“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, 5 February 2017

Sam and under-age pals are suddenly hit by an outbreak of meningitis or “spotted fever” – one of the hazards for soldiers living cheek by jowl…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the sinking of a second American merchant ship (February 11; schooner SS Lyman M. Law, 25 miles off southern Sardinia) under the renewed Central Powers’ declaration of “unrestricted” submarine warfare edged President Woodrow Wilson towards joining the Allies.
    On the Western Front, the British Army took 1,000 yards of German trenches in the Ancre area at Grandcourt (February 6-7), the Sailly-Sallisel ridge on the Somme front (8), and 600 yards of trenches near Serre (10) with relatively low casualties despite German counterattacks.
    To the east and south of Europe, the Russian Army held off German attacks south of Kieselin (February 5; now in Ukraine) and across the frozen Sereth river near Focsani (6; east central Romania). At the same time, the Italian Army repulsed Austrian attacks east of Gorizia (5-9; in northeast Italy by the present border with Slovenia).
    But the week’s most decisive action occurred well away from the fierce European winter, on the banks of the Tigris in Mesopotamia where the Second Battle Of Kut “officially” began with four Turkish attacks on the advancing British beaten off, then reversed as the Turks retreated to their last line of trenches (February 6-11; the first Battle Of Kut had ended with the British driven out the previous April).

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 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, 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, Sam ended his blossoming relationship with the girl whose toboggan he crashed – romance starts in the weirdest ways – because he caught her sister, whom she lived with, on the arm of a soldier when he knew she was married to another Tommy who was away at the Western Front (if you follow – my father never named either of them so they must remain personal pronouns forevermore). But it showed how strong his Boy Scout morality remained in him – along with elements of soldier’s honour and old-fashioned English embarrassment.
    Now, in February, 1917, with the freezing winter set in, Sam and his comrade underagers become caught up in one of the epidemics, of varying severity, which regularly swept the country in those years:

‘I moved from my room up above the character delineator’s shop** to a school the Army had taken over. In a large hall, another floor, another mattress. Along with two blankets, that was your home. Warmer than my previous billet, at least, the radiators in full working order, quite cosy.
    Soon after our arrival, during the night, a youngster lying on his mattress two or three yards away from me complained of feeling very ill. Next morning he appeared even worse, so the NCO in charge suggested he saw the doctor. The rest of us went on parade but, when we returned in the evening, the sick man had not moved. He lay still on his mattress. Of course, we got him hot tea; food he couldn’t take.
    Then somebody did something about it. Or was supposed to do something about it. We gathered the doctors had been informed of the man’s illness. But two, possibly three days passed. A couple of us took matters into our own hands; we went to the Medical Officer’s quarters and demanded that the boy be seen because he was terribly ill. So the doctor did visit him and promptly expressed alarm at his appearance and the signs and symptoms the examination revealed.
    The next morning, the MO reappeared, escorting a senior officer, a Royal Army Medical Corps Major, who examined the boy himself, then had him removed immediately, sent off to an isolation hospital. After that, the Major addressed the rest of us to find out who’d had contact with his patient and to take swabs from our throats.
    Within 24 hours, our Company Sergeant Major was calling out the names of men whose swabs had shown positive results – including mine. We had to gather our belongings together and get into a lorry to be carted off to the isolation hospital… Though I suppose the description “hospital” flatters it somewhat. It consisted of two or three large Army huts. But they were comfortable and clean and we had small iron beds, even sheets. So we settled down into what could have been a period of relative luxury.
    We were told that, although not ill, we had in our throats the germs of cerebrospinal meningitis***, known by the medics as CSM and sometimes referred to, back then, as “spotted fever”. A dangerous complaint. We harboured the germs of one sex or the other and if, while that remained with us, a germ of the opposite sex entered our system the two would get together and the trouble could start. It started at the bottom of the spinal cord and it could soon reach the brain with awful results. So we were told.’
** “Character delineator” – fashionable quackery of the time whereon my father commented in Blog 132, January 15, 2017, “People actually paid the gentleman fees to encourage him to tell them about themselves. Did his opinion of the client exceed the client’s opinion of himself? This I never discovered…”
*** Common among troops for reasons explained by the British Medical Journal for January, 1915 (any or all of this may now be deemed tosh, 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. The same report says there were three meningitis waves 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 goes through a wonderfully archaic course of treatment… and starts to feel rather ill…

* 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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