“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, 7 June 2015
Sam on rifle training graduates from wooden bullets to live rounds, squeezes the trigger and feels the Lee-Enfield “come alive with awful power”…
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A hundred years ago… the to and fro battles on Eastern and Western Fronts continued throughout the week, with little ground gained, cities recaptured that had been lost a couple of months earlier and trench-based attrition the norm, including in Gallipoli where the action steadied down for a while after June 4’s Third Battle Of Krithia in the Helles sector… and, supposing an average week for this phase of the war, a further 66,000 casualties resulted (dead and wounded).
So, for once in this summary passage before continuing my father’s just-one-foot-soldier story, a brief account of one man’s courage and tragedy. This day a century ago (June 7, a Monday then), Sub Lieutenant Reginald “Rex” Warneford, 23, from Exmouth, of the Royal Naval Air Service, flying a Morane Parasol wood-and-canvas biplane, became the first aviator to bring down an airship. It happened near Ghent, Belgium. The Sub Lieut, on his first ever night flight, climbed above Zeppelin LZ-37 and dropped his 20lb bombs on it. Then, caught in the flames, he crash-landed behind German lines. But, with a piece of pure David Niven/Terry-Thomas stiff-upper-lip genius he repaired a broken fuel line with his cigarette holder, took off again and made it back to base.
Immediately awarded the Victoria Cross and the French Legion Of Honour, on June 17 he was flying a new plane when it bucked on take-off and threw him out of the cockpit to his death. For a time, in 2013 a controversy blew up when, because he was born in India, the Government omitted him from a list of WW1 VC winners due to be memorialised –after a couple of months of indignation they U-turned.
Meanwhile... at St George’s Barracks, Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe and his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, still 16 and 18 respectively in early summer 1915), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, had begun learning how to shoot – some eight months into their Army lives. They’d heard some glimmerings of news about Gallipoli, but no clue that, in due course, it would turn out to be their first battlefield. Having signed up as a trainee Signaller, Sam found his group at the back of the queue when it came to rifle instruction.
Last week, the young Signallers finally got their turn at learning how to use the long Lee-Enfield – but loaded with wooden “bullets” only until they got the rudiments off pat (especially because the instructor had to lay in front of them staring down the wrong end of the barrel until satisfied they were aligning the sights and aiming correctly).
However, toiling in the heat of the Maltese early summer, they all knew this had to get real at some stage – another rite of passage in prospect for Sam who, at every new stage of becoming a soldier, felt a profound anxiety that his under-oath lie about his age when he volunteered would be discovered and result in humiliating rejection or even a jail term. In his Memoir, he resumed by referring to all that bullet-less drill…
‘For several weeks, we dedicated day after day to this sort of repetition, longer than necessary in all likelihood, because the policy was that, in any given five days, only one Company at a time could be accommodated on the range where we were all introduced to firing live ammunition. But finally H Company Signallers got their chance, all of us thrilled and nervous as, clearly, this would be a crucial time of testing for these would-be soldiers. As ever at such moments, I was in a state of tension, but determined to show no sign of it while we marched the two miles to the range along the seashore in the morning sunshine with prickly lava underfoot.
Waiting for your turn to fire your first live rounds felt like pretending to read in a dentist’s waiting room. When, finally, I stepped forward, the instructor showed me once more how to position myself, lying beside him, facing the sea. Then he reminded me of two important things about firing a rifle with real bullets rather than wooden fakes. Having taken aim, I must press the butt of the rifle into the hollow of my shoulder as hard as I could, he cautioned, or risk having my jaw broken by the recoil. And then the trigger must be squeezed, not pulled. The latter would spoil my aim.
He told me that, lying beside me now, he would take notes and every shot would be assessed – the man at the butts who controlled the targets would signal by how much I’d missed the bull’s-eye and at what angle. I knew from others that even my behaviour would be marked too.
No need to hurry for the first exercise, he stressed, just concentrate on every detail of what you have practised. Although the gun is stronger than you, you be the master… I took aim – the target, at 400 yards initially, represented the appearance of a man’s head and shoulders, grey with no white background to help the marksman’s focus… tip of the foresight in line with the shoulders of the backsight, both in line with the bottom of the bull’s-eye. I pressed the butt back hard and, with thumb against trigger guard, forefinger on trigger, I squeezed. Nothing happened.
“What about the safety catch?” my trainer asked quietly. My right hand fumbled about and pressed the catch forward. Back to firing position, trigger squeezed… and for a fraction of a second the gun came alive with awful power. The jolt almost detached my head from my shoulders, the explosion deafened me, the shock shot through my whole body.
Firing .22s with the Scouts had not remotely prepared me and I had to repeat that shattering experience between 50 and 60 times that day. The old long Lee-Enfield was the very devil, a hellish shoulder-bruiser.
Every few shots, the instructors increased the range by 100 yards until we were trying to take good aim at the unheard-of distance of 900 yards, over half a mile. This has to be tried to be appreciated; at that distance, although the target was now on a white background and greatly increased in size – they were mounted on “butts”, iron frames raised and lowered by chains and pulleys – the whole business seemed detached from reality. I thought, how can any action of mine affect a man so far away from me? Perhaps the weapon’s designers had outstripped practicality.
As each man finished his first morning stint, he was allowed to make his own way back to barracks. When I neared my quarters, an awful pain drew down my right shoulder and I walked into our barrack room in that contorted attitude. Enquiries as to my trouble I answered with my self-diagnosis that I’d got indigestion, hoping that was correct. I looked around for a cure. On the table stood a bottle of Worcester sauce. I promptly unstoppered it and took a long swig of the stuff. It burnt mouth and throat and probably worked as a counter-irritant, so gradually I was able to straighten up. Indigestion or battered nerves, I never found out.
After that first day, we had to take our noon break for dinner, then return to the range for repeated drills on various different ways of firing a rifle – in the course of which I got over the shoulder-bashing ache. Snapshooting at 200 yards proved an exciting session, but sailing vessels passing close behind the butts distracted my attention. Then a phone message from local police complaining that fishing boats were being shot at brought a temporary halt to the work. In truth, some of the lads, aiming high, had deliberately sent a few whizzing among the masts.’
All the best – FSS
Next week: The young volunteers strive to emulate the Old Contemptibles’ 15-rounds-a-minute quick fire – but find bayonet drill involves a farcical hopping semi-crouch like “a man who’s soiled his pants”…