“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, 18 January 2015

Sam and the lads get a lantern lecture on VD – and Malta?

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Dear all

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…

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