“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, 9 April 2017

Sam on the receiving end of a crushing personal attack after he suggests his pal Mac entertains the troops with his phrenology skills…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… While the sinking of British hospital ship SS Salta by a mine as it sailed into Le Havre (April 10; 51 nurses and RAMC personnel plus 79 crew lost) was tragic, its scale was dwarfed by the full-bore reopening of fighting on the Western Front with tens of thousands of casualties swiftly ensuing. Following the rather haphazard pursuit of the German Army’s planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the Allies tried to enact their own strategy, framed in January, largely by the French General Nivelle, long before the German move so changed the prospects.
    After a massive artillery bombardment, the British advanced on a 12-mile front from southeast to north of Arras and quickly advanced 5.5 miles to take Monchy-le-Preux (April 9-11). At the same time, the British and Canadians attacked Vimy Ridge and took it despite a new winter blizzard descending on the first day (9-12), and the British also made headway in the Battle Of The Scarpe occupying many villages such as Feuchy, Givenchy-en-Gohelle and Angres (9-14).
    However, the Australian and British attack at the Battle Of Bullecourt fell victim to a degree of chaos with a false start caused by orders to postpone for 24 hours not reaching two Battalions and then a shortage of promised tanks undermining their efforts (April 10-11). The Aussies suffered further in the Battle Of Lagnicourt where the Germans launched a surprise onslaught, and they had to retreat before recovering their ground later in the day (15).
    The French “prong” of this campaign had been scheduled to start a few days after the British/Australian/Canadian attacks and they began to prepare their way with heavy bombardments of the Moronvilliers hills east of Reims (April 10 onwards).
    Accounts of all these actions refer to tactical innovations by both sides calculated to break the Western Front stalemate – creeping barrages, elastic defence, platoon-focused advances…
    Of course, no front was ever “all quiet” really, but the only other notable military events of the week saw the British Egyptian Army advance further along the railway to Samarrah to Harbe (April 9).

[Memoir background: 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 spotted 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. He did so, not without 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 until they severally became eligible for the trenches once more…]

Last week, temporarily despatched to Cramlington, Northumberland, to train as instructors in the Army’s bee-in-the-bonnet new super-rifle, my father and his pal Mac survived their initiation into the nightly raid on the musketry school’s neighbouring colliery to purloin coal – standard provision for each Nissen hut being only half what the Tommies needed as that freezing winter’s blizzards extended well into April.
    Now Sam writes of an attempt at indoor entertainment for the troops which went badly wrong for him:

‘Our regular evening pastime was playing cards, but on one occasion I suggested that McIntyre might amuse us by reading our bumps – practising the “science” of phrenology in which he had been trained**. As a Scot, from Edinburgh at that, he surprised me by agreeing to do it even though he knew we wouldn’t pay for the privilege of being told what marvellous blokes we were. While his fingers moved slowly and carefully over a man’s skull he made interesting, usually slightly flattering comments, calculated to induce those who watched to request the next go.
     Finally, Mac turned to me, his pal… and spieled off a generally unpleasing report, the culmination, a charge of selfishness. Later, I asked him what it was all about; when had I acted selfishly in my dealings with him? Out came the reason for his sourness; the matter had bothered him for some weeks, and made me feel really sorry and actually ashamed of my thoughtlessness.
     It concerned the two girls injured in our sledge crash***. I had found the petite, brunette girl attractive and, although I had never hugged, fondled or kissed her, I showed preference for her company, leaving Mac to look after the other, more homely girl most times – unaware, because of my selfishness, of Mac’s feelings of love, no less, for the little dark one. I had not seen her for quite some time anyway, because of the awkwardness I felt after seeing her sister walking arm in arm with a soldier while her husband was away at the Front. And all this time, it appeared, friend McIntyre had been grieving. He must have hated me, and so needlessly…
     Phrenology, genuine science or quackery, had revealed myself to me and given me something to think about, albeit ruefully.

The three lads**** we’d travelled up from Harrogate with had that something which made me eager to know them more intimately than the casual friendliness of Army hutmates allowed. Their fresh-from-civvy-street appearance and tolerance of the coarse, repetitive humour, to which they were obviously strangers, proved them prepared to make the best of a situation they had been forced into, I assumed, by the exigencies of war.
     Two of them were 18 or thereabouts, the third perhaps three years older – probably someone granted deferment of call-up whose time had run out. Good luck or influence, both maybe, had attached them to our home-based mob, rather than an intensive training unit in which a matter of a few weeks only separated the draft from the fighting zone. They’d all come from Cambridge where they had been students, I gathered. One seldom questioned comrades about personal matters, though information about pre-Army days, if volunteered, found a willing audience. Depending on the nature of the storyteller, it could bring a bit of the sweetness of family life into the tent, hut, or trench…
     These three chaps acquired all the knowledge about the rifle in double-quick time, but when their turn came to repeat the patter, as required by the word-perfect instructors, they used their own phraseology, which certainly sounded less like the spiel of the market quack-doctor than did the Sergeants’ energetic rote lesson.
** At 15, just before the war, Mac had served an apprenticeship as a phrenologist (reader of cranial bumps, allegedly) in central London (see Blog 132, January 15, 2017).
*** All innocent and unwitting stuff between teenagers whose main “adult” experience of the world had come on various battlefield – my father recalled the story of the sledge and the two girls in Blogs 133 January 22, 2017 and 134 January 29.
**** Named as Metriam, Naylor, and Rutven in Blog 142 March 26.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and pals move down to Mansfield to conclude the super-rifle course and all seems well… sort of. Meanwhile, he reflects, still guiltily, on the horrors he’s missing, but escapes into the sweet, simple kindness of the townspeople around him.

* 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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