“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, 15 February 2015
Young Fusilier Sam’s mystery cruise continues – he grows a moustache and meets the bumboatmen of Gibraltar
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A hundred years ago this week… the German and Austrian Armies chalked up minor successes on Western and Eastern Fronts, with the usual extravagant cost in casualties, the French occupied Oyem in Cameroons (February 16), and U-boats began the “unrestricted” blockade of Great Britain (that is, torpedo attacks without warning; the German Government described their first such strike, on the 19th, against Norwegian merchantman SS Belridge as an error – and the vessel reached port).
Meanwhile, a fresh campaign began which, a full seven months later, determined the fate of many in 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 from Edmonton, north London… on February 19, 1915, an Anglo-French Naval task force started a long-range bombardment of Ottoman artillery along the Dardanelles Coast. Bad weather interrupted them and rather spoiled their aim because spotter planes couldn’t be launched from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. Gallipoli had begun in the lumbering manner to which British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen were to become accustomed…
Last week, Sam’s troopship from Southampton to a destination unknown to the rankers emerged from a terrifying and gut-churning Bay of Biscay storm and, in the distance, they could make out the coast of… somewhere or other. As my father picks up the story “on the morning of the seventh day at sea”, new readers please note that up to this point he was still conducting his Memoir in the third person, referring to himself as “Tommy”:
‘The land mass now assumed a recognisable shape, presenting a picture which had faced Tommy every time he walked out of the classroom into the corridor during his last years at school. “That’s the rock of Gibraltar,” he yelled to all within hearing.
Soon the regular throbbing of the engines changed to a slower beat and the shape of the rock altered as the Galena’s course changed, barely moving now, just veering slightly to the left. Excited soldiers packed the formerly unused, lonely decks.
“There goes the Marook*,” shouted someone as a massive chain roared across the foredeck and vanished through an aperture. The chain stopped moving and slackened. A noisy week of raging winds and crashing waves and vibrating engines ended with a calm… in which men could converse without shouting and once more regard one another with interest, to see what degree of suffering had been endured by their comrades.
An elderly H Company man looked at Tommy almost with amazement. He had obviously never been deceived about the boy’s age for he said: “I can’t believe it — a kid like you and you’ve grown a moustache”.
Tommy borrowed a pocket mirror and saw that the beginnings, fine and fair, had indeed emerged since he last saw his face over a week ago. Elated, and knowing that repeated shaving resulted in stiff whiskers, he scraped it off as soon as possible — but without the desired effect as, next day, no further sign of a moustache appeared, nor did this herald of approaching manhood darken his upper lip for many a day to come. Had it grown, it would have helped; so far he believed he had performed everything asked as well as any of his comrades, yet for peace of mind he needed to feel accepted as an equal.’
For the rest of that day, the Fusiliers, most of them away from England for the first time in their lives, experienced as much of the colourful life of a Mediterranean port as possible without actually stepping ashore. Sam recalled:
‘Numerous craft of various shapes and sizes moved about in the sheltered harbour and the bustle of activity lifted the weight of boredom from those — and they were the majority — who had wilted under it for a week. Bumboatmen rowed and bumped and jockeyed to secure positions near the ship’s sides, displaying their wares, holding up articles and deploying limited English to declaim their merits: “Very good, very nice, very cheap!” The soldiers called “How much?”, a question asked and understood in most parts of the world.
Haggling about prices, with much use of fingers as counters, sometimes brought agreement. Then the seller would sling up a thin, coiled rope which the soldier endeavoured to catch. Eventually succeeding, the soldier coiled a couple of turns around his hand and let fall the rest of it, so that the seller could secure it to the handle of a basket.
In most cases, this was the moment for fresh argument to commence. Naturally the boatman wished the buyer to haul up the basket, place in it the purchase money and lower it back down, whereas the buyer thought the goods should be sent up first – and used more gestures than words to make this point. Somebody had to give way, but the great reluctance down below to trust the doubtless honest man above suggested that some unscrupulous cads in uniform had passed that way before. Could there be a man so wicked as to empty a basket of its contents and then vanish among the men swarming over the decks without paying? Apparently so. Nonetheless, some small deals did reach completion.
Tommy ventured a sixpenny purchase comprising four packets of ten cigarettes. He tried to smoke one, but it tasted awful. Blaming the strong sea air, he put them away for later use.
After some hours at Gibraltar, the Galena moved quietly onwards. With changed weather, all began to feel cheerful, even energetic. On the calm, warm Mediterranean a renewed feeling of purpose and comradeship prevailed. Smiles replaced the bleak, hopeless, solemn expressions seen on most faces during the week of low, grey skies, heaving seas and roaring winds which had reduced many averagely good men to neglecting all the usual habits of self-care.’
* I transcribed this from a hand-written section of my father’s Memoir and “Marook” is how it seemed to be spelt. Can’t find the work anywhere! But it must surely mean “anchor”. One guess is Sam heard a distorted pronunciation of “mudhook”, the slang word back then (maybe still?), especially in the gambling game Crown & Anchor. Other suggestions welcome…
All the best — FSS
Next week: Finally, the Fusiliers step on to dry land – in Malta.