“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 24 February 2019
Retrospective 2 – sex and romance and a WW1 Tommy: young Sam’s “love life” as an innocent abroad struggling with temptation…
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A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… While the Peace Conference in Paris trundled on with the worker bees doing the details, PM Lloyd George and President Woodrow Wilson, among other leaders, attended to business back home – France’s PM Georges Clemenceau doubtless still preoccupied with recovering from the bullet between the ribs he took from a would-be assassin on February 19. Of course, other assorted disruptions continued (low-key compared to world war, but variously significant for the longer-term future).
Among the forces’ mutinies and industrial actions flaring up around Europe, the La Canadiense electricity company strike in Barcelona was in the first fortnight of its 44 days (February 21-April 6) en route to establishing an eight-hour day by law for the whole of Spain.
The latest post-war election, in Finland (March 1-3), emulated the results from most of the others with a Social Democratic Party win.
Meanwhile, in Russia the first congress of the Communist International opened at the Kremlin (March 2) – and Bolshevik troops continued to press Allied forces back 140 miles south of Archangel (March 1-2; the city itself 765 miles north of Moscow).
In the far east, Entente ally and top-table participant in the Peace Conference, Japan, found itself in domestic trouble as Korea launched the Samil resistance movement against occupation and declared independence (March 1).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit and, so far, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton…]
Retrospective 2: As of February/March, 1919, my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, Gallipoli, Somme, Spring Offensive veteran and ex-POW, found himself in Brighton – billeted in a Spartan dormitory near the top of a grand Palmeira Square mansion. Transferred to the Royal Defence Corps – an early Dad’s Army – for his concluding months in uniform, at this point he simply enjoyed “a month spent by the sea with nothing to do”… which he covered comprehensively with just that phrase so, for want of concurrent 100-years-ago-this-week blog material…
I’m leaving him for four weeks until the powers-that-be come up with something useful for him and his mates to engage with (which they did). For now, a second themed look back. Last week, it was “Fear and the battlefield”. Now, “Sex and romance”… which actually adds up to just as long a blog as last week’s record-breaker – and just as unpredictable I should think, as Sam presents himself candidly as ever, rather than easing into you-know-what-soldiers-are macho clichés.
So an army marches on its stomach – see next week’s food-themed excerpts – but what the troops do with their desires for sex and love, both or either, is far more random, a matter of individual circumstance and, to some degree, choice.
But NB, no actual sex is described in this blog! It’s not my father’s bid for the WW1 50 Shades Of Grey market:
My father, born in 1898, got his first lessons in sex from observing the animals – horses mostly – who thronged the streets of north London in the early 1900s when he was growing up in Edmonton… and the surrounding fields come to that, as his suburb was on one of the city’s fast-expanding fringes at the time. At the same time, like most little boys he wriggled through his first glimpses of romance in tentative flirtations with equally bemused little girls – one of which came around again in his adolescence as you’ll see.
But the earliest teen-romantic-front experiences he mentions, which decisively shaped the young Tommy he became, were powerful repressives in very different ways. First, a casual dalliance which never proceeded so far as even a first kiss: at 14 or 15, when he’d started his pre-war job as an office boy at a tin-mining company office near Liverpool Street station, his two-years-older brother Ted introduced him to two girls [NB: this and other pre-Army excerpts come from the early chapters of the Memoir where Sam wrote in the third person calling himself “Tommy/he/our lad” and so on, while aliasing brother Ted as “George”]:
‘One of them was the daughter of a greengrocer and she liked talking about the family trade. The other worked in an office somewhere…
They met the girls on several other occasions, but at that time Tommy had no interest at all in the greengrocer’s daughter, so he didn’t see any more of them until a Sunday afternoon just after dinner when mother, who’d apparently heard some sound, hurried to the front door, opened it and, after a moment, started shouting. The boys slipped over to the window and saw the two girls standing in the road. They had called to ask if George and Tommy would be coming out and mother was ranting away saying that her sons wanted nothing to do with them and she’d see that they didn’t have. “You shameless hussies, throwing yourselves at young lads like my sons!” she yelled – “hoossies” in her Manchester accent, Tommy always remembered the sound of it. “Clear off, before I give you something to help you on your way!”
It was embarrassing. Well, George was more incensed than embarrassed and, thereafter, he took care to keep his friends, both male and female, away from their home. Out of such things are the seeds of dissension and dislike sometimes sown in families. A growing chap like that getting treated as a child… But I’m afraid that no protests on his part would have deterred the mother from acting in that way.’
If that incident nailed down embarrassment as an undermining element of his relationships with girls, the advice he got from his main mentor outside the family, vicar/choirmaster/Scoutmaster/music teacher Mr Frusher, proved a not altogether positive counterbalance. In the pre-war period, this Renaissance man taught the boys shooting and first aid (with particular attention to wounds) and invited the older ones to join a discussion group which included sex-and-morality education:
‘…On these occasions, Mr Frusher even led discussions of men-women relationships. Discouraging romantic notions without deriding them, the elderly, bachelor teacher continued where the school lessons in anatomy and physiology left off. “Frankness in these matters kills morbid curiosity,” he would say. He explained the sex organs – particularly the female genital parts always omitted from the school’s anatomical charts.
In a sensible way, he described the feelings contact between the sexes could arouse, the actions and the results that would follow: the girls in trouble, the unwanted babies; the worry, regret, fear; the difficulties which beset a young man who has fathered a bastard. He drew this picture so impressively the lads were never likely to forget. In fact, he constantly impressed upon them that sexual intercourse before marriage was wrong, a crime, it must never even be considered, let alone indulged in.
He instructed them about another aspect of sexual development too: masturbation. He told them what a habit it could develop into, assumed they had never done it – correctly in most cases, thought Tommy – and assured them that if they never started they would never be bothered by the habit. What he used to call “night losses” – about which most young men know something – would, he believed, have an ill effect on a lad. But they could be averted, he said, if you didn’t sleep on your back. This could be achieved, he recommended, by tying a cotton reel or bobbin round your waist and placing the uncomfortable object against the spine.
But, beyond such practical matters, he wished the lads to grow up as what he called “gentlemen”. The girl being so constituted that marriage and child-bearing were the most important things in her life, she would generally submit to a man’s desires – after a certain amount of caressing had taken place – in spite of any advice she may have received. Mr Frusher’s conclusion: the man – stronger, physically and mentally – had a bounden duty to accept responsibility and ensure that nothing occurred, when the girl was in his care, which he could not freely reveal to her parents. The final word had a memorable simplicity to it: chivalry.
Coupled with lessons in physiology and home nursing, both part of advanced training for all Boy Scouts, this early debunking of the sham romanticism so prevalent in those days did help the boys. Furthermore, the Scout Code they had sworn to included the words “To be pure in thought and word and deed”(2); sticking to it became a settled part of their life and conduct. Tommy remembered all these things in the company of the girls with whom he occasionally formed friendships. Some may have thought him reticent or slow, but all realised that, at any rate, he was safe…’
(2) The tenth article of Scout Law, added in the 1911 fourth edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting For Boys.
So now the first almost-girlfriend – and connection back to naughty childhood games:
‘… one evening, as he got on the train to go home as usual, a voice called out his name. It was Bessie Dibbs… He hadn’t seen her for several years since, as children of eight or nine, they’d played postman’s knock at a Christmas party… Tommy seemed to recall that Bessie had picked him, he couldn’t imagine why – then the two would leave the room to kiss and cuddle (if agreeable) while those left behind giggled and then, on the couple’s return, made saucy comments on what they might have got up to out in the hallway. Now here they were, 15 and meeting again.
She sat beside him and they talked as much as they could in a crowded compartment full of people smoking. They alighted at the same stop, of course, and walked together until their ways parted. But when they said their good evenings, Bessie suggested Tommy might let her have his firm’s telephone number so she could ring him up for a chat. Rather weakly, Tommy agreed. A day or so later, she called and he was very glad he happened to be on the switchboard to pick it up.
The next time, though, Sergeant [the company’s Commissionaire i.e. the office boys’ boss] answered, and when Bessie said she was a friend of Tommy’s, he somehow changed his voice to produce an imitation of Tommy which Bessie found credible and he chatted away calling her “darling” and “sweetheart”, while Tommy sat on a stool beside him, blushing and unable to do anything about it — although, from what he heard, Bessie didn’t sound too displeased. Well, Sergeant loved to embarrass the boy.
On his next homeward train journey sitting with Bessie, Tommy noted the appearance she had of being well-fed, well-clothed – everything right in her world. Then he appraised himself: his home-made grey mac, the cheap suit beneath it, the cheap shoes. Comparing the obvious difference in circumstances between himself and the girl, he knew he would have to break away before he got in too deep. That wasn’t easy for a naturally shy lad who wasn’t too good at expressing his feelings. But he did tell her he hadn’t called her sweetheart, darling and so forth, it was all that Sergeant up to his games – and that they’d have to discontinue their walking home and talking on the phone. Although they did see each other from time to time after that, it must have been quite apparent to Bessie he was not the lad she’d thought him to be.’
You can see that, added to the usual embarrassments as multiplied by his mentor’s words regarding morality and chivalry, Sam carried a load of I’m-not-good-enough which seemed to restrain or confuse him most acutely in relationships with girls – readers of the full Memoir will know its origins in both poverty (especially through his parents’ shame at “coming down in the world”) and his sense of inferiority to beloved brother Ted, reinforced by his mother’s scornful comparisons. It was so undermining that when, at 13-14, Sam followed Ted as top boy in his last year at school, Sam thought the teachers got it wrong and marked him on Ted’s afterglow, you might say, rather than his own abilities.
Well, that’s it for his pre-war romantic life – and so far so innocent.
Of course, the basic sexual (and loving?) needs of the soldier abroad in wartime lead (led?) in only one direction – towards prostitutes. I think the best way to address my father’s encounters in this area is to bring them together, from one “exotic” location to another.
After enlisting at 16, in September, 1914, he trained in London (living at home) and then Tonbridge (apparently staid as you’d imagine), before sailing away to Malta where further training saved them from actual fighting from February to August, 1915. But, aside from the male citizenry’s own requirements, it was a historic garrison island. So after a week or three, Sam’s pal Hayson suggested they do that laddish tourist thing, “taking a look” at the Valletta Red Light District, the Strada Fontana back then…
‘Tommy too felt something adventurous about the idea. Perhaps seeing how the business was conducted without apparently looking at the whores. When they found the Strada, they saw that the houses – small and terraced – were all to their right. “We’ll keep to the left side of the street along by the wall,” suggested Hayson.
This they did, talking as they walked, hoping that their guarded glances to the right passed unnoticed by women whom they could see standing on the pavement by their front doors. Rather old most of them looked to the boy. He’d seen mothers of chaps like himself standing chatting to neighbours at their front doors back home who looked no older than most of these women – and they certainly didn’t shout coarse invitations such as “Come on, darky ginger” and “Very nice, very cheap” in loud, harsh voices. After which, when the lads took no notice of their offers, came the insults: “English soldier no good, no money,” “Territorials plenty beeg preek and no money,” “Give him bottle of milk – call yourself a man!” and so on.
So the adventure lost its savour. The youngsters’ uselessness was so obvious that women way ahead of them took up the shouting. Although they continued to the end of the street, their walk almost became a run and they felt lucky to escape without injury. Probably the women could tell from long experience when they were being inspected as curiosities.
Tommy learned later – through a visit where he actually did wait for a friend without using the establishment’s services himself – that each house was controlled by an old woman who performed certain necessary duties beyond her nominal job title of “cook”. First she took out the customer’s penis and cleansed it with a swab dipped in water and then in Condy’s Fluid [standard British disinfectant of the time]which she kept in a bucket in the corner of the room. Then, in full view of the customer – by way of guarantee, up to a point – she performed a cleansing of the whore with the same fluid. The “cook” also attended to payment: one shilling for the use of the woman and a penny for herself.’
Humiliation then. Often a key element in a boy’s sexual development…
Unsurprisingly, nothing germane occurred during his time in Gallipoli – could it have been a rare “theatre” of war without a woman in sight, at least on the Allied invaders’ side of the trenches? But when his 2/1st Royal Fusiliers remnants evacuated Suvla Bay and then V Beach they got an R&R spell in Egypt, January to April, 1916, initially near Alexandria. There, on a day out with a pal called Miller, Sam eventually came to understand the scummiest set-up he ever ran into:
‘… penniless, we two swells wandered around the town, which we rated less interesting than Cairo. As we strolled aimlessly, a boy joined us. Probably nine or ten years old, he wore a dark-grey Norfolk jacket – popular casual wear for males of all ages at that time – shorts and, below the knees, hose with turned-down coloured tops and short-sided boots; a white shirt with a knitted, striped tie completed his neat outfit. He spoke good English, though with a strange accent – soon explained when he said he was Russian. At that tender age, he was already tri-lingual, French being his favourite, he explained.
When he invited us to visit his home, we felt pleased and excited. The prospect of spending an hour or two in civilian surroundings fulfilled a longing – a desire to return, however briefly, to the old life at home – about which we seldom spoke for fear of being dubbed soft…
The boy led us to a flat on the first floor of a fairly large block. He introduced us to his three sisters, small girls, probably aged between 12 and 15. Their fairly large room was furnished with one or two chairs and three small beds. Uncertain, but not embarrassed, I sat down. Miller did likewise and we attempted polite conversation, but were completely defeated because the girls spoke only French.
In England the old teapot would by now have been brought into service to ease developments, but I knew French folk favoured coffee. None was offered, though, and the girls sat around, smiling and sharing remarks and giggles between themselves. I had felt real pleasure on entering this plainly furnished yet clean flat, but now the boy had vanished and, without him as interpreter, we were sunk, no valid reason to remain. Standing up and looking at each girl preparatory to leaving, I decided they were plain as to looks and, though tiny,may perhaps have been a little older than I had at first supposed.
Out on the gallery, from which a staircase led downwards, I glanced at the wall behind me and noticed a brass plate beside another front door. Doctor So-and-So, it said. Seeing one of the girls still standing outside the flat we’d just quit, I called out “Pourquoi‘Doctor’?” Her reply supplied the answer to several questions I’d been asking myself. The baby voice shouted “Doctor Cunt!” So then I realised that these children were prostitutes, the Russian boy their tout, and some fat, filthy swine using them to enable him or her to live comfortably during a war which brought death and disease to millions of people.’
If, on that occasion, Sam hadn’t even understood what he was dealing with until he’d made his exit, his next confrontations with professional sex left nothing to the imagination. In Rouen, late April, 1916, waiting to find out whether their depleted Battalion would be reinforced or disbanded, he and a Tommy called Haines visited the cathedral, then entered an apparent estaminet:
‘Inside, though, I saw no bar, only some marble-topped tables and chairs. Then, unprompted, an electric bell rang, a door opened and in marched a line of eight or so women dressed in gowns of various colours. Facing us, they threw open these gowns and stood there, obviously inviting inspection and selection. None of them was young, some as old, I judged, as my mother. I hope I didn’t show the revulsion I felt. I expected my companion to get out with me right away, but instead he pointed to one woman. She stepped forward and he departed with her.
I was in a dilemma, but made it clear by my actions that I wasn’t interested and the women marched out – all except one. By now I felt scared and ordered wine to propitiate whichever invisible person ran the establishment. It meant spending a couple of scarce francs, but provided time in which to think. I remember pouring myself a glass from the bottle, pushing it towards the woman and making signs that she should help herself… and when she had drunk that, insisting she had another glass. Some time passed, the awkward situation becoming ever more distressing for me. Relief came with the reappearance of Haines. I stood up, waved farewell, and was outside the place in a second.
Naturally, I protested about being let in for a rotten experience, but Haines laughed that off. He’d assumed I’d known what it was all about, whereas I would have expected a chap who wanted that sort of thing to choose a man with similar tastes to his own for a visit to the town. I recall asking him if he was married. He was, of course, so that accounted for his need of a woman to fill a wartime lack in his life.’
Still the Boy Scout, one might say. Prudery, fear… though you can see there’s more to his attitude than that, I think, including his “revulsion” and attempt to suppress that feeling. Some Frusherish chivalry, some innate decency, some awareness of the women as people vulnerable to exploitation or abuse despite the “professional” offer? No doubt, he wasn’t the only lad caught in these tangled webs…
My father recalled only one other encounter with a prostitute. Even though this occurred in late November, 1918, after his long walk to freedom from eight months as a POW, it still caught him on the hop. This happened in a village not far from Nancy, when he’d recovered somewhat from sickness and malnutrition. The RAMC hospital then caring for him allowed him out for a walk – he wore a blue French uniform at the time, which Sam reckoned may have had some effect on what followed:
‘Walking along the main street, I noticed a woman, probably about the same age as my mother, leaning from an upstairs window. For no particular reason, I continued to look her way as I walked and when she waved and signalled that I should cross the road and join her, I did so.
When I entered the open front door, I was faced by an open stairway made of rough wood and devoid of bannisters. At the top, I found myself in a large room almost without furniture, but the woman from the balcony now sat there at a sewing-machine. By signs, she indicated that I should seat myself on a box facing her machine. Having some vague idea that she had asked me into her home out of a kindly intention to perhaps offer me a cup of coffee, I sat and awaited developments. But she said nothing, resumed her machining, and thereafter ignored me.
Embarrassment kept me alternately glancing at her and looking away out of the window. Perhaps she was expecting somebody who could speak her language? Perhaps, maybe, I wonder, and such passed through my confused mind, but never a guess at what, perhaps, should have been obvious… With much relief, I heard footsteps climbing the stairs and, turning that way, I beheld a girl dressed in what seemed to be the most popular colour among French ladies at that time, namely, black. I observed that she had bare legs and feet and somewhat dirty, ragged clothes.
She stood there, silent, and then I got the shock of all shocks; the machinist indicated that I should go with the beggar-girl (such she appeared to be) to a bed in the far corner of the room. Meanwhile, she, I assumed, would get on with her work and collect cash when I had been served by the poor girl. What a set-up, what a knocking shop! And what a customer – sansmoney, sansdesire, and lacking even the strength to raise a stand. Apart from the fact that I had never had a woman and this would not have been my choice either of place or person…
So I walked out and thus concluded my unforeseen meeting with a Madame and her unwashed Mam’selle.’
I’ll bridge now from the world of commercial sex to Sam’s very occasional romantic-ish encounters and other stories that show his evolving view of girls and women in the always strange context of an adolescence lived almost entirely in war-time. This is an uncertain betwixt-and-between cameo from his Malta training period in 1915, one of his Saturday leisure trips from their barracks into Valletta. He begins with reflections on his comrades’ constant banging on about… banging:
‘Bars, booze and women were the subjects on which they vied with each other to arouse envy of their frolics. In the brothel tales, their skill in gaining a price-cut from the madame by means of threat or persuasion must be admired by him, their manly performance with the prostitute duly purchased must merit applause…
Nonetheless, he found their tales could not inspire him to emulate their swashbuckling conduct. The one occasion when he wandered into a situation involving alcohol and sex led only to an embarrassing contretemps.
On a hot Saturday afternoon, after the karozzin[horse-drawn carriage] arrived in Sliema, he bade farewell to his travelling companions at the Valletta ferry quay. The boat moved off and he stood alone, the dockside soundless, nothing and nobody moving. Siesta time for the Maltese, of course.
He strolled, then entered a drink shop. The very dark-skinned, moustachioed barkeeper asked him to sit and, having the place to himself, Tommy selected an old armchair and felt like Lord Muck himself when a pleasant girl appeared, collected his beer from the proprietor – obviously her father – and brought it to him. She sat in another armchair beside him, they chatted and he probably bought another beer.
Later, Papa suggested that they move into a room at the back – just an ordinary living room it was. Tommy spent some time with the girl and what seemed unbelievable in later years occurred, namely nothing of note. But a certain awkwardness gradually overpowered him; conversation became impossible and no help came from the girl, kindly and patient though she was. What role was he supposed to fill? A stolen kiss, a cuddle, a hand on her knee then further exploration? This and more would have cost money, he suspected, and he had little. Or was it supposed to be the start of an orthodox romance followed by marriage? He never found out. Given no other customers entered the bar during the whole time Tommy spent there, perhaps Pop was just desperate, business being so bad…’
Something like normal relations from here on, then – brief observations and anecdotes to start with, showing how Sam dreamed and thought about women. Here’s Malta 1915 again, Sam just 17 probably (his birthday on July 6), and stationed as a lookout on an ancient stone tower trying to spot German submarines or other vessels up to no good:
‘One evening, when doing my stint, I relieved the boredom by watching an old man and a young girl working in their very small plantation not far off. A small building – one room or at most two – was their home. It must have been uncomfortably hot inside for, as twilight briefly warned of night’s approach, the girl came out, placed an old pillow on a heap of dried straw just outside the door of the hovel, and lay down.
Earlier, in full daylight, I had observed the poor, old, shapeless, black dress she wore; now it functioned as her nightdress. Our family had known severe hardship but here, on this lovely island, poverty seemed more out of place. Yet I perceived advantages which were hers: she would not have to endure periods of bitterly cold weather and occasional days with no fuel to provide any warmth; if, at times, she and granddad had no money to buy food, they could always find something to eat on their own land – a sugar melon, a few grapes, or a hunk from one of the huge pumpkins growing in the plantation – and, withal, they had the blessed warmth of the sun most days of the year.
If the possibility of sharing her natural couch occurred to me, it must have been immediately rejected. The soiled, probably smelly, old dress, the dirty, bare, horny-soled feet and the easily imagined, unwashed body must have been powerful deterrents, but in any case the principles regarding correct human relationships instilled by dear old Frusher still held strong magic for me… And there was the old man.’
Now France, post-Egypt R&R, heading for the Western Front, the three-day train journey his Battalion took in April, 1916, from the dockside in Marseilles to the huge British Army camp outside Rouen – with pleasant pauses en route:
‘The beautiful greenness… I couldn’t describe the pleasure it gave me. Grass, green acres of it. Trees – copses, woods, forests of the lovely things. Until I saw all this beauty I didn’t know I’d been missing it. And another kind of vision on show to us could stir a young man’s pulse to extra activity – the sight of a European girl with white and pink complexion, brunette and blonde, as opposed to sallow or dark tan with near-black hair.
At the time all these differences aroused thrills of appreciation in me. So when, on one occasion, I inadvertently stepped from the train almost into the arms of a girl, words failed me. When she indicated she would like a tunic button for a souvenir (one of the few words we both understood) I cut one off with my jackknife pronto – in exchange for a kiss.’
Yes, a kiss! Hang on to your hats, dear readers…
But no such sauciness in this next passage, quite the opposite in a sense. However, I’ve always liked it and remembered it. It sees Sam (still 17), a few weeks later, on standby in a village called Souastre 4.7 miles west of the Somme front at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, waiting to join his new Battalion, the Kensingtons, and appreciating a woman in whom he sees no allure at all:
‘Just the sight of females, from time to time, made the place seem homely. Not that any attractive girls lived there, though many must have graced the place before filthy war and rape, or the risk of it, drove them elsewhere… I still retain a mental picture of a youngish woman behind whom I walked a while as she drove three cows along a lane: her hair coarse and matted, she wore a man’s cap, an old, dark-blue, military tunic much too big for her, a knee-length skirt of mud-coated, dark cloth – below which her thick calves were clothed in British Army long pants, with grey Army socks and heavy, Army boots on her feet. A boy such as I was then could feel sympathy not untinged with amusement, but I imagined she would remain totally safe from the lustful cravings of even the most sex-deprived old soldiers. That apart, she was a good’un just to be in that place so near to the front line, at risk from long-range enemy guns, trying to keep the little farm going while her men were away.’
After that he passed three months around the front line, including the July 1 horror, and quite credibly during that period his Memoir never mentions the slightest thought of sex. But in August, at last, he wangled his first week’s leave at home since January, 1915 – and had a proper teenager experience, albeit curtailed by the necessity to get back to France:
‘Hours at home, walks around the old, familiar places, the two shows – everything great, freedom unlimited was mine. Until I came face to face with a girl I’d known slightly at the church. How she’d grown… in a little over two years, visibly expanded in all the approved places. She had the then fashionable method of using the eyes; you looked directly at her, but she appeared to be focussed on a point just above your head. Very effective, especially if the eyes were a brilliant blue.
We walked and talked, I self-consciously, she being the first girl I had been alone with back in London, even in the street. On a free night I took her to the pictures, to a really go-ahead place where, to add music to the silent films, you didn’t have just a pianist but a small orchestra. Tea and French pastries afterwards – already well on the way to the Devil.
With another meeting arranged I felt compelled to tell my mother about the girl, the renewed acquaintance, and see the disappointed look on her face – my short remaining time at home must now be spread around more thinly. I really regretted this, although excited about having such an attractive girlfriend. Life had become quite a heady, dazzling affair. Plenty of cash, all the hours of the day and part of the night at my disposal… no one to give me orders, no Jerry to sling shells at me.
As the precious break neared its conclusion, I felt a sadness which I threw off by reminding myself that some time still remained. I took a final walk with the girl, part of it in open country… seemingly unconnected to that horrible war.
Suddenly, on that dark moonless night, criss-crossing searchlights illuminated the whole sky, wide beams terminating in big, circular blobs of light where they encountered clouds. This unwelcome display of London’s air-raid defences coming into action brought my thoughts back to reality with a jerk. No enemy planes appeared and no anti-aircraft guns fired, but my feeling of security, one of the boons of this holiday, now vanished. No place, after all, completely without risk of enemy attack in some form.
We two walked to her home, lingered outside awhile, kissed and parted with promises to write to each other.’
However, via another “wangle” orchestrated by the two Sergeants he travelled with, he got an extra day added to his leave:
‘By way of a bonus, I went off for a last look at my favourite haunts. How came it then that I finished up by a canal at a spot on the opposite bank to a factory in whose offices worked my girlfriend? No hope of contacting her during working hours, yet I wrote a note to her, wrapped it around a stone and waited. Soon I saw a girl walking from one building to another and called out to her, then threw my message across the water. She picked it up, straightened out the paper, read it, then waved reassuringly I thought. She did deliver it, I learnt at a much later date.’
But then, how about friendship? Friendship with a woman! By a stroke of luck, the war brought him that for a couple of months he remembered all his life. At the end of September, 1916, he left the Somme front because his age “came to light” (a letter from his father to Lloyd George, would you believe?). At 18, still under the low age limit for the battlefield, Sam gladly accepted the offer of withdrawal from combat for a while, got posted to Harfleur camp and became buyer for a semi-official caterer there. And so he met Marie-Louise Baudlet, a grocer’s daughter and English speaker who helped him with such unfeasible translations as “apple turnover”:
‘She wasn’t pretty, but quite attractive, dressed in severe black with white trimmings. She probably looked older than her years, bright, smiling eyes. She made me welcome… I soon had a friendly working arrangement with Marie-Louise… I never failed to call in on Marie-Louise, first thing in the morning. I never saw her except in the shop, at the counter or the cash desk; I sat on a box and she on a stool… Marie-Louise seemed the absolute soul of propriety. Moreover, she had a fiancé, a French officer who was away at the Front…’
Soon the Army posted him back to England and he transferred to the 2/7th Essex Regiment, although located mostly in Harrogate. There, more normal ups and downs of the teenage kind proceeded as his emotional development, surely arrested by the weird exigencies of war, crept towards normality.
First, in the great snow of January-April, 1917, he and a pal called McIntyre met two girls out sledging. Sam took the helm, crashed it, and the girls’ kind reactions to pain and injury bonded the two pairs together for some weeks:
‘It was in the natural order of things I guess that, when the girls were once more up and about, we went for a walk with them. I recall one Sunday afternoon, striding along briskly in the cold air, they guided us out of town to some rather beautiful open country and, at one point, into a wood of wintry bare trees. There a daft episode caused much amusement.
I found myself carrying the smaller girl on my shoulders while the somewhat beefier Mac was loaded with the other quite hefty wench – and a race down a wooded slope started. My partner and I travelled some distance before we raced under a low-hanging branch and, unable to duck sufficiently, she finished up with it under her armpits and dangled there, while impetus carried me forward till I fell. There was much laughter as I lowered her from her situation of suspense.
She was an attractive little girl, very likeable, and for a while we became quite close friends, while Mac, as often as he could, called at the home of the other girl.
But then, walking in the town one afternoon, I was amazed to see my girl’s sister on the arm of a soldier. I knew she was married and her husband serving in France. She saw me as quickly as I saw her. An awkward moment, awkward enough to prevent me from calling at their homeany more. So that brief acquaintanceship petered out.’
Blushful morality and inexperience – aside from the Gallipoli and Somme kind – he couldn’t shake them. But just a little later that winter, the snow still deep on the ground and spring blizzards to come, he came closer to true romance’s full flowering. Very close. And yet, of course…
It happened when a meningitis scare took him to an isolation hospital (as a carrier not a sufferer). There – probably Lodge Moor Hospital, Sheffield – he caught a severe dose of German measles. And hit it off with night nurse Flo:
‘… she prepared a bath for me every morning, an hour before she was due to go off duty. She had other patients to see, but she spent as much time with me as she could without, as she said, risking a complaint from the women in the ward next door.
She liked to sit by my bed early in her shift and talk or listen – more of the latter than the former, I now suspect, since most young men think they know it all. Then when duty demanded that she move on, she would bestow a hearty “goodnight” kiss on me and depart till around 4am when, in those post-Florence Nightingale days, the round of washings and bed-makings had to begin – and, no doubt as part of her therapy, a well-delivered kiss would rouse me and have me heading for my bath while she attended to sheets and pillows.
While the thought of going beyond these little embraces never reached anything pertaining to what is today called sex, this little nurse, Flo, certainly became a very effective part of the super treatment I received; lithe, petite, and with almost tiny, rabbit teeth showing below her shapely upper lip. From the first, she was, in my book, just the type my dear old mentor Frusher would have me protect from her own generous weaknesses. I recalled anew his instruction that a gentleman would not permit a lady to do anything she would be reluctant to talk about with her mother.
His influence had to control and hold me back one morning in particular. Before any apparent activity began in the corridors outside my room, Nurse Flo came in, kissed me even more warmly than usual and stood looking down at me as I lay there. So I sat up in bed, put my feet down on the floor, and looked at her, trying to read her thoughts, fears, intentions. Her face paled, she stepped back from the bed and threw open the doors of the large cupboard behind her. She stood there concealed, she must have hoped, from observation, pale-faced and trembling. “No, no, don’t,” she said, as I stepped towards her. And I had no intention of taking advantage of her reaction to natural forces. Certainly, I had the feeling of a needle irresistibly drawn to her magnet. I believe I got the correct message, I believe I thought quickly around the situation, perhaps guessed what was happening to her; I returned her kiss, grabbed my bath towel and went for my morning splash.
The moment passed, I had my bath, and we were good friends. So much so that she gave me her address near Sheffield, with the hope that we might meet there sometime. With hindsight I can see that she must have thought me a dull dog, but the very fact that I was so safe in sometimes extremely intimate circumstances may have offered some compensating features for her.’
The safe, dull dog again. You can feel how, looking back at all this, on balance he felt he did the right thing, even if the least exciting outcomes ensued. A lad of his time and his specific background. As ever, he never assumed he was typical, rather the reverse in fact, and knew that his “chivalry” was never the whole story – that Frusher also still governed his conduct via (sensible) fear of consequences.
He did see Flo again, that summer, when he returned to Sheffield, Wharncliffe War Hospital this time, with the first bout of gastric trouble and general physical malaise arising from months of privations in the trenches which was to recur throughout his life. Same story again, it seems, much as they liked and attracted one another. So far and no further for Sam and an interestingly downbeat conclusion from him:
‘Nothing exciting happened, but again these close contacts with civilians still living normal lives found me very appreciative, though always uneasy somewhere inside.’
There remained one further “close call” from his period in uniform, though not the war itself. After his return from France in December, 1918, and a spell of rest and recovery, the Army transferred him to the Royal Defence Corps and deputed him to a group of ex-POWs whose task was to guard German prisoners still detained in the UK. He reckoned that the notion this would soon chip away any residual hatred worked well for him.
But to return to my theme, in his free time he’d walk the three miles from the POW camp in the village of East Preston, Sussex (near Arundel) to Littlehampton.
‘More than once, when I wandered into Littlehampton, I found myself walking behind a girl quietly dressed in a calf-length, Navy-blue overcoat. She usually turned right, as I did, into the High Street, at the far end of which stood the YMCA. Then, every time, she would walk straight past the building and I would climb the steps… beginning to feel curious about her and where she was going.
Everything about her suggested a degree of respectability which would preclude interruptions to her progress from a poor soldier such as myself. As she walked, her bearing regal, she looked neither right nor left. Her right arm swung sort of diagonally, finishing behind her back. Her left hand held a large handbag carried with arm fully extended and rigid. A Captain maybe could make an advance of some kind, or even a Lieutenant, but me, no. Till late one afternoon…
She must have despaired of anything coming of the haughty act and this time when I followed her along the High Street – by chance as ever – she stopped in her tracks, turned round, confronted me and smiled. “You’re not going to duck into that dump again, are you?” she asked. Of course, I quickly adjusted my thinking and promised never again to do that if she was likely to be available.
Nothing exciting came of it, but we met often, walked around the district and usually called at a country inn for a couple of drinks…
I treated her with the respect due to one of her obviously high moral standards. But when, on one of our pub visits, she told me she enjoyed my company best when I’d got a couple of whiskies under my belt, I wondered if I was perhaps overdoing the gallantry.’
So, once more, his prudish ways pulled him up short:
‘I still walked out once or twice a week with my formerly prim, arm-swinging bird, but I sensed that my slow rate of progress towards something more intimate made her impatient – especially on one fine, warm summer’s evening, when she led me to the rear of a haystack where we rested among the sweet-smelling stuff, and she encouraged me to explore so far uncharted areas by telling me about her wartime goings-on.
I learned that a coloured American soldier, one of many billeted in the district during the final months, had lived in her home and become very much one of the family – to such an extent that, as an accepted part of household routine, each morning he took a cup of tea up to my girlfriend in her bedroom. He stayed talking to her while she drank it and so subtly extended the length of his visits that no one noticed when a quarter of an hour, or sometimes even more, passed before he joined the others at breakfast.
Eventually, there came a time for him to join her between the sheets. She enjoyed this morning ceremony, and tried to get me at it – even with hay for a bed and the risk of the farmer arriving at an interesting, if awkward moment.
Difficult to put my finger on the real reason for my reluctance to co-operate… Being number two to the Alabamy bloke was one thing anti, a black man in bed; a clash of some sort there.But the teachings of my pre-war mentor, Mr Frusher, the vicar, piano teacher and Scoutmaster, still held much influence within me; never take advantage of a woman’s natural urge to have the egg fertilised, he would say… I also felt chagrin about being such a rotten judge, believing that what my eyes saw was necessarily the truth. The pretty little hat, the waisted, calf-length, Navy-blue coat, the white gloves the dainty step, and that swinging arm. Demure propriety personified…
At the time, without giving too much thought to any of these matters, I decided to quit.’
I should add that, writing in his 70s in 1972-6, he recognised that what he’d thought as a 20-year-old about the black soldier was racist. But he reported his unease honestly as the point of view of a lad who had hardly seen and never known a black man and, as his editor, I decided not to bowdlerise his recollections in the Memoir, nor modernise his words by applying modern standards (for instance, when he wrote, “coloured” had not yet become an insulting term viz the US civil rights/equality campaign called then and now the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People).
But that was Sam, out of uniform after four and half years and still a virgin. Who’d have thought? True, though. And, given that we talked about more or less everything, back in the ‘60s as he told me these stories, I can report a happy ending.
Once he was able to start a normal adult life, start work – as a market trader, a draper, in partnership with his younger brother Alf – and just get on with the everyday, he began going out with girls. Pretty soon one of them, realising he needed (shall we say?) a push, took advantage of him being laid up in bed with a minor illness, paid a kind visit, jumped in with him – and set him on the road to sexual and romantic fulfilment. He married my 22-year-old mother in December, 1939. They deferred children for the duration in case Hitler won – and busied themselves with ambulance driving and first-aiding throughout the London Blitz. I was born in 1947. Sam and Mona stayed together and loved each other until he died in 1987, aged 88, and she lived on for another ten years.
All the best– FSS
Next week: While Sam enjoys that “month spent by the sea with nothing to do but polish our boots and buttons”, the Blog Retro 3 theme is Army grub on the front line: food, not so glorious food… or Definitely Not Masterchef!
(1) 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.
Sunday 17 February 2019
Retrospective – the terror of war: how Sam, a front-line Tommy at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras, felt and dealt with fear…
Sam’s Memoir(1) – paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
For details of how to buy the Memoir or Gallipoli & Somme & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association here. For AUDIO excerpts click Here Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here
The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…
All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross – and the current running donations total as of February 1, 2019, is £3,979.66 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)
A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… With President Wilson and PM Lloyd George back in the US and UK for the month, the Paris Peace Conference went low-key as “working” bodies like the Supreme Economic Council got stuck into the slog of detailing post-war relationships – within the array of Germany-crushing and Empire-securing parameters the Allies’ leaders had set out. On the fringes, “unofficial” organisations such as the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference, which ran from February 10 to April 10 pursued their own angles (in their case total lack of female representation).
Otherwise, it turned out to be assassination season.
The big hit failed when, on February 19, French PM Georges Clemenceau took a bullet between the ribs from Emile Cottin, generally described as an anarchist who objected to Clemenceau’s alleged role in strikers at aviation factory being fired on the previous year, although at his trial he proclaimed himself a Bolshevik protesting Clemenceau’s attitude to Russian soldiers post-war (allegedly sending them to Africa when they wanted to join the Communist forces back home). The “Tiger” wore the bullet for the remaining ten years of his life.
Elsewhere, German nationalist Count Arco auf Valley succeeded in gunning down Bavarian Premier Kurt Eisner, socialist and leading monarch-overthrower, with the possibly unintended consequence that days of rioting in Munich led to the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, at least for a while. And over in Afghanistan, Emir Habibullah Khan had his 18-year reign ended by a shot from Mustafa Seghir, some say a British-paid Indian spy – if so, a fine show of ingratitude for the Emir’s maintaining neutrality throughout WW1 despite heavy pressure from Turkey and Germany.
Aside from that, assorted fighting continued around Europe, especially between Prussians and Poles in the then German province of Posen, between Poles and Ukrainians around Lemburg/Lviv, and the Allies and Bolsheviks on the north Russian, Murman front.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – via the ministrations of French, British and American military doctors and nurses in Nancy and Rouen. Finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before he was allowed home and reunited with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Still, civilian life continued to offer Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit and, so far, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton…]
Retrospective 1: As of February, 1919, my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, Gallipoli, Somme, Spring Offensive veteran and ex-POW, found himself in Brighton – billeted in a Spartan dormitory near the top of a grand Palmeira Square mansion. Transferred to the Royal Defence Corps – an early Dad’s Army – for his concluding months in uniform, at this point he simply enjoyed “a month spent by the sea with nothing to do…”
So we’ll rejoin him in four weeks when the powers-that-be come up with something useful for him and his mates to engage with (which they did). For now, then, a look back at his war in thematic terms. I’m going for “sex and romance”, “Army grub” (or Tommies marching on their stomachs), “a Tommy’s view of the enemy” – and first up, “fear and the battlefield”.
It’s turned out to be the longest FSS blog ever, so out on some comfy shoes. As always, no claims that Sam represents a “typical” Tommy, just the one, himself. But I hope you get something from it:
Putting together this overview of Sam’s emotional experience of war’s terrors, I was first struck by how often his Memoir’s early chapters – the story of his childhood and early teens – referred to fear. The diverse causes included: feeling alone as a new boy in London (after the family moved down from Manchester when he was three), the sufferings of poverty (especially raw hunger), his mother’s ridicule (she took out on Sam some of her bitterness at their “coming down in the world”), uncertainty about girls and sex, the tyranny of early bosses, the multiple threats of war anticipated (shortages, German invasion). I really don’t know whether this added up to more than the average amount of fear kids feel – or perhaps unusual honesty about such matters, presaging more of the same when he became a fighting soldier.
But then after the nations of Europe played head tennis war declarations during August, 1914, and the initial battles brought some reality to the “all over by Christmas” blather, he notes that “Everyone knew it was not going well, and flickers of fear disturbed even reasonably optimistic people” and “fear of a long war grew”. This period provoked in him – and multitudes of others – nervous doubt about whether to join up or not. And after he did enlist, on September 10, 1914, for months he’d often quake about possible exposure of his attestation lie “to the King” that he was 19, rather than 16.
No doubt, though, the mortal fear of death or injury is of a different order to any of the above…
It touched him first for a few hours in February, 1915, when his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers were sailing from Southampton to Malta. Still in the Atlantic, a U-boat alert saw them all ordered below decks – Sam’s H Company in a hold way down in the depths – lights low, feeling trapped… and the terrible “fear that, if a torpedo struck the ship, the imprisoned crowds of men would not stand a chance of surviving”.
The next step occurred after seven months training in Malta had lulled the men into a sense that, for them, it might never happen. The order came to prepare for another voyage, its ultimate purpose marked by the issue of active-service paybooks. This might not strike you as momentous, but Sam recalls:
‘The last page was printed in the form of a will. It was not obligatory to use this, but it would be useful in the event of a soldier’s death.
Death? A certain tension built up inwardly at the possibility thus openly presented. In the excitement of the early days of the war, the remote prospect of being killed or wounded had appeared an acceptable risk which all Britons must face, and an early dispatch to the front line would probably have settled the issue before one had very much time for contemplation of all the possibilities…
An inner resistance to all forthcoming horrors would be necessary to conceal the truth about me from my comrades – I was actually scared windy, as it was termed, but I must remain the only one aware of this. While behaving as normally as possible, I would maintain this preparedness for any dire possibility, always be one step ahead of the enemy who happened to have the bullet or shell with my name on it
Thereafter, although I joined in fun and games and general conversation with those around me, I never fully relaxed. The perpetual awareness of danger, which wild creatures display at all times, became part of my way of life – my defence against the risks which would soon beset me. Having settled into this new animal-instinctive preparedness, I could do my work and, when necessary, exercise the petty authority of my one stripe with ease, realising that at least some of my mates must be feeling a bit of tension, a twinge of anxiety.’
In fact, they landed at Alexandria, Egypt, and didn’t sail north for Lemnos until late September. But that journey, with everyone knowing the ultimate destination, had the butterflies fluttering while his cooler self tried to get a grip: “the taut, nervous condition, brought on by anticipation of what I feared, had me scheming about any steps I could take to improve my survival prospects”.
Pausing for a few hours in Mudros harbour, Lemnos, he strategised further: “The thing not to do was stay silent and look gloomy – that way you would be labelled ‘windy’ and lose all your pals. You had to consider that others might be feeling worse than you, but they didn’t let it show. So it may be that battles fought inwardly to preserve the good opinion of one’s fellows made possible some of the bigger victories on the battlefield…”
Soon, in a smaller vessel, they set off for Suvla Bay and, as they approached, for the first time in his life – the same applied to nearly all of his comrades – he heard weapons fired in deadly anger:
‘… on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare…
A howl became a shriek, then a shattering explosion – and a short silence was followed by numerous thuds as what had gone up came down on the nearby beach. While still at sea I heard for the first time that sad, though urgent call, “Stretcher-bearers!” A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards seemed to produce an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body…
Whether excitement or fear brought it on I don’t know, but I suddenly felt terribly hungry. Then I recalled that I had not eaten since early morning. Nor, as far as I know, had any of our men. Someone had blundered. Or was it usual to land troops on a battlefield with empty bellies?’
So still at sea, he discovered the reality of “the smell of fear” – emanating from his own skin. That’s what he called it and the feeling, plus aromatic accompaniment, came to him for the next three years every time he got within earshot of a battlefield. He never commented to me on whether others shared this odoriferousc phenomenon, no doubt some pungent mix of sweat and adrenaline. Yet all through the beach landing at night under shell and rifle fire, the first deaths of comrades, and then the four months of futile skirmishing that followed, like the majority of Tommies – it seems almost miraculous to confidently assert this – he won the “battle fought inwardly”. He held his “windiness” in check to such an extent that, as a Lance Corporal Signaller at this stage, he was able to take care of more vulnerable companions in his charge, ushering two of them to the exits (i.e. a hospital ship back to Lemnos) in diverse circumstances.
More startling to me, his son, is that he even became a (fairly controlled) risk-taker, a quirk which resurfaced from time to time later. Here he’s describing a scene from December, 1915, after the notorious blizzard, which did have just one beneficial effect - ending the water shortage. On the hilltop he occupied with serial Signals assistants, a ready supply of melted snow lay in a nearby trench… if he could get to it:
‘I carried a can to which I had tied a length of string to lower it into the trench. I would climb out of our trench and dash several yards, freeze there for a moment while I pictured John Turk taking aim at me, then make another short dash while the bullet smacked somewhere behind me. One more pause, then run to the trench, lower and raise the can, and return via another pause or two before a final, fearful charge back to and into our trench, having retained as much water in the can as possible. The bullets always seemed to arrive at the spot near where I had last paused. But I was careful to operate in poor light, morning and evening, because I had rightly assumed that the sniper was a good shot…’
He concluded the Gallipoli section of the Memoir, as the Battalion remnants (200 out of the original 1,000) sailed away from V Beach on January 6, 1916, with a further reflection on the nature of his fears and the importance to the individual Tommy and the collective of keeping them to yourself:
‘What a blessing that fears and doubts don’t make a noise as they move back and forth inside your head; companions might hear them and then you’d never convince them you are unafraid, a brave fellow and all that sort of thing. They’d know the truth about you, the last thing you’d wish for.’
Via an R&R sojourn in Egypt – at Beni Salama, on the west bank of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara – from January to April, 1916, the 2/1st ended up at Rouen, France. There, to the survivors’ bitter chagrin, the Army disbanded the Battalion and scattered them among the regiments preparing to take part in the great Somme attack (not that it was advertised as such, of course – or not deliberately).
By early May, Sam found himself in another London Regiment Battalion, the Kensingtons. He joined them at Hébuterne, opposite German-occupied Gommecourt, after which their northern sector of the battle was named. Lower-key fighting occurred all the time, of course, so his sweat glands resumed their smelly work, but he drew consolation for this recurrenceof general dread from an odd bit of 17-year-old soldierly logic: “a shaft of hope, almost of joy, for I remembered that here [in contrast to Gallipoli] no sea lay behind us, that in periods of rest from front-line trench life we would withdraw some miles away from all noise, wounding, or sudden death, and enjoy relief from our fears and these unnatural living conditions”.
During the preparations for the “wonderful occasion” of the great attack, one of his observations showed how the Tommy cannon fodder ruminated on their remote leaders’ strategies and their capacity for increasing the general level of anxiety if they appeared careless (meaning, careless of the Tommies’ fate). When they trained on replica trench systems 13 miles back at Halloy, Sam reflected:
‘I was such a windy bugger that, had I been in charge of that Division, I would have insisted on the mock battlefield being camouflaged when not in use, but that only illustrates the difference between a scary little Lance Corporal and a hearty, red-face General. If our High Command had thought on similar lines to those worrying – the infantrymen – the attack would have been postponed for a while, some diversions organised in remoter parts of the Front, followed by what would then have been a surprise attack on the Somme. A surprise, that is, to our force as well as Jerry’s. We’d been talking about the damn thing for weeks and the enemy probably knew as much as we did about it.’
Back in the line, he led nightly excursions to dig advanced trenches in No Man’s Land – the sort of event he’d joke about as underwear-threatening and so on (he never mentioned his sphincter actually letting go and, in old age at least, he was a man of rude candour about such matters so I think he would have). These operations certainly had all concerned operating on the brink of panic, while at the same time able to summon up that almost out-of-body calmness evidenced by the strange objectivity implied in Sam’s account here – until, that is, an officer’s order permitted them to do what would have come naturally from the outset and run for it:
‘Soon, all of us were hard at work – and the noise we made was frightening. Only too well aware that we must soon be heard and seen by Jerry, we picked and shovelled like madmen… Fortunately for us, enemy reaction did prove slow and when, eventually, their wrath descended, we squeezed down into the hollows we’d dug and found we did have a few protective inches of earth above our precious bodies.
Machine-gun bullets spattered around me and I marvelled that I should lie there, hear and see them striking, yet remain untouched. But our semi-trenches afforded little protection when light field guns joined in and their shattering whizz-bangs filled the air with noise and flying metal. One could only hug Mother Earth and wait for an order to retire, which didn’t come.
I heard the occasional muttered request for “Stretcher-bearers!” – brave fellows indeed, themselves not immunised from injury or death by their labours of mercy. Brilliant flickering Verey lights fired by the Germans revealed all movements; when one hovered near you, you froze no matter in what posture. I always looked down to conceal the whiteness of my face, though more in hope than conviction.
Later, after the firing had died down, the order “Dig like hell!” was passed along. We complied until, after a while, we reaped a further rich harvest of bullets and shell which compelled our officer to order a retreat. We stood not upon the order of our going…’
July 1 itself was the only war experience that, in part at least, defeated Sam’s powers of recall and description when he looked back to write in his 70s. What he did get down is powerfully sparse, but I get the sense that he was stunned, almost numbed, by the scale of terror and destruction – that he and most of his comrades reached the point where fear and other emotions merge into trauma.
Personally, he got stuck in a front-line trench, in a steadily depleting Company A led by Major Cedric Charles Dickens, the novelist’s grandson, whose messages back to Battalion HQ only a few hundred yards behind him (quoted in Alan MacDonald’s extraordinary account of the Kensingtons at Gommecourt, Pro Patria Mori) included the report that he had “spent 6 hours watching the trenches destroyed and his men maimed and killed by the thunderous bombardment of the German howitzers” and, towards the end of the day, “I have, as far as I can find, only 13 left beside myself. Trenches unrecognisable. Quite impossible to hold. Bombardment fearful for last two hours. I am the only officer left. Please send instructions.” He finally got the order to withdraw after 3pm – my father had become separated from the Company by then and stayed the night in the front line with a few others, mulling and counteracting a sense of guilt and impotence about his and their performance:
‘When the kilted lads advanced, their numbers decreased alarmingly with every forward stride. Meanwhile, our own advanced position was being blown apart piecemeal; pockets of survivors lost touch with their leadership and the nearest NCO had to make decisions… If he could only see ahead that our first line of attack was destroyed before capturing its objective, that its members lay dead and wounded on the ground ahead or grotesquely draped over the enemy barbed wire which our bombardment should have destroyed, then when should he take his small force over the top?…
Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men…
The wounded men who could not walk or crawl back from No Man’s Land were, in many instances, simply left there for hours following the failed attack because of the mentally and physically exhausted condition of their comrades who had survived.
I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing.
One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance.
So, possibly, nervous shock afflicted everyone there to a greater or lesser degree, even though fear no longer weighed on us as earlier in the day…
During the hours of darkness… A gradual return to usefulness replaced the varying degrees of stupor and inertia which for many were the invisible wounds following many hours of explosion and upheaval, shattering to eardrums and nerves…
By dawn, most of us were ready to stop where we stood – crouched, rather – for under cover of dark we had searched for and found many wounded men, their chances of living diminishing with every hour in which they lay exposed with wounds untended.
We felt that our work was very valuable and the joy with which injured men greeted their rescuers was reward indeed. Perhaps the failure of the massive attack had left us with a sense of guilt which the intensive rescue work relieved.’
After five months on the Somme, Sam suddenly got a break from the battlefield when it emerged that he was still under-age for fighting – 18 by then, when the low limit always had been 19 – and he gladly grabbed the opportunity to get away from all that for a year.
After a transfer to the 2/7 Battalion Essex Regiment, he returned to France in December, 1917. But when he heard about his posting, on his last few days of leave at home he told his family something which must have both reflected his experience up to that point and, probably, to some degree affected his emotional state in the battles to come. He told them, “… I should be just one little man among all the mess and muddle, but that, for some reason I could not explain, I felt certain I would survive, even though, for a while, I might not be able to keep in touch”.
When the Spring Offensive struck, the 2/7th had just advanced into the front line at Fampoux, outside Arras. On March 28, at midnight, he and his Signaller pal Neston took the message that sealed the Battalion’s fate; an order to fight to the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. I guess that would rather counter his new optimism. Certainly, it was another new setting for his feelings which, as the opening German bombardment rained down, he describes as a contradictory mix of blank trauma and sheer frustration:
‘Shells of all calibres burst around us. I now felt sort of mentally stunned and a looker-on, as it were, at the heaving destruction, wounding and killing on both sides of me for as far as I could see. Still no targets for my bullets, no outlets for my pent-up fears… if this continued for much longer I guessed I’d explode from within, regardless of enemy shells.
I told Neston of this feeling, putting my mouth against his ear. He may have understood but, anyway, that much physical contact achieved something, for as we looked into each other’s eyes we returned to a normal human condition in which it was possible to give some thought to the fears and wishes of someone other than oneself. The animal concentration on survival, self-preservation no matter what happened to others, was thereafter easily set aside… “Stick together no matter what happens,” was the unspoken, but well understood agreement born and confirmed when we two stopped acting mechanically amid all that din and horror and probed for something worthwhile in each other while Old Man Death waited to put his clammy hand on us.’
But when the shooting started – when wave after wave of German soldiers raced towards the British trenches – he realised mechanical behaviour is exactly what the situation necessitated or, rather, seemed to impose:
‘In the desperate situation and amid the unnatural excitement, nervousness, and recurring moments of fear then being endured, one thing was proved beyond doubt – namely, that the intensive training one had undergone at various times during the past four years had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton. Loading – transferring a bullet from its position in a clip of five in the magazine to its position in the firing chamber by working the bolt back and forth – took only a fraction of a second; a moment to sight the gun correctly on a target; squeezing, not pulling the trigger – well, no time really. Result: a man killed, wounded horribly maybe, and so bereavement in some family, or else sorrow over a son made an invalid or a cripple forlife, all caused by one man’s impersonal automatic action.’
This last terrible awareness of having killed stayed with him for the rest of his life – hence his partly expiative work as a first-aider/ambulance driver in WW2’s London Blitz. And maybe it affected his instinctive, emotional actions an hour or so later, immediately before he became a POW.
With all their Company’s ammunition fired, Neston and Sam went back to the Signallers’/Company HQ dugout and released carrier pigeons to take the news back to Brigade. Then they shook hands, Neston set off rearwards… and my father turned back towards the onrushing enemy. Fearlessly? Exhausted, for sure. Traumatised blank maybe. All fear spent perhaps. Or/and, underneath, still inexplicably confident of survival… The truth is I can’t and shouldn’t rationalise his every emotional move. He wrote about it as well as anyone could have. This is his account of those moments:
‘A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition.…
As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me. All thought of bravely taking on the German Army single-handed was absent. Inaction was my response. I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye. I earned no medals that day nor any other day…
At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Their fresh, healthy faces made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads.’
All the best– FSS
Next week: While Sam enjoys that “month spent by the sea with nothing to do but polish our boots and buttons”, the Blog Retro 2 theme is sex and romance, a young Tommy innocent abroad’s struggles with temptation…
(1) 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.