“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, 22 November 2015

Sam in the Gallipoli blizzard’s aftermath; through awful misfortune, his sniper-dodging tricks lead to tragedy when an even younger boy tries to copy him…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… maybe the kind of phase that originated that not irony-free phrase “all quiet on the Western Front”. The summaries note only a German Army attack north of Artois repulsed (November 27) – not to say that men weren’t dying daily on both sides. In the East, the Russian Army continued its winter turnaround with a series of victories over the German at Tzaremunde (Latvia, 23), Yanopol (Ukraine, 24) and Pinsk (Belarus, 28). They succeeded much further south too, defeating Turkish and Kurdish forces at Karaj and Yengi Iman in Persia (26).
    The 4th Battle Of The Isonzo between Italy and Austria continued, but the Italian Army took Rovereto (in Trentino, 23) from Austria – which promptly called for German assistance.
    But the greatest events took place in less-remembered parts of the conflict.
    On November 25, the Serbian Army, assailed by a combination of Bulgarian, German and Austro-Hungarian Regiments since October 7, finally cracked and fled in full retreat through Albania, sustaining terrible casualties because of the weather more than the fighting – the Siberian blizzard that swept Gallipoli afflicted the Balkans too.
    And in Mesopotamia (Iraq), after a series of British Indian Army victories over the Ottoman along the Tigris, a sudden reversal saw the previously disregarded Colonel Nureddin lead his men to hold back a fresh attack at Ctesiphon, 16 miles south-east of Baghdad and then chase their foes 100 miles back to Kut.
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, at Suvla Bay, 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), had to concentrate above all on dealing with the weather… as did the Turks, no doubt. For a time, only snipers persisted in “fighting”…

Last week, in his Memoir my father wrote about his own experience of the great Gallipoli blizzard of late November, 1915 (in the rhythm of the Memoir I had to start covering it a week early); venturing down from his two-man 24-hour hilltop Signals post to seek food from Battalion HQ when he and gloomy colleague Harry Green “looked like dying quite soon”; discovering his 2/1st comrades huddled together in the open –forced out of their trenches by floods of melted snow and.
    Reluctantly accepting the Quartermaster’s best offer of two biscuits and a handful of tea to last him and Green “for an indefinite period”, he returned to the hilltop and found Harry had foolishly taken his boots off and was “a right mess” – he soon fell into delirium. Sam phoned Brigade HQ for a replacement, reused the tea repeatedly (dodging snipers to fetch melted snow from a nearby disused trench), and handled Signalling duties solo for the next 48 hours until stretcher-bearers and a replacement reached them:

‘My feet felt uncomfortable, but I didn’t remove my boots then, nor for a week or more afterwards. Later, back in Egypt, my already brown toenails turned gradually darker and at intervals fell out, but sound new ones grew in their place.
     A gradual thaw set in and, as moving around became easier, I learnt more of the tragedy the smaller number of us now remaining in that benighted place had survived. Many men had drowned in flooded trenches from which they could not escape quickly enough or had fallen into when they took a step in the wrong direction in the dark. Others died of the cold – a few had laid hands on jars of rum sent up for distribution as tots for all, then drunk themselves insensible and perished in the freezing winds.*’

Even so, up on the hill, life reverted to “normal” – except for one terrible incident:

‘The sun shone briefly most days, growing warmth dried out our heavy coats, and life became far more bearable to me. Especially because my new companion on the hill turned out to be that shortish man of Swiss origin I have previously described**, he who was more patriotic than most British-born soldiers – and after all our tribulations, he still felt the same about his dad’s adopted country. He even made excuses for the failed author/poet who had, by some accident, become the Commander-in-Chief of that unfortunate Army*** and composed lyrical dispatches for home consumption in his comfortable cabin way out at sea.
     After that wasteful Ramadan**** bombardment I had no further fears that the enemy would ever launch a big attack on us, and now I felt convinced that our depleted force would never have a go at him… so all one had to do was be careful to stay alive, until someone told us to get the hell out of the wretched place.
     Attached once more to the regular Essex***** boys for rations, we fared well. And I had my disused trench for water – it remained several feet deep for some time. However, fetching it became risky because a sniper had spotted my movements as I darted hither and thither to fox his aim.
     I carried a can to which I had tied a length of string to lower it into the trench. I would climb out of our trench and dash several yards, freeze there for a moment while I pictured John Turk taking aim at me, then make another short dash while the bullet smacked somewhere behind me. One more pause, then run to the trench, lower and raise the can, and return via another pause or two before a final, fearful charge back to and into our trench, having retained as much water in the can as possible. The bullets always seemed to arrive at the spot near where I had last paused. But I was careful to operate in poor light, morning and evening, because I had rightly assumed that the sniper was a good shot…
     So you can imagine my sorrow when two Essex men laid a boy on a firing step just opposite my hole, pointed to a wound in his chest, and told me the lad had attempted to copy my water-getting dash in broad daylight. Probably he didn’t bother about foxing the sniper either. He belonged to the Hampshire Regiment, but an Essex man had watched his progress, seen him wounded, and with a pal had risked death to drag him in.
     I phoned Brigade HQ for stretcher-bearers, but doubted if the lad would live – the bullet had pierced a lung. We fixed his field dressing over the entry wound, but I dared not move him to search for the exit, which may well have been a gaping hole. As I tried to keep him warm and give him support such as I could in response to those frightened eyes, I felt quite old in spite of my mere 17 years. He – the first wounded man I’d had to deal with – was even younger than I.
     The stretcher-bearers were gentle with him; I knew only too well they would have to climb out of trenches in several places where a stretcher could not be accommodated; in full view of the Turk, they would have to rely on his clemency.
     Thereafter, I stayed away from the watery trench and made do with such water as the machine gunners could spare for me.’
* Strong For Service, H Montgomery Hyde’s biography of the 2/1st’s then commanding officer Major Harry Nathan (later a lord and an Attlee Government Minister) says 280 men “drowned” in the mud produced by thawing snow and rain at Gallipoli.
** Peter Nieter from my father’s trainee Signallers group on Malta (see blog 45, 17-05-15) – except that, first time round, he called him “Miter”; given my father’s fondness for aliases, I don’t know whether either version of the name is “real”.
*** He means General Sir Ian Hamilton.
**** HQ informed British troops that Ramadan triggered this bombardment and my father had no reason to know otherwise, but it was entirely the wrong time of year, as noted in blog 70, 8-11-15.
***** The Essex Regiment machine-gun team they shared the hilltop with.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and Peter’s final onslaught on the Turks – through the medium of song; Sam, suddenly summoned to Divisional HQ, finds himself luxuriating on steak and onions for a few days! And the hilltop Signalling duo get a surprise, eccentric visit from General Beauvoir De Lisle himself!

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