“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, 18 December 2016
Sam posted to Harrogate – he and fellow still-underagers find themselves allocated to the much reviled “Lost Division”… on the other hand, the town’s rather nice
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The war didn’t go on its holidays, although it slackened off a good deal in the snowy north. The historic landmark fell on this day: the end of the Battle Of Verdun. It started on February 21, the fairly uncertain toll of casualties being calculated at 315-542,000 French soldiers including 156-162,000 dead, and 281-434,000 German including 143,000 dead. After the late success of France’s First Offensive Battle, the struggle concluded with the German presence pushed 4.7 miles back from Verdun itself.
Remarkably, on the Eastern Front combined Russian and Latvian forces started The Christmas Battles by attacking the German Army around Jelgava, Latvia, on the frozen Tirelis Swamp (December 23-29). Initially hampered by a Siberian Regiment’s mutiny, the Russian/Latvian push had made little progress by Christmas Eve.
But the war in Romania, with the host nation-aggressor beaten, had turned into a sequence of Russian defeats and retreats – around Braila in the east (December 20), and falling back to Bessarabia (23, now Moldova).
The Allies’ fight against the invading Bulgars in Macedonia had got stuck after achieving its main objective, Monastir, except that further south the British contingent shelled the mouth of the River Struma (December 22, on the Aegean), and making some progress along the Doiran Front.
And down south where snow seldom occurred the Allies’ defence of Egypt took a further step forward with an Anzacs Mounted Division leading an attack which drove the the Ottoman garrison out of Magdhaba (December 23, Sinai peninsula) – 146 Allied casualties, 600 Ottoman. The victory protected railways and water pipeline construction.
Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London – after the bitterly contested disbandment of the Battalion – had fought on the Somme Front with the Kensingtons from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt then around Leuze Wood and Morval (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age – 18 on July 6 – had been officially noticed, he was legally too young for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He certainly did – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a temporary move into a Quartermaster’s catering scam (which introduced him to his future métier, as a market trader). Then the Army caught him on the hop again: shipped him back to Blighty, for a few weeks based at his old 2/1st HQ near King’s Cross station – and living at home again. But his next move soon came through…
Last week, my father filled in time by engaging about a dozen recovering wounded comrades in a little light drill and PT on the old parade ground at the Foundlings Hospital. Chatting away he heard unwelcome news about three of his old Fusiliers officers from before the Battalion’s break-up and dispersal at Rouen the previous May – all killed fighting on the Somme Front with whichever outfits they’d been transferred to (including their beloved sometime CO Major Harry Nathan).
But we left him catching a train from King’s Cross, shortly after fulfilling a promise to himself by ripping a stripe off his arm in hopes that, at his new posting up north, he would be accepted as a Lance Corporal Signaller again and any record of his being a Corporal shrugged off as an admin. error (he’d risen against his will to Acting Sergeant on the Somme front line, but he detested ordering other men about). We pick him up on that rail journey:
‘All change at Leeds, and onwards from there the few miles to Harrogate**, a renowned watering place, as such towns were known then. When I alighted, I saw several other young Tommies strolling about on the platform. We gravitated towards each other and a short chat revealed that the six of us were all in similar situations. We had all served overseas, we had all been sent home because our age meant we should never have left the country as soldiers. And now the Army planned to give us up-to-date training to prepare us for the day when we could legally return to active service abroad.
A Corporal met us and immediately surprised us with the news that we had been allocated to a Battalion of the Essex Regiment***.
From the beginning, I sensed among my fellows a feeling that we had been degraded. One or two had read in John Bull, the weekly magazine, about what its famous, later infamous editor Horatio Bottomley had branded “The Lost Division”****. This large number of fit men, a force formed quite early in the war, he said, had been allowed to avoid any kind of active service overseas, at the Front in France or anywhere else.
Here was something, I felt, about which I’d better think deeply, a trap into which I could easily fall. I could let myself feel aggrieved that, as a former reasonably patriotic lad, I had now been downgraded to the extent that I must soldier on in some phoney way with thousands of men who had evaded their share of the risks of the battlefield; would I be justified in objecting to being placed in this situation?
An air of comfortable prosperity emanated from the part of town we walked through to the Battalion headquarters. There, our details were duly noted, then our small group was taken to a parade of shops in the middle of which a door opened into a building of about four floors. We climbed an uncovered stairway, up and up to the top, where we found three rooms with rough and rather dusty, wooden floors and no furniture apart from a few mattresses in each. We were allowed to select whichever one we fancied. I threw my gear down in the front room.
Looking through the dirty window, I saw an extremely large area of grass common land and, beyond that, large houses set pleasingly in wooded grounds or gardens. On the right side of this common stood another line of sizeable houses, and on the left side, at a distance, hotels and other private residences. Wide footpaths crossed the grassy area in several directions. The whole place looked attractive and well-to-do. It bore no resemblance whatever to the London suburb where I had spent a good deal of my life.’
** Harrogate: spa town in North Yorkshire; the Royal Pump Room dates from 1842, but declined after World War I and is now a museum.
*** Essex Regiment: founded 1881; 30 Battalions in World War I; battle honours included Le Cateau, Ypres, Loos, Somme, Cambrai, Gallipoli; Ian Hook, Keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum, Chelmsford, kindly researched my father’s Regimental records and found that he transferred to the 2/7th Essex at Harrogate on December 18, 1916, though, soon after, he moved administratively to the 4th (Reserve) Battalion at Halton, Buckinghamshire (a place he never visited, to the best of my knowledge). The 2/5th and 2/7th Essex had been posted to Harrogate in July 1916.
**** “The Lost Division”: this reference I’ve found hard to pin down. But a PhD thesis no longer available online did say that “The Forgotten [not Lost] Division” was defamed in John Bull, the weekly “patriotic” magazine edited and owned by Horatio Bottomley, the MP, recruitment demagogue and fraudster, referred to by my father way back in the second FootSoldierSam blog July 19, 1914. The thesis said that Bottomley claimed to have been alerted to the Division’s inertia by letters from “Disappointed Yorkshiremen” i.e. an anonymous source. But the student doesn’t mention which Division Bottomley attacked. Other sources indicate it may have been the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division; however, according to Fraser Skirrow’s Massacre On The Marne, its entry into action was delayed by a range of missteps and coincidences until lack of action and siphoning off of the fittest men to active units caused a decline in morale with many men seeking transfers; the Division’s training had allegedly been botched under a Lieutenant Colonel Richard A.A. Bottomley – no relation! – so that his men not only remained unfit but many succumbed to lice too; he was replaced in March, 1916. Yet further sources, including the esteemed Long, Long Trail, suggest the Division, or part of it, did move to France and the Western Front in December and January, 1916/17 – and also that they were never stationed in Harrogate! Moreover, the Essex Regiment website lists Sam’s 2nd Battalion as part of the 12th Brigade 4th Division. A tangled web and I don’t pretend to clarity about the facts relating to this ancient controversy which, in some fashion, my father and his comrades stumbled into.
All the best – FSS
Next week: For December 25, FootSoldierSam on Christmas Day – a Memoir medley of Christmases from before and during the Great War.
* 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.