“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, 31 May 2015

Just the eight months on from volunteering… Sam learns how to use a rifle!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… today, on May 31, but a Monday, the first Zeppelin bombing raid on London caused an eruption of public outrage which, in retrospect, may seem disproportionate amid a war dealing in mass slaughter daily on the various frontlines. LZ38 flew from Evère, outside Brussels, found London – a tricky business in an airship – and, following the Kaiser’s instructions to leave his family at Buckingham Palace well alone, dropped 120 bombs (90 of them incendiaries) on a line from Stoke Newington to Stepney and then east to Leytonstone. Seven died, but several of the fatalities were children, which resulted in the British dubbing their enemy “baby killers”. Further mob attacks ensued on London Germans and other foreigners suspected of being German (earlier that month one victim was a Scot with an “ach” in his name, a Mr Strachan).
    Elsewhere, the bloody to and fro continued in France, Poland, the Italian Alps, Mesopotamia and in Cameroon.
    And at Gallipoli, a British/Indian and French attack in the Helles sector again ended in failure at the Third Battle Of Krithia (British/Indian casualties 4,500, French 2,000; Turkish reported as 3,000 dead). One controversy from a small detail of the action still rages today: Lieutenant GRD Moor of the Hampshire Regiment was awarded a VC for turning a mass of fleeing British soldiers from another Regiment back towards the Turks – according to some sources via the expedient of shooting the four leaders of the disorderly retreat; other sources say this is unconfirmed by any clear account or record and may have been put about by his seniors pour encourage les autres.
    Meanwhile... at St George’s Barracks, Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe and his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, 16 and 18 respectively as of early summer 1915), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, continued their training and wondering where they’d finally end up “in the trenches” (Gallipoli was the immediate answer; you readers can know, but nobody was telling the PBI). However, despite this certain sense of aimlessness, Sam had found new work he enjoyed by signing up as a specialist Signaller, developing skills he first acquired back home in the Boy Scouts...

Last week, Sam luxuriated in recollection of Saturdays off, the young trainee soldier as tourist, taking his ease in a nice Valletta tea room and getting a guided tour of a French battleship in the harbour (here)… It’s quite a thought that for many of these working-class lads, like Sam and his pals, the war was the only time they ever set foot outside their own country.
    But, as he recalls in his Memoir, the time came to get down to business – the dirty work, you could say – beyond the rather technical, classroom atmosphere of Signals training. They’d been supplied with guns, finally, some weeks earlier; now they had to learn how to use them:

‘Life as a member of the Signals Section felt far more fulfilling than that of an ordinary “squaddie”, but now came our turn to learn something of armed combat. This brought our group under instruction from men who regarded soldiering as something much tougher and harsher than did our own Sergeant, to whom ohms and amps, dots and dashes, and field telephones were the tools which would actually win the war.
    A major part of the basic training concerned the ranker’s weapon, the rifle. Once issued to him, that rifle’s number was entered against his name. It became his main responsibility, a court martial for him if he mislaid it, and the “rookie” must learn the name, position and function of every part of his gun.
    The bolt was an intricate piece of mechanism, a moving and removable part containing within it a strong spring and a striking pin. Consider then what happened when you squeezed the trigger — the bolt spring was released, the striker pin pierced a small explosive cap, this ignited tightly packed strands of cordite in the cartridge case creating enormous pressure in that small space which propelled the metal cone blocking the outlet at express speed through the rifle barrel to the destruction or mutilation of some unfortunate person… or as the instructor would say, “It’ll put paid to some poor bastard”. If your aim was good…
    When you raised the bolt’s lever it came backwards, engaging, withdrawing, and expelling the cartridge case of a fired bullet. When you then pushed the bolt forward it shoved a fresh cartridge into position ready for firing. Speed must be developed in doing this, so that you could kill more enemies in a given time. The instructor pointed out a brass plate on the wide butt where a hinged, small tongue protected a hole out of which one could extract a small oil container and a pull-through — a cord with a slim metal weight at one end and a loop to hold a piece of cloth at the other. Lubricating and cleaning the rifle and its barrel was quite an important part of a soldier’s job.
    Now, dear reader, you are almost as proficient as I was in the mechanics of a lethal weapon and probably hoping, as I was, that you may never have to shoot a fellow human. You may say so freely, but I kept my trap shut, perforce. I continued adding to my knowledge thus… at the tip of the barrel is the foresight and, closer to the rifleman’s eye, the backsight, adjustable. Cut into the latter is a U or a V and so, holding the rifle tightly to your right shoulder, left hand supporting the barrel, you look with your right eye along the gun and bring the foresight’s tip into line with the shoulders of the backsight and both in line with the bottom of the object to be shot at. Pressing the butt hard into your right shoulder, now squeeze the trigger between the right thumb and forefinger…
    But, before actually firing a live round, we need more training. “Lie down,” says the instructor. “Take aim as taught.” He lies down too, a few yards in front of you, facing your rifle, brave man. The target, which he holds, has a tiny hole in the centre of its bull’s-eye through which he peers to see if your gun is correctly sighted. At his command you fire… fortunately, you are using wooden bullets, so when the trigger is pressed only a sharp click follows, but the instructor can see if, in the firing process, there is too much movement of the rifle barrel. By the way, the instructor examines these wooden bullets before and after each practice because, he says, a live round got among the dummies once and the Army lost a good teacher.’

Science and technique; every part of this training stayed with Sam. The deadly effect, as will emerge in due course, stayed with him for the rest of his life.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Rifle training continues – firing live rounds, the humiliating importance of the safety catch, Maltese fishermen duck for their lives…

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