“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, 7 May 2017

Sam’s lovely evening: a nice girl, fish and chips… what more could an 18-year-old Gallipoli/Somme veteran ask for?

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… A pretty glum spell for the Allies all round. On the Western Front British and Australian troops made some headway in the Battle Of Bullecourt – at Lens (May 10), Bullecourt itself and Roeux (12-13) – but against strong German counterattacks and sustaining heavy losses.
    The French had a similar grinding time further south with the Second Battle Of The Aisne drawing to a close amid German attacks from Vauxaillon to Craonne (May 7-13), with only small advances achieved at the Vauclerc Plateau (9) and Saucy (10). Worse, the wave of mutinies really picked up speed, apparently in protest against the attacks plotted by General Nivelle costing so many lives for so little gained – during May 54 French Divisions experienced mutinies of various sizes and 20,000 men deserted.
    Down in northern Italy the 10th Battle Of The Isonzo began (May 10-June 8; after a five-month break since number 9). Encouraged by Nivelle, the Italian commanders attacked Austro-Hungarian forces along a 40-kilometre front aiming to take Trieste. At first, progress was made.
    But in Macedonia/Salonika the Monastir Offensive momentum from 1916 dissipated entirely as the British lost the Battle Of Lake Doiran (April 22-May 9; casualties 12,000 to the Bulgarians’ 2,000), and a combined Russian/French assault at Crna Bend was beaten back by German and Bulgarian forces (May 5-9).

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,  under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran [Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016] had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until he was 19. He did so, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training/marking time – and in Sam’s case dicing with meningitis and other battle-fatigue enhanced ailments – until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more…]

Last week, my father enjoyed one of those sweet diversionary occasions in the company of civilians that so eased his heart – despite the niggling guilt about his absence from the front line which always lurked inside him.
    Now that pleasant soirée continues, courtesy of his new pal Hackerman’s introduction to old family friend Miss Frost and the assemblage of lovely young women she happens to have gathered about her. Earlier, he enjoyed the curious thrill of meeting the Tsarina of Russia’s goddaughter** – Alexandrina Allen who lived across the road from Miss Frost. But here he’s moved on to another charmer… who gives him pause for thought:

‘After circulating – as prompted and introduced by Miss Frost – I rejoined my first ladyfriend and found pleasure in her account of her life in that affable town. She required only the occasional remark of me and I studied her simple black dress and saw what good taste could achieve with little effort evident. She appeared to wear no make-up, yet the fair hair, flawless complexion, and – what was rarer in those days – perfect white teeth, all contrasting with the black dress made a lovely picture.
     Comparably careless of toilet and wearing a much used khaki uniform, I behaved with a careful eye on a repeat invitation, wondering what sort of impression I was making on this cultured young wife. Completely relaxed and friendly, she gave me no cause for concern that she might be performing a be-good-to-our-soldiers service.
     At one point in the evening the question arose, “What shall we have for supper?”, to which all agreed there was only one sensible answer, “Fish and chips!” Then, overriding all other offers, my friend insisted that she and I would go shopping, and I found myself bustling through the dark streets arm in arm with this vivacious lady, calculating how many portions would be needed, and probably wondering how the heck I should pay for that lot.
     I need not have worried, I wasn’t even allowed to offer to buy the food. A wonderful evening, though later I thought of another married woman who had walked those streets arm in arm with a soldier, not her husband, and of the hasty opinion I had formed about that matter***…
     Like many another recollector, I seem to remember most easily and most clearly, the sweet moments of those long past days. How sincerely one hopes that all the good people who contributed to those joyous occasions continued to live for many years in perfect health and able to meet and contend with the trials which challenge all of us at certain times in our lives.

During a few spare hours one sunny afternoon, Hackerman and I wandered through the lovely Valley Gardens, sampled the healing waters from the “poor man’s tap” outside the Spa buildings and walked in the pine woods, enjoying for free some of the pleasures for which wealthy invalids and self-indulgent hypochondriacs paid fat fees.
     But thereafter, we walked no more across The Stray**** to the weekly little gatherings in Miss Frost’s basement, nor could we say goodbyes and thanks to the wonderfully friendly ladies there, because that night we were told to have everything packed ready to leave next morning on a long, route march.’
** For readers who didn’t see last week’s blog and are curious about this reference… in 1894 Alexandra Feodorovna, 1872-1918, later Empress Consort of Nicholas II, the last Emperor Of Russia; the “Tsaritsa”, not “Tsarina” as the British usually called her, stayed at the Cathcart House hotel across the road from Miss Frost’s home. While seeking a cure for her sciatica from Harrogate’s famous spa, she became godmother to the owners’ twin children (because she took their birth during her visit as a lucky omen) and asked their parents, Christopher and Emma Allen, that they be named after herself and her then fiancé Nicholas, the then Tsarevich (heir to the Imperial throne). By the time Sam met Alexandrina Allen, the Emperor had been forced to abdicate (on March 15, 1917). In July, 1918, after a period of imprisonment, the Empress, her husband and her family were assassinated.
*** See Blog 134 January 29, 2017. My father, ever the young puritan because of church and Boy Scout influences, is recalling the way he’d dropped a girlfriend he’d “walked out” with in Harrogate simply because he saw her sister, who was married to a soldier away at the front, on the arm of another. He describes his embarrassment here: ‘…walking in the town one afternoon, I was amazed to see my girl’s sister on the arm of a soldier. I knew she was married and her husband serving in France. She saw me as quickly as I saw her. An awkward moment, awkward enough to prevent me from calling at their home any more. So that brief acquaintanceship petered out.’ A hint of how Sam pulled off the considerable feat of remaining a virgin throughout the war!
 **** The Stray: 220 acres of grassy parkland around the south side of the town centre, conserved by Act of Parliament since 1788 and to this day.

Where that long march leads the 2/7th Essex we’ll get to in July. This break in the 100-years-ago-this-week (more or less) blog narrative comes about because, although my father wrote a very long book – about 600 paper pages – he didn’t write enough about 1917 to divvy up into substantial chunks week by week for a year.
    Clearly that’s because he and his fellow underagers were essentially marking time until they passed 19 and became eligible to return to the battlefield. And, in fact, the Army even took a little longer than they might have to get Sam back to the Western Front – 19 on July 6, he lingered in England until December before they shipped him out to France again.
    So for the next few weeks I’ll be looking back to his childhood and teens, taking a thematic approach, but with each blog drawing together elements of the growing up which made him the young man, the young soldier, you meet in most of these blogs and in the Memoir as a whole.
All the best – FSS

Next week: The Making Of Foot Solider Sam, 1900-1904: a little boy sees his family fall from considerable wealth into bleak poverty…

* 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.

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