“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, 29 March 2015
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see right-hand column – all proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… this week the South African/British invasion of German South-West Africa (later Namibia) re-emphasised the “world” dimension of the Great War, but the bloody to and fro on Western and Eastern Fronts continued via marginal successes for the French and German Armies, while ancient and modern fighting methods both had their days with British (Zeebrugge) and German (Cloister Hoek) air raids in Holland on April 1, a Thursday that year, and a Russian cavalry victory against the Germans in northern Poland the following day.
Meanwhile, the tangled build-up to Gallipoli detoured to the Black Sea where, on April 3, a German/Turkish squadron fought what’s reported to be one of the most tactically complex naval battles ever, if this wikipedia account is right – although it ended with battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau successfully running back to the Bosphorus, and no decisive outcome. But the two German ships had, the previous November, played what Churchill, then First Lord Of The Admiralty, saw as a fateful hand in drawing the Ottoman Empire into the war by attacking the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.
Down in Malta, though, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, experienced no hot action, only hot weather. Feeling pleasantly surprised – and a little guilty too, given they’d expected to go straight to the Front in France – the 1,000 volunteers, including 16-year-old Sam’s brother Ted, 18, and their two mates from Edmonton, north London, Len Minns and Harold Mellow, continued feeling their way into the first foreign country any of them had ever visited.
At St George’s Barracks, a Foreign Legion-style outpost in a barren area north of Valletta, they felt their way into the new climate and customs. In his Memoir, my father wrote (with usual warning to new readers that to this point he wrote third-person, calling himself “Tommy”):
‘Mostly, the weather stayed warm and fine, but Tommy learned that the Mediterranean could occasionally cut up rough. Perhaps for three days on end heavy rain showers would prevent them training in the open. Then instruction, limited by space available, continued in barrack rooms or along the covered sidewalks.
These occasions provided opportunities to give tired muscles and overworked sweat glands a rest — and if, sometimes, flies or mosquitoes became a problem, for sixpence they could buy a little bird, similar to an English wagtail but yellow, which busied itself devouring insects all day long. The Maltese vendor clipped its wings so that it couldn’t fly away.’
So they got stuck into their squarebashing, day after day, with little idea of where and when they might finally be called upon to put it into practice. Coming to know one another better than when they’d lived at home in London or billeted with families in Tonbridge seemed a plus – except when Sam/”Tommy” feared the secret of his sworn and attested lie about his age might be exposed by his own shortcomings… or the malice of others:
‘So the first few weeks on Malta passed and familiarity with daily complicated drills and exercises achieved the desired result of making the men feel confident and, collectively, a creditable organisation. Although the individual valued his personal standing, in each Company a real feeling of comradeship grew as they endeavoured to at least equal their rivals.
In the barrack room one saw groupings develop — two, three, or four men would spend much of their spare time together, playing cards, going to the canteen or outside the camp in their groups. But, overriding these alliances and friendships, all sharing the room showed a common consideration for each other and Tommy felt comfortable among them despite being so much younger.
Only one of them could and did shake his composure: George Goodbody*, mentioned during the Battalion’s training days in London. He still had the capability and habit of downgrading Tommy’s ego with a snide remark accompanied by a white-toothed smile which, to match his words and tone, should have been a scowl. Thus, while never saying anything to the authorities, he wielded the bit of power he held by knowing Tommy’s real age.
Still Tommy felt fortunate in having roommates who could not be described as coarse in any sense. When so moved or inspired, they would use adjectives which would not have shamed a Billingsgate** fish porter, but all was free of malice to anyone present.
Furthermore, every soldier really wanted his Company’s officers to be something special, maybe even asserting that theirs were better than the others. Although some disappointed, of course. Many eyes watched the officers while they did their work; the men could easily identify the most efficient. Those not too fortunate in their leaders showed impatience and near-resentment. But, hopefully, they still gave of their best. Although, by nature, some NCOs and officers were more tolerant than others, most grew used to demanding a reasonable standard of discipline. The average was satisfactory, at least, and most men disregarded the grumblers.
Tommy saw, heard and felt what went on around him and often feared he might be something of a liability in his Company. However, nobody told him so and his boyish efforts to please gained him a little good will.’
* The inappropriately named Goodbody (an alias chosen with Dickensian intent by my father, I think) had loomed over him since the Battalion’s mass marches through London, as my father recalled earlier in the Memoir: “The garrulous Goodbody, his broad shoulders visible over rows of those in front of Tommy, was one of several men he tried to keep clear of. Goodbody had a bright, penetrating eye. Tommy knew the fellow guessed he was too young to be a soldier. Always, if Tommy met his gaze, he seemed about to say something.” Back then, he’d guessed that “once we were out of England there would be no risk of him forcing a showdown”, but, clearly, the man retained his evil-eyed hold over the youngster.
** No longer a household name – nor byword for foul language –Billingsgate fish market operated off Lower Thames Street south-east London from the 16th Century until moved to the Isle Of Dogs, Tower Hamlets in 1981.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam/“Tommy” and the strange case of the boxing glove in the night…
Sunday, 22 March 2015
Sam’s Fusiliers in Malta: boiled cheese and onions for breakfast – euch! – and the “Mediterranean Fever” scare
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see eight-hand column – all proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… today the Siege Of Przemsyi, a fort in Galicia, ended when the Russian Army overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian garrison after 133 days (115,000 Russian casualties, 86,000 A-H dead, 110,000 wounded and/or surrendered); with the British invasion of Gallipoli telegraphed by the aborted naval bombardment, on the 25th General Otto Liman Von Sanders took charge of Turco-German forces in the Dardanelles and, more significantly than he knew, appointed Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) commander of the 19th Division. And, for the first time, on the 28th, A German submarine, the U-28 sank a British passenger ship, SS Falaba – 100 out of 240 onboard died because they were given too little time to get the lifeboats away. (This event had a strange sequel: in 1917 U-28 became the only submarine ever sunk by a lorry; it surfaced to shell a cargo ship called SS Olive Branch(!), ammunition in the hold exploded blasting a lorry on deck high into the air… and it landed on the U-28.)
Meanwhile, to his surprise, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers – 1,000 volunteers, including 16-year-old Sam’s brother Ted, 18, and their two mates from Edmonton, north London, Len Minns and Harold Mellow – began to discover the ins and outs of life in the Maltese sun.
When they sailed from Southampton with no word of their destination, they’d presumed it would be a trench on the Western Front pretty damn quick – though, admittedly, the Army would need to supply them with both rifles and a little marksmanship training en route, something notably absent from their preparations up to that point (square-bashing and digging they’d done in spades, so to speak).
Well, last week Sam noted that, at last, shortly after their arrival at St George’s Barracks on Malta, they were issued with rifles, albeit the old “long” Lee-Enfields rather than the “new” 1907 model. And training (of a sort) in their use, did ensue – for now, mind you, nothing that involved actually firing them. As my father wrote in his Memoir (new readers NB, Sam was still writing in the third person and calling himself “Tommy” at this stage):
‘… daily programmes kept the troops active from 6.30am to around noon and from 2 to 6pm. Beyond those fairly strict morning and afternoon work sessions, the rotaed extra duties as orderlies and guards rarely came Tommy’s way; he never discovered why. Perhaps perks and privileges about which he knew nothing attached to those jobs. He was quite satisfied anyway; constant marching and stamping around the barrack square, hoisting and lowering the heavy rifle, and learning the peculiar style of bayonet fighting they practised hour after hour in constantly increasing temperatures amounted to just about as much as he could manage.’
Sam’s comical account of that “peculiar style of bayonet fighting” comes up in a later episode. But in those limited rest periods, the Fusiliers looked around to see how they might take their leisure during what for most of these working-class men, including my father, would prove to be their only visit to the Mediterranean in a lifetime (indeed, although he lived until 1987, Sam never “travelled” abroad except in World War 1). Anyway, up in their semi-desert area some miles north of Valletta, they could see the sea from the barracks windows. Tempting, except that…
‘The Army forbade swimming in the nearby sea at that time of year; there was a theory that some sort of organism proliferated in the water during the early months of the year and it caused Mediterranean Fever, whatever that was. An old wives’ tale left over from the Victorian era, many men asserted. But orders had to be obeyed.
In any case, the coast near the barracks was difficult to approach: large areas covered with rocks surrounded by what looked like hardened lava, its burst bubbles creating sharp points, painful to walk over barefoot. If the origin of those formations was indeed volcanic, they must have survived just like that for many thousands of years. But Tommy heard no opinions expressed as, apparently, nobody knew or cared. Still, on good days, it was pleasant to strip off for a while and dangle your feet in the water – although, looking down, Tommy could see rocks beneath the surface so jagged and spiky that a wave pushing you against them might cause injury.’
Of course, it’s very unlikely that any of these lads, coming from various levels of poverty in London, had ever had a holiday in the modern sense, but if any of them thought that, for a bit, this might be it, Army grub could always bring them back to reality…
‘Whenever the men discussed the subject, they cursed that beady-eyed rascal so much in evidence on Tommy’s enlistment day*. He was seldom seen around the barracks and general opinion held that his job had scared him. Such an unprepossessing person would be fair game for more experienced supply officers. But dozens of men in the ranks at that time possessed more ability than that reptile to do the job of quartermaster in a responsible manner.
“Imagine,” thought Tommy, “what strange sort of caterer would so bungle his ordering that men’s breakfasts in a hot climate would consist of strong cheese and onions boiled together?” This occurred on two or three days of each week for a period. It appeared a vast amount of cheese had been stored so carelessly it partially melted. And obviously some bright lad had bought a large consignment of Spanish onions. So someone induced Quartermaster Muggins to take quantities of both. Hence, the repulsive breakfasts.
Corned beef might have proved an easy solution, but it bore no resemblance to that on sale in shops: delivered in large cans, dry and almost tasteless. Soldiers on the battlefield expected indifferent food, but a good quartermaster could surely do better than this for a Battalion in barracks.’
* “Tommy”/Sam vividly describes this much-loathed figure (also responsible for the disgraceful food on their 10-day voyage from Southampton) in the chapter about signing up at RF HQ in Bloomsbury: ‘The man had a clean, spruce appearance, a moustache with long, waxed points, an unattractive face – small eyes, the mouth downturned at the corners. No colour at all in the cheeks.’ And he got another seeing to before the Battalion boarded their ship at Southampton – a voyage marked by more disgraceful food, you may recall: “Pale parchment sort of face, small wicked-looking eyes… Just one expression on that horrible face — it said, “I hate you”.’
All the best – FSS
Next week: “Tommy”/Sam feels comradeship growing, yet still fears exposure for the lie he told when volunteering under age…