“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)

Sunday, 19 November 2017

December, 1917, Sam’s 19 now and it’s his last home leave before returning to the Western Front… His final preparation? Laying lino!

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A hundred years ago this week… The Battle Of Cambrai began (November 20-December 7) with a British onslaught by 450 tanks. On the first day this worked very well as they took the villages of Ribécourt and Marcoing and, 24 hours on, occupied Fontaine Notre Dame, 2.5 miles from Cambrai. But on the second day half the tanks were hors de combat with damage or “mechanicals” and the German Army held on to key British objectives Flesquières and Bourlan Wood (scene of to-and-from fighting November 23-5), then recaptured Fontaine Notre  Dame (22).
    The Eastern Front took an eccentric turn as Bolshevik leader Lenin dismissed Army commander-in-chief General Dukhonin (November 21) because he refused to negotiate an armistice, then (apparently!?) told the troops at the front to sort it out with the Germans themselves (22). As a result, it seems “fraternisation with the enemy” became normal on the Eastern Front, at least for the time being. Lenin also set about disbandment of the Army…
    In Italy, the long retreat under fierce attack from Austrian and German troops proved to have reached a firm conclusion with the Italian Army under their new commander Diaz holding still relentless attacks along the River Piave (estuary just east of Venice) and further north at the First Battle Of Monet Grappa (November 13-25, evolved from the 12th Battle Of The Isonzo; casualties Austro-Hungarian/German 21,000, Italian 12,000).
    Over In Palestine, the Battle Of Jerusalem (November 17-December 30) went through a phase known as the Battle Of Nebi Samwill (November 17-24). The British section of the Allies’ Egyptian Expeditionary Force tried to break into Jerusalem via an attack from the north, but stalled 5 miles out after taking Nebi Samwill village – Ottoman Army resistance proved too strong and the British infantry lacked support.
    Finally, a new development in southern Africa – while the Allied effort to drive Germany out of their East African colony (now Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) proceeded a cross that vast territory, the German Army found a new way to sustain their resistance. They attacked Portuguese East Africa, initially winning the Battle Of Ngomo (November 25) and achieving their real objective – not conquest but capturing supplies (250,000 rounds, hundreds of rifles; a lot more to come from further incursions).

[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… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare him for more (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). And now, 100-years-ago-this-week, it’s nearly time for him to return to the Front…]

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, my father described how the Army prepared him for a return to the Western Front after his year out – a thorough refresher course in his specialism as a Signaller conducted at the large and near-luxurious Army camp outside Crowborough, Sussex. Among the evening entertainments, local resident Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’s creator and a WW1 historian, delivered a lecture on the Somme – which Sam regarded with a veteran’s ambivalence (not realising the depth of the writer’s engagement, his son having suffered fatal wounds there).
    Now Sam enjoys his final home leave before travelling to France. He spends much of it helping the family move into a much better rented house than the rather grim terrace where they’d lived for most of the years since 1902 when the “ruin” of his father’s family business drove them from Manchester to London and from prosperity to poverty.
    My father refrains from doing the arithmetic here, but the family’s improved circumstances during the war arose from two things, a) his father’s steady promotion in the export company where he’d found a job that lasted (see Blog 174, November 5, 2017, when Sam visited his workplace), and b) Sam and his brother Ted had, since 1915, taken up the Government’s offer that if a serviceman agreed to have a percentage of his pay sent directly to his family then they would also receive a substantial supplement from the state – i.e. for the Sutcliffes, extra income for the duration and two less mouths to feed.
    Anyway, he leaves them something to remember him by:

At home on leave for some days, I found myself busy from morning to night helping the family move from our three-bedroom terrace house into a three-floored, semi-detached**. As I carried furniture and other items back and forth I got my first look at our new home, starting with several treks upstairs: on the first floor a large and a small bedroom, a really big front room which Ma intended to let furnished as a bed-sitting room, and a bathroom at the top of the first flight of stairs with a WC; above that front room another, equally large, and another room off with an adjoining large cupboard or closet quite as big as many single bedrooms.
    At ground level we had a front dining room and back breakfast room, the latter with French windows through which we saw a paved yard and a long, wide garden. A passage from the hall led alongside the staircase to the kitchen with its roomy cooking range and a garden. Most of the windows, including the French windows, had strong, wooden, folding shutters which, when closed and secured by their iron-bar fastenings, looked quite burglar-proof. It all suggested that, even in those “good old days”, folks had need of night-time protection against intruders.
    Beyond the kitchen was what we called – perhaps because of our North-Country origins – a scullery, furnished with a gas cooker, a large sink, a coal-fired boiler (a “copper” to us) and, high above, a big water-storage tank. Another door led to a second WC and a further door opened into a large coal shed. Under cover of a glazed roof, a long passageway led to a tile-covered garage whose big, wooden doors opened on to a drive and a modest front garden protected from the busy main road by a privet hedge and iron-barred gates.
    The back garden could be approached from the French windows, the scullery or from the coal shed. A well-stocked border flowerbed with a greengage tree, a large apricot tree, and several apple trees, stretched its entire length. While one would step out of the house on to a small lawn, bordered on the far side by an old wall, the grass soon gave way to an area containing more well-spaced fruit trees, mainly varieties of apple, under which grew gooseberry and currant bushes – then, further down, large flower and vegetable beds, and another grassy patch towered over by two immense trees, one a winter pear, the other a rarity indeed, a mulberry (its trunk must have been 30 inches in diameter). A railing of tall iron spikes across the far end must have deterred many a local lad from scrumping.
    I give all this detailed information so that you can appreciate the impressive difference from the small terrace house we had left — and the extent of Ma’s self-confidence in believing she could add to her husband’s income sufficient money to cover higher rent plus the rates and some costs of upkeep.
    Mine not to wonder why or how, for I was only briefly home before going overseas again. I helped where I could, and considered my top contribution laying linoleum – bright blue diamonds on a white background – in the hall and along the passage. It did sterling service for many years after the war finished.’
** They moved to 317, Fore Street, Edmonton, from 26 Lowdon Road.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Gallipoli and Somme veteran Sam weighs it all up before his return to the Front. “People who lived almost normal lives throughout that war had no real understanding of the existence endured by their men who were the actual front-line fighters.” But he arrives at a strange and unfamiliar conviction that he will survive…

* 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.