“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 January 2017
Seasonal retrospect: Sam and comrades between two Gallipoli evacuations enjoy a surprisingly sumptuous Christmas/New Year – and don’t get shot at much…
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A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front, as one WW1 history timeline puts it, it was “normal activity proceeding”. Imagine, the great immobile battle had become normality. In fact, not much happened in the snow, but the British did capture two enemy posts near Beaumont Hamel (January 5) conduct a substantial daylight raid near Arras (6) – and promote General Haig to Field Marshall (3).
Over on the Eastern Front, despite their long-time over-extension, the Russian Army beat the Germans back at Zloczow, Galicia (January 2, now Ukraine), and at the Dvina river near Glandau, Poland (3), and attacked successfully near Mount Botosul, Bukovina (3, now partly Ukraine, partly Romania), and between Lake Babit and the Tirul marsh, near Riga, Latvia (6).
However, down in Romania, the Russians and their hosts continued their long retreat east and north pursued by several elements of the Central Powers forces, German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Ottoman – they lost Focsani (January 3), Gugueti and Romanul (4), Braila (5), and the Dobrudja region (6).
Lest we forget the constant fighting in the enormous German East Africa colony, the British advanced near Lissaki (January 1) and took Kibambawe (5, both now Tanzania), while the South Africans fought the indeterminate Battle Of Behobeho against a German column who’d ventured back towards Dar-es-Salaam (3-4)
Even so the most dramatic one-off events occurred at sea: two German mines sank Russian battleship Peresvyet off Port Said (January 4, either 116 or 167 died); and a U-boat torpedoed British troopship SS Ivernia south of Greece (1, 120 died of about 2500 on board). Two sub-plots concerning the Ivernia: 18 months earlier, the skipper, Captain William Turner, had been commanding the Lusitania when she was torpedoed – Cunard moved him to a desk job after he stayed on the bridge of Ivernia until he had to swim for it; and in August, 1915, my father, then Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe and his 2/1st Royal Fusiliers comrades sailed on the Ivernia from Malta to Egypt en route for Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.
Meanwhile, my father, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London had fought on the Somme Front with the Kensingtons from mid-May to September at Hébuterne/Gommecourt, then around Leuze Wood and Morval (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age – 18 on July 6 – had been officially noticed, he was legally too young for the battlefield, and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He certainly did – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur, then the Army shipped him back to Blighty. After a few desultory weeks “training” in London (and living at home), that December his next move took him up North to Harrogate and reallocation to another new outfit, the Essex Regiment…
Last week, given my father’s Christmas in Harrogate proved so uneventful he never so much as mentioned it in his Memoir, the FSS blog looked back to a happy childhood Christmas Sam spent with a friend’s family in Edmonton, and then on to his first festive season in uniform, December, 1914 – which nearly resulted in a mutiny as the 2/1st Fusiliers’ officers forgot the men might like to go home… until they protested at the railway station in Tonbridge (where the 2/1st were training), made their point and caused a rapid about-face from the Battalion brass.
This week, another retrospective – Christmas and New Year in and around Gallipoli. First, it’s mid-December, 1915, Suvla Bay, the sorry fag-end of the frustrating, painful campaign. Signaller Sam’s in a hole on top of a freezing hill, pondering, with nostalgia and present hardship intermingled…
‘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.’
Fortunately, the Suvla evacuation followed shortly. The 2/1st shipped to Lemnos. There Sam not only ran into his older brother Ted for the first time since September, but had the delightful task of taking a pinnace around the Greek island to pick up the post which had been waiting for the men since autumn. Of course, most of the Battalion remnants received parcels of goodies, especially food. But so did many who had long since departed the peninsula for various unhappy reasons. The CO, Major Harry Nathan, and his officers decided that, on the 25th, these extra treats should be distributed among the men:
‘… 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… lashings of beer or tea… and all things nice, were there for the picking-up and guzzling. What a reversal of fortune – we looked forward to some days of ease and over-indulgence. Late that night, Ted left me to return to his tent and we, the very happy brothers, promised ourselves another lovely day tomorrow.’
Hardened Poor Bloody Infantrymen though they’d become, that night they probably forgot the habitual caution, “This is too good to last”. But it was. Sam writes:
‘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.’
They went ashore at night through the iconic hulk of the SS River Clyde. V Beach, Cape Helles, their job to help prepare for the second wave of evacuations. Still, despite the Turks’ giant gun Asiatic Annie lobbing shells at them and a raiding German plane dropping darts and small bombs, the days around New Year produced another unexpected bonanza of fine victuals:
‘No Signals work was required at that time, for the Battalion’s numbers had dwindled to about Company strength and our work concerned simply helping to prepare for evacuation. 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.
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.
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.******’
** My father notes that, before they left Suvla, disease and battle had reduced the 2/1st from 1,000 men to around 200. This fits with the later reference in this blog to their numbers being down to Company-size; while the 2/1st’s original eight Companies numbered around 120 each, a Company seems to be generally described as comprising between 100 and 250 soldiers.
*** Elsewhere Sam reckoned that this “pack”, including a lot of additional equipment for signalling, weighed 90 pounds – one historian I bumped into on Twitter told me he thought that an overestimate, but he didn’t dispute it was “bloody heavy”.
**** That would be six days after they arrived at V Beach following their Boxing Day flit from Lemnos.
***** Krithea (alternatively spelt Krithia) was a village, about five miles north-east of V Beach, at the end of the “Nullah”, meaning “steep, narrow 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 (2,378 Ottoman). The Second Battle, May 6-8, saw another Allied attack fail and result in 6,300 British, French and Anzac casualties (Ottoman unknown). In the Third Battle, June 4, British and French troops gained about 230 metres and suffered 6,500 casualties (3,000 Ottoman soldiers reported killed, no wounded listed).
****** The V Beach evacuation proceeded successfully on the night of January 6-7.
Seasonal all the bests – FSS
Next week: The story of Sam on his underage “break” in Harrogate resumes with a strange scene; this group of young Somme veterans upset association with the alleged “Lost Division” refuse to obey orders – and find their RSM negotiating to secure their compliance!
* 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.