“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, 22 February 2015
No-longer-seasick Sam enjoys a couple of days as a WW1 tourist – until the Fusiliers finally sets foot on foreign soil
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A hundred years ago… today, the 22nd of February, the Russian Army stemmed the German advance at the 2nd Battle Of The Masurian Lakes (despite a defeat enumerated by 200,000 casualties against 16,000), and South African forces made further advances into German South-West Africa (now Namibia); on the 23rd British Marines moved on to Lemnos (an Aegean island annexed from the Ottoman Empire by Greece in 1912 – and scene of the remnants of Sam Sutcliffe Battalion’s 1915 Christmas dinner!), and a couple of days later began operations against Turkish Dardanelles forts to prepare the way for the Gallipoli invasion; and, of course, the attritional grind of the Western Front trenches continued.
Meanwhile, the thousand-strong 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Sam Sutcliffe, still 16, and his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, and their pals Harold Mellow and Len Minns from Edmonton, north London, sailed on… still some months from their own Gallipoli landing...
After last week’s brief stopover in Gibraltar harbour and, for the Londoners, the exotic experience of haggling for bargains with the bumboatmen, the Galena, the ungainly tub serving as their troopship, pottered on into the Mediterranean – destination still unknown to the Fusiliers. At least, with the Biscay storms behind them, a clean-up and recovery period could begin, as Sam wrote in his Memoir (NB, new readers, up to this point he still wrote in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”):
‘Their NCOs outlined a vigorous programme: cleansing of quarters, polishing of boots and buttons, and daily exercise in small groups. This was received with enthusiasm. There followed three days during which all on board improved both appearance and spirits…
Tommy enjoyed the role of traveller, particularly leaning over the rail at the ship’s stern, watching the churned-up water, its apparent phosphorescence and the always widening wake – he felt a sense of urgency, a scurrying away of water humiliated, thrashed by the propellers…
The present, happier way of life put him in a state of optimism and appreciation of the moment’s blessings – able, for instance, to largely ignore the unappetising, badly cooked and underdone food still served to them, regardless of calmer seas. Strong tea, often taken with hunks of bread and watery jam, usually passed for breakfast. That jam wouldn’t have fetched tuppence a pound in a grocer’s shop; issued in tins and made by a firm seldom heard of before or since that war, it needed no spoon, it ran like water.
Even the boy could guess at the sort of profits the villains made and, in idle moments, soldiers discussed what they would like to do to the manufacturer and the people in authority who placed the orders and, no doubt, shared his gains and guilt.
For some reason, the same low standards did not apply to Army biscuits, as they were called. Tommy believed that just one firm supplied the square, white, easily chewed biscuits – very different to the brick-hard squares referred to earlier. Proud of its product, the company baked its name, Jacob’s, into each biscuit – and men rejoiced when they were given them. For the rest, as far as Tommy could see, anonymity concealed the shame of their victuallers. If soldiers’ hopes have been realised they all live in a hell where the diet consists solely of their own provender.’
Note that “Tommy enjoyed the role of traveller”; from time to time, in more tranquil moments, my father would escape the hardships, terrors and horrors of war by becoming a boy entranced, imagination flying, as he saw the world outside England for the first time (and, like most of his working-class generation, he never did go abroad again after World War 1). This flight of fancy first occurred on the voyage from Gibraltar, leading him into romantic phantasms about his own thus far poor and mundane life:
‘At the end of a day of calm and deep blue sea, the sun hovered for a while, apparently, at about 30 degrees above the horizon before finally dropping towards the water. Tommy watched it descend; the whole sphere rested on the sea’s surface for a moment, then it quickly sank to three-quarters, a half, a quarter, then nothing remained save a bright glow, and that only briefly. Darkness came and, with a small amount of lighting permitted at that time, Tommy had flickering reflections to watch and accompany romantic, boyish thoughts.
Leaning on the rail, he was joined by Jimmy Green, a nice fellow with whom he had chatted occasionally – probably four years older than Tommy, he belonged to G Company, Ted’s lot.
Several months in the Army had not hardened or toughened Jimmy. His blond hair and pale face had that fresh, cared-for look Tommy already associated with the upper middle classes. One wondered how these types achieved it. Ordinary blokes well washed and scrubbed looked fine, but still ordinary. The Jimmy Greens of that period had quit their usually pleasant occupations and homes, generally on patriotic impulses. Their parents must have been terribly shocked but, in many instances, ensured their sons would at least have the King’s commission to cushion them against the worst buffetings of war… well, to some degree. Jimmy’s gentleness and trustfulness, his gay, white-toothed smiles, induced in Tommy a feeling of untaught inferiority which, he hoped to goodness, didn’t show.
Some sort of counterbalance seemed to be required, so he said, almost casually, “Ah, there it is, straight ahead”. “What is?” said Jimmy, peering through the night. “Algiers, brightly lit up. You can actually trace the layout of the streets by the lines of the lights. That wide one in the middle comes straight from the back of the town down to the harbour. Now, taking the ones which branch right from the main street, can you see the second one up from the sea? That’s where we used to live.”
Green responded with immense interest to this lie and begged for more details. Tommy promised to return to the subject later, but pleaded the urgency of a visit to the Ohang, as the bog had become known. Leaving Jimmy, he actually entered the place convulsed with laughter, but also feeling somewhat uneasy about the silly untruth. Anybody but Jimmy would have jeered jovially and perhaps called him something chummy like “You lying little sod!” and the boy might have had to duck a sideswipe, but no harm would have been done.
Now, for the moment, he relegated the matter to his mental storeroom as he looked along the spotless seating with its circular holes evenly spaced – how many could it accommodate at a sitting? How many had suffered frozen bums while attending to natural requirements in that novel latrine? Indeed how many had almost drowned when the raging sea thrust upward through the holes, rushed along the deck and away through the scuppers? He could grin now as he thought about this formerly filthy, wet, and slippery contraption and recalled the hymn, For Those In Peril On The Sea.’
Soon enough – on February 11, eleven days after leaving Southampton – Sam/”Tommy”, the happy traveller, had to resume soldiering, albeit not too close to the battle lines for some while yet:
‘On the third day after Gibraltar, a blur on the horizon rapidly took shape as an island and the ship approached it at what appeared to be almost indecent speed for the old tub. Tommy was so enjoying his first Mediterranean cruise that the sight of land ahead failed to excite him.
For an hour or two, the ship lay off the island, just outside a bay with rocky headlands at each extremity, a lookout tower on each. Beyond the shore, the land rose gradually in levels defined by walls, with some houses visible of a type which pleased Tommy’s eye. In England most houses had roofs of blue-grey slates sloping from a ridge – frequently seen against a grey sky, often in chilly, wet weather… the lad’s mind associated them with feelings of depressing discomfort. But here the houses – some in groups, others isolated – all had flat roofs, their walls white or cream or pastel shades of yellow or green. At that distance, under a blue sky, the bay appeared to be the home of wealthy, fortunate people, living in abodes of luxury and romance.
Tommy concluded that the possibility of being put ashore in this heavenly place must be remote, but he enjoyed the experience of gazing at its beauty. Regret, he felt, when the ship moved off… then renewed excitement when she sailed into a large and wonderful harbour, busy with several freighters and other troopships – naval vessels anchored on the far side in front of a cluster of dockland cranes. As at Gibraltar, many small boats quickly surrounded the Galena, each with a man standing in its stern skilfully manoeuvring among the swarm by wiggling an oar from side to side. Looking back to the harbour entrance, Tommy saw stone buildings everywhere, not a brick in sight. Occasional horse-drawn carriages passed along a road on the side nearest the Galena.
Soon NCOs moved around advising any who hadn’t heard that the island was Malta and telling their men to pack kitbags and prepare to gather in Companies. H Company grouped around the forecastle area…’
While still aboard, a Captain Boden – unseen on their voyage until that point – introduced himself as H Company’s new officer. This was the first they’d heard about the replacement of Lieutenant Swickenham, who Sam described as “kindly, but rather ineffectual” (see blog 28 “Sam and the lads get a lantern lecture on VD – and Malta?”). The men prepared to disembark:
‘Tommy procured his rations and chewed busily while trying to take in the great harbour scene: the naval ships, sailing craft, one of those fishing boats with a funnel and a sail at the stern, and lots of small boats being rowed or paddled busily between shore and ships.
On the Galena’s foredeck, three horses, presumably officers’ mounts, were being released from the small containers in which they had spent the entire voyage, poor devils. Tommy could see these containers had sides and tops of padded leather, but the horses’ legs and bodies bore awful lacerations and discolourations. Tommy wondered if they could ever be restored to a decent condition. What a hell they had endured, confined thus and, for the first week, thrown about day and night.
Tommy met up with Ted and Harold briefly and enjoyed pleasant speculation about the island, where they would live, and for how long they would remain there. One thing they knew for certain already – the temperature was higher than they had ever experienced, except on the very hottest days at home. They shared a particular happiness because they and the Galena would shortly part company. That ship was a bad’un and they’d had enough of her.
Even while the men gathered in Companies, the ship eased towards a quay where the crew made it fast and placed two gangways in position. Captain Boden announced that six men would be needed from each Company to offload stores. CSM West asked H Company for volunteers… who would later travel on the transport wagons, he shrewdly added, whereas everyone else would march to their destination carrying their kitbags. Since the whole Company suddenly became volunteers, the CSM selected the biggest and beefiest.
The Captain led his men ashore past an enterprising member of the ship’s crew who positioned himself at the head of the gangway and sold pictures of the Galena to those who wanted to treasure a memory of that floating palace. Tommy bought one, and never regretted the financial outlay of 2d – shown to friends, it provided many a laugh in later years.*
On reaching the road, Captain Boden turned left and, followed by his men in no particular formation, continued walking for some distance. Then he stopped and, loudly, requested the CSM to carry on. After ten days of confinement in the old ship, the smartness in drill which had become customary in England could not be regained immediately. All had recovered from their sickness, but lack of exercise and indifferent food had taken their toll. However, the novelty of being in a strange country – first steps on foreign soil for nearly all of them – and the certainty of release from their hammocks in the cargo holds made them anxious for a fresh start under their new officer.
The Company soon lined up in correct sections and platoons with their Corporals and Sergeants; the roll was called and the CSM reported, “All present and correct, sir!”’
* Unfortunately, we’ve long since lost my father’s postcard of the Galeka (Galena being one of the many slight aliases he used in his memoir, for reasons I never wholly understood), but you can see what may well be the same image at http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/UnionCastle1.html - anchor5228
All the best – FSS
Next week: The Fusiliers settle into their new “home” in Malta…