“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, 18 October 2015

Sam loses two old friends – a tin whistle and his Edmonton pal, Harold – then nearly dies of an infected centipede bite after a daft doc. prescribes a laxative…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… to and back actions proceeded on Western and eastern Fronts with the British repulsing a German attack near Hulluch in Pas-De-Calais (Oct 19) and advancing somewhat in the vicinity of Schwaben (21), while the Russian Army captured Chartorysk (Ukraine) and held on near Riga (Latvia, both 18), and the German Army advanced on the Dvina (18, Russia) and took Illukst (23, Latvia).
    But the invasion of Serbia did proceed apace with one victory after another for the Bulgarian, German and Austro-Hungarian Armies, though a longer battle between the Bulgars and the French started on October 17 at Krivolak. Austria-Hungary also conducted an effective defensive action against Italy in the Third Battle Of Isonzo (out of 12 – casualties Oct 18-Nov3 40,400 and 67,100 respectively.)
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, as King George V called for more men to enlist because “The end is not yet in sight”... having landed at Suvla Bay on September 25, 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) and a couple of his pals, experienced the front line for the first time, lost comrades steadily to bullet and shell, and tried to keep their fears in check…

Last week, as a Signaller, Sam took his turn at running telephone wires out to new advance posts in No Man’s Land under cover of darkness – while hoping a random sniper’s bullet wouldn’t find him. Already he shared the prevailing sense that the campaign lacked leadership – “We all felt it and cursed it” (see 11/10/15 blog).
    Young as he was, he reserved particular scorn for the Commander-in-Chief, General Hamilton, and derived little encouragement from his Battalion’s Colonel’s lone, brief appearance in the front line – just to secure a medal, he suspected – scuttling bent double through a place called Borderers’ Gully.
    But Sam remembered the location for a more personal reason – and its sad aftermath:

I suffered a sad loss in that gully, when we had to leave it and move forward in a hurry. Through all our travels I had carried in my haversack the flageolet I used in the Scouts’ band. When I got the chance, I would quietly play some of the choruses then popular, particularly ragtime songs – Everybody’s Doing It, You Made Me Love You, and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It seemed to make a link with home for a brief moment.
     After having a blow in that gully, I must have laid it down beside me instead of shoving it into my haversack. Then, when we got the sudden order to advance, I forgot it. The loss saddened me, made me feel completely cut off from the old life…
     I wanted to talk to somebody like Harold or Len, the intimates of pre-war days. Back in our front line, I moved around the trenches as much as I dared without permission – and got shot at once or twice by the apparently tireless Turk snipers. When I found a hole which sheltered some G Company men, I asked if they could direct me to Harold and their replies shocked me: “He’s away on a hospital ship, wounded in a foot. Trouble is, the bullet came from his own rifle. A self-inflicted wound, which means court martial. He has to convince them it was accidental. It happened in the dark in one of these holes in the ground. But how did the rifle muzzle come to be resting on his foot?”
     If fear and desperation had driven Harold to do it, I didn’t blame him, but I said, “I believe what Harold said and good luck to him”. It was a very serious matter, depressing to contemplate, and I tried to find Len, but he had vanished too, wounded or ill.’

Now Sam moves on to recollection of two encounters with the preposterous Battalion Medical Officer. The second proved near-fatal…

‘The Medical Officer mentioned above [in last week’s blog] – he was tall, thin, stooping, and sallow and mournful of countenance – must have escaped from a civilian practice which, because of his ignorant incompetence, had yielded barely enough money to keep him supplied with watery soup and a few crusts. Some of his diagnoses and treatments were so ridiculous as to be unbelievable by all except his victims.
     Early on, I developed a very painful toothache and, when I eventually traced him to the hole in the ground wherein he lurked, his advice to me came in the following words – do believe me, this is true – “I have no instruments with which to extract teeth. Take this Number 9 pill* for your bowels. Perhaps the artillery can help you by attaching a string from your bad tooth to a shell. When the gun is fired, your tooth will be pulled out!”
     Well, I had seen what I assumed to be centipedes moving around in the holes and trenches we occupied ­– perhaps an eighth of an inch thick and five inches long. Sometimes, I would find one curled up in the blanket I wrapped round me when resting. And one day my left hand swelled painfully. Between my little and third fingers I found a yellow spot.
     For over 24 hours I stood the pain, but by then the hand and the forearm had swollen to twice their normal size and, under my left armpit, a swelling throbbed. I knew this poison was spreading rapidly and could be fatal. I had to visit that wretched medico. What do you think he said? “You have had a poisonous bite, but I can’t do anything about it. Take a Number 9 pill. It might help to clear the blood.” That too is absolutely true.
     I walked away, the pain reducing me to moans and tears. I wandered off towards the beach, deserting my Company, but not caring any more. To be shot would have been a relief. At some point along the track I found a small, marquee tent with a Red Cross flag flying above it. I entered and received a kindly welcome from a Sergeant member of the Royal Army Medical Corps**, who listened to my story while I removed my tunic. The shirt also had to come off, the arm so swollen that the Sergeant helped me by pulling the garment over my head and peeling the left sleeve off last of all.
     An officer made an examination; his speech suggested American origin, especially when he, with a penetrating gaze right into my eyes, asked, “Can you stand some?” Of course, I assured him I could stand anything but the current pain. Whereupon he told the Sergeant to hold my swollen hand – which looked remarkably like some sort of puffed-up frog – over a large basin, keeping apart the little finger and its neighbour. The Sergeant took a firm grip and the Yankee doctor inserted his small blade into the palm side of my hand first, then cut upwards between the fingers and a little way across the back of the hand.
     Normally, I would have let out a howl but, as the pressure eased, I experienced only relief. Then the surgeon, using both hands, commenced squeezing, starting at the top near the shoulder…
     Amazed at the quantity of red and yellow muck which had almost filled the basin, overjoyed by the pain receding, I told the doctor about our strange MO. Etiquette, I suppose, prevented him pursuing the subject, but his sympathetic eyes and his care during the following fortnight dispersed all my bitterness. That was my first experience of American kindness and efficiency; more such generous aid from our future allies came my way before that war concluded.
     The Sergeant led me up a hillside to a small encampment consisting of a marquee and half a dozen bell tents. For beds, the patients had stretchers, the sort that folded up when not in use; each of us had a pillow and two blankets. At regular hours, the only nursing staff I saw – the Sergeant and a Corporal – brought us food, drink and medicines. If not serious, wounds were dressed. Mine they kept open by more squeezing, but the swelling subsided rapidly, while whatever medicine they administered improved my general condition.
     Most of all, within a few days, the kindness of those men, the generous helpings of good, plain food, and lots of restful sleep, turned a doleful kid into something once more resembling a soldier.
     I began to take a real interest in everything. Looking around, I saw that this little Field Dressing Station stood on a hilltop in full view of the enemy, its only protection the large Red Cross flag at the top of the flagpole. Occasionally, Turk shells would howl past us, but none would hit us, of that we were sure. Could one rely on that today?
     From the part of the Front my pals occupied, sounds of the usual sort drifted up to us; frequent rifle shots, bursts of machine-gun fire, the bang-howl-crash of shells from smallish field guns.
     Turning to my right, I faced a difficult sort of battlefield; in the background, a range of harsh-looking hills called, I believe, the Anafarta Heights (I did know the names of the main, geographical features at that time, but this is the only one I remember, probably because, with my low-level type of imagination, this name suggested the possible condition and emissions of this girl Ana after she had eaten one of the tall tins of baked beans and fat pork which all too rarely came my way). Ranges of lesser hills ran roughly parallel to them.
     On my extreme right was the sea and, rather nearer to me, a strip of land jutted out into it. On its tip I could see an Australian gun battery… for Anzac Cove, of beloved memory, was nearby. The acoustics were such that, when they fired a shell from that position, it set up a terrific roar like all hell let loose.
     Chocolate Hill*** was inland from that point and when, one afternoon, the Aussies mounted an attack, in that huge panorama it looked like a play staged by midgets: puffs of smoke, flashes, then tiny figures running forward, pausing, dropping down prone, then mingling with the terrain, becoming invisible. I could do no more than wish them success in their raid.
     I saw a monitor – really a floating gun platform – supporting the action by, from time to time, sending a huge shell into the Turkish rear positions. Anchored some distance out to sea, the monitor had, I was told, just one big gun and a stock of shells.
     Another day, a huge battleship, which I believe was the Queen Elizabeth****, bombarded Turkish roads miles behind the firing line. I heard that one of her shells killed 62 Turks, but could not imagine who counted them or how.
     My fitness for return to my Battalion became obvious. On the very day when the good American doc decided I could depart, I was shocked to hear a battery of our own guns open fire from a position directly behind our little hospital. This was all wrong, absolutely wicked, and I walked away from that little bit of heaven feeling that it had been befouled by some brainless British officer. Now you wouldn’t blame the Turks for strafing the Red Cross tents – and that is what happened. I heard that bad news a few days later, and just hoped the good American and all staff survived intact.’
* Number 9: a laxative often issued as a cure-all by Army doctors – and said to be the source of the bingo caller’s somewhat mysterious “Doctor’s orders, Number 9”.
** Royal Army Medical Corps: referred to by its initials RAMC for most of the memoir.
*** Chocolate Hill: scene of fierce fighting throughout the campaign; the soldiers named it for its colour, to distinguish it from Green Hill.
**** Queen Elizabeth: probably not, as she had been Hamilton’s flagship for the invasion but, according to Wikipedia, was withdrawn to “a safer position” – namely, Scapa Flow, the Orkney islands, north of Scotland – after the sinking of the battleship HMS Goliath by a Turkish torpedo boat on May 12, 1915, with the loss of 570 crew.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Recovered, Sam finds his Battalion’s given him up for dead… and nicked his water purifiers! He’s sent up to a front-line hilltop signalling post for the campaign’s duration…

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