“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, 8 March 2015

Sam gets a room with a view – and Napoleon’s biscuits to… break his teeth on

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… on March 10, after a static period on the Western Front, a reinforced British Expeditionary Force combined with the Indian Corps launched an attack at Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region, trumpeted as pioneering a new level of advance planning. But it petered out by the 13th. The attack gained two kilometers while casualties totalled 7000 British troops, 4,200 Indian and 9,600 German. The received explanations seem to be: field telephone breakdowns, a lack of decisive leadership when changing circumstances came to require improvisation, and a shortage of artillery shells. The latter initiated “the Shell Crisis” which, combined with the bloody opening to the Gallipoli campaign in April led to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s Liberal Government yielding to demands for coalition with the Conservative Party.
      Of course, Gallipoli was to prove rather significant to the futures of Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, 1,000 volunteers lately arrived in Malta for further training with no clue as to where or when they might actually enter the fray – and not ungrateful to be left on the sidelines pro tem…

Last week, we left Sam, still 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, and their friends from Edmonton, north London, as the Battalion completed a heavily-laden march in heat they’d never encountered before, from the port of Valletta to their barracks-to-be – a fortified building in “a barren, rocky area” which had young Sam’s imagination wandering to romantic tales of the Foreign Legion he’d read back home in the penny weeklies.
      It happened that, because of the order of their disembarkation on the docks, his H Company led the way. NB new readers, as ever up to this point, in his Memoir Sam wrote about himself in the third person as “Tommy”. He says:

H Company swung right and entered a huge barrack* square with covered pavements on either side on to which their dormitories opened; the design offered Tommy hope that these rooms would be cool in high temperatures, since the sun could never shine into them.
       Plans of the barracks must have been previously supplied to the officers for, after a brief halt in the square, each Company was soon marched off to its allotted quarters. H Company finished up on the upper floor of a two-storey block behind the main square, somewhat to Tommys disappointment. Hed hoped for a room by the shady sidewalks and pictured himself lounging there enjoying a long, cold drink.
       However, his platoons room had a covered balcony, a good view of the whole barrack area from the front, and a fine outlook seawards from the rear windows. Tommy liked it at first sight: wide and long, the ceiling and stone walls whitewashed, the stone floor scrubbed and, as they discovered, easily kept clean to a standard which satisfied the officer doing the daily inspections.
       Six iron-frame beds with mattresses stood along the sea side, five along the opposite wall, with ample space in the middle for wooden tables and forms for seating these they also had to scrub, using stiff brushes and sand. One of the tables bore a tall, polished-steel bucket and a large, steel bowl with two ladles. Two blankets and a pillow for each man rested on wide shelves fixed to the wall above each bedhead; that left enough space to store clothing and equipment on them too.
       Home of 11 men for some time to come.
       Ginger-haired Corporal Ash 5 foot 8, becoming quite an efficient NCO had charge of them. He explained he would appoint two room orderlies immediately, but all would take their turn and would do this work in addition to all parades which word covered all compulsory attendances for drill or general training.
       Later, he despatched two men to the cookhouse carrying the shiny bucket and bowl, and their return brought cheers from the happy men even though their burden consisted of the usual potatoes with tough, stewed meat. On this occasion, they required only quantity to fill the aching void and, indeed, there was plenty for all. They enjoyed that first meal in the barrack room in a happy mood of banter and speculation about the future.
       Get that lot down you, said Corporal Ash. Then the orderlies will take the pans down to the cookhouse and, when theyve scrubbed them out, theyll be issued with tea and hard biscuits and that will be all the grub for today.

Yet again, and already, in this new location Sam’s Battalion encountered the British Army’s ignorance of or, more likely, carelessness about that ancient military axiom that an army “marches on its stomach” – even though, at this point, at the end of their first day on foreign soil, they chose to take it with a pinch of satirical wit:

‘The tea was good but the biscuits presented a problem again, although they definitely came from a different source to those provided aboard the Galena**. About three inches by three and a half inches, thick, dark brown and very hard; the strongest teeth could make no impression on them. Soaking in tea failed to soften them.
       Ewart Walker, ex-journalist and very knowledgeable, spoke of a huge reserve food store maintained underground in Valletta***. It lay under a stone-paved square, he said, each of many entrances covered by a large circular stone. Over many years the food store had been maintained at a level sufficient to feed the population of Malta for the duration of a six-month siege.
       Walker reckoned that older provisions must be taken out and replaced by new ones periodically, and he estimated that these stony biscuits could well have been placed below during the Napoleonic Wars. Their hardness and their repulsive dark appearance lent weight to his theory.
       All attempts to eat them had to be abandoned, although an enterprising chap with a hammer and small chisel did chip carefully away at some of them to make what he sold as frames for photographs.’

*With his particular sense of military(?) discretion about some names – to me, both unexplained and inexplicable in examples such as this – my father never names the place, but other sources reveal it as St George’s Barracks, built 1859-62 and so named simply because they overlooked St Georges Bay (Bajja San Gorg in Maltese – apologies throughout for lack of correct accents on my computer).
** Actually SS Galeka – another wafer-thinly disguised alias! (See February 22 blog for more details.)
***The Granaries (Fosos in Maltese) lie under Publius Square/Pjazza San Publiju in the Floriana district of Valletta.

All the best – FSS

Next week: The troops settle in – and, five months after they joined up, the Army gives them actual rifles for the first time!

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