“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, 1 November 2015

Sam has an “accident” and kindly ends Bill Jackson’s war ¬– then gets glum Harry Green as his new hole-mate… but his crafty Essex neighbours scrounge a beef feast!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… occurred a week of battles coming to an end (usually not a conclusion) as winter closed in, with a lot of counting of the dead and wounded ensuing. On the Western Front, the Loos-Artois Offensive closed down with nothing much gained on either side (November 4, British casualties 61,000, French 48,000, German 51,000), and the Battle of Champagne concluded with the French gaining about four kilometres (Nov 6, their casualties 145,000, German 72,000).
    On the Eastern, one account says Russo-German Battle Of Dvinsk ended on November 1, but other reports have it continuing through the week, largely to the Russian Army’s advantage.
    Further south, the German/Austro-Hungarian/Bulgarian conquest of Serbia proceeded, with some weeks to go before completion, but the Third Battle Of The Isonzo halted with modest Italian gains (Nov 4, Italian Casualties 67,000, Austria-Hungary 40,000). In lesser skirmishes, Russia occupied Kasvin (Nov 2, West Persia) and the British captured Banyo, in Cameroon, then a German colony.
    Meanwhile, at Gallipoli the Anzacs repulsed a Turkish attack on November 4 and that same day Lord Kitchener sailed from England to meet the campaign’s high command… and a month or so into their stint at Suvla Bay, 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, continued their struggle with the Turks… but more particularly with the debilitating grind of poor food, disease, the constant endeavour to keep fear in check…

Last week, after recovering from the incident of the poisonous centipede bite (blog 67, Oct 25), My father found himself deployed to a hole (“trench” sounds too neat) on a hilltop overlooking the Turkish lines. He shared the hilltop with a veteran and very sussed Essex Regiment machine-gun crew and the hole with one fellow Signaller (nice fellow who consoled him with talk of family and home). But they were on duty round the clock 7-days-a-week for what turned out to be weeks on end.
    They tried every on-off shift system imaginable and found that nothing offset the growing fatigue “reducing us to shadows of ourselves” – even when they slept it proved fitful, wrapped in a groundsheet in a corner of their hole, with the Turks and the Essex machine guns not offering much in the way of library hush.
    And then there was the Gallipoli food. Whereof Sam writes:

They sent our rations up to us every two or three days. As before, our staples remained plain, hard biscuits, apricot jam, and tea boiled on our methylated-spirit heaters, corned beef the only meat supplied with any regularity, though occasionally a few rashers of bacon came our way. Look again at that food list and imagine yourself trying to live under such conditions and maintain your intelligence or even your sanity.
     Add to this the occasional shell-burst, the sniper’s bullet if he spotted you moving around, the bucket in a short trench into which all men on the hill shed their waste products amid an odour of chloride of lime and shit…
     Barely a week had passed on the hill when my friend turned a nasty shade of yellow and I had to phone HQ for a replacement. Before he was taken away, he confided that he’d been smoking cigarettes he’d made out of pipe tobacco and brown paper; he surmised that these had caused his jaundice.
     His replacement was a jolly fellow, always cheerful, named Bill Jackson. He wore thick lenses in wire frames – I saw his presence in Gallipoli as one more tribute to the doctor who had examined us volunteers at the time of our enlistment. The daft, old medico shouldn’t have approved him for active service. The truth was, if Jackson lost or damaged his glasses he’d be almost blind. He had a lovely wife and three children of whom he talked often. Such a loving family as he described must be missing dad terribly…
     For a week or two, as winter crept in, we managed doing our spells on duty and resting between stints, but suffering pangs of hunger some days and showing signs of debility all the time. One night, as we sat in chilly darkness and thoughts once more turned homewards, the futility of what we were doing became very apparent to me. “Bill,” I said. “Why are you here? A wife and kids thousands of miles away, you stuck here in a hole in the ground. What’s the use?” He had no sensible answer to that one, so I told him I had a plan aimed at getting him away from this rotten country.
     It was simple, his part being to remove his spectacles when next taking his rest. Should he happen to lay them on the groundsheet anywhere near me I would not be able to see them. If I happened to kneel on them they would be crushed on that hard ground and he would be unable to see where he was going, let alone write down messages.
     He demurred about all this. But later, in complete darkness, just such an accident did occur, and when daylight came I had to give Brigade HQ a detailed account of the strange occurrence and they sent up two men, one to replace Bill, the other to guide him down to the beach and a hospital ship, no doubt.’

Sam’s accident passed off unchallenged and, by chance, a few weeks later he was able to confirm the happy outcome for Bill (see mid-December when we get there). However, his successor proved less congenial:

‘To replace Bill, they sent me up a sad, little man called Harry Green. His arrival coincided with a brief period of wonderful luck with our food. The machine gunners nearest to my hole in the ground belonged to a regular Battalion of the Essex Regiment; country lads, very shrewd – and tired, as we all were, of the poor and monotonous diet, they secured an officer’s permission for two of them to make a foraging trip to the beach. A lighter had unloaded a cargo of fresh meat, we’d heard – very likely this had happened many times previously, yet our lot had never had a mouthful of it, not the rankers anyway.
     These two resourceful men returned with – would you believe it? – a whole leg of beef. Whether they stated that they represented a large group of men I don’t know, but they got hold of it, and they carried it, each taking turns, a long way across open country, risking shells from field guns and bullets from snipers until they got down into a communication trench leading uphill to our position. When I saw this huge piece of meat I marvelled that two men could have hauled it such a distance.
     Generosity to comrades was part of the faith of these Essex farm men, so they included me and my dour helper in their feastings. They gathered old planks and anything that grew nearby. At dusk, they partially covered over a disused trench with sawn-off branches and started burning small quantities of our scavenged wood, restricting the flames carefully to avoid inviting a shell. Gradually, they built up a big heap of glowing embers whereon we laid our mess-tin lids with their folding handles to cook thin slices of the beef. The smoke filtered away through the branches and the night air grew rich with the smell of meat roasting.
     Then, during daylight hours, we filled our bellies with beef stewed in a couple of large dixies left overnight on the smouldering mound – small additions to it being made at intervals by those whose duties kept them up and about. Large tins of dried potato shreds had been issued and we all added our shares to the cook pots to thicken the liquor. Into one dixie, went a quantity of curry powder for those who liked their stew really hot – and had no fear of possible consequences.
     This feasting continued for several days and I felt my strength building up and youth’s natural cheerfulness returning. We could smile again; such a change from the dejected hangdog expressions with which we had all been depressing each other.
     Even my fellow Signaller, Green, a gloomster to the depths of his nature, permitted himself to speak of his home life and his girl. She I pitied though, for the prospect of sad, little Private Green for a husband, even in his happier moods, was daunting. I knew I was a mug to put up with his moanings instead of telling him what a miserable devil he really was.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and comrades on the receiving end of a festive Turkish bombardment featuring weird “big, black bangers”; on a sortie to HQ he negotiates better rations; and, awestruck, observes the real professional soldiers of the Royal Scots go about their business…

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