“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, 30 October 2016
Sam’s new mate and Cockney rhyming slang get them in trouble (“Wormwood Scrubs” anyone?)…
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A hundred years ago this week… the further north the fight the closer it was to “shutting down’ for the winter. On the Western Front, bar some bloody skirmishing, the British/French and Germans tacitly agreed to a breather in the mud and rain at the Battles of Ancre Heights and Le Transloy (the tail end of the Somme, though it’s concluding date is regarded as November 18 – the latter battle’s casualty figures for October: Allied 95,348, 78,500 German).
However, prop tem, French success encouraged them to press on with their First Offensive Battle of Verdun where they recaptured Fort Vaux (November 1) and Damloup (4).
On the Eastern Front Russian success had peaked with the summer’s Brusilov Offensive, but their powers had not yet collapsed as they fought the German Army to and back around the River Narajowka, Galicia (October 30-31). But Germany and Austria flaunted their confidence when they declared an “independent” state of Poland (November 5).
In the Battle Of Transylvania, started by Romania on August 27, Austria progressed in several areas (Predeal Pass October 31, Torzburg and Roter Turm Pass November 1) despite a setback in the Vulkan Pass (2) and a Russian naval bombardment of Contanza on the Black Sea, lately taken by Austrian-German forces (4).
The Italian Army instigated the Ninth Battle Of The Isonzo (October 31-November 4) around Vrtobja and the Karst Plateau (in current Slovenia). Although the Italians made some headway, taking Falti Hrib (November 2) and Mount Volkovnjak (3), casualties proved prodigious, as in its immediate predecessors – Italian 39,000, Austria-Hungarian 33,000 in five days – that they again broke off their attack.
A little further east in Macedonia, other significant action saw the Bulgarian Army pushed back by the Serbians in the Cherna region (October 30) and by the British on the River Struma front (31).
Meanwhile, my father, under-age volunteer Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, had fought with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt on the north end of the Somme Front, then around Leuze Wood and Morval to the south (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age had been officially noticed, he was still legally too young for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He wished all right – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a surprise move into catering.
For Sam, who joined up in September 1914, this followed a ’15-’16 winter at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (200 out of 1,000 avoided the lists of shot, shell and disease casualties – Blogs dated September 13, 2015, to January 3, 2016). They’d sailed to France in late April, 1916, where – to their disgust – they were disbanded and transferred to other outfits… Sam to the Kensingtons and the Somme front line (on July 1, they suffered 59 per cent casualties).
Last week, my father got stuck into his new role as a food buyer for his crafty old Royal Fusiliers comrade Archie Barker’s, um, semi-official caff at the massive Harfleur British Army camp, providing his fellow Tommies with a few tasty luxuries – all profits to the Captain Quartermaster, he presumed.
Not getting shot at and shelled for a while amply compensated him for the difficulties of learning an entirely new trade in a foreign country… as did the (platonic!) friendship and assistance of grocer’s daughter Marie-Louise Baudlet, who not only sold him some of the items he needed but taught him the French phrases he needed and advised him where to go in the big covered market (Les Halles) for his larger orders.
Now Sam acquires a slightly mysterious “assistant” – and plays out a small farce involving a whole sitcom’s worth of comedic international crossed wires:
‘For some reason which I didn’t quite understand, but didn’t concern myself with, another man began to come along with me on the trips into Le Havre. A Lieutenant to the Captain Quartermaster had arranged it, and when this fellow joined me, he said he simply had nothing better to do. He could speak French, which might come in useful sometimes, and he could stay with the wagon if the driver wanted to go off somewhere.
What he, a young man of maybe 20, was doing at the base I didn’t know and I don’t recall ever asking him. Eric Brays was his name; five feet nine, well-built and fit, his face wore a moustache and a smile. He belonged to the Honourable Artillery Company, a London Territorial Army unit with its own long traditions and barracks in the City Road; it generally recruited from the sons of City merchants and businessmen. Eric never said anything offensive nor argued about anything. He came along for the ride.
I introduced him to Marie-Louise as a chap who spoke perfect French, so they conversed in her language. Afterwards, she told me he spoke a Southern patois. He explained that, to improve the French he learned in school, his father had sent him to live with a farming family in Southern France, so he spoke as they did.
Eric was sometimes a bit of a joker, though, and one of his little amusements almost landed us in trouble. The market stood in a square with streets on all four sides. A very fine building, its roof and walls to a great extent comprised large, glass windows, so you could see in and out.
One day, when I’d finished my buying, I and the two girls from the fruit and vegetable stall wandered away and stood talking in the middle of the market. Some joking was going on – slightly naughty, I expect – and Eric got into a discussion with one of the girls as to the meaning of an expression much used by Tommies, namely, “Wormwood Scrubs**”. Eric tried to explain about Cockney rhyming slang: so, Scrubs – bubs – breasts.
You can imagine the girl’s eventual understanding and laughter; she said, “Ah, these then!” signifying with her hands, “These Wormwood Scrubs!” More laughter.
Well, would you believe that leaning out of her window on the far side of the street watching us was a licensed prostitute? Marie-Louise told me the full story later.
This woman complained to the licensing authority that the greengrocer’s girls were trying to take away her trade, steal her customers. Apparently, the law allowed her to make the complaint and claim some compensation. I explained to Marie-Louise the nature of the events so misinterpreted by the prostitute, and she undertook to go to the Town Hall and clear it up. She said I needn’t worry about it and wouldn’t have to attend court, as might have been the case. In due course, someone somewhere did put it right, or told the woman she was making a frivolous complaint.’
** Wormwood Scrubs is a men’s prison completed in 1891 and still in operation. Among its notable inmates over the years have been Lord Alfred Douglas (writer and Oscar Wilde’s “Bosie”), Horatio Bottomley (the John Bull magazine publisher/Army recruiter/MP/fraudster whose oratory helped persuade my father to enlist in 1914, see Chapter 4 of Sam’s Memoir), Basil Bunting (poet, imprisoned for conscientious objection in WW1), Michael Tippett (composer, likewise in WW2), and rock’n’rollers Keith Richards (Rolling Stones) and Pete Doherty (Libertines).
All the best – FSS
Next week: In the first of two retrospectives around Remembrance Day, the blog steps aside from Sam’s Army catering interlude to recall key moments of his experiences in the front line at Gallipoli. The following week, on Remembrance Day itself, we’ll return to the Somme, July 1, 1916, and beyond.
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.