“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, 13 December 2015
“We were sailing away from Suvla Bay…” Sam feels the joy of leaving Gallipoli, then the wretchedness of defeat – but a chance reunion with his brother Ted restores his spirits…
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A hundred years ago this week… on the Western Front, largely forgotten “routine” deadly engagements proceeded near the Somme (December 13, trench fighting), at St Mihiel (13, in Lorraine, the French shelled a German-held bridge over the Meuse), Armentières (16, British raid near French Flanders town whence hailed that popular mademoiselle), and along the entire French front (19, big artillery battle)… while a British submarine sank German cruiser Bremen in the Baltic. But the main news was military/political: the replacement as of Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief, the British Expeditionary Force in Europe by Secretary of State for War Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s favourite, Field Marshal Douglas Haig (19).
The Russians continued to hold their own in to and fro action against the German Army (15, near Lake Drisviati, Latvia, and the Beresina estuary, Russia) and the Austrian (17, at the River Strypa, Ukraine). They also pressed on in western Persia, occupying Hamadan (14), although Turkish forces taking Qasr-i-Shirin, 360 kilos to the west near the border with Mesopotamia (Iraq) set the scene for forthcoming conflict.
Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, the Ottoman siege of British forces taking refuge at Kut, by the Tigris, settled in, and further west, at Wadi Shaifa, Egypt, a British column defeated the Senussites, a religious cult who’d allied themselves with Germany.
And in the eastern Mediterranean, Italian troops sailed across the to take Avlona, Albania, and Germany threatened to invade Greece from now conquered Serbia…
Meanwhile, after three months getting nowhere at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, 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), at last evacuated…
Last week, during the night of December 17-18, Sam and the Battalion gathered to make their way to the beach. Depleted by the terrible campaign – shot, shell, extreme weather, malnutrition, insanitary conditions – about 200 of them remained of the 1000 who sailed from Egypt in late September. But even as they waited to leave a last fatality occurred, a young member of my father’s H Company, wounded and bled to death before the medics could get to him.
This week my father continued the story of their departure and reflects on the whole experience of his first time on a battlefield:
‘Whatever other skills we lacked, organising evacuations was not among them – not then, nor many years later. Red Indians had nothing on us regarding silent getaways. As we passed a huge store dump, I could see that oil drums had been placed at intervals around it. Thick wires connected them. Fuse wires perhaps…
With no undue hurry, we got aboard those all-metal lighters once more and chug-chugged away. On a calm sea we transferred without any real accident to a smallish steamboat – it accommodated all who were left of our big Battalion; many had died, but more had gone away sick, some wounded.*
The Navy was lobbing shells at the Turks, probably to keep them busy while the very last of our men got away. I noticed positions to the left of our old lines receiving particular attention, but couldn’t imagine why.
Soon, out of sight of the explosions, some singing started up, our first for many a day. And then we really gave vent to the joy and relief we felt. A youngster who had obliged at concerts back in Malta climbed to a position by the bridge and sang a quickly improvised parody of that popular song, Moonlight Bay**: “We were sailing away from Suvla Bay/We can hear the Turks a-singing/’Please don’t go away/You are breaking our hearts/So please do stay’/‘Not bloody likely, boys/Goodbye to Suvla Bay’”. All joined in, inventing their own versions as we sang along time after time.
Our destination was unknown to us, as was the situation on another part of the Gallipoli Peninsula where our men had landed. Had they evacuated too? To leave them would have seemed risky, for all the Turks from the Suvla Front would now be available to turn on them.
While we “sailed away”, as the boys put it, on the trim little coasting steamer named Robin Redbreast*** I felt pleased to be back with my original lot, the men and boys who had been so enthusiastic about “doing their bit” less than 18 months previously; I’d lost touch with them recently, and felt that perhaps their views might have changed after recent experiences. I would soon learn about that.
Recalling recent happenings, I wondered what finally became of two Germans whom I have not previously mentioned. One afternoon, I had received a message for the information of all ranks warning everyone to keep a lookout for two men wearing British officers’ uniforms; unfamiliar officers were to be questioned and detained if unable to supply proofs of identity. But the brave pair covered quite a lot of ground unimpeded because, in reality, Privates and junior NCOs did not dare to question commissioned officers; instead, they dutifully answered any questions the two gentlemen asked. Those spies must have had a field day. They probably gathered, at least, general information about our evacuation, and I never heard that they were caught.
As dawn broke we came to an island – called Imbros**** someone said – and paused briefly in its small anchorage. From the sea we saw signs of military occupation, but only one hostile action – a big bang followed by some smoke. A gun belonging to us firing at Turkey, or a shell from a distant Turkish gun exploding, or someone blowing up stores before evacuating? Nobody knew and, the mystery unsolved, we soon moved away again.
We steamed merrily on; travelling in the opposite direction at an earlier date I had felt sleepy, had a kip on the deck, and been swamped by a wave. Not so this time for, soiled and unbathed, skinny almost to the point of emaciation, I was yet full of hope and joy because life once more offered prospects, changes of scene, sound and smell, and the luxury of sleeping with a roof of some sort over one’s head – a happy spell of rest and re-adjustment.
So optimism and smiles all round were the order of the day. It would take time to build us up to general fitness and the Battalion to its full numerical strength, time in which we hoped to live a better sort of life than had been our lot recently.
We reached Lemnos, the harbour from which we’d sailed, it seemed a very long time ago. Without delay we were put ashore and, as we lined up, I was shocked to see clearly how few of us remained. No Colonel in the distance on his white horse. Actually, no Colonel. Perhaps a couple of hundred men in all, a few Company Officers and Sergeants, one or two Corporals and a smattering of puny Lance Corporals, myself included. In charge of this small contingent now was young Major Booth***** who had received rapid promotion from the rank of Lieutenant. While all the senior men had vanished from the scene of action for whatever reason they may have had, this young man proved himself capable of withstanding all hardships and caring for his men as well as circumstances permitted.
Back in Malta, he’d demonstrated his ability to act wisely, rather than in accordance with Army regulations, when he encountered the soldiers’ revolt against the lack of quality and quantity of food issued to them. As you may recall, he quelled a potential mutiny at some financial cost to himself rather than allow impulsive men to face courts martial and harsh punishments.
At Suvla Bay, “Keep your head up, Sergeant Major!”, an outspoken reproof he’d issued to one of our top non-commissioned officers – the ex-Marine I mentioned******, whose behaviour on active service had lost him all the popularity he had previously gained – had become a favourite quotation for all of us. Its ironic use inspired many a hearty laugh. The new Major had become our man of strength, the leader greatly needed by men who felt they had participated in a failure. Under his guidance we all felt the future would give us opportunities to shine just a little bit brighter in the military firmament than we had done in the past.’
When they land in Lemnos, though, Sam finds his mood suddenly takes a downswing (shared by many of his comrades)… until he encounters the happiest of accidents:
But, ashore now on Lemnos… suddenly I felt weak and utterly wretched as I stood there with all that equipment weighing me down. Not in any particular formation, we began walking from the shore along a track towards an encampment ahead. Many obviously shared my dejection. It must have been a reaction to all we had recently endured.
However, when we approached the camp, we saw several men coming towards us – and, among them, one who looked remarkably like my brother Ted. Impossible, I thought, for he’d been taken off that ship at Alexandria and I could think of no reason why he should be on this Greek island. But it was Ted, and a very happy reunion we had.
While we talked he quietly relieved me of everything I was carrying. He slipped into the straps to which were attached my pack and haversack and took my signalling equipment and my rifle – which, as a Signaller, I had still not fired in action – and left me feeling almost naked. He had a word with one or two men nearby, then set off for the camp which, he said, he and others had been cleaning up in readiness for our arrival.
Sick and wounded men had previously occupied the bell tents, but new large tents had recently been provided for the Field Hospital and Ted said that other men who had quit the peninsula would soon arrive. Old, but large marquees could be used by our people for meals and recreation and only four or five men need occupy each bell tent – luxury indeed since, in crowded camps, ten and even 20 men might be packed in.
A great start. But now we all hopefully awaited news of some sort of food – only to be told that, in fact, very little was available that day, only hot tea, more of the detested hard biscuits and a little cheese. Ted had nothing to offer at that point, but he promised that, after dark, he would scrounge around the Field Hospital nearby and might manage something.
It was so good to be with him again; I felt like an old campaigner suddenly returned to the days of boyhood. As night fell, he vanished and later I heard his voice calling me outside. He expressed regret that he had been able to procure only a few slices of beef. “Only!”, said I. Only some beef, indeed. As good or better than slices of gold, I told him.
Then he took me to the outskirts of a big camp, to a place where the embers of several large fires glowed, great heat still rising, and we laid our meat on the hot ashes. Sticks were our cooking implements. We sat there, warm, safe and very soon – after quite easily scraping ash off the meat – happily eating.
Back at our camp we drank tea, and told each other of our experiences since parting. Because I had been on active service and Ted hadn’t, he felt inclined to treat me as more important than himself, and this I did not like. He’d always been the clever, strong, elder brother; I’d had pride in his achievements and I knew that, had he been allowed to remain on that ship way back and go to Gallipoli, he would have done far better than I had.
Without mentioning these things, I told him of the real interest I had in his experiences back in Egypt and encouraged him to talk. It was a tale about horses. He had become skilled in caring for them. From the Alexandria docks, he had been sent to Qantara******* There were assembled hundreds of horses, tethered in lines, belonging to officers mostly, men who had to leave their mounts behind for various reasons. They needed careful feeding, grooming and riding to give them the necessary exercise. So Ted had become a horseman; he liked nothing better than taking them for gallops across the surrounding desert sands. That sort of work seemed to me far more attractive than humping heavy equipment around on long marches.
In return, I gave him some details of the recent hopeless campaign. From our reduced numbers, he appreciated how difficult the effort had been and, perhaps, how the undue physical strain had broken the health of many men.’
* I think I remember my father saying that 147 came out “unscathed”, although in the memoir text he regularly refers to “a couple of hundred” coming through; I couldn’t find any official number.
** If you don’t know the tune, Bing Crosby’s version is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebuS01qjOas
*** One site confirms Robin Redbreast’s part in the evacuation; www.mareud.com/Timelines/1914-1918.htm reports a steamer called Redbreast sunk by a U-boat in the Aegean on July 15, 1917, while employed as “fleet messenger no. 26” – I’m not sure if this is the same ship, but it seems likely.
**** Imbros: an Aegean island ceded to Greece by Turkey in 1913 after the Balkan War and used as an administrative base and field hospital in World War I, especially by the ANZACS; returned to Turkey in 1923.
***** “Booth” is my father’s alias for Harry Nathan, later a Lord and a Minister in Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government. H. Montgomery Hyde’s Nathan biography, Strong For Service, reports that Nathan became Battalion commander in mid-November 1915.
****** See Blog 64 September 27, 2015.
******* Qantara: now officially Al Qantarah El Sharqiyya, 160 kilometres northeast of Cairo in Ismailia.
All the best – FSS
Next week: It’s all go: Sam sails away to fetch the mail, has a great time with Ted, encounters the horror of the Arabs in “the hole”, and has a great Christmas… until on Boxing Day the Battalion’s ordered to sail back to Gallipoli!