“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, 8 February 2015
FootSoldierSam’s (rough) life on the ocean waves…
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A hundred years ago… tomorrow (February 9) the first Canadian troops to join the battle sailed from England to France and… yesterday (the 7th), in a snowstorm, the German 8th Army launched a surprise attack on the Russians in East Prussia (now Polish territory) – the Battle Of The Masurian Lakes. They advanced 70 miles in a week, a near-massacre with 200,000 Russian casualties to 16,200 German. (A remote connection to Sam Sutcliffe, my father, is that German commander General Otto Von Below later switched Fronts and oversaw the March 28, 1918, Arras wing of the Spring Offensive, one of the micro-outcomes of which was Sam being taken POW.)
Meanwhile, Sam, still 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, their pals Len Minns and Harold Mellow from Edmonton, north London, and a thousand other comrades in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, sailed through a terrible storm for a destination unknown…
Hardly any of the rankers had left England before. Their introduction to the traveller’s life proved less than comfortable. Last week, Sam climbed out of H Company’s stinking chamber below to take his first look at rough seas and use the, shall we say, open-plan latrines – perched over the side. Now he tried to settle in (here, for new readers, still writing in the third-person and calling himself “Tommy”):
‘…he found that a blanket had been issued to each man. Removing his boots, he folded his greatcoat to form a pillow and arranged the blanket with a quarter of it hanging over the side to tuck around himself as he made himself comfortable. After several ungainly attempts, he succeeded in mounting the hammock and lay suspended perhaps 24 inches from the ceiling.
One advantage to sleeping in a swinging net soon became obvious. When the ship did a sideways roll the hammock did not, it just hung there. However, when the ship’s nose dipped into a trough one could feel that all right. Head up, feet down… then vice versa, of course. A strange night, that first night at sea; half-awake for the most part, fully awake several times when the forepart of the ship seemed to receive a terrific blow. No alarm call followed… she hadn’t struck a rock… so one dozed off for a while.
Large, two-handled urine tubs had been placed in an area where no hammocks hung and, as the night wore on and the ship’s wallowing increased, the homely sound of men pissing gradually gave way to the horrible noises of men vomiting into it.’
The voyage - not to France and the Western Front they soon realised with some relief – took ten days. So, in hopes readers aren’t feeling too queasy, we necessarily continue the alimentary theme. The soldiers could think of little else. Sam/”Tommy” found his own way through, spending as much time as possible away from that foul hold, the Company’s living quarters:
‘He clung to a rail, amazed to see and feel the forepart of the ship rise high, then plunge… at which his side of the ship would sink down, then rise up, up, while the far side almost vanished beneath the waves. These plunge-and-wallow movements increased in depth and height as the weather grew worse. And so the thing he had been fighting for several hours took possession of him and his loss was the fishes’ gain… he felt so ill that fear vanished…
When the ship wallowed in a trough, various sideways rolls occurred, but fore and aft movements were only slight. Then, when the peak of the next huge wave rushed at the ship and looked to be about to fall on and bury her… at the last moment her bow rose about 50 degrees until, as she started to level out on top of the wave, a big bang for’ard preceded a horrible vibration shaking the whole ship as the propeller, now out of the water, raced madly before… the slide down the other side of the water mountain began and a foot or two of water scurried across the deck. Seeing this coming, Tommy raced towards the stairway leading to a higher level and just beat this on-board wave. Happily, there he found that only an occasional fine spray wafted his way…
The weather only worsened… Tommy thought even experienced sailors must have worried that the ship would, at some time, either fail to come out of a sideways roll and capsize or continue one of those mad slides down the distal side of a huge wave and maintain that stern-up 50-degree plunge straight down to the ocean’s bottom.’
A crew member later told him the Galena* was “noted for her wallow”! Always nauseated, Sam nonetheless resolved to keep eating whenever he could – “he chewed and swallowed with determination for seasickness seemed harder to endure if the stomach was empty”. He ate dry bread and hard biscuits – no butter because what the Battalion Lieutenant Quartermaster provided proved rancid (for Sam, this man remained a hate figure all the way through to the beaches of Gallipoli). Some cheese. Stew from the communal dixie.
And then he found a sanctuary. Wandering the upper decks – not an officer in sight for days – and then down again when he reached the stern, he entered a passageway, opened a door and stepped into… a throne room in more senses than the obvious, a place of “heavenly calm”:
‘… [it contained] a washbasin and a lavatory with hinged seat and flush tank above. Faint light came through a small fixed porthole. He bolted the door and dealt with a wave of sickness which assailed him. The weakness caused by this regular vomiting made him appreciate the warmth and privacy of this little room. He sat and dozed at first, while endeavouring to keep wakeful in case someone really entitled to use the place should come along. However, no one disturbed him and, in due course, deep sleep for an hour or two did him a lot of good.
There was a homely touch about this little room and he had no wish to leave it. Hoping to come back, he slipped out, closing the door carefully.’
Eventually, after three days, given the respite afforded by that small sanctum – an unused crew toilet, he deduced – his stomach settled. He got talking to a couple of the sailors, a gleeful experience, Sam observes, “to make friends with civilians, already regarded as a separate race… That gap grew wider as the war grew older and bridging it demanded ever greater effort.” Officers emerged from their cabins to order a clean-up and Sam volunteered to fetch the unappetising rations for his mates, now he felt capable. He wandered some more – and ran into his brother (and hero, more or less) Ted, previously immured in G Company’s hold:
‘A reunion more demonstrative than ever before ensued. Normally, they greeted one another with the studiedly casualness befitting men of the world. But pleasure and relief at each discovering the other safe and well compelled them in that unguarded moment to throw their arms around each other and behave as humans should. Typically, Ted appeared to have remained well throughout.’
They met and wandered and talked for hours every day after that. But one more scare awaited:
‘At dusk, though, someone shouted orders for all to get below and H Company’s Sergeant West told them no lights must be shown, no matches struck. A submarine which, in darkness, could only locate them precisely if lights were exposed, was following them. So, down below with hatches covered, portholes shielded. Terrible, just terrible. And the fear that, if a torpedo struck the ship, the imprisoned crowds of men would not stand a chance of surviving. Only the really sick showed no sign of concern.’
No torpedoes came their way, though, and, finally, the old ship turned east. In the distance, land loomed.
* Actual name SS Galeka – another of my father’s mysteriously discreet, thin disguises of actual names, in the spirit of calling Tonbridge Bunbridge!
All the best — FSS
Next week: Gibraltar at last!