“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, 19 July 2015
In Malta, lookout Sam gets shot at for the first time! But Sergeant Watson sits on a thorn bush and glory remains in limited supply…
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A hundred years ago… while the Russian Army lost ground to the Germans (July 24, Rozan and Pultusk, Poland) and the Austro-Hungarians (19, Krasnik, Galicia, 21, the left bank of the Vistula, Poland), among many to and fro actions on the Western Front one of the worst conflagrations began at Le Linge (July 20-October 15, in the Vosges west of Colmar) where 17,000 French and German soldiers were to die, with gas and flamethrowers frequently deployed.
In Mesopotamia the British took Nasriya from the Turks and in German colony Cameroon the French occupied Lomie (both on the 25th). In Gallipoli, attrition continued, with no further major actions until August – but on the 19th the House Of Commons learned that between the April 25 landings and June 30 British forces had suffered 42,434 casualties.
Meanwhile... the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, training interminably, it seemed, in Malta, had moved to a tented camp in a paradise of a place, Ghajn Tuffieha, on the north-west coast. Mostly London poor boys – including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, still 16 and 18 respectively), and their pals from Edmonton – the Battalion relished this unexpected tourist side of the war experience… while waiting for reality to bite. Given the casualties they’d seen shipped in, and subsequent funerals they’d observed at their previous encampment beside Pembroke Cemetery, they felt fairly sure reality would be called Gallipoli…
Last week, parties of four to six Signallers – Fusiliers mixed with new arrivals from the Maori Pioneer Battalion – had begin a series of one- or two-week postings to defence points around the island. So we left Sam on top of a 17th-century Knights Of Malta lookout tower at Salina Bay, across from Ghajn Tuffieha on the north-east coast, paying close attention to the activities of a local farmer’s daughter on a nearby plantation.
But come nightfall, the job got serious and rather exciting, Sam felt. Though also farcical as it turned out…
‘We were told of German submarines being refuelled somewhere in that area of the Mediterranean and communicating with someone ashore on Malta. So we had to spot all signals at sea or on land, read them if possible, and alert the troops waiting to take any necessary action.
We had a phone line to a section of our men now camped back in the bay and, when I saw a flashing light coming from a place not far from their small camp, I quickly got in touch with the Sergeant in charge. Watching from my tower at the tip of a seaward finger of land, I concluded that the recipient of the signals must have been offshore beyond me. My mate wrote down the letters as I called them out, but the message, if such it was, had been encoded.
The military operation to deal with the matter had its funny side. Sergeant Watson and his merry men hurried to the position I had indicated on the phone. They spotted a flashing at the top of a high stone wall by the road. A born leader and a man of action, the Sergeant sprang and heaved himself upwards — as I learned later for, having sent the message alerting him, I wished to participate in any excitement which might follow, so I asked a pal to take over the lookout job on top of the tower and commenced the fairly short walk from the tip of the headland back to the bay.
In case the suspected collaborator with the enemy had helpers in the vicinity, I decided against taking a well-used track which ran along the high ground and, instead, made a rather tortuous progress among rocks low down by the sea. I soon realised the dark, moonless night was quite unsuitable for this silly choice of a route. I pressed on, but knew for certain I could not join the Sergeant’s party in time to help them. And when someone fairly close by let fly with a gun of some sort I was shaken to the very marrow. It had been a lark of sorts up to that point, but that terrific bang spoilt everything. The picture I’d had of the mettlesome young soldier voluntarily facing danger to help his comrades was phoney; the scared boy crouching low among rocks, scarcely daring to breathe in case he was spotted, was real.
I waited some considerable time before moving, and then used great care to avoid making any noise. So, when I reached the coast road and approached the place where I guessed the light had been flashed, I found no one. The scary silence made me hurry to Sergeant Watson’s small camp, where my story of being fired on was received with some scepticism.
There was no glory for anybody to be had out of the entire incident. Certainly, somebody had been on the wall, but after Sergeant Watson sprang upwards and straddled the top of it, apart from hearing the noise of a hasty departure he made no contact with the possible enemy. The Sergeant acted quickly, though. He jumped down on the far side – and his yell of pain brought others to the wall top, intent on saving his life if possible. But “Stay up there!” was his whispered command so they waited. They could hear him quietly moaning and cursing until he told them to move along and climb down at a point two or three yards away, whence he led his men on a search of the area. Still they caught no spies.
However, the Sergeant was sorely wounded. Sorely being the appropriate word since his brave jump had brought his backside down on the hairy spikes of a huge cactus and he needed careful search and extraction treatment before relief from pain enabled him to write his report.
On my return to the lookout tower, my friend who had so kindly taken on my job up top immediately asked about a shot he’d heard soon after my departure. I told him how close to me the explosion had been and how ear-shattering. We guessed that, if it had no connection with the flashing light, then the owner of one of the small plantations in the vicinity must have mistaken me for a thief in the night.’
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam gets promotion – the worst promotion of all; nobody loves a Lance Jack!