“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, 12 February 2017
Sam 18 as potential meningitis victim gets wonderfully archaic treatment involving formaldehyde and a boiler… before astute Doc. realises it’s really Gallipoli and the Somme that damaged his health!
For details of how to buy Sam’s 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
A hundred years ago this week… A German submarine used torpedoes and shells to sink White Star liner SS Afric southwest of Looe, Cornwall, en route to Cape Town and Sydney (February 13; up to 22 died). No doubt more concerned with American shipping casualties already occurring, that same day President Wilson told Germany he would not negotiate anything with them until they again halted “unrestricted” submarine warfare.
On the Western Front, the freeze continued as did (mainly) skirmish-scale actions – bearing in mind the overall death toll of the war through these “quieter” months in Europe is said to have remained around 500 day. Through the week, the British raided north of Arras, the French northwest of Compiègne and Altkirch (Alsace), while the German Army attacked the French near Loos, Ypres and Maisons de Champagne.
The “Operations On The Ancre” proceeded with the British repelling a German counterattack around the Beaumont to Serre road (February 13; 382 British casualties). More significantly, a British advance planned for a 300-yard length of the front near Miraumont saw them encounter great difficulties with a thaw turning the ground to mud, slowing them and throwing their artillery’s “creeping barrage” out of synch so that they achieved only partial success (February 17-18; 2,500 British casualties).
On the Eastern Front, the German Army continued to regain chunks of the ground lost to the Russians during 1916’s Brusilov Offensive with advances Zloczow and Tarnopol (February 14; now Ukraine), and southwest of Dvinsk (17; Latvia). However, in Romania, the Russians got one strike back with a surprise attack capturing high ground above the river Trotus valley (18).
Further south, in Macedonia, where the Allies working in concert had driven the Bulgarians back and taken Monastir the previous autumn, yet another phalanx of the German Army attacked the Italian section of the front and gained ground for a couple of days, then lost it all back to an Italian counter (February 12-14). And way to the south, on the Tigris, steady British progress towards retaking Kut – eight months after the Turkish siege of the city ended victoriously – saw them take the entire right bank of the Tigris in the area (February 14).
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 second outfit the Kensingtons from mid-May to September (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016)… Until officialdom told him they had noticed his age – 18 on July 6, legally too young for the battlefield – and that he could take a break from the fighting until his 19th birthday. So he did – not without a sense of guilt. Via Harfleur and London, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated 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, my father and his underager pals “waiting” for their 19th birthdays and a return to war, discovered they were caught up in a meningitis outbreak**. After seeing the lad a bed or two down from him in their billet (a former school) carried off to an isolation hospital, he and a few others tested positive for the bacteria (probably, though the disease can also be viral).
So they too were carted off to an “isolation hospital”, though this one consisted only of “two or three large Army huts”. Still, they began the procedures intended to prevent them developing the disease full-on – as Sam recalls:
‘The treatment consisted of, twice a day, sitting around a large copper boiler, from the lid of which several spouts protruded. The water therein contained formaldehyde. So, heads and bodies wrapped in white sheets to keep us fairly dry, and with our eyes covered, we sat in a circle round the boiler and breathed in this very strong vapour. When that bit of treatment was over, we were free. But not to leave the hospital, of course. We were isolated from everybody. Still, they offered us books and, under the supervision of the Sister in charge, we did the cleaning, which helped to pass the time.
After spending a short time in the isolation unit I did begin to feel ill. You can imagine the lines on which my thoughts ran. But the Sister looked at my face, told me to roll up my sleeves and undo my shirt buttons – sure enough, I had a rash across my chest. “That,” she said, “is nothing to do with germs in the throat. That’s German measles.” So I was taken to a larger hospital and installed in another isolation unit.
I saw one or two nurses outside wearing attractive bright-red capes over the usual uniforms. Very cheery. My all-white room contained five beds, I think, but the others remained empty. During the day a nurse came in frequently. When the doctor, elderly and gentle of manner, looked me over, he asked me what I’d been doing. I told him France and Gallipoli and he said that one of the things they had to do was feed me up, particularly lots of fish and scrambled eggs on toast – which wasn’t bad either.
Good fortune did indeed walk along with me during those days, for out of the evil of contamination had come this period of clean, quiet living which should restore me to general fitness…
Able once again to face a front-line soldier’s health-ruining existence, days and nights of nervous tension strung to the limits of human endurance, even more bedevilled by the fact that one must give no indication of what one was feeling. Ever the breezy wisecrack, the brilliant riposte, the foulest epithet, the hard laugh; it took it out of you to merely keep up with the others in maintaining these deceptive appearances while aware that, if that Jerry battery of whizz-bangs persisted in moving its aim ever nearer to your position, you and your mates would soon be surveying the site from a place way up in heaven — or shellfire might be replaced by hellfire if the judgement went against you… well, a pretty, little quip like that would have won a pale smile, even in a sticky front-line situation.
But I wasn’t out there… Far from it, in my snug, little hospital ward, feeling full of gratitude to the benevolent physician who had correctly diagnosed that I had needs beyond the curing of German measles and the eradication of spotted-fever germs from my throat. Maybe some much-needed self-respect came to me because he had treated me as a man and not as a number in a vast collection of numbered robots. He smiled as he examined and prescribed, bless him.’
** To repeat information about the illness and its Army connection if you misses last week’s episode… They had the “germs” of cerebrospinal meningitis, CSM, or, colloquially, “spotted fever”. It was common among troops for reasons explained by the British Medical Journal for January, 1915 (current medics might debunk any of this, of course): a) overcrowding in camps and barracks b) cold winter weather c) too much muscular exertion among new recruits – who then spread it to civilians (a personal, inexpert interjection would be that if the “too much exertion” factor was correct, it could well have been that debilitated, under-age Tommies emerging from months in the battlefield were every bit as vulnerable as “new recruits”). The same report says three meningitis waves occurred during WW1 a) early 1915 b) early ’16 c) early ’17. So, time-wise, the Harrogate outbreak among soldiers fits c) Wave III. However, in all three the main concentrations were south of a line from Wash to Severn so the outbreak experienced by my father and his comrades was an outlier.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam gets delirious and goes for a walk in the snow – until his nuts swell up! Then one health horror leads to another… but also to the kind attention of the little night nurse…
* 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.