“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 July 2017

Sam’s detested Captain startles him by offering direct promotion from Lance Corporal to commissioned rank! What should he do? Meanwhile, medical checks carry the threat of imminent posting to the Front…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Battle Of Passchendaele (July 31-November 10) began, its importance as an iconic passage of World War 1 accurately reflected by all the current remembrance events and programmes. Clearly, it was controversial from conception to conclusion with British PM Lloyd George and French Chief Of General Staff Foch among its opponents till late in the day and Field Marshall getting the go-ahead from the Cabinet only fours days in advance it seems.
    Prepared by 10 days of artillery bombardment expending 4.25 million shells, the attack by British, Anzac, New Zealand, Canadian and French infantry was initiated via the subsection of the grand plan known as the Battle Of Pilckem (July 31-August 2). The infantry advance, led by a “creeping barrage” south and east of Ypres started early in the morning and gained 2,500-4,000 yards along a 15-mile front, although near Ypres itself the German Army drove the British back – until halted in part by mud, already a torment to all even though the day’s downpour had only started during the afternoon. Hague reported to the Cabinet that British casualties for the three days were low compared to the first day of the Somme at 31,850 – German estimated at about 30,000.
    On the Eastern Front, the Russian decline continued. In what is now western Ukraine, then a region known as Bukovina, German and Austrian forces took Zaleszczycki and Sniatin (July 30; western Ukraine now), crossed the river Zbrucz on a 30-mile front (July 31) – resisting a later Russia counterattack (August 4), and reoccupied Czernowitz (3), and Vama (4).
    Meanwhile, down in German East Africa, the Allies pressed on with their effort to push the established colonial power out of this vast territory, driving them back from the River Lugungu (July 30) and setting out towards victory in the unusually extended Battle Of Rumbo (August 2-10; British/Portuguese deaths 386, German 1,500).

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real 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 turned 19. He took up the offer, 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 until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations…]

Last week (100 years ago), Sam’s Battalion, on a route march which lasted several weeks, enjoyed the unanticipated luxury of a stint encamped at a “ducal estate” (I think my father got the wrong rank and it was an Earl’s pad, actually, but not sure). Musical evenings, even!
    Now, however, a change of tone as my father has to deal direct with his “unfavourite Captain” and fresh threats emerge to continuation of the formerly underage Tommies’ peaceful sojourn back home:

‘“Report to Company office!” This order, sudden and unexpected, increased the heartbeats and set me thinking about my recent behaviour… But I couldn’t come up with anything calling for reports or punishment.
     My unfavourite Captain** sat at a table in his tent, something between a smirk and a sneer on his unattractive face. Instead of the undeserved rebuke I expected, he rapidly read from a paper before him a statement that the Army required more officers than were coming forward, that promotion to commissioned rank should be offered to men considered suitable***. Whether the Captain intended it or not, cynical amusement at the very idea seemed to show in his face as he spoke.
     Perhaps I fell into an intended trap, but at that moment the thought of having to work with such as he appalled me; I took a snap decision. I refused the offer. And then I refused his suggestion that I take time to consider the matter. I seem to recall feeling some sort of satisfaction from being able to refuse to abandon my hoi polloi status. I see now that such feelings were childish, though gratifying at the time****.
     Next surprise, an announcement that every member of the Battalion would be medically examined the following day and re-graded. This must have shaken many a conviction that this lot were reserved for better things than warfare or, perhaps, that soldiering in the homeland was a necessary guarantee of the nation’s security. Everyone could think of a million reasons why “The Lost Division”***** should not have to board one of those wretched troopships and finish up among all the horrible bang-bangs.
     A cruel streak in those few of us who had already soldiered “over there” put smug grins on our faces when we observed the grim looks of some of the hitherto gallant defenders of the homeland. In fact, we had no justification for harbouring feelings of superiority. To imply that we were not willing to spend the remainder of our military service here, rather than there, would have made liars of us.
     I had no opinion for or against submitting to a medical examination and, thus, no interest in its taking place. I was, however, taken aback by an order to present myself at the medical marquee at 9am to act as clerk to the medical officer. I was scared, but asked no questions; obviously the 1914 lie about “Occupation: clerk” had caught up with me. Funny that — although now aware I had lied about my age******, it appeared they still accepted the occupational tag as correct. A moment’s thought by some administrator would surely have revealed that, at age 16, I could not possibly have been a full-blown clerk.
     But, of course, in the earlier case at Harfleur when Archie Barker had stated that I was a grocer*******, the Quartermaster should have realised how unlikely that was, given I was sent down from the Front because of my youth. Mine not to reason why, better to have a try, and so forth. But I did fear making an ass of myself.’
** The man my father aliased as “Captain Tarquin”, first encountered in Harrogate: “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…  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…” (See Blog 140, March 12, 2017) for background.)
*** I haven’t been able to find any information about what my father understood to be a new Army policy on commissioning the non-commissioned. Ring any bells, dear readers?
**** “Childish” perhaps, but my father really did detest the idea of gaining rank. How far it was a matter of principle, how far a quirk of character, readers of the Memoir may decide. But his “previous” included requesting demotion from Lance Corporal to Private on the Somme (refused, and temporary promotion to Sergeant in the field ensued), and tearing off a Corporal’s stripe during his December, 1916, transition from the Kensingtons to the Essex Regiment – amid admin confusion this stuck, and he remained a Lance Corporal Signaller thereafter.
***** As per last week’s reference… See Blog 131, January 8, 2017, for Sam’s strange account of the alleged/rumoured/maligned “Lost Division” – whose entry into the battlefield seemed to be forever deferred – to which his Essex Regiment Battalion, or at least stray, under-age members like himself, had been attached in Harrogate.
****** When he enlisted in September, 1914, he falsified his birth date by three years to make himself 19.
******* See Blogs 117, October 2, 2016, and 118, October 9, for that story.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam does his clerkly duty at the Battalion medicals, recording near-Catch 22 verdicts of A1 – fit, so ready for return to the frontline slaughter – or C3 – unfit, so likely to survive safe at home. During the day, he learns a dodgy use for cordite… and eventually gets a good/bad diagnosis of his own condition.

* 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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