“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, 19 April 2015
Sam alias Tommy the tourist goes to town, meets the Maltese – but then comes the Chapel Of Bones…
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A hundred years ago… this week, two of the most terrible battles of World War I began, in Belgium the second Ypres (April 22-May 25) and in Turkey the Gallipoli campaign (April 25, 1915-January 9, 1916). So an unusually long context-setting passage for FootSoldierSam’s memoir extract…
A massive eruption on the generally static Western Front, Ypres did indeed turn into another stalemate marked by appalling casualty figures: 70,000 Allied, 35,000 German. The war’s first poison gas attack by the German Army marked the very first day. With the wind mostly in the required direction, chlorine drifted across to the French lines and sank into the trenches, driving troops out to become easy targets or run for their lives.
However, as a weapon it proved oddly ineffective in terms of making a breakthrough because German soldiers proved understandably reluctant to follow up their advantage by charging through the Allied lines – and their own gas cloud. In these early days of this vile weapon’s deployment the poor bloody Allied infantry were advised to protect themselves by pissing on a cotton handkerchief and breathing through it; ammonia apparently had some ameliorative effect.
The 22nd was a Thursday in 1915. On the Sunday, at dawn, British, Anzac, Indian, Canadian and French Allies landed at six beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula. Infamously, poor strategy and generalship led to all concerned suffering terrible losses as the Ottoman/Turkish troops fired down from the hills above. For example: of the first 200 Royal Dublin Fusiliers attempting to land at V Beach only 21 actually set foot on the sand; at W Beach 600 of 1000 Lancashire Fusiliers fell. On the other hand, holding back the fearsome though battered ANZACs, the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment was wiped out. I can only refer you to my father’s view from the trenches (in due course, at Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras), permanently quoted at the top of this blog...
Meanwhile, in Malta, lodged in the relative comfort St George's Barracks, north of Valletta, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, continued their training – feeling a mixture of guilt and relief that they hadn’t yet been sent to the battlefield (when they sailed from Southampton in February they’d expected to find themselves on the Western Front within 24 hours).
Last week, in his Memoir, Sam wrote about some innocent practical joking in the dormitory. Now he turns to what the lads got up to when they broke from training and had a day out in their first foreign country – in particular, what he got up to himself, as a 16-year-old under-age soldier, only months distant from his boy’s life in Edmonton, north London, as a Boy Scout and choirboy. No man of the world, thats for sure…On a different level, this passage proved notable to my work as my father’s editor because it shows him venturing away from third-person narrative and reporting on himself, alias “Tommy”, from the outside. Instead “Tommy”/Sam starts to speak for himself for a few paragraphs. No literary masterplan, of course, he just followed his instincts:
‘Thankfully, Saturdays were different with most of the men free from any duties after 11am. With Friday’s weekly pay in their pockets, they felt they could really go to town in every sense. “I didn’t wish to explore the village or town areas alone,” Tommy recalls. “Already one of our young chaps had been chased by a gang of Maltese youngsters who, according to him, set upon him for no apparent reason. He merely put his head inside the doorway of a village drink shop where the local lads were playing cards. As one man, they came for him. He ran, but they eventually outpaced him and pressed around him. With his back to the wall, he was spotted by a party of our men who charged forward, and the village lads ran away. At least one of the attackers was seen flourishing a knife, so I was glad when a chap called Hayson, who was probably three years older than me, suggested a Saturday afternoon outing together.
“Anyway, I felt eager to see everything on this island. Hayson and I walked along a road flanked by low, loose-stone walls into a village with several nondescript shops and a saloon called Old Joe. In the fug I could see some of our men. But we passed that dingy place, and soon the road joined one by the sea and we found ourselves in the substantial village of St Paul’s*.
“Now we strolled among pleasant houses and people walking around in a good-class district, which gave me a thrill after a period spent exclusively among men. Women, girls, children — so, still such human beings to be seen and heard from. One could not understand what they said as they passed, but their voices were as sweet music to me. I liked the occasional whiff of perfume too, though all the women seemed to use the same heavy brand. Having grown up with the range of hair colourings between blonde and brunette at home, I found the uniform black hair and dark complexion somewhat unattractive.
“But it was good to be clear of the military environment for a few hours. Always, in those days, I had the feeling of something quite marvellous awaiting me at the end of each new road. New to me, that is; the older in years, the better the prospect of an interesting discovery.”
Really, Sam/Tommy – an ordinary working man who never travelled abroad again after WW1 although he lived until 1987 – found himself a natural tourist, fascinated by everything he saw, heared, smelled… and then even moreso by the stranger places he encountered in Valletta, like the Chapel Of Bones…
‘Another place in which Tommy and Hayson spent an hour or so probably had a depressing effect on some visitors, but amazement was a better word to describe Tommy’s reaction. Known in those days as the Chapel Of Bones**, it was just that. A smallish man in a black cassock admitted them and, unbidden, pointed out features of the decoration on ceiling and walls, which appeared to have been lined with a black fabric.
Set against this sombre background were intricate designs, all composed of human bones. Consider the possibilities. The bigger part of some motifs would be made of femurs, the small intricate patterns composed of finger bones. Ribs used generously suggested ripples on water. Sternums portrayed daggers (with small bones arranged as hilts), while a scapula with a tibia for a handle made a fair axe.
The main effort had been directed towards achieving very ingenious geometric patterns. The whole gained a gruesome dignity from four complete human skeletons, one in each corner of the chapel, guardians of the treasure which filled deep bins the length of each wall – namely, the thousands of bones remaining surplus to artistic requirements. “All,” intoned the cheerless guide, “are the remains of hundreds of French soldiers.”
Malta had suffered many attacks by invaders who tended to remain on the pleasant island after rape and debauchery had ceased to amuse them. The French, however, had proved just that much too repressive and the populace slaughtered their garrison to a man. Mass burial had been quickly followed by disinterment lest the wicked dead’uns should sleep quietly when they did not deserve any sort of peace. The Maltese decided the invaders’ remains should be set to work again, their bones earning some small remuneration for the church by attracting visitors to see the pretty patterns they made – and hear the tale of French misdeeds. Thus, at any rate, said the priest. As luck would have it, Tommy had little money on him and, with some embarrassment, he handed the priest threepence farthing, all he could find in his pockets.
On that visit to town, having still some time on his hands but no money in his pocket, Tommy urged his pal Hayson to go his own way and enjoy himself. Strolling alone in a paved area, quite spacious, between dwellings, he stopped to watch some women making lace. Each thread, attached to a pencil-shaped weight, hung down over a cylinder which the lacemaker turned occasionally as she plaited and shaped the threads into delicate and beautiful designs. The lad knew that well-off ladies in England valued Maltese lace and wondered how it found its way from quiet squares and side streets in Valletta to the shops and stores of London.’
* St Paul’s village in St Paul’s Bay, on the northeast of the island, 16 kilometres from Valletta, allegedly the spot where St Paul was shipwrecked during his voyage from Caesarea to Rome.
* Chapel Of Bones, built from 1612, apparently; one online source says it was destroyed during World War II, a second reckons it was merely buried and may be rediscovered; neither supports my father’s guide’s line about the bones being the remains of “French soldiers”. If anyone knows who the original owners were, do tell…
All the best – FSS
Next week: Embarrassment rules: “Tommy”/Sam visits the red-light district… and meets a girl… and doesn’t know whether to pay or propose…