“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, 5 April 2015

Sam’s Fusiliers in Malta: the strange case of the boxing glove in the night

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… today the First Battle Of Woëvre began (April 5-May 5, in Lorraine) – a French Army attempt to recover ground lost to the German Army the previous autumn and restore rail and road links to Verdun. Beyond the bloody to and fro on the Western Front, down in the Eastern Mediterranean the two warring alliances continued sparring three weeks before the Allies’ strategists threw their neon-lit telegraphed punch and landed at Gallipoli: a section of the Indian Expeditionary Force sailed for the Dardanelles from Egypt (7th); the Allies offered Turkish Smyrna and its hinterland to Greece if they would join in (12th); the French Government assured Russia they recognised its claim to Constantinople (12th – the Ottoman Empire may not have been consulted on that one).
      Meanwhile, the then Great War’s global creep proceeded with the Battle of Shaiba, Mesopotamia (12th, British and Indian forces successfully defending Basra against Ottoman recapture; total casualties about 4,000 men), and a Congo-based Belgian advance on Yaunde, Cameroons, a German colony since 1884 (12th again, busy day).
      Over in Malta, though, lodged comfortably enough at St George's Barracks, north of Valletta, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was feeling lucky. A thousand volunteers, including 16-year-old Sam’s brother Ted, 18, and their two mates from Edmonton, north London, Len Winns and Harold Mellow, hardly any of them had ever been abroad before and here they were settling into this lovely island, sun, sea… when, on the day they’d sailed from Southampton, they’d expected to be manning a Western Front trench within hours.

In last week’s excerpt, Sam wrote about his recurring fears that his age would be revealed, resulting in, at best, sending home and separation from his brother (who was his hero too), at worst prosecution and imprisonment for swearing a false oath. But soon he started to feel that even those who regarded him with suspicion had come to accept him. This Fusiliers, as you might guess, expressed their approval by making him the first victim of a spate of practical jokes – at least he gladly took it that way. (NB new readers, in this first part of the Memoir Sam wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”.) As my father recalled:

‘It happened one night, after lights out. Some talking went on for a while, followed by comparative silence with the occasional bump, grunt, or snore. Tired Tommy slept… until something he could not identify woke him with pulse racing and a sense of shock, eyes wide open, but the room black dark. He did not yell or speak, just lay there trying to decide what had disturbed him. Smack! Something struck him in the face and he shouted in protest. Responses varied from “What’s up, mate?” to “Go to sleep!” and “Shut up!” So he told them something or someone had hit him. Accused of having bad dreams, he said no more. But when another light blow landed on him, someone laughed.
     Wide enough awake to judge from which part of the room it came, Tommy said nothing, feigned sleep, and for some time all was well. Then the joker struck once more, but the lad grabbed at the offending object and found himself holding what, from the feel of it, he guessed was a boxing glove… attached to a thread. Tommy snapped it with a smart jerk and flung the glove in the direction from which the laughter had come. As this elicited a loud curse and some threats, he lay doggo, feeling he had not come out of the lark too badly.
     Daylight revealed a strong, black thread passing over a bracket supporting the shelf above him and stretching over other brackets to a bed at the end of the row. Private Willis had been the joker, raising and releasing the glove.
     Interested blokes wracked their brains in devising further funny tortures with which to enliven the first hour or so after lights out each night. Grown men these, but in many cases sharing a large dormitory with other males for the first time; they perhaps felt impelled to behave like boys they had read about in The Magnet and The Gem weeklies*.
     One man discovered that the beds could be taken to pieces; so if the legs were detached and re-placed in position so that it looked normal, of course, it collapsed as soon as the occupant sat down on it too forcefully or rolled over in his sleep. One evening, while others lingered in the canteen or perhaps, having avoided detection, sampled the wines in some drink shop down the road, our funny men faked about half the beds. Those who came home first had their crashes and either laughed or cursed as they considered appropriate, Tommy among them. But two or three who returned after lights-out were landed with wrecked beds in pitch darkness, and their boozy efforts to reconstruct them kept the other men amused for some time, until the victims settled for sleeping at floor level.
     No harm done, but the less ebullient of the roommates complained about this childish conduct. A conference next day decided that they’d all had sufficient of these larks and bed-wrecking was out. All settled down quietly that night… until, around midnight, a crash broke their slumbers. Striking of matches revealed three beds with front legs collapsed. Because the back legs hadn’t been tampered with, the beds stood for some time then, a little after lights-out, someone crept about passing a rope round each unsecured leg, then pulled hard. Real anger erupted, and nobody admitted responsibility.
     That was almost the end of comedy japes and men once more became as adults. With one exception, that is. The Orderly Sergeant doing his rounds, rousing men at 6.30 one morning realised just how unpopular he was when someone (well, there must have been two of them) tipped the piss-tub over him from the balcony high above.
     No one confessed so the innocent suffered with the guilty when Captain Boden ordered H Company confined to barracks for several days and had them march up and down the square during the mid-day hours when they would have been resting. Thereafter, Tommy’s comrades lived the high life, if any, outside the barrack room. Within, they just rested or ate their meals. Happy day.’

* The Magnet, a weekly “story book”, ran from 1908 to 1940, carrying the Greyfriars School stories featuring Billy Bunter, written by Frank Richards (real name Charles Hamilton, 1876-1961); The Gem was published from 1907 to 1939, its main story about another public school, St Jim’s, its hero Tom Merry, the author again Hamilton, here nom-de-plumed Martin Clifford; Amalgamated Press published both weeklies and, according to Wikipedia, World War II killed them off, because of paper shortages.

All the best – FSS

Next week: At last the Fusiliers drop their woolly long johns, get tropical gear – and visit their tailors…

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