“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
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.