“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 July 2017
The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1914 – war fever, German neighbours interned, Sam lies about his age to enlist… and all he’s missing is a uniform and a rifle!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… Big events away from the various Fronts: at Scapa Flow a never-explained massive magazine explosion sank the battleship HMS Vanguard, killing all but two of the 845 on board (July 9); and, with rather more long-term import, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Holweg resigned (14) after a pro-peace Reichstag revolt which was then thwarted by his successor Georg Michaelis (a lawyer/businessman and Germany’s first non-“noble” Chancellor), a protégé of General Erich Ludendorff, the dominant voice of the Army’s Supreme Command.
On the Western Front, the Allies edged forward. The British Army advanced somewhat at Messines (July 9) and the French at Braye-en-Laonnois (9; on the Aisne) and Moronvillers (14; east of Reims), while resisting German counterattacks there and on the Chemins Des Dames (15).
The Kerensky Offensive (July 1-19) proceeded over on the Eastern Front. All the developments of the week recorded in the online summaries I check for these overviews speak of Russian success against the Germans in Galicia (now mostly Ukraine) – entirely misleading as to the eventual outcome, therefore surprising in themselves. But, notably led by General Lavr Kornilov, the Russian Army pushed the German back across the River Lomnica, a tributary of the Dniester, and took Halicz (9-10), then occupied Kalusz (11-13) and moved on Dolina (12) – one source says the German counter began on the 15th.
In other hot spots: the Italians, lately defeated at Mount Ortigara, beat back the Austrians at Tolmino on the Isonzo (July 9); one British Handley Page 0/100 bomber attacked the Turkish-German fleet at Constantinople and hit the flagship, battlecruiser SMS Goeben or Yavuz Sultan Selim, though to no serious effect (9); the British Army attacked Ramadi in Mesopotamia, suffering a heavy defeat by Turkish artillery and machine guns, extreme heat and a dust storm (11-14; 566 casualties, about 60 per cent victims of the heat).
[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 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 until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more… Well, it was an interesting year all right, but my father didn’t write enough about his eventual 13 months “off” to cover 1917 in weekly chunks (I can hardly blame him; writing his Memoir in the 1970s he wasn’t really thinking about his son’s self-publishing blog requirements come 2017). So, just until next week now, the blog continues with themed childhood and teens material – his formative years – under the title The Making Of FootSoldierSam.]
Last week, The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam covered my father, Sam Sutcliffe’s, two years of working life before WW1 – chiefly, the way that his dogsbody job as junior office boy at the City offices of tin-mining company Lake & Currie introduced him to the exigencies of social class.
Mostly he could only marvel at us-and-them difference – generally refusing to share the often-voiced bitterness of his immediate boss, the Commissionaire known as “the Sergeant”. Sometimes he sneaked around the barriers and, as he wrote, “fared like a lord” by nicking the leftovers from fabulous meals served to clients in the Lake or Currie’s own chambers. Even so, social/business hierarchy – as more-or-less accidentally as every other aspect of his Making – prepared him for the rigid formalities of the Army, where rank was so precisely predicated on the individual’s previous standing in civilian life.
Now this week’s final Making Of excerpts are drawn almost entirely from the last few months before and immediately after the declaration of war when Sam, at 15/16 – his birthday on July 6 – faced the choice of remaining a boy (the truth, legally and in many other senses) or deciding to be a man (a lie, legally, but not necessarily in every other way because of his experience… of poverty in a family “come down in the world” when he was a toddler, of consequent family strife, of the constructive things that ordinary people could do and learn by making the best of their schooling, their churches, the Boy Scouts, which allowed him to develop his life through playing the piano, singing in a choir, putting on shows and performing in them, reading, writing, walking in the countryside – even fighting and beating the School Bully.
These stories and snippets begin with the Memoir’s very first mention of war, quoted last week too. This probably 1913. (NB: my father wrote the early chapters in the third person, calling himself “the boy” and then “Tommy”, while he sometimes aliased older brother Ted as “George”):
‘Sergeant told the boys under his supervision they would have to learn to do all the jobs he did, because he didn’t intend to remain there. He was perfectly sure a big war was coming up shortly and, in the natural order of things, he would go to the War Office to take a job which had been waiting for him in that event.’
But most of “Tommy”/Sam’s early imaginings about any forthcoming war drew their inspiration from fiction:
‘Because of long hours taken up by work, travel, evening classes, and Scout meetings, after leaving school Tommy’s reading tended to comprise an occasional glance at the family newspaper and a brief browse through one of the many weekly magazines, which cost only a penny or two, such as Yes Or No. It contained some quite good short stories – early Edgar Wallace(2), for instance, and efforts by others who later became well-known.
The infamous “Dr Fu Manchu” was first heard of in a monthly magazine, quite bulky and costing only fourpence halfpenny, called The Story-Teller(3).
Meanwhile, Pearson’s Weekly(4) was running a series called “While England Slept”. Week after week, it described the invasion of Great Britain by German Forces, detailing the Channel crossing, landings on the beaches, battles through Kent and Sussex villages and their eventual approach to London.
Ordinary people had for some while generally accepted that war with Germany was inevitable and they read this carefully constructed story of a surprise attack with excitement and, perhaps, concealed fear. Tommy and others of his generation could not see what would prevent the Germans from achieving their objective if they landed along the low-lying coasts. No great mountain ranges between there and the capital…(5)’
(2) Edgar Wallace, 1875-1932, creator of Sanders Of The River, King Kong, The Four Just Men; he also became the first British radio sports reporter when he commentated on the 1923 Derby for the then British Broadcasting Company.
(3) The Story-Teller ran from 1907-1936; Sax Rohmer, 1983-1959, who created Fu Manchu – serialised in The Storyteller October, 1912-June, 1913 – was born Arthur Ward in Birmingham, UK, and died in White Plains, New York (of Asian flu!).
(4) Pearson’s Weekly, 1890-1939, serialised Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells; founded by Sir Cyril Pearson, 1866-1921, a Liberal Party supporter and philanthropist who later launched the Daily Express, and – being a friend of Baden-Powell – published The Scout. I can’t find any reference to Pearson’s running “While England Slept” (a 1909 novel by Captain Henry Curties, 1860-1928) so my father may not be right about the publication. Do tell me if you know for sure!
(5) Harry Wood’s “Island Mentalities” article at invasionscares website notes a genre of “invasion fiction” developing since 1890, including William Le Queux’s The Invasion Of 1910 (1906, a “phenomenal bestseller” says Wikipedia), P.G. Wodehouse’s The Swoop! Or How Clarence Saved England: A Tale Of The Great Invasion (1909), and Saki’s When William Came (1913) – not insignificantly, in Wodehouse’s satire, Clarence Chugwater is a Boy Scout and Wood’s “Island Mentalities” says (reproduced with Harry’s kind permission) Saki “saw Scouting as a potential force for national redemption, defying enemies where the older generation had entirely failed”. (A sniper’s bullet killed Saki/Royal Fusiliers Lance Sergeant Hector Hugh Munro near Beaumont-Hamel, during the Battle Of The Ancre, in 1916, aged 45 – he’d enlisted over-age at 43.)
In the June 18 Making Of blog about Sam’s Scouting days, he noted how taking courses in signalling (semaphore, Morse), first aid (they paid “paid a good deal of attention to treating wounds”), and shooting at the Saturday afternoon rifle club, prepared him willynilly for some aspects of soldiering, despite the Scoutmaster/Vicar Mr Frusher’s apparent lack of any interest in military matters. But still “Tommy”/Sam obviously felt some connection:
‘… he soon discovered that Scouts were not alone in camping out on the edge of London. Walking by himself one Sunday, Tommy came to a wide open space beside one of the main routes from London to the North(6) and he saw with great excitement that this usually uninspiring area had become a town of tents; soldiers with rifles on their shoulders, men filling bowls with water from tanks on wheels, then holding the bowls for one another to help with shaving and washing. They emptied the used water into a large hole dug for waste disposal.
Tommy watched it all, for an hour or more. In another area, men were cooking a meal in large containers heated by open fires in shallow trenches. They fried bacon, boiled water for tea. When the bugle sounded, the soldiers lined up in orderly fashion until the cooks forked and ladled good helpings of bacon and tea into their mess tins (the lid, with a folding handle, held solid foods or acted as a frying pan, the larger bottom part contained all liquids). Soon afterwards, the clatter of eating changed to the noises of an Army striking camp, taking down tents and packing them and generally getting ready for departure, their work accompanied by much banter and laughter…
Tommy, while savouring the excitement and deep interest he felt when observing the soldiers’ encampment, felt no desire to join them. As far as he knew, drummer boy was the only Army job he might be eligible for.’
(6) Probably the Great Cambridge Road, aka the Old North Road, now the A10.
If war still seemed remote to him personally, everyone he knew talked of little else:
‘Although the routine of living continued for Tommy, his family, and all around him, excitement mounted daily as events abroad, culminating in the assassination of a royal person, led many to believe that a war in which Britain would be involved was imminent(7).
The morning paper, which Pa bought on his way to the station with two of his sons [“George”/Ted and “Tommy”/Sam], was eagerly read by their mother and the other children in the evening.
On the train to work men loudly and strongly expressed opinions about events and prospects and Tommy listened. At the office, the Sergeant really let himself go on this one; he believed the prospective enemy, the Germans, had always intended to attack England, but that our well-trained Army would soon finish them off once the two forces were face to face…
Meanwhile, brother George, sunburnt and lusty after a fortnight at a camp for assistant Scoutmasters, frequently talked about England going to war and what part he might play in it. He encouraged Tommy to join him and two friends of his own age, Len Winns and Harold Mellow, in long walks at the weekends. Then, when they stopped to rest and eat their sandwiches, a pack of cards would be produced and they’d play their favourite game, solo whist. But discussions of war always cropped up. Exciting speculations on how long it would last might vary between a few months and several years.’
(7) Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to Austria-Hungary (which included Galicia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina), and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914; following Serbia’s military annexation of Macedonia and Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire in 1912-13, Princip and fellow plotters wanted Greater Serbia to become independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At this stage, in Sam’s view, excitement overruled apprehension for most people:
‘In particular, hope burgeoned among many small businessmen. War creates shortages and speculation can yield enormous profits. But among employed people too flourished a fine flush of patriotic fervour. For instance, a common boast – notably among older men quite sure they would not be called up – claimed that one trained British soldier was worth any five foreigners.
Without thinking too deeply, one could become part of this emotion and go about one’s daily activities lightened and illumined by a self-righteous glow. Probably the nation had smarted under the German threat hanging over their heads for some years. Tommy and his like caught the infection. To the enthusiastic, people who behaved and talked rationally or, at least, just as they had always done, seemed selfish, perhaps even scared.
This national surge flowed through the millions of men who were more emotional than thoughtful. They pulsated, they were invigorated, and sustained. For many, this overexcitement would later be replaced by grim determination, perhaps directed towards helping one’s country while trying to preserve one’s life – or towards making money out of it and having a good time wherever possible. But Tommy’s generation was experiencing the last of the great patriotic upsurges in this country. Wonderful while it lasted.
Now, on the train, father would join his contemporaries to discuss the threatened Armageddon – the word applied by a journalist and taken up everywhere(8). Imaginings of war with Germany centred on the imposing figure of Kaiser Wilhelm, as portrayed in photographs and cartoons – that waxed moustache the ends of which were screwed into points and pointed upwards, a spiked helmet on his head, mounted on his horse, a fierce warrior. But people began to call up images of the huge German Army too; the infantry, they thought, would comprise rather big men wearing long, blue-grey overcoats, who travelled at great speeds too with their mechanical transport. The new thing was the lorry; one looked in vain on the roads of this country for great convoys transporting large numbers of soldiers, a sight quite commonplace in the Kaiser’s country(9), we gathered.
Soon, historic events overtook speculation. On August 4, 1914, Germany attacked Belgium, at which an old treaty impelled the British Prime Minister to declare war on Germany(10).’
(8) “Armageddon” appears in The Bible, Revelation 16:16; in various branches of Christianity it’s the war preceding the Second Coming, where Satan’s armies gather and are defeated; oddly, one of the last battles of WW1, the Battle Of Megiddo, took place on the “Plain Of Armageddon” (aka Sharon), now in Israel, September 19-25, 1918, resulting in an Allied victory over Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who subsequently fought to overthrow the Ottoman Empire, moving Turkey towards democracy and independence – achieved in 1923 – and serving as President 1923-38.
(9) In Germany, Daimler built the first motor truck in 1896. An online dictionary notes the first recorded use of the word “lorry” in English as in 1911.
(10) The Treaty Of London, 1839, between Great Britain and Prussia, but confirmed by the German Empire, guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality. Via a concatenation of treaties and other considerations, between the June 28 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and August 25, many nations declared war on one another: Austria-Hungary on Serbia, Russia on Austria-Hungary, Germany on Russia and Serbia, France on “The Central Powers” (Germany and the Ottoman Empire), Germany on France, Germany on Belgium, Great Britain on Germany (August 4), Austria-Hungary on Russia, Japan on Germany, Japan on Austria-Hungary.
But in his neighbourhood, “Tommy”/Sam saw strange and disconcerting changes occur with no explanation:
‘Workers went on with their jobs, but it was obvious their thoughts were on other things. Each day, the younger men either moved nearer to volunteering for military service or worried about the possibility of being conscripted as soon as a law to make service compulsory passed through Parliament. However, that did not, as one might have expected, happen immediately(11).
Company Secretary F.C. Bull, with knowledge to back his forecast, made no attempt to conceal his pessimism with regard to those companies owning property in Africa and Asia whose affairs he handled. German submarines would cripple our sea transportation, said he, sagely.
Most people thought it would be a short war, “all over by Christmas”. The minority, like F.C. Bull, who read and listened to those with some real knowledge of the situation, knew the struggle would probably be long and difficult. Pessimists even gave reasons why, if we weren’t careful, we might lose this war. They reminded one that the royal family bore the German name Guelph, their origins Hanoverian(12). And they would argue sarcastically that the Army was all ready to fight… the Boer War again! Such opinions, of course, offended the loquacious patriots – “Treasonable,” said some.
Meanwhile, the newspapers talked bogeyman stories – suspicious characters, spies and so on. The propaganda had its effect; Tommy saw with regret one day that someone had completely smashed the windows of Mr Schultz’s butcher’s shop. No more luscious faggots and pease pudden, thought the lad. Mr Schultz left for Wales, Tommy heard, as did another branch of his family who lived in the neighbourhood.
A schoolmate called Charlie Schmidt whom Tommy talked with occasionally also disappeared. A round, ruddy face he had, but serious, with an incomplete smile – it never quite made it. His family left with no farewells, no fuss and no destination that anybody local knew of.
Another three or four German men often provided street music, playing merry Viennese waltzes on cornets, euphoniums and basses. But they all went, never to reappear. Spies, said folks. Didn’t you notice how they use to play beside the gates of the gasworks and listen to what the workers were saying?
A local family of house decorators, including several young men in their teens and early twenties also departed without a word – they’d offered low prices for their low-paid customers, useful members of the community and much liked. Napper their name was. Surely not Germans. Or were they?(13)’
(11) The Government did not introduce conscription until January, 1916; in January, 1914, the British Army numbered 710,000, only 80,000 of them regulars; before January, 1916, 2.67 million volunteered, and subsequently 2.3 million were conscripted.
(12) King George V, 1910-36, grandson of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia And Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany became the first monarch of the “House of Windsor” in 1917, by renaming the House of Saxe-Coburg And Gotha because of public feeling.
(13) Answering a question of mine, my father noted that Alexandra Palace Internment Camp – “prison” he called it – was the one “only a few miles away” from where he lived in Edmonton; the conversion from entertainment centre took place soon after the war started; 3,000 internees slept on plank beds in three large halls; inmates organised a football team, gardening plots, concerts and a theatrical society; about 80 per cent of interned Germans returned home after the war, although many had lived in Great Britain for years beforehand.
Despite his regret at seeing German friends and pillars of the community vanishing, “Tommy”/Sam admitted to absorbing the base influence of Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull weekly:
‘Tommy often read this weekly paper when his father had finished with it. The fiery patriotism impressed him, the condemnation of the foul enemy with whom we were at war, the constant watchfulness the editor and his staff maintained to discover and expose traitors in high places. He, and thousands of others, began to believe that this man could be the leader and saviour of Britain and the Empire. Men in large or small groups and organisations always search for and hope to find the ideal leader, the good man, the honest man, who combines these virtues with vast knowledge and statesmanlike skill. Men will follow such a person to the death…’
After the war Bottomley’s fraudulent “war charity” was exposed and he spent some years in jail. But while the pre-war fever held sway, his propaganda – oratorical or written – changed the lives of thousands, and of the communities and families they came from:
‘Meetings such as those organised by Bottomley encouraged men to join the Forces and large numbers made up their minds on the spot. At this, they would be marched away to some depot where a cursory medical examination preceded the signing of an Attestation Paper swearing the oath of allegiance – and, thus, sudden severance from their normal life and their usual associations. Others who had served in the Forces before, perhaps in the Boer War, and then joined the reserve list, would suddenly appear in their communities wearing the khaki uniform of war. But they too soon vanished, gone to their Regimental depots, it was assumed.
On the train each morning, the four lads discussed the latest news, telling each other about chaps who had either been recalled to their units or had volunteered to go. They talked with both excitement and unease. Confused emotions pervaded them and everybody around them… [gaps] in the ranks at the office only increased that sense of unease, that something was wrong somewhere.
Not all the war news was good. The sudden advance of the British Army across France, sweeping the Germans back into their own country, hadn’t occurred yet. And the General in charge inspired no faith. Inevitably, because seniority and maybe a little influence decided who should be at the top, he was an elderly man(14). Nor did the Government, Liberal at the time, reassure ordinary people who generally thought the Prime Minister an adequate man, but nothing more(15).’
(14) Field Marshall John French, 1852-1925, Commander-In-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, 1914-16; Field Marshall Lord Kitchener was Secretary Of State For War.
(15) Herbert Asquith, 1852-1928, Prime Minister 1908-16, nicknamed “Squiffy” for obvious reasons; actress Helena Bonham-Carter is his great granddaughter.
“Tommy”/Sam, his brother and friends discussed the war as an issue, but behind the debate they all knew that a decision awaited them, each of them individually:
‘Summer slipped into September, good weather still, a beautiful autumn. But it was not being enjoyed at home. Mother began to worry about the possibility of food shortages. Already some of the cheap items she bought had become scarce or completely unavailable.
Meanwhile, an enthusiasm built up among ordinary men. “Stand by your country,” “Be prepared to defend it,” and similar remarks abounded. Accordingly, more and more were actually joining up. Often fearing their civilian jobs would peter out, they felt, even so, they had done the right thing by their families, their country and, of course, themselves.
Around September 8, Tommy recalls, the four pals – although their junior by several years, he tried to think himself into being one of them – went off on their usual train. But when they reached Liverpool Street, the elder three were talking quietly, leaving Tommy on the outside of the conversation. In the end, brother Ted said to him: “We’re not going to our offices today. We three are going to join up.”
Perhaps you can imagine the sinking feeling in Tommy when he heard this. Was he going to be left on his own with the diminishing number on the train journey to an office where all was gloom? Was he going to do that? No thinking required. “I’m coming with you,” he said.’
In fact, they made a false start. Their attempt to sign up with the Royal Field Artillery stalled as a recruiting Sergeant, took down a lot of their details and said if they came back tomorrow they could complete the process. But when they returned, he apologised, said he’d been ordered not to enlist anyone just yet. At least “Tommy”/Sam and “George”/Ted (still underage at 18 when 19 was the lower limit) had practiced their necessary lies about birthdates and so on…
‘Our four found themselves in some trouble, they reckoned. Their employers had a right to an explanation. But, after much discussion, they agreed to persist in their intention to enlist. They would return home by the trains they normally used, say nothing to their families about their actions during this unlucky day, and set off to the usual train tomorrow morning.’
Here’s Sam’s recollection of that evening and the following day:
‘Tomorrow’s events would decide where his future lay. If the Army would not have him then a humdrum life lay ahead. His job, humble though it was, would surely end soon. Necessity would force him to try something different. In wartime, who could say what would turn up?
Meanwhile, he meant to stick with his brother and the others if possible – although a glance in the mirror convinced him that he looked almost childish compared to them. Far removed from chaps who needed to wield cutthroat razors in order to look presentable. “I’m going to be left behind. They’ll be off and away without me,” he feared.
Without giving the subject really deep thought, he became obsessed with the need to go where Len, Harold and Ted went. There’s safety in numbers was what he really felt no doubt. Before he had been allowed to join the three, he had gone his own way, unattached to any specific group, just keeping company with one or two friends. But suddenly those schoolmates had drifted into the background, unconnected with the present.
… next morning they set off to join the other two in fairly cheerful mood, Tommy less happy than his brother because he had greater doubts. Len and Harold met them at the station and immediately said they had heard of a depot where recruitment had been in progress for several days. Although it entailed a lengthy walk from Liverpool Street to Bloomsbury, they had no reason to hurry because their early train landed them in the City before 8 o’clock and they reckoned 9am would be quite early enough to present themselves at the depot…
They stopped beside a large building which occupied the whole of one side of a short street(16). They approached a pair of very large, closed, green doors to one side of which stood a noticeboard headed by a badge, rather intricate in design and roughly triangular in shape. With mounting excitement they noted the words “Battery” and “Field Artillery”.
Nobody was about, so they pushed at a swing door set in one of the large ones and stepped through into an open, paved area. Further along a substantial group of men shuffled about, waiting it seemed. So the four decided to join them at what they concluded must surely be the Artillery’s recruiting entrance – marked, apparently, by a smallish soldier in khaki uniform, a crown over three stripes on each arm, who stood a few feet from the men with his back to an open door into the building.
Tommy looked at him intently, standing on his toes to see over the heads in front of him. The man had a clean, spruce appearance, a moustache with long, waxed points, an unattractive face – small eyes, the mouth downturned at the corners. No colour at all in the cheeks. A short cane held by the left hand was tucked under the armpit.
Somebody inside called out a message to him. This caused some excited movement among the waiting men, who bumped into one another and stumbled forward. “Keep back there, keep well back!” shouted the Company Quartermaster Sergeant – for such was his rank, according to one of the would-be recruits. He pointed with his cane at man after man, “You, you, you”, and the selected ones hastened through the door, about six of them. This procedure he repeated time after time during the next three hours, then the Sergeant called out, “We now break for lunch, back at two!”
So off into a small, nearby park went the lads and ate sandwiches and talked… “I’ve got a feeling [that Sergeant will] rumble my age – anyway he looks the type who would enjoy making a kid look foolish.” Tommy now felt really up against it and he had already determined what he would do if only he could get into about the third row of the crowd…
By one o’clock they got back to the depot – Len, Ted and Harold in the front row and Tommy, intentionally, in the fourth row. The Sergeant resumed his routine, looking as though he’d had a couple, as one man suggested, but still far from jovial.
His first after-lunch selections took in Len, Harold, and Ted, but as they moved forward Tommy bent double till his right shoulder was level with the backside of the man in front of him. Annoyed, the man behind Tommy yelled at him and shoved hard against him. With that unexpected extra push to boost his own violent surge forward, Tommy’s ruse succeeded. The men in front of him staggered and one of them collided with the Sergeant who shouted at him while the man apologised – and Tommy squeezed round this little melee, behind the Sergeant and on through the door in the wake of his pals. “Down those stairs,” directed a uniformed man inside. Tommy descended and joined a queue…
Thereafter, he kept strictly in line, his head down, hoping that, if anybody searched for the chap who’d broken through, he would not be recognised. But nobody troubled him and the line of men slowly inched forward until Tommy, in his turn, came face to face with the doctor. An elderly man, thin and not far from unkempt, he worked under great pressure and at speed. “Open your mouth.” He looked in. He pulled down the lower lids of Tommy’s eyes. Glanced into his ears. Put a stethoscope to his chest. He held Tommy’s scrotum in one hand and said “Cough”. Again he applied the stethoscope to his chest, then said “You’ll do”.
Tommy moved across to where a two-stripe man weighed him and measured him – 5 feet 7½ inches. Onwards to a long table where several uniformed clerks were filling in Attestation forms, asking for all the usual details, including age. “19,” said Tommy. Here came the catch. “Date of birth?” Tommy had that worked out. “July 6, 1895.” “Any birth marks?” Then the clerk read to him a declaration that all these things were true and said, “Sign here!” All that completed, he was told to go upstairs and wait.
He found himself in a large hall where, amid the crowd, he felt reasonably safe. Rightly or wrongly, he thought some men looked surprised when they noticed him. The serious face he wore – or tried to – would, he hoped, conceal his inward wavering. Useless to show uncertainty. From now on he was a man among men and would have to march long distances and carry heavy equipment and a rifle and ammunition. All this, he knew for sure, would tax his boyish strength, but he remained determined to go ahead. Pleasure at seeing the other three in the hall rid him immediately of forebodings and he listened to their accounts of the medicals and so on and shared their joy in having at last achieved their intention of becoming soldiers.
“Artillerymen you mean,” said Tommy.
“No, just infantrymen,” Len told him. “The footsloggers. No riding lovely horses for us. We made a right mess of things in that respect. Didn’t you read the top part of your form when you signed it? We’re in the Royal Fusiliers – the Royal Field Artillery where we were yesterday is next door, apparently. RFA, RF, we didn’t notice the difference.”’
(16) Handel Street, WC1. The building, Yeomanry House/Artillery House, is still there.
Naturally, a series of firsts for “Tommy”/Sam soon followed. Here, his first sight of an officer:
‘Time passed until some sort of fuss around the street entrance announced the appearance of the first commissioned officer Tommy had seen – a man immaculate in a new uniform obviously tailored to his trim figure. He wore his stiff-peaked military cap straight, no tilt to sides or back; each epaulette bore three bright stars (designating a Captain, as Tommy soon learnt); his leather belt and the strap worn over the right shoulder, which joined the belt at the left hip, were glossily polished, as were his brown boots; at the hip hung a sword in its scabbard.
Tommy never forgot his first impression of an officer and a gentleman – the popular perception of a man holding the King’s Commission. He certainly never saw a more handsome and correct representative of that class. The Captain’s face did credit to his rank. Firm chin, small, neat moustache, quite kindly eyes.’
Then, more mundane, yet satisfactory in its own way – that very afternoon, his first pay:
‘… the soldiers quickly set up tables and chairs at equal distances along the clear side of the hall, and guided the recruits into single lines, one to each table. Each recruit gave his name which was entered on a sheet together with the amount paid under the two separate headings – King’s shilling, part-day subsistence. In due course, all the recruits had received their first soldier’s pay.’
But just when the euphoria of it all had swept over them, “Tommy”/Sam and Ted had to think about telling their parents what they’d done:
‘“You do realise,” said Ted, ”we have signed a solemn declaration that the information about ourselves we gave was all true?” “Yes,” said Tommy eagerly, “and I can tell Ma that if anyone informs the Army that I’ve lied I shall probably be sent to prison.”
When they went indoors she commented that they were home earlier than usual. Then out poured their news and not, to Tommy’s surprise, in any apologetic way but with something like pride. Watching mother’s face the boys saw various emotions aroused. She and father being politically of a Conservative persuasion and quite firmly patriotic people, she did not immediately protest or reprimand. She did point out that Tommy was much too young to think of being a soldier. That concluded it, though; before any decision was made, she would have to talk with father.
Later that evening, when father returned from work and mother told him the news, the brothers awaited the outcome of their discussion. Eventually, their parents called them together and told them they could agree to Ted staying in the Army, but they would have to get Tommy out. At this, Tommy played his trump card. He said he knew, strictly speaking, he’d done a very dishonest thing, but pointed out that his motives weren’t bad – and, finally, that he didn’t know what prison sentence would be inflicted on him for making a false declaration regarding his age… In conclusion, he pleaded with his parents for permission to carry on as a soldier for a time, at any rate, and prove he could do the job for which he had volunteered.
Father talked of the physical strain a boy could suffer in trying to do the tasks expected of full-grown men. Still Tommy begged to be allowed to try. Then, perhaps, he won the day by explaining that in all, while living at home, he would be paid 21/- a week, a guinea. That is, 1/- a day soldier’s pay, plus 2/- a day subsistence money. That rate, though temporary, matched what many full-grown men earned – a very good wage, in fact, for unskilled work. Eventually, they agreed that Tommy should, for the moment, carry on soldiering.’
Soon, inevitably, the novice Battalion began marching – to nowhere in particular, just around town, trying to keep in step… and “Tommy”/Sam found himself startled to receive displays of respect from those who’d normally expect to be the recipients of his deference:
‘Every man wished that he should do well and that his comrades should do well… and that perhaps some famous General might be watching unseen, later to issue a full report full of praise for the volunteer soldiers… who reminded him of the Guards…
If Tommy dreamed thus, we may assume others did too. But he did notice, at first with incredulity, that some men on the pavement – invariably smart well-dressed types – raised their hats on sighting the column. One such, coming down the steps of a large house, reached the pavement as Tommy drew level. He raised his bowler hat, and as his eyes rested momentarily on Tommy’s the boy felt himself blushing. “Ridiculous,” he told himself. “The gentleman was saluting the volunteers, not a lad who had lied to get in. There’ll never be another march like this one.”’
However, he felt sure that not everyone observing them would be in hat-tipping mood. In the grounds of the Foundlings Hospital, near the RF’s Handel Street depot, they began their initial inept drill exercises – still wearing their ill-assorted ragtag civvies (“Tommy”/Sam’s, for instance, comprised the City office boy’s “skintight trousers and short, bum-freezer jacket, topped off with the square, bowler hard hat”):
‘Tommy surmised that residents, and others, passing by the railings and big iron gates might speculate as to how all this was helping the troops already fighting and being wounded or killed(17). How about giving each man a rifle and showing him how to fire it, how to use a bayonet? Many people were saying that would have been better preparation for war. Tommy agreed. But we hadn’t the uniforms or the arms apparently… And Tommy and many thousands of other early volunteers may have owed their survival to that lack of war materials.’
(17) The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the standing Army, suffered huge casualties during autumn, 1914, in battles both won and lost alongside the French Army, including Mons (August 23 onwards, origin of the enduring Cockney phrase “the biggest cock-up since Mons”), Le Cateau (August 26), Marne (September 5-12), Aisne (September 13-28), and Ypres (October 19-November 22); the BEF were colloquially known as “the Old Contemptibles” because of an alleged written order from Kaiser Wilhelm: “Exterminate… the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little Army”; on their side, German soldiers called Ypres “the slaughter of the innocents” because their commanders were already throwing in Divisions of young, inexperienced troops.
“Tommy”/Sam’s 2/1st Royal Fusiliers didn’t get their hands on rifles until March/April, 1915, in Malta. But, six or seven weeks after they’d enlisted, uniforms did finally arrive and provide their activities with a new sense of dignity:
‘However, came the day when all doubt and disappointment vanished: an announcement that, from the last Monday in October, the two Companies who, each day, took their turn to occupy the Battalion Headquarters would be solely occupied with the long-anticipated distribution of uniforms: greatcoats(18), tunics, trousers, socks, boots, puttees, undervests, shirts, pants, all crowned by a military cap with a Regimental badge. Much mirth ensued from the announcement that each man would be issued with a housewife, but this turned out to be nothing more sexy than a roll-up cloth pouch holding needles, cotton, buttons and so on.
The recruits were expected to buy tins of a paste called Soldier’s Friend, also a small brush and a peculiar six-inch piece of metal with a lengthwise slot – called a button stick, for reasons soon revealed. An instructor demonstrated the art of accurately directing a shot of spittle to the centre of the paste, scooping some buttons into the slot on the stick, dabbing the brush into the paste, scrubbing the buttons, and finally polishing them.
Then the NCOs showed them how to convert their greatcoats into long slim rolls, the ends of the rolls to be brought together and secured with a cord or strap, the loop then passed over the head to rest on the right shoulder diagonally across the body. In fine weather, the welcome order to listen out for was “Greatcoats will be worn en banderole”. Was this expression borrowed from Napoleon’s Army, Tommy wondered. Nobody enlightened him and he never heard the phrase used by officers of any other Army unit. He assumed the Foreign Legion and his Royal Fusiliers had at least those two words in common.
On receiving his kit he couldn’t get home fast enough.
His family showed great interest in the quality of the clothing, touching the uniform and rubbing it between thumbs and forefingers like so many tailors. All good stuff, they agreed: vest and long pants of wool, warm, heavy garments; socks too would obviously stand much hard wear and ensure warm feet in he coldest weather. The name Schneider in the cap struck them all as being rather strange. “What,” asked Dad, “is the British Army doing with headgear of apparently German manufacture?”
Hastily, Tommy changed into the uniform. He found all the garments fitted him well, except that the boots were too big, albeit the smallest in stock as the Quartermaster had explained when issuing them. So, for his early months in the Army, Tommy had to wear two pairs of grey socks to fill out the heavy boots. He would have to buy two pairs of socks as near to the official ones in colour and weight as possible so he could rotate two pairs on and two in the wash.
He’d put on everything but the puttees. He began his first attempt to wind these bandages round his calves, starting with a turns around the ankle… spacing each turn evenly a requirement not easy to satisfy. However, after a few awkward failures, he came close to achieving the correct outcome. Then he stood up straight and still, eyes looking straight ahead at their own level, chin in, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, knees back, heels together, toes apart at an angle of 90 degrees — all as per instructions, the very figure of a soldier, he hoped.
Mother studied him, tears in her eyes… and she laughed and laughed and laughed. This puzzled and disappointed the self-conscious lad. He searched her face to discover if the mirth was a derisory reaction. As he watched her, understanding came to him and he also laughed and laughed. “That’s it,” she said. “You can see it all as I do. I’m not sneering at the boy soldier, but to see one of my children dressed as a fighting man for the first time, standing stiff as a ramrod and so serious with it. Well, it’s just too much.” The laughter petered out with some quickly concealed tears.’
(18) Greatcoats: wool coats, reaching below the knee, with a cape attachment around the shoulders.
While the emotions of the occasion evaded concealment, “Tommy”/Sam later reflected on the wider, harder significance of wearing that uniform:
‘Later in the war he sometimes recalled that day. He didn’t realise its importance at the time, none of them did as far as he knew. Quite light-heartedly, he wished to throw off the clothes of a mere civilian and be seen as a soldier – after weeks of trying to be one while still dressed in his boyish suit and bowler. But, in truth, he was shedding the garb of freedom, doing so eagerly, divesting himself of clothing which entitled him to go almost anywhere in Great Britain without let or hindrance and putting on the uniform of service or maybe of serfdom. From then on, if called upon to do so by Military Police or gentlemen holding His Majesty’s Commission, he would have to account for his presence in any location.’
At this point we leave Foot Soldier Sam, a boy in uniform, and a Made Man – not in the Mafia sense, but as far as it was going to happen to a poor working lad from north London before the Army and the war took over his life for the next five years (through to the London Peace Parade in July 1919) and made him some more via the good offices of Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras (the Spring Offensive battle) and eight months as a POW.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Back from The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam to the finished article, the veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme, just past his 19th birthday in July, 1917, and expecting to be returned to the Front any day. Well, not yet a while. Instead his Essex Regiment Battalion is sent out on manoeuvres in Yorkshire – and, in a sticky situation, Sam actually does become the hero of the hour, after a fashion, thanks to his crafty deployment of a ball of string…
* 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.