“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, 22 March 2015

Sam’s Fusiliers in Malta: boiled cheese and onions for breakfast – euch! – and the “Mediterranean Fever” scare

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… today the Siege Of Przemsyi, a fort in Galicia, ended when the Russian Army overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian garrison after 133 days (115,000 Russian casualties, 86,000 A-H dead, 110,000 wounded and/or surrendered); with the British invasion of Gallipoli telegraphed by the aborted naval bombardment, on the 25th General Otto Liman Von Sanders took charge of Turco-German forces in the Dardanelles and, more significantly than he knew, appointed Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) commander of the 19th Division. And, for the first time, on the 28th, A German submarine, the U-28 sank a British passenger ship, SS Falaba – 100 out of 240 onboard died because they were given too little time to get the lifeboats away. (This event had a strange sequel: in 1917 U-28 became the only submarine ever sunk by a lorry; it surfaced to shell a cargo ship called SS Olive Branch(!), ammunition in the hold exploded blasting a lorry on deck high into the air… and it landed on the U-28.)
      Meanwhile, to his surprise, my father Private Sam Sutcliffe’s 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers – 1,000 volunteers, including 16-year-old Sam’s brother Ted, 18, and their two mates from Edmonton, north London, Len Minns and Harold Mellow – began to discover the ins and outs of life in the Maltese sun.

When they sailed from Southampton with no word of their destination, they’d presumed it would be a trench on the Western Front pretty damn quick – though, admittedly, the Army would need to supply them with both rifles and a little marksmanship training en route, something notably absent from their preparations up to that point (square-bashing and digging they’d done in spades, so to speak).
      Well, last week Sam noted that, at last, shortly after their arrival at St George’s Barracks on Malta, they were issued with rifles, albeit the old “long” Lee-Enfields rather than the “new” 1907 model. And training (of a sort) in their use, did ensue – for now, mind you, nothing that involved actually firing them. As my father wrote in his Memoir (new readers NB, Sam was still writing in the third person and calling himself “Tommy” at this stage):

…  daily programmes kept the troops active from 6.30am to around noon and from 2 to 6pm. Beyond those fairly strict morning and afternoon work sessions, the rotaed extra duties as orderlies and guards rarely came Tommy’s way; he never discovered why. Perhaps perks and privileges about which he knew nothing attached to those jobs. He was quite satisfied anyway; constant marching and stamping around the barrack square, hoisting and lowering the heavy rifle, and learning the peculiar style of bayonet fighting they practised hour after hour in constantly increasing temperatures amounted to just about as much as he could manage.’ 

Sam’s comical account of that “peculiar style of bayonet fighting” comes up in a later episode. But in those limited rest periods, the Fusiliers looked around to see how they might take their leisure during what for most of these working-class men, including my father, would prove to be their only visit to the Mediterranean in a lifetime (indeed, although he lived until 1987, Sam never “travelled” abroad except in World War 1). Anyway, up in their semi-desert area some miles north of Valletta, they could see the sea from the barracks windows. Tempting, except that…

‘The Army forbade swimming in the nearby sea at that time of year; there was a theory that some sort of organism proliferated in the water during the early months of the year and it caused Mediterranean Fever, whatever that was. An old wives’ tale left over from the Victorian era, many men asserted. But orders had to be obeyed.
     In any case, the coast near the barracks was difficult to approach: large areas covered with rocks surrounded by what looked like hardened lava, its burst bubbles creating sharp points, painful to walk over barefoot. If the origin of those formations was indeed volcanic, they must have survived just like that for many thousands of years. But Tommy heard no opinions expressed as, apparently, nobody knew or cared. Still, on good days, it was pleasant to strip off for a while and dangle your feet in the water – although, looking down, Tommy could see rocks beneath the surface so jagged and spiky that a wave pushing you against them might cause injury.’

Of course, it’s very unlikely that any of these lads, coming from various levels of poverty in London, had ever had a holiday in the modern sense, but if any of them thought that, for a bit, this might be it, Army grub could always bring them back to reality…

‘Whenever the men discussed the subject, they cursed that beady-eyed rascal so much in evidence on Tommy’s enlistment day*. He was seldom seen around the barracks and general opinion held that his job had scared him. Such an unprepossessing person would be fair game for more experienced supply officers. But dozens of men in the ranks at that time possessed more ability than that reptile to do the job of quartermaster in a responsible manner.
     “Imagine,” thought Tommy, “what strange sort of caterer would so bungle his ordering that men’s breakfasts in a hot climate would consist of strong cheese and onions boiled together?” This occurred on two or three days of each week for a period. It appeared a vast amount of cheese had been stored so carelessly it partially melted. And obviously some bright lad had bought a large consignment of Spanish onions. So someone induced Quartermaster Muggins to take quantities of both. Hence, the repulsive breakfasts.
     Corned beef might have proved an easy solution, but it bore no resemblance to that on sale in shops: delivered in large cans, dry and almost tasteless. Soldiers on the battlefield expected indifferent food, but a good quartermaster could surely do better than this for a Battalion in barracks.’
* “Tommy”/Sam vividly describes this much-loathed figure (also responsible for the disgraceful food on their 10-day voyage from Southampton) in the chapter about signing up at RF HQ in Bloomsbury: ‘The man had a clean, spruce appearance, a moustache with long, waxed points, an unattractive face – small eyes, the mouth downturned at the corners. No colour at all in the cheeks.’ And he got another seeing to before the Battalion boarded their ship at Southampton – a voyage marked by more disgraceful food, you may recall: “Pale parchment sort of face, small wicked-looking eyes… Just one expression on that horrible face — it said, “I hate you”.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: “Tommy”/Sam feels comradeship growing, yet still fears exposure for the lie he told when volunteering under age…

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