“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, 12 April 2015

The Fusiliers in Malta: young Sam drops his long johns – and visits his tailor…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… while pre-Gallipoli sparring continued around the Dardanelles (the Greeks refusing to join the Allies’ side despite the rather presumptuous bribe of an offer of territory around Smyrna), the Turkish Army occupied Urmia (then Persia, April 16), and German zeppelins bombed Tyneside and East Anglia and French airships bombed Freiburg and Strasbourg, on the Western Front the Battle of Ypres was set up when British forces captured the nearby “Hill 60” by tunneling under German trenches and detonating 5,000 pounds of explosive (April 17).
      Down in Malta, though, lodged comfortably enough at St George's Barracks, north of Valletta, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, having got over their surprise at not being sent straight to France, the Front, and the horrors they’d heard so much about… followed last week’s outburst of jolly practical jokery by taking the chance to spruce themselves up.

A thousand volunteers, including 16-year-old Sam’s brother Ted, 18, and their pals from Edmonton, north London, most of them came from poor families and – unless they’d sailed with the merchant marine – hardly any of them had ever been abroad before. So the heat of spring in the Mediterranean took them by surprise – pleasantly, when they could take their ease in the shade, less so when it came to route marches, square-bashing and other strenuous training exercises wearing their heavy winter uniforms and woolly long johns.
      However, relief was at hand, as my father recalled (NB new readers, in this first part of the Memoir Sam wrote in the third person and called himself “Tommy”):

‘Out of the blue, tropical kits consisting of lightweight, cotton-twill tunic trousers and a sun helmet were handed out. What a relief to get out of the heavy uniforms. Now they could begin to enjoy the Mediterranean climate.
     Some men looked good in the new clobber, others had unluckily drawn clothes that fitted badly. Tommy regarded his baggy, overlong trousers with some dismay. Their length could be concealed by turning up about four inches at the end of each leg – this would not show when he wore puttees*. The baggy backside was the problem and it really worried him so he searched for his brother, thinking he might have learned something from his particularly artful associates.
     Ted, whom he found wearing the old trousers, told Tommy to go and get his heavy ones too. Then he led him to a building within the barracks area. Inside were four Maltese men, two of them busy on sewing machines, one cutting pieces out of tunics and trousers, while the fourth drew white chalk marks on the uniform of a soldier standing before him.
     “Take your place in the queue,” said Ted. Soon after complying, Tommy was getting chalked. “Pay one shilling, come tomorrow,” said the tailor. Tommy left the twill trousers and put on the heavy ones. So, for a bob, the necessary alterations were made – though next day the lad worried anew, because now the trousers were almost skin-tight, the tunic shaped and close-fitting too, and all this done without official permission. Also, was this tight outfit really suitable for a hot climate?
     Too late now, anyway. He regained some degree of comfort by ceasing to wear vest and pants. Many sinners besides himself used the tailors’ services, and perhaps the officers approved the slick effect, for no action was taken about the matter.’

Soon a fierce training regime made the Fusiliers bless the day those tailors found the barracks and a business opportunity:

‘Hours of work now changed. What the Army called the “gunfire ration” – a mug of tea and large dry biscuits – was taken at 6.30am, followed immediately by 30 minutes physical training, wearing only the twill slacks. Then “ablutions”, breakfast – whatever that might turn out to be – and on parade at 8am. Three hours non-stop training next, then dinner at noon, after which those who had no “jankers” or special jobs were free till 5pm.
     Most of them easily acquired the siesta habit, waking for tea at 4pm and all set for three more hours of stiff evening training which left most men fagged out at 8pm.
     Not many ventured far after that hour, Monday to Friday – especially at the end of one of those occasional days when, despite the high temperatures, they’d undertaken a long march lasting some hours (albeit with a 10-minute break every 4 miles, and an hour’s break and a meal after the first three hours). Each man carried a water bottle and a haversack and the contents had to last until evening.
     The heat made these marches very severe tests. Most of the men dispensed with underclothing as soon as they knew what was coming up. Sweat soon darkened their uniforms. Tunics could be taken off during the hour’s rest and they dried off quickly, leaving white patches of salt in strange patterns on the cloth (despite this, Tommy never once entered the barracks laundry for, like many others, each week he gave his soiled clothes to a Maltese woman who washed and pressed everything, no matter what the quantity, for sixpence).
     Back then no one in authority thought of giving the men salt to replace what they sweated out. Tommy suffered fatigue intensely, but his resolve to do no worse than the older men around him prevented him from admitting anything.
     Troubled as he was, he yet felt sorrow for the oldest man among them, dear old ex-journalist Ewart Walker. Never a groan nor a word of complaint from the gallant old man, but the sweat streaming down his face, and eyes bloodshot and strained behind those pince-nez, the legs that wouldn’t straighten up, all told their tale.’

And here’s a striking moment – for me anyway, editing my father’s writings; I realise it’s no particular landmark for a reader. It’s just that suddenly he’s venturing into the greater intimacy of first-person, albeit temporarily for now and “quoting” Tommy as if his teenaged 1915 self were talking to his septuagenarian 1970s self:

‘“By then the Maltese tailors had rendered my sun helmet ready for wear too. Issued with it had been a pugaree**, a length of fine gauze material which you had to arrange in layers just above the helmet brim. To do the job correctly required many pins and more skill than I possessed. But one of my scarce sixpences crossing a Maltese palm put me among the really well-turned-out soldiery. Although we still had to wind those puttees round our ankles and calves. Why, in that hot climate? And it was compulsory for rankers, but officers could wear neatly creased trousers with turn-ups.”’

* For the younger crowd, puttees are strips of cloth British soldiers back then had wind around their legs from ankle to knee for… some reason or other (“support and protection” Wikipedia suggests). The word is one of many co-opted from Hindi by British Army men serving in India and bent a little – the original, patti, means “bandage”. After WWI many other armies followed the British in adopting them. So maybe they made all the difference!
** Pugaree – from Hindi again: pagri meaning “turban” (that comes from Turkish!).

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam alias Tommy the tourist goes to town, meets the Maltese – and some ancient skeletons…

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