“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, 26 February 2017

Sam and his nurse find themselves in the grip of powerful forces – he strives to remember the instructions of his old vicar/mentor regarding gentlemanliness, chivalry… and the pudding club!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The action hardly ceased in all theatres – deaths and woundings at the heart of every movement – and yet nothing of overwhelming significance occurred. Strange, if not uncommon, disjunction between the perspectives of individual life and historic event…
    While America edged a little closer to entering the war (President Wilson’s move to arm merchant ships held back by the Senate, though), on the Western Front the British and French advanced on the Ancre (February 26-March 4 taking various villages in the region of Bapaume, including Gommecourt where my father had fought on July 1, 1916) and on the Somme (March 4, near Bouchavesnes), and the Aisne and the Oise (March 4, near Mouvron).
    But offsetting this seeming triumphant progress was the growing awareness that the German Army had begun working to a more or less orchestrated plan (February 23-April 5) to retreat to the Hindenburg Line of defences constructed since the previous autumn, and hold their ground thereafter, having left a tract of scorched earth behind them.
    On the Eastern Front, the faltering Russian Army responded to German advances near Riga, Latvia, and the Narajowka river, now Ukraine (both March 2) with gas attacks north of Lake Naroch (3), and Krevo (4), both now in Belarussia. Further south, in Romania the Russians lost positions near Jakobeny to Germany (February 27). But another wing of the desperately scattered Russian forces recaptured Hamadan in eastern Persia (March 2).
    Italy too proved its enduring resilience, by holding off a renewed Austrian attack on the Asiago Plateau (February 28) and leading the Allies’ defence of hard-won Monastir, Serbia (March 3).

Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016) Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (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, though 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. However, for some, including Sam, all military activity is halted by a substantial spell in a hospital isolation unit because of a meningitis outbreak. There, his health goes from bad to worse…

Last week, my father’s physical decline continued – according to his veteran doctor, caused more by the hardships of war than the meningitis bacteria and German measles viruses he was wrestling with. He triggered a crisis himself by deliriously wandering out into the Harrogate snow for a walk “because I was so hot”. Result: a swollen groin, boils, sores.
    But, while irrationally hiding what he’d done from the medics, he did some self-healing with some ointment which had cured his prickly heat in Egypt(!) plus the good food, hot baths and increasingly fond care provided by his regular night nurse. This week, their relationship reaches a predictable – and then rather surprising – crescendo:

‘She liked to sit by my bed early in her shift and talk or listen – more of the latter than the former, I now suspect, since most young men think they know it all. Then when duty demanded that she move on, she would bestow a hearty “goodnight” kiss on me and depart till around 4am when, in those post-Florence Nightingale days, the round of washings and bed-makings had to begin – and, no doubt as part of her therapy, a well-delivered kiss would rouse me and have me heading for my bath while she attended to sheets and pillows.
     While the thought of going beyond these little embraces never reached anything pertaining to what is today called sex, this little nurse, Flo, certainly became a very effective part of the super treatment I received; lithe, petite, and with almost tiny, rabbit teeth showing below her shapely upper lip. From the first, she was, in my book, just the type my dear old mentor Frusher** would have me protect from her own generous weaknesses. I recalled anew his instruction that a gentleman would not permit a lady to do anything she would be reluctant to talk about with her mother.
     His influence had to control and hold me back one morning in particular. Before any apparent activity began in the corridors outside my room, Nurse Flo came in, kissed me even more warmly than usual and stood looking down at me as I lay there. So I sat up in bed, put my feet down on the floor, and looked at her, trying to read her thoughts, fears, intentions. Her face paled, she stepped back from the bed and threw open the doors of the large cupboard behind her. She stood there concealed, she must have hoped, from observation, pale-faced and trembling. “No, no, don’t,” she said, as I stepped towards her. And I had no intention of taking advantage of her reaction to natural forces. Certainly, I had the feeling of a needle irresistibly drawn to her magnet. I believe I got the correct message, I believe I thought quickly around the situation, perhaps guessed what was happening to her; I returned her kiss, grabbed my bath towel and went for my morning splash.
     The moment passed, I had my bath, and we were good friends. So much so that she gave me her address near Sheffield, with the hope that we might meet there sometime. With hindsight I can see that she must have thought me a dull dog, but the very fact that I was so safe in sometimes extremely intimate circumstances may have offered some compensating features for her – although, now, I suspect that repeated consummation blots out all fears during the early stages of an affair, until the pudding-club indications appear, and then you have two really scared people.’
** The Vicar/choirmaster/scoutmaster/music teacher Mr Frusher was a key formative influence on my father – as this week’s excerpt suggests, perhaps the strongest reason for his remaining a virgin throughout the war (albeit not for long afterwards, I gather; he did have some oats to sow). Here’s Sam’s pen-portrait of his mentor (from the early part of the Memoir where he wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”): ‘of medium height, well-built, wearing a beard, pointed, and the then fashionable pince-nez. Most days he wore a frock coat with a silk hat and striped trousers. Tommy used to love looking at the boots he wore; without toecaps, of fine soft leather, kept in good condition by his housekeeper. He was one of those cold-bath-in-the-morning men. He would sometimes describe with relish how he had broken the ice.’ Apart from music, religion and outdoor activities, Mr Frusher also decided to fill the vacuum left by a total lack of sex education in school – even anatomical diagrams left a blank where the sex organs ought to have been. Naturally, his teaching of a teenaged boys church group came predicated with his own variant on the period’s and the CofE’s morality: ‘“Frankness in these matters kills morbid curiosity,” he would say… In a sensible way, he described the feelings contact between the sexes could arouse, the actions and the results that would follow: the girls in trouble, the unwanted babies; the worry, regret, fear; the difficulties which beset a young man who has fathered a bastard. He drew this picture so impressively the lads were never likely to forget. In fact, he constantly impressed upon them that sexual intercourse before marriage was wrong, a crime, it must never even be considered, let alone indulged in… he wished the lads to grow up as what he called “gentlemen”. The girl being so constituted that marriage and child-bearing were the most important things in her life, she would generally submit to a man’s desires – after a certain amount of caressing had taken place – in spite of any advice she may have received. Mr Frusher’s conclusion: the man – stronger, physically and mentally – had a bounden duty to accept responsibility and ensure that nothing occurred, when the girl was in his care, which he could not freely reveal to her parents. The final word had a memorable simplicity to it: chivalry.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam, still in the isolation unit, resists the Siren calls of an “old” Army nurse, continues his friendship with Flo and has a farewell talk with the sagacious doctor who’d diagnosed him as, basically, sick from the war and decided to build him up with some decent food and care.

* 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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