“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, 26 July 2015
Sam marvels at his new Maori comrades – and gets the worst promotion of all… Nobody loves a Lance Jack!
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… summer it may have been but on the Western Front the combatants remained bogged down, despite small costly advances by the French at Lingekopf (July 27), the Germans at Hooge (30, via a heavy flamethrower attack) and embryonic air forces bombing both ways. In the east the Russian Army continued losing ground in Poland (against Austria-Hungary and Germany) and the Caucasus (against the Ottoman Army). Heading south, the Italians were still outscoring Austria-Hungary and occupied Pelagosa Island in the Adriatic. At Gallipoli another week of holding operations passed while Allied strategists planned major attacks for August. And Pope Benedict XV, who had declared his neutrality from the outset, called on all sides to negotiate for peace (July 30) – all sides rejected his entreaties.
Meanwhile... 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), and their pals from Edmonton – in their seventh month of training in Malta, enjoyed their borrowed time (before being sent to Gallipoli some guessed) at a tented camp in a paradise of a place, Ghajn Tuffieha, on the north-west coast.
Last week, on night-time lookout for suspected German submarine activity in liaison with onshore spies, Sam got shot at for the first time – though probably by an irate farmer suspecting him of thievery – and his Sergeant suffered the Battalion’s first war wound – albeit more farcical than deadly, given it occurred when, in pursuit of a notional miscreant, he jumped off a wall and landed rear-first on a large cactus.
Sam writes that soon his Signals party, including his new Maori Pioneer Battalion comrades, returned briefly from their 17th-century lookout tower on the east of the island to their “beautiful beach” at Ghajn Tuffieha:
‘Soon our small party returned to the Battalion base close to the beautiful beach. The work routine of early morning start, long afternoon break, then evening and night training resumed. We spent long, afternoon periods in the calm, warm sea, with immense benefit to health and morale.
Some of the combined signals training and practice with our Maori comrades provided my happiest experiences; those fellows were so mature, so calmly balanced. Worries which could afflict British town-dwellers appeared unknown to them… Either that, or maybe they possessed an ability to extract all the joy from the situation prevailing at any given moment. Their relations with an officer who sometimes helped with their training were unusually good, I thought; combining friendship and respect for his rank called for real self-discipline on each man’s part.
Next, half the Signallers were packed off to an Army school in Valletta which had the most up-to-date field telegraph instruments available. Hour upon hour of sending and receiving messages, using the forms we would handle on active service, and learning approved abbreviations and message codings and everything timed by the 24-hour clock. Gradually we developed speed in translating the dots and dashes into letters and words and writing them legibly regardless of noise, talk and movement going on around us – of which the instructors created a lot.
In Valletta, I liked to rise even earlier than necessary for the pleasure of breathing the cool morning air and gazing over the mostly flat rooftops of the neighbouring village, but particularly to watch an elderly but remarkably agile Navy seaman perform a nerve-twisting ritual walk on top of the narrow wall bordering the tall Navy Headquarters building opposite our place. At a given moment every morning, followed by his pal, he completed a circuit of the entire wall. His pal by the way was a monkey.’
But, sadly for Sam and friends, change was in the air:
‘Later, back in the camp I loved, I found myself with three other Signallers mentioned in Battalion Orders being required to report to Lieutenant Wickinson* at a certain hour. I didn’t like that at all, because this camp in its pleasant situation had given me happiness and a feeling of security. Any threat to the continuity of this beautiful mode of life chilled my blood. Although such interesting work, performed in almost idyllic surroundings, had not figured as a possibility for me when I enlisted, I felt we had indeed struck it rich. I had envisaged frontline service with all its risks and horrors. So this present respite whetted my appetite for more of the same treatment… Even though I’d concluded that, the longer this sheltered-from-reality existence lasted, the greater degree of repugnance and fear would I feel when I had to face doing real active service close to the enemy.
The young Lieutenant told the four of us to sit and informed us that we had been selected for promotion to the rank of Lance Corporal. Though well aware that this was the worst possible rank to have, that a Lance Jack was the lackey of all the NCOs and the butt of many Privates’ ill humour, we yet could not refuse this pestilential promotion. Dolefully, I assumed it meant separation from my Signals pals, a return to H Company and the accursed drill and guard duty routine. Imagine me having to give orders to those older men with whom I had first soldiered. They would just sneer and dare me to report any lack of discipline…
Fortunately, Lieutenant Wickinson said we should remain in the Signals section, each being responsible for a quarter of its men under the Sergeant’s surveillance. On active service the Signallers would be posted to various Companies and Headquarters offices in small groups, each of them in the charge of a Lance Corporal.
Then followed our inquest on why we had been selected. The Sergeant said it was because we were best at the work, and I was eager to believe him, but couldn’t. I feared it was because those in charge calculated that we four would lack the nerve to say nay to our young officer.
When the Signals lads learnt that we had been placed in some sort of authority over them, reactions were very varied but never complimentary. One thing entirely lacking in their response was envy. Too well they knew what a thankless number we were on. When you live and sleep in a tent or barrack room with men, any discipline you might attempt to uphold is undermined by familiarity. Sergeants, for instance, had their separate quarters and messes and must not fraternise with rankers, only coming among them as an urge and a scourge when duty required them to.’
* Almost certainly an alias, in line with my father’s policy of anonymising most comrades in order to avoid any possible upset to those living (when he wrote his Memoir in the 1970s) or to their descendants then or at any later date.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam does some ready-reckoning on the World War 1 soldier’s pay – and how poor boys like him and his brother could use it to benefit their families back home…