“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, 20 September 2015
Sam’s first battlefield, Gallipoli – “guns being fired with intent to kill”, shrieking shells, the urgent call for “Stretcher-bearers!”… and he wants his breakfast!
For details of how to buy Sam’s 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
A hundred years ago… this week, the Battle Of Loos (September 25-October 14) in northern France began with a British onslaught following four days of artillery bombardment. It was co-ordinated with French attacks in Champagne-Ardenne which had rather more success, though the whole effort failed to “restore a war of movement”, as preferred by some of the generals. Notably, at Loos the British Army used poison gas (chlorine) for the first time. In these early days of what became known overall as the Third Battle Of Artois, casualties began their rise towards eventual official totals of 48,230 French, 61,713 British and 51,100 German.
Elsewhere, Russia had an unusual week of success driving the Germans back around Pinsk and Lutsk (now Belarus) and the Austrians in Rovno (now Ukraine). And in the region around Gallipoli, Bulgaria struck a somewhat ambiguous “armed neutrality” agreement with Turkey (September 25) and Greece began mobilising on the Allied side (23) as the Turkish Army in Syria made preparations to attack Egypt.
Meanwhile... 12 months on from joining up, 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, set sail for Gallipoli, their first battle…
Last week, Sam encountered anticipatory fear for the first time, admitting he was “scared windy”. But he got a grip on it, settling into what he thought of as “the perpetual awareness of danger, which wild creatures display at all times”. Thus, he believed, he might present a “normal” appearance to his comrades no matter what.
So, when administrative officers removed his brother from the troopship on the docks at Alexandria (September 17, by one account, but possibly a few days later), at first he felt bereft… then glad that Ted might be spared and “remain in Egypt for the duration of the war”.
When they’d left the harbour he checked his massive load of equipment – it weighed around 90 pounds, he reckoned, with all the signalling gear – noting, with his poor boy’s attention to eating possibilities, “a can containing a block of solidified methylated spirit which could be made into a burner, and “iron rations” comprising a bag of small, hard biscuits, single packets of beef cubes, tea and sugar, and a can of Maconochie’s stewed beef – this last, one of that war’s great successes. To broach these rations without the permission of an officer was a serious crime; they were to be used in grave extremity only”. In the same prudent spirit, he writes that when meals aboard concluded, “What bread I, and others around me, couldn’t eat, I stored in any space in haversack or pack. Stew couldn’t be so readily saved… But I picked out leftover pieces of meat, dried them off, wrapped them up tightly in an oilskin cap cover… – scheming about any steps I could take to improve my survival prospects”.
Exploring the ship, a former cattle boat without sleeping accommodation, they found it “armed” with a fake gun, actually a telegraph pole, “a contraption which might mislead and scare an enemy lookout man, provided he had faulty eyesight or a dirty telescope. A thousand men at risk because some daft idiot at the Admiralty didn’t prepare for a war which all but he knew was coming…”
After a couple of days, they entered “a perfect natural harbour”, Mudros, on the Greek island Lemnos, the Allies’ Navy base for the Gallipoli campaign. There my father and another Signaller, following orders, spent this hiatus at anchor offering rather unwelcome “help” to the ship’s officer of the watch.
But soon they were on their way, preparing to transfer to another vessel, given “on active service” postcards to tell their families they were alive if little else – nobody had told them where they were going anyway, though of course they knew. Sam wrote vividly about what went on, inside out. This is a long passage, although I’ve edited it down heftily from the Memoir – but I think the intensity of these hours, which my father recalled in such detail 50 years later have to be given their due:
‘This set the tension mechanism really racing – although I flattered myself no one knew about that. If a boy like me tried to assume the cool, steady demeanour of a man in full control of his emotions, then an older chap might behave with gaiety, perhaps sing a few lines of a bawdy song, or take the micky out of a mate who was the usual butt of his jokes. The thing not to do was stay silent and look gloomy – that way you would be labelled “windy” and lose all your pals. You had to consider that others might be feeling worse than you, but they didn’t let it show. So it may be that battles fought inwardly to preserve the good opinion of one’s fellows made possible some of the bigger victories on the battlefield…
One man who simply had to win the personal inward struggle was the commissioned officer in charge of men in the front line. This subject I’d heard debated many a time; I don’t recall discussions about the deeper feelings of fellow rankers, but officers being a class apart, loved or hated, we expected them to act as the leaders they had set themselves up to be. If they had their men’s good will, they carried all our hopes that, in action, we would acquit ourselves well together…
One of those smaller ships came alongside…
Much too soon for my liking, we were ploughing through a choppy sea. One minute it seemed safe and quiet in harbour, the next out here in a small ship on a grey, cheerless day, bound for God knows what. Tired out, I slipped out of my heavy equipment and, with pack for a pillow, soon stretched out on the deck and forgot fears and fancies in deep sleep. [Then when] a wave lapped over the side, splashed around me and made me jump… I found a more sheltered place near the stern where I joined a chap leaning on the rail there. It was too dark for me to identify him. General chat became more detailed after a while, when I remarked that I’d be happier, perhaps, if somebody had told me what we were up to.
This man did tell me – and thus whipped up inner tension to its highest level so far: “We are going ashore at a place where landings commenced some time ago. Unfortunately, that lot haven’t done as well as hoped for. There are big hills quite a short distance from the beach and our chaps should by now be on the far side of them, but they’re not. We go ashore tonight, advance through their lines and try to get to what was their objective. I don’t like it, but we can only do our best.”*
By then, I realised he was an officer, and I remember surmising to myself that he must have felt deep anxiety and, perhaps, loneliness to have been moved to confide in a young ranker… Still leaning on the rail, I tried to envisage the probable course of events during the hours of darkness now commencing…
That this small ship’s course ran surprisingly close to the shore was revealed only too clearly when a burst of rifle fire had me scurrying to the sea side of the ship. I believed I could see, darker than the general darkness, the top of a cliff mass. Yes, and the sounds of desultory rifle fire came from up there. No bullets zinged past, though, so we were not the target.
Word passed around for all to be ready to disembark and I donned my load, message case, field transmitter, rifle and all… Whether excitement or fear brought it on I don’t know, but I suddenly felt terribly hungry. Then I recalled that I had not eaten since early morning. Nor, as far as I know, had any of our men. Someone had blundered. Or was it usual to land troops on a battlefield with empty bellies?
The sound of the ship’s engines changed. We four H Company Signallers stood shoulder to shoulder with the others awaiting the next move.
As Lance Corporal in charge of our small group… I located our Captain and resolved to keep close to him and to have my mates close to me… but as to Signallers he knew nothing, nor did he seem to wish to. “I can send messages by word of mouth,” he told me when jammed together, as we all were on that small ship. We four appeared to be crowding him in that darkness. Proximity to the scent of power boosted my confidence sufficiently for me to disregard any intended rebuff. I’d had my training, I felt that I knew my job, and perhaps felt sorry that the Captain did not appreciate our role…
Our small ship carried G and H Companies, and each assembled without fuss on its appointed side of the boat. Where the dark cliff had towered above us, I now saw the lighter colour of the sky. Across a wider stretch of water than earlier, on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare.
I heard the engine of another vessel chugging nearby for several minutes until it bumped against our ship’s side, a lighter of some sort… a voice from the lighter quietly instructed us to “Move across carefully when your turn comes. Watch the rise and fall, then step across.” I soon found myself at the edge trying earnestly to estimate the right moment… I forced myself across the slight gap and the weight of my body and all my equipment carried me forward. It was difficult to avoid crashing into men ahead of me, but this I managed somehow and then braced myself to steady the next oncoming bloke.
Its deck, I found, was metal – as were the tips and heels of our Army boots, so retaining a good foothold presented difficulties. The chaps around me did afford some support, but they were not to be leant against or grabbed, as their remarks quickly made clear…
A howl became a shriek, then a shattering explosion – and a short silence was followed by numerous thuds as what had gone up came down on the nearby beach. While still at sea I heard for the first time that sad, though urgent call, “Stretcher-bearers!” A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards seemed to produce an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body.
The lighter moved in closer and our Sergeant Major’s voice came clear above all other sounds, “Take your turn! Go quickly down the ramp, then form two ranks and follow your leader!” As we faced the shore it seemed that rifle fire came mainly from half-left and a fair distance away. But from a wider range of positions came artillery fire.
With some relief I formed the opinion that the troops who made the first landing had done a good job in clearing the Turks from the beach, but I soon discovered that the occasional sniper had stayed behind to harass and scare by the uncertainty he created. As I took my turn down the ramp, I heard a quiet chat going on between our Company officer and someone ashore. Without pause, in pairs, we followed our leader on to the beach – the while he continued his conversation with the stranger.
We moved uphill for a while, veered right just before reaching the top of a ridge, and shuffled along on this fairly steep slope, left leg bent, t’other extended, an awkward progress, overloaded as I was. When our leader stopped and squatted, we all did likewise along the line. “Stay well below the ridge top and await orders,” was the next instruction passed along.
I was in a full tizzy of excitement having been primed by my confiding officer on the ship to expect immediate and violent action. However, when we stayed there for some while, pangs of hunger became pressing – we had not eaten since early morning. In a fairly loud voice, which I hoped would reach our officer’s ears, I said I was starving. “Quiet!” came a reproof, but muttering spread along the line, confirming that others also felt empty. A word of mouth message passed from man to man brought a junior officer over and he explained that no rations had been issued since we left the island harbour. Rightly or wrongly, he agreed that we should start on our iron rations.
Fortunate the ridge concealed us, for we were soon lighting our little methylated stoves to heat water in our mess tins. Into this we dropped beef cubes and some of the small, hard biscuits. With this below our belts we felt stronger. I set about chewing dry biscuits as well. A swig from my water bottle, and I felt twice the man.’
* According to the biography of their (soon to be) commanding officer Harry Nathan, my father’s Battalion landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on September 25, 1915 – a Saturday that week – joining the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division.
All the best – FSS