“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, 30 April 2017

Sam meets the Tsarina of Russia’s goddaughter! In Harrogate! What the… ?

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The twin campaigns of Arras (led by the British) and the Aisne (led by the French) proceeded towards unsatisfactory conclusions for the Allies.
    The British had to call off their attack at the Third Battle Of The Scarpe (May 3-4) because of heavy casualties although, supporting Australian troops, they did make early headway in the Battle Of Bullecourt (May 3-17), breaking through the Hindenburg Line at Quéant. The French did take Craonne (4) and Chemin Des Dames, Moisy Farm and Laffaux Mill (5), then repulsed German counterattacks (6/7). But the cost of this plan set out by General Robert Nivelle continued to prove so high that the mutinies begun the previous week carried on spreading through their forces.
    Hectic action in other theatres saw: artillery battles on the Trentino and Julian fronts (May 6); an Allied Spring Offensive in Salonika (5-15) including a French/Italian artillery bombardment of Bulgarian and German positions in the Second Battle Of Cerna Bend (5-9; Macedonia), and French/Greek troops taking Bulgarian trenches on the Lyumnitsa river (5); the Turkish Army recapture of Mush from the faltering Russians (April 30; Armenia); a British victory over the Turks at the Gorge of Shatt-el-Adhaim (April 30; north of Baghdad, then Mesopotamia).
    At sea German mines and submarines continued to take their toll of naval and other ships, one major casualty being the SS Transylvania, sunk by two torpedoes in the Gulf of Genoa en route from Marseille to Alexandria with the loss of more than 400 soldiers and crew (my father had a connection with this ship: from April 17-25ish, 1916, she carried the post-Gallipoli remnants of his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers to Marseille and the Western Front after four months of rest and training in Egypt).

[Memoir background: my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran [Blogs 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 May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until he was 19. He did so, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, 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/marking time – and In Sam’s case dicing with meningitis and other battle-fatigue enhanced ailments – until they severally became eligible for the trenches once more…]

Last week, Sam had the interesting experience of getting to know his three Cambridge University student comrades a lot better. Although he was only 18 and left school at 14, he found an equilibrium in their relationship because he could tell these highly educated and monied novice officer types a good deal about the battlefield realities he’d learned at Gallipoli and the Somme, especially what the Tommies needed from their leaders in times of extreme stress.
    Now he enjoys another of those sweet diversions from the war world which he loved so much, when civilian civility offered him the chance to set aside everything he’d been through – and would certainly return to at some unspecified time after his 19th birthday…

‘There followed a short period during which I spent less of my spare time with McIntyre and more with a bloke called Hackerman. Different in many ways to dear old Mac, this fellow waxed enthusiastic about quite small ventures; completely self-confident it seemed, he walked with a bit of a swagger, his feet somewhat splayed – sort of thrown upwards and smacked down as he energetically advanced. He had a true, egg-shaped head with small chin and mouth, large, bulging eyes, and wide forehead. He attracted my interest when one day he insisted on showing me a note an aunt had enclosed with her regular letter to him. It comprised an introduction to a Miss Frost, one of auntie’s friends, who lived in Harrogate.
     For some reason unknown to me, Hackerman thought that, if I accompanied him when he called with his letter of introduction, the preliminaries would be accomplished more easily. Much would depend, I guessed, on the age and temperament of Miss Frost — one was conditioned by romantic stories for a meeting with a ravishing beauty, owner of an immense fortune…
     Reality produced an old maid with a modest job, but some remarkably convivial friends. Prepared by the aunt for Hackerman’s call, Miss Frost conducted us to a basement room where a group of men and women much younger than she, though certainly no more vivacious, had gathered to bid welcome to this soldier sponsored by a London friend.
     A complete stranger myself, I was invited to join in the drinks and getting-to-know-each-other routine, and found this surprisingly easy among young women bent on giving two young soldiers a good time (in the most innocent sense of the phrase). One young woman, with whom I found myself particularly at ease, told me she was married; her husband was abroad in the Forces and she found these meetings with her friends helpful and enjoyable.
     This basement room, comfortably if plainly furnished, seemed to gain something in degrees of informality merely by being below ground level. A touch of the nightclubs maybe. Looking upwards through its one window, one could see part of a large building on the opposite side of the street. “That,” said my new acquaintance, “belongs to Alexandrina’s family. She’s that lovely girl over there.” She pointed to a gorgeous brunette. The building, it transpired, was a hotel, its clientele very much upper-crust, for the Tsarina of Russia** had stayed there and, at Alexandrina’s christening, had agreed to become one of the child’s godparents.
     This faint link with royalty caused no reserve or restraint and Alexandrina proved to be a happy soul – and generous with the several wines and spirits obviously donated by her dad..’
** Alexandra Feodorovna, 1872-1918, Empress Consort of Nicholas II, the last Emperor Of Russia; the “Tsaritsa”, not “Tsarina” as the British usually called her, it seems, was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cousin; the hotel my father refers to was the Cathcart House, then owned by the Allen family, and still standing today, but converted into flats. It bears a plaque saying Empress Alexandra stayed there in 1894 – she travelled alias Baroness Startenburg, seeking a cure for her sciatica from Harrogate’s famous spa. She became godmother to the owners’ twin children (because she took their birth during her visit as a lucky omen) — she further asked their parents, Christopher and Emma Allen, that they be named after herself and Nicholas, the then Tsarevich (heir to the Imperial throne), to whom she was engaged. She stayed in touch with the children – the girl seems to have been spelt “Alix”, because the Tsaritsa was still Princess Alix of Hesse at the time – and regularly sent them gifts, right up to their 21st birthdays in 1915. The Tsaritsa was Rasputin’s chief supporter at court. A combination of Army personnel demoralised by military failure on the Eastern Front (and starvation) plus civilian revolutionaries forcedd her husband to abdicate on March 15, 1917. Her cousin King George V refused her permission to flee to Great Britain and, after a period of imprisonment, in July, 1918, she, her husband and her family were murdered, probably on the orders of Lenin.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s lovely evening continues – a nice girl for company, fish and chips… what more could an 18-year-old Gallipoli/Somme veteran on a break from the Front ask for? But then comes the order to muster and the Battalion hits the road once more.

* 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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