“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, 13 September 2015
Sam’s Fusiliers advised to draw up their wills as they head for Gallipoli; suddenly he’s “scared windy” – and at the last moment he gets separated from brother Ted…
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… this week Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, Secretary Of State For War, announced 11 new British Divisions (Sept 15, 10-20,000 men each) had been sent to the Western Front. But he also declared himself worried about recruitment and a House of Commons discussion about National Service conscription began.
In the East, the German Sventiany Offensive against the Russian Army concluded after three weeks (August 26-September 19) with the occupation of Vilnius (now in Lithuania) and Pinsk (now in Belarus). Romania shifted from neutrality to join the Allied side, a decision said to have cost the country 748,000 military and civilian dead over the following three years.
And in Gallipoli, as deadly attrition became the mode of fighting for the final four months of the campaign, in the Aegean a U-boat sank the troopship Ramazan en route to Gallipoli with the loss of 300 troops, by some accounts all Indian, by others including around 200 Gurkhas.
Meanwhile... lately arrived in Egypt, 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, had been enjoying a couple of weeks in this exotic location – the Pyramids, Heliopolis, the markets and bars – before… well, they could all guess where they were bound now although, as usual nobody told them. Gallipoli, their first battle, 12 months after they joined up…
Last week, Sam and Ted enjoyed the diverse Cairo delights of the Blue Mosque and a troupe of belly dancers. Then, back at their camp in nearby Abbasieh, Sam had fun observing as their Aussie neighbours, whose informal ways he much admired, conducted their nightly Crown And Anchor gambling school… but looked on in sorrow as a gang of his new heroes looted and mocked a bunch of local traders who, with the Allied Armies’ permission, had set up a small market adjacent to the camp.
But those pleasures and troubles he soon set aside as other urgent matters brought a different momentum their lives.
‘A period of general unease now set in. No more trips to Cairo town… We were ordered to wear our heavy uniforms and return the cotton drills and our lightweight sun helmets to the Quartermaster – but the sun didn’t vanish in sympathy. We were given new short rifles with long bayonets to replace the ancient long rifles with short bayonets turned in on Malta. The brains of Britain had been busy. There must have been some significant advantage in this change of arms, though what it was eluded me.
Next, brand new signalling equipment came our way; a clash of interests resulted because, at the same time, we Signals men were ordered to rejoin our Companies for training in the use of the new rifles, while the officers on the communications side wanted us to spend every moment available learning about the new telephone, telegraph, and electric signal lamps. The latter involved making our way in darkness over fair distances from one point to another using only illuminated compasses, meanwhile improving our speed at sending and receiving messages. So, with neither set of trainers relenting, they kept our section busy all day and half the night.
A sharpness and impatience was abroad. Officers told us we lacked diligence and application and had fallen well behind other Battalions in our Brigade. Our Brigade? Where were the other three Battalions which comprised it? Where was that marvellous band and my hero, the big-drum wizard with the leopardskin?* Come to think of it, where was our Colonel? Our corpulent RSM Cole? And the dashing Major who mysteriously appeared among us one day in Malta? – his appearance, his bearing, the very epitome of an officer of that rank, his blatant uselessness to a wartime Army balanced by his ornamental qualities.
Have I told you about how, on practice manoeuvres in Malta, that handsome gent plucked me from my humble job as a Lance Corporal in charge of a line of signals communications and handed me the reins of his horse and his fly-whisk and told me to keep in sight of him as he wandered along?** That took some explaining to my officer later, but I dared not disobey or argue with the Major. Probably nobody knew or cared what the old boy was doing; probably Headquarters had attached him temporarily to us to keep him out of mischief. He looked as though he belonged in the upper-bracket, and his horse had peculiar hind legs – if he made it trot, the hind legs moved stiffly as though made of wood, most weird.
Anyway, he had stayed behind in Malta and so, I gradually concluded, had a number of others. It was ominous.
Paybooks for use on active service were issued to each of us – columns for amounts paid, date, and signature of the officer who made the payment. The last page was printed in the form of a will. It was not obligatory to use this, but it would be useful in the event of a soldier’s death.
Death? A certain tension built up inwardly at the possibility thus openly presented. In the excitement of the early days of the war, the remote prospect of being killed or wounded had appeared an acceptable risk which all Britons must face, and an early dispatch to the front line would probably have settled the issue before one had very much time for contemplation of all the possibilities.
However, my Mediterranean sojourn***, with all its pleasant experiences, had conditioned me for an indefinite period of such unwarlike soldiering, with no bangs bigger than those made by the bass drummer…’
* See blog 50 June 21, 2015.
** No, he hadn’t told us!
*** In Malta February to late August, blogs 33 to 58.
And so my father experienced one of the key transitions in a soldier’s life – from training to battle – and found out about himself at every step, while necessarily, he felt, concealing every emotion from his comrades.
‘An inner resistance to all forthcoming horrors would be necessary to conceal the truth about me from my comrades – I was actually scared windy, as it was termed, but I must remain the only one aware of this. While behaving as normally as possible, I would maintain this preparedness for any dire possibility, always be one step ahead of the enemy who happened to have the bullet or shell with my name on it.
Thereafter, although I joined in fun and games and general conversation with those around me, I never fully relaxed. The perpetual awareness of danger, which wild creatures display at all times, became part of my way of life – my defence against the risks which would soon beset me. Having settled into this new animal-instinctive preparedness, I could do my work and, when necessary, exercise the petty authority of my one stripe with ease, realising that at least some of my mates must be feeling a bit of tension, a twinge of anxiety.
Soon, we were on the move once more, with not a word of explanation, nor hint of destination. We spent two days beside a railway, at a place called Sidi Bishr, then off to Alexandria****…
And there I was, high up on the deck of a ship, chatting happily with brother Ted and looking downwards at men still climbing up the steep gangway, loaded with full equipment. Ted sat on the deck, his back against a cabin wall, obviously somewhat uneasy. This actually pleased me, I recall, because if my strong, assertive older brother could feel like that, I could be excused for worrying a bit.
At long last, only five or six of our men remained on the Quayside and now I felt quite confident about the future, doubtless encouraged by Ted’s presence with me on a ship about to take us – where?
He remained seated, taking no interest in what was happening around us. I observed that a Company Quartermaster had lined up the few men still on the quay to “call the roll”. He looked around and spoke to the men, then commenced climbing the gangway, calling loudly. It was someone’s name he shouted, other voices on the ship repeated it and a shock, a wave of grief, shook me: “Private Norcliffe, G Company!”*****
Those near us urged my brother to show himself and get the thing finished. “It’s my missing teeth******,” he told me. “The doctor refused to pass me till I have some replacements, false ones. They told me I couldn’t go with the boys, but I thought I might swing it by keeping out of sight.”
With barely time to shake hands, he was hustled off and down the gangway. I kept him in sight. We waved goodbye during all the time we could still see each other.
Gone was the happiness which had returned to me when we so fortunately got together on that ship. Now I felt only the grim prospect of a very difficult and doubtful existence for an unknown length of time in some strange land. I felt very sad until a chap who had witnessed Ted’s departure revealed a good side of the affair. “He’ll be all right whatever happens to you, the lucky devil,” he said. And I thought, that was how I felt about it, and I hoped Ted would remain in Egypt for the duration of the war.’
**** H Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Harry Nathan (later Lord), the Battalion’s eventual commanding officer at Gallipoli (until now aliased as ”Lieutenant Booth” by my father) says the Battalion spent 10 days in the Abbasieh camp, but my calculations suggest it was a little longer than that, given they sailed into Alexandria from Malta around September 1; a Nathan letter home notes them sailing from Alexandria for Gallipoli on September 17, 1915.
***** Throughout the first part of the Memoir, my father gave his family the oddly thin disguise “Norcliffe”.
****** Knocked out in a fight with one of his comrades in C Company.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Sam’s first battlefield – “guns being fired with intent to kill”, shrieking shells, the urgent call for “Stretcher-bearers!”… and he wants his breakfast!