“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, 23 November 2014

Sam takes a self-inflicted cold bath – and digs trenches to protect London

Out Now In Paperback And E-Book – For Excerpts In Audio Click Here – All Proceeds To The Red Cross

Dear all

A hundred years ago today… British and Indian Regiments concluded the Battle Of Basra by capturing the city from the Ottoman Empire, thereby “securing the Persian oilfields” (for the time being, anyway). But more significantly, the day before, the First Battle Of Ypres ended in a crucial stalemate; the German Army called it quits although the casualty lists, while terrible for all, showed a huge imbalance between them and the Allies – 46,000 Germans, 85,000 French, 56,000 British (out of 163,000 men involved), 22,000 Belgian. During the next few days several German leaders argued that the war could not be won now, but Generals Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg (promoted to Field-Marshall on the 27th) successfully urged continuation... of the slaughterous stasis they had barely begun to explore, as it turned out.
      Meanwhile, down in Bunbridge, alias Tun/Tonbridge (the spelling adjusted some years earlier to avoid postal confusion with Tunbridge Wells – really!), under-age Royal Fusiliers volunteer Sam Sutcliffe, his older brother Ted, and their Edmonton pals enjoyed their ongoing pleasant surprise at alighting in a Kentish town rather than the Western Front.

My father, Sam, 16 – pro tem still “Tommy” in the third-person early stages of his Memoir – was feeling his way into an unfamiliar role as guest/billetee in the home of a prosperous couple, the Fluters. Soon he found his politeness leading him into uncomfortable emulation of his kind host, as Sam recalled from the first Sunday evening he and fellow Fusilier Churniston lodged there:

That night, just before they all retired Mr Fluter said, “I’m an early riser. Have to be. As manager I feel I should be first on the scene. So I keep the entry keys. Nobody can work till I open the doors so I must never be late. To give my day a bright and fresh start I step into a cold bath at precisely 6.30am on every working day. I’m shaved, dressed and ready for breakfast at 7 and away before 7.30. So you lads can consider the bathroom yours from 7 o’clock onwards.”
       Tommy remembered that other early-morning, cold-water enthusiast Mr Frusher*. So he asked if he might indulge in this discipline and received permission. He associated the habit with good living, good clothes, and success. Churniston did not ask this favour for himself, but expressed his admiration for Tommy’s pluck.
       At 7 the next morning, there was a noticeable nip in the air. The cork bath mat had a nice sloppy surface on which Tommy stood while running his four inches or so straight from the chilly, mains, water pipes. His previous cold, morning dips had been those enjoyed by all at Scout camps — a preliminary gallop down the hill before plunging into the stream, fun pushing or pulling in the slackers, marvelling at the mystery of Frusher’s floating soap** and other diversions.
       But, here, nothing to distract him from that white, chilly bath, and its icy water. He climbed in, sat down, breathless. Soaked his flannel and got to work, quickly rinsed off the suds, stood up and dried himself furiously. Soon feeling clean — and elated by his own bravery — glowing now with warmth, he went down to the small breakfast room and devoured everything dear Mrs F offered him: porridge, egg and bacon, toast and marmalade. She expressed her surprise at his opting for the cold dip and suggested he gave it up if he didn’t really enjoy it. But he resolved to endure this little ritual about which Mr Fluter made no fuss at all.’

* A formative influence on Tommy/Sam’s childhood and teens back in Edmonton – vicar, choirmaster, Scoutmaster, piano teacher.
** Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory brand, marketed in America from 1878, did float; at the time, the company declared it an accidental outcome of the manufacturing process, but in 2004 a company archivist revealed it had been a planned gimmick, good for sales and economical because it involved whipping bubbles of air into the soap.

It remained a puzzle to the recruits that, two months after joining up, they still had no rifles, much less training in how to use them. Still, wrote Sam, from the first weekend onwards, their Bunbridge sojourn did at least offer them the chance to learn one useful battlefield skill – digging:

On the first Friday night, they had instruction in marking out and digging trenches. Then Saturday morning saw the troops at the railway sidings. A long line of carriages and several goods wagons had been allocated to the Battalion. The windows already displayed Company signs, A, B, C and so on, and they practised entraining in correct order. They loaded quantities of picks, shovels and spades into the wagons, along with large boilers, and sacks full of sufficient unbreakable enamel mugs and plates for all the men.
       At the last moment before dispersal each Company officer told his men what was afoot. As a precaution, lines of trenches were to be dug around Outer London. Their Battalion, responsible for a small part of these defences, would entrain at 8am and travel to their section where they would dig from 9 to 4. Time for cleaning tools and loading them would allow departure at 5 and they would be back in Bunbridge by 6. This work would occupy several weeks and the good people at their billets should be told that their guests would be out between 8am and 6pm. It was hoped that their hosts would provide some sort of packed lunch for the men. Tea would be brewed at the site. So Saturday mornings should be spent thoroughly cleaning clothes, footwear and themselves — at the town’s public baths if their billets lacked the facilities. Thus, their temporary pattern of living became established. This helped the host families because it gave them a chance to organise their own work and leisure...
       Given fair weather most days, the work moved ahead at a good rate. Tommy found that, because they had more men than tools, they got generous rest periods between spells of digging and shovelling. Although his hands became tender and his arms tired towards the end of the morning, he felt sure he would be able to cope...
       People tend to visualise a trench system as one long, straight line but the British Army at that time used a different design. A trench would run straight for perhaps ten yards, then take a 90-degree turn to the right for three yards, becoming narrower too, then a similar left for three yards, then right again and thereafter resume the original direction and width.
       Most of the excavated soil would be thrown over the back of the trench, forming the parados. Having dug down five feet — and four feet in width — the troops would further deepen it to around seven feet (depending on the nature of the ground), but leaving an 18-inch-wide step at the front which soldiers on lookout duty would stand on to observe the enemy or to fire from. The top foot of earth at that front side would be removed and moved forward somewhat, and unevenly, to form the parapet.’

Soon they encountered another of the Western Front’s bugbears – rain. However, without the further inconveniences of shot and shell, they coped quite well:

‘On days when steady rain set in, mud soon made trench-digging difficult. A halt would be called and everyone stood around until, perhaps, the officers decided to cease work for the day. Regardless, Army caps had waterproof linings, the greatcoats made of strong, thick cloth, and the boots stout, so nobody suffered. But when they finished early, since the train would not arrive until the appointed time, the station had to shelter this great crowd of soldiers; some enjoyed a crafty game of cards, others just chatted, dozed or read (many, like Tommy, always carried some sort of reading matter with them). Gambling was forbidden, so card schools made sure they concealed their bets and had a man looking out for approaching NCOs too’

All the best — FSS

Next week: The Battalion goes to church...

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