“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, 10 April 2016

What made Fusilier Sam the man he was, at 17, as he waits after Gallipoli and, though he doesn’t know it, before the Somme. Retrospective on his story so far…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Verdun remained the Western Front’s inferno, though disagreements among the German commanders about the effective balance of caution and aggression may have played a part in them having an unsuccessful seven days – the French Army repulsed the German at Meuse and Mort Homme (April 10), Douaumont-Vaux (11) and advanced south of that village (15).
    On Eastern Front, the Russian Army continued its run of handy victories at Dvinsk (April 12, Latvia) and Lake Naroch (14, now Belarus) against the Germans and likewise versus the Ottomans down in Armenia as their Trebizond Campaign neared a conclusion.
    In Turkey itself, British air attacks (flying from Mudros) on Constantinople and Adrianople probably comprised a rather flea-bite retaliation for the Gallipoli debacle. But down in German East Africa (now Tanzania/Rwanda/Burundi), the British Army and new ally Portugal, occupied Kionga (April 11, on the east coast), Kothersheim (12) and Salanga (14).
    Meanwhile, in Egypt, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted (19, lately converted from foot-slogging to horse wrangling, which proves highly relevant to this week’s excerpt), and their mates – the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d come through Gallipoli – remained encamped on the banks of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara at Beni Salama, 30 miles north-west of Cairo… waiting for whatever came next which, as usual, nobody was informing them about.


Last week, Sam enjoyed the last of his Battalion’s time in Egypt, taking the mickey out of the 53rd Welsh Division’s mail-voice choir, having a day at the races as the officers in camp pitted their mounts against one another – though also training hard as the Battalion’s survivors of Gallipoli fought for their life.
    At this point, though they didn’t know it, they were about to set sail for France, the Western Front… the Somme. It seems appropriate to pause the blog’s storytelling for a moment to look back on what made Sam, the 17-year-old boy, the man he was as he stood poised, in April 1916, between the Scylla of Gallipoli and the Charybdis of the Somme. It’s a good (long) read, but worth the retrospection I hope – or a nice introduction to new FootSoldierSam readers.
    To start at the very beginning, the early part of his Memoir records a few memories of 1900-01 (Sam born 1898) when his family was wealthy and then suddenly fell into “ruin” and basic working-class poverty:

‘The boy found they were living in a much poorer area. A row of houses, small Going out of the back door one came to a long, continuous yard common to all the houses. No dividing fences at all. Privies against the yard’s rear wall. The people were kindly to him and his brothers and sister. But worry and anxiety hung over all. Each day seemed dark and drab and dull in a heavy way, which only the weather in a Northern industrial town can contrive. So oppressive to a child.’

Soon they moved to London, still penniless. For Sam that experience began with an assault course on his accent by his Cockney classmates (my father wrote in the third person, calling himself Tommy at this stage):

‘The trouble really started when, for some reason, he had to say “photograph”. With his Mancunian vowels, it came out “phawtawgraph”, with a short, hard “a” in the final syllable. They all laughed – many, it seemed to him, with that mean, harsh, forced laugh children produce when they want to wound one of their fellows. “It’s ‘phoetoegraaph’!” one of them yelled and in a trice the whole class was chanting “Phoetoegraaph! Phoetoegraaph! Phoetoegraaph!” until [the teacher] Miss Tasket exerted her rather languid authority and quietened them, though saying only that the noise must stop without explaining that their mockery was wrong and cruel.’

But his natural curiosity fed his powers of observation and he lived vividly enough within himself, while the local vicar, Mr Frusher, became his mentor and led him into the delights of music – the choir and learning to play the piano – but also the practical outdoor skills fostered by the new Boy Scout movement. These, he realised, eventually made their own, no doubt accidental, connections with the needs of a country heading for war:

‘… after training at the church hall on Saturday afternoons, Tommy and other seniors could go to a rifle club where, for half an hour, they practised shooting on a covered range about 300 yards long, using old Army rifles (surplus from the Boer War, fitted with Morris tubes which allowed them to fire .22 ammunition). Supervisors checked their scores and entered them on competition cards… Mr Frusher also undertook courses in first aid. Adapting his instruction from the Red Cross manual, he paid a good deal of attention to treating wounds…
     … Scouting, Tommy realised, had taught him a good deal that would be useful to a soldier. He could help erect a tent, use a rifle, and communicate efficiently by semaphore or Morse code or a simple field telegraph. As a Patrol Leader, he had acquired the ability to stand up in front of a group of lads and give brief orders.
     If any of these things might appear to have been intended to prepare youngsters for military service this was certainly not the intention behind Mr Frusher’s work. As a practising Christian, at heart a pacifist, he never said anything to Scout meetings about the war scare and the training had nothing of a military character to it — no yelling of orders or foot-stamping drill.’

My father, like his beloved older brother Ted before him, left school at 14 because his parents couldn’t afford to pay for the exams which might have enabled him to stay on. He got a job as a junior office boy at a tin-mining company in the Liverpool Street area. At first, he relished the new experience. But two years on he’d become frustrated, even depressed about his prospects:

‘On Saturdays, for his half-day’s work Tommy had to get up just as early as on weekdays and hurry to catch the 7.18 train. On those days he often felt stale and played out. Leaving the office around 1pm, it seemed that he, his clothes, the big station, and the crowds rushing away from the City, were all dingy, condemned to a life of hopelessness and frustration.’

By then, though, it was the fine summer of 1914. War fever raised the national temperature even further, Sam/”Tommy” caught up in the fever like so many around him:

‘Without thinking too deeply, one could become part of this emotion and go about one’s daily activities lightened and illumined by a self-righteous glow. Probably the nation had smarted under the German threat hanging over their heads for some years. Tommy and his like caught the infection. To the enthusiastic, people who behaved and talked rationally or, at least, just as they had always done, seemed selfish, perhaps even scared. This national surge flowed through the millions of men who were more emotional than thoughtful… Tommy’s generation was experiencing the last of the great patriotic upsurges in this country. Wonderful while it lasted.’

Barely a month after the declaration of war against Germany in August, 1914, Sam/”Tommy”, aged 16, and Ted, 18, lied about their age and enlisted with the Royal Fusiliers. After that their first task was to persuade their father and mother not to shop them:

Later that evening, when father returned from work and mother told him the news, the brothers awaited the outcome of their discussion. Eventually, their parents called them together and told them they could agree to Ted staying in the Army, but they would have to get Tommy out. At this, Tommy played his trump card. He said he knew, strictly speaking, he’d done a very dishonest thing, but pointed out that his motives weren’t bad – and, finally, that he didn’t know what prison sentence would be inflicted on him for making a false declaration regarding his age… In conclusion, he pleaded with his parents for permission to carry on as a soldier for a time, at any rate, and prove he could do the job for which he had volunteered.
     Father talked of the physical strain a boy could suffer in trying to do the tasks expected of full-grown men. Still Tommy begged to be allowed to try. Then, perhaps, he won the day by explaining that in all, while living at home, he would be paid 21/- a week, a guinea. That is, 1/- a day soldier’s pay, plus 2/- a day subsistence money. That rate, though temporary, matched what many full-grown men earned — a very good wage, in fact, for unskilled work. Eventually, they agreed that Tommy should, for the moment, carry on soldiering.’

Rather to their surprise, the tyro Fusiliers went through a couple of months of square-bashing in London before moving to billets in Tonbridge where their duties largely involved digging a southern ring of trench defence around London – part prepare for the worst, part practice for the real thing in strategic terms, no doubt. Still no sign of rifles being issued; not enough to go round they were given to understand. When they sailed from Southampton on February 1, 1915, they presumed France and the Western Front would be their destination – nobody told them anything. But some ten days later they went ashore in Malta…
    There, Sam/”Tommy” had a rather lovely time, despite the continuance of often arduous training and, for the most part, accommodation in tents rather than barracks – the barracks, they were uncomfortably aware, having been converted in April or May to a hospital for Gallipoli casualties. He loved the sights and sounds of his first foreign country from the moment he stepped ashore:

‘… thrilling to every new sensation, he scanned the long waterfront: buildings all of the light-coloured stone he found so pleasing, among them one or two shops, the names above their windows emphasising the exciting foreignness of the place – “Mateoti,” for instance, what did that mean?*; next door to that a homely touch, The Seamen’s Mission; a cab with curtained windows clattered by, drawn by a skinny horse, its bones too prominent, the sallow-faced driver wearing a floppy hat, a dark red shirt and very old trousers, his feet bare…’
* In fact, a Maltese friend advises me that “Mateoti” wasn’t a trade, but the tradesman’s name.

His excited reactions to every hint of the exotic remind me that my father’s travels in WW1 comprised the only “trip” abroad he ever took – true for the majority of his working-class contemporaries, of course. But he also felt the pleasures of sights and sunshine in Malta mitigated by fear that he might at any moment be exposed as under-age i.e. an attested law-breaking liar and by a background unease that he should be enjoying this (rather rigourous) holiday while others fought and died.
    But the latter concern got taken care of soon enough. First came real rifles – albeit the old, long Lee-Enfields – and training in their use. In one passage, Sam – now switched to first-person for the rest of the book – explained the intricacies of the mechanism, then remarked:

‘Now, dear reader, you are almost as proficient as I was in the mechanics of a lethal weapon and probably hoping, as I was, that you may never have to shoot a fellow human. You may say so freely, but I kept my trap shut, perforce.’

Then came the daunting day for every young soldier, his debut at the butts with live ammunition. Sam’s instructor lay right beside him muttering instructions – and the occasional mild sarcasm:

‘No need to hurry for the first exercise, he stressed, just concentrate on every detail of what you have practised. Although the gun is stronger than you, you be the master… I took aim — the target, at 400 yards initially, represented the appearance of a man’s head and shoulders, grey with no white background to help the marksman’s focus… I pressed the butt back hard and, with thumb against trigger guard, forefinger on trigger, I squeezed. Nothing happened.
     “What about the safety catch?” my trainer asked quietly. My right hand fumbled about and pressed the catch forward. Back to firing position, trigger squeezed… and for a fraction of a second the gun came alive with awful power. The jolt almost detached my head from my shoulders, the explosion deafened me, the shock shot through my whole body.
     Firing .22s with the Scouts had not remotely prepared me and I had to repeat that shattering experience between 50 and 60 times that day. The old long Lee-Enfield was the very devil, a hellish shoulder-bruiser.’

The Battalion finally left Malta on August 27 and enjoyed a brief stopover in Egypt – my father taking advantage of the odd free day to visit Cairo and the Pyramids… and refuse the offer of a prostitute as he did on several occasions throughout the war, the Boy Scout in him shining through on all such occasions. Then they sailed for Gallipoli on September 17 and within a week my father had his first experience of the battlefield – at first, from a safe-ish distance on a small ship approaching the Turkish coast:

‘… on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare.’
     They transferred to lighter and moved closer, Sam encountering his own chemical reaction to increasing fear:
‘A howl became a shriek, then a shattering explosion – and a short silence was followed by numerous thuds as what had gone up came down on the nearby beach. While still at sea I heard for the first time that sad, though urgent call, “Stretcher-bearers!” A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards seemed to produce an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body.’

Once they’d landed under sporadic rifle and shell fire, run up the beach and begun a series of short forward moves, sheltering behind a ridge as much as possible, Sam encountered his first death:

‘We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head. Had he been standing up, that bullet would presumably have damaged a foot or ankle. Stretcher-bearers carried him to the beach.
     Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney; a victim of random firing, not an aimed shot…’

It didn’t take long for the Battalion to fall into the declining Gallipoli campaign’s atmosphere of despondency. Sam felt it miserably, while enduring a wide range of suffering from deplorable victualling and water shortages, to the relentless attentions of lice and near-death from an infected centipede bite, to the horror of the late November blizzard. At that point, stationed for weeks on end with one other man in a hole in the ground – the Signalling post – on top of a hill overlooking the Turkish lines he ran out of food entirely and went down to Battalion HQ where he found this sorry sight:

‘A dreadful sight confronted me when I reached low-lying Essex Ravine. Rising water had forced our men to quit their trenches and, already very chilled and wet, stand exposed to the biting cold wind and sleet with nowhere to rest. Their resourceful officer told them to form circles and bend forwards with arms around each other’s shoulders. He and others then covered each circular group with their rubberised groundsheets tucked in here and there to prevent them being blown away. Thus they stood all night, pressed close for warmth, and most of them were still in that situation when I arrived.’

But I’ll conclude these snapshots of some of the events that went into forming his character as, still only 17, he began the journey that led him to the Somme with this description of almost insouciant derring-do – I locate at the end of this blog in a way because it’s so hard to see this young chancer as my solid, stoic father, already in his middle years (49) when I was born. This is how, after the blizzard, Sam fetched melt-water from an adjoining trench:

‘… fetching it became risky because a sniper had spotted my movements as I darted hither and thither to fox his aim.
     I carried a can to which I had tied a length of string to lower it into the trench. I would climb out of our trench and dash several yards, freeze there for a moment while I pictured John Turk taking aim at me, then make another short dash while the bullet smacked somewhere behind me. One more pause, then run to the trench, lower and raise the can, and return via another pause or two before a final, fearful charge back to and into our trench, having retained as much water in the can as possible. The bullets always seemed to arrive at the spot near where I had last paused. But I was careful to operate in poor light, morning and evening, because I had rightly assumed that the sniper was a good shot…’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and the 2/1st Fusiliers sail for France! Wine, women and… the Western Front.

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