“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, 21 June 2015
Sam’s Fusiliers move to a camp site alongside a cemetery (rather busy in Gallipoli times) – and he finds a hero in the funeral band’s big, bass drummer…
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A hundred years ago… the geographic spread of assorted armies battling reminds us why it was called a world war… the German/Austro-Hungarian Armies finally winning at Gorlice-Tarnów (June 22) to recapture Galicia from the Russians (who suffered 412,000 casualties for their foes’ 87,000); the French repulsing German attacks north of Arras and gaining ground at the heights of Meuse and in Lorraine (21-2); the Italians holding back the Austrian Army at Trentino (22) and in the Carnic Alps (25); the British advancing up the Euphrates in Ottoman Iraq (from 27) and destroying the German port of Buboka, German East Africa, on Lake Nyasa (25) – as, in Gallipoli, attrition proceeded during the build-up to the Battle Of Gully Ravine.
Meanwhile... at St George’s Barracks, Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, newly trained Signaller 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 what they knew not, though hints were building up that Gallipoli awaited them.
Last week, the Signallers concluded their Old Contemptibles-style rapid-fire 15-aimed-shots-a-minute training – with Sam rated a “first-class” shot to his astonishment and pride. Now their period of unwonted comfort at St George’s Barracks comes to an end and they come down in the world of military accommodations… But it gave Sam the chance to revisit his love of music, as he recalls:
‘Suddenly it was time, they said, for all good soldiers to pack their kitbags, move out of barracks and, a mile or two up the road, pitch their tents on rising ground alongside a military cemetery*. We Signallers had our line of tents alongside the road. One of them we equipped as an office complete with field telephones and we wired up a system connecting the Headquarters of each Company and Battalion and handled all communications.
Two things furnished me with permanent memories of that camp. One of them was the frequency with which a band playing The Dead March In Saul** distracted my attention. This would occur once or twice a day because, as I learned, Malta had become the medical base for all the British Services in the Mediterranean area and, inevitably, many men brought to the hospital died of their wounds. Those who died on the battlefield, I gathered, could receive no such military honours – perhaps the Malta garrison authorities were clinging to a kindly peacetime ritual for as long as possible.
So you heard the slow beat of the big drum away in the distance, then a few notes of music from the brass would gradually swell in volume as the cortege advanced with stately tread – the blasts from the trombones dominated because they occupied the front row to make room for their slides.
If I could persuade someone to take over the headphones, I would hurry from the tent, slither on my backside the few feet down the embankment to the road and await the arrival, the slow approach of my hero, the big, bass drummer: wearing a real leopardskin between his torso and the drum, and given lots of space around him to allow his skilful whirlings of the flying drumsticks with their white, furry tips, “Daa da dada bang! Daa dada dada da bang!” – he supplied the hefty thuds at the end of each phrase.
Nearing the cemetery, the band drew to the side of the road. The pallbearers carrying the flag-covered coffin passed through the gates with the firing party. And then I could approach the drummer, show him my admiration of his skill and perhaps persuade him to demonstrate how, amid all the drumsticks’ twirling, he could give the stretched skin a light touch or a hefty wallop just as he wished.
The farewell chorus of musketry fire would soon be followed by the reappearance of the troops. Then the really excellent band led the homeward march to a cheery tune so different to the funeral dirge which had marked their arrival. We envied the Battalion which could afford to set up and train that morale-raising band. Apparently, some of their officers – wealthy men – paid for all the instruments before the war. I, at any rate, felt that by providing music for gay or sad occasions, the bandsmen did a good job, even in wartime. If their musical skill made it possible for them to be spared the horrors of frontline warfare, it also enabled them to provide enjoyment to those resting from battlefield tensions.
Our officers, generous as their own personal circumstances allowed, had supplied the makings of a drum-and-fife band: a big drum, four side drums, and a dozen or so assorted flutes. Our band volunteers were learning to play them, some doubling with bugles. Soon, we too would have our flagging spirits uplifted and be inspired to march smartly, instead of slouching through the last mile or two of a trying route – it was customary to transport a band to some point where, fresh as paint, they could join the Battalion and render this restorative service to the sorely tried soldiery.
We already had a Corporal who played all the calls on a very melodious bugle; he roused us with the Reveille most mornings, and his repertoire covered Cookhouse, Fall In, Sick Parade, Post Corporal, Officers’ Mess, and, at the day’s end, the full Last Post. So, at his musical behest, men ran or halted, put out lights and relaxed into sleep, spirits soothed.
When he sounded the dreaded Jankers, though, naughty boys hurried to the barrack square to toil back and forth, heavily loaded, while good, honest souls like me took their well-deserved ease. Meanwhile, the Corporal’s pupils blew their bugles better every day and we heard calls the like of which we’d never heard before***. Soon they would play tunes which meant something to us, for already a few could tongue their mouthpieces well enough to produce a couple of true notes.’
* Back in the ’70s, I asked my father if he knew the cemetery’s name and he said the nearest village was St Julian’s Bay (San Gilijan), but he couldn’t remember what they called the cemetery; however, other sources suggest it was Pembroke Military Cemetery, laid out in the mid-19th Century, and that the camp site was known as Pembroke too. The Battalion had to leave St George’s Barracks because the Army decided to convert it into a hospital, largely for Gallipoli casualties.
** The Dead March In Saul is the popular name for the funeral march from Handel’s Oratorio, Saul (1739) – it isn’t the “Funeral March”; that’s Chopin’s Marche Funèbre, Piano Sonata Number 2.
*** My father’s thinking of the words to a favourite old song, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Irving Berlin’s first hit, from 1911.
All the best – FSS
Next week: The food goes from bad to terrible, the Fusiliers mutiny – almost until a young officer takes command… and feeds them!