AT MEMOIR CHRISTMASES PAST
“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, 30 December 2018
FootSoldierSam retro: his Christmases and New Years past – London at nine and 16, Gallipoli at 17…
Sam’s Memoir(1) – paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
For details of how to buy the Memoir or Gallipoli & Somme & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association here.
The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…
All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross – and the current running donations total as of December 4 is £3,772.16 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… While President Wilson did a lap of honour around Europe, weeks of turmoil in Germany and Eastern Europe suddenly found their counterpart in a mutinous eruption among British soldiers resting near and returning through two main Channel ports. At Folkestone (January 3), when 2,000 men were ordered back to France, they refused and soon 10,000 in camps around the town had gathered at the Town Hall until mollified. But the same order was issued the next day and this time thousands of soldiers took over the harbour, while 2,000 did likewise at Dover, forming an impromptu soldiers’ union too. Nonplussed generals and Government Ministers sniffed Bolshevism…
Meanwhile in Russia, the to and fro between the actual Bolsheviks and their Allied/White Russian opponents proceeded with Bolshevik forces attempting to assert themselves in newly independent Baltic states by advancing in Riga (Latvia) and Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia; both on January 2) and to beat back the rebellion led by Admiral Kolchak with supporting Czech legions in east Russia – the Bolsheviks took Ufa and Sterlitamak (December 31) immediately after losing Birsk (30; 808 miles due east of Moscow).
The uproar spread to Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia) where the newly independent Czechoslovakians occupied the city (January 1) and the following day the Hungarians, who comprised almost half of the population, rose up against them.
But Captain Hermann Detzner delivered the eccentric story of the week when he surrendered his German New Guinea Colonial Security force of 20 men to the Australians (January 5) after holding out on the run for four years having yielded the territory to the Aussies in the opening weeks of the war.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until, in mid-March, he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany near a village called Hügelheim and finally moving westwards to Lorraine where they remained until Armistice – at which his long trek towards the French Front began. He finally reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably) and then started his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – through the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen, plus the diverse kindnesses of poilus, an old Frenchwoman who gave him chocolate, (freezing) members of the Chinese Labour Corps who swapped him snaffled cheese for snaffled cardigans… and the less well-conceived efforts of several people who nearly killed him with overfeeding and a Madame who offered him a girl he quite literally wasn’t up to. Finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before a tram, a bus and a train took him home to his first “Ma-made cuppa” in a long 12 months. But now a festive-seasonal retrospective…]
FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS – LOOKING BACK
AT MEMOIR CHRISTMASES PAST
AT MEMOIR CHRISTMASES PAST
For one week only, just leaving my father where he was directly before Christmas – namely, enjoying his return to the family in north London after a full year away… during which he fought against the German Spring Offensive in a desperate rear guard action outside Arras, then hung on through eight months of near-starvation as a POW. Now, a bit of seasonal retrospection from the Memoir…
Oddly, perhaps, he mentions only three Christmas-New Year periods in the entire story, but they were all very different – and here they are as one Long Read…
This first snippet carries a certain significance. Sam’s poverty-stricken childhood felt the more grim because of his parents sorrow and bitterness arising from the “ruin” of the family tile business in Manchester just after Sam was born. It caused them to do a flit to London and one of Sam’s constant early memories was, quite simply, feeling hungry. But when he was eight or nine, his friend from the church choir, Reg Curtis, invited him for Christmas dinner at his house – and it wasn’t just the quantity of food that impressed the lad (my father still wrote in the third person at this stage – and in the next excerpt – aliasing himself as “Tommy”]…
‘One Christmas, they invited Tommy into the family celebration. Reg’s father had a phonograph and he’d bought one of those early records – mainly of a religious, sacred character the tunes were, Jerusalem and similar things. They all made free with the Christmas fare and the happiness there was a revelation to Tommy. Reg shared with him the affection which permeated the family, the brothers and Dad. I don’t mention Mum because, curiously, she remained in the background and Tommy seldom saw her.’
And here’s the last Sutcliffe family Christmas before underage volunteer Royal Fusiliers Sam/”Tommy” (then 16) and his older brother Ted (18) sailed for foreign parts – a voyage that, months later, eventually led to Gallipoli. With Pa in steady work and Ted and Sam contributing from their wages for the previous couple of years, they could loosen the stays a little. But first the brothers had to get through a barrier erected by the Army’s not untypical careless neglect of the Poor Bloody Infantry’s ordinary humanity. At the time, they were billeted in Tonbridge, Sam/”Tommy” with a family called the Fluters:
‘As Christmas 1914 approached, and it appeared likely the Battalion would remain in England during the holiday, the chaps began to speculate about whether they would be allowed home. “They’re sure to grant two or three days leave,” was the general opinion. So warming anticipation of reunions with families gave rise to a happiness which permeated all the men. Officers must have noticed the prevailing joyfulness but, perhaps, did not realise what caused it.
An announcement that Christmas Eve would be free of parades and work contained no reference to leave of absence. Puzzlement and doubt replaced anticipatory elation. Then, as groups of men discussed the strange silence about Christmas plans, anger caused some men to threaten to go home without permission. “But that would be a crime, either desertion with trial by court martial or else a charge of being absent without leave” – so cautious men told the impatient ones.
It developed into a serious situation; on the morning of Christmas Eve, no guidance having come from above, a large number of men gathered on the London platform at the railway station. They had bought their tickets and were now committing their threatened breach of military discipline. But somebody had informed the RSM about the looming exodus and his powerful voice could be heard ordering all men to return to their billets.
Most anxious not to provide authority with any excuse for questioning his stated age and discharging him, Tommy had not made a decision about joining this rebellion. He had found a position outside the station from which he observed the following scene, and even heard much of what was said.
He saw no general movement by the, shall we say, insurgents to leave the platform and, quite suddenly, the booming voice of the RSM fell silent. All faces turned towards the station entrance. The Colonel marched in with a substantial group of officers, followed by porters carrying a large number of bags. The party stopped abruptly at the sight of the assembled troops.
The Colonel’s face expressed great surprise, as Tommy could clearly see. Then he turned to confer with Captain Blunt, his adjutant. Other officers moved in closer and there was much quiet discussion.
Some Privates standing nearby were called forward and, like good soldiers, all saluted correctly together, straight and upright, eyes looking straight ahead and not at the officers asking the questions. They may have contemplated doing a bunk, thought Tommy, but they had remembered their training. Soon the men saluted, turned about and rejoined their comrades. Then the Colonel came forward and addressed the men.
A terrific cheer followed his speech so Tommy readily guessed its import. He climbed down from his perch, passed through an open gate on into the station coal depot and crossed several railway lines till he came to iron railings and called to men on the platform, asking for information.
He learnt that the amateur officers had made their first major blunder. They had taken no thought of what was to happen to their men during the Christmas festivities. Vaguely, they had assumed that the rank and file would remain mostly in their billets and take meals with the families. For a start, this rather haughtily assumed that those families would or could supply Christmas fare for comparative strangers and also took for granted that the soldiers would wish to remain in billets in such awkward circumstances. Yet the officers themselves had no doubt as to where they were going to spend the holiday.
Of course, not all the men had gathered at the railway station, so volunteers offered to go to each CSM and pass on the good news: two-day leave had been granted to all. Thus, the remainder of the men would travel to town by the next train – as Tommy resolved to do.
Hurrying back to Leigh Drive, he yelled the good news about Christmas leave to the few men he passed. Mrs Fluter, kindliest of women, said she could have managed easily had the lads been staying over the holiday and she thought her husband might even be disappointed that they were not to share the good times together.
A few hours later, Tommy received cheerful greetings at home and found Ted already there, as he’d expected. “Bet your life I got on that first train,” he said. “We knew there would be nothing to do during Christmas, and no order had been given to forbid us leaving Tonbridge, so we were on our way regardless. The officers must have felt foolish when they realised they hadn’t given any instructions as to what we should do during the next two days. Still, who’s grumbling, eh?”
With money in their pockets, the brothers bought a turkey in the market place along with fruit, sweets… and Turkish cigarettes, probably costing 4d(2) for ten instead of the usual 2d for English – their rich aroma seemed to lend an air of opulence to that small home.
So they all settled down to spend a really happy Christmas together. This might be the last family gathering for several years and, for once, all of them did their utmost to make the occasion memorable – starting that night with the collective manufacture of decorative chains from strips of coloured paper and flour paste. A gay touch in the living room.
Mother spent much time at the coal-fired cooking range. It took skill to stoke it and arrange the dampers so that pots of vegetables on top kept boiling while the bird and stuffing in the oven roasted without burning.
Pa had bought a bottle of cheap claret, a favourite of mother’s though, to put it mildly, a bit sharp for the tastes of the youngsters. But all protested that they liked it. Drinking some fizzy mineral water, of which they’d bought several large bottles – “penny monsters” – soon softened its harshness. What with playing games, telling yarns about Army experiences, and resting between unusually large meals, the hours passed quickly.
They all praised Ma’s cooking and even Dad put aside the load of worry which always appeared to be crushing him… and smiled occasionally. The war was hardly mentioned, although this Christmas should have marked the end of hostilities according to many forecasters. Everyone knew it was not going well, and flickers of fear disturbed even reasonably optimistic people.
But, just for the moment, self-indulgence quite rightly ousted serious thinking and all felt the happier for trying to encourage forgetfulness and joyfulness among others.’
(2) £1 in 1914 would equal £109.69 in 2017 according to the Bank Of England inflation calculator. 4d/fourpence then would be the uninflated equivalent of 3.33p now so… £3 65p with 103 years worth of inflation (but then consider all the VAT and purchase tax changes in the interim).
A year on and, now a Lance Corporal Signaller, Sam, 17, experienced a very different Christmas and New Year – in and around Gallipoli. This excerpt begins just before the evacuation from Suvla Bay where he and the 2/1 Royal Fusiliers had experienced their first battlefield, from the moment they landed (under fire) in the small-hours darkness of September 25, 1915, and started digging the trenches they were to live in for the next three months:
‘Christmas Day coming up… All we were missing was the Christmas tree, the holly, the oranges, Christmas puddings, iced cakes and booze. We did have ample bully beef, hard biscuits, tea, tinned milk, sugar and, because of our Army’s reduced numbers, two or three pints of water each day.
But one could feel how appropriate it was that, as the season of good will to all men drew near, the tension which had been spoiling one’s life, waking or sleeping, had vanished. With luck we’d be up and away from this depressing place before John Turk had time to miss us.’
To their great relief, the Battalion joined the mass evacuation on December 18-19, Saturday-Sunday overnight. Singing their own variation on a music-hall song – “We were sailing away from Suvla Bay” – they voyaged the few hours to Allied Mediterranean HQ at Lemnos. There, Sam’s sense of gloom and guilt about the defeat lifted to a degree when he reunited with brother Ted – who’d missed Suvla Bay after being dragooned off the troopship that carried the Battalion to Lemnos back in September… because he’d lost his front teeth in a fight and was deemed unfit to be shot at until he’d had them replaced (yes, I know, that ruling wasn’t entirely daft, but it is odd and funny).
The following festive Christmas Day did them a bit of good too, even though it hardly turned out pleasure unalloyed:
‘Christmas nearly upon us and, next morning, our generous Major(3) had our crowd assemble and announced that arrangements had been made for a supply of beer, lots of it, to be collected from the Forces’ Canteen. Volunteers, genuine on this occasion, set off, carrying the large dixies in which the cooks normally prepared stews or tea. When they returned, noticeably more talkative and cheerful than before, they carried far more beer than it appeared likely we could cope with. The distribution of cakes, biscuits, Christmas puddings and sweets from the parcels of absent comrades followed – such a plenitude of good eatables compared with the scarcity during recent months.
Ted spent as much time with me that day as his odd-job duties at the nearby Field Hospital allowed. To work off the heaviness from over-eating and drinking, we two took a walk – nostalgia and the effects of strong beer rendering us untypically sentimental about the dear dead days beyond recall as we strolled, perhaps a little unsteadily, in no particular direction. The day was dull, the sky grey, the wind very chilly, but divil a bit cared we… until we came to the hole.
Yes, yet another hole after all those others I’d lived in recently. This, however, was a big one, circular and possibly 15 feet deep. When, why or by whom it had been excavated we had no idea, but now it provided shelter from the winter for a number of Arabs. Dressed in the usual poor man’s gowns and hood-like headgear, they crouched in circles well below the rim. They looked ill and miserable. Dotted all around, above and below them was their excreta, all noticeably coloured by the blood which escapes from dysentery sufferers.
Of course, I stated my belief that it was wrong to bring these people from a very poor sort of life in Egypt to an even worse one in this cheerless island, but Ted informed me they had competed for the opportunity to come and earn some cash, a chance seldom available to them at home. Things had not been all that good for me in recent months, but I still had pity to spare for these poor devils. Even more so when Ted told me how they, and others, had travelled from Egypt; he knew because he had been ordered to escort some of them on to a ship, to send them below and close the hatches. During the voyage, the labourers had to be kept down there at all times, their guards armed with trenching tool handles to quell any revolt that might occur.
It all seemed wrong to me. We walked away discussing the wisdom of the officials concerned in deciding that these poor, debilitated souls should be sent across the sea to finish up shivering in a hole in the ground surrounded by shit…
We came upon a village with several small shops and a number of our fellow soldiers, British and ANZAC, wandering about. We had no money, but out of curiosity we entered one shop and were surprised to see the Greek man and woman who ran it, and all their stock, sat behind iron bars. We had seen something similar in post offices and banks back home, but usually those bars were made of brass, whereas this black, iron enclosure had the aspect of a prison.
However, justification for the bars appeared almost instantly when an altercation between a Scot and an Australian flared up. The Scot wanted a loaf of bread similar to one he’d purchased previously at about eightpence. The shopkeeper told him today’s price was two shillings. The colonies were paying this without demur, while the Scot knew that, at home, a bigger loaf than this could be bought for threepence or less. So the eightpence he offered appeared more than generous to him out of about seven shillings weekly Army pay. He upbraided the Aussies for spoiling the market just because their Government treated them far more generously than ours did British soldiers.
We left them still pursuing their argument and returned to our camp where Christmas parcel goodies, lashings of beer or tea, Christmas puddings, and all things nice, were there for the picking-up and guzzling. What a reversal of fortune – we looked forward to some days of ease and over-indulgence. Late that night, Ted left me to return to his tent and we, the very happy brothers, promised ourselves another lovely day tomorrow.’
I had slept for possibly five hours when the unwelcome roar of a Sergeant roused us all. We had to pack up as quickly as possible, he bellowed, and be ready to move.
Into every available space in pack, haversack and mess tin, I crammed as much food as possible. Cooks handed out fresh-baked loaves – enough to last a few days – and fried bacon in quantity. They had opened a long, wooden case containing two large sides of bacon packed in salt, so we ate our fill, stored the remaining rashers in our tubular cap comforters, and tied these to our belts. Hanging all the usual pieces of equipment about our persons we picked up our rifles, slogged down to the landing stage and boarded a small ship, similar to the Robin Redbreast, which had evacuated us from Suvla Bay.
Whither away we knew not, nor cared overmuch, for disappointment at the interruption of our Christmas celebrations was deep and our mood doleful. To hell with everything and everybody; wasn’t that war over? So what were They up to? Many hours later we heard the unwelcome sounds of occasional gunfire and now, in darkness, when we could just make out land ahead, a shell screamed overhead and burst somewhere ashore. Our ship crept slowly forward, far too slowly for my liking, because, added to the likelihood of injury, was the unpleasant one of drowning as well; and we should by rights have been feasting and lounging on that Greek island(4).’
(3) Major Harry Nathan, that is, a revered figure in Sam’s 2/1 Royal Fusiliers period who crops up again, in a cameo role, towards the end of the Memoir. Throughout, in line with his policy of aliasing most people and places for one reason or another, my father calls him “Booth”. Rapidly promoted from Lieutenant when the Battalion formed in September, 1914, Nathan became CO at Suvla in mid-November, according to his biographer H. Montgomery Hyde (Strong For Service, W.H. Allen, 1968, long out of print – but merited because in subsequent civilian life he became an MP, a Lord, and ultimately a Minister in Attlee’s post-WWII Government).
(4) Strong For Service says that, while he was eating his Christmas dinner, Nathan received the order that the Battalion remnants must return to Gallipoli, and they shipped out on Boxing Day, December 26.
Soon they discovered their destination – V Beach on Cape Helles – and their (rather negative) purpose: to help with the second wave of Gallipoli evacuations, which they did on January 6. Still, from V Beach comes the Memoir’s final festive reference:
‘No Signals work was required at that time, for the Battalion’s numbers had dwindled to about Company strength  and our work concerned simply helping to prepare for evacuation.Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers – anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items…
A few days after our disembarkation at V Beach, around midnight someone called out “It’s New Year’s Eve!” and a special search produced several bottles of what may have been cider, although some called it champagne. We didn’t know which, but heartily toasted each other and anyone else we fancied, before renewing our onslaught on that marvellous giveaway job.’
All the best– FSS
Next week: Back to the continuing this-week-100-years-ago story – Sam’s “wonderfully happy days” back home reach a climax when brilliant older brother Ted returns on a week’s leave and they tell each other old soldiers’ tales... but inwardly Sam’s grieving already as he listens to Ted wheeze and gasp for breath…
(1) 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.