“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, 26 October 2014
Sam, the boy soldier, finally gets his uniform – and wonders if he'll ever have what it takes to be "a real man"
A hundred years ago… the battles ground on at Ypres (French, British and Belgian Armies against the German Army), the Yser (Belgium and France against Germany), and the Vistula (Russia against Germany), but the major development was the Ottoman Empire’s entry into hostilities – announced, not diplomatically, on October 29 by its Navy beginning to bombard the Russian Black Sea ports Odessa, Sevastopol and Feodosia. Meanwhile, the conflict spread in Africa: today, October 26, is the centenary of France occupying parts of German colony The Cameroons and of German forces invading Portuguese West Africa (later Angola).
Also, away from these grand, terrible events, a hundred years ago today my father, 16-year-old volunteer and Edmonton boy Sam Sutcliffe, at last got issued with his Royal Fusiliers uniform – seven weeks after enlisting.
Following England’s Indian summer, in October the weather turned cool and rainy. New junior officers, learning on the job, squarebashed Sam, his three pals, and the rest of the thousand-man Battalion (2/1st City Of London) around the parade ground at the Foundlings Hospital in Kings Cross and marched them miles on city and suburban streets -–Hampstead Heath a popular destination. They could think of nothing else to do; they had no weapons, nor even any uniforms.
As Sam recalls (new readers note my father called himself “Tommy” and wrote in the third person for the first part of his Memoir):
“Tommy surmised that residents, and others... might speculate as to how all this was helping the troops already fighting and being wounded or killed. How about giving each man a rifle and showing him how to fire it, how to use a bayonet? Many people were saying that would have been better preparation for war. Tommy agreed. But we hadn’t the uniforms or the arms apparently... And Tommy and many thousands of other early volunteers may have owed their survival to that lack of war materials...
The famous Spaniards Inn at Hampstead found itself swamped with customers on days when Army trainees were in the vicinity. Tommy enjoyed the cheap, satisfying lunches there. He felt good beer replenishing his strength, chunks of bread and cheese satisfying his hunger, the crunchy crusts adding to the meal a rhythmic percussion... War, according to the school history books he’d read, had never been this pleasant. But, while good weather lasted, the men naturally enjoyed this period of playing at soldiers, as some described it.”
Bar the days when they got soaked, that was. Having worked for a couple of years since leaving school at 14, Sam/Tommy had a decent coat and “sound footwear... but what of the poor devils in flimsy suits and shoes?” he writes. “Even those who had joined for some imagined advantage had, for the most part, also believed the cause was a good one and so had tackled the new life with zest and good intentions. The temporary stagnation was depressing... ”
“However, came the day when all doubt and disappointment vanished: an announcement that, from the last Monday in October [the 26th!], the two Companies who, each day, took their turn to occupy the Battalion Headquarters would be solely occupied with the long-anticipated distribution of uniforms: greatcoats, tunics, trousers, socks, boots, puttees, undervests, shirts, pants, all crowned by a military cap with a Regimental badge. Much mirth ensued from the announcement that each man would be issued with a housewife, but this turned out to be nothing more sexy than a roll-up cloth pouch holding needles, cotton, buttons and so on.
The recruits were expected to buy tins of a paste called Soldier’s Friend, also a small brush and a peculiar six-inch piece of metal with a lengthwise slot — called a button stick, for reasons soon revealed. An instructor demonstrated the art of accurately directing a shot of spittle to the centre of the paste, scooping some buttons into the slot on the stick, dabbing the brush into the paste, scrubbing the buttons, and finally polishing them.
Then the NCOs showed them how to convert their great coats into long slim rolls, the ends of the rolls to be brought together and secured with a cord or strap, the loop then passed over the head to rest on the right shoulder diagonally across the body. In fine weather, the welcome order to listen out for was ‘Great coats will be worn en banderole’. Was this expression borrowed from Napoleon’s Army, Tommy wondered. Nobody enlightened him and he never heard the phrase used by officers of any other Army unit. He assumed the Foreign Legion and his Royal Fusiliers had at least those two words in common.
On receiving his kit he couldn’t get home fast enough.
Later in the war he sometimes recalled that day. He didn’t realise its importance at the time, none of them did as far as he knew. Quite light-heartedly, he wished to throw off the clothes of a mere civilian and be seen as a soldier — after weeks of trying to be one while still dressed in his boyish suit and bowler. But, in truth, he was shedding the garb of freedom, doing so eagerly, divesting himself of clothing which entitled him to go almost anywhere in Great Britain without let or hindrance and putting on the uniform of service or maybe of serfdom. From then on, if called upon to do so by Military Police or gentlemen holding His Majesty’s Commission, he would have to account for his presence in any location.
His family showed great interest in the quality of the clothing, touching the uniform and rubbing it between thumbs and forefingers like so many tailors. All good stuff, they agreed: vest and long pants of wool, warm, heavy garments; socks too would obviously stand much hard wear and ensure warm feet in he coldest weather. The name Schneider in the cap struck them all as being rather strange. ‘What,’ asked Dad, ‘is the British Army doing with headgear of apparently German manufacture?’
Hastily, Tommy changed into the uniform. He found all the garments fitted him well, except that the boots were too big, albeit the smallest in stock as the Quartermaster had explained when issuing them. So, for his early months in the Army, Tommy had to wear two pairs of grey socks to fill out the heavy boots. He would have to buy two pairs of socks as near to the official ones in colour and weight as possible so he could rotate two pairs on and two in the wash.
He’d put on everything but the puttees. He began his first attempt to wind these bandages round his calves, starting with a turns around the ankle... spacing each turn evenly a requirement not easy to satisfy. However, after a few awkward failures, he came close to achieving the correct outcome. Then he stood up straight and still, eyes looking straight ahead at their own level, chin in, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, knees back, heels together, toes apart at an angle of 90 degrees — all as per instructions, the very figure of a soldier, he hoped.
Mother studied him, tears in her eyes... and she laughed and laughed and laughed. This puzzled and disappointed the self-conscious lad. He searched her face to discover if the mirth was a derisory reaction. As he watched her, understanding came to him and he also laughed and laughed. ‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘You can see it all as I do. I’m not sneering at the boy soldier, but to see one of my children dressed as a fighting man for the first time, standing stiff as a ramrod and so serious with it. Well, it’s just too much.’ The laughter petered out with some quickly concealed tears.
Tommy ventured into the street to avoid further embarrassment and perchance to see if neighbours had any comment to make. Looking up the street towards the main road he thrilled to see brother Ted already wearing his Army gear, striding briskly towards him.
His keen scrutiny turned to pleasurable surprise and pride when the boy saw how neatly the clothes fitted Ted’s small, but well-proportioned body. He would have valued a pair of legs of that shape himself — slightly bowed, the calves flattered by his carefully rolled puttees. A flicker of the heartache he felt throughout life, whenever it seemed that someone he loved was drifting away, assailed him briefly at that moment. Faulty reasoning, sentimentality, a soft streak, these he always feared were at the root of these feminine lapses which must be concealed if he was ever to become a real man. Other people didn’t appear bothered by them. In any case, people’s feelings were only of interest to themselves, not to be indecently exposed.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: Finally, Sam, Ted and the lads leave London – and home for the first time in their lives...
Sunday, 19 October 2014
Fusilier Sam gives his soldier’s pay to mother – and young boy Sam learns biology from the rear end of a horse
A hundred years ago today… the Battle of Ypres began. The first Battle of Ypres, that is. Four more followed. Over 34 days, this one saw the French (85,000 casualties), the British (56,000), and the Belgian (22,000) Armies repel the German (46,000) Army’s final attempt to “race to the sea” and take Boulogne and Calais. At the same time, fighting continued along the rapidly entrenching Western Front at Armentieres, the Yser and Messines (near which, in late October, a German soldier called Adolph Hitler won the Iron Cross for rescuing a comrade under fire – history, eh?). Elsewhere, this being World War already, the Russians fought the Germans near Warsaw, the British Indian Expeditionary Force sailed from Bombay to defend Mesopotamia (now Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran), and assorted skirmishing continued in Africa and the Pacific.
Meanwhile, in the north London suburb of Edmonton, my father Sam Sutcliffe’s family considered the consequences of two boys, Sam and older brother Ted, who’d been working for a couple of years both joining up under-age (16 and 18). Father Charles and mother Lily had three other children, Ciss (19), Alf (11), Edie (2) – both Frank (12) and John (1) had died in 1912. They decided they had to put their long struggle with poverty on a war footing.
During the weeks when their 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers Battalion did nothing but march and squarebash around London, of course, the two lads got soldier’s pay – two shillings a day, including subsistence while living at home – but they all knew that was a “temporary bonus”. As Sam recalled and wrote (cue weekly explanation to new readers that my father wrote the early chapters of his Memoir in the third person, thinly disguising himself as “Tommy Norcliffe”):
“Around this time, mother and sons held a little family council. They discussed the war. Victory for the Allies, as our lot were already being called, did not appear imminent with news from the Front anything but cheerful. Fears of shortages had grown. So they decided to buy extra food of a sort which would keep well: certain tinned goods, flour, dried beans, even some potatoes for the medium term.
To this end, the brothers contributed all their money apart from what they needed for fares and light meals around midday. Over a few weeks, the family built up a food store which the brothers hoped would help sustain their parents and the younger children for a period after the Battalion moved from London (as they knew it must).”
Imagining this scene, the hard-pressed family struggling as ever to work their way through amid great events, made me think about my father growing up and the small world of the neighbourhood he’d described in the Part One of Nobody Of Any Importance which don’t chronologically accord with this blog’s parallel line to the weekly centenaries of global events and Sam’s individual experiences. So, some of his verbal pictures of Edmonton life in the early 1900s. They’ll make this piece unusually long for a blog, but I hope it’s worth the price of admission...
Here’s a thing: looking back we need to envision a London full of animals, more so in a suburb like Edmonton, then on the expanding edge of the city where it met the countryside. Sam/Tommy describes a biologically educational childhood walk from the terraced house the “Norcliffes” rented:
“Down the road, round a corner, round another corner, and they came to a busy main road, the traffic all horse-drawn — horses everywhere, horses pulling small carts, great wagons. Milkmen used them, bakers used them delivering house to house. But the boy took a particular interest in horse-drawn trams. He had never seen anything like them. The horses weren’t big really — large ponies you’d call them. Two of them pulled each tram along on its rails, the driver seated at the front, the reins in one hand, a light whip in the other. A conductor on the back collected the fares. The lower deck was glazed, the upper deck open to the sky.
Strange that coming to live in this busy town brought him into contact with animals; not nature in the raw, but nature anyway. Manure constantly cluttered the roads. A deal of urine lay around. The boy and thousands of children like him watched the normal processes of what you might call intake and output and very soon clearly understood what was going on.
These tram drivers, for instance, would be observed closely by the children, especially when they came to a terminus. Our boy would stand there and, if there happened to be a fairly long wait between arrival and departure, watch the driver put the bag of corn or chaff under the horse’s nose, pass the strap over its head, and adjust it so that the animal could eat comfortably. He’d see the horse’s jaws champing away. Every now and then it would blow hard when the dust got in its nostrils. To see a bucket of water placed in front of one of these ponies, that was worth watching. In went the horse’s mouth, a sucking and pumping operation followed, the speed at which the water vanished from the bucket unbelievable.
That was the front end of the animal. The rear held his interest equally. Some horses, he noticed, had one opening just under the tail and some had two. One can’t say that the reasons for this were clear to him at first. He knew that if the tail went up and the animal was of the type which had one opening, dollops of manure would issue forth, landing on the road with a series of thuds and what, to him, was quite a pleasant smell. If the animal had two of these openings, if he saw the lower one moving he knew that a jet of water would presently shoot out. It was advisable to step back because, although the water had no bad odour, if one arrived home with shoes and socks soaked with the stuff there would certainly be trouble from mother.
It soon became obvious to him that the animal with only one of these openings must have an outlet elsewhere for the water. On the first occasion it became apparent to him, he watched, with wide-eyed amazement, the emergence from immediately in front of the horse’s hind legs a big, long thing from which poured forth a stream of liquid splashing into the road and flowing away along the gutter.
So that explained how the two types of animal urinated and he thought no more about it. But sometimes a horse some distance away would put up his head and neigh loudly, perhaps start to jump about, even lash out with his hind legs, his hooves cracking against the bodywork of the tram or cart. The boy didn’t quite understand the reason for this behaviour, although he realised it was connected with some other animal in the vicinity. But it wasn’t for him to know that the noisy, frisky animal was disturbed by one of the opposite sex.
It wasn’t just horses. One could see cattle driven along a busy road to market, a flock of sheep... Animals everywhere.”
And as an Edmonton boy, Sam had a front-row seat to watch London expanding around him – and find relics of earlier over-ambitious ventures:
“Despite their lack of money, the children found much to excite them in the neighbourhood, especially the terrific activity on the nearby main road out of London. Stacks of wooden blocks and pipes and tall, iron standards appeared, laying by the roadside. Work lasting several years began. Hordes of navvies with pick and shovel dug trenches and laid tramlines in a new road surface made with wooden blocks (replacing the granite chips which had previously done the job).
Following the roadworks led the children to explore further. Much open space lay beyond the new street they lived in; fields and market gardens, a farmhouse with a large barn and pigsty. Tommy liked all the natural smells. Temporarily, they lived at the very edge of the city.
They found brickfields...They watched as workers dug up clay and mixed it with water to form a thick mud they called ‘pug’, which they then moulded and baked. The manufacture all took place in the open air.
Then, among the tall grass of the fields around their school, they found kerbs and manhole covers laid at intervals along what had obviously been intended as a road. They learned that, during an earlier boom period encouraged by the extension of the suburban railway line, speculators put up street after street of cheap terrace houses. But the bubble burst and they abandoned the work at whatever point it had reached when the money ran out. You could still walk around streets they had completed, though ‘To Let’ notices stood outside many of the houses. Someone told Tommy the rents ranged from about 6/6 to 8/6 per week, low even for those times.”
To close, Sam/Tommy’s vibrant account of probably the most colourful part of any London district in the early 1900s, the market place:
“This market area was triangular: on the left side, from Tommy’s direction, a row of shops selling foodstuffs and every household requirement — fishmongers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, a pawnbroker. Facing them, across a wide, paved footpath, a group of stalls also selling food, mainly cabbages and other greens from the market gardens nearby.
At the base of the triangle ran a single-track railway with level-crossing gates. This railway bisected many living areas, an heirloom of early bad planning. Oddly, a short stretch of track in the market place had been built on tiles and underneath them flowed a wide stream... not always very sweet water either. Some people seemed to regard any stream near a town as the natural dumping ground for dead cats and other items for which they had no further use.
On the remaining side of the triangle (should you be getting lost: to Tommy’s right, that is, but in the far corner near the railway) stood an old coaching inn, untouched over several hundred years, with a cobbled yard at the side and, in the rear, an extensive stable. The innkeeper himself kept several horses, a few local people had one or two, and visiting circuses also made frequent use of the premises. In fact, the proprietor almost always wore riding breeches, red waistcoat, hacking coat and a bowler and did all his journeying around the neighbourhood on horseback. A very popular man.
A couple of doors along, father, sons and daughters ran an old-time family pharmacy – the shelves arrayed with bright blue and orange decanter-shaped containers. The premises served also as a large post office. Two of the sons had trained in dispensing medicines and their father oversaw everything, a venerable figure with his long, lean face, pointed beard and, invariably, a smoking cap (a sort of fez with a tassel on top).
While the pharmacy portrayed the respectable face of medicine, every market worthy of the name would have its resident quack, generally known as Doctor Brown. That name might cover a multitude of sins. Our Dr Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head – proper morning dress – his fair moustache waxed to two long points. He looked clean, every inch a doctor, and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment and a huge crowd would gather around him. According to their number, so the length of his story grew and, proportionately, the sales at the end of it. He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.
In the middle of the triangle was the old village green, as it had been before this small town became a botched urban district. Marked out by a low iron railing, it comprised a pond, a patch of grass, and a couple of may trees. On warm summer days the out-of-work and assorted idlers would sun themselves there, six or a dozen of them lying on their backs while, around them, the activity of the market went on...
As darkness fell, the shops around the marketplace lit up incandescent gas lamps, reasonably bright, none of the brilliance of electric lighting. The stallholders used paraffin flares... According to his wealth, each stallholder had one, two or three of these flares burning. This always attracted crowds on dark nights – the greatest numbers guaranteed on Friday nights when, as Tommy sometimes observed, the market’s character changed to a degree.
That was the night the workers drew their wages and a little more money than usual flowed into the tills of shopkeepers and stallholders who shouted their wares ever more vigorously to make themselves heard above the hubbub. Everybody with a few pennies to spend felt the pleasure and excitement of it. The publicans did well too, of course...
This played a part in generating another of the market’s thriving businesses, operated by gentlemen offering funds to those who, during a hectic weekend, got through their wages, perhaps leaving no money to buy even food for the family until the next week’s pay arrived. On the Monday morning the procession from the sidestreets would begin, a ragged band making for the pawnbroker’s shop (adjacent to that second pub). Father’s best Sunday suit, mother’s best Sunday costume, even the children’s boots and shoes would go over the counter. The pawnbroker advanced a shilling or two on them. The hope was – and, generally, it did happen – that these goods would be redeemed the following Friday night, ready to be worn at the weekend.
Some women carried huge bundles to the pawnbroker’s shop, undoubtedly including sheets and blankets, which would be missing from the family’s beds for the week – if ill fortune befell them in the meanwhile, how were the children to be kept warm? How were the old people to be kept warm? Short of clothing, short of bedding, short of food during the worst part of the week until the man’s wages, to some extent, redeemed them...
Even so, many did survive on the tiniest of incomes, like Tommy’s family, keeping at least an outward appearance of what was called respectability. They frequently suffered deprivations in their home. But even in those circumstances they could still find energy and time to do a little to help others, as with church work. But the toll on nerves, the irritation, the bitterness, the feeling of instability and fear of even worse overtaking them often blighted the lives of people who were doing their best to keep things going under difficult circumstances. And of course the children often suffered the lash of the tongue or the slap of the hand, not always deserved.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: After marching around in civvies for weeks Sam’s Battalion finally gets some uniforms...
Sunday, 12 October 2014
A hundred years ago this week… notable Western Front battles began: Messines, western Belgium (October 12th, BEF/German Army), Armentieres, northern France (13th, French Army-BEF/German Army), Yser, western Belgium (16th, Belgian-French Armies/German Army).
Yes, that’s Armentieres as in the Mademoiselle From Armentieres, an early classic of Word War 1 Poor Bloody Infantry songcraft — ideal for marching because jaunty and infinite, given plenty of verses were “written” and then you added you’re own, ribald, surreal, satirical, tragi-comical according to taste. Et voilà, a quick web search reveals 50-60 variations — no repeats, come to that! — including these choice items (many ruder than this, of course): “She's the hardest working girl in town/But she makes her living upside down!/… I fell in love with her at sight/Wacked myself for half the night/… She had four chins, her knees would knock/And her face would stop a cuckoo clock/… She could guzzle a barrel of sour wine/And eat a hog without peeling the rind/… The officers get the pie and cake/And all we get is the bellyache/… The Colonel got the Croix de Guerre/The son-of-a-gun was never there!/… You might forget the groans and yells/But you'll never forget the mademoiselles.” Well, inkypinky parlee-voo, eh?
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, north London, my father Sam, older brother Ted, and their pals and fellow novice Royal Fusiliers Len and Harold made their debuts as squarebashers, marchers and — since they’d been brought up in the church and the Scouts by quite proper parents — lightly blushful listeners, hesitant singers, of coarse military rhyme.
The Battalion — 2/1st City Of London — got itself organised in the grounds of the Foundling Hospital, as was — the walled “parade ground” area is still there in Bloomsbury, south of King’s Cross Station, preserved as a playground.
Roughly a thousand men assembled, Sam writes. An array of Sergeant Majors shuffled them into eight Companies of 100 each — Len in C, Ted and Harold G, Sam H, his first separation from them — the remainder “a reserve who would fill vacancies in the ranks as they occurred…” An officer explained that everything they did, no matter how dull and repetitive, had a practical purpose:
“You must all bear in mind that the movement and formations taught in military drill form the basis of control of troop movements on the battlefield… At a later stage, hand signals from the men in charge will take the place of spoken words — which, in certain circumstances, cannot be heard.”
“Vacancies”, “certain circumstances”; clearly, euphemism played its part from the outset…
Observing his new comrades, Sam — and time now for the weekly alert to new readers that, in the first part of the book, my father wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy Norcliffe” — Sam/Tommy, then, reckoned that, despite lying about his age to sign up at 16, he might have an advantage in readiness over some older men because of his Boy Scout training in skills such as rifle shooting and signaling.
When Company Sergeant Major West ordered them to fall in, the lad weighed up the men on either side of him (all of them still in their ordinary clothes, no uniforms available for a while yet):
“On Tommy’s left stood a man of 36, probably, wearing a cap at an unusual angle — the soft cloth pulled back and the hard peak pulled forward as far as they could possibly go. Tommy wondered if the two sections would part under the strain. Under the peak, dark inquisitive eyes moved constantly, taking in everything with keen interest; a cheerful, though pale, face with a sharp, red nose and black moustache; a soiled black jacket, dark grey trousers shiny with what appeared to be grease, and heavy, black boots completed Tommy’s sidelong view of Joe Parker.
Had Joe cut his eyes to the right, he would have seen that Tommy too wore a black jacket with tight grey trousers but, instead of a cap, he wore the City office boy’s hard, flat bowler. A boy in men’s clothing?
A rather elderly fellow of scholarly appearance called Ewart Walker stood to Tommy’s right. He looked stern, or somewhat benign, or quizzical, all dependent on what the brainy bloke was observing at any given moment. He wore grey flannel trousers, a Norfolk jacket, brown, brogue shoes and, unusually at that period, no hat to cover his cropped, grey hair.”
They spent the morning on drill, just learning to start out on the left, then turn… then “Form fours!” really put the cat among the pigeons with regard to stumbling about and banging into one another.
When they got a break, Sam/Tommy chatted with “old” Joe Parker, as he thought of him. He worked as a casual porter at Billingsgate fish market, but…
“… he’d spent much of his life at sea, mainly on coastal vessels. He proceeded to describe nights ashore in small seaports, winding up with his choicest experience — his face glowed, his eyes sparkled, as he told how he put up at a lodging house once, ate a lovely meal, and shared his beer with the buxom landlady, her husband presently away at sea it turned out. Then he turned in. The bed had lovely, clean, white sheets and pillows, but to all this luxury the landlady later added the pleasure of her curvaceous body. Joe relived the delights of having her meaty legs wrapped round him until the order to fall in saved Tommy from making the expected noises of approval.”
That afternoon, the Battalion undertook its first formal march through the city:
“[Lieutenant] Swickenham told the men about the march to follow. He asked them, in spite of their varied civilian garb, to bear themselves like soldiers. The eyes of many London citizens would regard them and a good impression must be aimed at.
Thus began one of many foot-slogging ventures in the course of their elementary training. This one took them along Tottenham Court Road, New Oxford Street, and Oxford Street, to Marble Arch and into Hyde Park, where they rested and did some drill before returning via a different route. They marched at attention and in complete silence for the most part, with a deal of conversation breaking out when the CSMs ordered ‘March at ease!’ — but all of it subdued by the unaccustomed public performance they felt they were staging.
However, the column was long, not much short of a thousand men, and probably at quite an early stage the officers began to realise that an error of judgment had occurred.
People crossing the road could not possibly wait while this long procession passed so they would try to hurry through any gap they espied. This caused pauses and broke the marching rhythm. Elderly folk would be helped by the men, pretty girls too — as the occasional shriek or squeal would attest. Policemen controlling busy crossings could not help causing gaps in the long column. So did congested traffic, especially in Oxford Street, where a bus or a lorry frequently became interposed between Companies, even though drivers of all sorts of vehicles, motor or horse-drawn, tried to let the Battalion through.
Cart and dray drivers, perched in high seats, some of them no doubt old soldiers, shouted words of sarcastic encouragement to the self-conscious recruits: ‘Keep them ‘eads up!’ or ‘Swing them arms there!’, along with one or two unfavourable comparisons to another Army apparently commanded by a certain Fred Karno. But it was just cheerful banter and, provided you didn’t take yourself too seriously, no offence was taken.
All the same, the officers ensured that future route marches avoided Central London and were undertaken Company by Company rather than the whole Battalion together.
But familiarity with the new routine of living soon encouraged those men who had subdued noisy and garrulous natures on that first march to commence raising their voices in joke and jibe. Some of the Cockneys’ humour was amusing, some of it downright rude and embarrassing. When the Battalion marched at ease, singing would break out — and not discouraged by the CSMs because it helped to maintain a marching rhythm and to overcome boredom.
They started with innocent numbers like Clementine, Boys Of The Old Brigade, John Brown’s Body and so forth, but a sort of vocal degeneration gradually set in. John Brown’s Body became John Brown’s Cow — it went peepee against the wall. The music hall song which went ‘Our lodger is a nice young man, such a nice young man is he’ lent itself to suggestions about his lewd practices. The Company officer had to lead his men and Tommy, anonymously tucked away, felt sorry for the young man who marched alone in front of this sometimes blasphemous company.”
And even as they marched and sang in the streets of London, on the front line the collective musical genius of the BEF initiated its saucy extempore regarding the good lady from Armentieres…
All the best — FSS