“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, 30 August 2015

Sam, temporary tourist en route for Gallipoli, takes a trip to Heliopolis, the Sphinx, the Pyramids – and gets pie-eyed on the local hooch…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… A massive artillery duel raged all week around Arras in northern France, while on the Eastern Front the Russian Army’s Great Retreat paused to score modest successes at Strypa (August 30) and Lutsk (31, both in Galicia, now in Ukraine). The Italian Army too gained ground on its northern border against the Austrians at Monte Marona (30) and Trentino (September 4).
    The week’s big military/political development saw Germany accept US President Woodrow Wilson’s terms for ending “unrestricted submarine warfare” (September 1) – meaning, for merchant shipping, that U-boats resumed stop-and-search, sinking vessels carrying “contraband” only after crew and passengers had taken to lifeboats. This was to avoid America, and possibly other neutral states, entering the war – however, three days later the U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, torpedoed the British liner Hesperian off Fastnet (she got help before eventually sinking, but 32 died).
    In Gallipoli, the final major onslaught by the Allies petered out on August 29, when the Turkish Army beat back British, Gurkha and Anzac forces at the nine-day Battle of Hill 60 in the Suvla Bay area.
    Meanwhile... Gallipoli-bound (they feared), but lately shipped in from seven months training in Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, his brother Ted (still secretly underage at 17 and 18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, explored their first few days in an even more exotic setting: Egypt.

Longer posts from Egypt – hope they hold you – because Sam packed so much into this brief pre-Gallipoli sojourn (around September 1 to 17) in the other world of a place he’d never expected to see. Last week, Sam’s Fusiliers settled into a new “tent town” at Abbasieh, just outside Heliopolis (an ancient settlement dating back to 2-3000BC). Blazing days turned to cool nights, so each soldier was given two bright-red blankets. Sam recalled in his Memoir:

‘I made a hollow in the ground for my hips and laid down my groundsheet, placed my kitbag as a pillow, wrapped one of the gorgeous rugs around me and laid the other loosely over the top of it… wrapped in these fine-quality wool blankets we hoped, some of us, that we looked like the sheiks about whom we had heard love-lorn ladies singing in church-hall concerts back in England.’

The impression of superior organisation at this camp grew with the arrival of good news on the victualling front:

‘… with what joy did we learn that old wax-whiskers, the villainous Battalion Quartermaster, had remained in Malta, his department now placed in the care of the young Lieutenant Booth who had guarded our interests since the rather comical mutiny some time back [see Blog 51 June 28, 2015]. He made his rounds in the straw-mat hut at dinner-time to inspect the food and told us that – in addition to their blanket-supply commitment – the Egyptian authorities were obliged to provide money for additional food for our troops. As he said, the meat we had just eaten – or not – was very tough, but nothing better could be bought for love nor money. The sweet potatoes that went with it were strange to us, but there were no ordinary spuds to be had. So he proposed to spend the additional funds on canned goods, meats if available, otherwise fruits from a big importing company.
     A sound businessman, he looked after our interests carefully… we knew instinctively that he would not take the kitty, for he was a rare, honest man; he would not deviate even by a hair’s breadth from the straight and narrow path…’

Ever curious about any new location, Sam began to look around:

‘With no training schemes nor other compulsory activities to occupy us during the first few days at Abbasieh, I was able to explore a great sandy hill at the rear of the camp. The story spread that a big battle had been fought there some years earlier and, since then, sandstorms had buried the buildings which stood there. How, during a war already claiming thousands of lives, I could possibly feel excited while prowling over a former battlefield I cannot explain. I seriously hoped to stumble on some wonderful trophy. I didn’t, though odd bones I came across were possibly of human origin and I did identify one as a thighbone.
     Climbing to the top of the hill, though, I had a fine view across part of Cairo to a group of pyramids. I decided a trip to see them was essential and, on returning to camp, applied for a chit for 24 hours leave.’

He spent a piastre (then 2½d) on a donkey ride into Heliopolis and a tram along the main road where…

‘… for a piastre, I bought a book of useful phrases expressed in French, English (sort of) and Arabic spelt out phonetically in English characters. I remember from it “tala-hena” (come here), “saeeda” (good-day), “empshi allah” (go away), “mush quois” (no good), and a funny one, “ruk shooh” (translated as “up to shit”) – I never knew when to use that last one.’

While wandering, he bumped into an old friend from the Battalion, called Tim Thane, and agreed to spend the day with him – although he’d rather have meandered alone:

I had little money and that little came under threat when, inevitably, he needed a drink. I should be a churl if I didn’t pay my whack.
     That’s how it went. Within a few minutes of our entering the drink-shop, I had four glasses of some very potent brew under my belt, and less money in my pocket. You notice I don’t call the place a “pub” – it bore no resemblance to one. Comfortable chairs, small, marble-topped tables, waiters wearing white jackets, fezzes on their heads. Customers probably all Egyptian, apart from us. Most of them wore European-style suits with, again, fezzes; a few had robe-like garments, but none of them wore the white nightshirts, as I regarded them, of the manual workers. So Tim had probably landed us in a pricey joint and I was living it up in a style far beyond the limits of my small income.
     Those four glasses of the strong stuff had made me drunk. I thought I was concealing that fact as I essayed to rise from my chair. It must indeed have been a high-class place for I had hardly fallen back into my seat when a waiter placed a small dish of radishes in front of me, indicating with a couple of words and several expressive actions that if I ate them my head would clear and my gait would be steady. He asked for no money and appeared happy and satisfied, so I concluded he had helped himself to tips when changing my five-piastre pieces.’
     Poorer, but wiser as to the medicinal properties of radishes, we resumed our stroll.’

After that, they acquired an unwanted guide, Abdul, whose informative skills Sam could not enjoy because of true British embarrassment about the uncertain situation:

‘… we found ourselves gazing at the Pyramids and then at the Sphinx,*, before walking along a sort of road below ground level where there were many carvings, and an outstanding figure – I seem to remember being told it represented Rameses. I just couldn’t take an interest in these marvellous things, because this man’s job was obviously to guide tourists around and impart his knowledge to them for a monetary consideration and I had no money to spare and I wasn’t a tourist. Both of us had tried to convince the chap about our poverty, but he just smiled and continued his spiel.
     Come the time when nature demanded relief, and who could I turn to but him? At breakneck speed we followed him along crowded streets, presently left the busy part of town and in a narrow passageway climbed stone steps in a poor sort of dwelling and finished up in a small room with a stone floor in the centre of which was a circular hole, nothing else. That had to do, but the self-conscious performing over that hole with an audience added one more humiliation to the day.’
* The Great Sphinx and three pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, stand on the outskirts of current Heliopolis/Cairo.

They resumed touring the streets of Heliopolis, Sam’s unease temporarily dispersed by what he heard and saw, relishing every detail as you can see:

‘… we unexpectedly found ourselves in a bazaar, the stalls displaying metal objects of many kinds. Such a hammering and tapping was going on around us, such beating of brass and copper with mallets and hammers, such chasing of fine patterns on trays and bowls and shapely vessels as made me wonder where this vast output of ornamental metal might be disposed of. To moneyed travellers, I presumed, if any still came by in wartime. Those informative short stories in weekly magazines had left me with the conviction that much of the stuff sold to tourists in marketplaces Middle-Eastern and beyond had first seen the light of day in Birmingham, but the goings-on in this market persuaded me otherwise…
     Soon we passed along a narrow path on either side of which men displayed carpets and rugs, all presumably of local manufacture. Fortunately, most of the merchants were away out at the mosque or dinner or otherwise engaged. The occasional exception squatted either behind a hookah, the loading and lighting of which was a home industry by itself, or on a sample of stock, propped up by piles of rugs, and so deep in thought their eyes had closed, their chins resting on their chests.’

Finally, Sam and Thane argued about paying Abdul, Thane’s view being that “a boot up his arse” would suffice, Sam pointing out that “we had, at least, the certainty of being fed, clothed, and some sort of roof over our heads, while the poor blighter still keeping pace with us probably had a family to look after”. So Sam offered Abdul three piastres to which Thane grudgingly added two and their day’s tourism was done.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam meets the Aussies and, wide-eyed, watches their Crown & Anchor gambling school – not to mention a riot…

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