“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, 3 January 2016
Sam’s 2/1st Fusiliers get Gallipoli evacuation déjà vu all over again – meanwhile, they pretend to dig new No Man’s Land trenches and get shot at with real bullets “at great risk to ourselves and our underpants”....
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A hundred years ago this week… the web timelines note nothing on the Western Front bar a “slight German attack in Champagne” (January 9) though no doubt some scores of attritional casualties lie behind that historical insouciance. But a significant development in the UK was the parliamentary passage of the Military Service Bill (from January 5); it introduced conscription into the Army, starting March 2, for 18-to-41-year-old men (exceptions included those widowered with children or working in “reserved occupations” – an initial married-men exemption lasted only a few months – and the Act offered a right of appeal to a Military Service Tribunal). Since August, 1914, more than a million men had volunteered and joined the 700,000 standing Army, but this war had proved insatiable...
In the East, Russia continued its snowy-booted advances in Bukovina, eastern Galicia and Poland. But further south, in the aftermath of the swift invasion of Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian Army launched an offensive against neighbouring Montenegro (January 5 onwards), attacking from east and west, their 80,000 troops against 25,000 (although the Montenegrins did score an early victory amid vicious bayonet and knife-fighting hand-to-hand at Mojkovac, January 6-7).
Down in Mesopotamia (Iraq now), a force of 13,000 Indian and British troops sent to help relieve the Ottoman Army’s siege of Kut on the Tigris won a costly victory en route at Sheikh Sa’ad, suffering 4,400 casualties, the effect multiplied by lack of medical support (January 6-8).
Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, very late arrivals in the Cape Helles sector (V Beach) 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 served three months at Suvla Bay, evacuated to the Greek island of Lemnos in mid-December, then on Boxing Day, 1915, been sent back to Gallipoli – 200 left out their original 1,000 – to help with the final wave of evacuations. This incidentally separated Sam from his older brother Ted just days after their first meeting in months and with no chance to say any farewell…
FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS (bumper New Year last-ultimate-and-definitely-final-evacuation-of-Gallipoli edition)
Last week, on V Beach Sam and his 2/1st comrades found that, although their work involved much pretence to fool the Turks into thinking they intended to stay, Gallipoli still had new battlefield experiences to offer them – in the unwelcome form of long-range shellings from a Turkish supergun known as “Asiatic Annie” and air attacks (German spotter planes only at Suvla) which saw passing Taube pilots drop heavy metal darts and small bombs on them (one direct hit causing a friend to “more or less disintegrate before our eyes”).
But then, in the topsy-turvy world of the battlefield, Sam’s Signals section enjoyed the delightful experience of fetching and carrying a surprise New Year feast for one and all from the officers’ stores which had to be disposed off before the evacuation:
‘We had still not completed the task when, a few nights later, our little group was detailed to join other men and trail off behind a guide in the general direction of the front line. In faint light from a clear sky we could see the nature of the terrain: sometimes fairly level, sometimes hillocks, ridges, low areas. Halting at the entrance to a gully, the leader said, “We now enter Krithea Nullah*, which leads to our front line. It gives good cover against rifle and machine-gun fire, but the odd shell can be dangerous; the Turks have got it taped as a route we use regularly, so flop if you hear one coming.”
We reached what I assumed was the support-line trench where all the men, except lookouts, were dozing. Forward again and the front line was our next stop. There, we were each handed a pick or a shovel and our guide led the way up over the firing step and parapet into No Man’s Land, the space between us and the enemy. He spaced us out in groups of four and told us to start digging holes. The picks made more than enough noise on that hard, peculiar ground and we were sitting ducks for any Turk who cared to take a pot shot. I wished I was still way back helping with the charitable work at the officers’ food dump…
When several Turk light field guns let fly, their nearness surprised me; a strange feature was the thin, red line visible as each shell left its gun, making me wonder if they used rather antique pieces. Their trajectory was high, its zenith roughly above us, yet the shells – not trench mortar bombs, their whine confirmed – burst only a couple of hundred yards behind us.
No one told us why, at this stage of the campaign, we poor mugs were digging holes in front of the Turk trenches at great risk to ourselves and our underpants, but even we of the lower orders could guess that we played a part in the great game of bluff. Our top brass hoped John Turk would reason, “They can’t be leaving yet or they wouldn’t be digging works in advanced positions”. I wonder if they were right – if the enemy even cared what we were up to? Perhaps he too had seen enough of the farce. We suffered no casualties.’
Soon the logical rumour that they would soon be on their way to safer and more hospitable shores received official confirmation:
‘Orders to prepare for a move** gave rise to excitement – which I suppressed because I didn’t wish anyone to see my intensely joyful feelings when I felt sure we would soon be on the high seas and well clear of the threat, ever present, of wounding or death.
I must say, however, that there in the Cape Helles sector I had suffered little of the tension, the anxiety, and sheepish desire to seek a safe spot which, combined with hunger and dirt, had always made me feel a rather sub-standard specimen at Suvla. The only consolation I could offer myself regarding my soldiering there was that I had remained till the very end whereas many had departed who might have carried on after receiving field hospital treatment – or so I heard it said.
Once again the quiet line-up in the darkness, the very quiet roll-call, but then the strong, firm voice of our idolised Major saying “Forward!” Little artillery activity as, in two lines, we followed him…
After we had walked for some time, I saw the dark shape of a large building on our left-hand side. We stopped 30 yards away and I could see that light escaped from several slits in doors or windows. Apart from slight indications of habitation behind enemy lines up Krithea way, this was the first real building I’d seen near V Beach, so I was interested when the voice of one of our best officers informed us that there stood the fort of Sedd el Bahr***, possibly dating from Crusade times.
Cautious no longer, the Major’s voice boomed out, “Corporal Bebb! Corporal Bebb!” It appeared that this popular chap, friend of my brother’s, well known to and admired by me, had taken a small party on an assignment to the front line with orders to return to us in time for our move off, but they were still missing.
I felt an atmosphere of mystery just then… standing near the ancient fort, Bebb and his little party missing, our contingent now so small that some months before had been nigh a thousand strong, all our senior officers missing, apart from Major Booth; we had successfully crawled away from one battlefront and now we were at it again. Would the Turks let us do it twice?
Only a few hundred yards to go and our ears told us that the enemy guns were dropping more shells around the beaches than they had done for many a day. Why?
Hope of Bebb’s party abandoned because we had to follow a precise timetable, our Major said we must now move. As we reached the cutting at the landward end of the beach area Asiatic Annie flashed and one of her huge shells crashed down a couple of hundred yards away, but we walked steadily forward, hoping to be spared. A sad thing it would be if she wiped most of us out when we’d got this far…’
In a later letter home noted in his biography, Major Booth (really Nathan, see footnotes) wrote of “each one of us catching his breath. However little, as the shells hiss overhead… As we were getting read to embark, ‘Asiatic Annie’ spoke once more… but my fellows stood firm as a rock, though the shells plunged down only 30 or 40 yards from us” – so, perhaps closer than my father recalled 55 years later when writing his Memoir.
‘The men organising embarkations had shown a stroke of genius by covering the flat area of the approach to the beached ship River Clyde with sawdust or something similar. Thus a number of large shell-holes showed up clearly, even in the dark, and no one fell into them.
Safely on to and down into the ship… Arriving at the hole in her side through which we had landed a couple of weeks earlier, the lighter alongside again ready for the return journey, we were warned that there was a swell and each pair of men, as their turn came, must wait until the lighter rose to their level and then jump across. Loaded as were Nieter**** and I, this was not easy, but we sprang without hesitation, having everything to gain by so doing. Willing hands steadied us as we hit the lighter’s all-metal deck.
This time, we were sent below, told to move forward and stand very close together. Dim light from a candle lantern, the air already foetid, and the horrible feeling of being imprisoned in a dark, stuffy hold frightened me more than anything ashore had done.
With all aboard, we stood too closely packed for anyone’s peace of mind. We heard the engine start, felt the motion, up, down, and somewhat sideways. We stood silent, prey to individual fears and hopes. Time passed. A distant gun, the shriek of a shell overhead followed by the familiar explosion heightened the claustrophobic threat of our situation.
I forced myself then, as I have done many times since, to take stock painstakingly of every factor relevant to our position.
On the credit side of the account one could enter: the excellent protection provided by the stout metal hull and deck of our lighter – nothing but a direct hit could hurt us; the proven steadiness and, in many cases, the courage of my companions – they had fulfilled their contract, signed when they had enlisted, to be loyal at all times to their king and country, good chaps to live and toil with when difficulties and dangers had to be dealt with; we had shelter from the weather – it wasn’t at all bad outside, but it could change and showers of rain, shot or shavings couldn’t touch you down there.
But, debit: it was getting hot and stuffy, we were jammed very close, the tiny light might blow out… supposing one was taken short, what could you do about that? No room to get across to the steps and the cover over the opening would be closed and your pants would be holding an unwelcome load before you could do anything about it.
For what seemed hours, a voice up above had been shouting “Partridge ahoy!” time after time so, although that told us the name of our next transport, it didn’t guarantee we would ever set foot on it. In the dark and heat down there, I was on the point of feeling scared again, when a bump shook our craft and I knew that all was well.
In an orderly manner with no suggestion of haste we took our turns at the ladder and all quite quickly transferred to the small, but very sturdy passenger ship Partridge*****. What a blessing that fears and doubts don’t make a noise as they move back and forth inside your head; companions might hear them and then you’d never convince them you are unafraid, a brave fellow and all that sort of thing. They’d know the truth about you, the last thing you’d wish for.
Because of the job we had done on the Helles Front, we assumed we were among the last troops to leave. We had worked with a will at the job of sharing out the officers’ food stores to the troops, but there was still a lot of stuff to be shifted when they told us to do that bluffing stunt in No Man’s Land. So if we had filled our packs with some of that luvly grub, no harm would have been done… We had been good, little boys, though, as far as I knew and scrounged nothing. Mind you, a tinned tongue or some chicken or both with a swig of wine would have gone down well after that “Black Hole” experience.
Partridge, probably related to the Robin Redbreast that lifted us from Suvla, chugged off into the night, taking us away from all the nasty bangs and flashes and wounds and deaths which make life on active service so unpleasant for us who would much prefer life in an equable clime with a full belly under a tree with a glass of wine and thou and that sort of thing.
Enjoying myself, I recall, leaning on the ship’s rail, looking at the dark sea with its occasional streaks and flurries of white foam, I heard a conversation in which one speaker was a nice chap and very good worker named Harry Greengrass, a member of our Pioneer section. Harry and his mates did most of the unpopular jobs. He said to someone unknown to me, “The Padre insisted on doing a short burial service over Lewis’s body. You remember, don’t you? The man who copped that bomb from the plane. We collected as many pieces as we could find and sewed them up in a sack, but as we went to lower it slowly into the grave his legs fell out. That scared me because I was sure I had stitched up the bag properly.”
I moved away. Poor Lewis. A year earlier, who would have imagined it – in pieces in a sack in a bleak strip of Turkey.’
Still, they sailed on towards (temporarily) better times:
‘The good ship Partridge slipped quietly into Mudros harbour, edged up to a liner-cum-troopship called the Minneapolis****** and an improvised gangway made our transfer to her quick and easy.
In the decks below, ingenious use of metal tubes and wire mesh provided rows of comfortable, connected sleeping bunks. Clean pillows and warm, cream blankets encouraged us to proceed quickly to the ablutions area where we enjoyed showers. In a few minutes, I got rid of the dirt of months, but unfortunately had to put my mucky clothes on again. Still, I felt grand and would not feel ashamed when I wrapped those clean blankets around myself. Hot coffee, warm bread from the ship’s ovens, tins of butter, cheese. Ye gods, what luxury, enough to make me sob for joy.
As dawn improved visibility I went up on deck, watching numerous small craft move among the several big ships anchored around us. Probably the very last remnants of our Army were arriving, completing the evacuation safely. I saw a destroyer gliding slowly past, soldiers packed close on her deck. She sat low in the water and, looking down from quite a height, I recognised Corporal Bebb and several of our men standing near him. Of course, I yelled “Mick!” loud and often, and others joined in till we had quite a Bebb chorus.
He saw us and waved, but the destroyer moved on and out of sight. Probably the officers in charge of her had to report to their flagship and get instructions regarding disposal of their human cargo. No doubt soldiers jammed every space down below as well as the deck. I was impatient to hear from Mick Bebb how he and the rest had been rescued. My guess was the destroyer had gone close inshore, at great risk, and hauled our men out of the water – this at some time after all the official evacuation craft had departed.’
* Krithea (also spelt Krithia) was a village, about five miles north-east of V Beach, at the end of the “Nullah”, meaning “valley”. The First Battle Of Krithea occurred on April 28, 1915, three days after the main Allied Cape Helles landings; it yielded little progress and 3,000 British and French casualties. The Second Battle, May 6-8, saw another Allied attack fail and result in 6,300 British, French and Anzac casualties.
** H. Montgomery Hyde’s Strong For Service, the biography of the Battalion’s then commanding officer, Major Harry Nathan (later an MP and Cabinet member in Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government), quotes one of his letters home noting that the Battalion left V Beach “on the night of Thursday 6th, at ten minutes’ notice” and that the order came through “in the middle of tea”. My father often used aliases for comrades and officers alike – to avoid possible affront to living relatives I think – and he renamed Nathan “Booth”.
*** The fort, or “Kale”, wasn’t quite as old as the officer advised, dating from 1659.
**** Peter Nieter, Sam’s Cockney-Swiss Signaller pal since training days in Malta through the previous spring and summer.
***** Partridge: I’ve read one reference to it as “the second last ship to leave Gallipoli”, that final voyage being on January 8, apparently – so the crew probably sailed back to Cape Helles as soon as my father’s Battalion had safely transferred to the Minneapolis.
****** SS Minneapolis: launched 1900, regularly sailed London to New York – in 1907 conveyed Mark Twain on his last trip to Europe; requisitioned as a troopship at the start of World War I.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam bids his final farewell to the Gallipoli campaign – via a terrifying stormy voyage to Alexandria and then some serious de-lousing which introduces him to the thrill of having your willie painted with creosote...