“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, 20 August 2017

Sam flirts and horses around with Nurse Flo – will their innocence survive? Plus he makes new friends… but his thoughts stray to pals he left behind forever on the Somme…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Third Battle Of Ypres/Passchendaele (July 31-November 10) stalled to a degree because of more heavy rain, but British troops made a couple of advances including the capture of German positions east of Hargicourt, northwest of St Quentin (August 22-26). However, the Canadians committed what’s commonly regarded as a tragic error in trying to extend the Battle Of Hill 70 success to take the town of Lens – a failure with heavy casualties, some inflicted by the Germans’ new mustard gas (21-22).
    Further south, unhampered by the weather, the French launched the Second Offensive Battle Of Verdun (August 20-26) and moved rapidly through their list of objectives, taking Avocourt Wood, Mort Homme, Hill 240 (23-24), Hill 304, Bois Canard (25) and reaching the outskirts of Beaumont (26; French casualties 14,000, German unknown).
    While the Russian retreat on the Eastern Front continued, especially in Latvia, their supportive action alongside the Romanian Army bore some fruit as they helped to beat back a week-long German counterattack and protect gains made in the Battle Of Marasesti (August 6-September 3), and did likewise as the Battle Of Oituz settled into a stalemate (August 20).
    Meanwhile, Italy’s opening onslaught on the Austro-Hungarians in the 11th Battle Of The Isonzo (August 18-September 12) progressed well as they occupied Korite and Sella (August 20), Monte Santo (25) and most of the Bainsizza Plateau, their main target.
    Back home, one of those minor landmarks which meant nothing at the time occurred when German planes bombed Dover, Ramsgate and Margate (August 22; 12 killed, 25 injured) – this turned out to be World War 1’s last German daylight raid on the UK by aeroplanes.

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller 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. So they 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, and then, just after his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course leads him to hospital again…]

Last week a hundred years ago, still lodging in tented encampments on their route march, my father and his comrades took medicals which they regarded with some ambivalence given the common talk was that an “A1” fit-and-healthy verdict amounted to a “death sentence” via imminent dispatch to the battlefield (for the first time in many cases, though not for the formerly underaged veterans like Sam).
    But no clarity ensued for my father. Judged “A1 conditionally” because of his erratic temperature and intermittent bouts of “lassitude” – the less conspicuous outcomes of his months at Gallipoli and the Somme? He was sent to a Sheffield hospital (probably Wharncliffe War Hospital, though he doesn’t name it) to be “built up”.
    As he stabilised he was told he could go out into the town whenever he wished - but, oddly, he had to wear the wonderfully inelegant one-size-doesn’t-fit-anybody “hospital blue” uniform. Despite that, he got back together with Nurse Flo from the quarantine unit at another Sheffield hospital he’d attended earlier in the year (for carrying cerebrospinal meningitis then catching German measles). Their friendship back then had led him closer to losing his virginity than anything else in the course of the war – his Boy Scout “chivalry” lessons saved him, so to speak – but now she’s taken him to a family chalet in the woods outside Rotherham…

‘She drew a curtain aside revealing a small double-bed and, to liven things up a bit, I pretended I was a lascivious villain and had at last got a maiden in me power and would have me way with her come what may. Laughing and giggling at this unlikely idea, we acted out the scene, then came to the part where I picked her up – thankful she was so tiny – and flung her at the bed. Probably she grabbed at the curtain but, whatever caused it, down came part of the drape, torn from the rings on the rod above. Her relatives might have arrived at wrong conclusions about our conduct, so needle and cotton had to be found and the curtain re-hung. After valuable time had been wasted on that job, we had time only to rush through the lovely strawberry tea which someone had prepared and stored in a food safe for our enjoyment. Then we had to hurry back to hospital.
     Another day, we spent the few hours of freedom I was permitted at a cinema, followed by tea in Rotherham at Flo’s sister’s house in a quiet cul de sac. Nothing exciting happened, but again these close contacts with civilians still living normal lives found me very appreciative, though always uneasy somewhere inside.

In the hospital ward, I made two good friends – Foxon, and the other name won’t come back to me – both local lads, from opposite ends of Sheffield. Foxon invited me to accompany him to his home one afternoon. We walked uphill, to Eccleshall, a district obviously inhabited by well-off people. Foxon’s family lived in a detached house standing in grounds with trees and shrubs; Dad, who shook hands and made me very welcome, wore a black morning coat – the long, cut-away type – and striped trousers, a shirt with a fairly high, white, butterfly collar, and a grey tie. Foxon, like me, wore the shapeless hospital-blue two-piece, so I felt at no disadvantage. We spent an hour or so talking, drinking milky coffee, and eating little sugary pastries.
     Just as friendly was the family of my other pal. They lived in a terraced house somewhere off the Attercliffe Road and I enjoyed a happy afternoon there with his mother and sisters.
     On a fine day, a concert party entertained us soldiers in the park-like grounds of the hospital. The comedian did well with a George Robey** song and followed that with I Ain’t Never Got Nothing From Nobody, performed in a funny, forward-leaning, eyeball-rolling style which amused some and sort of scared others who weren’t so sure that the man was really sane. After that, reassuringly, children from a ballet school danced prettily on the well-cut lawn.
     I thought about the mates I’d left behind on the Somme staring sightless at that great big moon on the night of the final search for survivors***. They would be just bones in earth now. They could have been here watching the lovely children, had they shared my good luck.’’
** George Robey: “The Prime Minister Of Mirth”, 1869-1954, music hall star from Kennington, London; his best-known song was If You Were The Only Girl In The World and his catch phrase “Kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve”; he raised £500,000 for war charities during World War I; Nobody (the correct title), written in 1905 by Bert Williams (1874-1922, the best-selling black American recording artist pre-1920; W.C. Fields called him the funniest and the saddest man he knew) and lyricist Alex Rogers (no dates and little other information on him except he was a black vaudeville performer, no references to him after 1924), for a Broadway show, Abyssinia which featured real, live camels; lyrics include “When all day long things go amiss,/And I go home to find some bliss,/Who hands to me a glowin’ kiss?/Nobody/… I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time!/And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime/… I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time!”; later recorded by Bing Crosby, Nina Simone, Ry Cooder, Johnny Cash.
*** My father (recalling this in his 70s) was no doubt thinking about the pal he found out in No Man’s Land when the remnants of his Kensingtons Battalion were retrieving the dead three or four nights after the July 1, 1916, slaughter – this on the northern end of the Somme Front around Foncquevillers and Hébuterne, opposite the still-German-held Gommecourt. In Chapter 31 of his Memoir, he wrote: One discovery out in No Man’s Land deeply affected me. While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench in the advanced system we had helped to construct and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt… here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me. Charlie’s large face was all the more recognisable because of his large nose. The moonlight no doubt concealed the ravages of injury and exposure… As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities… Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life…  Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs… Goodbye, Charlie.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s virtue preserved once more… his story now backtracks to Gallipoli!… As per the earlier period in spring-summer, my father didn’t write enough about his under-age “gap year” to provide a substantial blog for the whole of 2017 (blogging wasn’t really a consideration when he was writing back in the ‘70s). So on the retrospective lines of the Making Of FootSoldierSam series about his childhood and teens, for the next ten weeks I’m going to run excerpts from his battlefield experiences at Gallipoli and then the Somme – before returning to his 100-years-ago-this-week story, concluding the year with his departure for the Western Front, presaging Sam’s remarkable account of his 1918, the to-the-last-man-and-bullet defensive battle against the Spring Offensive, his months as a POW and onwards to Armistice and Peace…

* 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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