“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, 7 December 2014

Sam and pals want to “have a go” – sort of, if only the Army would give them rifles...

Out Now In Paperback And E-Book  all proceeds to the British Red Cross
For excerpts in AUDIO click here 

Dear all

A hundred years ago tomorrow… the British Navy scored an absolute victory over the German, a strange and rare event in this war which, on the Western Front, had already bogged down to a process of attritional massacre — at the Battle Of The Falklands, Admiral Von Spee led his squadron in to attack Stanley, realised too late he had fallen prey to over-ambition and/or tricks by British Intelligence, and after a few hours’ battle with a clutch of British cruisers which had arrived only the previous day the Germans lost six ships (no British), and 1,800 sailors (10 British). Von Spee and his two sons were listed among the dead.
      In the Middle East, one quiet move began to prepare the way for those – like my father Sam’s Battalion, the 2/1st City Of London, Royal Fusiliers – who would eventually end up at Gallipoli; Field-Marshall Von Der Goltz set off for Constantinople where, as agreed between Germany of its Ottoman Empire ally, he took control of the Turkish Army.
      Meanwhile, billeted with local families in peaceful Tonbridge, Kent, under-age volunteer Sam Sutcliffe, 16, his older brother Ted, 18, and their pals from Edmonton, north London, dug their trenches – to protect the capital in case a German invasion got that far – marched about a good deal, and trained as best they could...

Enjoyable and informative, as we used to say about school trips to wherever – that was how these weeks came to feel for Tommy (my father’s alias for himself in the early, third-person part of his memoir). He wrote that this first-ever long period away from home and parents just “flew by”:

Route marches through the lovely countryside in late autumn — pausing sometimes in a small town or village for a break — alternated with exercises over commons and large, open or wooded spaces, and map-reading classes held on high ground from which features could be visually identified.’

But the continuing status quo and absence of any hint as to what might come next – despite all the “news from the Front” they all read in the papers and speculated about every day – gave him pause to ponder what had happened to this 1,000-strong crowd of men, so lately thrown together by the random act of volunteering:

‘Tommy had seen a mass of men changed from civilians into a working Battalion of soldiers, moved away from their homes, placed in other people’s houses, and all arrangements for their maintenance and training planned and carried out with reasonable efficiency — all this executed and supervised by men who had, until recently, been engaged in other professions and businesses.
     For example, one Major had been a barrister, another officer a junior partner in a Covent Garden firm, while the Colonel came from an old country family with wide interests. All were caught up in this rapidly developing war machine, determined to get it won and finished with as quickly as possible. Tommy wondered whether there had ever been another time when a young soldier could have been part of forming a new Battalion like this...’

One thing continued to puzzle them, and nag at their burgeoning self-respect as soldiers – although, even then, in his heart of hearts, Sam could see the advantages...

‘... still they had no guns. The trenching work would eventually make good or bad navvies of them. However, had they been given weapons, trained to use them and then gone off to France, they could have made a useful contribution at a critical point in the Allied effort to hold the German attack. Their confidence high, their knowledge of war abysmal, they would have gone into their first and, perhaps, second battles full of zest and patriotism.
     They talked freely of their wish to “have a go” and “get over there” to see the damn thing off. Even Tommy occasionally ventured a few words along those lines — while guardedly watching for the sneers about his youth and lack of size which he feared such boldness might evoke. But his worries proved groundless. The others took it for granted that he felt as they did, sharing this desire to risk life and limb in defence of their country and people — ignorant, at that stage, that a minority existed who moved heaven and earth to ensure that they never ever became involved in actual warfare and remained free to take every advantage while the mugs were away at the Front. In due course, riches and honours rewarded some of those types, testament to their understanding of certain facts of life.’

Obviously, these latter thoughts came to my father in looking back on his days of utter innocence about much of life. But the seeds of this discontent he expressed here, when writing in his 70s, were sown by experiences he went through between Gallipoli and the Somme in 1916. The statistical context for his emotions in late 1914, as an unwitting part of a great generational movement, was that in early August Parliament called for 100,000 volunteers and, by September 30, 750,000 had come forward, a million by the end of January, 1915 – which explains why, despite the desperate rate of deaths and woundings at the Front, the Government could afford to hold back conscription until January, 1916.

All the best — FSS

Next week: Food, glorious food – courtesy of the Tonbridge families they’re billeting with, Sam and the poor boys from north London eat more and better than ever before...

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