“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, 25 December 2016

Sam’s Memoir medley of Christmases from before and during the Great War. Part 1: aged nine and a nice time with his pal Reg, plus Christmas 1914 causes a near-mutiny in Tonbridge…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross

For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Tidings of comfort and joy did not abound, despite a considerable diminution in the fighting on most Fronts because of winter. Quite specifically, the Allies rejected the perhaps-none-too-heavenly peace proposals put up by the Central Powers; despite US President Woodrow Wilson’s willingness to broker negotiations, the Allies’ London conference beginning on December 26 had reached “No” by the 30th – in part because the terms proffered seemed to favour their enemies outlandishly, maybe in part because of over-confidence that victory was imminent (any number of other reasons might be adduced too, no doubt).
    So the French had to deal with a German artillery attack at Mort Homme, Verdun (December 28), while, on the Eastern Front, a Russian/Latvia force had a great success in The Christmas Battles (23-29) taking Jelgava, Latvia. However, the Russian and Romanian Armies continued to suffer daily defeats despite fierce resistance as they retreated across eastern Romania (26-30) pursued by German, Bulgar and Turkish troops. (Around this time, Tsar Nicholas II’s notorious “advisor” Rasputin was murdered in Moscow – I’ve seen the date of his death quoted as December 19, 21, 29 and 30, so take your pick).
    No substantial action noted anywhere else, though in a quiet week the outline histories take time to note that the French and British administratively divided Togoland, which they’d taken unopposed from Germany back in August 1914.

Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London – after the 2/1st’s bitterly contested disbandment – had fought on the Somme Front with the Kensingtons 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, then the Army shipped him back to Blighty, for a few weeks based at his old 2/1st HQ near King’s Cross station – and living at home again. His next move took him up North…

Last week, my father and a group of fellow underagers were posted to Harrogate, where they found themselves dossing on a dusty floor while very conscious of the genteel wealth that surrounded them. And then they found further cause for unease when they discovered – or credited fake rumours served up by later notorious but as yet unexposed fraudster and magazine publisher Horatio Bottomley MP – that they had joined the “Lost” or maybe “Forgotten Division” which had allegedly spent more than two years at home and never set foot in any war zone.
    But we’ll leave Sam and pals pondering that situation for the next couple of weeks. Because it’s Christmas and he wrote nothing in his Memoir about the 1916 festivities – just not memorable I guess. Instead I’ll put together a chunky blog out of stories of earlier Christmases, one from his childhood, then his first in uniform after joining up in September, 1914 – a tale of near-mutiny this – and finally, next week, Christmas and New Year in Gallipoli, 1915.
    Sam had a rather joyless childhood through poverty and family tensions arising from it, so no Yule recollections from his early years. But this story of Christmas with his friend Reg comes up when he was maybe nine (NB this is back to the first part of the Memoir where he wrote about himself in the third person and called himself “Tommy”). A little scene-setting to begin with:

‘Tommy’s friends, in the main, came from the Scouts or the choir. One was Reg Curtis. In his family it was the custom to wear your hair long. Reg’s Dad and three brothers had thick, wavy hair; I doubt if the father would have let a barber lay his hands on any of them. When Tommy got to know them he realised what a close-knit group they were – the father a deeply religious man with a generous nature, rather dark of countenance, jet-black hair, a cobbler by trade, running a fairly large shop. As soon as the children grew capable of picking up a hammer or a knife, he taught them this craft. But he didn’t overwork them. Nothing of slavery about it. When Tommy went in there he knew at once this was a happy place and a happy home.
     One Christmas, they invited Tommy into the family celebration. Reg’s father had a phonograph and he’d bought one of those early records – mainly of a religious, sacred character the tunes were, Jerusalem and similar things. They all made free with the Christmas fare and the happiness there was a revelation to Tommy. Reg shared with him the affection which permeated the family, the brothers and Dad. I don’t mention Mum because, curiously, she remained in the background and Tommy seldom saw her.’

That special Christmas had a little sequel after Sam/”Tommy” left school and started work as a junior office boy for a company based near Liverpool Street. In town he met another of his friend Reg’s party guests, Bessie Dibbs, and  reminiscence led on to Sam’s first glimmer of romance:

‘He hadn’t seen her for several years since, as children of eight or nine, they’d played postman’s knock at a Christmas party her brother Reggie had invited him to. The game involved a boy choosing a girl, or vice versa – Tommy seemed to recall that Bessie had picked him, he couldn’t imagine why – then the two would leave the room to kiss and cuddle (if agreeable) while those left behind giggled and then, on the couple’s return, made saucy comments on what they might have got up to out in the hallway. Now here they were, 15 and meeting again.
     She sat beside him and they talked as much as they could in a crowded compartment full of people smoking. They alighted at the same stop, of course, and walked together until their ways parted. But when they said their good evenings, Bessie suggested Tommy might let her have his firm’s telephone number so she could ring him up for a chat. Rather weakly, Tommy agreed. A day or so later, she called and he was very glad he happened to be on the switchboard to pick it up.’

In the way of such hesitant early steps, the flirtation soon ended in embarrassment for Sam.
    But onwards, probably no more than 18 months, to Christmas 1914; 2/1st Royal Fusiliers Sam and older brother Ted (also underage at 18) were billeted in Tonbridge while training and digging the south-of-London ring of defensive trenches. Here’s how a proper British Army cock-up did eventually turn into a lovely Christmas at home for the brothers and their comrades:

‘As Christmas 1914 approached, and it appeared likely the Battalion would remain in England during the holiday, the chaps began to speculate about whether they would be allowed home. “They’re sure to grant two or three days leave,” was the general opinion. So warming anticipation of reunions with families gave rise to a happiness which permeated all the men. Officers must have noticed the prevailing joyfulness but, perhaps, did not realise what caused it.
    An announcement that Christmas Eve would be free of parades and work contained no reference to leave of absence. Puzzlement and doubt replaced anticipatory elation. Then, as groups of men discussed the strange silence about Christmas plans, anger caused some men to threaten to go home without permission. “But that would be a crime, either desertion with trial by court martial or else a charge of being absent without leave” – so cautious men told the impatient ones.
    It developed into a serious situation; on the morning of Christmas Eve, no guidance having come from above, a large number of men gathered on the London platform at the railway station. They had bought their tickets and were now committing their threatened breach of military discipline. But somebody had informed the RSM about the looming exodus and his powerful voice could be heard ordering all men to return to their billets.
    Most anxious not to provide authority with any excuse for questioning his stated age and discharging him, Tommy had not made a decision about joining this rebellion. He had found a position outside the station from which he observed the following scene, and even heard much of what was said.
    He saw no general movement by the, shall we say, insurgents to leave the platform and, quite suddenly, the booming voice of the RSM fell silent. All faces turned towards the station entrance. The Colonel marched in with a substantial group of officers, followed by porters carrying a large number of bags. The party stopped abruptly at the sight of the assembled troops.
    The Colonel’s face expressed great surprise, as Tommy could clearly see. Then he turned to confer with Captain Blunt, his adjutant. Other officers moved in closer and there was much quiet discussion.
    Some Privates standing nearby were called forward and, like good soldiers, all saluted correctly together, straight and upright, eyes looking straight ahead and not at the officers asking the questions. They may have contemplated doing a bunk, thought Tommy, but they had remembered their training. Soon the men saluted, turned about and rejoined their comrades. Then the Colonel came forward and addressed the men.
    A terrific cheer followed his speech so Tommy readily guessed its import. He climbed down from his perch, passed through an open gate on into the station coal depot and crossed several railway lines till he came to iron railings and called to men on the platform, asking for information.
    He learnt that the amateur officers had made their first major blunder. They had taken no thought of what was to happen to their men during the Christmas festivities. Vaguely, they had assumed that the rank and file would remain mostly in their billets and take meals with the families. For a start, this rather haughtily assumed that those families would or could supply Christmas fare for comparative strangers and also took for granted that the soldiers would wish to remain in billets in such awkward circumstances. Yet the officers themselves had no doubt as to where they were going to spend the holiday.
    Of course, not all the men had gathered at the railway station, so volunteers offered to go to each CSM and pass on the good news: two-day leave had been granted to all. Thus, the remainder of the men would travel to town by the next train – as Tommy resolved to do.
    Hurrying back to Leigh Drive, he yelled the good news about Christmas leave to the few men he passed. Mrs Fluter, kindliest of women, said she could have managed easily had the lads been staying over the holiday and she thought her husband might even be disappointed that they were not to share the good times together. Tommy had not seen Churniston** since breakfast, but assumed he also would travel to London. No worry on that score, said Mrs F; she would tell him about the unexpected two days off.
    A few hours later, Tommy received cheerful greetings at home and found Ted already there, as he’d expected. “Bet your life I got on that first train,” he said. “We knew there would be nothing to do during Christmas, and no order had been given to forbid us leaving Bunbridge***, so we were on our way regardless. The officers must have felt foolish when they realised they hadn’t given any instructions as to what we should do during the next two days. Still, who’s grumbling, eh?”
    With money in their pockets, the brothers bought a turkey in the market place along with fruit, sweets… and Turkish cigarettes, probably costing 4d for ten instead of the usual 2d for English – their rich aroma seemed to lend an air of opulence to that small home.
    So they all settled down to spend a really happy Christmas together. This might be the last family gathering for several years and, for once, all of them did their utmost to make the occasion memorable – starting that night with the collective manufacture of decorative chains from strips of coloured paper and flour paste. A gay touch in the living room.
    Mother spent much time at the coal-fired, cooking range. It took skill to stoke it and arrange the dampers so that pots of vegetables on top kept boiling while the bird and stuffing in the oven roasted without burning.
    Pa had bought a bottle of cheap claret, a favourite of mother’s though, to put it mildly, a bit sharp for the tastes of the youngsters. But all protested that they liked it. Drinking some fizzy mineral water, of which they’d bought several large bottles – “penny monsters” – soon softened its harshness. What with playing games, telling yarns about Army experiences, and resting between unusually large meals, the hours passed quickly.
    They all praised Ma’s cooking and even Dad put aside the load of worry which always appeared to be crushing him… and smiled occasionally. The war was hardly mentioned, although this Christmas should have marked the end of hostilities according to many forecasters. Everyone knew it was not going well, and flickers of fear disturbed even reasonably optimistic people.
     But, just for the moment, self-indulgence quite rightly ousted serious thinking and all felt the happier for trying to encourage forgetfulness and joyfulness among others.’
** Churniston was his billet-mate at the Fluters.
*** My father’s alias for Tonbridge. He liked an alias – sometimes to spare living relatives pain or embarrassment and sometimes, as in this case for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

Seasonal all the bests – FSS

Next week: A surprisingly sumptuous Christmas and New Year at Gallipoli – between evacuations.

* 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment