“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 his Memoir)
Sunday, 15 March 2015
Sam, settling in to Malta, forgets his trousers… but, finally, acquires a rifle
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A hundred years ago… on the Western front the three-day Battle Of Neuve Chapelle and the three-month Battle of Champagne ended on March 13 and 17. Though it’s not obvious what “ended” meant in that war; perhaps attack and counter-attack ceased and attrition resumed, at least in the eyes of the commanders. The lack of clarity about events may be deduced from the fact that two quite recent learned studies of Champagne calculate French casualties as either 93,000 or 240,000.
A cluster of firsts occurred: the first neutral shop sunk by German submaries (13th), the first merchant ship attacked by German aircraft (15th, SS Blonde off North Foreland, five bombs all missed), the first airship raid on Paris (21st). But also a last: the sinking of the last German cruiser afloat (14th, Dresden, off Chile by a squadron of three British ships).
But other events were already shaping the future of 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, all just arrived at their new barracks on sunny Malta for further training. They had no idea what the Army planned for them – some months ahead as it turned out. And they had no idea what was happening around the Gallipoli peninsula…
Namely, the British and French Navies backed out of the ill-conceived bombardments of Smyrna (15th) and the Dardanelles forts (18th; that day Ottoman mines sank three battleships). And at that point (17th) command of the Dardanelles Expeditionary Force transferred to a man, General Sir Ian Hamilton, Sam Sutcliffe had never heard of, but about whom he would, in due course, develop forthright views (see autumn 1915 in the Memoir or Gallipoli episode e-book).
Via some sweaty marching from the dockside, last week the Battalion arrive at St George’s Barracks, a building which stood alone in a barren area and put young Sam in mind of Foreign Legion outposts in the weekly story magazines he’d read. They fed on stew and those big hard biscuits – possibly preserved from Napoleonic times – which one dab hand with a hammer and chisel carved and sold as frames for photographs. Then Sam, curious as always, started to recce the place – NB new readers, as ever up to this point, in his Memoir Sam wrote about himself in the third person as “Tommy”. He recalled his first evening’s wanderings in vivid detail:
‘With no further duties that day, Tommy wandered around the barracks to get a general idea of the layout; outside one of the rooms he came across dour, old Len, squatting on the covered pavement — strangely enough, its roof also appeared to be made out of little paving stones. Len the silent was really as much of a romantic as the younger Tommy, whose pleasure at being allowed to live in such exciting quarters he shared. He said, “It’s funny to think that, if we’d been put into such bare buildings in chilly old England, we’d have thought it was worse than a prison. Yet here, with sunshine and warmth around us, we’re thrilled!”
Tommy told Len where he was living and soon discovered his brother and Harold lodging in the same block, on the ground floor. He chatted with them in their room and, glancing around at their companions, he began to feel that his brother might be a little out of place. Marlow for instance: about 22, nose flattened (where else than in a boxing ring), but in a way that made him look handsome with his very white teeth and wide smile; he was a natural intimidator who, having selected his victim, would shift his weight constantly from one foot to another while talking, and suddenly flash a right to the eye, a left to the jaw and a right to the solar plexus… none of them actually landed, but they were so close. Although his equals would have returned the treatment and no harm done, he didn’t appear to select equals.
He and several others spoke a garble, parts of it difficult to understand. Hard men, they supported each other’s boasts about bits of trickery and ponces and fights in the King’s Cross area. But Ted didn’t appear bothered about them and Tommy guessed that, as he had always done in the past, his brother would fight his way through any trouble which cropped up.
Before darkness fell, the orderlies fetched four candle-lamps and a large, iron, piss tub, which they placed, on the balcony outside the door. At 10 the Sergeant came round banging on doors and shouting “Lights out!” Someone doused the candles… and Tommy was awakened after what seemed a very short night by cries of “Show a leg! Hup, hup!” So hup he got, grabbed soap and towel, and followed others to a large covered area with rows of metal bowls and cold-water taps.
A good wash made him feel fine and awoke him to the fact that he hadn’t put on his trousers, unlike the others. But men around him busy with brush, soap, lather and cutthroat razors hadn’t time to notice him. He resolved to go through that shaving routine from time to time, for he saw that, once he’d covered his face with lather no one could observe that he had no whiskers to remove. Today he washed his feet by way of a treat, but soiled them somewhat walking back to his room because he hadn’t put his boots on either. So started his first full day on foreign soil.’
Sam’s trouser problem resolved, he (and his comrades) soon – and at last – received a rather crucial item of soldierly gear they’d almost forgotten they were missing… rifles!
‘The routines of parades and meals soon became established and, at last, they were given rifles, bayonets and other items of equipment. The rifles looked pretty old, but that sort of weapon never really wore out. Lance Corporal X*, wearer of a South African War** ribbon, said he’d used the long Lee-Enfield rifles with the short bayonets back then***. He taught the rudiments of their use and care – most of the officers, and many NCOs, had little knowledge of these matters and groups of them were sent off for training from which they returned very brisk and well-informed.’
* My father didn’t name him at all; nothing significant I’m sure – at that moment he probably just couldn’t come up with one of the aliases he liked to deploy.
** Or the Boer War, that is.
*** Accrued from various sources, I’m no expert etc – Lee-Enfield supplied the main British Army rifle 1895-1926; bolt-action, ten .303 rounds in the magazine, loaded either a round at a time or in 5-round “chargers”; the First World War model was the SMLE MK III, price £3 15/-, introduced in 1907 along with the Pattern 1907 sword bayonet; however, from what my father goes on to say, it’s clear that, on Malta, his Battalion got issued with the older “long” version the Boer War veteran Lance Corporal mentions (30.2-inch barrel compared to 21.2-inch shorter version); redesigns simplified the Mk III during the war, for ease of manufacture more than usage, apparently; Lee- Enfield took its name from the designer of the bolt-action system James Paris Lee and the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield – adjacent to my father’s district, Edmonton, North London.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Mediterranean fever!