“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, 11 October 2015

Sam gets used to trench life – the grind of little sleep, poor diet, Turkish snipers – while the Commander-in-Chief swans about on a battleship writing poems!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… a fresh eruption in the Balkans saw Bulgaria join the German/Austro-Hungarian onslaught against Serbia with attacks from north and south at the Battles of Moravia and Ovche Pole (October 14 onwards). The French Army joined with the Serbs (17, Battle Of Krivolak started), but the British cautiously held back their forces stationed in Greece.
    On the Western Front, the Loos-Artois Offensive and the 2nd Battle Of Champagne remained mired in attrition, as did the Russo-German conflict in the East (this week concentrated mainly around Dvinsk, Latvia).
    And, in Brussels, one death occurred which proved of enduring symbolic significance: on October 12, a German firing squad executed Nurse Edith Cavell for “treason” because she had assisted many British, French and Belgian troops to recover from wounds, evade capture and, potentially, return to their respective armies. International protests failed to halt the judicially strange process (“treason” against Germany by a British citizen living in Belgium? capital punishment for what had not, apparently, previously been a capital crime under German law?).
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli... 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 from Edmonton, north London (still underage at 17), had landed at Suvla Bay on September 25. Their first experience of a real battlefield: real bullets and shells, their first deaths…

Last week, after describing the Battalion’s 24 hours after landing in great detail, Sam moved on to more general observations about unlikely but practical heroes such as the front-line sanitary men – and the Battalion eccentric, Lieutenant Chalk, taking his hip bath within the rather inadequate protection of a clump of trees.
    Now he turns to the ways in which these deadly circumstances soon became, to a degree, routine – with cleanliness, oddly, almost as much of a concern as getting shot at:

‘We ordinary soldiers, in our trenches and holes in the ground, had no protection from the weather. Time passed, but for me and those among whom I worked, no opportunity for stripping down and washing occurred.
     Mostly, I would sit on the floor of a trench, headphones over ears, sending or receiving the occasional message. If the trench was narrow, passers-by would step over my legs, exchanging curses if they tripped over them. I could work more easily in the front-line trench where those on duty stood on a firing step, a ledge about 30 inches above floor level from which they could observe enemy positions – and, on a bad day, stop the occasional sniper’s bullet; the step provided a seat for me.
     The Battalion had built a recognisable, if roughly constructed, trench system. A front line of bays and traverses, if skilfully used, offered some protection from frontal or flank enemy fire or attack. Some distance behind this and parallel ran a support trench and, a long way further back, a reserve trench. One Company would man the front trench for a spell, then exchange places with the support Company, and finally swap with the reserve.
     Front-line duty allowed for very little rest; in support, regular spells of duty and sleep could be arranged; in reserve one might be able to sleep through much of the day, but then you moved forward to do work which could only be done in darkness.
     While the trench system suggested permanence, we had some small indication that progress had not been ruled out – we were building up a series of advance posts in “No Man’s Land”, that horrible space between the combatants’ front lines. These “posts” amounted to walls of sandbags… Shrapnel from airbursts caused casualties but, until the advance posts’ walls could be thickened – to at least two sandbags wide – the rifle bullet remained the main threat to the occupants’ safety.
     All of us had to beware of a constant danger from some Turk marksmen’s practice of making careful observations to find places where British troops frequently passed, and setting their rifles on small tripods with their aim fixed on those spots. During hours of darkness, one man could move around, fire each rifle and replace the used bullet. This caused many casualties. Even when sighted on a sandbag wall, each gun’s repeated shots had the sand draining away unnoticed in the dark until the next bullet cut through freely and, perhaps, fatally.
     Once, in ridiculous circumstances, I garnered the contemptuous dislike of an officer. I had run out a telephone link to an advance post still under construction. After I returned to the front line, bursts of rifle fire from the post brought our Captain out of his hidey-hole; in quite a rage this normally kindly man yelled at me, “What the hell are they up to out there?” Elderly, quite as old as my father, he must have suffered cruelly under the wretched conditions obtaining there. “Get hold of the officer in charge, then give me the phone!”
     Easier said than done. To operate the microphone – a small, round thing, containing carbon granules – one pressed its small button, shook it until the granules vibrated against a disc and, with luck, reproduced your voice in the distant receiver. I eventually had Lieutenant XXXX at the other end, so I handed the whole headphones-and-microphone paraphernalia to the Captain. His struggles to fit the phones to his head, then to manipulate the mike were productive of more expletives until he finally gave up the effort and thrust them back at me.
     “Take the damn things and repeat exactly what I say,” said he. I obeyed his instruction. “Who is speaking up there?” the Captain/I asked. “Lieutenant XXXX,” came the reply from the advance post. “This is Captain YYYY.” “Yes, sir.” “Now, what the devil are your men doing all that firing for?” I repeated the Captain’s words exactly, you understand. “Because there’s a Turk patrol… (pause)… You’re not Captain YYYY, who the devil are you?” “Signaller Norcliffe*.”
     A terrific thump landed in the middle of my back. “You bloody fool, you are Captain XXXX if I say you are. Chuck it! Give it up if you can’t do better than that with your bloody sinecure of a job.”
     He vanished, but in my ear there snarled the Lieutenant’s voice, “Right, Norcliffe, I shan’t forget this!”’
* For his own reasons, which remained mysterious even to me, whenever he needed to name himself in the Memoir my father used this rather obvious alias.

The prevailing late-Gallipoli-campaign sense of attritional grind imposed itself quite quickly:

‘All hope of quick action and outcome gave way to pessimism engendered by the prospect of enduring a long period of this wretched life with an Army which had no effective leadership. We all felt it and cursed it.
     News filtered through that the General in charge of the whole operation, Hamilton**, lived in a battleship some miles out to sea and sent home wordy reports of our progress – progress of which we, in the front line, were quite unaware. Poetry was his speciality, they said, and he wrote as if for the school history books in flowery language, the sort of bilge which had persuaded children that mass murderers like Napoleon were somehow brave and wonderful men.
     From towering hills the Turks looked down on us continually; we lived in their sights from dawn to dusk, and the fact that we sustained some sort of existence in that situation proves how difficult it is to destroy an Army except by physically and individually killing every soldier…
     Rough seas meant poor rations, slack organisation of supplies back at the bases resulted in monotonous repetition of the same food items, as with the already mentioned apricot jam and hard biscuits – the oft-abused corned beef became, at times, a welcome luxury. If some bully beef came our way we felt stronger, the nourishment taking effect rapidly in our debilitated bodies. If a piece of bread and a chunk of cheese filtered down through the hands of all those who organised supplies to the ranker, the lowest level of Army life, then there was much slow, careful chewing and such pleasure evinced as would warm the heart of whoever had consigned the delicious grub to such humble men. Unfortunately, long gaps lingered between such treats.
     With the best will in the world, our officers could not attain efficient feeding and welfare of their men under active-service conditions. They had not received the necessary training and it was easy to let things slide, to let the willing workers overtax themselves while slackers lurked in places they believed safe spots. A good officer would see that every man had his share of what’s available; not many of ours took so much trouble, probably because they themselves were overcome by discomforts and lack of rest and sleep.
     Anxious though I was to prove myself a man who could stick it out, I became aware of a slowing down of my movements…
     I did sometimes wonder where our top officers were. One of them, at least – our adjutant*** – had what it takes I knew, although I saw him once only in our front line… As I sat in a trench with my headphones on, sending or receiving a message, he appeared above me. He stood up there, on the rim of the trench, in a very exposed position, one arm in a sling, his face showing the pain and tiredness he was suffering. Why he was there in that awful condition I did not know. Had a ranker exposed himself thus to enemy fire without good reason, he would have been put on a charge. Obviously wounded, he should have been sent away from the line by the Medical Officer; but then we all knew of that peculiar medico’s terrible reputation…
     I saw our Colonel**** only once, and that in the early days, not long after we had come ashore and dug in. We had gone forward and occupied a series of holes in the ground just vacated by the members of a famous Battalion, by then much reduced in numbers. They had dug these holes into both sides of a gully; somebody appropriately labelled it “Borderers’ Gully”***** At dusk, just after our arrival there, a party of officers entered the lower end of the gully, walked rapidly through the middle of it and disappeared – among them our Colonel, almost bent double.
    “He’ll get a medal for this,” said somebody, and we concluded he may have come ashore for that specific purpose, for we never saw him again.’
** General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, 1853-1947, whom World War I Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described as “having too much feather in his brain”; in the Boer Wars he received two recommendations for the Victoria Cross, both ultimately rejected; he did write a volume of poetry and his reports from Gallipoli appeared in the London Gazette, collected as Sir Ian Hamilton’s Despatches From The Dardanelles (1915,) and reissued  as Gallipoli Diary (1920). An oddity of my father locating these comments roughly 100 years ago this week is that on October 15, 1915, Hamilton was replaced as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, by General Sir Charles Monro – but the PBI heard nothing of this till many weeks later, as a subsequent blog will reveal.
*** The “adjutant” here seems to be the officer my father called “Captain Blunt”, an alias I presume.
**** Possibly a Colonel Ekin – H. Montgomery Hyde, biographer of Sam’s ever trusted Harry Nathan (alias “Booth” in the Memoir, promoted from Lieutenant to Major in Gallipoli), notes that Ekin had remained in Malta because of illness, then returned to command the Battalion in Gallipoli, but left for good after a fortnight.
***** Probably named for the South Wales Borderers 2nd Battalion who fought at both Cape Helles and Suvla Bay, suffering heavy casualties.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam nearly dies of an infected centipede bite after the Battalion’s daft MO prescribes a laxative…

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