot-and-stab lark and reckoned that, if we were to be sent to the Front in France, then the more I knew about tactics up there the better.
Thereafter, we trained once more under our own officers, our efforts directed towards drilling and marching in preparation for a passing-out inspection. The General in charge of the Rouen base would decide our fate.
You can imagine how hard we tried, repeating all the drill movements hour after hour, concluding with a fixed-bayonets march-past. Came the day and, watched by the General who stood throughout on a rostrum, we executed our routines – very well, we felt. Then we marched off home and, full of hope, awaited the big man’s verdict.
The parade at which the verdict would be announced found us tense but confident. The message read out by the Major spoke of devotion to duty, splendid efficiency, and a march-past which would have done credit to the Grenadier Guards. Delighted, and certain we would soon be made up to Battalion strength and soldier on together, we celebrated in our various ways.’
Well, an outing into town was one obvious way for the troops to let their hair down. But, as it turned out, Sam found himself with the wrong companion for the kind of excursion he had in mind:
‘A man called Haines, who belonged to my original H Company, surprised me by asking me to go with him into the town of Rouen. From the camp, we could cover much of the distance by electric tram – the single-deck type popular on the Continent. I looked forward to sight of the Seine because my father had told me long ago about an incident during a holiday in France**; bathing with schoolmates near the bridge in Rouen, he got into difficulties and was rescued only just in time. I leant over the bridge and looked for a likely spot from which boys might dive. But buildings occupied the banks for as far as I could see. Many years had passed since my dad was a boy, and what had I hoped to see, anyway, to mark the spot where the near-tragedy had occurred? A hole in the river maybe? But I did feel a sentimental sort of connection. A bit of homesickness.
After that, I wanted to see the cathedral, again on my dad’s account, because he had described a large and wonderful stained-glass window he’d admired in that fine building. Haines told me he had not come to town to look at that sort of place, but still we sought information about it, crossed to the town side of the bridge, took a turning to the left and walked towards it up a narrow, uphill street.
Two items I recall: a bucketful of slops tipped from a window high above narrowly missed us, and then we were passed by a very short, bearded man dressed in a suit of green velvet, comprising a longish jacket with white, lace frills, along with breeches, hose and buckled shoes. His appearance, the narrow street and consequent dim light suggested to me a connection with evil in the little man, and caused a feeling of foreboding.
The cathedral was splendid, with several quite wonderful windows, but Haines remained anxious to move on. He suggested having a drink and we entered a place which, from its appearance, I took to be the kind of estaminet where a glass of wine or beer could be had cheaply.
Inside, though, I saw no bar, only some marble-topped tables and chairs. Then, unprompted, an electric bell rang loudly – it shook me, being so unexpected – a door opened and in marched a line of eight or so women dressed in gowns of various colours. Facing us, they threw open these gowns and stood there, obviously inviting inspection and selection. None of them was young, some as old, I judged, as my mother***. I hope I didn’t show the revulsion I felt. I expected my companion to get out with me right away, but instead he pointed to one woman. She stepped forward and he departed with her.
I was in a dilemma, but made it clear by my actions that I wasn’t interested and the women marched out – all except one. By now I felt scared and ordered wine to propitiate whichever invisible person ran the establishment. It meant spending a couple of scarce francs, but provided time in which to think. I remember pouring myself a glass from the bottle, pushing it towards the woman and making signs that she should help herself… and when she had drunk that, insisting she had another glass. Some time passed, the awkward situation becoming ever more distressing for me. Relief came with the reappearance of Haines. I stood up, waved farewell, and was outside the place in a second.
Naturally, I protested about being let in for a rotten experience****, but Haines laughed that off. He’d assumed I’d known what it was all about, whereas I would have expected a chap who wanted that sort of thing to choose a man with similar tastes to his own for a visit to the town. I recall asking him if he was married. He was, of course, so that accounted for his need of a woman to fill a wartime lack in his life.
From cathedral to brothel, from beauty to horror, from procreation to recreation… And from prostitution, commercial copulation, battle, murder, and sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.’
* Rouen: by the Seine in north-western France, historic capital of Normandy, famous for its cathedral (consecrated in 1063 by William the Conqueror, no less), Joan of Arc’s execution, and as the birthplace of playwright Pierre Corneille, painter Théodore Géricault, novelist Gustave Flaubert, and President François Hollande. The arithmetic of the 2/1st’s journey suggests Sam’s Battalion got there on April 29 or 30, 1916 (a Friday/Saturday that year for those who like to build these things into the picture).
** This story must date from the late 1870s when Sam’s father/my grandfather, Charles Philip Sutcliffe, was in his teens. At that time the family owned a tile works in Manchester and lived in some luxury. Shortly after my father’s birth in 1898, Charles lost control of the family business and fortune and they fell into “ruin”, which is why Sam and his siblings grew up poor in Edmonton, north London.
*** Sam’s mother/my grandmother, Lily Emma, was 43 at the time.
**** By my count, this was the third, maybe fourth, time my father’s Memoir reported him resisting the blandishments of prostitutes. He followed the strict morality instilled by the omnipresent mentor of his mid-teens, Mr Frusher (an alias), his vicar/choirmaster/Scoutmaster/music teacher. Also, of course, as he implies here, inexperience made him scared of the whole business. He remained a virgin until some while after his return home from the war in late 1918 – so he told me and I believe him, not only because he remained a strenuously honest man, but because he told me a little about his lively sex life thereafter so it wasn’t a subject on which he kept secrets from me or posterity (such as it may be for a Nobody Of Any Importance).
All the best – FSS
Next week: The fate of the 2/1st is decided – or How To Demoralise A Bunch Of Battle-Hardened Young Volunteers Without Really Trying…