“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, 24 May 2015

Sam the WW1 soldier boy as gentleman of leisure in Malta – taking tea in a posh café and a guided tour of a French battleship

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… on May 25 the 2nd Battle of Ypres concluded with a British retreat at Bellewarde Ridge (total casualties since April 22 70,000 French, British Empire and Belgian, 35,000 German); the deadly to and fro continued on the Western Front in the 2nd Battle Of Artois and on the Eastern Front at Konary and Gorlice-Tarnów (Poland), but also on the Austria-Hungary coast as Italy launched its first attack of the war having just joined the Allies, at Urmia in North Persia where on May 24 the Russians regained a city they’d lost to the Ottoman Army on April 16, and at Njok, Cameroons, where, on May 29, Anglo-French troops defeated German colonial forces.
    In Gallipoli the prevailing status quo had already set in, but German U-boats scored two considerable coups by sinking British battleships HMS Triumph (May 25) off Gaba Tepe and HMS Majestic (May 27) in the Dardanelles. This looked like a grim commentary on domestic politics as, in London, on the latter date then Liberal Winston Churchill resigned after four years as First Lord Of The Admiralty under Tory pressure about his role in conceiving what was already understood to be a disastrous attack on Turkey. During this week, Prime Minister Asquith also succumbed to forming a coalition Government with the Conservatives – installing former Tory PM Arthur Balfour as Churchill’s replacement.
    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, then 16 and 18 respectively), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, learned new skills while entertaining themselves as best they could during their lengthy and much appreciated, though never explained, period of preparation for… whatever might come next.

Last week, Sam met and introduced to blog Memoir readers his new trainee Signaller comrades – in particular the mighty mite Peter Miter, the Swiss love machine, superpatriot for his adopted country England, and, as later emerged, a valiant sidekick during the worst Gallipoli could throw at them.
    Now, training proceeds, Sam enjoys it – finding his military vocation if ever he had such a thing – but, in his Memoir, turns again to writing about the, to him, wondrously flavoursome day-off experiences available to a poor London boy on the loose in his first foreign country:

‘The variety of work kept us youngsters fully interested. Because it concerned maintaining communications over distances, we frequently had to take light rations and full water bottles with us and spend whole days away from barracks. Generally, we were divided into four groups of four per station, either running out light cables for field telephones working between them, or perhaps using heliographs and flags.
     The old routine of drills and marches soon became almost a memory, and probably we began to regard ourselves as Signallers rather than soldiers — specialists, in fact. A jolt to our boyish fancies was delivered once in a while when an order went out that all specialists, cooks, officers’ servants, clerks and so on would have to rejoin their Companies for a day’s refresher training. Rather out of practice, we performed badly sometimes, feeling not quite so cocky about our status afterwards.
     The Saturday trips to town became less frequent, being subject to the exigencies of our special training. But, when free, I sometimes had the company of one of our young chaps with similar, limited requirements to myself. Usually, instead of spending hours in a bar listening to musicians and singers, we would look at the sights, buildings, or views, and sometimes have tea in a gem of a place we discovered in the main street of Valletta. After a surfeit of Army grub, a tea with waitress service, your own teapot and lovely, fancy pastries taken among pleasant civilians, mostly women, was well worth one of our scarce shillings. English people ran the teashop and, if you managed to get a table near a window, you could survey the gay scene below as people and horse-drawn traffic moved along the Strada Reale*.
     By way of a change, we might have coffee and sweet cakes in a place mostly used by Maltese businessmen. One seldom saw a soldier in there, but the regulars appeared to have no objection to our presence. On several occasions, local men sat with us and talked about civilian life on the island and sometimes of their own visits to Britain. I enjoyed these brief spells in a world so different to the Army in which I now seemed to have dwelt for so long.
     In town by myself one particularly hot day, I walked down to the Grand Harbour. A large battleship stood at anchor and a boatman offered to take me out to her for thruppence. Coming alongside I realised that, her name being Jean Bart**, she was a French Navy ship. But when a matelot, seeing my uniform, gave me a sign of welcome, I had no hesitation in stepping across on to the gangway.
     The friendly sailor became my guide on a long tour of that huge battleship and my eyes made up for his paucity of English words and mine of French. It may surprise you that the memory of her kitchens, with their large ovens, remained with me after much else was forgotten; even at sea, Frenchmen respected their tummies and catered for their needs on a grand scale.
     Ashore again, I found the waterside area where our Battalion first landed and spotted the Seamen’s Mission which had caught my attention while we waited for orders. Curiosity took me into the building and, there being no one around, I settled into a large leather armchair. On that hot, drowsy, late afternoon I soon dozed, contented, comfortable, unworried by thoughts of NCOs in search of victims.
     I awoke some time later, well rested, and looked around expecting to see perhaps a seafaring gent or some official, but all remained silent, nobody appeared. It reminded me of that small office in a street off Haymarket in distant London, next to a flat which one of my bosses owned or rented, on the door of which a brass plate announced the registered office of a fund for needy seamen. Never, in my visits there, had I seen any sign of life in the seafarers’ office. I wondered why. Would a needy seaman in London’s dockland ever find his way to the West End for a sub? Likewise, in that Maltese seamen’s home-from-home I found no one to thank, so left the place much refreshed and somewhat puzzled.’
* the Battalion marched along the Strada Reale when they first landed in Malta – Valetta’s main street then, lined with “churches, fine shops, restaurants, cafés” as Sam noted in blog 34.
** Jean Bart was the second Dreadnought-class battleship built for the French Navy, launched 1911; on December 21 1914, she was hit by a torpedo which struck the wine store(!), then she steamed to Malta for repairs; later she fought in the Mediterranean and then in the Black Sea, supporting Allied troops in the Russian Civil War – her crew mutinied in sympathy with the Bolsheviks until a Vice-Admiral acceded to the matelots’ demands to go home.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam – just the eight months on from volunteering – finally learns how to shoot… and it hurts!

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