“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, 19 February 2017
Sam in hospital goes delirious and takes a walk in the snow – until his nuts swell up! One health horror leads to another… but also to the kind attentions of the night nurse…
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… Germany’s recent declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare moved America an important step closer to joining the Allies when a U-boat torpedoed Cunard passenger liner SS Laconia seven miles west of Fastnet (February 25; off Cornwall) – because two of the 12 fatalities, a woman and her daughter, were American so President Wilson, not to mention US public opinion, could deem it an “overt act” of hostility.
Less bruited, though indicative of the submarine onslaught’s scale, were the sinkings of four Dutch ships sailing out of Falmouth (February 22; Cornwall) and the French liner SS Athos 150 miles southeast of Malta (February 17) – although the latter resulted in 754 killed out of 1,950 on board, many of them were Chinese labourers and Senegalese troops, which may explain any lower-key international reaction.
On the Western Front, while the usual to and fro continued – for instance, on February 19 a British attack east of Ypres and a German flamethrower raid south of Le Transloy – a major strategic shift by the German Army became apparent. From February 23 to April 5, 1917, they conducted a planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line, under construction since September, 1916, and now ready to form the substantial defence system – their front line both strengthened and shortened – they needed after the huge strains imposed by Verdun, Somme and, on the Eastern Front, the Russians’ Brusilov Offensive, exacerbated by the Romanian campaign.
This became conspicuous to the British when, advancing cautiously, they found the villages of Miraumont, Serre, Pys and Warlencourt evacuated. The German Army’s widespread use of a “scorched-earth” policy while retreating – not just smashing bridges and roads, but burning houses and removing the French civilian population – is said to have added to neutral countries’ inclinations to support the Allies.
In the week’s only other major development, the British/Indian Army in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) won the Second Battle Of Kut (February 23) to recapture the city on the Tigris they’d lost after a siege from December, 1915, to April, 1916. The Ottoman forces avoided such encirclement and beat an orderly retreat westward, pursued for 60 miles by British boats. But the British intention remained to push on to Baghdad.
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 from mid-May to September (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…
Last week, caught up in a meningitis outbreak which threatened his group of under-age comrades, my father found himself in two different isolation wards – the first because tests showed he carried the meningitis bacteria in his throat, the second because he did fall ill… but with German measles.
Then the veteran doctor who had oversight of him in this second, large hospital, on hearing that he’d fought for months at both Gallipoli and the Somme offered a convincing diagnosis of his underlying health problem – that the war itself, the terrible physical conditions and relentless nervous strain of the front line, had made him ill. So feeding him up became part of the therapeutic regime… in part, of course, to get him ready for the battlefield again by the time his 19th birthday rendered him legally eligible for fighting abroad.
But for now, a hundred years ago this week, his much abused body and mind had yet more problems to throw at him:
‘My temperature went up and down and, at one point, I certainly became delirious. I do recall waking quite early one morning with the idea fixed in my head that I must go for a walk because I was so hot. Apparently, I found just my uniform tunic and trousers in my locker, put them on, opened the French windows – which gave on to the hospital grounds – and walked out. It had snowed fairly heavily**. It seems I wandered for some time. Finally, I remember being pulled up by awful pains in my groin. I turned round and went back to bed. The cold had brought me back to sanity.
Swellings came up in each groin quite painfully. I told nobody what I’d done. Instead, being young and tough, every morning I took hot baths and managed to put up with the painful results of my silly escapade.
Shortly after that, I was moved to a single room, lucky bloke. I had all the care and attention of one very kind nurse. Dinner came from the hospital’s catering department, but the nurse prepared my lighter meals with eggs – poached, scrambled and so on – in a smaller kitchen near the ward. Regarding food, the head doctor’s instructions were most carefully followed and it was all excellent.
I guess a blood chill*** followed that ridiculous excursion into the snow-covered grounds. My arms and legs erupted into spots, boils and sores. Feeling that I’d broken faith with the dear old doctor and could have caused trouble for my little nurse, I decided to treat this new, self-inflicted scourge myself. I told nobody about it, except a ward maid. A nice, quiet girl, she cleaned my room once each day. I explained to her exactly what had happened and, remembering the French chemist in Cairo who mixed up a sulphur ointment which cured prickly heat rash on my hands and belly, I gave her some money and asked her to get some of this stuff from her chemist. This she did.
I further prescribed for myself a second hot bath daily — during the hour or two I’d be left to my own devices I could slip undetected in and out of a bathroom adjoining the ward. This I followed with a liberal application of the ointment.
Soon the spots had nearly gone and when, one morning, the night nurse caught me actually in the bath, I was able to plead I had been feeling so sticky and hot that I had taken the liberty of cooling off. Thereafter, she prepared a bath for me every morning, an hour before she was due to go off duty. She had other patients to see, but she spent as much time with me as she could without, as she said, risking a complaint from the women in the ward next door.’
** 1916-17 was one of the coldest winters ever in the UK - as on the Western Front, of course – with much of the country snowbound through to late April, the drifts regularly replenished by blizzards throughout.
*** Obviously a phrase of the day/old wives’ diagnosis, but I can’t find any reference to it or what it was taken to mean. Perhaps some kind of blood poisoning, given the outcome? Clues welcome…
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam and his nurse find themselves in the grip of irresistible(?) forces – and he strives to focus his mind on the instructions of his old vicar/Scoutmaster regarding gentlemanliness (and the pudding club)…
* 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.