“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, 6 August 2017

Sam, clerking for Battalion medicals, records his comrades’ Catch 22 gradings: A1, fit = the likely “death sentence” of a return to the frontline. Then comes his own verdict, A1 but “conditionally”…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Battle Of Passchendaele/Third Battle Of Ypres (July 31-November 10) emerged from a lull induced by the inundatory rains which accompanied the initial attack with the French advancing northwest of Bixschoote (August 8). Then the British launched a substantial attack on the Gheluvelt Plateau across a two-mile front (10), only to be driven back by a German counterattack which left Westhoek Ridge in the north of the battle zone as their only gain.
    On the Eastern Front, the Russian Army continued to recede, despite the odd rally, as at Czernowitz (August 6; western Ukraine now). However, further south, they again played a strong hand supporting the Romanian fightback against the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies.
    Following their defeat in July at Marasti, the two Axis Armies initiated the Battle Of Marasesti (August 6-20; eastern Romania). With massive forces arrayed – more than 200,000 on each side – the Germans attacked the Russians on the Sireth and Susitza rivers. Their opponents fell back, but not far, and gradually forced the Axis Armies to shift their offensive to the northwest before launching a counterattack in the Moldavian mountains (12).
    In the adjacent – 80 miles northwest of Marasesti – but separate Second Battle Of Oituz (August 8-20), the Austro-Hungarian Army began their onslaught with a lengthy artillery barrage on Pravila peak, but failed to take it. The Germans advanced around Ungureanu peak. But cavalry reinforcements helped the Romanians to retake Oituz village and land around Mount Cosna (11), then infantry reinforcements “fresh” from a 90-mile march counterattacked the Austro-Hungarians at Ciresola peak.
    Meanwhile, back in the UK a German air raid on Southend and Margate killed 32.
    And Liberia declared war on Germany (August 7)…

[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 real 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 turned 19. He took up the offer, 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 until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, until – to pass a few weeks of summer stomping around Yorkshire on a route march …]

Last week, still encamped at the stately Yorkshire home where the Battalion’s lengthy route march had come to rest, Sam was startled when his Company Captain offered him the chance of promotion to commissioned officer direct from Lance Corporal. But he turned it down – hastily, he later felt – through a combination of his own fundamental aversion to rank, ordering people around and so on, and his (widely shared) loathing of this particular Captain’s snide ways.
    That settled he did a bit of clerking while his comrades went through the medicals which seemed likely to see them sent to the Front – or not, depending on outcomes. Now he continues with that task, deciding fates, he fears, with a few strokes of his pen, until the moment comes for him to have his own examination…

‘Given a seat at a small table arrayed with pen and ink, blotting paper and a pile of forms, I hope I assumed a reasonably intelligent demeanour and grasped the simple instructions given by the RAMC Corporal who assisted the two doctors. As each man entered, I wrote down his Regiment, Number and name in the appropriate space on the form. Then, on the Corporal’s order, the soldier in question stripped to the buff and the doctors went to work on him. The familiar command, “Cough!”**, usually signalled the final test. After consultation, the Corporal pronounced the soldier’s medical category, I wrote it down, and the lucky fellow departed.
     The verdict meant a great deal; had a man been classed as “unfit” in peacetime when checked by a doctor acting for an insurance company, he would not have felt the elation which such a verdict evoked on this particular occasion. Most of them concealed their emotions, cheerful or otherwise, until they had left the tent, but few doubted that an A1 grade amounted to a death sentence. At that stage in the war, delusions of heroism and grandeur were strictly for the loonies.
     On hearing about the medicals, a pal of mine had told me that one spell at the Front was sufficient for him; he intended to fix matters so that the medics would grade him C3, enabling him to spend the remainder of his soldiering life in Britain. Hardened and, perhaps, cynical as I had become by then, I still felt horrified by the method he proposed to use. “I’ve got a round of rifle ammo,” he said. “I’ll dig out the bullet and take out a few strands of cordite from the cartridge. A couple of minutes before I go into the medical tent I’ll chew the cordite and soon my heart will be affected and beat irregularly. They’ll think I’ve got a heart disease, mark me C3, and I’ll stay in Blighty while you poor buggers go through the hoop in France.”
     I entered the C3 verdict on his form on the doctors’ instruction, just as the man predicted. His trick may have gained him exemption from service overseas only to plague him with heart trouble*** in later years. I never found out about that.
     When we reached the names beginning with “N”, as did mine****, I left my clerkly duties and joined the strippers’ queue. After that, since no one told me to resume the desk job. I stayed away from it.
     I had been passed fit, but “conditionally”, and was not surprised when I was told to report to our Battalion MO. I spent two days in his medical tent, during which he took my temperature at intervals. He also examined prominent veins in my left calf. Soon he sent me to a big hospital in Sheffield***** to seek a cure for a tendency I’d had during my stint on home soil to suddenly run a high temperature with an accompanying spell of lassitude. The trouble usually lasted two or three days during which time I’d be confined to a bed in the Battalion sick bay.******’
** While, in the traditional way, the doctor cupped the Tommy’s testicles – why, a moot point as ever.
*** I haven’t been able to confirm any reference to cordite causing heart disease, but Wikipedia says “The chewing of cordite, as a form of chewing gum was far from unknown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sweet taste made it attractive, and it gave the user feelings similar to those produced by alcohol.”
**** A reminder that, even after my father switched to first-person autobiography from the third-person narrative he used for his childhood and a little beyond, he still used “Norcliffe” as the family name whenever it came up throughout the Memoir. I don’t know why!
***** My father probably stayed at Wharncliffe War Hospital, formerly Middlewood Asylum, converted for military use 1915-20.
****** During his spell back in England, waiting to be old enough for a return to the battlefield, Sam also suffered a severe case of German measles and had treatment in isolation wards because he was found to be carrying meningitis bacteria (although he didn’t succumb to the disease itself).

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam, in hospital once more, gets permission to walk about in Sheffield – looking clownish in his hospital gear… Happily, not silly enough to put off his nurse girlfriend Flo…

* 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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