“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, 5 July 2015
Sam’s Battalion’s on the move again – marching miles in 80°F under the routine PBI load plus Signalling gear. Total: 91 pounds!
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A hundred years ago… this week nothing “legendary”/“historic” occurred, but thousands and thousands suffered and lost their lives, limbs, elements of their mental stability: at The Second Battle Of Krasnik (July 1-19, Russian Army versus Austro-Hungarian; on the Western front at Vaux Fery (German success), Pilkem (British advance, both on the 6th), and Fontanelle (8, French gained ground); in Austria where the Italian Army took Trentino and Monticello (8), while on the Adriatic an Austrian submarine sank the Italian cruiser Amalfi (7) and Austrian planes bombed Venice (11); in the Caucasus where the Russians at Manzikert (10-26), misinformed as to their enemy’s weakness, launched an attack and found the Turks fielding 40,000 men against 22,000; in Africa, where General Botha’s South African Army forced Germany’s South-West African Army to surrender (July 9), and on the Rufiji River, German East Africa, British monitors destroyed the cruiser Königsberg (11); in Gallipoli, daily attrition via shot, shell and disease proceeded in the aftermath of the Gully Ravine battle.
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, had moved from the relative comfort of St George’s Barracks to tented Pembroke Camp – beside a cemetery where Gallipoli wounded who’d failed to recover were buried daily with full military honours.
In Malta since early February, the novice Battalion had completed much basic preparation, including rifle shooting and, in Sam’s case, specialist training as a Signaller. They felt they must soon be off to face… whatever might turn up.
Last week, Sam watched fascinated as Lieutenant Booth (alias Nathan, promoted to Major and Battalion commander in the field at Gallipoli) headed off a mutiny over the terrible food provided to the common soldiery – first by sheer leadership, then by buying them some nice snacks from a commercial canteen nearby, and finally longer-term by persuading his superiors to give him oversight of the Quartermasters.
Now the Battalion’s on the move again and Sam’s about to find out what he’s let himself in for, carrying all that signalling gear (and the rest). Sam writes:
‘Most of our training completed and, in our case, much of the specialist knowledge mastered, we were about to become a nomadic tribe, it appeared. The camp site suddenly swarmed with busy men directed by skilled NCOs.
Up tent pegs! We reduced that town of tents to tidily stacked canvas bales of uniform size in a remarkably short space of time. Pack kitbags – tubular, about 2ft 3 ins long and 14 inches in diameter – don the ingenious arrangements of straps and buckles which made it possible to carry high on the back the pack containing overcoat, mess tin, boot brushes, housewife (remember?*), towel and toilet items, socks, vest, shirt – and a knitted wool tube called a cap comforter, which could be worn as a scarf or to cover head and ears – as well as ten ammunition pouches each holding ten bullets across the upper abdomen, a trenching tool handle and shovel-cum-pick head (attached to the belt at the back), the musty-smelling water bottle at your left hip (I never saw the like of that bottle after we left Malta, of Crimean War vintage we estimated and made of wood of all substances…) – and your heavy Lee Enfield slung over your right shoulder.
But then, we Signallers – after rewinding our telephone lines and packing our instruments into carrier cases – had to hang our specialist equipment over the basic infantryman gear: a field telephone/telegraph, a message case the size of a briefcase full of message forms and copies, and probably a mile spool of fine enamelled wire for temporary communications… and a couple of signal flags. Without the signalling gear, the infantryman of that period carried about 91 pounds** of equipment if his ammunition pouches were full, so with the thermometer at about 80°F and soaring and that load suspended around or resting upon my meagre body… I had little difficulty in restraining myself from breaking into a gallop. In fact, I was sweaty and exhausted quite early in the march.
Thereafter, my will alone conquered the wish to allow knees to sag and collapse underneath this hellish load, and crash on to the dusty, stony road. But had that happened, I feared, my game would have been up, my true age discovered. Wounding protests about cruelty to children would have been heard, I imagined… Although, actually, I need not have worried for, later, many men around me admitted they had felt pretty distressed — soaked with sweat, the salt of it stinging their eyes, the load on their shoulders seeming to double in weight with every mile.
Well, the march didn’t kill us and we reached our new campsite – at a place called Ghajn Tuffieha***. Some hutments there housed ablutions, cookhouse, officers’ mess, and offices. And, mercifully, we were welcomed with pints of tea and hunks of bread with melted butter — our cooks had moved in earlier and made this ready for us, further proof of Lieutenant Booth’s good influence over the formerly slack (or worse) Quartermaster’s department.
On arrival, the officers granted us an hour’s rest. As one man we made for the sea where we found the first sandy beach we’d seen on the island; off came every stitch of clothing and we were into that lovely water quicker than our hands shot forward on pay day. Previously barred to us, because of those dubious concerns about “Mediterranean Fever”, the water was warm and salty enough for us to appreciate its buoyancy.
After we erected our tents, a silence settled over all, darkness came, and sleep began its healing work – until, at midnight, a storm broke with a violence most of us had never experienced before. The majority of the Battalion were housed in large, pointed bell tents, hastily and perhaps carelessly erected given the day’s weather. We Signallers had smaller bivouac tents, three and a half feet high with rubber ground sheets secured to the tent all round; thus, our weight – four of us per tent – and that of our equipment helped to hold it down. So we dozed and sometimes chatted through the stormy hours, and by dawn the thunder and lightning ceased.
When we opened the tent flaps and crawled out, we were amazed. Everywhere, among dozens of fallen tents, men wearing next to nothing struggled to put things right. Others sheltered in the wash house. Those who had anticipated the swimming ban**** being lifted were wearing the trunks they had shrewdly procured. But as the sun rose so did everybody’s spirits and the vast drying-out operation commenced.’
* Back in September, 1914, when he volunteered and the Battalion was issued with many of the basics, Same noted “Much mirth ensued from the announcement that each man would be issued with a housewife, but this turned out to be nothing more sexy than a roll-up cloth pouch holding needles, cotton, buttons and so on”.
** 91 pounds is my father’s figure, an expert has told me that’s a bit too much… but then it was Sam Sutcliffe carrying it so he might be right. Perhaps we could agree on “bloody heavy”…
*** Nathan’s biographer Hyde dates the move to Ghajn Tuffieha from Pembroke Camp as early June when Pembroke, like St George’s Barracks before it, was requisitioned for care of the wounded. Unlike my father, Nathan found the Ghajn Tuffieha camp “indescribably… depressing” (as he wrote in a letter to his family, quoted by Hyde, though with no further explanation as to why he disliked this spot which my father relished like a heaven on Earth).
**** When in barracks and camp on the other side of the idland they had been instructed not to swim because the sea there might infect them with “Mediterranean fever” – a mysterious ailment nobody seemed to know much about beyond the official tooth-sucking and head-shaking.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Young Sam meets the Maori Anzacs, lands lookout-tower duty… and conducts careful observation of a local maiden…