“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, 11 December 2016

Sam enjoys leading a little light drill with some recovering wounded – and performs self-demotion…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… New British Prime Minister Lloyd George had no sooner appointed his coalition Ministers (December 11), than the Central Powers alliance wrote to all the Entente Allies’ Governments saying they were ready to negotiate peace. It seems no immediate reply was forthcoming, although one French politician is said to have looked at the Central Powers’ terms and declared that the message was “Heads I win, tails you lose”.
    Over on the battlefield, the Western Front hadn’t shut up shop for winter. Heavy artillery exchanges on the Somme (December 11-13) suggested a resumption of business as usual at the first glimmering of spring, while at Verdun a French bombardment developed into a major attack (15) gaining two miles, remarkable in trench warfare context, and including the capture of Vasherauville, Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Les Chambrettes.
    The Russian Army, so overstretched in its efforts for the Alliance, still contested the Eastern Front in fighting around Tarnopol and Stanislau (December 12, Bukovina – around the Romania-Ukraine border). However, with the Romanians, they rallied briefly against the German onslaught north of Bucharest before retreating again (12-15).
    The Allied offensive in Macedonia hit renewed resistance from the Bulgarian invaders around Monastir (December 12-14), but further south the British defeated them on the River Struma (15). A terrible incident of little strategic importance saw the old Italian trainer battleship Regina Margherita sunk off Valona, Albania – mines laid by a German U-boat killed 675 men (December 11).
    Much further south, on the Tigris, a British force advanced to within a few kilometres of Kut (December 13), the riverside stronghold they’d lost nine months earlier.

Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, had fought on the Somme Front with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt then around Leuze Wood and Morval (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age – 18 on July 6 – had been officially noticed, he was legally too young for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He certainly did – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a temporary move into a Quartermaster’s catering scam (which introduced him to his future métier, as a market trader). Then the Army caught him on the hop again: shipped him back to Blighty, for a few weeks based at his old 2/1st HQ near King’s Cross station – living at home the while…

Last week, back in London, Sam settled into yessir-nosirring the rather creaky Royal Fusiliers Sergeant manning the old depot with a view to sustaining his quiet life post Gallipoli and The Somme until his 19th birthday (or beyond it, he didn’t mind if the Army failed to notice) – despite continuing unease with thoughts of his recent comrades still out there on the Western Front “where life was cheap, death and injury occurrences of every day”.
    He even had a job of sorts. A group of a dozen now recovered wounded soldiers were attached to the place for, well, unspecified purposes, so the Sergeant asked Sam to out them through a little light drill on the very parade ground at the Foundlings Hospital (now Coram’s Fields children’s playground) where he had squarebashed through his first weeks as an innocent recruit in September, 1914 – though this casual time-passing did lead Sam to terrible news of some of his former Royal Fusiliers officers:

‘On the Monday morning, I gathered my small group together and told them what was proposed, and that they would have to report to the depot until new orders came through for them. I gave them to understand that I was no pushing, ambitious Corporal, no Field Marshal’s baton in my knapsack; that, in fact, I was determined to lose the stripes I had on my arm at the moment*.
     They understood perfectly and promised they’d give me their support in case we were watched at any time. We’d put on a smart, little drill show for a short period in the morning, take a couple of hours for lunch, then provide another small show in the afternoon, marching round and round and stamping our feet, then back to the depot, sign off, and go home.
     This we did, observed or not. My suggestion that we strip off tunics and caps for half an hour and do a spot of physical training went down well too. So we established a neat, little routine. I guess the Sergeant had to resume dusting round the depot himself, for I don’t think he had much else to do. In truth, I believe we took pleasure in this brief daily return to working, however lightly, on our old Foundlings pitch. People would stop by the huge wrought-iron gates and gaze through… and what were their thoughts? I trust they didn’t gloomily conclude we were the last remaining members of the Great British Army.
     I had several enjoyable chats with these fellows and heard with interest and sympathy of their experiences in action. Once, I mentioned to them our young Signals officer, Lieutenant Wickinson, who joined us on the edge of the desert in Egypt and took charge of our section – I’d spent several amiable off-duty hours with him, discussing what the work should be the next day… “Oh yes, I knew him,” said one. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that I saw him killed. He was ahead of me walking along a road in an advanced situation – there one moment and gone the next, a direct hit by a shell, he just vanished.”
     Another chap gave me news of the rather elderly man, Captain Boden**, who’d been my Company officer in the original Battalion from the time we landed in Malta. He’d joined another Regiment after we were disbanded in Rouen and, very shortly after reaching the front line, he too was killed. I also learned that dear old Major Booth, of whom I’ve said so much – a comparatively young man really, of course – had been wounded in the head; it was assumed that he too had died***. None of these sad items set me deeply longing to go back out there where living was really dangerous.
     Our routine at the Foundlings continued, quite happily, for some time. One by one, though, members of my temporary Platoon left. They received their orders and, I understood, headed back in the general direction of France. Sorry, in several respects, to see my little army’s disintegration, I still felt eager to discover what next would come my way – given I remained a few months too young for the Western Front.
     When my own marching orders did come, they sent me northwards. I collected a railway warrant, said my goodbyes at home once more, hoisted the kitbag on my shoulder and caught a train from Kings Cross – having first taken the precaution of removing one of my stripes. Thus, to my own satisfaction at least, I reduced myself to the rank of Lance Corporal – than which one cannot get much lower.’
* Sam detested being in a position to order men around. On the Somme, he’d tried to persuade the RSM not to promote him, then nearly gone up on a charge for not adding his second stripe as instructed (see Blog for June 19, 2016). Hence the unofficial, but effective, self-demotion in the final paragraph here.
** Captain Boden joined my father’s H Company in the 2/1st on their voyage to Malta (see Blog for February 22, 2015).
***“Major Booth”, you may recall, being my father’s alias for Major Harry Nathan; more of these events much later.

All the best – FSS

Next week: And so to Harrogate for Sam – where he and other underagers find themselves allocated to the much reviled “Lost Division” who, according to the scandal sheets, had never yet served their turn at the Front. They believe the slanderous rumour and feel degraded… except that Harrogate turns out to be rather nice.

* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.

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