“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, 29 November 2015

Sam and pal Peter’s final onslaught on the Turks – through the medium of song; then, after month of lousy food, Sam’s summoned to Brigade HQ and finds himself luxuriating on steak and onions!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… apart from a big artillery exchange along the Western Front on November 30 (to no particular purpose it seems), lower levels of attrition took over for the winter. Likewise on the Eastern, although in Latvia the Russian Army had further success at Illuskt (November 29), but they were “repulsed” by the Germans at Dvinsk and Lake Babit (December 5).
    Further south, two costly conflicts ceased. The 4th Battle Of The Isonzo ended inconclusively (December 2), exhausted by the severity of both casualties and the weather after a climactic battle at Tolmin (now in Slovenia) – since November 10 Italian casualties had totalled 49,500, Austro-Hungarian 32,100. And the relentless invasion of Serbia by German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces concluded (December 4) with the Serbian Army driven out through Albania, the survivors shipped across to Corfu (they suffered 30,000 casualties, their foes’ being described as “light”).
    Accordingly, the French Army supporting the Serbs pulled back into Greek Salonika (December 2) where fresh British troops joined them (December 4).
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, at Suvla Bay, the remnants of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), gradually recovered from their sufferings in the November blizzard…

Last week, my father was still in that Suvla hilltop Signalling post/hole, working his two-man, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week rotation of duty and sleep. In the wake of the Gallipoli blizzard/floods, with no water available from HQ, he revealed the blasé bravado which, in the battlefield, can overcome the cautious inhibitions of the most circumspect character – which he had generally been through childhood and early teens – when he dodged sniper bullets to fetch buckets of snow from a neighbouring trench.
    Then he experienced the horror of realising he had, inadvertently, led a lad even younger than himself to his death; the boy dashed for water without emulating Sam’s stop-start tricks and took an almost certainly fatal shot through a lung.
    Still, battlefield realities and comradeship did not encourage dwelling or brooding, especially in the company of his old Malta-days friend Peter Nieter (who’d replaced poor, frostbitten Harry Green):

Returning confidence due to better feeding, certainty that the campaign was fizzling out, and the buoyant nature of my newly arrived mate, resulted in moments I could only describe as merry.
     When the Navy suddenly opened up a noisy bombardment of Turk positions one day, Nieter and I actually cheered and sang A Life On The Ocean Waves. Another time, we two idiots decided to serenade the enemy by tum-te-tumming a tune favoured by brass bands at that time entitled The Turkish Patrol. The barmy thing about this effort was our pretended assumption that the Turks would recognise the tune because of its title.
     I had been feeling that the small number of people of my Battalion who still remained after the blizzard* must have forgotten my existence, but a week or so after Nieter’s arrival I had pleasant proof that this was not so. A replacement for me suddenly appeared at our hole on the hilltop and I received instructions to join the Signals Section at 88th Brigade Headquarters until further orders.
     Sorry to leave Nieter, but flattered and excited, I made my way to the ravine which sheltered HQ. There, they had built small but comfortable offices for administration and communication. Low, wooden buildings with earth-covered roofs on which the local weeds and grasses grew. Hopes that I would live in one of them quickly died the death when I was conducted to a nearby hole covered by a groundsheet roof, and told I could set up house there.
     Thankfully, it was dry, but it was sited beside the junction of two footpaths, and I quickly discovered that the position had been honoured by an enemy sniper. He had one of those tripod-rifles fixed on the point where the paths met; at intervals, a bullet smacked into the ground about a foot from one end of my hole**. As the new boy, the privilege of avoiding sudden death by a sniper’s bullet automatically became mine. But the pleasure of working in a warm, covered structure, properly seated, with cooked food and big helpings of hot tea, more than compensated for the sniper targeting my sleeping quarters.
     Some days we had steak and onions for dinner; it seemed incredible after the hard tack and occasional bully beef which had usually been my lot. Bacon for breakfast was not unknown, cheese and bread in the evening common. If the pecking order worked that way, the lucky devils at Divisional HQ probably got breakfast, a meat lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner in the evening. It all passed through too many hands before the ranker’s turn came, God help him.
     Meanwhile, I felt the benefit of this luxury, my spirits rose again, I smiled, even laughed occasionally. Fully occupied on duty, when not working I hung about in one or other of the small HQ buildings as long as possible. Then, in my hole, I could sometimes remove my tunic, shirt and vest and destroy all the body lice I could find, replace these garments then take off my trousers. With candle ends scrounged from the office, I could burn off the filthy things infesting the inside seams of my trousers, crush the devils in my long pants and have a couple of days free of the continual biting.’

Given a few days of “luxury” in his new hole, my father heard more and more stories of what had befallen the rest of the Battalion, down at beach level, during the blizzard:

‘Well into December, the weather generally remained pleasant. That awful blizzard now seemed like a sad dream although I had my funny-feeling feet and brown toenails to remind me – as did the stories recounted by survivors who had fared much worse than I.
     A sight I’d missed in my rather isolated position on the machine-gun hill was large numbers of men in various stages of illness, many with layers of socks and rags over their frost-bitten feet, heading hopefully for the beach. How could such a suffering multitude be dealt with properly?
     The beach people must also have been rained on, then snowed on, then frozen and tortured by that Siberian blast if they dared to venture into the open. Then the sorry throng, with their frostbitten feet and hands, some already gangrenous, all of them short of food, descended on them and they just had to cope. What a commandeering of lighters and small steamboats there must have been. I, with my two biscuits and a handful of tea***, had seen almost nothing of these larger events.
     Suddenly, my brief, beautiful life at HQ ended with an order to rejoin Nieter on the hill; his helper – my substitute – had gone down with a high temperature and no one else could be found to replace him. Before I left the kindly men at 88th Brigade Signals, they gave me bread, some cold meat, bacon and a useful bag of tea.
     This eased my return to the more Spartan existence up above and ensured a warm welcome from my sturdy Swiss Cockney. I found anyway that he had not fared too badly, having been authorised to draw rations from the resourceful regulars of the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment.
     I also took back to Nieter a rumour, whispered to me as I left Brigade HQ, suggesting that our days on that foreign shore were numbered. The promise of release from our deprivation and danger, so useless, so purposeless, cheered us up considerably.
     Messages of instruction to various Companies around us passed through our hands and these confirmed our opinion that the end of the failed campaign drew near. Groups of men quietly withdrew, and those remaining had instructions to appear busy and show themselves more – but with reasonable care – to enemy observers. I heard that members of the Engineers Corps were working in the forward trenches, fixing fuses connected to detonators along the parapets.
     The Turks still lobbed over the occasional shell, their lazy snipers with their apparently fixed rifles still squeezed their triggers, perhaps from force of habit, but the earlier war-like spirit had departed.’
* One list of casualties for the original 1000-strong Battalion at the end of November shows 22 killed, 57 wounded, 445 sick (mainly dysentery, jaundice and frostbite). My father several times wrote that by the time they finally evacuated from Gallipoli they were down to 200 men or fewer.
** For a fuller explanation of the Turkish tripod snipers methods see Blog 66 11/10/15.
*** See Blog 71 15/11/15 for the story of how he’d had to beg these provisions “to feed two men for an indefinite period”.

All the best – FSS

Next week: A General visits Sam’s “hole”! And bellows at him for standing to attention! But to their great relief the Battalion is told to get ready for evacuation – in time for Christmas...

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