“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, 1 March 2015
Sam’s first march on foreign soil – sweating in English woollen underwear, relishing every sight and smell…
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A hundred years ago… while the Western Front slaughterously ground along as the two sides got used to the unwanted reality of almost stationary trench warfare, on March 4 the Russian Army retook Austro-Hungarian Stanislau (now in Ukraine), the Austrian Navy bombarded Antivari (Montenegro), and the British Navy started a blockade of German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda, mainland Tanzania).
More directly pertinent to the future of Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, lately landed at Malta, the British Navy’s shelling of Turkish/Ottoman Empire fortifications around Gallipoli/the Dardanelles continued sporadically (Smyrna from March 5th) – while, before any clear Allied plan had emerged, the operation became a matter of political dispute. FootSoldierSam’s blog stakes no claim to historical understanding of these events, during this week a century ago, but… The French Government decided to send a force to the Dardanelles (March 4th); the Russian Government sent a telegram to its Allies laying claim to Constantinople (now Turkish capital Istanbul, 4th); then the Greek Premier offered his country’s naval and military assistance to the Allies (5th), the King of Greece disagreed and the Premier resigned (6th), and the new Greek Government asked the British for an explanation of their “occupation” of Lemnos (7th) as a jumping-off point for the Dardanelles attacks – despite apparent previous assent. That campaign, it seemed, had begun chaotically…
Naturally, my father, Sam, still 16, and his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers from Edmonton, north London, and their thousand comrades in the Battalion knew nothing of this.
Last week, we left them on the dockside in Marsamxett harbour, Valletta, after finally disembarking from the Galena, the lumbering tub which they left with unfond memories of interminable seasickness and befouled quarters way below decks.
Standing about while the officers got organised, Sam started to look around and relish his surroundings in the wonderfully curious way which, I suspect, laid the foundations for the deatiled memory – external and internal – he later deployed during his seventies when writing his Memoir, all 250,000 words of it. New readers be aware, at this stage my father was still writing in the third person and calling himself “Tommy”:
‘During the long wait which followed, Tommy, thrilling to every new sensation, scanned the long waterfront: buildings all of the light-coloured stone he found so pleasing, among them one or two shops, the names above their windows emphasising the exciting foreignness of the place – “Mateoti*,” for instance, what did that mean?; next door to that a homely touch, The Seamen’s Mission; a cab with curtained windows clattered by, drawn by a skinny horse, its bones too prominent, the sallow-faced driver wearing a floppy hat, a dark red shirt and very old trousers, his feet bare…
On this occasion, the Battalion had lined up behind Tommy’s H Company, the last in alphabetical order, so he could see A Company way back in the far distance; what an anonymous mass of men it was compared to, say, the troop of Boy Scouts of which he had been a fairly important member a few months earlier. Even in his London office, as an insignificant junior, he felt like a recognised member of a sort of staff family… “I suppose all goes on there as usual,” he surmised — though perhaps not, bearing in mind the Company Secretary’s forecast**… And the family at home? They would manage, perhaps even do well if Pa could find some work connected with the war effort…’
But soon his mind ceased wandering as fresh exertion provided his first experience of old-Empire English indefatigability when it comes to choosing inappropriate clothing for foreign climes…
‘Eventually the Colonel and his white horse took their place at the head of the column and the Battalion moved off. Although the month was February, the thick wool underwear and sturdy uniform, plus a full kitbag carried over one shoulder, soon demonstrated the difference between marching conditions in far-away England and those now to be experienced on this Mediterranean island. The men relieved their feelings with many a “Phew!” and “Oh gawd!” – by “having a moan” or “effing and blinding”. And, while thus occupied, their feet transported their protesting bodies onwards at a steady four miles an hour. Authority required no more than that of them.
At least, Tommy felt reassured to see he wasn’t the only one becoming increasingly sweaty. But, here again, the recollection that he had lied about his age and shouldn’t really be there at all gave him the determination to endure without complaint. So he just plodded on… And savoured the air, its flavour exciting to him simply because it was foreign. On the waterfront, smoke from coal-burning ships drifted over them at times… but something stronger, probably from the drains though not too objectionable, had also been noticeable. Now as they marched, variety of aroma supplied almost as much interest to his questing nose as did the people, the buildings, and narrow side streets, to his appreciative eyes.
All this he regarded as a great bonus. By now he had expected to be under fire and subjected to the ordeals of the Front where, the newspapers reported (with extensive casualty lists), Allied advances occurred so rarely we had to persuade ourselves retreats counted as moral victories – some of them therefore worthy of a special medal. That was not the kind of war that patriotic Englishmen had hoped to take part in. Our wonderful Army with its 15-rounds-per-minute rifle fire should have scared the Germans. As it transpired, the enemy had lots of machine guns, any one of which could lay a hundred men low in a minute. Now why hadn’t we thought of that? Of course, we had some, but they had many…
Well, instead of being quickly involved in all the roaring of guns, holding of positions till forced to move back, woundings, deaths, mud and filth of the battlefields, Tommy and the others had been put ashore on this charming island. Should he have felt shame about this? He did think about these matters at the time, he remembers… but he only felt thrilled, even joyful.
Common sense urged him to enjoy the sweets while available, there would be plenty of bitters later without doubt.’
Sam/”Tommy” marched and mused on, often mentally drifting away beyond his fatigue and discomfort, but still observing and absorbing everything around him…
‘Across the town of Valletta, before, alongside, and behind him marched his comrades, but inside Tommy was this very personal thing which looked, sniffed and listened to people and places…
No pretty girls. The women he saw walking the pavements mostly dressed in dark or black velvet. They had sallow complexions, though a minority added a touch of rouge to their cheeks. So many of them looked alike to him that way back, he surmised, they must have had a common ancestor… The older chaps made noises which bore witness to their interest in areas of the ladies’ bodies remote from their faces and Joe Parker once again proclaimed that, with sacks over their heads, all women looked alike.
The lad, with no real, personal interest in the subject, nevertheless fully understood that married men used to regular companionship in bed would have physical problems which demanded solutions…
Their route followed what was obviously the most important street in the town – the Strada Reale a road sign announced. Impressive buildings and churches to the right, Tommy noted, fine shops, restaurants, cafés… But they soon turned left, and then right, into a thoroughfare across which hung many lines of washing. Families evidently shared accommodation in these fairly tall blocks, and the articles of clothing and bedding overhead added gaiety, like bunting at a carnival.
The clatter of soldiers’ heavy boots on ancient cobbles brought heads peering out of windows. Some of the British lads sang, others shouted greetings and waved, but no response or encouragement came from above – the town clearly too long associated with garrison troops to get excited about marching men.
But soon they reached open country. The occasional women walking by wore black headdresses draped over their shoulders. A wire frame hidden in the fabric enabled them to swing them across their faces for concealment from foreigners. This had a historical significance, Tommy learned later, but considering the unattractiveness to himself of these females, he thought the cover-up quite a good idea. In any case, the headdress business had that quaint, exotic touch he hoped to find in foreign parts.
The road became dusty and bordered by walls built with the rock which was in evidence everywhere. They passed through a village, but saw no inhabitants, except that some young men sat around a table in what appeared to be a drinking shop. They just stared at the passing troops; imaginative Tommy thought he sensed their hostility. So along a coast road and on their right a beautiful bay bounded by long headlands, with a residential area – few signs of business there, just an occasional shop or café.
They now traversed firm road and tramping boots supplied a steady beat for the singing troops. Between choruses, one of the witty chaps would be sure to raise a laugh or two – especially in H Company, at the front of the column when, not infrequently, the Colonel’s horse farted and they took it full blast as it hung in the still air. So, with some good humour, they bore the heat, their awkward kitbags, and the sluggishness caused by both the privations and inertia of their voyage.
Finally, the way ahead lay through a barren, rocky area but, at the end of it, they saw buildings, some single-storey, others two-storey, all flat-roofed and extending over a wide area. Had the setting been the African desert, Tommy would have expected to see French Foreign Legionnaires manning the ramparts – but a closer view revealed no ramparts, camels or képis.
Still, these were barracks, he realised, and he was about to experience the sort of life he’d read quite a lot about in the penny weeklies. Nobby Clark, Spud Murphy***, and other tough soldiers had enjoyed wonderful times in such accommodations and, surely, great times lay ahead for the new adventurers about to move in.’
* “Mateoti” wasn’t a trade, but the tradesman’s surname, Maltese sources advise.
** The company secretary had told Sam/“Tommy” he thought the war would finish them.
*** Characters from Edgar Wallace’s Smithy, Nobby & Co published in the Daily Mail, 1904-18 (maybe in a weekly too, but I couldn’t confirm my father’s recollection on that); the fictionalised archetype Wallace called Smithy dated from his reports as a Mail Boer War correspondent.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Settling into barracks – and dining on biscuits saved from the Napoleonic Wars…