“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 March 2017

Sam wades through the general gloom of Harrogate’s “Lost Division” and gets to know his diverse companions – a song-and-dance man, an opera singer, a painter, a heavyweight boxer…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… Germany’s all-out submarine war claimed the French battleship Danton (March 19; torpedoed off Sardinia, 296 dead, 806 rescued) and British hospital ship Asturias (21; torpedoed off Start Point, Devon, “only” 43 dead because 1,000 wounded previously taken ashore at Avonmouth). The U-boats seemed a real threat to the successful trend of Allied actions on land.
    On the Western Front, it must have been difficult to determine the significance of the Germans’ planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line. The Allies pursued them, of course. But when they evacuated Boyelle and Boiry Becquerelle (March 19; Pas-de-Calais), they left outposts whence they raided the advancing British before slipping away at night (20-21); when the Australians attacked a little further south at Noreuil (20), the Germans beat them back, causing heavy casualties, and again at Croiselles the following day. Further, the French Army suffered a substantial blow when they were beaten back across the Crozat Canal, losing ground they wouldn’t regain for more than a year (22; the Canal connected the Somme and the Oise).
    On the Eastern Front, though, the great concern remained that the Russian Army’s prodigious efforts would collapse or be terminated by political decision as the first few days of post-imperial government by the Duma (legislative assembly) unfolded. It seems extraordinary to note that, unaffected by events at home, in western Persia the Russians took back Qasr-i-Shirin (March 25) from the Turks whom they’d effectively defeated in the region by then.
    Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Allies reached a new peak of aggression. The British/Anzac Egyptian Expeditionary Force of 23,000 infantry and cavalry prepared to invade Palestine from the south, Gaza the first target – although their intelligence reported the Ottoman garrison as 2,000 strong when it was twice that. By March 25 they were set to launch an attack. At the same time, in Mesopotamia, the British/Indian Samarrah Offensive proceeded with the taking of Fallujah(!) a major coup (19).

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…

Last week, after weeks of struggle with the threat of meningitis and actual German measles and what the doctor diagnosed as general “war sickness”, Sam from isolation hospital to his Battalion, only to find himself and his fellow underage veteran comrades treated as a strange kind of outcast.
    The trouble was a whole weird story/myth around this Harrogate-based “Lost Division” who’d been stigmatised, rightly or wrongly, because they hadn’t been posted abroad at all during the first two years of the war. Before his illness, Sam acknowledged he felt prejudice against them. Then, on his return, when he tried to “really become one of them”, they rejected him.
    This uncomfortable situation only deteriorated because Sam’s Company Officer, Captain Tarquin – the name probably an alias** – earned the contempt of all with his “childish, short temper”, “avoiding eyes” and fondness for useless spit and polish.
    Still, here Sam’s getting to know a few of his assorted comrades and other officers – and finding the town does offer an impartial welcome to all Tommies:

‘I can’t remember anything about this Captain’s subalterns, but the Company Sergeant Major was tall, round-shouldered, with a pale, worry-ridden face, obviously overborne at all times by the bossy Captain. One Sergeant stands out in memory as an efficient, well-trained NCO – young, strikingly well-made, and full of good health, he contrasted greatly with those of any rank in our Company. One wondered how it came about that such a gem among so many duds remained on the home front, his qualities wasted.
     However, the Battalion rank and file boasted skills of a wide variety. A few were professional entertainers. A song-and-dance man in my Platoon could put over, unaccompanied, a really fine act. An opera singer had earned his living as a top chorus man, said the knowledgeable. And then we had craftsmen of many trades, including one painter of miniatures who could produce perfect little scenic pictures or portraits on demand.
     Notable on the sporting side, Big Bonito, a heavyweight boxer, didn’t have to defend himself against such puny amateurs as ventured to challenge him at Regimental tourneys. He let most of them punch away at his huge trunk till exhaustion defeated them, or else a swift unexpected flick of one of the otherwise lethargic Bonito’s gloves persuaded them to remain where they’d finished up, on the canvas (if there was one).
     I saw the Colonel several times: short, fat, red-faced, and, as far as I could tell, devoid of any of the attributes leadership required. “He’s an ironmaster,” someone told me. That may have been his major contribution towards victory, for we had no opportunity to see his military talents in action against the Kaiser’s. His brief speeches to the soldiery on social or sporting occasions were as inspiring as my father’s used to be at half-time during a church soirée and dance – and just as inaudible***.

The townspeople provided social and concert evenings which I enjoyed. Of the many good turns on stages in local church halls, I recall two sisters who sang duets in sweet harmony. Very much to the taste of the troops were they, standing about six feet tall, swaying winningly to the music of a then-popular number which went, “Ooooooh (very prolonged), it’s not the dance that brings the delight/But the chance of a glance from those eyes so bright”****. Right up your Tommy Atkins’s main street, as you will agree, and an opportunity for all to join in with gusto, especially to participate in and prolong in falsetto that opening, “Oooooooooh!” Great sports, those ladies, for when they realised that burlesque, English-style, was the preferred mode, they played along, prolonged the more, swayed and pivoted ever more gracefully, and earned immense applause, encores, and, finally, lusty cheers.’
** My father usually aliased friends and foes alike because, writing in the ’70s, he didn’t want to cause distress of any kind to those still alive or their descendants.
*** See the childhood section of my father’s Memoir – Sam’s father, Charles, was a shy man, confidence much diminished by having presided over the ruin of the family business in Manchester (when Sam was two years old) and, consequently,  the least inspiring public speaker imaginable.
**** Probably a song called A Dream Of Delight by Horatio Nicholls and Mabel Manson, published 1916.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s suddenly on the move again – further north with a small group of comrades for training as instructors in how to use a revolutionary new rifle that’s going to change the course of the war – no, really!

* 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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