“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, 27 September 2015

Sam’s first day of battle… and the Battalion’s first deaths, young Nibs, old Ewart Walker – as the panicky RSM threatens to shoot his own men!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… from September 26-28 the Battle Of Loos reached a terrible crescendo wherein 12 British Army Battalions – 10,000 men – suffered 8,000 casualties while, in sum, making little headway. In the same sequence of Allied attacks, on October 3 the German Army recaptured their key stronghold, the Hohenzollern Redoubt near Auchy-des-Mines, and the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre abandoned an attempted breakthrough in Champagne (total casualties, for September 25-November 4 as I understand it, French 145,000, German 72,500).
    On the Eastern Front, through the week, battles continued around Eckau, Dvinsk (both now in Latvia), Lutsk (Ukraine) and the Pripet region (Ukraine/Belarus) with the Russian Army now holding its ground against the Germans for a while, after a long period of steady retreat.
    And in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the Indian Expeditionary Force attacked the Ottoman Army at Es Sinn on the Tigris, near Kut-al-Amarah, and drove them eastwards (September 28, Indian casualties 1,233, Ottoman 5,300 including prisoners taken).
    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 (still underage at 17, and without his older brother Ted who’d been ordered to stay behind in Egypt because of a dental problem), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, had landed at Suvla Bay on September 25. In the middle of the night, they experienced their first seconds, minutes and hours on a real battlefield, guns being fired at them “with intent to kill”, and the “urgent call, ‘Stretcher-bearers!”…

Last week’s excerpt left Sam (“in a full tizzy of excitement”) and his comrades sheltering behind a ridge of sand or packed earth. My father had just shown unusual boldness by complaining loudly that, the Battalion having been left almost 24 hours without a meal – “someone had blundered,” he reckoned – he was starving. Other voices chorused agreement and so, within an hour of their four-month participation in the campaign beginning, they consumed their emergency “iron rations”, cooked in their mess tins on the methylated stoves they carried in their packs.
    Feeling “twice the man”, as Sam writes in his Memoir, he awaited orders – and, it turned out, news of the Battalion’s first deaths:

‘Soon we arose, advanced over the ridge, and moved on across fairly level country, rather barren, though supporting the occasional clump of trees. We stopped several times, lying prone on the ground, as ordered, while quiet discussions just ahead of me took place. Too dark to see much, but a fair number of bullets whizzed our way. Sometimes they struck the earth nearby with a ffft; once one hit the trunk of a tree near me with a surprisingly loud crack.
    We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head. Had he been standing up, that bullet would presumably have damaged a foot or ankle. Stretcher-bearers carried him to the beach.
    Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney; a victim of random firing, not an aimed shot… Later, though, I learned that Nibs was not, after all, the first member of the Battalion killed; old Ewart Walker*, the erudite ex-journalist, had died within moments of reaching the beach — a time-fused shell exploded above his head, relieving him of any requirement to further tax his ageing body, and depriving us of a very good comrade.
    Heads down now, shoulders bent, we advanced as though we thought this posture offered some protection. I wondered how soon we would reach the position from which our attack would be launched and felt horribly shocked when an order was given to spread out and, in pairs, start digging holes to give us cover from enemy fire. We had to do this before dawn came with only our small trenching tools to help us.
    I paired with Bacon, who’d very recently joined the Signallers Section… A few blows with our light tools revealed little ordinary soil – instead, it was hard and broke away in flakes and piece… “This is marvellous,” I grumbled. “I suppose we must try, but we shan’t make much of a hole in the time we’ve got.”
    We slogged away at it, took turns trying to make a hole just long enough for we two to crouch in. As we penetrated a few inches we could hear the sides shedding bits and pieces… By dawn our hard, non-stop work had excavated a shallow trench about four feet long, two feet wide and two deep, providing very little cover for two now exhausted, shaky, and rather scared youngsters.
    We rested in the half-light, tired and hungry… Surveying the scene around me, I had doubts about our fitness, at that moment, to advance and capture the heights which loomed above. Facing the hills which, apparently, would be our objective, I saw that someone appeared to have selected a base for our Battalion’s attack which was completely exposed to enemy observation and fire. The terrain to our left and half-left rose gradually at first, thereafter steeply. Before us, ridges and several lowish hills. Beyond those, steadily rising country ascending at some distance from us to a considerable height — black hills of daunting aspect, enough to make me despair of reaching their peaks, even without an enemy’s presence.
    Some of the men had made holes much deeper than ours – having, I gathered, secured picks and shovels from a dump they had discovered. Older and wiser men than I, they had not just blindly obeyed orders to commence digging with puny trenching tools, but had put brains, eyes and instincts to work and benefited accordingly. In the early days of my military life, I felt inadequate in matters of that sort. The fly men could always secure the extra bit of bread or bully beef, cadge, beg, borrow or steal things to improve their condition or perhaps increase their chance of surviving. Beginning their war with deeper holes than most wasn’t bad for a start.’

But spending most of the day in that hole, pretty soon young Sam started thinking about his stomach again – and appreciating all the more a man who, in due course, established himself as one of his few lifelong heroes:

‘That first morning we had cause to bless Lieutenant Booth**, the enthusiastic young officer who had replaced Quartermaster wax whiskers***. He did his job of feeding and clothing us with complete dedication and, during the hours of darkness, had applied his energy to bringing forward from the beach some of the stores unloaded from the lighters. A certain sense of security, because enemy artillery had not yet fired on our “advanced” position, encouraged volunteers to distribute food. They gave each of us four rashers of bacon and half a loaf of bread, small paper bags of tea and sugar, and a tin of condensed milk.
    One volunteer from each group of four holes was allowed to hang the occupants’ eight water bottles over his shoulders and make his way back to a clump of trees and bushes behind which sheltered a mule-drawn water cart. I began to appreciate the varied uses to which those all-metal lighters could be put; men on the deck, food, water and other requirements of war inside them…
    Still we huddled there unmolested. We could hardly believe our luck. The mess-tin lid with its fold-over handle made an efficient frying pan and most of us still had the methylated-spirit heaters. I fried the rashers, soaked up the fat with bread and ate that up, then boiled about half a pint of water and dropped some tea, sugar and milk into it…
    Some men either had no heaters or found them unsatisfactory so, regardless of their own safety or ours, they lit small fires in the open beside their holes. Our luck gave out at that point. The Turks had either not been looking our way or else observing us with disbelief that we could be so foolhardy, but the smoke offered a perfect target for their range-finders.
    Shrapnel shells shrieked our way, burst at a height of 20 to 30 feet and sprayed the area. Howls of pain, calls for help, and the disappearance into their holes of the thoughtless fools who had brought the rain of hurtling metal down on us, all occupied but a few seconds. We had wounded and possibly dead men to care for, but we required a few minutes at least to allow the shock of this unexpected attack to subside.
    And then, almost as unwelcome as the shellfire, came the behaviour of one man, our RSM, who – with his batman – happened to occupy the next hole to the one Bacon and I shared. He briefly showed himself, brandishing a pistol, and shouted: “Keep down! Stay under cover! I’ll shoot the first man who shows himself above ground without permission!”
    I had not seen much of this gentleman previously, but for a while, in Malta, he had enjoyed immense popularity with the rank and file. He was a Sergeant of Marines, lent to our Battalion to raise the standard of our training, particularly with regard to physical fitness. An exponent of a new style of physical training and drill involving non-stop movement, he would issue rapid, staccato commands which had the trainees bending, stretching, turning this way and that, marching, running, flinging their arms about, doing knees-ups (as in Mother Brown), and obeying his exhortations to raise them ever higher.
    At the time, we all felt he was the man to make real soldiers out of us amateurs, God’s gift to a mob of willing, but unskilled volunteers. So we sweated our guts out in high Mediterranean temperatures, unbelievably anxious to merit the approval of this military Messiah. Even the fact that, during training, he dressed so differently to anyone else, enhanced his attractiveness. He wore Navy-blue slacks and a white sweater at the start of a session; as he warmed up, off came the sweater, revealing a smart, white singlet to match his white, canvas shoes — whereas we wore grey shirts and khaki trousers and heavy boots.
    Shortly before we left Malta he surprised us all by appearing in a uniform remarkably like that worn by commissioned officers – an arrow on each arm just above the cuff – and there he was, our new RSM, no less. Why was it we felt there was something wrong with his appointment?
    Now, in addition to this artillery attack, we faced the threat of bullets from our own RSM’s pistol… Realisation of the awful position in which someone’s error had placed us, had a bad effect on morale. And the RSM’s queer behaviour deepened the gloom… he failed us on our first night in the front line.
    Apparently, when the order to dig in was issued, he and his batman secured pick and shovel and spent the hours of darkness getting his hidey-hole down to a really useful depth. Indeed, over the following days, their excavations became so elaborate that, by design I think, though to what end I could not deduce, they tunnelled through to our hole. It introduced an unwelcome intimacy. My feelings must have shown for this RSM never loved me.’
* See Blog 18, 9/11/14for more about the old journalist, Ewart Walker.
** See Blog 51, 28/6/15: “Booth” is my father’s alias for Harry Nathan (1889-1963), promoted to Battalion commander later in the campaign – and much later, as Lord Nathan, a Minister in Attlee’s post-WW2 Government.
*** A hated figure since the day Sam and his pals enlisted in Bloomsbury, London, September, 1914.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Digging in – and, within days, Sam has a sense that the Battalion’s presence is a “sad, military waste”. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Chalk takes a hip bath on the battlefield… and Sam sings the praises of some unlikely heroes: the  front-line sanitary men.

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