“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 March 2017
Sam enjoys an “unbelievably cushy existence” for a little longer because of the meningitis outbreak. Then it’s back to his Company and its nasty CO, the “unhappy, unjust” Captain Tarquin…
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All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… Activity everywhere, meaning from Ukraine down to Mesopotamia. Politically, USA edged closer to a war declaration when President Wilson decreed that merchant ships could arm themselves on the day a U-boat sank the freighter SS Algonquin off the Scilly Isles (March 12).
But on the Western Front, you might have imagined that Germany was preparing for surrender as the strange spell of planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line continued so slickly that often the British and French took swathes of territory without much or any resistance. Concluding the “Operations On The Ancre”, the British advanced around Le Transloy and occupied Loupart Wood and Grevillers (March 12/13) en route to taking Bapaume and, moving south of the Somme, Fresnes (17), and progressing rapidly on a 45-mile front from Chaulnes to Arras (18). The French Army surged forward similarly on a 40-mile front, gaining Roye, Lassigny, Noyon, Nesle and Guiscard (17-18).
During the week, the Russians lost their Czar, Nicholas II, by abdication (March 15) and his successor – his brother – a day later, as the Revolution picked up speed with riots in the streets and a Navy mutiny (16). But the Army carried on fighting. Though beaten back in Ukraine (12), it continued its successes down in western Persia, taking Alliabad and Kerind from the Turks (16-17).
At that point the Turks decided to quit on their Persian campaign. Their 15,000 force headed west to meet up with their Mesopotamian Army of 10,000. But by then the British were following up the taking of Baghdad by pursuing the Ottoman Army briskly north by means of the railway (March 13-April 23; the Samarrah Offensive).
Battling in Macedonia, north of Salonika, especially around Monastir saw Allies Britain, France and Italy taking on Austrians and Bulgarians, with all making gains in different sectors (March 12-18). The Austrian Army also had a rare success in northern Italy, breaking through defences in the San Pellegrino valley (16; Dolomites).
Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016) Lance 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’d 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 an enduring 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 for months of training until they severally became eligible for the trenches once more. However, for some, including Sam, all military activity was halted by some weeks in a hospital isolation unit because of a meningitis outbreak. He didn’t develop the disease, but while there his general health collapsed (the doctor’s diagnosis: the profound effects of trench warfare)… The hospital brought him some physical recovery via old-fashioned “feeding up” and a restorative Boy Scout-innocent romance with a nurse…
Last week, Sam concluded a partial recovery from the contrasting onslaughts of German measles and “war sickness” – but he still carried the meningitis bacteria in his throat so he returned to the group of underage pals caught in the same medical limbo, housed in another, cruder “isolation unit” comprising two or three Army huts:
‘A real rest camp this, for we had to do no work at all. Every moment of this unbelievably cushy existence had my sincere appreciation. I never lost sight of what might have been my lot if I had remained in France; my previous good luck over there must surely have deserted me by this time, so every day’s blessings had to be counted.
The one female in the joint was a 40ish rubicund lady nurse of the VAD**, a famous volunteer nursing force. A kindly soul who blushed at the slightest compliment before I left for the fever hospital, now, she walked about quite defiantly with the arm of a lad young enough to be her son about her waist. Bless‘em both, they looked remarkably happy, so what had at first appeared to be ridiculous became humdrum and caused no comment. Possibly she regarded him as a son-figure but, knowing the young rascal somewhat, I doubt if he fancied himself as her pseudo-offspring, more as a potential father of such I’d say. I hope he didn’t achieve his nefarious ends.
Finally, all germs killed – and a horrible end must have been theirs, surrounded by that formaldehyde vapour which was hard enough for us toughies to stomach – back to the Battalion we went. There, I made a fresh effort to really become one of them. To achieve that aim, I carried out all orders to the very best of my ability. But still I never felt “accepted”. This complete Battalion which had so mysteriously remained in Britain*** – presumably to defend the homeland, should our great Army in France be shattered – formed a closed shop against us who had fought overseas.
None of us could please our unhappy, unjust, unattractive Company officer, Captain Tarquin****. A weird type, reputedly the son of a wealthy family, he had expensive uniforms, yet he brought with him an aura of poverty – mental poverty, probably. His batman slaved away at polishing his leather strappings and shoes, this example conspicuously implying that the rest of us should do likewise. Some hope of that! We just didn’t have the time to spare – and no chance of being provided with batmen. The Captain had “avoiding” eyes and no valid claims to beauty with his red nose against a background of pale skin and surly mouth whence his harsh voice barked orders none too clearly. An almost childish, short temper completes my picture of one officer, perhaps the only officer, to whom I felt superior.
What a gift he had for spreading gloom and despondency where all had been coarse gaiety before his bleary-eyed mug fouled the scene. And then why did so many men say he was too cowardly to be a Company leader? I never saw or heard of anything he undertook that could be counted a test of his strength of character, yet his subordinates despised him. It was freely forecast that when, if ever, he had to lead his men in active service conditions, he would fold up. Two hundred or more men would, in that event, fail to give of their best, perhaps die unnecessarily, or cause the deaths of others.
Many of us who thought so harshly of one Captain would possibly behave no better when surrounded by erupting earthworks, shrieking shells, whining bullets and shattered bodies. But then we had not set ourselves up to be leaders of men. Some, like me, had applied much thought, and even a little skill, to avoiding or deflecting offers of higher rank and its responsibilities*****.’
** Voluntary Aid Detachment: founded 1909 with the help of the Red Cross; 38,000 served in World War I; members famous then or later included Vera Brittain, Agatha Christie, Amelia Earhart, and Freya Stark.
*** “The Lost Division”, is explained as fully as I can in a footnote to Blog 128 December 18, 2016. Although my father was there in the middle of it, in retrospect the story is hard to pin down because it has taken on urban-myth characteristics. Was it the same as “The Forgotten Division”, also referred to in some online docs. Although “exposed” by Horatio Bottomley (later jailed as a lying fraudster) in his weekly magazine John Bull, its identity remains unclear. Some suggest the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division – there again, they were never stationed in Harrogate it seems! Meanwhile, the Essex Regiment website lists Sam’s 2/7th Battalion as part of the 12th Brigade 4th Division whom the esteemed Long Long Trail website lists as having been on the Western Front throughout the war. Well, my father’s recollection shows that something very strange had occurred to taint the atmosphere in this Battalion and/or Division, but I can’t say anything certain about the background. Perhaps “Lost” or “Forgotten” Division stories, true or false or somewhere in between, were simply a recurring theme of talk among men who had fought at the Front?
**** An alias: my father changed the names of most of the people in the book in order not to in any way upset living relatives.
***** Promoted to Corporal, and sometimes Acting Sergeant, on the Somme, en route to Harrogate Sam had removed his second stripe and apparently been accepted as a Lance Corporal once more – see Blog 127, December 11, 1916.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam gets to know his oddball companions in the Battalion – a song-and-dance man, an opera singer, a painter, a heavyweight boxer – but comes to scorn their useless Colonel. Still, the town decides to entertain the troops and two six-foot sisters hit the spot…
* 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.