“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, 4 December 2016

Sam the “skilful creeper” obeys orders like a good boy… back in Blighty still grapples with post-front-line guilt versus the joys of not being shot at for a while.

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the big news in Britain was political: infighting among the ruling coalition resulted in the long-standing Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith resigning (December 5) to be replaced by… well, for a few hours, the nominee was Conservative Bonar Law (actually PM in 1922-3), but further manoeuvring saw Liberal Lloyd George come out on top (6).
    A FootSoldierSam note on the grand historical developments here… Recalling ruminations in a Gallipoli trench, my father opined that “ordinary people generally thought the Prime Minister an adequate man, but nothing more”. And, as you may recollect if you read the Blog on July 24, 2016, Lloyd George didn’t quite know my father – that is, after 18 months without home leave, including Gallipoli and the Somme, Sam wrote to his father suggesting he appeal to the War Minister himself to give him a break… and this did indeed happen, in August, followed, to his even greater surprise, by the official “discovery” that he was still underage for the battlefield and his consequent temporary withdrawal therefrom.
    But back to major events… to and fro French-German combat continued around Verdun, and in the snows of the Eastern Front between the Russian and German Armies at Stanislau and Tarnopol (December 4, Galicia straddling the Ukraine-Poland border) and in Bukovina (8, Romania-Ukraine border).
    Despite persistent resistance from Romanian and Russian forces, the Germans took Bucharest (December 6) and the national Government decamped to Iași on the northeastern border.
    In Macedonia, the Monastir Offensive (September 12-December 11), successfully completed by Serbian and French troops took fighting east and north of that city, with the Bulgarians starting to hit back after a long period of defeat and retreat.
    This campaign, pressing north from Salonika, seems to have occurred regardless of Greek political turmoil – but this week saw something of a resolution with fighting in Athens between supporters of the elected Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos (1910-20 and 1928-33) and royalists. This saw Allied troops get embroiled in the uproar, landing and embarking again, before their potent support for Venizelos resolved the matter pro tem.
    And then down on the Red Sea, Ottoman Turks tried to retake the port of Yanbu (December 1-11) from the Arab rebels who had captured it five months earlier – but the attack was beaten back by Arab troops and a British contingent led by TE Lawrence and/or Field Marshall Edmund Allenby (previously CO of the Gommecourt sector of the Somme where my father’s Kensington’s Battalion was shot to pieces on July1).

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 – he was 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 wished all right – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a surprise, temporary move into a Quartermaster’s catering scam which introduces him to his future métier, as a market trader. But the Army’s next plan for him, as usual, caught him on the hop: back to Blighty, his old 2/1st HQ near King’s Cross station and living at home – for a few weeks anyway.

Last week, Sam left the, to him, sweet live of buying food in Le Havre and selling it to the Tommies at Harfleur camp. And his arrival back home brought the good news that older brother Ted – whom he’d enlisted with – though last seen about to charge out into No Man’s Land to rescue a popular Sergeant, had survived and joined the Field Survey Company (spotters and mappers of enemy artillery).
    Now he gets stuck into into being at a loose end as energetically as he can:

‘Financially, living at home was all right, with a good subsistence allowance drawn weekly. My days soon settled down to an almost civilian routine.
     I took the bus from Edmonton every morning at about 8.15, arrived at the depot 10 or 15 minutes before the required time and did as the Sergeant requested. At first, the place was empty and all I did was dust the furniture, desk, bureau etc, in the big office upstairs, and perhaps sweep out the large drill hall once a week. Really, a matter of killing time.
     Then 10 or 12 men reported for duty, passing through on their way from hospital, I gathered. They had all suffered severe wounds and required treatment in England, but recovered and convalesced to the point of near-readiness for active service. However, for no reason that I knew of, there was no unseemly haste to put them back in the front line.
     The arrival of these chappies posed a problem for the old Sergeant, one he was not slow to unload. “Corporal,” he said to me, “commencing next Monday morning, I want you to put these men through some drill. They’ve been away from their units for a considerable time, so gentle reintroduction to parade-ground disciplines will be good for them and give them something interesting to be getting on with.”
     Having learnt that quiet acceptance of what the person in authority said at any particular moment best suited my case, I quietly obeyed. I probably reasoned that, if I behaved in an agreeable manner, the people running the depot might even become glad to have me around… There was probably no more skilful creeper around than I designed to be. I gave good service and hoped to please…
     Yet, all the time, I felt aware of an inner bewilderment. “I’m here,” I would think, “safe and comfortable in dear old England, whereas a certain amount of conceit, a need to appear heroic, could have landed me in a situation where life was cheap, death and injury occurrences of every day.”**
     And still I enjoyed this break from the wretched circumstances of a Tommy on the front line. I didn’t have to grind any axe, merely obey orders – albeit I knew this would not last forever: someone in a department of the War Office called “Records” kept tabs on my movements and, on a given day, would lift my card from the file, note my age and send an order through “channels” to the man in charge of wherever I happened to be that I should return once more to where the action was.
     But, meanwhile, if compliance could defer that regrettable moment I would try to be a good boy… No medals were ever struck for soldiers with ambitions as humble as mine; there again, you can’t enjoy wearing pretty medals if you’re kaput, hors de combat, disabled, call it what you will.
     Back to the Sergeant’s request that I should put my new comrades through a little smartening-up drill. “Well, Sarge,” I asked, “where shall I give them this drill?” “Where do you think? Round at the Foundlings, of course.” That big, open area in front of the Foundlings Hospital***. Back to the old times with a vengeance.’
** My father is referring to the decision suddenly presented to him on the Somme. The RSM, whom he much respected, said that his age had come to official notice (via his father, Sam knew) so he could leave the Front. Or the RSM could wangle it for him to stay with his comrades. Frazzled after being on the front line in Gallipoli and for most of the Somme campaign – “This war had got right up my nose,” he wrote at one point – he decided to take the loss of face with the RSM, and others, and told him: “If that order has come through, then it is the wish of my father that I should follow it and, as he’s done this for me, I’ll go along with whatever the order says must happen.” He remained deeply uneasy about it until his return to the Western Front in December, 1917. But, as he writes here, he also candidly preferred not being in constant danger of death from shot and shell.
*** Back in September-October 1914, when Sam joined the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers at 16 with brother Ted, then 18, they squarebashed around the Foundlings courtyard and also conducted their early pay parades there. Founded in 1741 by sea Captain Thomas Coram., the Foundling Hospital served as a children’s home dedicated to ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. It was a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. Supporters included Handel and Hogarth. Now, the building is long gone (demolished 1926), but the courtyard and sheltered walkways remain, the grounds known as Coram’s Fields and, appropriately, used as a playground.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam leads his platoon of recovering wounded in a little light drill, extended lunches and early home – the dark cloud being that these men had seen several of his old 2/1st officers killed in action, apparently including the Battalion’s beloved CO in Gallipoli, Major Harry Nathan (later Lord Nathan in Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government). But then Sam’s ordered to move on…

* 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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