“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, 13 August 2017

Somme veteran Sam, in a Sheffield hospital to build him up for the battlefield once more, looks clownish in his hospital gear… yet, happily, not silly enough to put off his favourite nurse Flo…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… It was as if someone had lit a fuse under the war as deadly battles began or continued on all major fronts – two of them on the Western Front alone.
    The Second Battle Of Langemarck (August 16-18), a sub-section of Third Ypres/Passchendaele, saw British, Newfoundlander and French troops attack on a nine-mile front in a somewhat successful, costly action (casualties 36,190 Allied, 24,000 German). Outside Lens, 60 kilometres due south of Ypres, the Battle Of Hill 70 (15-25) began with a Canadian attack which quickly reached its initial objectives outside the town and achieved its wider purposes of “attrition” and occupying potential German reinforcements for Ypres itself; they withstood three days of German counterattacks including a mustard gas and diphosgene shell bombardment (17).
    On the Eastern Front the German advance and Russian disintegration proceeded in Galicia and Bukovina (now parts of Poland, Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania). But, further south, in the Battle Of Marasesti (August 6-September 3) the revived Romanian Army, supported by Russian troops, decisively took the initiative from the Austro-Hungarian attackers. Likewise in the neighbouring Battle Of Oituz (August 8-20), the Romanians countered the Central Powers forces south of the River Oituz, their cavalry retaking Mount Cosna from the Germans and infantry holding the Austro-Hungarians at Ciresoia bringing the whole confrontation to an end as a stalemate.
    Finally, the Italian Army initiated the Eleventh Battle Of The Isonzo (August 18-September 12; still one more to come) on a 30-mile front in the Carso (a plateau across the northeastern Italian/Slovenian border). They immediately gained ground at Bainsizza and Mount Santo… en route to another “inconclusive bloodbath”.

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller 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. So they 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, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march …]

Last week a hundred years ago, my father officiated as stand-in clerk to the Battalion medical examinations – this while they remained encamped in the grounds of the unnamed Yorkshire stately home which had hosted them for a couple of weeks.
    Then came his own turn for this ambivalent check-up, which most of his fellow Tommies, whether front-line veterans like himself or battlefield novices, to some degree rather hoped they might fail, because an A1 verdict, they feared, represented “a death sentence”.
    Well, Sam sort of passed with an A1 grade applied “conditionally” – the condition being that he go to a Sheffield hospital (probably Wharncliffe War Hospital) to seek a cure for two-and-three-day spells when his temperature flew up and down accompanied by feelings of “lassitude”…

‘After a few days’ hospital treatment on a very light diet and some medication, I was moved on to a full, generous menu and allowed to walk out in the town – though, perhaps to ensure I didn’t stray too far, I had to wear a suit of what was called “hospital blue”. This consisted of a loose-fitting jacket and baggy trousers, neither garment in any sense tailored to the wearer’s requirements. Being too long, the rather bright blue trousers had to be rolled up, exposing their white lining; a fat, white roll thus graced each ankle. Similar treatment applied to the over-long sleeves of the jacket rendered the ensemble aesthetically complete. An acceptable man-about-town look was achieved, I’m almost sure, when I placed the Army khaki cap on top of my head. I say “on top” advisedly, because I seldom secured a cap large enough for my bonce.
    What girl would dare to be seen walking round her hometown with such a weird-looking companion? You’d be surprised, as I was. In a mood darkened by a momentary feeling of loneliness, I wrote to the nurse, Flo**, who had mothered me during my double isolation because of CSM germs and German measles. Almost by return of post came the news that she could take a few days leave due to her and would meet me outside the hospital on such-and-such a day at so-and-so time in the afternoon.
    Unacquainted, almost unaware as I then was, with female fashions, I yet felt puzzled as a little lady wearing a very wide-bottomed skirt and a snug-fitting, short, black jacket and a small hat came towards me. We shook hands and I tried to convince myself that she was the blue-and-white nurse I had previously known so well. There was the small face, the little nose and mouth and, when she smiled, the white teeth rather protruding over the lower lip. In my teens, as a soldier, I felt afraid of being noticeable when among civilians (among fellow Tommies it was different) and I recall wondering if, as a pair, we might look slightly unusual. But I realised it didn’t really matter. And, anyway, Nurse Flo was kind and generous in sacrificing some of her leave to entertain me.
    We walked and she told me about the town, then she got us on to a tram to Rotherham – about six miles from Sheffield. The impression remains of a long, flat road through an industrial area, then an uphill grind which severely tested the tram’s capability. We alighted up there in a central area and I saw the tram set off down the hill, which seemed dangerously steep to me, but obviously caused no worry to anybody else.
    A walk soon found us in pretty, open country, then on through a gate into a somewhat wooded area in which we passed occasional wooden shacks (chalets we’d call them now). Into one of these she led the way, having thoughtfully brought a door key in her handbag. This little retreat, owned by her family and convenient to the home of a sister with whom she spent free days, had a small stove and some cooking utensils which would be useful for a couple spending short holidays or weekends there.’
** When he says Nurse Flo “mothered” him, my father is economising with the truth. She worked at another Sheffield hospital, I’m not sure which, and earlier in the year she’d been on regular night shift while he recovered from the life-threatening attack of German measles which followed his isolation for carrying CSM bacteria (he never succumbed to that illness, cerebrospinal meningitis). She gave him very personal attention concluding with a big kiss at the end of each shift. Then came the night when she invited him to join her in the linen cupboard. Still an innocent lad of 18, his romantic development circumscribed by enlistment in September 1914, he drew on fear, embarrassment and the chivalric code of conduct inculcated by Vicar/Scoutmaster Mr Frusher, kissed her and retired to the bathroom. But Flo clearly forgave him or perhaps even appreciated him saving her virtue, as they might have said back then.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam flirting and horsing around with Nurse Flo – will their innocence survive? Plus new friends, fun and entertainment… as his thoughts stray to the pals he left behind forever on the Somme…

* 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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