“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, 10 September 2017
Gallipoli rewind 3: Sam has a bizarre encounter with “Number 9”, the Battalion sawbones, and nearly dies of a centipede bite. Then he plays an “accidental” part in the saving of Signaller Jackson…
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 the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… Early September’s (relative) lull on the Western Front didn’t stop a general drift towards the Allies taking the upper hand. The British advanced at Villeret (September 10; Aisne region) and repulsed a German attack at Langemarck (13), while the Portuguese did likewise at Neuve Chapelle (15), and the French reversed a German gain at Caurieres Wood (13-14; near Verdun) and held them off at Apremont Forest (16; near St Mihiel, Meuse region), while also bombing Stuttgart, Colmar, Thionville and Saarburg (16). In terms of grander strategy, the British Army “officially” launched the Second Phase Of The Third Battle Of Ypres by capturing a German “strong point” at Inverness Copse (15).
Russia’s chaotic state dominated developments on the Eastern Front as Kerenski declared himself Dictator (September 10), the rebellious advance on Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg, soon to become Leningrad) led by Army C-in-C General Kornilov expired with his surrender (14), and the Provisional Government declared the country a republic (15; it lasted six weeks).
Nonetheless, the Army combatting Germany in Latvia remained operational and prepared to take a stand 30 miles northeast of Riga (September 10), and the Navy in the Baltic bombarded German batteries on Latvia’s Kurzeme coast (12). Further, the Russian Army in Romania gathered its resources sufficiently to support the defence of Focsani against a renewed German attack (14), and down in Macedonia it combined with the French to drive the Bulgars across the River Devoli and 20 miles further into Albania (10).
Meanwhile, in Slovenia, the 11th Battle Of The Isonzo – Italy versus Austria-Hungary – is reckoned to have concluded (September 12; it began on August 18) with the Italians holding on to the Bainsizza Plateau at the end of what one source calls an “inconclusive bloodbath” (casualties 158,000 Italian, 115,000 Austro-Hungarians). The fighting continued regardless of historically nominated dates…
[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, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then, just after his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course leads him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more. However, now I have to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago excerpts from his Memoir because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blog excerpts. So, for the next 10 weeks until November, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy – the Somme and, first, Sam’s Gallipoli, his initiation into the realities of war. He was a 17-year-old Lance Corporal Signaller by the time his Battalion approached Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the night of September 25, 1915.]
Last week, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, and his mostly novice-soldier pals came under fire for the first time and experienced their first deaths of comrades – young Nibs, old Ewart Walker – not to mention those other WW1 battlefield treats: lousy food (instant apricot jam overload), the stinking bucket latrines in plain sight of the enemy above… and the enemy, in fact!
Now as he settles into dealing with all this, he recalls and reflects on a whole range of events amid the grind of attritional warfare – starting with an early shock which made him realise that, already, he could entirely understand comrades committing acts that he’d have called “cowardice” a year earlier when he was a gung-ho kid in the grip of the prevailing war fever back home, and enlisted with his brother Ted and their pals Harold Mellow and Len Winns:
‘I wanted to talk to somebody like Harold or Len, the intimates of pre-war days. Back in our front line, I moved around the trenches as much as I dared without permission – and got shot at once or twice by the apparently tireless Turk snipers. When I found a hole which sheltered some G Company men, I asked if they could direct me to Harold and their replies shocked me: “He’s away on a hospital ship, wounded in a foot. Trouble is, the bullet came from his own rifle. A self-inflicted wound, which means court martial. He has to convince them it was accidental. It happened in the dark in one of these holes in the ground. But how did the rifle muzzle come to be resting on his foot?”
If fear and desperation had driven Harold to do it, I didn’t blame him, but I said, “I believe what Harold said and good luck to him”. It was a very serious matter, depressing to contemplate, and I tried to find Len, but he had vanished too, wounded or ill.’
Throughout the war, whenever the “Blighty” issue came up, Sam maintained his empathetic view of those who cracked and, one way or another, ran for it. That sometimes included officers who fought in the front line. Those who rarely showed their faces among the Tommies, though…
‘I did sometimes wonder where our top officers were. One of them, at least – our adjutant** – had what it takes I knew, although I saw him once only in our front line… As I sat in a trench with my headphones on, sending or receiving a message, he appeared above me. He stood up there, on the rim of the trench, in a very exposed position, one arm in a sling, his face showing the pain and tiredness he was suffering. Why he was there in that awful condition I did not know. Had a ranker exposed himself thus to enemy fire without good reason, he would have been put on a charge. Obviously wounded, he should have been sent away from the line by the Medical Officer; but then we all knew of that peculiar medico’s terrible reputation – I soon gained personal experience of his utter ineptitude.’
** The “adjutant” here seems to be the officer my father earlier referred to as “Captain Blunt”, an alias I presume, even though he had nothing but praise for him.
Ah, the MO. Here’s the story of Sam’s tragi-comic encounters with him:
‘The Medical Officer mentioned above – he was tall, thin, stooping, and sallow and mournful of countenance – must have escaped from a civilian practice which, because of his ignorant incompetence, had yielded barely enough money to keep him supplied with watery soup and a few crusts. Some of his diagnoses and treatments were so ridiculous as to be unbelievable by all except his victims.
Early on, I developed a very painful toothache and, when I eventually traced him to the hole in the ground wherein he lurked, his advice to me came in the following words – do believe me, this is true – “I have no instruments with which to extract teeth. Take this Number 9 pill*** for your bowels. Perhaps the artillery can help you by attaching a string from your bad tooth to a shell. When the gun is fired, your tooth will be pulled out!”‘
*** Number 9: a laxative often issued as a cure-all by Army doctors – and said to be the source of the bingo caller’s somewhat mysterious “Doctor’s orders, Number 9”.
His ineptitude became even more dangerous when Sam got bitten by one of the five-inch centipedes that lurked in the trenches:
‘… one day my left hand swelled painfully. Between my little and third fingers I found a yellow spot.
For over 24 hours I stood the pain, but by then the hand and the forearm had swollen to twice their normal size and, under my left armpit, a swelling throbbed. I knew this poison was spreading rapidly and could be fatal. I had to visit that wretched medico. What do you think he said? “You have had a poisonous bite, but I can’t do anything about it. Take a Number 9 pill. It might help to clear the blood.” That too is absolutely true.
I walked away, the pain reducing me to moans and tears. I wandered off towards the beach, deserting my Company, but not caring any more. To be shot would have been a relief. At some point along the track I found a small, marquee tent with a Red Cross flag flying above it. I entered and received a kindly welcome from a Sergeant member of the Royal Army Medical Corps****, who listened to my story while I removed my tunic. The shirt also had to come off, the arm so swollen that the Sergeant helped me by pulling the garment over my head and peeling the left sleeve off last of all.
An officer made an examination; his speech suggested American origin, especially when he, with a penetrating gaze right into my eyes, asked, “Can you stand some?” Of course, I assured him I could stand anything but the current pain. Whereupon he told the Sergeant to hold my swollen hand – which looked remarkably like some sort of puffed-up frog – over a large basin, keeping apart the little finger and its neighbour. The Sergeant took a firm grip and the Yankee doctor inserted his small blade into the palm side of my hand first, then cut upwards between the fingers and a little way across the back of the hand.
Normally, I would have let out a howl but, as the pressure eased, I experienced only relief. Then the surgeon, using both hands, commenced squeezing, starting at the top near the shoulder…
Amazed at the quantity of red and yellow muck which had almost filled the basin, overjoyed by the pain receding, I told the doctor about our strange MO.
… That was my first experience of American kindness and efficiency; more such generous aid from our future allies came my way before that war concluded.
The Sergeant led me up a hillside to a small encampment consisting of a marquee and half a dozen bell tents. For beds, the patients had stretchers, the sort that folded up when not in use; each of us had a pillow and two blankets. At regular hours, the only nursing staff I saw – the Sergeant and a Corporal – brought us food, drink and medicines. If not serious, wounds were dressed. Mine they kept open by more squeezing, but the swelling subsided rapidly, while whatever medicine they administered improved my general condition.
Most of all, within a few days, the kindness of those men, the generous helpings of good, plain food, and lots of restful sleep, turned a doleful kid into something once more resembling a soldier.’
**** Royal Army Medical Corps: referred to by its initials RAMC for most of the Memoir.
Just as the medics deemed him healed, he observed a British strategic manouver which filled him with disgust:
‘My fitness for return to my Battalion became obvious. On the very day when the good American doc decided I could depart, I was shocked to hear a battery of our own guns open fire from a position directly behind our little hospital. This was all wrong, absolutely wicked, and I walked away from that little bit of heaven feeling that it had been befouled by some brainless British officer. Now you wouldn’t blame the Turks for strafing the Red Cross tents – and that is what happened. I heard that bad news a few days later, and just hoped the good American and all staff survived intact.’
He sneaked back to his Battalion, dodging snipers en route, and recalling that, in his agony, he hadn’t notified anyone about his absence when he left the line a couple of weeks earlier; that is, technically he’d deserted. No matter, though, he found that his pals had explained his problem to an NCO. So they’d presumed him dead or on a hospital ship. All sorted, he then found himself dispatched to a Signals post – more accurately, a hole – on a hill whence he, his assistant, and a bunch of veteran machine gunners from a Regiment he later transferred to, the Essex, observed the battlefield below:
‘… I could see the trenches of our forward positions; quite a network had been constructed by now and I ruefully admitted to myself that the steam had gone out of the whole operation, the purpose bogged down in holes and trenches.
The machine gunners could give useful fire cover to our chaps down there should they be attacked. But why should the Turk bother to attack? He must have concluded by now that the British had failed in their original objective and that, if he came forward to drive us into the sea, he would suffer many casualties and gain only a useless strip of land. Leaving us where we were to face a winter in terrible conditions was the better strategy’
The hole remained his workplace for some weeks, his spirits lifted by glimpses of home and normal life provided by his mates’ fond reminiscences:
‘As a Lance Corporal, with one man to assist me, my job was to maintain communications with 88th Brigade Headquarters. Clearly, that meant one man resting, one on duty. I talked over the possibilities with my helper, and we decided to try doing four hours on and four off, night and day. We occupied a square hole, about six feet each way, with no roof. A short trench joined it to the main trench along the top of the hill. This was to be my home. Although on a hilltop, these trenches had been dug into the same soft, layered rock as those first holes we’d worked so hard to excavate down near the beach, so their unstable walls constantly flaked away.
My first Signaller mate there was a pleasant chap, quite a philosopher in his way, probably my senior by four or five years. He showed me photographs of his parents and a sister, and I warmed myself in the glow of love emanating from him as he talked about them and their life together before the war. A good worker too, meticulous in his time-keeping, he woke quickly during the night when the luminous dial on my watch told me four hours had passed and I nudged him to take over.
At that point, you placed the headphones and microphone in the other man’s hands, briefly switched on the torch to show him that the combined phone/Morse signal instrument with its buzzer key, earth pin and single landline, and the message pad and pencil were all handy. Then you swapped positions in the hole.
On duty or resting, at night you arranged your thick, rubberised groundsheet so that you rested on half of it and pulled the other half over your legs for protection from the cold or rain. When writing down any messages coming in, the groundsheet also came in handy to screen the heavy-duty torch beam.
But it was all very difficult and uncomfortable.’
Imagine two men, on rotation 24 hours a day, week after week, struggling to do this job well:
‘… we learned that four hours on, four off, meant we never had a satisfactory sleep. So we experimented with two on, two off, eight on, eight off, every arithmetical combination we could think of to cover the 24 hours. Nothing really worked.
When you took over after whatever interval, your mate, released from that crampy corner of the hole we lived and worked in, should have felt free for some hours of beautiful sleep – but was he? On duty, you must want to go to the bog some time, so your mate had to wake up and take over. During the day, you would need nourishment, so your mate had to procure it, and very often cook it on our small meths heaters. Actually, we catnapped day and night and just made the best of a terrible existence.
The resulting fatigue, along with poor diet, was reducing us to shadows of ourselves.’
His first assistant coming down with jaundice confirmed the extent of their physical decline. For rather different reasons, his replacement didn’t last long:
‘… a jolly fellow, always cheerful, named Bill Jackson. He wore thick lenses in wire frames – I saw his presence in Gallipoli as one more tribute to the doctor who had examined us volunteers at the time of our enlistment. The daft, old medico shouldn’t have approved him for active service. The truth was, if Jackson lost or damaged his glasses he’d be almost blind. He had a lovely wife and three children of whom he talked often. Such a loving family as he described must be missing dad terribly…
One night, as we sat in chilly darkness and thoughts once more turned homewards, the futility of what we were doing became very apparent to me. “Bill,” I said. “Why are you here? A wife and kids thousands of miles away, you stuck here in a hole in the ground. What’s the use?” He had no sensible answer to that one, so I told him I had a plan aimed at getting him away from this rotten country.
It was simple, his part being to remove his spectacles when next taking his rest. Should he happen to lay them on the groundsheet anywhere near me I would not be able to see them. If I happened to kneel on them they would be crushed on that hard ground and he would be unable to see where he was going, let alone write down messages.
He demurred about all this. But later, in complete darkness, just such an accident did occur, and when daylight came I had to give Brigade HQ a detailed account of the strange occurrence and they sent up two men, one to replace Bill, the other to guide him down to the beach and a hospital ship, no doubt.’
So, at 17, already full of anger and despair at being caught up in this fag-end of the Gallipoli folly, Sam was venturing into, erm, unorthodoxy. Bill’s replacement brought him little joy, but the Essex veterans certainly did in their own extra-curricular way:
‘… they sent me up a sad, little man called Harry Green. His arrival coincided with a brief period of wonderful luck with our food. The machine gunners nearest to my hole in the ground belonged to a regular Battalion of the Essex Regiment; country lads, very shrewd – and tired, as we all were, of the poor and monotonous diet, they secured an officer’s permission for two of them to make a foraging trip to the beach. A lighter had unloaded a cargo of fresh meat, we’d heard – very likely this had happened many times previously, yet our lot had never had a mouthful of it, not the rankers anyway.
These two resourceful men returned with – would you believe it? – a whole leg of beef. Whether they stated that they represented a large group of men I don’t know, but they got hold of it, and they carried it, each taking turns, a long way across open country, risking shells from field guns and bullets from snipers until they got down into a communication trench leading uphill to our position. When I saw this huge piece of meat I marvelled that two men could have hauled it such a distance.
Generosity to comrades was part of the faith of these Essex farm men, so they included me and my dour helper in their feastings. They gathered old planks and anything that grew nearby. At dusk, they partially covered over a disused trench with sawn-off branches and started burning small quantities of our scavenged wood, restricting the flames carefully to avoid inviting a shell. Gradually, they built up a big heap of glowing embers whereon we laid our mess-tin lids with their folding handles to cook thin slices of the beef. The smoke filtered away through the branches and the night air grew rich with the smell of meat roasting.
Then, during daylight hours, we filled our bellies with beef stewed in a couple of large dixies left overnight on the smouldering mound – small additions to it being made at intervals by those whose duties kept them up and about. Large tins of dried potato shreds had been issued and we all added our shares to the cook pots to thicken the liquor. Into one dixie, went a quantity of curry powder for those who liked their stew really hot – and had no fear of possible consequences.
This feasting continued for several days and I felt my strength building up and youth’s natural cheerfulness returning. We could smile again; such a change from the dejected hangdog expressions with which we had all been depressing each other.
Even my fellow Signaller, Green, a gloomster to the depths of his nature, permitted himself to speak of his home life and his girl. She I pitied though, for the prospect of sad, little Private Green for a husband, even in his happier moods, was daunting. I knew I was a mug to put up with his moanings instead of telling him what a miserable devil he really was.’
An oddity to remind us all that this really was a different age: Sam sees his first warplane!
‘High above us, shells exploded and I saw that, near the white puffs of smoke, were two flying machines, their wings somewhat swept backwards like a large bird’s. Although I had never seen a warplane in action before, I was able to recognise them as German Taubes*****.
Only a year or two earlier, I had seen my first aeroplanes taking part in a race from London to Manchester and back — now the things had already been adapted to combat uses.‘
***** Taube: monoplane fighter/bomber/surveillance aircraft, manufactured from 1910 onwards; Germany’s first mass-produced military plane, unless you know better.
With the food supply to his Royal Fusiliers Signallers’ hole getting erratic through confusion with the Essex lads’ supply line, Sam takes a walk (?) down to Battalion HQ to set it straight. On the way back up he sees something that really gets him thinking about the ins and outs of how Tommies should conduct themselves:
‘This time that communication trench yielded a strange experience; on my right, at a spot I hadn’t previously noticed, an opening caught my eye. I peered in and it revealed a sight almost unbelievable to me: a rather wide, roofed trench, with a long, narrow table, on each side of it a plank seat occupied by men who looked remarkably clean and spruce; on the table, their enamel mugs and plates, knives and forks, symbols of civilisation and decency. They did not appear to see me, perhaps because the light from the candles placed at intervals restricted vision to things close by. I recall standing there, tears, for some emotional reason, streaming down my face… although I was now 17 years old. The difference in the way of life of those trained, experienced soldiers, and that of myself and most of my Territorial comrades was never so apparent to me as at that moment.’
Of course, it all started at the top. Their officers were all career military men, capable of assessing the usefulness of every single thing, place or circumstance within their purview. The very disciplines to which the best of them submitted and which they practised in peacetime too made them admirable leaders when war surrounded their lives with discomforts and dangers. The amateur officer would try to carry out basic standing orders to the very letter, regardless of the health and comfort of his men and the fact that wounds and sickness were daily reducing the numbers of those he commanded; so his surviving men would have to do longer and harder stints and themselves become gradually reduced to mindless, humourless automatons.
Much of the routine stuff wasted energy at a time when all signs indicated a position of stalemate, be it only temporary. The good officer would use such periods by allowing – or ordering – men otherwise unoccupied to give attention to personal hygiene, improvement of habitation, sanitation and the procurement of maximum rations.
Memory may play me false here, but I seem to remember that those fine men I glimpsed in that side-trench, who conspicuously insisted on preserving some of the decencies amid conditions which defeated less efficient soldiers, were members of the Royal Scots Regiment******. I learned that the small number seated in their improvised dining hall were all that remained of a full Battalion who did marvellous work in the earliest landing on that Turkish peninsula.’
****** Several Battalions of Royal Scots did fight at Gallipoli; from the following reference to them being involved in the earliest landings, it seems the men who impressed my father may have been members of 1/5th Battalion (Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles), part of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), see http://www.1914-1918.net/royalscots.htm
All the best – FSS
Next week: The great Gallipoli snowstorm; trekking down from his hilltop, Sam risks snipers to beg HQ for food. But then an interlude of plenty… and the best gift of all, the evacuation of Suvla Bay for Christmas!
* 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.