“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, 25 October 2015

Gallipoli: Sam shows his Battalion he’s not dead yet … and finds that while he was in hospital, they’ve nicked his water purifiers! Then they send him to a hilltop signalling post…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… this week, the horrible attrition of trench warfare continued with the French Army’s fizzling Loos-Artoise Offensive and withering 2nd Battle Of Champagne. And – strange detail, probably not widely known – on October 31 the British Army introduced steel helmets, but only on the Western Front (they never reached Gallipoli, or certainly not Suvla Bay where my father’s Royal Fusiliers were fighting).
    In the east, the Russian Army’s general retreat across (modern-day) Latvia, Ukraine and Belarus proceeded, but still slowed and sometimes interrupted by relentless resistance to the Germans in battles at Illukst, Uxkull and Chartorysk (all October 25), the Styr (27) and Dvina (28) rivers and Tarnopol, Galicia (30).
    Further south, the Bulgarian and German conquest of Serbia went ahead in orderly fashion with barely a setback, although a substantial French force landed in Salonika/Thessaloniki with some British and Italian support to further defend Greece against Bulgarian attack (the French-v-Bulgar Battle Of Krivolak, Macedonia, begun on October 17, still raged).
    The wider “world” aspect of the war saw more action in German colony Cameroons, where the French took Sende and a third British onslaught on the German’s northern fort at Mora petered out (October 30-November 4).
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, unannounced to the common soldiery, General Sir Charles Munro took command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force 12 days after his appointment to replace Sir Ian Hamilton (much reviled by FootSoldierSam in Blog 66, October 11)… and, turning to those Royal Fusiliers at Suvla Bay, having landed on September 25, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still underage at 17) and a couple of his pals, sort of settled into their first weeks on the battlefield… wounds and deaths from bullet and shell, the debilitating grind of poor food and disease, the constant endeavour to keep fear in check…

Last week, while sleeping in his trench at Suvla Bay, my father got a centipede bite between his fingers and it turned so septic his arm swelled grotesquely to the shoulder and his left hand “looked like a frog”. After rejecting the idiot Battalion MO’s offer of No. 9 laxative pills, delirious, he tottered to a nearby tented RAMC field hospital on a hilltop. There he got the treatment he needed – which involved a gruesome process of lancing his hand and squeezing out bowlfuls of pus. After a few days, the doctor there cleared him to return to his Battalion.
    Sam writes:

‘As I walked down the hill, the awkwardness of my present position began to worry me. I had the vest, pants, socks, boots, and tunic trousers I was wearing when I left my post to seek medical help. Nothing else. No rifle. No pack… and it had contained all my personal belongings including a towel and soap, an unwashed set of underwear and socks, and my two bottles of water-purifying tablets.
     I had wandered off a fortnight earlier, suffering so badly from the poison that I hardly knew or cared what I was doing or where I was going. I had departed without authority to do so; that might be adjudged desertion from my unit – on active service, one of the most serious crimes a soldier could commit.
     I was convinced I had at least told my mates I was going to see the Medical Officer and perhaps one of them had told our Sergeant or an officer. Would old Number 9, our long, miserable streak of an MO, recollect my appealing for his help or was his memory as bad as his knowledge of medical matters?
     I hurried across the open country between the little Field Hospital and the beginning of the trench system without stopping a bullet or anything equally lethal. When I slipped down into a communication trench leading towards the front line, I soon encountered a chap I knew and liked, named Whiting. He gave me all the news as he’d heard it. The part of it concerning myself proved both reassuring and disappointing.
     The pals I’d left behind had more awareness of my trouble than I’d suspected. They had given the appropriate NCO lurid details of my condition – the throbbing, twice-its-normal-size hand and arm – and he formed the opinion that, even if I did not die, I would be put aboard a hospital ship and would not return to my unit. It happened that, because of a lack of senior NCOs, this Sergeant suddenly found himself in charge of supplies for our Company. So he decided that my tablets should he distributed among our chaps in the front line to help keep them free of the dysentery that was knocking out so many men.
     This Sergeant’s surprise at my reappearance matched his dismay when I demanded those precious water purifiers. Nevertheless, he ordered the return of all those not used and, eventually, I recovered a fair quantity of them.’

With his ongoing existence demonstrated and the lifeline of those water purifiers (a gift posted to him by his parents) restored to their rightful owner, he expected to resume previous routines with his Battalion comrades in the shallow and flaky front-line trenches. Instead, a surprise change of location ensued:

‘I didn’t actually rejoin my Company, because a request had come through from Brigade Headquarters for a Signaller to be sent to a hill with a commanding view of Turkish positions. There, to provide some protection for our men in forward positions, they had decided to bring together all the machine gunners from the four Battalions constituting the 88th Brigade. This Brigade, part of the famous 29th Division, was composed of regulars, the good old soldiers who made a career of serving their country in peacetime as well as in war. I felt proud to be allowed to join them, for I had seen how much better their organisation was than ours.
     I found my way to the machine gunners on the hill. Below us, in places, I could see the trenches of our forward positions; quite a network had been constructed by now and I ruefully admitted to myself that the steam had gone out of the whole operation, the purpose bogged down in holes and trenches.
     The machine gunners could give useful fire cover to our chaps down there should they be attacked. But why should the Turk bother to attack? He must have concluded by now that the British had failed in their original objective and that, if he came forward to drive us into the sea, he would suffer many casualties and gain only a useless strip of land. Leaving us where we were to face a winter in terrible conditions was the better strategy; we would have the awful burden of trying to get supplies ashore in bad weather to troops who had, in many cases, fallen victim to sickness and depression. Meanwhile, the Turks could withdraw some of their men to reinforce their other fronts.
     As a Lance Corporal, with one man to assist me, my job was to maintain communications with 88th Brigade Headquarters. Clearly, that meant one man resting, one on duty. I talked over the possibilities with my helper, and we decided to try doing four hours on and four off, night and day. We occupied a square hole, about six feet each way, with no roof. A short trench joined it to the main trench along the top of the hill. This was to be my home. Although on a hilltop, these trenches had been dug into the same soft, layered rock as those first holes we’d worked so hard to excavate down near the beach, so their unstable walls constantly flaked away.
     My first Signaller mate there* was a pleasant chap, quite a philosopher in his way, probably my senior by four or five years. He showed me photographs of his parents and a sister, and I warmed myself in the glow of love emanating from him as he talked about them and their life together before the war. A good worker too, meticulous in his time-keeping, he woke quickly during the night when the luminous dial on my watch told me four hours had passed and I nudged him to take over.
     At that point, you placed the headphones and microphone in the other man’s hands, briefly switched on the torch to show him that the combined phone/Morse signal instrument with its buzzer key, earth pin and single landline, and the message pad and pencil were all handy. Then you swapped positions in the hole.
     On duty or resting, at night you arranged your thick, rubberised groundsheet so that you rested on half of it and pulled the other half over your legs for protection from the cold or rain. When writing down any messages coming in, the groundsheet also came in handy to screen the heavy-duty torch beam.
     But it was all very difficult and uncomfortable.
     Even though the autumn weather in that little strip of Turkey remained dry – pleasant, really – we learned that four hours on, four off, meant we never had a satisfactory sleep. So we experimented with two on, two off, eight on, eight off, every arithmetical combination we could think of to cover the 24 hours. Nothing really worked.
     When you took over after whatever interval, your mate, released from that crampy corner of the hole we lived and worked in, should have felt free for some hours of beautiful sleep – but was he? On duty, you must want to go to the bog some time, so your mate had to wake up and take over. During the day, you would need nourishment, so your mate had to procure it, and very often cook it on our small meths heaters. Actually, we catnapped day and night and just made the best of a terrible existence.
     The resulting fatigue, along with poor diet, was reducing us to shadows of ourselves.’
* Called Bill Jackson, of whom more next week…

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam does Bill Jackson a kindness – he ends his war ­– but gets glum Harry Green as his new hole-mate… still, the Essex machine gunners scrounge a beef feast!

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