“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, 31 December 2017
Seasonal Rewind 2 – Sam’s Gallipoli Christmas and New Year… landing at V Beach through the bowels of the River Clyde, getting acquainted with the lovely Asiatic Annie and German planes dropping darts and bombs… but a New Year/evacuation feast offers much consolation – Happy New Year from Cape Helles!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The war in Europe did no more than smoulder, whether it was the Western Front around Ypres and Verdun, or the Eastern Front where peace negotiations seemed to have gone chaotic with the Russians demanding a move to Stockholm from Brest-Litovsk (Belarussia) and General Kaledin’s “volunteer army” perhaps causing the Bolsheviks more concern than anticipated. Down in Italy the Austrians, ultimately held back after their long attempt to sweep south, took some revenge by bombing Treviso, Vicenza, Castelfranco, Bassano, and Padua (December 31 and January 3-4).
The more striking events were German successes at sea against British troopships and even hospital ships. The Osmanieh succumbed to a mine off Alexandria (December 31; 198 casualties), and the Rewa, with a 279 wounded/sick officers on board, sailing from Malta to Britain, was torpedoed and sank in the Bristol Channel (January 4; all crew and patients saved bar four engineers killed by the explosion).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion. An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare for more of the same (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train as a commissioned officer, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not clear. He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Come December/January 1917/8, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more… However, pro tem the main narrative is subject to a two-week seasonal interruption…]
Last week, with no Christmas/New Year story to tell from 1917/18 – because Sam filed it as “forgettable” in the Memoir via the simple device of forgetting it, we returned to his festive season of 1915/16 in and around Gallipoli, a period of a few weeks which really did demand writing about.
So that story so far, in summary, is the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers evacuated Suvla Bay on the night of December 18-19 and enjoyed a high old time on Lemnos – Sam more than most, because of a surprise reunion there with his older brother Ted – the main event being a massive feast (in nalnourished-men terms) on Christmas Day with normal rations richly reinforced by bonus beer from the Army and parcels from home, the 200-odd Suvla survivors being advised they could devour their absent comrades’ Christmas goodies too.
However, this proved much too good to last. At 5am Boxing Day their Sergeant roared out that they must all get up and prepare to sail away again. As usual, no one told them where to, much less why, though the sound of gunfire and the black looming of cliffs against the night sky soon put them in the picture…
‘Now we could make out the black shape of a big ship, berthed in the shallows head-on to the shore(3). Moving closer, we saw a large, square opening in her side and, the tide being just right, our shallower ship could tie up to her and we could step across into her innards and eventually emerge on to a sort of landing stage. We hurried along it before gathering, briefly, on the beach beneath towering cliffs… But no enemy fire came our way.
Excitement and interest now replaced resentment, as we filed some way up a gully and waited. I saw someone approach our Major, who then led us further upwards into this rising gully. A great flash some miles distant seawards gave short illumination to the scene; we saw we were passing a strange, wooden tower… and at that moment, almost unbelievably, from the top of it a hunting horn sounded.
“Lie down!” yelled an unidentified voice and, being no strangers to this life-saving precaution, we were probably flat on the ground before he was. We heard the usual tearing scream, the crash, and below us – about the spot where we had first paused – we saw a brilliant flash and a large cloud of smoke, followed by the whinings of many flying pieces of shrapnel, the phuts as some of them landed nearby.
Said the voice who had given us the warning, “That shell was from Asiatic Annie(2), a real big gun across the sea there in Asia Minor. When the lookout up above sees her fire, he blows his horn and we have about 30 seconds to take cover. The shells don’t always land here, of course, but we assume they will.” The informative bloke added that we had landed at V Beach and that the ship we had come through was the River Clyde beached there in the first Gallipoli landings months earlier.
So at last we knew that a complete evacuation of Gallipoli had not taken place, that we were once more stuck on that ill-starred Turkish peninsula. I recall wondering what brother Ted would think of my second disappearance; he would be mad about not travelling with us, that was certain. Still, although he really belonged to us, he was attached to the Field Hospital for duty; what a surprise he must have had when he found our tents empty.
We moved steadily upwards along a track which eventually brought us to flat ground at the top of the cliff. Now, away in the distance, we recognised all the audible and visible indications that over there was a battlefront; personally, I felt once more the growing nervous tension, the alertness generated by the desire for self-preservation.
Even so, through a few days good living and the contact with normal people provided by the letters from home and those lovely parcels, I felt changed and strengthened; I knew this tautness was not, at present, allied to fear, as it sometimes had been when lack of food and sleep had caused debility. I’d had proof the normal world still carried on, albeit with certain difficulties, and that we had not been forgotten or given up for lost.
We few remaining Signallers stood together talking quietly. Short, sturdy Nieter recalled our days and nights together on that hill(4); I hope I told him how much his faith in the cause and his cheery optimism had helped me when the physical after-effects of the blizzard got me down.’
(2) SS River Clyde: a collier launched in March, 1905, adapted as a landing ship in 1915; that April, she sailed from Mudros to Cape Helles V Beach; bombarded from the cliffs, she was beached to serve as a bridge for landings and then for returning wounded; six of the River Clyde’s crew were awarded VCs; the apparent hulk was later repaired and sold to Spanish owners who used her as a Mediterranean tramp steamer until finally scrapping her in 1966; on April 15, V Beach, only 300 yards long, became one of five main Allied landing places on Cape Helles; it was overlooked by cliffs, a fort and an ancient castle, Sedd el Bahr Kale (Anglo spelling varies), occupied and defended by the Turkish Army, though captured on April 26, during the initial attacks.
(3) According to an invisionzone page which no longer seems to be available three years on from my original search, Asiatic Annie fired from a place called Tepe, aiming at V Beach (where my father’s Battalion had landed) and W Beach on Cape Helles; https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/gallipoli-and-anzacs/locations/explore-asian-shore-sites/kumkale says the gun was set up in a 17th-century fort called Kumkalle, five kilometres from the site of ancient Troy.
(4) Old friends from training in Malta for six months earlier that year, they’d lately spent several winter weeks, including the fearsome blizzard after math running a two-man Signals outpost (better described as a hole) on top of a hill overlooking the Turkish lines on 24-hour rotation day after day without relief.
At first it seemed a straightforward Signalling job was required. Sam Peter and two others settled in an eyrie on the cliffside high above the River Clyde - interest added to the experience because the seaward side had no barrier so you could easily roll out and down in your sleep. Fortunately, before any harm befell them, they had to move.
‘Soon, an order came through for us Signallers to disconnect everything, take all the equipment down to a store on the beach, then rejoin our Battalion. A guide took us to where they were living in a series of square holes not far from the beach all connected by a long trench. At last, we learned the reason for our return to Gallipoli; we were to work every night at dismantling and loading stores on to lighters and small ships. Night work only, in order to conceal evacuation preparations. We could take some rest during the day — but, should enemy planes appear, like the occasional small groups of Taubes we’d seen high above Suvla, we must expose ourselves, move around as though busy upon routine matters, and generally try to convince the observers that our numbers were as great as at any previous time.
Shortly after dawn that first morning back with our crowd, a lone plane did fly back and forth over our area, so we put on our busy act for the pilot’s amusement and information. Quite rightly, acting on instructions, some of our men fired their rifles upwards — imagine our surprise, though, when the pilot dropped a bomb(5). It exploded much too close for our liking and caused a brief interruption to our “busy bee” programme.
That was the first time I’d thought about the possibility of planes carrying bombs. Probably the pilot hurled it out of his cockpit. Although it could only have been a small one, it made quite an impressive bang. Still, no harm done, so nobody worried too much about air-bomb possibilities.’
(5) Of course, planes dropping bombs had become common in Europe, but down in Gallipoli, in this rather less organised campaign, low priorities and tight budgets presumably restricted innovative approaches.
But soon one of these crudest of aerial bombs “disintegrates” a comrade on the beach in front of Sam‘s eyes – plus they get heavy darts dropped on them, pilots unloading them by the boxfull.
With their professional specialism – Signalling – redundant, the Signallers now find an unrelated expertise in boozing and noshing called to the colours once more. You wouldn’t want to leave anything for the enemy, would you?
’Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers – anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items.
Quite fairly, we were not allowed to take anything away from the dump for our own use; but we would be entitled to a share of what was delivered to our Battalion. In fact, we Signallers hadn’t the gall to accept our share when it was offered since we stuffed ourselves to capacity during the night and, in daytime, only wanted to sleep. But we did work with a will on the job — and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.’
The festive season hadn’t been much on their minds since the disruption of their Xmas festivities at 5am, Boxing Day, but suddenly they got a reminder:
‘A few days after our disembarkation at V Beach, around midnight someone called out “It’s New Year’s Eve!” and a special search produced several bottles of what may have been cider, although some called it champagne. We didn’t know which, but heartily toasted each other and anyone else we fancied, before renewing our onslaught on that marvellous giveaway job.’
(6) In fact, six days after they arrived at V Beach.
The evacuation date remained secret, of course. The next order to include the Signallers and other 2/1st comrades really made them wonder what was going on – and put the wind up them, as Sam would say.
‘… a few nights later [so January 3 or 4?], 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.’
The laundry hazards concluded, the Battalion finally got their second set of evacuation instructions – which arrived in Battalion CO Major Nathan’s words, as researched by H Montgomery Ward for his biography Strong For Service, “on the night of Thursday 6th at ten minutes notice [and] in the middle of tea”.
“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…’
But it proved another brilliant evacuation. Hardly any casualties – much though many of the troops shared the sourness about “doing what we do best - running away”. The 2/1st remnants passed through the River Clyde to board a lighter and then a small steamer…
‘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.’
And so they sailed on to Mudros harbour again. They didn’t go ashore, just waited awhile before moving back to Egypt on a large troopship, the Minneapolis. They were to spend four months there on training and r&r before their turn came around to head for the Western Front and the Somme…
All the best – FSS
Next week: Back to Arras, January, 1918, Sam still a free agent exploring his lodgings in the old Prison, freelancing around as a Signaller while he awaits re-attachment to his 2/7th Essex Battalion - and taking inspiration from the sight of a Guards outfit sprucing themselves up, top to toe, despite it all …
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.
Sunday, 24 December 2017
Seasonal Rewind 1 – Sam’s Gallipoli Christmas and New Year… December 18/19, 1915: “we were sailing away from Suvla Bay”, Sam’s happy reunion with his brother Ted at Lemnos, the poor Arabs in “the hole”, lovely letters from home, a Christmas feast… and a Boxing Day rude awakening…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… As winter and strategic rethinks somewhat subdued the European mainland war, the biggest single incident must have been the sinking of the HMS Aragon, an armed troopship. En route from Malta with 2,700 Tommies, VADs, railwaymen and crew on board – plus a load of seasonal mail as she was a floating Post Office too – she was delayed at anchor off Alexandria, Egypt, by an unexplained admin. cock-up and torpedoed by a U-boat (which sank a British destroyer, HMS Attack, in the same action). More than 600 died, mostly British troops. (A small personal connection here is that as my father Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st Royal Fusiliers Battalion started their voyage from Mudros to Suvla Bay three months earlier, their small steamer passed close by the Aragon and he skimmed a field postcard across on to the deck in hopes it might find its way home.)
On the Western Front the Ypres campaign continued in skirmish form relatively with some fighting around Saint Quentin (December 28-9) and a small British advance at Marcoing (30; five miles southwest of Cambrai). The British also bombed Mannheim and the Bruges docks (24), while the French repulsed a German attack at Caurieres Wood, near Verdun.
In the East, the German Army sat back after negotiating a temporary truce with Russia, hoping the revolution and civil war would produce a beneficial outcome for them. And down in Italy the Battle Of Caporetto and its successor, the First Battle Of The Piave (combined duration October 24-December 26, or maybe 28?), drew to a rather indeterminate conclusion. The recovering Italian Army struck a few late blows at the Austrians, regaining lost ground in the Brenta valley (24) and destroying a bridge built by the Austrians across the river Piave (28) – yet immediately after that the French troops sent from the Western Front to help the Italians made their first major contribution by storming trenches east of Monet Grappa (30).
Over in Palestine, the British completed the comprehensive triumph of the Battle Of Jerusalem when the Ottomans tried a counterattack, trying to recover Nebi Samwil (December 26-7; six miles north of Jerusalem), but were then beaten back to Ramallah (30; 12 miles north of Jerusalem) on a front running from the coast near Jaffa which the British held until the end of the war.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion. An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare for more of the same (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train as a commissioned officer, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not clear. He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Now, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more… However, pro tem the main narrative is subject to a seasonal interruption…]
Last week, my father Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe’s Memoir narrative took this blog away ahead of itself into January, 1918, simply because he wrote little about December, 1917, and loads about the early part of the following year through to his final battle, defending against the Spring Offensive. Further, he skipped Christmas altogether – it can’t have made much of an impression in the circumstances.
So this week and next, I’m taking Sam back to Christmas and New Year, 1915-16, in Gallipoli as the joys and limitations of the Tommies’ celebrations made themselves felt more or less equally.
Effectively, the seasonal story begins with the evacuation of his first Battalion, the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, from Suvla Bay where, ever since their landing in late September, they’d been gradually depleted by shot, shell and, mainly, disease to no useful purpose they could discern. Now it’s early December, Sam and his Swiss Signaller mate Peter Niter still isolated from their comrades by their shared, wearing 24-hour duties on a hilltop overlooking the Turkish lines:
‘Christmas Day coming up… All we were missing was the Christmas tree, the holly, the oranges, Christmas puddings, iced cakes and booze. We did have ample bully beef, hard biscuits, tea, tinned milk, sugar and, because of our Army’s reduced numbers, two or three pints of water each day.
But one could feel how appropriate it was that, as the season of good will to all men drew near, the tension which had been spoiling one’s life, waking or sleeping, had vanished. With luck we’d be up and away from this depressing place before John Turk had time to miss us.’
Soon enough came the night of their (temporary) liberation from Gallipoli’s horrors:
‘Impatient and excited, under a partial moon, I waited one night for a code word over the headphones. When it came I passed the word “Now” along the line and machine guns were dismantled, our signal lines disconnected, container satchels hung over our shoulders, and rifles and all equipment taken with us, as we all very quietly moved beachwards in a single line. By then, all troops in forward positions had already departed(2).
Sufficient light glimmered down from the slice of moon, and perhaps from the Milky Way, always brighter there on clear nights than it appeared to be in England…
This was when we heard about an unfortunate young man who had just been killed, a member of H Company from when we first enlisted [September, 1914]…
Most unexpectedly on this quiet night, a bullet had struck him in the upper arm. The man with him applied the first field dressing, which every soldier carried in a special pocket. But, in the dark, nobody saw the blood welling from a severed artery, or perhaps something better could have been done to control the bleeding. By the time they were able to get him into skilled hands he had bled to death.’
(2) Strong For Service, H Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Lord Nathan, then plain “Major” and the 2/1st’s CO, notes the Battalion’s evacuation taking place on December 18-19, Saturday to Sunday overnight.
They moved quietly down to the beach:
‘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(3).
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(4), 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.’
(3) I think I remember my father telling me, in the course of the school-holiday conversations which eventually led him to write his Memoir, that 147 came out “unscathed”, although in the text a little earlier he refers to around 200 being still active immediately after the late-November blizzard and, soon, he mentions that figure again; I couldn’t find any official figures.
(4) One site, now defunct, confirmed Robin Redbreast’s part in the evacuation; another, now also unresponsive, 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 quite likely.
The cheery mood continued as they sailed towards… wherever they were going. They reckoned it had to be an improvement on their recent circumstances and accommodations:
‘We steamed merrily on; travelling in the opposite direction at an earlier date I had felt sleepy, kipped 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.’
Finally, they reached a somewhat familiar location – although, for them, everything had changed since they were last there, a thousand battlefield virgins…
‘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(5) 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.’
(5) Hyde’s Nathan biography reports that Harry Nathan/”Booth” – aliased by my father as per almost every named character because, writing in the 1970s, he didn’t want to upset survivors or descendants – became Battalion commander in mid-November 1915, as other officers fell ill etc.
Seeing all this, Sam succumbed to melancholy, no doubt as the whole experience caught up with him – but his spirits were soon to be uplifted in a most unexpected way:
‘But, ashore now on Lemnos… suddenly I felt weak and utterly wretched as I stood there with all that equipment weighing me down [with their extra burdens, Signallers carried up to 90lbs, Sam reckoned]. 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(6).
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.’
(6) Hyde’s Nathan biography quotes the Major’s letter home of December 23, 1915, saying the two-mile march to a camp called Mudros West made him realise how “worn out and ‘whacked’ we all are… it took me all I knew to manage it.”
The two brothers, Ted two years older than Sam, had enlisted at the same time in September, 1914. Their separation at Alexandria in September, 1915, occurred because Ted had lost a couple of front teeth in a fight and their repair or replacement was deemed crucial to his battlefield abilities. So he was virtually dragged off the ship that took the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers to the vicinity of Gallipoli and, as admin. luck would have it, was never sent to rejoin his comrades in the campaign (no such fortune for Ted with regard to the Somme and The Western Front where he fought in and around the front line for two years, 1916-18).
During the few days before Christmas, apart from socialising with Ted, Sam undertook a very pleasant and productive mission with a couple of comrades, sailing a pinnace around Lemnos (or possibly just across Mudros bay, I’m not sure) to pick up all the Battalion’s accrued undelivered post from home – including letters and many a package of Christmas goodies.
‘By candlelight, we all read late into the night, each concerned with his own news and feelings. Ted and I had a couple of parcels each from our parents, letters too. He also had some small packages from girlfriends. Among many nice things, our parents had sent photographs of our family taken in the back garden. Our baby sister was standing there, now able to do so without help(7). Our young brother looked bonny, the older sister all smiles, the ever solemn dad still solemn, while mother wore her usual rather stern expression.
It was good to have this reassuring picture, visible proof that life at home had not greatly changed. Father’s letters, written in his impeccable hand, gave us a clear picture of the national scene as he understood it, and Ma’s gave us news of family and local happenings. All was well there, and that was great.’
(7) The “baby sister” was Edith “Edie” Minnie Sutcliffe, born May 22, 1912. To elaborate on the Memoir Foreword’s list of siblings, Sam had another brother, Alf, born 1903; brother Frank Sydney had died of diphtheria, aged 12, in October, 1912; a boy, John, born in 1911, died 15 months later having “failed to thrive”; another baby died, probably at birth, just before the 1911 Census, which refers to the event but gives no details at all.
The officers decided that the parcels sent to comrades “absent for one reason or another” – as my father put it, i.e. departed because dead, wounded or ill – should be opened and enjoyed by the roughly 20 per cent of the Battalion who’d come through “unscathed” (in one sense or another). On Christmas Day itself, further good news on the festive scoffing and boozing front soon ensued…
‘Christmas nearly upon us and, next morning, our generous Major had our crowd assemble and announced that arrangements had been made for a supply of beer, lots of it, to be collected from the Forces’ Canteen. Volunteers, genuine on this occasion, set off, carrying the large dixies in which the cooks normally prepared stews or tea. When they returned, noticeably more talkative and cheerful than before, they carried far more beer than it appeared likely we could cope with. The distribution of cakes, biscuits, Christmas puddings and sweets from the parcels of absent comrades followed — such a plenitude of good eatables compared with the scarcity during recent months.
Ted spent as much time with me that day as his odd-job duties at the nearby Field Hospital allowed. To work off the heaviness from over-eating and drinking, we two took a walk – nostalgia and the effects of strong beer rendering us untypically sentimental about the dear dead days beyond recall as we strolled, perhaps a little unsteadily, in no particular direction. The day was dull, the sky grey, the wind very chilly, but divil a bit cared we… until we came to the hole.
Yes, yet another hole after all those others I’d lived in recently. This, however, was a big one, circular and possibly 15 feet deep. When, why or by whom it had been excavated we had no idea, but now it provided shelter from the winter for a number of Arabs. Dressed in the usual poor man’s gowns and hood-like headgear, they crouched in circles well below the rim. They looked ill and miserable. Dotted all around, above and below them was their excreta, all noticeably coloured by the blood which escapes from dysentery sufferers.
Of course, I stated my belief that it was wrong to bring these people from a very poor sort of life in Egypt to an even worse one in this cheerless island, but Ted informed me they had competed for the opportunity to come and earn some cash, a chance seldom available to them at home. Things had not been all that good for me in recent months, but I still had pity to spare for these poor devils. Even more so when Ted told me how they, and others, had travelled from Egypt; he knew because he had been ordered to escort some of them on to a ship, to send them below and close the hatches. During the voyage, the labourers had to be kept down there at all times, their guards armed with trenching tool handles to quell any revolt that might occur.
It all seemed wrong to me. We walked away discussing the wisdom of the officials concerned in deciding that these poor, debilitated souls should be sent across the sea to finish up shivering in a hole in the ground surrounded by shit…’
Nonetheless, a good night’s sleep beckoned the sozzled Tommies… only for their snoring to be interrupted for entirely unforeseen reasons:
‘I had slept for possibly five hours when the unwelcome roar of a Sergeant roused us all. We had to pack up as quickly as possible, he bellowed, and be ready to move.
Into every available space in pack, haversack and mess tin, I crammed as much food as possible. Cooks handed out fresh-baked loaves – enough to last a few days – and fried bacon in quantity. They had opened a long, wooden case containing two large sides of bacon packed in salt, so we ate our fill, stored the remaining rashers in our tubular cap comforters, and tied these to our belts. Hanging all the usual pieces of equipment about our persons we picked up our rifles, slogged down to the landing stage and boarded a small ship, similar to the Robin Redbreast, which had evacuated us from Suvla Bay.
Whither away we knew not, nor cared overmuch, for disappointment at the interruption of our Christmas celebrations was deep and our mood doleful. To hell with everything and everybody; wasn’t that war over? So what were They up to? Many hours later we heard the unwelcome sounds of occasional gunfire and now, in darkness, when we could just make out land ahead, a shell screamed overhead and burst somewhere ashore. Our ship crept slowly forward, far too slowly for my liking, because, added to the likelihood of injury, was the unpleasant one of drowning as well; and we should by rights have been feasting and lounging on that Greek island(8).’
(8) Hyde’s Nathan biography says that, while the Battalion CO was eating his Christmas dinner, he received the order that the 2/1st’s remnants must return to Gallipoli, and they shipped out on Boxing Day, December 26.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Seasonal Rewind 2 – Sam’s Gallipoli Christmas and New Year… the River Clyde, Asiatic Annie, German planes dropping darts and bombs… and an evacuation feast – Happy New Year on V Beach, Cape Helles!
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.