“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, 22 January 2017

Harrogate hijinks post Somme: Sam and Mac’s lark with two girls and a toboggan ends in disaster – and a chance to see them again!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… It was as if the war on the Western Front shook the snow off its boots and stretched a bit to see if conditions were propitious for the slaughter to be resumed.
    On the Ancre – where the “Operations” are listed as running from January 11-March 13 – the British conducted the odd raid and “sapped forward” (digging advance trenches at night, though that got more difficult as the freeze deepened towards the end of the month). Further south on the Somme, a British attack across the Frégicourt-Le Transloy road with heavy artillery support gained 400 yards (27; British casualties 382). Northwest of Verdun, German troops took a mile of French trenches at Hill 304 and lost it again the next day (25-6).
    At sea, similar tit for tat occurred with a naval battle in the North Sea resulting in one destroyer sunk on each side (January 22) and although two German destroyers shelled Southwold and Wangford on the Sussex coast, no casualties resulted (25).
    On the Eastern Front, the Russian Army lost all its early January gains between Lake Babit and the Tirul Marsh back to the Germans (January 23-4; Latvia). But further south they showed they still supported failing ally Romania full-on by taking German positions in the northwest between Campulung and Jocobeny (27). But the Central Powers continued their advance with the Bulgarians crossing the Danube in the Dobruja region (22).
    And then, much further south where snow never troubled the strategists, the Allies chalked up clear victories at Wejh – captured by Arab allies (January 24; Saudi Arabia) – and Kut – the British attempt to capture the key city on the Tigris continuing despite opposition from Ottoman forces (25-8; Mesopotamia, now Iraq) – and Likuju – a German garrison of 289 surrendering to the British Army (24; German East Africa, now Tanzania).

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). 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. Via the Harfleur British base camp and some desultory “training” in London (living at home for a couple of weeks), 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 variously making their own entertainment until they severally turned 19…

Last week, after the fizzling of their initial rebellion against joining the alleged “Lost Division” – accused by Horatio Bottomley’s yellow press of having somehow dodged all combat thus far – the underagers settled into quite enjoying a life that, pro tem, didn’t involve shot and shell, fear and death.
    They joined their new comrades in digging Harrogate’s streets out of that terrible winter’s first blizzard (around January 16, 1917), thereby scoring PR points with the townsfolk. The while, Sam struck up a new friendship with one of his fellow under-19s, a lad from Edinburgh called “Mac” McIntyre who, when living in London, had served an unusual pre-war apprenticeship – to a phrenologist, a so-called reader of the bumps on people’s heads, a then fashionable and pseudo-scientific variant on a theme of character-reading and fortune-telling.
    Together they explored whatever distractions still snowy Harrogate might have to offer:

‘Completely free agents almost every evening, we soon exhausted the obvious delights of the town – one cinema, the odd concert – and so Mac and I took to exploring the area. Despite the snow, we walked many of the outer streets bordering on open country, really just to kill time because the dark, still, winter evenings offered no great excitement – at least not until one moonlight night when we encountered quite a crowd of people at the top of a hill.
     They laughed and chattered, passed around little bottles of reviver, even cakes – and, from time to time, parties would take off on large, home-made toboggans and sledges and race off down the hill at great speed.
     Naturally, when we saw two girls standing by a rather big, but strange-looking contraption made of wood, Mac and I chatted with them and asked them about this unusual means of transport. They were friends, they told us, living in different parts of the town. The father of one of them, an employee at the local gasworks, had built this sledge some years previously.
     It looked extremely strong, the wood probably three-quarters of an inch thick, but he had fashioned it in two parts. The front rider travelled astride and steered via ropes, held in each hand – these were attached to a movable section below on which his or her feet rested; to run right, they explained, press with the left foot and pull with the right rope and vice versa. One passenger could sit behind the steersman, with two others in a side-by-side seat at the back.
     Unfortunately, the girls had never taken this thing out on their own before. Woe was me, then. As volunteer or pressed man, I can’t remember, I sat in the steersman’s position. We loaded up, Mac behind me, the girls on the back seat. We pushed off with our feet and gained a head of speed very quickly. The craft veered somewhat leftwards. Trees lined that side of the track. I tried to move the steering to the right, pressed with my left foot, pulled on the right rope, but nothing happened.
     At terrific speed we hit a tree.
     I came to, lying on my back, spread-eagled. I saw the moon shining above. I could only have been out for a second or two for, apart from myself, and Mac beginning to raise himself a couple of yards away, there seemed nobody else around. Then I heard sobs and groans. He and I looked around and found the two girls, both with leg injuries.
     Now people appeared, having raced up from the bottom of the hill. After dressing the cuts on the girls’ shins with handkerchiefs, we put them back on the sledge and the crowd helped us push the thing back to the top of the hill. Then Mac and I pressed on through the streets to one girl’s home. The awful explanations. She lived with her sister. We left her, having taken the address.
     Then our party shoved off to another area of town and the sad duty of explaining to the gas worker and his wife how his daughter’s accident had come about. With remarkable kindness, they laid no blame on me. In fact, Mac and I arranged to visit the next day.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: For Sam, Mac and the toboggan girls very proper 1910s romances blossom – until Sam’s enduring innocence/Boy Scout morality bumps into an embarrassment he can’t face…

* 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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