“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, 28 June 2015
Sam watches the great Fusiliers Malta food mutiny – well, almost, until a young officer takes command… and feeds them at his own expense!
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… through the week, semi-globally battles raged: the British captured Ngaundere, Cameroons from the Germans (June 28); the Italian Army battered ineffectively at the Austro-Hungarians across the Isonzo river, which runs from Slovenia to the Gulf of Trieste (June 29-July 7, Italian casualties 14,947, Austro-Hungarian 9,950); Germany and Austria pressed the Russians back in Galicia (June 29) and the Austrian Army began its successful attempt to retake Krasnik, Poland (July 1-19); the Turkish Army wrested Lahej in Saudi Arabia from its long-time British protectorate status (July 4); and the Serbs occupied Durazzo, Albania (July 4), only to withdraw a couple of weeks later because it breached a three-way deal they’d previously struck with local Albanian independence leader Essad Pasha...
And in Gallipoli the British Empire and then French forces launched a substantial attack at Gully Ravine, Cape Helles (June 28-July 5), bloody and fruitless, although small gains saw it dubbed an Allied victory (British and Empire casualties 3,800, Ottoman 6,000) – in the midst of it, Ottoman outrage was aroused by the British refusing a courtesy accorded earlier in the campaign: a truce to allow for burial of the dead.
Meanwhile... a few miles north of Valletta, Malta, in a rather barren Foreign Legion-ish stretch of land, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, still 16 and 18 respectively in early summer 1915), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, continued their preparation for… whatever might turn up. By now, they’d all completed rifle training, while Sam and a handful of comrades proceeded with their study and practice of the Signaller’s multifarious skills.
Last week, when St George’s Barracks was commandeered to house a hospital, mainly for men wounded at Gallipoli, the Battalion had to move out of their familiar lodgings to a tented campsite near St Julian’s Bay (San Gilijan) and beside Pembroke Military Cemetery. There, once or twice a day, they observed or, anyway, heard the funerals of men who had not survived their injuries. But music-loving young Sam diverted himself from the morbid speculations this might have provoked by concentrating on the marching band which accompanied each procession and finding a hero in the big bass drummer, whether measuring the solemn tread of The Dead March In Saul on the way in or thumping out Alexander’s Ragtime Band as they departed en route back to their base.
Now he returns to a favourite theme, the horrors of Army food, and an extraordinary sequence of events at Pembroke camp – a near-mutiny and the emergence of a fine, new leader among the Battalion’s junior officers. Sam writes:
‘At the camp, the food issued to us got progressively worse*. At meal times, the orderly officer and a Sergeant visited the messes and the Sergeant called “Any complaints?” to which, normally, no one responded. It was assumed that a complainant would be marked as a grumbler and might suffer for his temerity.
But, finally, one day several did complain – all greeted with a stony silence and a hostile look from the Sergeant. No improvement followed and, soon after that, around midday, from my raised situation in my Signals tent, I witnessed a couple of hundred men marching round and round the footpaths bordering the camp, led by a man carrying a leafy branch torn from one of the few trees in the area. They shouted slogans such as “Poor food, no work!”
Roused and, understandably, incensed by hunger, more men joined the protest. Little as I knew of military law, I felt certain the ringleaders risked court martial and severe punishment, whereas complaints forcefully but properly made would have brought improvement; the difficulty was finding someone bold enough to stand alone and state the case. As it was, the leader, a chap with wild, staring eyes, pursued his rabble-rouser role with infinite zeal and no apparent idea as to what the next move should be.
A young officer made the decision for him. He appeared suddenly in front of them and gave a clear, sharp order, “Halt!” Without quibble, all the marchers obeyed. “Follow me!” he said, and turned and started marching – making himself the head of the column. And follow him they did, on to the road and out of my sight.
Later, I heard he had taken them all to a nearby large marquee in which a famous firm of brewers and caterers, official concessionaires, retailed food and drink. That place was the nearest thing to a canteen we had at the time. By cheque, the officer – Lieutenant Booth** – bought a large quantity of canned sausages, bread and biscuits and organised their fair distribution to those present. He also undertook to put the mess complaints to the Colonel and told the men to disperse quietly.
Thus, a situation, which could have resulted in imprisonment and punishment for decent, but desperate soldiers, was settled quietly by a good man who had some regard for human feelings and failings and not so much regard for the book of rules.
Some good did come of the mutiny-that-wasn’t. Lieutenant Booth, who had a flair for organisation, accepted a job which would often intrude on his off-duty periods; he was given authority to inspect food stores, to check cooked meals before they were issued to the men and generally to look after the men’s interests regarding quantity and quality of foods. Perfection was not achieved, but sufficient improvement elicited praise from some former complainers.
The young officer was of that type which bases opinions and judgements on a conception of honesty, which is all too rare in the world. “Scrounging” or “winning”, he described as cover-up words used by thieves to convince themselves they really were decent men. The few who persisted in making frivolous complaints got short shrift from him, as did careless Quartermasters and cooks. Lieutenant Booth, admired by most, scorned by cynics, remained incorruptible and steadfast in his pursuit and practice of honesty and fairness to all. A rare bird indeed.’
* Regular readers may recall the “hard biscuits… the strongest teeth could make no impression on them… All attempts to eat them had to be abandoned, although an enterprising chap with a hammer and small chisel did chip carefully away at some of them to make what he sold as frames for photographs” (FSS blog 34 8-3-15) and Sam’s wondering “what strange sort of caterer would so bungle his ordering that men’s breakfasts in a hot climate would consist of strong cheese and onions boiled together? This occurred on two or three days of each week for a period…” (FSS Blog 37 22-3-15).
** “Booth” is my father’s alias for Harry Nathan (1889-1963), who – according to H. Montgomery Hyde’s biography (Strong For Service: The Life Of Lord Nathan Of Churt, published by W.H. Allen, 1968) – gained promotion to Captain quite early in the Battalion’s Malta sojourn; one year into a career as a London solicitor when war was declared, pre-war he’d also served as a voluntary organiser of Brady Street Club For Working Lads in Whitechapel; Hyde quotes an August, 1914, letter from Nathan to his mother wherein he’s already noting the importance of giving the troops “green vegetables, but they are not provided by the government”; Hyde also quotes Nathan blaming the poor provision for the troops in Malta (including the wounded shipped in from Gallipoli) on Field Marshall Lord Methuen (1845-1932), the Governor and Commander of all Forces on the island (February, 1915-May, 1919); Nathan wrote that he protested about all this officially and often and sometimes hoped “my remonstrances had a momentary effect”; but biographer Hyde makes no mention of the near-mutiny my father watched – it may be that Nathan (who went on to show leadership and courage on the battlefield) didn’t write home about it, being aware that his letters, like every other soldier’s, would be read by censors.
All the best – FSS
Next week: The Battalion’s on the move again – Sam learns the rigours of marching miles in 80°F under routine PBI load plus Signalling gear. Total: 91 pounds!