“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, 6 March 2016
Sam’s Signallers, blushfully dubbed “the cream”, get the jammy jobs and no “lion patrol” – but their detested RSM vows to “make the sods sweat!”...
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A hundred years ago this week… Verdun entered its third week – meaning that the German Army’s surprise attack had already failed to quite a degree. Yet, in the Western Front mindset, that didn’t mean anyone significant stopped and thought about whether attritional slaughter of tens of thousands really was the best way to proceed.
The “second phase” began on March 6 with the German capture of Forges, then hills 360 and 265 and Fresnes (March 7). The French recovered ground in Corbeaux wood (8), lost some of it again (10), but beat back a German attack on Fort Vaux (11). On both sides, enormous artillery barrages dominated the action and did most damage – German strategists being startled by the strength of the French response.
Elsewhere, the German declaration of war on Portugal (9) was reciprocated (after much skirmishing in Africa), and on the Eastern Front the Russian Army held off a new wave of German attacks at Dahlen Island in the River Dvina, at Cebrow (Galicia, around current Poland/Ukraine border)… and near a place apparently called Kosloff I can’t find online (7-10).
The Russian Army continued to prosper on a remarkable range of fronts, with the steady advance towards Trebizond in Turkey continuing via the capture of Rizeh (7) and subsequent crossing of the River Kalopotamus (9) while in Iran they took Cola (7), Sennah (8) and Kerind (11).
The major event of the British week saw a second attempt to relieve the Ottoman siege of Kut (on the Tigris, southeast of Baghdad; the 6th (Poona) Division trapped there since December) come up short at the Battle Of Dujaila Redoubt (8; 4,000 British/Indian casualties, 1,290 Ottoman). However, in East Africa – now Kenya – a British/South African force drove German invaders back at Taveta and Latema Nek (10-12).
Meanwhile, the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d come through Gallipoli, had taken up residence in a tented town at Beni Salama, on the banks of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara 30 miles north-west of Cairo. After that terrible campaign, and given rumours of what was happening in Europe, it wasn’t such a bad life for my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted (19, lately converted from foot-slogging to horse wrangling), and their mates – except that the Army would persist in interfering with their rest and relaxation…
Last week, the Battalion’s new CO, straight from London with friends in high places, ousted their trusted Gallipoli leader-cum-hero Major Booth, then did Sam’s Signallers the desperate disservice of praising them as “the cream”. So nobody liked them… and the Regimental Sergeant Major set about avenging himself for the new Colonel’s favouritism, but with particular reference to my father, a close-up witness when he disgraced himself on the battlefield at Suvla Bay:
‘The haphazard way in which we had fixed ourselves up to share living quarters with compatible mates was scrubbed right away. The new regime re-allocated tents away in the rear of the camp to officers, with separate marquees for Officers’ Mess and Sergeants’ Mess now dividing them from “other ranks”. Each diminutive Company had its own tents. We unfortunate Signallers in two tents of our own stood out like sore thumbs, being fairly close – much too close – to a tent called Battalion Headquarters in which lived the Regimental Sergeant Major.
Do you remember him?* The man seconded earlier, on Malta, from the Royal Marines, briefly a hero with our men, but later, on the Peninsula, disliked for several good reasons and held in some contempt by the Major on account of incorrect behaviour on the front line, such as brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot men who were already having enough trouble from Turkish guns.
The RSM seemed to positively hate Signallers, probably because the new Colonel had praised us, and he decided to humiliate us at every opportunity – in fact, he picked on me in particular, having viewed me with disfavour since our days in two adjacent holes at Suvla Bay.
We had laid out a system of field telephones from each Company HQ to Battalion HQ, and one of our men was on duty at each point. The work, of course, was a piece of cake so it caused some further resentment among the rest of the Battalion, doing hours of training, drill and various jobs of hard work around the growing camp.
But their resentment was as nothing compared to that of the RSM; he pledged himself vocally, loudly, to have the Cream Of The Battalion off the jammy jobs and on to something which would make the sods sweat – he may even have had some support among our comrades, given that the usurper Colonel’s high opinion of Signallers (along with some skilful wangling on our part, I should admit) meant that we were excused certain unpopular tasks, especially “Lion Patrol”, the humourous title for a chore which took a party of men prowling about at night in the desert darkness looking for Gawd knows what. Sometimes, when I heard the jackals howling in the distance, I thought of our brave lads out there and then thanked Heaven I was part of the Cream Of The Battalion.
One of us, of course, had to take his turn at manning the phone in the RSM’s Battalion HQ tent and that was an unpopular number, you bet. One of our lines ran from Battalion to Brigade HQ, whence all the big, dirty jobs were dished out. When one of those requests landed on the RSM’s table he would jump up and yell one name, joyfully it seemed to me: “Corporal Norcliffe!”** He knew I would then have the painful duty of detailing a man or men to do whatever scruffy chore had come along.’
* For previous stories of this blustering RSM see: Blog 64, September 27, 2015, when, under an early burst of shellfire at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, he panicked and, brandishing a revolver from his “trench”/hole (unfortunately next to Sam’s) yelled “Keep down! I’ll shoot the first man who shows himself above ground without permission!” – as my father wrote “the RSM’s queer behaviour deepened the gloom… he failed us on our first night in the line”; then during the night the RSM and his batman, digging vigourously, broke through into my father’s hole – he wrote that “It introduced an unwelcome intimacy. My feelings must have shown for this RSM never loved me.”; and in a later chapter Sam notes that Major Booth (alias for Harry Nathan) had accidentally created a catchphrase for the whole Battalion when, under fire, he spotted the RSM skulking and roared at him, “Keep your head up, Sergeant Major!”
** “Norcliffe” is the vestige of my father’s rather transparent alias in the early part of the Memoir when he wrote in the third person and referred to himself as “our boy” or “Tommy Norcliffe”, before switching to first-person autobiography mode during the Malta chapters.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Haunted by the RSM, Sam and mates discover the gentle art of “going missing” – until a keen new Signals Lieutenant leads them to explore “the heliograph’s place in modern warfare”…