“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, 1 May 2016
The fate of Sam’s Gallipoli veteran Battalion is decided – or How To Demoralise A Bunch Of Battle-Hardened Young Volunteers Without Really Trying…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… while skirmishes continued around Ypres and Albert, Verdun remained the hub of heavy fighting, even though it had quickly become as bogged down there as on the rest of the Western Front. The French and German Armies contested Hill 304 for days with a modest German advance the only movement as artillery beat them back from the summit (May 3-7).
During the week, three German airships were destroyed on consecutive days (May 3-5) in diverse locales: Norway (after raiding Scotland), the Schleswig coast (straddling current German-Danish border), and Salonika (Greece).
In British Isles news, the first three Irish rebel leaders from the defeated April uprising were executed (May 3). And that same day, Parliament heard the introduction of the Military Service Bill which would remove married men’s exemption from conscription.
Further South, the Allies had a successful week in various locations with the French taking back Florina (Macedonia) from the Bulgarians (May 2), the Russians defeating Ottoman forces in Persia at Srmil (5), Serin el Kerind (6) and Oasr-i-Shirin (7), and South African (7, Kidoa-Irangi) and Belgian (3, Shanzugu) troops developing their pincer campaign to invade German East Africa.
Meanwhile, after four terrible winter months in Gallipoli, and three more restful 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 250-ish 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d survived Gallipoli – had arrived in Rouen, France. There they encamped prior to Western front deployment. Their all-consuming objective was to save the Battalion from disbandment, as threatened by the powers-that-be, via their performance in training. This they’d been told, could ensure that they would form the veteran core of a fully reinforced 2/1st…
Last week, they trained with crazed devotion and seemed to do very well in their decisive parade before the General on whose judgement their future depended. But then, my father writes…
‘Days passed, and our enthusiastic hopes for the old Battalion sagged; no news came of the new men who were to fill out our shrunken ranks and make up the full-strength unit we could help to train and improve.
Came a day when everybody – without exception! – was ordered to parade. With all present, we were surprised not to see our popular Major out in front*. Instead, his adjutant stood there. I had not seen him since the occasion of his appearance at Gallipoli, walking out in the open when we were all in holes or trenches – when one of his arms was bandaged and supported by a sling and he looked ill. Today, he looked fit physically, but his face was pale.
He quickly told us that, in spite of all our endeavours and successes, it had been decided that our numbers were too small for making up with reinforcements. Groups of us would be sent to various Battalions in the two Territorial Divisions on the Front in France. He said much more. One could see tears on his face. But no comment came from the ranks, no response whatsoever. Had the Major done the execution job, some men would have said a few words, heartfelt if not exactly polite. However, the adjutant’s emotion was wasted on us; when we dispersed we were quite a different set of men to those hearty mugs who had, for weeks, tried so hard to please.
I had one desire now and that was to somehow get a leave pass. To spend a few days in England before going into action. I, and many others, went around voicing this desire and also letting it be known that, because of the scurvy treatment we had received, the Army could get stuffed. Dangerous conduct this, but our outraged feelings needed some outlet, the more so since it became known that a new Battalion bearing our title** was already in existence in England.
One of our men, Brotherton, did get compassionate leave for family reasons. But, before he’d left France, he ended up in hospital with serious injuries; travelling on the cheap to the Channel coast, he boarded a goods train and climbed into a small cabin on the roof of the wagon. But the train took the wrong line, one where a tunnel wasn’t high enough, and the wagon was smashed, Brotherton with it. He survived, but it seemed odd that the only ranker I’d known to be granted leave failed to reach home.
This is no tale of a God-fearing patriotic boy facing death and achieving glory for beloved king and country. After Gallipoli, the survivor members of our Battalion had felt some kind of joy-in-comradeship bond, but we’d backed a loser and that was that. Henceforth, we owed allegiance to no one, every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.
I spent much of my spare time in a Church Army hut, where the mother and daughter who ran the concern provided home-made wads (buns, rock-cakes, and the like) and cups of good tea cheap, and always had time for a chat. They never rushed about trying to work up more business, that was not the object of the venture; wisely, the organisers of the overseas church missions to the troops realised many men would value a quiet place where letters could be read and written, or books borrowed and read, without interruption from hale and hearty religious fellows, who meant no harm, but could be nuisances. Mum protected her daughter from physical contact with the licentious soldiery, but permitted friendly conversation across the counter as part of the service.
In camp, though, where were the smiles and cheery greetings which had become customary during our recent combined effort to impress the top brass? Gone missing, replaced by faces registering all the wrong emotions, such as scorn, sadness and defiance.
Family men must have felt additional anxiety at times, after having survived some risky situations and come now so near to home, yet apparently still to be denied a short period with their loved ones before going into battle alongside strange comrades, men about whom they knew nothing. They did understand that no definite undertaking had been given as to permission to visit home being granted after a specified period abroad, but this did appear to be an opportune moment for a kindly gesture from above… Our Battalion disbanded, no training programme to be interrupted, still some days to be passed in idleness while our individual fates were decided.
These matters occupied almost all our thoughts and conversations. We became monomaniacs on this subject of leave. Battles, logistics, advances, retreats – those things concerned others; we were single-track thinkers who just wished to go home for a while.
At least, during our period of uncertainty, the opportunity had been taken to ensure we were fully equipped, so when our transfers to new Battalions came through we would make no demands upon them, beyond normal requirements of food and ammunition.
I was foolish enough to allow today to be fouled up by speculations as to what tomorrow might bring forth, but I ought to have enjoyed that spell at the huge Army base near Rouen. The weather compared unfavourably with Egypt, but we did have a sort of roof over our heads – albeit canvas – a luxury after the Gallipoli experience. In addition, our circular bell tents had strong, sectional wooden floors.
We took our meals in large huts, the food plentiful, nourishing, and of a higher standard than our Battalion caterers had ever produced. So I could appreciate the camp organisation was in the hands of men skilled in providing for the needs of large numbers. Conscientious men maintained efficient sanitation – on the buckets and night-soil-carts basis – using the unskilled labour freely available to the best advantage. A large incinerator dealt with all combustible waste. If many rounds of live ammunition found their way into the furnace, the consequent explosive cracks served to remind us all that, not far away, there was a war going on.
But the impending dispersal of the old crowd soured most of my waking moments at the time. Even though, in my estimation, the dispositions of these men ranged from more than decent to anonymous to detestable, they had been my companions for the last 20 months. That most of them felt similarly afflicted showed clearly in their faces. A generally held opinion developed that the sooner the chop came the better – since, apparently, none of us in the ranks were going to see our homes and families before they dispatched us to join some strange Battalion up in the front-line trenches.’
* The Major: previously much mentioned, this was courageous front-line leader Harry Nathan who’d seen them through Gallipoli, they felt. He merited a biography, Strong For Service, by H Montgomery Hyde, because he later became a Labour MP then peer and served in Attlee’s post WWII Cabinet. Hyde reports the probable explanation for Nathan’s absence from this event: he “was granted a month’s leave” shortly after the Battalion landed in Marseilles and returned in June, 1916, to find remnants of his Battalion merged into a Reserve Corps (in the 29th Division of the 8th Army; "Reserve" didn’t mean non-combatant) under General Hubert Gough’s command on the left of the Somme front – see forthcoming episodes for Sam’s account of what happened.
** One online reference suggests that the Royal Fusiliers may have renamed the 3/1st Battalion the 2/1st, when the original 2/1st disbanded in Rouen (May, 1916).
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam transfers to a new “mob”, moves to a village within earshot of the front line and feels the old battlefield tensions gathering – but still enjoys the fundamental decency of a farmer’s daughter still going about her daily work…