“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, 27 December 2015
Sam’s hoped-for “lovely day tomorrow” ends in the small hours with a Sergeant’s roar as Boxing Day sees the remnants of the Battalion sailing back to Gallipoli! They don’t know why...
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A hundred years ago this week… on the Western Front minor echoes of the 1914 “Christmas truce” slipped into the usual (limited but deadly) winter action with widespread artillery exchanges (December 28), British casualties when large German mines were triggered near Loos (30), and French advances in the Vosges (28) and near Mesnil-les-Hurlus, Champagne (January 1).
The Russian Army continued to prove its cold-weather ability on the Eastern Front, attacking Austrian and/or German regiments in northern Bukovina (December 27-30, now Ukraine), at the River Styr (31, Galicia now Ukraine), and the Oszok and Rostoka passes (January 2, Carpathian mountains).
Further south, German airships bombed Salonika (December 30), where French and British forces were trying to hold the line of the Greek border against the Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians who had conquered Serbia, and off Crete a German U-boat sank British passenger liner SS Persia (not a troopship) without warning killing 333 out of 519 (30).
Meanwhile, in Gallipoli the Allied troops in the Cape Helles sector remained in place (HQ issued orders to prepare for evacuation on December 28 and the last units of the Indian Expeditionary Force at Cape Helles sailed for Egypt three days later).
Already evacuated, after three months getting nowhere at Suvla Bay, were the remnants of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17). They’d slipped away on the night of December 18-19, 1915, then encamped on the Greek Island of Lemnos, hub for the British Mediterranean forces, through to Christmas Day…
FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS (bumper back in Gallipoli Boxing Day to New Year’s Day edition)
Last week, Sam and his older brother Ted enjoyed their happy reunion on Lemnos after the 2/1st’s remaining 200 men (out of an original thousand) –Ted never got to Suvla Bay because the Army detained him in Alexandria for dental work after he lost his front teeth in a fight (see Blog 62 13/9/15). On Christmas Day, they scoffed all the treats that caught up with them in parcels from home, washed down with free Army beer and had a lovely time – apart from a terrible encounter with the sufferings of the Arab workers “in the hole”.
But early on Boxing Day morning, to their astonishment and profound chagrin, this is what happened:
‘I had slept for possibly five hours when the unwelcome roar of a Sergeant roused us all. We had to pack up as quickly as possible, he bellowed, and be ready to move.
Into every available space in pack, haversack and mess tin, I crammed as much food as possible. Cooks handed out fresh-baked loaves – enough to last a few days – and fried bacon in quantity. They had opened a long, wooden case containing two large sides of bacon packed in salt, so we ate our fill, stored the remaining rashers in our tubular cap comforters, and tied these to our belts. Hanging all the usual pieces of equipment about our persons we picked up our rifles, slogged down to the landing stage and boarded a small ship, similar to the Robin Redbreast, which had evacuated us from Suvla Bay.
Whither away we knew not, nor cared overmuch, for disappointment at the interruption of our Christmas celebrations was deep and our mood doleful. To hell with everything and everybody; wasn’t that war over? So what were They up to?
Many hours later we heard the unwelcome sounds of occasional gunfire and now, in darkness, when we could just make out land ahead, a shell screamed overhead and burst somewhere ashore. Our ship crept slowly forward, far too slowly for my liking, because, added to the likelihood of injury, was the unpleasant one of drowning as well; and we should by rights have been feasting and lounging on that Greek island*.
Now we could make out the black shape of a big ship, berthed in the shallows head-on to the shore. Moving closer, we saw a large, square opening in her side and, the tide being just right, our shallower ship could tie up to her and we could step across into her innards and eventually emerge on to a sort of landing stage. We hurried along it before gathering, briefly, on the beach beneath towering cliffs… But no enemy fire came our way.
Excitement and interest now replaced resentment, as we filed some way up a gully and waited. I saw someone approach our Major, who then led us further upwards into this rising gully. A great flash some miles distant seawards gave short illumination to the scene; we saw we were passing a strange, wooden tower… and at that moment, almost unbelievably, from the top of it a hunting horn sounded.
“Lie down!” yelled an unidentified voice and, being no strangers to this life-saving precaution, we were probably flat on the ground before he was. We heard the usual tearing scream, the crash, and below us – about the spot where we had first paused – we saw a brilliant flash and a large cloud of smoke, followed by the whinings of many flying pieces of shrapnel, the phuts as some of them landed nearby.
Said the voice who had given us the warning, “That shell was from Asiatic Annie** a real big gun across the sea there in Asia Minor. When the lookout up above sees her fire, he blows his horn and we have about 30 seconds to take cover. The shells don’t always land here, of course, but we assume they will.” The informative bloke added that we had landed at V Beach and that the ship we had come through was the River Clyde*** beached there in the first Gallipoli landings months earlier.
So at last we knew that a complete evacuation of Gallipoli had not taken place, that we were once more stuck on that ill-starred Turkish peninsula. I recall wondering what brother Ted would think of my second disappearance; he would be mad about not travelling with us, that was certain. Still, although he really belonged to us, he was attached to the Field Hospital for duty; what a surprise he must have had when he found our tents empty.
We moved steadily upwards along a track which eventually brought us to flat ground at the top of the cliff. Now, away in the distance, we recognised all the audible and visible indications that over there was a battlefront; personally, I felt once more the growing nervous tension, the alertness generated by the desire for self-preservation.
Even so, through a few days good living and the contact with normal people provided by the letters from home and those lovely parcels, I felt changed and strengthened; I knew this tautness was not, at present, allied to fear, as it sometimes had been when lack of food and sleep had caused debility. I’d had proof the normal world still carried on, albeit with certain difficulties, and that we had not been forgotten or given up for lost.
We few remaining Signallers stood together talking quietly. Short, sturdy Nieter recalled our days and nights together on that hill****; I hope I told him how much his faith in the cause and his cheery optimism had helped me when the physical after-effects of the blizzard got me down.
Consultations continued between our officers and a group of strangers until, finally, orders for our disposal emerged, and a guide took Nieter, two others and myself to the strangest Signals post I ever saw. Located on the cliff top, high above V Beach, it comprised a nice, square hole with a good earth-covered roof, entry being through a “door” dug on the landward side – this last a necessity because the hole had only three sides: the seaward side didn’t exist, if you understand me. So if, in your sleep, you rolled in that direction just a little too far, you must, eventually and too late, realise that your next stop was the beach way down below.
On that open side, curtains made of sacking concealed our candle lights. We had blankets and a rough table or bench with boxes for seats; we worked on instruments far superior to those we carried, and a small, simple exchange or commutator enabled us to link certain Signal posts.
Evidently, here the Army conducted the war on a more civilised level than had been the case at Suvla Bay, largely because the April landings had driven the front line much farther inland from the beaches. No cooking in mess tins over methylated heaters – we four would take our meals in rotation at a small Royal Army Medical Corps camp nearby.
We took over from complete strangers, men of a unit whose name I forget. They, with others, would soon be leaving the place for good, they told us. Evacuation under way then, it appeared. A puzzle therefore: why the heck had we been sent to the place?’
Secrecy has its place, of course, but reading my father’s Memoir often makes you wonder about the value of keeping combat soldiers ignorant of exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing... their purpose here on V Beach took a few more days to emerge:
‘In fact, we spent a few pleasant days on that job. From our clifftop, the activities around the beach provided interest in idle moments.
But one day, as I watched a party of civilians moving along down below, without any warning blast on the hunting horn, a big one from Annie burst among them. Some ran, too late, in search of shelter; some would never move again. Watching them, those little figures seemed to exist in a separate world from mine…
Not in any way separate, the RAMC men quickly appeared and bustled among the casualties quietly doing their good work.
The lookout on the tower must have been missing. One of our chaps said they [the civilians] were Greeks brought in to do construction work. That seemed strange to me, civilians working close to a battlefront.
Soon, an order came through for us Signallers to disconnect everything, take all the equipment down to a store on the beach, then rejoin our Battalion. A guide took us to where they were living in a series of square holes not far from the beach all connected by a long trench.
At last, we learned the reason for our return to Gallipoli; we were to work every night at dismantling and loading stores on to lighters and small ships. Night work only, in order to conceal evacuation preparations. We could take some rest during the day – but, should enemy planes appear, like the occasional small groups of Taubes we’d seen high above Suvla, we must expose ourselves, move around as though busy upon routine matters, and generally try to convince the observers that our numbers were as great as at any previous time.
Shortly after dawn that first morning back with our crowd, a lone plane did fly back and forth over our area, so we put on our busy act for the pilot’s amusement and information. Quite rightly, acting on instructions, some of our men fired their rifles upwards – imagine our surprise, though, when the pilot dropped a bomb. It exploded much too close for our liking and caused a brief interruption to our “busy bee” programme.
That was the first time I’d thought about the possibility of planes carrying bombs. Probably the pilot hurled it out of his cockpit. Although it could only have been a small one, it made quite an impressive bang. Still, no harm done, so nobody worried too much about air-bomb possibilities.
However, soon after that incident, one of our chaps approached our position, a message in his hand, when another low-flying plane appeared. Our friend more or less disintegrated before our eyes. Sheer bad luck placed him in the spot where bomb Number 2 exploded, poor fellow. So, very early in that distant war, did I see death from the air strike a man down.
Still we continued with our task of deceiving the enemy, so much so that aerial visits became quite a regular feature. The Germans must have spared those planes from the Western Front – a small formation, but capable of causing some harassment…
One day, we were watching a water cart coming our way – no shortage of water there, unlike at Suvla; the cart consisted of a tank on an axle and two wheels pulled by a mule and driven by an elderly member of our transport section who we knew to be rather deaf. We heard a plane coming and yelled a warning, but he obviously heard nothing. The plane appeared, flew low, and a strange swishing sort of sound followed – but no explosion. Some of us dashed out to the rather puzzled old chap to tell him what had happened and persuade him to shelter for a while. That he scornfully refused to do and he went on about his business.
Then one lad let out a shout. We ran over to him and he pointed to a six-inch-long metal dart protruding from the earth. That set us all searching and acquiring further specimens, some lying on rocks, others dug out where small holes indicated their presence. A shower of darts had scattered around mule, water cart and the lucky old driver, but all was well.
The one I found was heavy, thick at the head, then slim, and the tail had enough flukes to cause rotation when falling. The inventor presumably thought this might aid penetration of the victim’s head – bearing in mind that steel helmets for soldiers had not yet been introduced. I thought about the method of delivery employed and guessed at a box with apertures at the bottom and a sliding grid operated by the pilot. I kept my dart as a prize souvenir, until it vanished in a kitbag I lost some time later.
At V Beach – in fact, during the entire Gallipoli campaign – I saw only one British aircraft, though it appeared several times. The pilot, I gathered, was the famous Wing-Commander Samson*****. His forays were probably of a “showing the flag” nature rather than attacks on the enemy, although the Turks did fire a few shells at him.’
Happily, in this festive week 100 years ago, the celebratory side of evacuation began to emerge and offer its perhaps rather odd beneficence to the 2/1st for the second time within a couple of weeks:
'No Signals work was required at that time, for the Battalion’s numbers had dwindled to about Company strength****** and our work concerned simply helping to prepare for evacuation. Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers – anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items.
Quite fairly, we were not allowed to take anything away from the dump for our own use; but we would be entitled to a share of what was delivered to our Battalion. In fact, we Signallers hadn’t the gall to accept our share when it was offered since we stuffed ourselves to capacity during the night and, in daytime, only wanted to sleep. But we did work with a will on the job – and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.
A few days after our disembarkation at V Beach, around midnight someone called out “It’s New Year’s Eve!” and a special search produced several bottles of what may have been cider, although some called it champagne. We didn’t know which, but heartily toasted each other and anyone else we fancied, before renewing our onslaught on that marvellous giveaway job.’
* H. Montgomery Hyde’s Strong For Service, biography of the 2/1st’s beloved commanding officer, Major Harry Nathan (later a lord and member of Clement Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government), says that, while he was eating his Christmas dinner, Nathan received the order that the Battalion remnants must return to Gallipoli. But he must have decided not to spoil the fun and withheld the bad news from his men until the Sergeant’s vocal reveille the following morning.
** Asiatic Annie fired from a 17th-century fort called Kumkalle in a place called Tepe, five kilometres from the site of ancient Troy, aiming at V Beach (where my father’s Battalion had landed) and W Beach on Cape Helles.
*** SS River Clyde: a collier launched in March, 1905, adapted as a landing ship in 1915; that April, she sailed from Mudros to Cape Helles V Beach; bombarded from the cliffs, she was beached to serve as a bridge for landings and then for returning wounded; six of the River Clyde’s crew were awarded VCs; the apparent hulk was later repaired and sold to Spanish owners who used her as a Mediterranean tramp steamer until finally scrapping her in 1966; on April 15, 1915, V Beach, only 300 yards long, became one of five main Allied landing places on Cape Helles; it was overlooked by cliffs, a fort and an ancient castle, Sedd el Bahr Kale, occupied and defended by the Turkish Army, but captured on April 26.
**** See recent blogs passim for more on Lance Corporal Signaller Peter Nieter, Sam’s mate since training on Malta, Feb-August, 1915, and their manning of a Signals post/hole on a Suvla Bay hilltop overlooking the Turkish lines.
***** Charles Samson: 1883-1931, says Wikipedia, born Manchester, one of the first four Royal Navy pilots, and the first to fly an aircraft from a moving ship (1912); he won the Distinguished Service Order for activities on the Western Front, earning promotion to Commander; he was sent to Gallipoli in March, 1915; different accounts have him recalled to London either in November, 1915, or at the end of the Gallipoli campaign – but a Fleet Air Arm Museum Tweet notes him flying from his base on Imbros to drop a bomb on December 18, 1915, which supports the suggestion that he stayed around Gallipoli to the last, and that my father’s informant was correct and Samson did fly over British troops on V Beach in January, 1916.
****** My father several times noted that “a couple of hundred” of the original thousand-man Battalion survived Suvla Bay. But his reference here to a presence more like Company strength at V Beach may connect with what he told me years ago in conversation which was, if memory serves, that 147 of the Battalion got out of Gallipoli intact (a Company numbering around 100).
All the best – FSS
Next week: It’s Gallipoli evacuation day déjà vu all over again for the 2/1st Fusiliers – meanwhile, Sam and comrades make pretend raids and get shot at with real bullets, before their second great getaway (losing Corporal Bebb en route… and finding him again).