“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 25 January 2015
Sam’s last precious moments with his family before leaving England – goodbye “for a long time… maybe forever”
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A hundred years ago… with the Western and Eastern Fronts settled into attritional, murderous grind, On January 24 the British Navy won a considerable victory in The Battle Of Dogger Bank, beating off a German raid and sinking a cruiser (954 of the crew died), while on the 26th a new campaign began in Sinai and Palestine when an Ottoman Army, led by a German Colonel, trekked across the desert for 10 days to conduct the Raid On The Suez Canal which ended, on February 4, in defeat by a “British Empire” force comprising Punjabis, Baluchistanis, Gurkhas and the Bikaner Camel Corps from northern India. And in London, on January 28, the British Government confirmed plans for a Naval attack on the Dardanelles in February…
Eventually, that decision would have quite a bearing on the future of my father, Sam, 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers and their pals from Edmonton, north London, in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, lately billeted in comfort – apart from days spent digging trenches to defend the capital – down in Tonbridge, Kent, but now about to move on to who knew where…
After a surprise mid-January week’s leave at home and a disconcerting lantern-lecture from young and much-mocked Lieutenant Swickenham which, oddly, yoked together the apparently unconnected topics of VD and Malta, suddenly the Fusiliers find themselves on the move. In this passage, my father began to edge away from third-person narrative, referring to himself as “Tommy”, via a long passage “quoting” Tommy in the first-person – a pretense he dropped shortly afterwards (a big step towards finding his confidence as a writer I feel).
One morning in late January, after roll call, Sam dodged volunteering for some chore cooked up by the Lieutenant-Quartermaster, and felt quite pleased with himself momentarily:
‘… until the CSM warned me and others to rest until 9pm when, with all our belongings packed in kitbags, we would report for duty at the railway station. We should say goodbye to our hosts before leaving, having told them that they would be called on during the day by an officer who would settle outstanding debts.
So this was it…’
Rumour said they’d travel up to London, wait a bit, then be “re-routed”. Abroad they guessed. The Front? Sam needed to speak to his brother:
‘At the station, I quickly found brother Ted at work loading stores on to the train, having volunteered for the Quartermaster’s detail. Not many civilians had telephones in those days, but we managed to persuade a sympathetic chap to let us into his home to use his and we got a message to our father in his office. We told him it seemed certain we were finally leaving England, but that our train would stop at Waterloo for some time before we set off. He promised to hurry home as early as possible and collect mother and then they would try to get to us at the railway station.
There suddenly welled up in me an unsuspected affection for our homeland. “Homeland”? The first time we had thought of calling it that. And the family always rather taken for granted — their value rocketed suddenly. Uncertainty as to when, if ever, we would see them again made this coming, improvised farewell terribly important…
Back at the billet… That last, rather sad day with the kindly Fluters passed with the dear lady feeding us far too liberally. When I regretfully left them that night, I took with me several of her gorgeous pasties. Lovely people. I would never forget them and intended, as I promised, to see them again as soon as possible.’
It turned out that Sam’s first duty that evening was to guard the train – against what, he couldn’t imagine – rather than travel on it:
‘During that dark night in the railway sidings, I had to make periodic inspections along one side of the several coaches placed in my care, a comrade doing a similar job on the other side. When resting, I could have one carriage door open and sit in the doorway on the step. The Sergeant visited us from time to time and, when you heard him approaching, it was important to be on your feet and keen.
Nothing happened and, when daylight began to cheer up the scene, most of us were allowed to take our ease in the station waiting rooms and drink some of the strong tea brewed on the coal fires there. I ate some of Mrs Fluter’s tasty food and had a couple of hours sleep on a long seat.
As the hours passed, I began to doubt the necessity of all the hurry to leave our billets and spend the night guarding an empty train. I felt unhappy at leaving the Fluters almost a day before I need have done. Others had their grievances too. So we grumbled and swore to relieve our feelings. A stranger might have thought he was witnessing the start of a mutiny. He might also have noticed that the approach of an officer effected a sudden reduction in the vocal noise, so perhaps rebellion was not exactly imminent.
But we had fallen victim to one of many blunders at the top which, throughout the war, made us call into question the parentage of officers from Field Marshals downwards. With a whole day to get through, our superiors had made no provision for feeding those of us who guarded the train all night and who now, for lack of orders, hung about the station and sidings. With no information about time of departure, we didn’t dare risk wandering off to look for somewhere to eat. No better informed, NCOs could not permit absence…
We had to devise an unofficial catering system. Four men would swiftly vanish over a fence and eat a hurried meal in a café a hundred yards or so along the road; one of our chaps lingered near the fence, ready to climb over and warn them should a quick return be necessary. Thus, we all in turn were supplied, but at our own expense, whereas the Army should have fed us without charge.’
Chatting with a comrade, Sam came to blame the Lieutenant Quartermaster for this neglect of basics. He’d had trouble with the man, then a Sergeant, on the day he volunteered the previous September – the comrade told Sam this man had “just one expression on that horrible face, it said ‘I hate you’” – and would encounter his malevolently careless ways again in foreign parts. Still, eventually, his hunger staved by Mrs Fluter’s last kindness, he and the Battalion got under way, Sam and Ted hoping they might yet be able to see their family and say goodbye:
‘The short journey to London took a long time. The railway controllers could have done without our long train running among the scheduled commuter traffic at peak hours so, where a line ran behind station buildings avoiding the platforms, they diverted us and left us standing there for long periods. It was evening before we reached Waterloo.
Within a moment of the train stopping, we had all piled out on to the platform, stretching ourselves and stamping our feet. The next order: “Men wishing to pump ship will be taken in groups to the lavatories by NCOs”. The train had no corridors, no sanitation, so groups quickly on the move were encouraged to hurry by shouts from those who had to wait for relief.
Men who hoped that family or friends might be trying to get to them for a last farewell gathered as close as possible to the platform gates. I spotted my parents, but at first we could only exchange a few shouted words. The crowd waiting outside the guarded gates looked surprisingly small, considering the hundreds of men involved…
As time passed, the majority of the troops made themselves comfortable and returned to their seats on the train. Now, as the platform cleared, officers and NCOs could see that, were a brief reunion of soldiers and their relatives permitted, it would not increase the risk of some demented soldier making off. Anyway, the watch on platform entrance and exits made that almost impossible. As I wandered about, waiting, I heard several discussions on the subject and noticed a general movement of officers towards the first-class coach in the middle of the train. Shortly, they called the NCOs to that coach and, in turn, the CSMs and Sergeants soon hurried back to their respective Companies to loudly announce that civilians would be allowed on the platform for the remaining half-hour or so till departure time.
I found Ted, then Harold joined us and so, unexpectedly, did dear old Len [Harold and Len: the Edmonton pals who’d volunteered with them]. With our mother and father, and Harold’s mum and dad, and his broad and beaming half-sister, Madge, we all relaxed.
Our family became far more talkative and forthcoming with each other than we had ever been before. No reticence — it no longer mattered that we should try to be witty, sarcastic, grudging in praise, proud of or ashamed of each other. Here were a few precious moments we could spend together before being parted for a long time. Or perhaps only a short time. But maybe forever.
We youngsters might possibly feel ashamed of this blatant display of affection at some later date, but at that moment natural feelings dominated. Even Dad smiled and chatted all the time and to each and every one of the party in turn. He noticed that quiet Len had no parent or friend to wish him farewell and so gave him special attention. Both families had brought gifts of food – sandwiches, cakes and fruit – and these they shared out equally between the four soldiers whose last minutes in London they were making so sweetly memorable.’
All the best — FSS
Next week: Sam sets sail from Southampton, the Bay of Biscay cuts up rough…
Sunday 18 January 2015
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A hundred years ago… apart from the continuing deadly grind on Western and Eastern Fronts, on January 19 (a Tuesday) German Zeppelins launched the first ever air attack on British soil, targetting King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth – nobody noting these events seems to say why. Five civilians died. The German Army’s airship squadron was down to four at this point, much depleted after European mainland raids found them vulnerable to everything from rifle bullets upwards. The war’s global eruptions continued with a rebellion against British colonialists in Nyasaland (now Malawi) crushed in three days, and a German victory over British and Indian troops at Jasin on the border of German East Africa (now Burundi, Rwanda and part of Tanzania) and British Easy Africa (now Kenya) – German commander von Lettow-Vorbeck felt his casualties, 286, were so high, in context, that he resolved to conduct no more full-on assaults but turn to guerilla warfare instead.
Meanwhile, my father, Sam, 16, his brother, Ted, 18 – so both under-age volunteers – their pals from Edmonton, north London, and the rest of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers billeted down in Tonbridge, Kent, got a week’s leave in mid-January – a real surprise as they’d just returned from a few days at home over Christmas…
Sam began this passage of his Memoir, as previous readers will know, in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”, as throughout his account of his childhood and teens (and Tonbridge he “disguised” as “Bunbridge”). He recalled his reaction to the leave announcement, which he described as being “on a vague understanding” that they would soon be sailing… for some destination unknown:
‘… something like an electric shock jarred Tommy’s nervous system – which proceeded to maintain a level of tension previously unknown to him.
This routine of life at Bunbridge had lulled him into accepting its pleasures as his lot for quite some time to come. Tommy lacked much in knowledge, little in imagination. As each new experience loomed, inward excitement — of various kinds — had to be concealed from his fellows by the assumed appearance of calm. He hoped no one ever detected the state of high nervousness in which he now existed. He aimed to appear interested, but not bothered, by what went on around him; keen enough, yet always willing to let a better man shine while he stepped aside.
He felt this method would make him no enemies, might even generate a spark of good will — and perhaps assist self-preservation under certain conditions.
That week passed like a dream. Playing at soldiers was over. If we were to cross to France we could be right up there at the Front within a day. Our wounded could be on their way back to hospital in England in less than a week, our dead comrades buried if lucky or, if not, lying smashed and cold under a sun or moon they couldn’t see.’
Yet, even through his anxiety, ever the observer, he had it in him to worry about the Company Lieutenant, a callow young fellow whom some clearly thought a bit of an upper-class twit… this passage being also the very first Sam wrote in the first person, via the temporary device of saying “let’s hear direct from Tommy” and proceeding to “quote” him for some pages (my father left school at 14 and wrote his Memoir in his 70s, so this was all part of him finding his feet as a writer):
‘The first day back at Bunbridge after leave… Once again I found myself being more concerned about young Lieutenant Swickenham. Recently some of the men, notably the older, coarser types, had begun to gain confidence in their ability to cope with soldiering and now asserted their thoughts and opinions loudly, as they had probably been used to doing in their former lives as civilians. So with the January weather chilly and young Swickenham, who marched at the head of the column of course, suffering a head cold, one humourist commenced bellowing “Our Lieutenant’s got a dewdrop on his nose” — to the tune of John Brown’s Body. Others joined in, inventing punchlines according to taste. The NCOs did nothing about it — apparently then, when the order to march at ease was given, license to insult an officer went with it. I felt this was all wrong and did not join in the singing, but made no comment on the subject.
The Lieutenant was a very serious young man, somewhat at a disadvantage with his apparent self-consciousness. But, one afternoon, he proved how much thought he had for the men’s welfare in spite of the mockery…’
And this did take courage; Swickenham took it on himself to talk to the men about VD… and show them some interesting and educational images of its more horrible effects:
‘He marched the Company to a local hall; a white screen faced the audience and a machine for projecting pictures rested on a table halfway along the middle gangway. Lieutenant Swickenham stood beside it, waiting till all sat quietly as they had done in childhood for a “magic-lantern show”* to begin.
Then his rather thin, but clear voice related how, some time previously, he had been a Midshipman in the British Navy. For health and other reasons he had to leave that service, but while abroad he had taken many photographs on plates. These pictures had now been coloured and he intended to show us a series he took when based, for a short time, on the island of Malta. As each picture appeared, he named and described buildings and places, including several beautiful beaches, colourful plantations and much attractive scenery.
Eventually, he admitted he’d really given this little picture show to capture the men’s interest before talking to them about the dangers and evils with which men travelling abroad for the first time must cope. In particular, soldiers just looking for entertainment would be tempted to visit places where cheap liquor and loose women might inflict sickness and diseases on them. Details of some of these diseases and magic-lantern illustrations of the effects they had on human bodies were received in complete silence, chilling men previously basking in the Lieutenant’s alluring images of a land of sunshine, luscious fruits, blue skies and cool seas.
Finally, the CSM offered thanks on behalf of all present to Lieutenant Swickenham who had, he explained, hired the hall at his own expense in order to help men who would shortly be leaving England.
Opinions afterwards differed about the show – and the sermon, as some called it. Some older men thought the officer had a nerve to preach to them about these matters, but all admitted surprise that the apparently shy youngster had carried out the self-imposed task so efficiently. For my part, Swickenham confirmed my regard and respect for him and I looked forward to serving under him abroad.
“But why,” many asked, “did he show us pictures of Malta of all places? There’s no war going on there.” Well, soon the affair was almost forgotten.’
* The “magic lantern”, developed in Europe from the 15th century onwards and a forerunner of the film projector, directed light through a sheet of glass to show painted or photographic images, still or, latterly, moving.
All the best — FSS
Next week: Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag… and get ready to say goodbye to your family for who knows where and who knows how long…