“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, 29 January 2017

For Sam, Mac and the toboggan girls very proper 1910s “romances” shyly blossom – until Sam’s soldierly honour/innocence/Boy Scout morality chances on an unbearable embarrassment…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The big switch of strategy came with Germany announcing a resumption of “unrestricted” submarine warfare (February 1, 1917) – they’d generally limited attacks to Naval and other armed ships since September, 1915, but now they said everything in the war zone was fair game including hospital ships and, crucially, neutral shipping.
    This followed the Allies’ rejection of the Kaiser’s peace proposals and is said to have been predicated on the notion that sinking 600,000 tons of Allied vessels a month would provoke a surrender before the USA could decide on declaring war. Two days later, a U-boat sank the American-owned SS Housatonic off the Scilly Isles (all hands rescued by British boats, courtesy of the German skipper’s help, towing the lifeboats towards safety) – although President Wilson’s severing of diplomatic relations with Germany that same day was probably a coincidence. Oddly, the first ever ship sunk by a submarine, during the American Civil War in 1864, bore the same name.
    On the Western Front substantial, though more subtle shifts in strategy saw both sides effectively testing the feasibility of action during that winter’s big freeze. On the Ancre, the British resisted a German attack near Beaucourt (January 31), then gained 500 yards in the same area (February 3). They also conducted a small raid (February 4-5) to take some prisoners. On the Somme, the Australians attacked on a larger scale around the Frégicourt-Le Transloy road, taking a German trench via grenade bombardment (February 1 and 4; 300 casualties). Near Grandcourt and Gueudecourt, troops fought to and back with the British taking 500 yards of German trenches (February 1-4) and further southeast, in Lorraine, the French Army made a similar small advance.
    Remarkably, given a collapsing economy and extraordinary military overextension, the Russian Army sustained its effort still, repelling repeated German attacks around the Tirul swamp, near Kalutsem (January 30-February 4; Latvia) and south of Halicz (February 1; now in Poland), while actually winning a battle for hill fortifications near Jakobeny during their last-ditch defence of Romania (January 30-31).
    Down in Mesopotamia, the British made modest progress too, moving closer to the recapture of Kut on the Tigris, abandoned in April, 1916, after a siege.

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 his new outfit the Kensingtons from mid-May to September (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016)… Until 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. So he did – not without a sense of guilt. Via Harfleur and London (briefly living at home), he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and reallocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training and making their own entertainment until they severally became eligible for the trenches once more…

Last week, after the blizzard of mid-January, 1917, set in for one of the longest winter freezes of modern times** – experienced rather more uncomfortably on the Western Front of course – my father and his new pal “Mac” McIntyre went out one evening looking for whatever fun Harrogate might have to offer and discovered a toboggan run.
    They soon hit it off with two girls who had an enormous toboggan one of their dad’s had made. But on their first plummet down the hill, helmsman Sam lost control of the unwieldy beast and ran into a tree. Both girls suffered leg injuries in the crash, both soldiers came through unhurt – and, full of apologies, took the girls to their homes where they were surprised to receive warm welcomes. The girls took to their beds to recover and the lads promised to visit them:

‘The crash laid the girls up for a good fortnight and, duty-bound, Mac and I visited each one in turn twice a week. The sister of the smaller girl took us up to her bedroom where we found her tucked up, professing to be quite happy. I sat on the floor on one side of the fireplace, Mac on the other, and we chatted for an hour or two. Unbelievably, the girl and her sister seemed almost grateful to us for coming. We would bring one or two little gifts of sweets or chocolates.
     The other girl, bigger and stronger, showed signs of recovery first, and our visits there – the parents being present – didn’t last long. But we maintained our interest and repeated our regrets. The dad reckoned his rather crude steering device had got jammed slightly out of true by ice and snow picked up as the girls dragged it along the streets and up the hill to the top of the run.
     It was in the natural order of things I guess that, when the girls were once more up and about, we went for a walk with them. I recall one Sunday afternoon, striding along briskly in the cold air, they guided us out of town to some rather beautiful open country and, at one point, into a wood of wintry bare trees. There a daft episode caused much amusement.
     I found myself carrying the smaller girl on my shoulders while the somewhat beefier Mac was loaded with the other quite hefty wench – and a race down a wooded slope started. My partner and I travelled some distance before we raced under a low-hanging branch and, unable to duck sufficiently, she finished up with it under her armpits and dangled there, while impetus carried me forward till I fell. There was much laughter as I lowered her from her situation of suspense.
     She was an attractive little girl, very likeable, and for a while we became quite close friends, while Mac, as often as he could, called at the home of the other girl.
     But then, walking in the town one afternoon, I was amazed to see my girl’s sister on the arm of a soldier. I knew she was married and her husband serving in France. She saw me as quickly as I saw her. An awkward moment, awkward enough to prevent me from calling at their home any more***. So that brief acquaintanceship petered out.’
** It lasted for over three months in England with several further heavy snows through to mid-April.
*** Sam’s girl lived with her sister so he knew he would have to face her regularly, hence his extreme embarrassment.    

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and pals are suddenly hit by one of the hazards of the age for soldiers living cheek by jowl – an epidemic of “spotted fever” i.e. meningitis.

* 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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