“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, 21 August 2016

Sam discovers Lloyd George himself sorted out his first home leave since Christmas, 1914! And he meets a girl… But then the War summons him again… twice, as it happens.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… No landmarks of history to enter the mass memory, but relentless fighting in mutiple “theatres” as the experts euphemise…
    On the Western Front, after the bloody “success” of Pozières, the British Army launched another attack on Delville Wood in the south of the Somme region (August 21). They used the newly devised “creeping barrage” stratagem, the infantry advancing a short distance behind a line of shelling – the “friendly fire” hazards obvious and terrible. But they combined with the French to take the wood and moved on towards Flers and Thiepval, while other British Battalions advanced on Bazentin-le-Petit (25) and the French won Maurepas and beat off a counterattack (24).
    The Russian Army’s extraordinarily extended forces still rode a wave of success taking the heights south of the Jablonica Pass, Ukraine (August 22), sending help to the Romanians at the start of The Battle Of Transylvania (27, the same day they declared war on Austria-Hungary), and advancing against the Turkish Army in Armenia again (22 west of Lake Van, 23 at Rayat, 23-4 to retake Bitlis and Mush).
    The Allies’ Salonica campaign began to make headway with the French and British progressing in Moglena, Macedonia (August 22), and the exiled but regrouped Serbian Army defeating their invaders, the Bulgarians, near Kukuruz (24) and Vetremik (27).
    And down in vast German East Africa – currently Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania – the British continued their unending advance by taking Kilosa (August 22), Miali (24) and Morogoro (26).
    Meanwhile, my father Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (his 18th birthday on July 6, 1916), had just started his first home leave since Christmas, 1914, after being involved in Somme front-line fighting from mid-May onwards. This followed a ’15-’16 winter at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (250 survivors out of 1,000). They sailed from Egypt to France in late April, only to be disbanded and transferred to other outfits – Sam to the Kensingtons. They fought on the front line at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, suffering 59 per cent casualties on July 1 (see FootSoldierSam’s front-line blogs dated June 26 and July 3, 2016). And then fighting on and on…

Last week, my father suddenly found himself issued with the home leave pass he’d longed for, and described a journey from the ravaged countryside of the Somme to the natural, green loveliness of England as viewed from the Dover-to-Victoria train.
    Out of hell and back to Blighty he experienced nothing but kindness – from a bus driver giving him his fare home because he had no money to the welcome of parents and siblings. Love, laughter, a bed with clean sheets, a comprehensive delousing by his mother… heaven.
    This week his leave continues – and takes a couple of interesting, even tricky turns:

‘My mother, father and I talked for quite a long time that first evening and, although we had sent each other letters at fairly regular intervals, I had to fill in many gaps because Army censorship rules meant I couldn’t name places, with the exception of Malta. Meanwhile, many things had happened locally to people we knew or knew of and these matters they related to me.
     But the shock that shook really hit me when Pa almost casually told me that, as I’d requested, he did write to Lloyd George about my having been denied leave after reaching France from the Mediterranean, and how unfortunate he thought that was, particularly because, having served well enough to be promoted to the rank of Corporal, I was still below the permitted age for young men to go on active service.
     He had received an acknowledgment and an assurance that the matter would receive consideration. So that explained the Special Pass originally made out to another man, but hurriedly handed to me. What a rocket some big fellow must have received from the office of the fiery and very powerful LG!
     The whole thing seemed unbelievable, yet it had happened; my quiet, self-effacing father involved in such an affair and myself the beneficiary of a wonderful kindness emanating from Downing Street*.
     I lay awake, marvelling at the turn of events. Elation and a resolve to make the most of every minute of every day of that holiday from the war front, starting with the easy pleasure generated by just resting in that clean, sweet bed.
     Ma lent me money for the fare to the West End office where my pass, pay-book and a letter from our adjutant procured me a few pounds. Prices remained low in spite of the war and I was, temporarily, very nicely fixed. Apart from any personal outings I had in mind, I booked seats in the stalls at two music halls for my parents and myself – at one show, I took a seat for my younger brother as well.
     I felt sure I should encounter no Military Police while I confined myself to the area of my suburb, so I took certain little liberties with my dress, such as wearing a pair of smart slacks I’d bought which were not the precise khaki colour of the regulation trousers; carefully creased, worn without puttees and with shoes instead of heavy boots. Out walking I carried a stick I’d bought about three years earlier at a great exhibition at Earls Court — made by natives called, I believe, Igorotti Indians**, it was covered with symbols burnt into it while I waited. Puzzled glances from passing people were just what I had hoped for, and I felt the soft Army cap, pulled well down over my left ear, added the final distinctive touch. Had I met a military cop, or perhaps an officer, no doubt I would have received another sort of touch — on the shoulder.

Hours at home, walks around the old, familiar places, the two shows — everything great, freedom unlimited was mine. Until I came face to face with a girl I’d known slightly at the church. How she’d grown… in a little over two years, visibly expanded in all the approved places. She had the then fashionable method of using the eyes; you looked directly at her, but she appeared to be focussed on a point just above your head. Very effective, especially if the eyes were a brilliant blue.
     We walked and talked, I self-consciously, she being the first girl I had been alone with back in London, even in the street. On a free night I took her to the pictures, to a really go-ahead place where, to add music to the silent films, you didn’t have just a pianist but a small orchestra. Tea and French pastries afterwards — already well on the way to the Devil.
     With another meeting arranged I felt compelled to tell my mother about the girl, the renewed acquaintance, and see the disappointed look on her face — my short remaining time at home must now be spread around more thinly. I really regretted this, although excited about having such an attractive girlfriend. Life had become quite a heady, dazzling affair. Plenty of cash, all the hours of the day and part of the night at my disposal… no one to give me orders, no Jerry to sling shells at me.
     As the precious break neared its conclusion, I felt a sadness which I threw off by reminding myself that some time still remained. I took a final walk with the girl, part of it in open country… seemingly unconnected to that horrible war.
     Suddenly, on that dark moonless night, criss-crossing searchlights illuminated the whole sky, wide beams terminating in big, circular blobs of light where they encountered clouds. This unwelcome display of London’s air-raid defences coming into action brought my thoughts back to reality with a jerk. No enemy planes appeared and no anti-aircraft guns fired, but my feeling of security, one of the boons of this holiday, now vanished. No place, after all, completely without risk of enemy attack in some form.
     We two walked to her home, lingered outside awhile, kissed and parted with promises to write to each other.

Next morning, goodbye to younger brother, sister Ciss*** and the baby girl. My parents came with me to the railway terminus. I left them for a moment, hurried to the big clock and met the two Sergeants, who I found in a state of great excitement for reasons they cautiously told me about.
     They had already checked the platform from which our train should depart. There they heard a railway official tell a soldier that it had been cancelled, that he must go to Charing Cross to board another train in about an hour’s time. The Sergeants hurried away from the platform and, between them, concocted a plot which they hoped would gain us another day at home: simply, that we should hide outside Victoria until it would be too late for us to reach Charing Cross in time to catch the special train. We would then dash into Victoria Station, hurry to the Transport Officer’s place, and report ready to catch the pre-arranged train. I went back to my parents and told them of the wicked plan. We said goodbye in case things went wrong.
     So, after lurking outside for a while, the Sergeants and I rushed into Victoria and on upstairs to the RTO, were duly staggered when he said we ought to be at Charing Cross already, and told him we would do our damnedest to get there in time. We accepted a note from him to the RTO at Charing Cross explaining everything. Arriving at Charing Cross we manifested amazement when the rather annoyed RTO there told us the one and only train had gone. Finally, he endorsed our passes extending leave by 24 hours. And we all went home again.****
     Strangely, that extension of leave had an unnatural feeling around it. All concerned had thought my departure certain, we’d said our goodbyes, yet here I was, back home again. It didn’t seem right somehow.
     By way of a bonus, I went off for a last look at my favourite haunts. How came it then that I finished up by a canal at a spot on the opposite bank to a factory in whose offices worked my girlfriend? No hope of contacting her during working hours, yet I wrote a note to her, wrapped it around a stone and waited. Soon I saw a girl walking from one building to another and called out to her, then threw my message across the water. She picked it up, straightened out the paper, read it, then waved reassuringly I thought. She did deliver it, I learnt at a much later date.’
* The “Downing Street” reference here is a mistake. Lloyd George served as PM for many years, but didn’t move up from Secretary Of State For War until December 7, 1916, after Herbert Asquith’s resignation.
** No doubt the Igorots were referred to as “Indians”at the exhibition, but they hailed from the Philippines. The Tagalog word means “mountain people”. Although, in the 16th century, they held off Spanish colonialists who wanted their gold, in the 20th a group of them fell into the grip of showmen and toured exhibitions such as the 1904 World’s Fair where they reconstructed a “native” village - and T.S. Eliot wrote a short story about them, titled The Man Who Was King.
*** Ciss: his older sister, always known as “Ciss”, proper name Dorothy, born December 3, 1894 (for details on Sam’s other surviving siblings – three died by 1912 – see the footnote to last week’s blog).
**** Working out the dates by reference to the Kensingtons’ War Diary and the time of the Battalion’s arrival for a rest period at a village called Millencourt-en-Pothieu (63 kilometres west of the front line at Hébuterne), I think my father left home on the morning of August 21 or 22, 1916 – that is, during the 100-years-ago week of this blog, but I decided to hold the journey over until next week as it represents the start of a new “chapter” in Sam’s experience of the Somme battle (and to even out the distribution of his material; he wasn’t thinking in blog-sized chunks when he wrote his Memoir!).

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam returns to his Battalion from the blissful relief of leave with the family… to find himself treated to a different kind of “homecoming” by comrades at their ease away from the Front. He basks in the glow of warm fellowship and “water” bottles full of strong local cyder…

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