“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
Sunday, 12 November 2017
Sherlock Holmes’s creator Conan Doyle lectures Somme veteran Sam about… the Somme… Just part of the Army’s richly varied programme of entertainments before sending him back to the Western Front!
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… Georges Clemenceau replaced Paul Painlevé as French Prime Minister (November 13) and perhaps got lucky to a degree as the week produced no decisive actions on the Western Front, despite the always deadly to and fro around recent major battlefields including Ypres (12-13), Passchendaele (13-16), St Quentin and Champagne (17) where British and French forces defeated German attempts to win back lost ground.
Russia’s withdrawal from the war appeared to move closer as the former leader of the provisional Government Alexander Kerenski, lately ousted by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, staged a last military stand with “loyal troops” at Pulkovo near Petrograd. He went into hiding then fled for France.
Down in Italy, the battle which began life as the 12th Isonzo and changed its name to The First Battle Of The Piave (or Of Monte Grappa – river or mountain, November 11-December 23) as the Italians retreated south. But with their new chief-of staff installed (Cadorna replaced by Diaz) and Allied reinforcements arriving, during this week they began to hold the line from about 20 miles north of Venice to said Monte Grappa, about 60 miles northeast, near Veneto in the “pre-alps”.
Finally, in Palestine, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (British, Anzac and Indian) concluded the success of the 3rd Battle Of Gaza by pursuing Ottoman forces and breaking down their attempts to establish a defensive position. The cavalry-led Action Of El Mughar’s success (November 13) enabled them to chase the Ottoman Army northwards for an average of 50 miles from their starting point, with Jaffa the furthest point captured (November 16).
[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 a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare him for more (he was 19 on July 6 while in hospital). In recent weeks, because material from Sam’s “year out” at home didn’t stretch to weekly blogs, I rewound excerpts from his experiences of Gallipoli and the Somme. But now the story’s returned to the this-week-100-years-ago narrative.]
Last week, the Army finally noticed my father had attained the age – 19 – at which he was legally entitled to resume his Gallipoli and Somme role as a unit of cannonfodder. To prepare him for his return to the Front in France they sent him on a signalling refresher course at Crowborough, Sussex (“refresher” because after he’d learned these skills in Malta during 1915 and practised them in the front line at Suvla Bay, on the Somme his expertise proved surplus to requirements and he fought as a plain foot soldier).
Here he gets on with studying some new wrinkles, but mainly recalls the assorted pleasures of training camp entertainments – including a visit from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
‘Encouraged by a competent Signals Sergeant-Instructor, I regained some of my former speed at using the key, sending and receiving messages on newer, more sophisticated instruments, and laying and rigging lines – using trees where roads had to be crossed, a new skill I learned (healthy exercise with opportunities to revise map and compass practice too).
But my memories of that tall, lean Sergeant centre more around his talk of pre-war days. He loved to describe the little corner shop owned by his parents. He had helped out in spare hours. He described how farthings** on this line and ha’pennies on that all added up to profits which sustained the family in a fair degree of comfort. I’m sure he applied the same zeal to his studies of Army signals techniques as he had to learning how to buy and sell hundreds of household requirements. Through him, I again felt renewed contact with that civilian world in which I had dwelt briefly, such a long time ago, as it seemed.
Off-duty, in comfortable cafés within the camp – run by the YMCA, Salvation Army and other doers of good works – we could drink tea and eat cakes, play darts, dominoes or draughts, write letters or just talk. We had a soft-drinks canteen, a groceries etc canteen, and a “wet canteen” for the tipplers. A large concert hall too where, once a week, musicians, singers and entertainers came over from Forest Row, 10 miles west of Crowborough, and presented a pretty good show – for free, although they were obviously professionals. One violinist made beautiful music, sometimes playing Kreisler compositions as well as that great man himself (I heard his recordings many years later).
Most evenings during the week, they used the hall as a cinema, running a silent movie or two accompanied by a pianist who, since he could not improvise, painstakingly plodded through the score of some current musical. This he had spent most of the preceding daylight hours practicing, as I discovered when passing the building. I guessed he had hopes of retaining that job instead of being sent “over there”. I know I admired his persistence and wished him luck.
Sometimes, those in charge of the camp laid on different, special events too. One night, in our concert hall, a guest lecturer gave a detailed account of the previous year’s Battle Of The Somme. The speaker, fairly tall, broad and altogether imposing, was none other than the great Dr. Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, whose investigations I had read about in Strand**** magazines passed on to me by dear old Mr Frusher, the Scoutmaster. The author lived, I was informed, across the valley, in a wooded estate.
Our visitor, it turned out, had mastered much information about the object of and preparation for that awful battle, and he made full use of a large map, displayed on an easel. His voice was somewhat gruff, perhaps due to a cold, but he earned the audience’s close attention. Conan Doyle was doing his war work, hoping that a fuller understanding of Britain’s strategy would help soldiers to better endure their part in it. I heard differing opinions about that.*****’
** Farthing: legal tender until 1960 in “old money” (lsd), a quarter of a penny, so one 960th of a pound sterling (which says something about why the UK government eventually decimalised the currency); after 1936, this smallest coin bore the image of the country’s smallest bird, the wren – before that it was Britannia on the reverse of the monarch, as per all other British coins.
*** Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), Austrian-born violinist and composer who spent World War 1 in the USA where, much later, he gained citizenship. The violinist my father appreciated may well have played one or both of his most popular pieces, Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy), both composed in 1905.
**** A monthly, Strand was published from 1891 50 1950 and Conan Doyle contributed over 200 pieces, from fiction to essays and poems.
***** If I’m catching my father’s implication here, as a veteran of the Somme himself he felt somewhat cynical about having an “expert” explain the battle to him, even such an eminence as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). But he didn’t know that the author’s personal stake in it went far beyond the academic. His son, Kingsley, was seriously wounded on the Somme (and died of pneumonia, aged 26, while still “convalescent” the year after Sam listened to this talk, 1918). Conan Doyle wrote a military history, The British Campaign In France And Flanders, published in six volumes, 1916-20. He lived in Crowborough at Little Windlesham House with his second wife, Jean, from 1907 until his death in 1930.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Home leave, December, 1917, finds Sam’s parents moving house. So his final preparation for a return to the Western Front consists of laying lino!
* 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.