“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, 14 June 2015

Sam’s Signallers, Lee-Enfield learners, struggle with Old Contemptible-style quick fire, get a rocket for effing and blinding – and chortle their way through some daft bayonet drill…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… on the Western Front the Second Battle Of Artois, raging since May 9, ceased on June 18 (a Friday in 1915) with the Allies gaining around three kilometres while yielding a “German defensive victory”, apparently, as the infamous Vimy Ridge changes hands to and fro. Casualties: French 102,000 (under Joffre), British 27,800 (under Haig), German 73,000 (under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria).
    On the Eastern Front, the back and forth saw Austria in the ascendant against Russia, recapturing Lemberg (June 22; now Lvov, Poland), a city they’d yielded the previous September. Elsewhere, Italy took the left bank of the Isonzo from Austria-Hungary (17; now part of Slovenia), Turkish forces attacked the British coaling-station island of Perim in the Red Sea (14), and the South African Army began an advance on Otavifontein in German South West Africa (19). And at Gallipoli, with the initial Allied onslaught burnt out, attrition continued, with no major action in the course of the week.
    Meanwhile... at St George’s Barracks, Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers – Gallipoli-bound in due course, though entirely unaware of the fact – continued their first spell of firearms training (eight months into their Army lives). They included my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe – by then in the process of converting to Signaller – his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, still 16 and 18 respectively in early summer 1915), and their pals from Edmonton, north London.

Last week, at the Malta butts down by the sea – finally allowed live ammunition rather than wooden practice bullets – Sam got a grip on the rudiments of firing the old long Lee-Enfield at ranges up to 900 yards, including snapshooting at 200 yards. In the course of his Signallers group’s first few sessions he also learned to cope with the recoil so that he no longer spent the rest of the day doubled up in pain. But in subsequent weeks came more intricate demands from their instructors – based on the noted skills of the British Expeditionary Force. Sam wrote:

‘The trickiest lesson of all demanded that we try to emulate the renowned 15 rounds a minute fired by the soldiers of our standing Army – already proven no match for German machine guns on the frontline in Belgium and France. Each shot must still be carefully aimed, our instructors insisted. Normally you loaded five bullets in the magazine, but for rapid fire you inserted 10 – wooden ones at first as we tried to master the mechanics of just getting the shots off so quickly – and fired them, then dealt with five more, all in the space of 60 seconds. I failed time after time, as did many others, even using dummies. How the heck would we cope with live ammunition, its explosions, recoils, smoke and fumes?
    One day, as we Signallers struggled with rapid fire, what with the sun blazing down on our frustrations and the general strain on nerves, we began to express our feelings of discomfort freely, till the officer in charge, Captain Bicknell, yelled, “You are the most foul-mouthed gang of louts it has ever been my misfortune to command!”
    While regarded as a good sort, something of a showman and a dandy, sporting a Charlie Chaplin moustache, the Captain did not know that the Signals chaps rather prided themselves on being decently behaved and had only recently begun to emulate and perhaps even improve on the swearing abilities of some real “old soldiers” they swapped drinks with in the canteen. Thus, they felt they were becoming old-timers themselves, but the officer’s rebuke stung, and shame brought on milder forms of self-expression, the bs and fs fewer, damns and blasts more frequent.
    And, eventually, they did complete their rifle-range programme – the 15 rounds a minute all blazed away… On my card, with the final five bullets fired at 900 yards, hitting anywhere on the target seemed tolerable, I thought. But, surprisingly, when the instructor totted up the figures, they showed I was a “first-class” shot, only a few points below the top level of marksmen qualified to work as snipers when on active service.’

But if Sam could permit his chest to puff up and his head to swell a little at this achievement – not bad for a (secret) boy of 16, eh? – neither he nor any of his comrades took pride in executing the other rifle skill they had to learn; one which Sam and many others ended up vowing they would never make use of on the battlefield…

‘… between those weeks when we got our turn on the range, the Signallers endured training in another combat function of their rifles. An effective infantryman, it was then believed, must be able to shoot accurately when at a distance from the enemy and then, with bayonet fixed, fight fiercely hand to hand.
     But the style of bayonet fighting then taught caused much merriment among the troops when off parade. It all started from a comical semi-crouching position, an unheroic stance suggesting, some averred, a man who’d soiled his pants. To simulate combat, little hopping forward movements were followed by similar retreats. Thrusts and parries alike had to be executed from that preposterous semi-crouch.
     We did our best with it, and put up the pretence required to satisfy the instructors’ test of proficiency in this murderous occupation. The performance might have been more convincing had we been allowed to leave the scabbards on our bayonets. But, ordered to wield these short, sharp steel daggers unsheathed, we knew that an over-enthusiastic movement could cause a comrade injury or even death so we kept to our stilted, hopping about, more concerned with preserving life than taking it. Anyway, given my lively imagination, I decided there and then that I could never face goring a man and that I would always keep a round in the chamber when face-to-face fighting threatened.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam’s Fusiliers leave their comfortable Barracks for a tented camp handily placed beside a cemetery (rather busy in Gallipoli times) – and the funeral band’s big, bass drummer becomes Sam’s hero…

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