“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 30 August 2015

Sam, temporary tourist en route for Gallipoli, takes a trip to Heliopolis, the Sphinx, the Pyramids – and gets pie-eyed on the local hooch…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross

For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago… A massive artillery duel raged all week around Arras in northern France, while on the Eastern Front the Russian Army’s Great Retreat paused to score modest successes at Strypa (August 30) and Lutsk (31, both in Galicia, now in Ukraine). The Italian Army too gained ground on its northern border against the Austrians at Monte Marona (30) and Trentino (September 4).
    The week’s big military/political development saw Germany accept US President Woodrow Wilson’s terms for ending “unrestricted submarine warfare” (September 1) – meaning, for merchant shipping, that U-boats resumed stop-and-search, sinking vessels carrying “contraband” only after crew and passengers had taken to lifeboats. This was to avoid America, and possibly other neutral states, entering the war – however, three days later the U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, torpedoed the British liner Hesperian off Fastnet (she got help before eventually sinking, but 32 died).
    In Gallipoli, the final major onslaught by the Allies petered out on August 29, when the Turkish Army beat back British, Gurkha and Anzac forces at the nine-day Battle of Hill 60 in the Suvla Bay area.
    Meanwhile... Gallipoli-bound (they feared), but lately shipped in from seven months training in Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, his brother Ted (still secretly underage at 17 and 18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, explored their first few days in an even more exotic setting: Egypt.

Longer posts from Egypt – hope they hold you – because Sam packed so much into this brief pre-Gallipoli sojourn (around September 1 to 17) in the other world of a place he’d never expected to see. Last week, Sam’s Fusiliers settled into a new “tent town” at Abbasieh, just outside Heliopolis (an ancient settlement dating back to 2-3000BC). Blazing days turned to cool nights, so each soldier was given two bright-red blankets. Sam recalled in his Memoir:

‘I made a hollow in the ground for my hips and laid down my groundsheet, placed my kitbag as a pillow, wrapped one of the gorgeous rugs around me and laid the other loosely over the top of it… wrapped in these fine-quality wool blankets we hoped, some of us, that we looked like the sheiks about whom we had heard love-lorn ladies singing in church-hall concerts back in England.’

The impression of superior organisation at this camp grew with the arrival of good news on the victualling front:

‘… with what joy did we learn that old wax-whiskers, the villainous Battalion Quartermaster, had remained in Malta, his department now placed in the care of the young Lieutenant Booth who had guarded our interests since the rather comical mutiny some time back [see Blog 51 June 28, 2015]. He made his rounds in the straw-mat hut at dinner-time to inspect the food and told us that – in addition to their blanket-supply commitment – the Egyptian authorities were obliged to provide money for additional food for our troops. As he said, the meat we had just eaten – or not – was very tough, but nothing better could be bought for love nor money. The sweet potatoes that went with it were strange to us, but there were no ordinary spuds to be had. So he proposed to spend the additional funds on canned goods, meats if available, otherwise fruits from a big importing company.
     A sound businessman, he looked after our interests carefully… we knew instinctively that he would not take the kitty, for he was a rare, honest man; he would not deviate even by a hair’s breadth from the straight and narrow path…’

Ever curious about any new location, Sam began to look around:

‘With no training schemes nor other compulsory activities to occupy us during the first few days at Abbasieh, I was able to explore a great sandy hill at the rear of the camp. The story spread that a big battle had been fought there some years earlier and, since then, sandstorms had buried the buildings which stood there. How, during a war already claiming thousands of lives, I could possibly feel excited while prowling over a former battlefield I cannot explain. I seriously hoped to stumble on some wonderful trophy. I didn’t, though odd bones I came across were possibly of human origin and I did identify one as a thighbone.
     Climbing to the top of the hill, though, I had a fine view across part of Cairo to a group of pyramids. I decided a trip to see them was essential and, on returning to camp, applied for a chit for 24 hours leave.’

He spent a piastre (then 2½d) on a donkey ride into Heliopolis and a tram along the main road where…

‘… for a piastre, I bought a book of useful phrases expressed in French, English (sort of) and Arabic spelt out phonetically in English characters. I remember from it “tala-hena” (come here), “saeeda” (good-day), “empshi allah” (go away), “mush quois” (no good), and a funny one, “ruk shooh” (translated as “up to shit”) – I never knew when to use that last one.’

While wandering, he bumped into an old friend from the Battalion, called Tim Thane, and agreed to spend the day with him – although he’d rather have meandered alone:

I had little money and that little came under threat when, inevitably, he needed a drink. I should be a churl if I didn’t pay my whack.
     That’s how it went. Within a few minutes of our entering the drink-shop, I had four glasses of some very potent brew under my belt, and less money in my pocket. You notice I don’t call the place a “pub” – it bore no resemblance to one. Comfortable chairs, small, marble-topped tables, waiters wearing white jackets, fezzes on their heads. Customers probably all Egyptian, apart from us. Most of them wore European-style suits with, again, fezzes; a few had robe-like garments, but none of them wore the white nightshirts, as I regarded them, of the manual workers. So Tim had probably landed us in a pricey joint and I was living it up in a style far beyond the limits of my small income.
     Those four glasses of the strong stuff had made me drunk. I thought I was concealing that fact as I essayed to rise from my chair. It must indeed have been a high-class place for I had hardly fallen back into my seat when a waiter placed a small dish of radishes in front of me, indicating with a couple of words and several expressive actions that if I ate them my head would clear and my gait would be steady. He asked for no money and appeared happy and satisfied, so I concluded he had helped himself to tips when changing my five-piastre pieces.’
     Poorer, but wiser as to the medicinal properties of radishes, we resumed our stroll.’

After that, they acquired an unwanted guide, Abdul, whose informative skills Sam could not enjoy because of true British embarrassment about the uncertain situation:

‘… we found ourselves gazing at the Pyramids and then at the Sphinx,*, before walking along a sort of road below ground level where there were many carvings, and an outstanding figure – I seem to remember being told it represented Rameses. I just couldn’t take an interest in these marvellous things, because this man’s job was obviously to guide tourists around and impart his knowledge to them for a monetary consideration and I had no money to spare and I wasn’t a tourist. Both of us had tried to convince the chap about our poverty, but he just smiled and continued his spiel.
     Come the time when nature demanded relief, and who could I turn to but him? At breakneck speed we followed him along crowded streets, presently left the busy part of town and in a narrow passageway climbed stone steps in a poor sort of dwelling and finished up in a small room with a stone floor in the centre of which was a circular hole, nothing else. That had to do, but the self-conscious performing over that hole with an audience added one more humiliation to the day.’
* The Great Sphinx and three pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, stand on the outskirts of current Heliopolis/Cairo.

They resumed touring the streets of Heliopolis, Sam’s unease temporarily dispersed by what he heard and saw, relishing every detail as you can see:

‘… we unexpectedly found ourselves in a bazaar, the stalls displaying metal objects of many kinds. Such a hammering and tapping was going on around us, such beating of brass and copper with mallets and hammers, such chasing of fine patterns on trays and bowls and shapely vessels as made me wonder where this vast output of ornamental metal might be disposed of. To moneyed travellers, I presumed, if any still came by in wartime. Those informative short stories in weekly magazines had left me with the conviction that much of the stuff sold to tourists in marketplaces Middle-Eastern and beyond had first seen the light of day in Birmingham, but the goings-on in this market persuaded me otherwise…
     Soon we passed along a narrow path on either side of which men displayed carpets and rugs, all presumably of local manufacture. Fortunately, most of the merchants were away out at the mosque or dinner or otherwise engaged. The occasional exception squatted either behind a hookah, the loading and lighting of which was a home industry by itself, or on a sample of stock, propped up by piles of rugs, and so deep in thought their eyes had closed, their chins resting on their chests.’

Finally, Sam and Thane argued about paying Abdul, Thane’s view being that “a boot up his arse” would suffice, Sam pointing out that “we had, at least, the certainty of being fed, clothed, and some sort of roof over our heads, while the poor blighter still keeping pace with us probably had a family to look after”. So Sam offered Abdul three piastres to which Thane grudgingly added two and their day’s tourism was done.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam meets the Aussies and, wide-eyed, watches their Crown & Anchor gambling school – not to mention a riot…

Sunday 23 August 2015

Sam, in Egypt to his surprise, sees Alexandria dock workers treated like slaves; then the British Army loads the Battalion into open railway trucks under the scorching sun...

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago… while nothing much changed in the Western Front’s trench-bound attrition, bombing became the theme of the week. French Voisin bombers (in 1914, the first to be used in war) attacked Ternier and Noyon (in German-occupied northern France), an iron works in Dillingen (Bavaria) and a poison gas factory in Dornach (now Switzerland), while British planes, probably Shorts, went for Henin Lietard and Loos (Pas De Calais). They carried 1-200 pounds of bombs, the crew still lobbing them out by hand it seems.
    On the Eastern Front, the German advance/Russian Great Retreat continued as, in Poland, Brest-Litovsk (August 25) and Byelostok (26) fell, while the German Army also began its Sventiany Offensive in present-day Lithuania (August 26-September 19). The Italian allies, however, had some success against Austria in Trentino (28), as did the Montenegrins at Grahovo (27).
    Although, in Turkey, the Gallipoli campaign had another four months left, the Battle Of Hill 60 proved to be the last substantial Allied attack, as well as the final flaring of the August Offensive outlined last week. The British/Gurkha/Anzac endeavor to link their beachheads at Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove foundered when a final three-day onslaught (August 27-9) on this high point of the Sari Bair Hills left the Turks still in command of the summit (1,100 Allied casualties, unknown number of Turks).
    Meanwhile... the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, thought their farewell thoughts about Malta. On August 27, 1915 (a Friday), after seven months of hard training – and, in between, Mediterranean easy living of a kind they’d never expected to enjoy in their entire lives – my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, his brother Ted (still secretly underage at 17 and 18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, boarded the SS Ivernia in Valletta’s Grand Harbour/Marsamxett. They feared Gallipoli would be their next stop, although the current rumour suggested a different destination...

Last week, we left Sam, in his Memoir, relishing reminiscence about the island’s loveliness while trying to prevent his imagination wandering to the realities he might soon have to face: “every moment of every day men are being mutilated, shot to the point of collapse, killed, buried when found…”. As commandeered liner Ivernia set sail, he watched his “paradise” diminish in the distance...

‘Brought back to earth by a pal asking me if I’d fixed up my kip (somewhere to sleep), I followed his directions to the small area allocated to our section and was surprised to find I had a small bed, of sorts, to myself. Much of the first deck below had been ingeniously fitted up with a maze of metal frames providing hundreds of single beds, each with a mattress and two white blankets.
     This showed how differently shipping companies honoured their transport agreements with the Government. This company, the Anchor Line if memory serves*, treated soldiers well. Every morning, we had hot bread or rolls with first-rate coffee, boiled eggs distributed in large string bags, or bacon served from large, hot dishes with lots of lovely bacon fat to soak our bread in. They served daily two other good meals, each equal to our usual dinners on land. Fine-flavoured yellow apples, kept in a barrel, could be bought at one penny each.’
* Cunard bought the Anchor Line in 1911 so my father may be misremembering, but that would be a rare occurrence indeed. I expect Ivernia still carried Anchor Line insignia despite the change of ownership.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the ordinary soldiers’ experience of sea travel – something totally unknown to most working-class men and boys before the war, of course – was that they never knew where they were going until they got there. On this voyage, Sam’s Fusiliers’ expectations/wishful thinking failed to even get the right continent:

‘The pity of it was that we stayed aboard so briefly. Rumour, put about with some confidence, had us bound for India, but that order must have been cancelled, for we disembarked at Alexandria in Egypt.**
     I was amazed to witness scenes of great cruelty on the quayside, where huge, black men supervised gangs of workers, lashing them frequently with long cane swishes. If this wasn’t slavery – which we had been assured at school was long ago abolished – then what could it be called?*** Nevertheless, the men chanted as they heaved and hauled and I supposed the small wages they received might ensure sustenance for their families.
     Catering for the feeding and general wellbeing of troops in transit was well organised at this busy port. They had been doing the job for years and their efficiency showed in marked contrast to places where temporary wartime officials controlled organisation. So we had a good meal, an hour or so of rest, then found ourselves climbing into open railway wagons.
     Someone could no doubt have explained why trucks, not carriages, were chosen for a journey through mostly sandy country under a scorching Egyptian sun; if wagons it had to be, then why not covered ones? It was all accepted at that time as part of the soldier’s lot, so we sat on the hard boards or occasionally stood up to give our backsides a rest. When the track ran through a cutting, fine sand swirled around us and caused discomfort. No singing to be heard: a sure sign that Tommy Atkins – as soldiers were fondly, or patronisingly, known – was not amused.’
** I can’t trace any record of the date on which they reached Alexandria, but one nautical site says the voyage takes about four days, so maybe August 31.
*** Egypt officially abolished slavery in 1896.

Still, it turned out that another, though brief, interlude of new and exotic experience awaited them:

‘Cairo proved to be the destination. After climbing out of the trucks, we were allowed to fill our water bottles and eat hard biscuits and melting cheese. Then we started marching through busy Cairo streets till we reached a quieter district, mainly residential and, I guessed, favoured by fairly wealthy people. After that, the road became more of a track, the open-sided electric trams no longer clattered by, and soon the only buildings in sight were Army barracks.
     I hoped we could anticipate another spell of life in solid buildings with shaded walkways and roofs. I was wrong. We followed a track by the outer wall of the barracks and soon moved clear of all buildings while, to left, right, and before us, stretched a vast area of sand. However, we came to apparently chaotic heaps of items dumped at intervals and in orderly lines. These we duly assembled into tents, each the home of ten or more men — in fact, at a pinch, 20 men could lay down in a bell tent, but not comfortably, nor healthily.
     A tent town soon appeared, a rough board named each “street” from First onwards, a number was stuck on each tent, and a list of occupants hung on the pole at the front. So we had addresses, purely for administrative purposes, of course. Meanwhile, nearby, men of the Royal Engineers erected the frames of several large huts, in due course adding roofs and walls composed of what looked like rush or raffia mats. They left large openings in place of doors or windows and, while not intended to be sun-proof, the huts provided cool, shady areas where we could take our meals and recreation.
     We discovered that other engineers were busily connecting up systems of water pipes, the provision including showers in cubicles made of that same matting. When, later, I heard that we were temporarily under the command of the Indian Army, I appreciated that they specialised in efficient housing and sanitation for troops frequently on the move in hot, dry climates.
The intense interest I had always felt in new sights, sounds, and smells once more dominated all my waking hours. Thoughts and vague fears regarding future assignments I pushed to the background – and here, on the edge of the desert, the romantic ideas of life in the Middle East culled from short stories in cheap magazines appeared to be based on fact.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam, a temporary tourist en route for Gallipoli, takes a wide-eyed trip to Heliopolis, the Sphinx, the Pyramids – and gets pie-eyed on the local hooch…