“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, 17 April 2016
Sam and the 2/1st Fusiliers sail for France! Wine, women and… the Western Front?
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… the Battle Of Verdun continued back and forth, the constant and sole outcome being carnage… but the French repulsed German attacks at Douamont (April 17), Les Eparges (19) and Mort Homme (23) and made small advances near Mort Homme and south of Douamont (both 20), Vaux fort and Bois De Caillette (21) while the German Army gained ground only at the Bois De Chaudfour salient (17). Strategically, the Germans under General Falkenhayn shifted infantry tactics in various ways, but nothing changed as artillery dominated the action (and the casualties).
Elsewhere on the Western Front, the Germans progressed at St Eloi and Langemarck-Ypres (April 19, Belgium). But over in the Irish Sea their attempts to help the upcoming rebellion failed when a ship full of arms, the Aud, was captured and scuppered and then Roger Casement, human rights campaigner and Irish nationalist, landed from a U-boat only to be arrested at once (both 20).
Down south, rather intriguingly, Russian troops from the east landed at Marseilles, their immediate destination not noted by the basic online sources. Over in Armenia their Army finally concluded the occupation of Trebizond, Armenia (17 or 18 by different accounts), and took Turkish positions in the east of the country around Bitlis (20).
However, the final British attempts to relieve the four-month siege of Kut on the Tigris failed with defeats at Bait Aissa (April 17/18), Sann-i-Yat (22) and the sinking of the SS Julnar (23).
Meanwhile, after three months in Egypt, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted, 19, and their mates – the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d come through Gallipoli – finally have to leave the relative ease of their encampment at Beni Salama on the banks of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara, 30 miles north-west of Cairo…
Last week, as my father’s editor, I put the blog into retrospective mode to consider, between his battlefield stints at Gallipoli and on the Somme, how he came to be the character he was at this point – a 17-year-old lad who, despite some enduring teenageness, could stand alongside his comrades amid the terrors and horrors of the battlefield and maintain discipline and self-respect in times when every natural instinct said “Run for it!”
But now the story resumes. At the end of Blog 91, posted on April 3, the Battalion had just enjoyed its last big post-Gallipoli R&R event – a day at the races (between the officers’ horses). Now, not unexpectedly, they’re uprooted and, as usual, set off for destination unknown – though probably guessed.
The background here, as mentioned in several recent blogs and again here in the reference to them seeking “reinstatement as a Battalion”, is that Army admin. is holding over them the threat of disbandment when they, as a veteran “band of brothers” (my father’s phrase, writing in the early ‘70s pre-Spielberg!), desperately want to stay together and form the basis of a new outfit:
‘A day or so later, even while the festive light still shone in our eyes, came the order to break camp and entrain once more for Alexandria. We embarked on a large liner-troopship and in no time I was watching the familiar coastline of Egypt recede, and feeling deep regret about leaving a country I should have liked to know better*.
On this voyage, to me the only event of note was passing close to a huge ship with four funnels. I had thought that our boat, the Transylvania, was a big’un, but this was colossal and chock-a-block with troops, thousands of them. Several years later when I was buying a pair of shoes, the chap serving me said, as we discussed the late war, that he was on the Transylvania when, just south of Italy, a U-boat torpedoed her; he survived because a Japanese cruiser rescued him and many others and put them ashore in Italy – in that war, Italy and Japan were among our allies**.
How lovely France looked when we anchored off Marseilles, the shore lined with the white, usually flat-roofed buildings I’d found so attractive when viewing other Mediterranean towns from the sea. Close up they usually didn’t look quite so white, nor did the air around them always carry aromas as pure as sea breezes, but I preferred the illusion to the reality until proved wrong.
A three-day rail journey followed. I found it delightful. No hurry about it, evidently. We would be shunted into a siding for food and natural relief and, if the streets of a village or town were adjacent, we’d take a stroll. A wave or shout would fetch us back to the train in a moment – we were good boys, still chasing that soldierly perfection which would win for us reinstatement as a Battalion.
The beautiful greenness… I couldn’t describe the pleasure it gave me. Grass, green acres of it. Trees – copses, woods, forests of the lovely things. Until I saw all this beauty I didn’t know I’d been missing it. And another kind of vision on show to us could stir a young man’s pulse to extra activity – the sight of a European girl with white and pink complexion, brunette and blonde, as opposed to sallow or dark tan with near-black hair.
At the time all these differences aroused thrills of appreciation in me. So when, on one occasion, I inadvertently stepped from the train almost into the arms of a girl, words failed me. When she indicated she would like a tunic button for a souvenir (one of the few words we both understood) I cut one off with my jackknife pronto – in exchange for a kiss.
During the night, when our train paused in a big, well-lit station, local people brought along big jugs of red wine from which they filled our mess tins. No charge! Living it up, indeed, and we quickly became a joyful crowd. Although we had to sleep sitting up in crowded compartments, no one complained; who knew what pleasures the morrow might yield?***’
* The 2/1st sailed from Alexandria on April 17, 1916 – according to Strong For Service, H. Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Major Harry Nathan (later a Lord and a Minister in Attlee’s post WW2 Labour government), the Battalion’s popular CO in Gallipoli, unfortunately ousted in Egypt. In a letter home on April 12, Nathan – far from impartial in the circumstances, of course – wrote that Colonel Kennard, who would now apparently be leading the Battalion on the Western Front, had failed to gain the men’s respect. But, in one of his regular paeans to his men, Nathan praised “those that remain” after Gallipoli for their spirited recovery, and called them ”first-rate men” because they could “be relied on: and in war that is everything.”
** SS Transylvania: a Cunard/Anchor liner launched in 1914; Transylvania took 1,379 passengers ordinarily, but 3,060(!) as a troopship. The voyage would seem to have taken eight or nine days, which is quite possible given potential delays and digressions to avoid U-boats and such. She was sunk on May 4, 1917, en route from Marseilles to Alexandria, torpedoed close to the Italian coast near Genoa; Japanese destroyers Matsu and Sakaki, serving as escorts, became rescuers – out of 3,000 on board, 10 crew, 29 Army officers, and 373 ranks died. My father’s four-funneller could well have been the Aquitania, which, at over 900 feet, was even longer than the Titanic, though slightly smaller in tonnage – and the only liner to serve as a troopship in both world wars.
*** Newcomers to my father’s often dead-pan humour should factor it in right here – the Battalion knew fine well they were heading for somewhere on the Western Front (although the name “the Somme” hadn’t yet acquired its special resonance).
All the best – FSS
Next week: In Rouen, the Battalion remnants again diligently strive to prove they should be kept together… and on a day off Sam enjoys the glory of the cathedral and innocently cringes when a friend leads him unwittingly to a brothel.